In his opening comments, the Minister said that through access to learning we need to achieve both social justice and economic success, and that it should ensure that all citizens have an equal opportunity to obtain a minimum foundation of learning for their future employability. Nowhere is that more true than in my constituency, where adjustments to a decline in traditional industries in the defence sector have led to very high levels of unemployment. However, there has been a dramatic change in that regard. Developing the skills sector through further education, the Learning and Skills Council and the regional development agencies is playing a very important part.
The debate is important. As my hon. Friend outlined, the Government have already done much to identify the key issues, and the roles that individuals, Government and employers must play. I especially welcome the progress report on the Developing National Skills Strategy and Delivery Plan, which outlines just how much has been achieved.
I know that many other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, so I shall speak for only a few minutes. I want to touch on two areas—the role of the unions, and issues relating to basic skills. My hon. Friend the Minister responded to an intervention by Mr. Boswell by saying that there were opportunities to build the relationship with trade unions, and that perhaps we had not focused enough on what could be done in that respect. The skills strategy progress report to which I referred earlier makes a brief mention of trade union learning representatives and of the pilot schemes that have been carried out. However, the south-west TUC has given me information as to the extent to which those measures are making a contribution, and the results are really quite impressive.
In my constituency, the union learning service, through the south-west TUC, has trained learning reps in the Land Registry, the Ministry of Defence, and the Inland Revenue, and firms such as DML and Toshiba. An interesting item in the progress report concerned ISS, Mediclean and the Derriford national health service trust. After an initial foray into the area in the computer course called "Keep up with Your Kids", three more GMB learning reps have been trained—one in Mediclean and two in the trust. Courses in basic skills and IT communications are now being planned by the GMB for trust employees later in the year. Those courses will raise skills and confidence, and it will make people aware of the potential for raising skills in a part of the NHS work force that is often overlooked.
I could list many other items, but time does not permit. However, I want to turn to the TUC submission in respect of developing the skills strategy, which refers to the important intermediary role played by union learning reps in encouraging employees to engage in learning. That is partly acknowledged in the skills strategy document, but a great deal more could be done. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the scope for specific measures to develop a partnership between Government, employers and unions, at all levels, to implement and drive forward the national skills strategy.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look at the continental experience. For example, 63 per cent. of German workers have intermediate qualifications, compared to 28 per cent. of workers in this country. Clearly, that lends support to the Government's strategy to improve the quality of what is called the "vocational offer", and to expand its take-up. However, we need to recognise that the skills gap with countries such as Germany will not be tackled unless we take account of the social partnership model that exists in those countries. The recent Budget speech by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer hinted at the need to emulate that approach, when he said:
"Moving beyond the old voluntarism of the past in this national effort for skills, everyone—government, employers, employees trades unions—has a responsibility and a part to play"—[Hansard, 9 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 282.]
I want to touch briefly on the basic skills agenda. In Plymouth, it is incredibly important, where between 38,000 and 40,000 people lack the literacy and numeracy skills needed for even the most basic contribution in the work force. It is very important that something is done about that, and that it becomes a priority target for funds. I hope that the basic skills agency will be given sufficient funding to build on the important work that it is doing through the gremlin advertising programme that it is running. The agency gave important support to one of my constituents, Sue Torr, and her Shout It Out project. Sue has had dyslexia, but has written a play and presented it to people in the south-west and across the UK, as well as in Paris, Japan, Thailand and Africa, through UNESCO. Sue is currently seeking business backing through Co-Active in Plymouth, and I hope to be able to arrange a meeting with the Minister in a few months' time to talk more about the project.
I shall conclude my remarks on that point in order to allow others to take part in the debate.