HC Deb 15 July 1946 vol 425 cc1008-18

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Michael Stewart.]

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Sidney Shephard (Newark)

The subject I am raising tonight is that of the Government's vocational training scheme as it applies to ex-Service men and women. At the outset, I wish to point out that it is not working at all satisfactorily. Not only hon. Members in this House, but outside bodies, representative of Service interests, have complained at the lack of scope of the scheme, and also at the inability of the scheme to absorb the number of entrants for whom training has to be provided.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey) initiated a Debate some weeks ago on the subject of unemployment. Several hon. Members who took part in that Debate raised this question of the ex-Serviceman who wanted to undertake a vocational training course and all expressed dissatisfaction with the present working of the scheme. A short time ago, the British Legion at their annual meeting expressed themselves in similar terms. They moved a resolution calling upon the Government to expand the scheme so as to include more trades, and also make it possible to absorb beater numbers of ex-Servicemen for training. When the Chairman of the Employment Committee of the British Legion moved this resolution, he said that they were profoundly dissatisfied with the slow progress of the various Government training schemes, particularly having regard to the promises made during Service and in the little blue book, "Release and Resettlement," a copy of which all hon. Members will have had. He went on to say that they had made representations to the Minister, and the Minister had told them that his difficulties were lack of premises, equipment and instructors, but that he was doing all that he possibly could.

When I first read that blue book, I thought what an excellent scheme it was. The booklet was issued long before Germany was defeated, and I naturally thought that the Government would have made all their plans so that when demobilisation took place there would be no delay and a man would be able to undertake a course within a few days of having made application. What is the present position? The latest figures for 1st July show that 5,499 have completed a course, 17,660 are undergoing a course, but more than 26,000 have been approved and are still waiting—some of them have waited over six months—to undergo one of these vocational training courses. I have no doubt that most hon. Members will have had complaints. I have had many of them.

I would like to read two extracts from letters which I have received, to give some general idea of the type of complaint that we are receiving. The first one is from an airman. He was demobilised in October, 1945, after 12 years' service, and he registered in November for a clerical course. He was told that he would not be required for from two to three weeks. He made further inquiries early in the new year, and he was then told that it would he from eight to 12 weeks before he was called. His leave expired in February, and he was getting a bit worried by then, so he put a further inquiry through to the British Legion and the same answer came back, namely, that he would have to wait from eight to 12 weeks. What he writes is this: Is this to go on indefinitely? I might add that to seek temporary work as a non-tradesman is a most difficult proposition. In consequence, I am registered for unemployment for the first time m my life, and I feel a great loss of pride and self-respect over it. However, I am not really airing my own grievances but I should like to sec something done about the matter so that future Servicemen on demobilisation are not faced with the same troubles; at least, they could be warned. The last sentence of his letter—" at least, they could be warned" —hits the nail on the head, because there is no mention at all in this book of any possible delay that might take place. One of the first things I ask the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour to do is to see that a paragraph is inserted in any future edition of this book, warning ex-Servicemen and women that there may be considerable delay before they are able to undertake one of these courses.

I turn to the second case. This was a flight-sergeant who was demobilised in November, 1945. He applied for training on 13th December, and on 2nd January he attended the Government training school at Leicester for an interview and suitability test. He passed that satisfactorily, and he was told to expect to report for training in five to six weeks. On 28th February, that being the last day of his leave, he went to Leicester to find out what the position was. He was then told he would have to wait a further five to six weeks, and was advised to take temporary work. On 13th March he received a letter from the Newark Labour Exchange telling him that the waiting period had been extended to from eight to ten weeks. On 28th March, four months after he had initiated the first step, he was called to the Newark Employment Exchange and a letter from the regional training officer was read to him by the training officer telling him that the course was reserved for disabled ex-Servicemen, and that he would not be eligible, but they would put him in for another course if he wished. There that man was, chivvied about from 13th December until the end of March, and he was no better off at the end than when he started. I ask the hon. Gentleman who is to reply: Can he wonder that these ex-Servicemen are dissatisfied if this is the sort of thing that is general throughout the country?

I pass from criticism to offer one or two helpful suggestions. In the first place the Minister says the main difficulties are lack of premises, lack of equipment and lack of instructors. Why does not the Minister approach the employers in private firms? Out of all these thousands of men who are undergoing training only 423 are being trained in employers' establishments. It does seem to me that that would be a very easy method of getting over some of the difficulties. Take the clerical course. The first man I quoted applied for a clerical course. There are over 900 men waiting to undergo a clerical course. With regard to that course the Minister of Labour says his difficulty is that training is undertaken in conjunction with the Minister of Education and the course is undertaken in technical colleges, and the difficulty is lack of teachers, Throughout the length and breadth of this country, in every centre of population there is a business college of some sort or another, and very good ones, too. Surely, he could make use of those, which would get over that little difficulty? I do not think the Minister himself is very happy about the whole situation. I think he will have to adopt more unorthodox methods if he is to make a success of the vocational training scheme.

During the war we trained millions of men, and there was never any question then of shortage of premises; there was never any question of shortages of equipment or of instructors. Yet here we have a mere 20,000 to 30,000 men who want equipping for civilian life, and we say we cannot train them because we have not got the premises, equipment or instructors. If the right hon. Gentleman wants premises, why does not he go to the President of the Board of Trade, who has still over 70 million square feet of industrial floor space under requisition? Could not the President of the Board of Trade let him have a little of that? If he wants equipment, surely he has an overriding priority over home production? If he wants instructors, let him appeal to the trades concerned, and I am sure they will be forthcoming. I want the Minister to treat this problem as one of urgency. In my opinion, it is nothing short of a national scandal that we can fall down on the training of so small a number of men compared with the huge number we trained during the war. I do not want to make political capital out of the misfortunes of ex-Servicemen, but I do remind the Minister of that Labour classic, "Let us Face the Future," and what is said there about the ex-Servicemen. I think it is worth repeating to hon. Members opposite: The gallant men and women in the Fighting Services…deserve and must be assured a happier future than faced many of them after the last war. Labour regards their welfare as a sacred trust.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South)

I think the sympathetic and reasonable approach of the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Sidney Shephard) commands our support, because this is not really a party issue. The trouble, as it appeared to us in the Services, was that both the blue book and the official Ministry of Labour lecturers came before the scheme was ready. They were pushed out into the Forces in order to keep up morale, and in the spring of 1945, when nobody anticipated that the Japanese war would come to an end so quickly, I remember the official lecturers coming to Trincomalee and painting this scheme in glowing colours—as late as May, 1945. From the point of view of the scheme, it was in fact unfortunate that the Japanese war came to an end so soon afterwards. No doubt, when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour took office he was faced with the position—through the fault of no one in particular, and I am condemning no one—of having to start from scratch and get the scheme working. That does not excuse delays now, and I heartily reinforce the plea of the hon. Member for Newark that this should be regarded as a matter of extreme urgency. Nothing is more dispiriting than for a man to come out of the Services, having read these official publications and having heard the lecturers but not knowing the reasons why the scheme has not got going, and then to find himself in some blind alley employment, or in a job which he does not want to retain.

With all respect to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply, I do not think sufficient urgency has yet been imparted into this scheme. Since this matter was raised on a Supply Day one Friday—I think on 3rd May—there has, undoubtedly, been an improvement and the two-shift system has been introduced in certain of these training establishments so that, no doubt, the scheme is going ahead much faster. If the Parliamentary Secretary intends to tell us that he will not be able to absorb all the waiting list before December, as we were told on 3rd May by the Minister, this is not satisfactory and I think we ought to go ahead faster in absorbing all these people. As a practical point may I say that No. 5 formation college at Luton, which was set up by the Army last September and on which thousands of pounds of public money has been spent, in order to do what is largely a pre-demobilisation job, is doing exactly this sort of work. For reasons best known to themselves, the War Office are closing down that college. Will my hon. Friend investigate the possibility of taking over that very fine building, which has workshops already built, and turning it into a Government training centre? I do not expect an answer "yea" or "nay" tonight, but I hope he will investigate the possibility. This is a matter of urgency and the cases which have been brought to our attention are disturbing to those of us who are—as we all are—interested in the welfare of the ex-Serviceman. I hope we shall press on with the scheme as fast as we can.

10.34 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Ness Edwards)

I am very sorry that there is so little time available in which to discuss this very important question. No one can have any objection to the tone of the speeches or the way in which it has been raised. It is an extremely urgent matter and one of great concern to a large number of men. Having said that I should like to point out that, in the first place, the leaflet that was issued to the Forces, was distributed before this Government came into office. Although I am not complaining about this, promises were made before this Government took office, and subsequently a further leaflet was issued called "Government Vocational Training Schemes." This leaflet—and I think this meets the point of the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. S. Shephard)—has been widely circulated in the Forces and does warn members of the Forces of the delay that may arise with regard to vocational training. In that sense, the point which the hon. Member made was anticipated some three months ago, by the issue of this leaflet.

Mr. Shephard

Is that leaflet handed to every man on demobilisation?

Mr. Ness Edwards

I understand that it is made available, at demobilisation centres, to persons who ere demobilised. I understand that there is the widest dissemination of this leaflet among the Forces.

Mr. Shephard

But it is from the leaflet, "Release and Resettlement," that the man gets his first impression. Should not the leaflet to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred, be issued along with that one, so that the two can be read together?

Mr. Ness Edwards

My information is that it is issued to every man, but I would like to check that, in order not to mislead the House. When we went into the Ministry the first thing we looked at was this question of training. We saw that there were available, in August of last year, places for 3,716 persons. That was the total number of places available in the training centres after the end of the European war. Our great task was to increase, as rapidly as we could, the number of places for training, particularly for ex-Service men. I want to give the House some indication of the way in which the programme has been not only triplicated, but built up to its present scale. In July, 1945, the total number of training places was 3,616. This was at the time when that leaflet was being issued to the Forces, the time when Ministry of Labour lecturers were going around and telling men in the Forces about this vocational training scheme and about all the places that were available. In August, when we took office, the number was immediately increased by 100.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)


Mr. Ness Edwards

Places. By December, the number had been increased to 5,300. On 8th April, it was 10,000. In June, it was 14,000, and now it is going up at the rate of 2,000 per month. It is planned that by December there will be places for 28,500.

Sir W. Darling

On the two-shift system?

Mr. Ness Edwards

No; places without the two-shift system. It is now proposed that in some of these training centres, where it is possible—and travelling has something to do with this, as will be appreciated—the double shift should be installed. It started in the North-East region, and is now being extended to other centres. We hope, by this means, to increase the number of places available for applicants. In the building trades, instead of giving six months at a centre we are giving four months, and two months on the job. But here is our difficulty: we cannot cut down the training time to such an extent as to flood the building industry with more apprentices than it can take. That is one of our difficulties now. To the extent that the industry develops, it will be able to take more and more. To the extent that we get skilled men back into building, we shall be able to add to the dilutee labour, and we are waiting for the extension in the number of skilled personnel in the building industry so that we can pump more and more trainees into the industry to finish their training.

Lieut. - Commander Joynson - Hicks (Chichester)

Does the hon. Gentleman say that the building industry is refusing to accept further apprentices at the present time?

Mr. Ness Edwards

No, it is not refusing. In fact, I must say of both sides in the building trade generally, that they are being extremely cooperative, but I am sure the hon. and gallant Member will realise that we cannot put more trainees into the building industry than the industry can supervise in their training. To get too great a density of trainees in the industry would be to decrease efficiency in the industry and to leave men without adequate skilled supervision, which is highly desirable in the last few months of training. As far as the building industry is concerned, it is being extremely helpful in this matter. Another point that was raised concerned technical schools. I feel sure that the hon. Member for Newark will be pleased to have the information that in July, 1945, there were 330 in technical colleges, and now there are 2,026, and we shall take every place that any technical college in this country can give us for training.

Sir W. Darling

Does that include commercial colleges?

Mr. Ness Edwards

I am taking, first, the technical colleges, and I say that, with regard to them, we shall take every place they can give us. We are pushing them for all we are worth, so as to provide opportunities for these men to get their training as quickly as possible. I come now to the question of private colleges, to which reference has been made. Not all private colleges are suitable. Some of them, which have very high reputations, we are using. We have to exercise some discretion in this matter, and I cannot make the same open declaration about all the private colleges as I can make about the technical colleges, but in so far as private colleges of repute can offer us opportunities of places for training, we shall take them. We are using a considerable number of private colleges for this purpose.

Sir W. Darling

And correspondence colleges?

Mr. Ness Edwards

Correspondence colleges are not regarded quite as full- time vocational training. We do not want to give training on the cheap. We want to give efficient and fulltime training in the best possible circumstances, so that these men can get the maximum benefit. The hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) may disagree with me on this point, but we ought not to be open to criticism on the ground that we are providing inadequate training for the trainees under our vocational training system. Once we became subject to criticism of that sort, it might damn the whole scheme, and do irreparable damage to the men going through the training centres. A number of other points were put to me with regard to our getting on faster. I want to assure hon. Members that we are going as fast as we possibly can, having regard to the absorption of those men on the completion of their training. We have had the position that we have turned out painters on the North-East Coast who have had to remain idle because painting work has not been available.

Mr. S. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman says the Ministry are going as fast as they can, but I would point out that only 423 of these men are being trained in employers' works. Will he explain that matter?

Mr. Ness Edwards

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point again. We are providing for training on the employer's premises. We are subsidising the training of men on the employer's premises, but the great difficulty we are up against is this. Take, for instance, the furniture trade. There is a tremendous demand for cabinet making but the difficulty in that industry is that it has not sufficient raw material for its own employees. Therefore, the more trainees we push out, the smaller the quantity of timber in comparison with the number of men available to use it. That applies not only to that trade but to other trades as well. In the hairdressing industry, we have a similar problem. I was not thinking of the sight that meets me in the mirror every morning. I refer to the problem of equipment after we have trained the men. The absorption of the men we have trained is the difficulty with which we have to contend. The question of the establishment at Luton has been raised. I have been interested in that and with- out going too far I want to assure my hon. Friend that the greatest pressure is being brought to bear upon the Departments concerned, with that establishment, to make it available for a training centre for the men who are waiting.

The picture is not one that gives reasons for self-satisfaction. I admit that we have to apply all the energy we can to get these men trained as quickly as possible, and then have to put up with the consequences in industry afterwards. We are training for 40 trades and as regards each trade there has been an agreement with both sides of the industry as to the volume of trainees. Here is one difficulty with which we are faced in the building industry. In the building trade, we want more bricklayers. But everyone wants to be a carpenter or a plumber. We cannot have carpenters or plumbers in excess of the work provided initially by the bricklayers. We have to try to get that balance, and in that connection, we are advised by both sides of the industry, in regard to the various trades. I assure the House that this is a matter of grave concern to our Department and that we are putting behind it all the energy we can, to give these men all the training that is required, at the earliest possible moment.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.