My Lords, I can confirm that the supply of specialist information technology practitioners is forecast to meet foreseeable demand. The specialist ICT labour market, however, is dynamic and subject to fluctuation. We continue to monitor it closely and to work with our partners in education and industry to maintain the long-term supply of skills needed to meet the demands of the modern economy.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, is he aware that the key skills shortages in the industry are at level 3 and level 4 and that we are currently totally failing to meet that demand? It is estimated that, next year, for example, there will be 280,000 unfilled vacancies in the industry. We desperately need to train people up to that level. In schemes such as Learn Direct, the Government have been addressing only the need at level 2, which is the GCSE equivalent, rather than the need at level 3 which is the A- level equivalent. How do the Government propose to meet this very serious and critical skills shortage?
My Lords, the noble Baroness has identified an area of some concern, but I have some good news for her. In 2001, just under 70,000 further education students in the United Kingdom completed a level 3 or higher ICT course, which is a 230 per cent increase on the 1998 figure. Although I recognise that we need to increase performance and the numbers coming through in this field, there is a clear indication that the number of students enrolling and succeeding in these courses is increasing.
My Lords, can the Minister enlighten us about what is happening in the regions? It is very difficult to receive broadband in some of the regions. How can schools, local postmasters and farming communities readapt to a new world if they do not have access to broadband or anyone to teach them how to use it?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for identifying another crucial issue. There is no doubt at all that access to broadband is absolutely crucial for regional development, regional economies and, as he rightly identified, relatively small-scale organisations such as SMEs, all of which require access to these opportunities. I therefore assure the noble Lord that the Government are taking the issue very seriously. He has rightly identified an issue of crucial concern in the development of regional policy and regional economies.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that withdrawal of the ILA scheme created a gap. We are working to replace the scheme, and considerable efforts are being made to ensure that people are able to engage in this training. We seek to develop relationships with the private sector whereby those who provide the systems also provide the training at a reasonably low cost. IT learning opportunities are increasing very significantly. There has, for example, been an encouraging increase in the number of people enrolled on part-time and full-time courses developed over the past few years. We therefore accept that we must replace the ILA. I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that the Government are taking steps on the supply side to ensure that such courses are provided.
My Lords, what provision have the Government made for broadband in rural areas where cable provision is obviously impossible? What is the Government's attitude to bringing broadband to those remote rural areas?
My Lords, as I indicated a few moments ago, this is a challenging and testing problem. We all know the difficulties of providing these resources in areas where it is exceedingly difficult to install cable. Indeed, we recognised that fact a few years ago when we addressed the issue of television channels. We also recognise that, in terms of the private market, there are limited returns on provision in certain parts of the country. I assure the noble Lord that the overall thrust of our policy on devolution and the regions obliges us to pay serious attention to opportunities in rural areas and the regions. I assure him that the Government regard that as an important priority.
My Lords, will the Minister consider whether people in their fifties with IT skills who have been made redundant in various parts of the country—IT skills are not always the preserve of young people—could become trainers or consultants to small and medium-sized enterprises and to clusters of farms? That could be a wonderful outcome both for those who have the relevant skills and for the people they would train.
My Lords, the House will recognise that that is a most constructive suggestion against the background of the problems in certain parts of industry which have resulted in a substantial number of well-qualified people dropping out of employment over the past 18 months or so. We should ensure not only that those skills are not lost but also that they are used to the public good. We are considering ways of providing a strategy developed through local LSCs whereby those skills are employed to the benefit of the community.
My Lords, I am straying a little out of area if I refer to that unit, but as I understand the position, serious attempts have been made to increase the numbers employed in the unit. However, I shall have to write to the noble Earl with regard to whether the unit is fully staffed.
My Lords, does the Minister see a correlation between the shortage of level 4 quality graduate specialists in this area and the difficulty of providing, recruiting and retaining enough competent information technology and computer scientists in the university sector as salaries outside the university sector are exceptionally high? There is a real problem here which may well not apply across all areas of academic discipline. Will the Minister consider discussing the matter with Universities UK?
My Lords, the noble Lord has rightly identified a particular problem in higher education which relates to the number of students coming through. I emphasise that the number of computer science graduates has increased substantially in recent years. However, I recognise the point that the noble Lord makes; that is, that university salaries for the particular skills we are discussing are not always competitive with those offered elsewhere. I am sure that the Minister would be only too pleased to discuss the matter with higher education institutions.