Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to contribute briefly to this important debate on issues that are ever more relevant. In the six months for which I have had the honour of representing the people of Crewe and Nantwich, the issue of employment has never been far away. As the weeks have progressed, the issue has become more and more pressing.
I am sure that none of us in the House wishes to see our constituents struggle as a result of losing their job or livelihood, and I am sure that we all do what we can to prevent that from happening, but one of the harsh realities of a recession is large-scale unemployment, and that seems particularly to be the case in this recession. A Local Government Association report suggests that there will be 230,000 job losses in the north-west by December 2010. In Crewe, there have been recent job losses in the public sector. There is the closure of local post offices and the imminent closure of the Royal Mail sorting office, with the loss of 600 jobs. As of last week, the third-largest Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs office in the north-west was to close, with a loss of up to 80 jobs. In the private sector, the car, manufacturing and retail industries are all prominent, with the likes of Bentley, Bombardier, Focus DIY, Woolworths, MFI and others all feeling the crunch in the current conditions, which will have a significant impact on the local economy.
Crewe is synonymous with the rail and motor industries, which continue to provide the backbone of the local job market together with, in more recent years, the retail and service sectors. As the recession bites, there is an opportunity not only to secure the short-term survival of those industries and businesses but to prepare them for long-term sustainable recovery. I agree with the Government, albeit not necessarily on their suggested implementation, that we have been presented with an opportune moment to invest in the training and skills necessary to see us through the short and the long term. There is a huge dearth of skills, particularly in the engineering sector, which has been recognised by the Secretary of State himself. In Crewe, Bentley has 3,500 employees, and runs a successful apprenticeship scheme that it intends to expand, despite the downturn. Bombardier, LNWR, Freightline and other railway industries that are part of the Crewe railway network have waited a long time to ensure that their apprenticeship schemes are full, and they all have long waiting lists of people who want to join the industry.
"The challenge we face is that within the next decade, large numbers of unskilled jobs will be replaced by high-skilled ones. We must ensure that the north-west workforce is not left behind."
That is precisely why, with others—I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Mr. Simon, on the Front Bench, as he was involved in the Westminster Hall debate on the issue—I have advocated the overwhelming case for a national railway skills academy in Crewe that is employer-led and meets the short and long-term needs of an industry that is getting back on its feet and is on the rise. This could not be a better moment, from the Government's perspective and for the Opposition, for such an initiative to be put into practice.
Not all the employment difficulties are a direct result of the downturn. The public sector work force in Crewe have been hit hard by the closures that have been announced of the Royal Mail sorting office and the HMRC office, both of which are unconnected to the credit crunch. Both consultations began before the economic crisis, yet the Government have seen fit to continue with that folly, despite the need for those jobs in future. As a consequence of the independent Lyons review of public sector relocation, the Government recognised the need for the transfer of civil service jobs from London and the south-east to the regions, and the review said:
"The Government is committed to improving the efficient delivery of public services, boosting regional economic growth and bringing government closer to the people, through greater decentralisation and devolution."
By making those announcements on HMRC and Royal Mail in Crewe, however, they have done the exact opposite. They have started to centralise those systems, taking away local jobs and services at a time at which they are most needed.
In July 2003, the then Minister for Employment and Learning said that
"recent job losses in the north-west make co-ordinating the response by Government, education providers and local communities essential".
It appears in Crewe, however, that the Government have not learned that lesson, and good-quality public sector jobs have been lost, with no proper consultation with the local community. Along with that, there is a loss of valuable local knowledge and expertise, which will have a direct effect on local families and businesses.
The two Government Departments responsible for the restructuring of both Royal Mail and HMRC worked independently of each other, with no apparent thought given to the overall consequences for the local economy, which flies in the face of the concept of joined-up government and of a co-ordinated approach.
The Government's response to the vehement and united campaign to keep open the HMRC office in Crewe was particularly depressing for two reasons. First, by moving local public services away from local people, the Government are doing the exact opposite of the commitment given in response to the Lyons review. Secondly, by not pursuing a local strategy to deal with the recession, places such as Crewe are being hit disproportionately. In a town that still relies heavily on its manufacturing and motor industries, the opportunity to keep efficient, dedicated, valuable, local public sector staff in work has been missed. That would have softened the blow and given the local economy of Crewe and Nantwich the platform on which to rebuild. It is not too late for both Government Departments to grab that opportunity.
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