Sector skills councils help raise demand for skills, provide authoritative labour market intelligence and ensure that qualifications meet employer needs. Their annual skills assessment sets out how the skills needs of their sectors are being met, and all SSCs have recently undergone a robust and rigorous relicensing process.
The Minister will be aware of the recent Baker Tilly report, which indicated the positive impact that sector skills councils are having on the UK economy. But is he also aware of the memorandum of understanding that is being signed next week by the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils and the Federation of Small Businesses to ensure that qualifications being offered in the future by the SSCs are more relevant to micro and small businesses?
Yes, I am aware of that, and later today I will meet John McNamara, who is in charge of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, when I can discuss the points that my hon. Friend raises. He is absolutely right; qualifications should be those that employers find useful, and the involvement of sector skills councils in developing qualifications is one of the features of the skills system that the Government have developed that makes them more relevant to employers and, therefore, to employees and learners.
Yesterday, in the Department, we held a summit at the behest of the sector skills council employers and trade unions in the print industry to consider its future and its needs. If the representatives from the hon. Lady's constituency were not invited to that, perhaps she will let me know. We would certainly like to involve them in those discussions because the print industry has a great future. It is not the old-fashioned industry that it sometimes has a reputation for being. It has lots of small and medium-sized enterprises, and great and exciting technological developments are going on that we need to take advantage of.
Is the Minister aware that the largest single employer of apprentices in Scotland is those firms that are currently engaged in building the aircraft carriers? Does he agree that all those apprenticeships, both for adults and for youngsters, would be lost if the Conservatives carried forward their proposal to examine the break clauses of the contract on day one of any future Conservative Government?
Order. I know that the Minister will relate his remarks exclusively to the effect of the work of the sector skills councils.
Of course, Mr. Speaker. Sector skills councils have a UK-wide responsibility in the defence industry and with regard to apprenticeships. I am proud of the fact that under this Government apprenticeship numbers have risen from 60,000 in 1997 to nearly 250,000 now. It would be a great danger if a Government committed to cutting public investment were to come in because that would impact on the number of apprentices.
The important work of sector skills councils is inhibited by the Government's emphasis on unelected regional authorities, and Ministers' preoccupation with the Train to Gain programme, which spends taxpayers' money funding training that people would fund themselves anyway. In confirming that the dead-weight costs of Train to Gain may be more than 80 per cent., will the Minister concede that he has finally listened to my complaints about this waste and so cut Train to Gain funding in the Budget and spend the money on apprenticeships instead?
No, we will not do that. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of regional development agencies, because his party's policy of abolishing those was described recently by the Engineering Employers Federation as a disaster. I do not know about other hon. Members, but when engineers warn me of impending disaster, I listen, and people should listen carefully to that advice.