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Apprenticeships in Foyle

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 am on 15th January 2008.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 4:15 am, 15th January 2008

The proposer of the debate will have 10 minutes in which to speak. Depending on how many other Members wish to speak, they will each have approximately eight minutes. The Minister will speak for the last 10 minutes of the debate.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the important subject of apprenticeships. During a visit to FG Wilson in December 2007 the Minister for Employment and Learning, Sir Reg Empey, described apprentices as the lifeblood of the economy: I could not agree with him more. However, that lifeblood is being drained from my constituency, Foyle, because of the concentration of apprenticeship training that is being located away from the region.

In recent years, many of the major level 3 training programmes have been lost to Derry. For example, the contract to provide electrical training was awarded to a company in Ballymena; plumbing training was awarded to a company in Belfast; and mechanics and motor-vehicle training was awarded to a company that is now based at Mallusk.

When the contract for mechanics and motor-vehicle training was awarded, the successful company, Carter and Carter Group plc, did not even have premises in the North of Ireland. Does the Minister believe that Carter and Carter Group plc is in a better position to deliver mechanics and motor-vehicle training than the North West Regional College, which was unsuccessful in its bid? I appreciate that the decision was made during direct rule. However, the Minister has a responsibility to confront the ongoing legacy that such decisions have created.

In particular, he must deal with the deeply concerning issue of Carter and Carter Group plc. I draw his attention to an article that appeared in the ‘Guardian’ newspaper in December 2007, which reported that the company faces debts of more than £130 million and that an auditor is investigating the falsification of its records.

Is that really the type of company with which we should entrust the future of our young people? In order to prevent that from ever happening again, there must be a fundamental review of the procurement process that is used in the Department’s Training for Success scheme. Furthermore, I and my party colleague Raymond McCartney have already written to the Comptroller and Auditor General to ask him to investigate the procurement process which allowed that to happen.

Is the Minister in a position to publish the report that was commissioned by his Department into the impact on north-west school-leavers of the pilot scheme that is run by a Ballymena electrical training company? I am sure that if he has the report, he will publish it — Members would like to learn about it. That scheme informed much of current policy. However, we are still to see the details of that report, despite previous assurances that it would be available in April 2007. It would be welcome if the delivery of that report could be speeded up.

Action is needed now. Otherwise, ever more vital training programmes will be lost to areas such as Derry, while the future of ever more of our young people could be placed in the hands of companies such as Carter and Carter Group plc.

There is no doubt that the Department’s Training for Success programme has the potential to deliver for the young people of the North. However, it must deliver for them all, and not just for the few. As part of the Stand Up for Derry campaign, I have argued for an end to the neglect that the north west has endured for so many decades. For too long, the young people of my city have been denied an equal right to employment. Are we now also to deny them the right to training?

The young people of my city desperately want to work. They want to learn and to secure apprenticeships as a means of securing a better future for themselves and their families. How can they do that if they are forced to travel to Belfast, Ballymena or anywhere else in the North on a trainee’s wage? That is impossible.

The draft Programme for Government and investment strategy commits the Executive to creating 6,500 new jobs by 2011 and delivering £18 billion of investment during the next decade. Those are laudable aims. However, those jobs and that investment must be for the benefit of all of the people who reside in the North. That means that all young people should have equal access to apprenticeship training. After all, it is they who will build the better future that we want to see. We in the Chamber are merely laying down the foundations for that.

The Executive have also committed themselves to eradicating the scandal of fuel poverty and, in particular, child poverty, by 2012. Again, those are laudable aims. It is the responsibility of all Departments to play their part in achieving those aims. However, nowhere is the problem of child poverty more acute than in my constituency. In Derry, 36% of children are living in poverty, compared to the North’s average of 24%. The highest child mortality rate is also in the Western Health and Social Services Board area. Derry has the highest proportion of young people who leave school without any qualifications.

The people of my city, particularly the young, have been failed for generations. They must not be failed by the current Executive, or the Assembly, any longer. In this new dispensation, we have the opportunity to reverse the failures of the past. Unless we constructively address issues such as the provision of apprenticeships, we will continue to fail the people, particularly the young people, of Derry. We will also fail to achieve the goals that have been set out in the draft Programme for Government.

Therefore, I repeat my plea to the Minister to stand up for the young people of Derry and for all our young people. I urge him to give them a chance at the better future that each and every one of them deserves. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party 4:30 am, 15th January 2008

I congratulate Martina Anderson on securing this debate on a very important issue. It is important to consider not just the Foyle constituency, because the platform on which the Training for Success policy has been pursued is giving rise to serious issues elsewhere. The problems are most acutely felt and demonstrated in the north-west, particularly because of the switch in the Electrical Training Trust (ETT) contract. Approaching private firms to provide training — supposedly in the name of producing employer-led apprenticeship schemes as opposed to the earlier models — will result in uneven access to apprentice­ship opportunities. Uneven access means unequal opportunities.

The decline in numbers, not just in Derry but in other districts, is apparent from the figures — particularly the ETT figures. Since the introduction of the new format there has been a significant reduction in the numbers undertaking electrical training apprenticeships. A clustering effect is evident: apprenticeships doughnut around providers. There is a fireside effect: the closer people are to the fire, the more heat they feel; those further away feel the draught. That creates inequality. That is a problem, not just for the young people who are looking forward to apprenticeships, but also for training providers who have supplied effective and efficient high-performance training and apprenticeships in the past, not least, as Martina Anderson said, the North West Regional College, formerly the North West Institute.

It also creates problems for employers and firms. We must remember that electricians, electrical technicians, plumbers and mechanics have not only learnt their trade and become employees, they have often become self-employed. They in turn often form their own companies and employ others. A significant drop in the numbers taking up apprenticeships — almost to the point of extinction — will have a knock-on effect. There will be a shortage of self-employed people and fewer companies being created in certain areas. Those areas will have fewer firms that can compete for subcontracts in public or private procurement projects, never mind the main contracts. Multiple inequality issues arise.

I accept that this policy began before devolution was restored, but if the Department’s emphasis is supposed to be on employer-led schemes, what happens in areas that do not have significant numbers of employers or where firms are not large enough to meet the criteria for employer-led schemes? Firms in those areas cannot participate in apprenticeship schemes, and young people in those areas are denied the opportunity to join those schemes. In the name of employer-led schemes, the Department must take account of the scale and capacity of employers and where they are located; it must introduce schemes that meet their needs. That approach would be fairer to them, to their areas and to the young people who live in those areas.

The Department for Employment and Learning must move quickly on this matter. We have waited a long time while reviews and studies have been carried out. I do not blame the Minister; I understand that the work has not been completed. However, an appraisal of the impact of the switch in the Electrical Training Trust contract case has been a long time coming, as has an examination of the wider equality implications. The Department should not go any further down that road until it is able to say that it knows what has happened and why, and has corrective plans.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate and commend Martina Anderson for securing this debate. Although the Committee for Employment and Learning has been examining the general issue of apprenticeships, it has not specifically considered the situation in the Foyle constituency or the wider north-west area. The Minister will probably refer later to a report commissioned from PricewaterhouseCoopers, ‘Modern Apprenticeships in the North West: Understanding Demographics/Trends to Date and Forecasting Future Scenarios’. That is a long title, but I wanted to read it into the record. The report has been finalised in the past few weeks, but, for the record, I and other Committee members received it only yesterday, and I have not had a chance to examine it.

There is enormous interest among Members in the subject of apprenticeships, as evidenced by this debate and a motion to be proposed next week by Jim Shannon on the broader issue of apprenticeships in manufacturing. My Committee is considering the issue through the monitoring of the Department’s Training for Success programme, which has replaced Jobskills. We are examining the early roll-out of the programme, and we will report our findings to the Assembly after the Easter recess.

To date, the Committee has focused on assessing departmental views on the roll-out of the programme. We are now moving to the critical phase of establishing sectoral feedback. Tomorrow, the Committee will take evidence from the engineering and utility sectors. Next week, we are due to hear from representatives of the construction sector. Their evidence will be crucial to our inquiry, because they have already been quite vocal about the problems that have arisen with the apprenticeships.

I urge Members who have an interest in this subject to keep an eye on the Committee’s agenda. As I said, the Committee will make its formal report on the issue as soon as its monitoring of the Training for Success programme has been completed. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

My party is no stranger to the subject of this debate; our party leader has been working with the local victims since the beginning of this saga.

Employer-led schemes have had a primary role in the equation for many years. However, the current situation begs many questions. The North West Regional College has been synonymous with thousands of young men and women who took up vocational apprenticeships in order to equip themselves with a trade from which to make a living. Now, however, all that has been stripped away from the college, which is well-equipped and well-prepared to train young people, and which has a proven track record.

The college has made major investments in premises and equipment to allow it to deliver training of the highest standard. Nevertheless, a company that had not met any of the required criteria was awarded a contract by Departments headed by direct rule Ministers. That company has no staff or premises in Northern Ireland, let alone Derry. I understand that, at one stage, it had aspirations to buy Blackwater House, a training company based in Mallusk, so I can only assume that aspirations beat physical actualities when it comes to awarding the criteria points that ultimately win contracts. That situation must be reassessed; our city deserves better, and our young people deserve better opportunities.

When the shirt factories in Derry closed down, training programmes were introduced in order to help people to get on in life and learn another trade. That is not happening as it should, and the situation must be re-examined. We await the result.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

Like Mark Durkan, I commend Martina Anderson for securing the debate, and I welcome the Minister for Employment and Learning.

Talking to young people in Derry who are around school-leaving age can be a tremendous boost. They have an uplifting wit, imagination and optimism. In most cases, our young people have enjoyed their schooling and have benefited from the hard work that people from the community sectors have done, such as providing local youth clubs. The city is bursting with a willingness to learn. Previous parliamentary questions show that self-funded night classes at Magee College are rapidly developing, particular in technology-related subjects. There is a thirst in the city for success and to get ahead.

However, for many school leavers, progress is very difficult, despite their optimism. Ideally, school leavers who do not want to go into academic study should have the opportunity to begin serving their time in compre­hensive, internationally recognised apprenticeship schemes. Their disappointment, loss of place in society, and the barriers that prevent many of our young people from contributing can create terrible frustration, resentment and disillusionment. Every town and city in the North will witness young people who have no stake in society drifting towards drink and trouble. Many young people do not know how to become adults because they are disconnected from their role models.

Everyone should be able to excel in activities that allow them to earn a living. That is the natural way of things, and we must recreate the circumstances that allow that to happen. Traditionally, people were encouraged to learn skills; it was their duty to become the best that they could so that they could contribute to their community and earn a living. Since the industrial revolution, an apprenticeship-led scheme was the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood for many people. Not only could young people learn job skills, but they learned how to be an adult. We must get back to basics and build properly resourced Government training centres, where people can undertake one or two years of rigorous training. I am confident that, after such training, those people would be snapped up by employers who could put their skills to much more productive use.

The current apprenticeship training system has been of great concern to the SDLP. As Mary Bradley mentioned, our colleague Mark Durkan has asked questions on the subject in the House and, prior to devolution, in the House of Commons. The system is wasteful; it excludes those who are from areas of high unemployment and those who are over the age of 24.

Change should take place in three areas. First, the current practice of outsourcing training is a barrier. In some cases, training is outsourced from either first- or third-year apprenticeships to suppliers that often are not even local companies. It is difficult to understand the point in giving business to a private company that is not from Northern Ireland, given that it will then subcontract our regional colleges to do the same work. Why are we throwing our money away? I reiterate Martina Anderson’s point that the North West Regional College was overlooked in its bid to provide training schemes. Almost £1 million was invested in a mechanical engineering workshop at that college, but it is now lying dormant. It is a crying shame because that centre of excellence could be used in a much more productive way for young people. I ask the Minister to comment on what future use will be made of that workshop for our young people.

Secondly, the insistence that apprentices have an employer mitigates high levels of unemployment in regions that have a low economic activity base. However, that rule not only disadvantages individuals, but exacerbates the shortage of those skills that are necessary for new business and new product develop­ment. That is the reason that it is important to build a network of Government training centres. I declare an interest as I served my time in the 1970s as an apprentice in some of the training centres in Derry, which provided both excellent work and the opportunity for people to develop skills that they would not otherwise have had. Such centres can fast-track apprenticeship courses through intensive training schemes that are similar to the successful models of the 1970s and 1980s.

Thirdly, why is there an age limit of 24 to qualify for Training for Success? Why should an unemployed person of 25 or older not be facilitated in learning how to be a bricklayer or a plumber, or whatever he or she wants to be? There should be no artificial age limit.

Those three barriers are artificial, and, through our institutions, we should remove them. If we can get properly funded Government training schemes operating, allowing people of all ages to participate and without the prerequisite of needing to be employed — as is the case for school leavers and people who are long-term unemployed — we can make inroads into renewing economies and transforming lives and communities.

The Assembly can raise the heads of young people so that they retain their optimism after leaving school. By doing so, the Assembly can re-engage with an entire section of society that feels excluded.

I call on the Minister for Employment and Learning to engage in a partnership approach with employers and unions to ensure that all young people, no matter where they are from, have an opportunity to take up proper apprenticeships. That will give them a chance to move from childhood to adulthood while still fully engaged with society. I also ask the Minister to ensure that retraining through apprenticeships is available to people at any stage of their careers.

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP 4:45 am, 15th January 2008

I thank Members who arranged and participated in today’s Adjournment debate. I want to deal with a couple of matters before replying to the debate.

Mr Ramsey mentioned that the North West Regional College is not currently in use. I will look into that matter and write to the Member in due course. Mr Durkan raised the issue of the “doughnut” or clustering effect of apprenticeships. My Department will look out for evidence of that as it assesses how the Training for Success programme is being rolled out. I listened carefully to what he said on the subject.

The Member who tabled the subject for debate and all Members who spoke today are clearly concerned lest the area that they represent becomes disadvantaged. The background to, and context of, the current situation is that it is an inherited arrangement. It arose largely because of the report by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that severely criticised the Jobskills programme. Among the many criticisms was the fact that employers were exploiting the workers by using them for 12 months before dumping them.

The procurement process is run through the Depart­ment of Finance and Personnel’s Central Procurement Directorate. People have asked whether it was necessary for the Carter and Carter Group plc to have premises before starting the training programmes. The answer, under the procurement rules, is no. I, and many others, asked the question. Everything was done in accordance with DFP rules, and the Carter and Carter Group plc was not the only company in that position.

As I recap on the debate, I hope to pick up most of the points that have been made. I will try to catch up later on anything that I miss.

My Department is totally committed to apprentice­ships, which constitute the main vehicle that supports business, industry, employers and the economy. Every year, apprenticeships help many young people to move from education into the world of work. Pat Ramsey made a good point about adult apprenticeships. However, the financial dimension must be considered. The Department wants to provide many more apprentice­ships and is currently considering what can be done, but the recent comprehensive spending review has had an impact on spending. However, the Department is aware of the issue of adult apprenticeships because many people have highlighted it.

Apprenticeships provide people with training to develop the technical skills and knowledge that they and their employers need. The type and number of apprentices who need to be trained each year will be determined by the demand from business and industry. The responsibility is not exclusive to the Department: employers must also have a role. They must invest in apprentices, and they must understand that there is a link between helping young people to progress and enjoying long-term success as companies. Some companies tend to hope that an apprentice will turn up on a given day and that the Government will provide his or her training. I am sorry, but the employers must play their part.

In the past year, my Department spent £51 million on vocational training, £12 million of which was specifically dedicated to supporting young apprentices and their employers. The balance of the money was used to prepare young people for work and to help them progress to training as apprentices, because some required basic, essential skills before their apprenticeships could begin.

Health and safety is a major issue that must be dealt with before apprentices can work in certain sectors, particularly in construction.

Over the past few years, the Department’s flagship training scheme — Jobskills — received a poor press, and I refer to that because of the Westminster Public Accounts Committee’s report of 2005. The new training product responds largely to that report. We have our differences about the degree to which we might have responded, and the manner in which we would have responded, but we are where we are. Training for Success offers a new approach to skills training, ensuring that people are actually employed. Skills training is at the heart of what is on offer.

The apprenticeship programme remains virtually untouched. It was working well, and there was no need to change it. Indeed, we have built on its sound foundations and enhanced it with the introduction of level 2 apprenticeships.

The Department has set itself the challenging target of having 10,000 apprentices on the programme by 2010. Last year, more than 6,000 people joined the programme, and the indications are that this year’s intake — although down a little on last year — will increase significantly, year on year, as the new provision beds in. However, the numbers that enter apprenticeships are entirely determined by employers. It is they who employ apprentices and offer them the opportunity to train. The introduction of training provision is required to renew contracts for the delivery of training by further education colleges and other training organisations. The Department is required to comply with Government accounting and procurement procedures, under strict guidance from the Department of Finance and Personnel’s procurement directorate. The tendering process was completed in May 2007.

I am aware of the concerns that have been raised about the apparent decline in apprenticeships in the Foyle area. My officials have met with public representatives and council officials to discuss apprenticeships and to hear concerns about the contracts awarded to the Electrical Training Trust and, more recently, to Carter and Carter Group plc. The Electrical Training Trust is by far the most successful scheme. It has an 85% success rate, which is top of the line. Some Members are concerned that its headquarters are in Ballymena, but it is not necessary for the courses to be held there. The examinations are held there, and they take about three days. If there is sufficient demand in the city, and if at least 12 people wished to take the course, training could take place there.

There is a particular issue about the numbers of trainees at the moment, but, as the Member for Foyle Mr Durkan has said, in previous times the city was well ahead. Its figures are still above average, but in that particular discipline it is not doing so well. However, that can be remedied. The college could provide training on its premises in the city if there were enough trainees — probably more than 12 would be sufficient.

On a regional basis, the north-west has experienced some of the lowest levels of apprenticeships, but Foyle has one the highest levels. Up to 2002-03, the four-year funded route, that is, the achievement measurement 2 (AM2) skill test, has been running at double the Northern Ireland average. Although that figure has declined since 2003, it is still above the Northern Ireland average.

Reference has been made to a study that was carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers. A copy of that report will be placed in the Library today, so that Members can study it and make their own determinations. I am monitoring the Carter and Carter Group plc situation on almost a daily basis.

The Education and Training Inspectorate is in constant contact with providers in order to monitor the standards of the contracts as they are implemented, and that applies in this case. I can confirm that the Department has prepared contingency plans in the event of there being any specific difficulty with Carter and Carter Group plc. Although its shares have been suspended, it is still a legally trading company and is still honouring its contracts. The Department can act only if the company defaults on those contracts. The report is in the Assembly Library, and I ask Members to read it to see whether they feel that it contains sufficient information to make a judgement.

The Department is totally committed to the apprentice­ship model, is looking closely at adult retraining and is fully aware of the concerns that exist in Foyle. I assure Members that my Department’s task, and that of the Education and Training Inspectorate in advising us, is to ensure that standards are high, and are maintained high, everywhere in Northern Ireland, which, of course, includes Foyle.