Construction Industry (Employment)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:11 pm on 24th May 2000.

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Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 5:11 pm, 24th May 2000

In my former life as a teacher, I never spoke to a noisy room, so I hope that everyone will be nice and quiet for me.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this debate on an important issue for my constituents and for people across Scotland. I would like to make it clear at the outset that I am not an expert in this area, and I am grateful for the information that was provided for me by a range of organisations in the construction industry, including the Construction Industry Training Board, Glasgow City Council building services department and the unions that are involved in this field.

I start by highlighting a situation with the construction industry that I believe creates a problem. Our awareness of the industry is often highlighted only when it intrudes in our everyday lives—when it creates traffic problems or when inconvenient scaffolding is put up. We tend to celebrate the designers of buildings, and the buildings themselves, but often we fail to celebrate the builders. We must recognise the importance of the process of construction to the economy, as well as the product of that construction work. Construction is a hugely important industry in Scotland, employing about 130,000 people and undertaking about £5,000 million of work a year.

We hear a lot about the virtual economy and e-commerce, but it is important that we recognise that many of our fellow citizens are involved in an economy that deals with real materials in real places. At times they battle in difficult circumstances, and many of them are put at risk because of a lack of regulation and safety. Sadly, there remains a significant number of fatalities in the industry; it is crucial that that is addressed. The Health and Safety Executive, according to its figures, was notified of 66 fatalities in the industry between April 1998 and March 1999. The unions have a crucial role to play in protecting the work force and I welcome the important steps forward that the Government has taken in recognising trade unions and their right to carry out that important job.

The motion acknowledges the likely growth in the industry, with its potential to create a lot of job opportunities. It is estimated that, in this part of the world, through the private-public partnership education initiative, the proposed investment in housing in Glasgow and the development of the Clyde village, there may be an investment of £2 billion over the coming six to 10 years. That represents a huge opportunity for the physical regeneration of significant areas of Glasgow. It also represents a huge opportunity for the economic regeneration of some of our most deprived communities.

It has been suggested that, sadly, there may be a significant skills shortage in this city. There is evidence of workers being brought in from places such as Liverpool and Newcastle. The Mackenzie Partnership report from May 2000 quotes the Construction Industry Training Board construction labour forecast in Scotland for 1999-2003. It reckons that there will be a need for an additional 32,000 workers in that period, 17,000 of whom will be skilled tradespersons. It notes that only some 1,400 apprentices are currently registered annually, although that does not take account of the new initiatives that I have identified.

It is crucial that we address the skills gap, to ensure that people in our communities benefit. After all, if workers from local communities get work, they will spend the money in their communities and offer greater hope for regeneration. The importance of targeting training cannot be underestimated in ensuring that that job dividend comes to our communities.

Perhaps too much is said in current political circles about learning from the private sector. Perhaps there is an overwillingness to imply that the private sector model is always the best. We can learn a lot from the work that is being driven forward by the public sector. Glasgow City Council building services department offers an excellent model for innovation and partnership, as it recognises its social role as well as its economic role. Since the early 1980s, it has offered a sustained commitment to apprenticeships. It emphasises encouraging young women into the construction industry; currently 85 per cent of those employed in the industry are men. It offers work experience to school students, has developed partnerships and funding opportunities in a range of areas and has shown a willingness to meet the needs of the young and the long-term unemployed. Moreover, it has provided an accredited training facility to the private sector.

I wish particularly to highlight the important work being done by the council in tackling the issue of pre-vocational training. It is recognised that some of our citizens need extra support and encouragement. Through the pre-vocational training process, in partnership with the council's education service, that support is now being offered. I call on the minister to study that initiative and to work with those involved to see how we might get matched funding, which would allow the initiative to be expanded. That is perhaps an opportunity for active intervention by the Executive.

I wish above all to emphasise how important it is that all involved—the unions, the local authorities, social inclusion partnerships, enterprise bodies, the Executive and the private sector—grasp the importance of the construction industry's social responsibilities and work in partnership to maximise its benefits. I hope that, in the coming period, when contracts are being developed, a willingness to address the social dimension will be given proper credit and will help to define what is best value when those contracts are granted.

There is a huge opportunity ahead of us. With real joined-up thinking across sectors, departments, agencies and unions, we can ensure that high-quality training and real jobs in a safe construction industry will benefit all in our communities.