HC Deb 10 February 1984 vol 53 cc1179-86

2 pm

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I beg to move, That this House congratulates Her Majesty's Government for taking the initiative of introducing the youth training scheme; welcomes its success in the United Kingdom and in Basildon in particular; further welcomes the recent publication of Cmnd. 9135 'Training for Jobs'; and looks forward to its early implementation. I move the motion in a constructive spirit as it is a vital ingredient in increasing job opportunities. All hon. Members accept that the level of unemployment is tragically high. Indeed, that is certainly the case in Basildon. But anyone who pretends that there is an instant magic formula is deceiving himself. We must all work together to try to create more job opportunities and to ensure that when they arise people are properly trained for them.

So it is that I am greatly saddened by those who have sought to denigrate the Government's genuine attempts to help. The value of training should be obvious and I for one welcome the youth training scheme. As we know, since the scheme became fully operational in September 1983 it has sought to offer an integrated programme of training and planned work experience lasting up to a year, including a minimum of 13 weeks off-the-job training or further education. It seeks to give school leavers a range of practical transferable skills to enable them to compete more effectively in the labour market.

There is no doubt that the YTS represents a considerable improvement on and progression from the youth opportunities programme. Three hundred thousand young people now benefit from the scheme, and £457 million has been invested in it. During the general election campaign my right hon. Friend, now the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the other place, was extremely impressed with what she saw of the nucleus of the scheme in Basildon. I have spent a great deal of time studying the operation of the YTS in my constituency, and talking to the young people engaged in the scheme at their places of work and in their training centres. I have spoken to those involved in the project.

It is a great pity that those who have sought to denigrate the scheme have not taken the same trouble as I have to understand its workings and to appreciate the good that is being done. My real appreciation of the scheme comes from my experience as a teacher and as the owner of an employment agency. In certain areas I have first-hand experience of the practical aspects of job seeking. I believe that the scheme gives young people the vital practical experience that is essential in today's real world. I have often heard the cry from an employer that he would take on someone if only he had some practical experience. In many respects the YTS is a bridge to fill that gap.

The YOPs attracted a great deal of criticism—some of it justified—and the YTS has suffered greatly from that adverse publicity. Indeed, when I visited the various centres in Basildon before Christmas the take-up rate was about 55 per cent. Much of the shortfall can be attributed to the deleterious effects of some unions taking a very negative view—indeed, to their outright hostility. I well remember unions preventing my county council in Essex and Kent from taking on YTS people. In addition, some teachers took an unwarranted stance against publicising the opportunities available. Their reaction ranged from dismissing the aims to merely not mentioning the possibilities.

I pay tribute to those teachers who saw the possibilities and brought the scheme to the attention of those whom it most closely concerned. The attitude of some Opposition Members has been far from helpful. Despite that, I am happy to report to the House that the take-up rate is now 75 per cent. in Basildon and I trust that that is mirrored nationally. In Metcon, a national federation of engineering companies which has a training unit in Basildon, the take-up rate is, I am delighted to say, 87 per cent. This, in spite of scepticism by the uninformed, is based on the fact that Metcon has excellent relations with firms in a position to supply jobs to well trained youngsters. The late surge in interest is a result of several of my hon. Friends taking an interest and publicising the scheme locally. More needs to be done. I make that plea to the Minister. He will agree that much of the publicity was initially aimed at employees and not enough at the youngsters themselves.

Some problems are, of course, emerging from YTS. That is not surprising since it is so young. Two obvious shortcomings have emerged which I fear may undermine the basic approach to the problem. They both concern the drop-out rate. In Basildon the drop-out rate is about 20 per cent.

My first point concerns the attitude of some of the participating firms. I realise that many businesses are morally, socially and economically committed to making the youth training scheme work, but some do not fully understand the role of YTS in national training policy.

Many firms take trainees on to their payroll but are unwilling to see their work force disappear for one or two days a week for job training. Naturally, I am delighted that youngsters have found jobs, but the purpose of YTS is to provide basic skills and, more importantly, portable skills. When firms take on youngsters, off-the-job training ceases and, to a large extent, so does on-the-job training. All that remains is to bring the newcomer to peak skill in a particular process.

I have every sympathy with the school leaver who is offered much more money, secure employment and the benefit of full time working, but I should like to make two points. The first relates to the implementation of training. Many trainees are not being given the benefits of wider, major and long term training that those who stay on the course to the end receive.

The youth initiative report states: We have until now assumed that training given in a person's first job is all he will need for the rest of his working life. The report made it plain that that was not good enough and that there was a need for action. As a result we have the YTS. In the interests of the future the scheme must provide a basically trained work force capable of moving into any industry. The scheme must be national or it will undermine its own declared aims.

My second point relates to the kind of industry operating the conversion to full-time work. Many have high staff turnovers. That is one of the reasons why they can offer so many places. Although ex-YTS trainees may be happy for a short time in their business, normal recruitment conditions may eventually prevail and those youngsters may eventually come on to the job market with less training than those who stay on the course. I urge the Minister, through the Manpower Services Commission, to take action to ensure that firms realise the aim and objectives of the scheme.

Another issue concerns termination, whether company or trainee induced. Terminations are often caused by locking the more venturesome or less motivated trainees into a monotonous round of work. At school they may already have formed a violent dislike of that. It is the equivalent of making a career choice for someone and getting it wrong.

I realise that mode B and the modular approach can overcome some of the problems in places such as the Chowdlany centre in Basildon, but I suggest for consideration the concept of work tasting. That could include opportunities to sample different skills or jobs "to establish aptitudes." The Minister will recognise that that phrase comes from his paper, "The New Youth Inititative". By adding or incorporating two to three months to the scheme trainees could sample different environments, skills and management aptitudes. The scheme could be made significantly wider in scope. I realise that that would be feasible only in places of high density industry — where industry is concentrated on estates of one sort or another. With that change, the trainees would be less prone to terminate halfway through the scheme, and would be better motivated to learn. I know that that sort of project has been tried, to a limited extent, in some areas. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give the matter serious consideration for national use.

I, together with many others, warmly welcome Cmnd. 9135 "Training for Jobs", which sets forth the aim of developing a system of certification that links the YTS with vocational courses in schools and colleges of further education. I look forward to my hon. Friend's report on that matter. I am glad that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department are thinking of education, work start and training as a continuous process, despite much of the rhetoric being directed at bridging the gap between school and work.

Such a gap exists, and it is right to give it some thought. However, attempts to close the gap should not interfere with efforts to improve the ends of the spectrum—basic education and vastly expanded vocational education. My hon. Friend has spoken about the possibility of craft schools, which would be a combination of education and training. That option is certainly worthy of consideration.

The Government, who are pledged to improving the lot of the forgotten 14 to 18-year-olds, are the first this decade to bring in education for training — a coherent and cohesive national policy that will produce youngsters fully capable of taking their place in the real world. Many youngsters do so already, but they are, by and large, among the more committed section. It is the lowest 40 per cent. of schoolchildren and the lowest 20 per cent. of school leavers who slip through the education network. I am determined that our policy will not be abandoned under YTS. A caring and compassionate Government like ours must give a higher priority to finding useful contributory places in society for those citizens than for those able enough, bright enough and willing enough to carve out their own niche.

That is what we are trying to do with the series of recent documents. That is what we will have done by the end of our present term in office.

2.12 pm
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) and the Minister for allowing me a few minutes to speak in the debate.

The White Paper "Training for Jobs", especially the section dealing with technical and vocational education initiatives, implies that the authors wish to lay the blame for unemployment on young people themselves. It suggest that the education that they receive, or their general level of technical ability, is the cause of so many youngsters being on the dole.

I argue that that is not the problem. The problem is not youngsters with insufficient technical skills, but that there are not enough jobs available for all school leavers. About 62 per cent. of those completing the Government's previous training initiative — the youth opportunities programme — returned to the dole at the end of their training. It is estimated that three fifths of those currently on YTS will return to the dole queue.

In my region of the west midlands, almost 100,000 people under the age of 25 are on the dole, more than one third of them having been unemployed for over a year. In the west midlands, nearly 10,000 youngsters under the age of 19 have been unemployed for more than one year. Many of those who have gained skills from previous training schemes initiated by the Government now realise that there has been no increase in the number of jobs for which they are competing.

For what are the Government training youngsters? Unless the Minister and his right hon. Friends come forward with plans to increase the number of jobs for school leavers, they will create the best trained dole queue in Europe — a large dole queue of unemployed youngsters.

If the YTS were so attractive, youngsters would be rushing to get on it. But in Dudley, in the west midlands, and in other Conservative areas, careers officers are under instructions to tell youngsters, "You have a choice. Either go on the YTS or your dole benefit of £15.80 will be reduced for six weeks to £9.48." Hanging over them like a sword of Damocles is the reimposition of that cut in unemployemnt benefit in future if they refuse to go on the scheme.

On 1 February, 200 youngsters from many parts of the country came here to lobby their Members of Parliament about the youth training scheme. The most common points they raised were the £25 allowance and the compulsion aspect of the scheme. My private Member's Bill — which, coincidentally, was published on the same day as the White Paper "Training for Jobs"—includes a clause —which, if parliamentary time were available, ought to be discussed and passed by this House — to prevent youngsters from having their benefit cut through being unwilling to go on a YTS.

I have referred to paragraph 25 of "Training for Jobs". That refers to the allowance of £25 and the sum paid to managing agents by way of fees. It is fair to say that had the allowance of £25 been increased in line with the value of money—remembering that it was first introduced as a Government training allowance in April 1978—it would now be £38. In other words, the Government are robbing each youngster on the scheme of £13 a week. No wonder the YTS — apart from some of the suggestions that I have made for the initials, such as "youth training swindle" —has been nicknamed by the youngsters "the great training robbery."

The hon. Member for Basildon spoke of a caring and compassionate Government. Speeches such as he made are deigned to rationalise a carefully constructed plan to reduce the wages of youngsters by covering, in a cosmetic way by the use of platitudes about training, a plan that has been in the Prime Minister's office for two or three years.

In February 1981, Mr. John Hoskyns, then head of the Prime Minister's policy unit, produced a paper which said than the Government's intention should be to introduce measures to increase the differential between the wages of young people and adults. That advice, put forward in that research paper, was strongly supported by the Prime Minister's adviser. That is what has happened with the YOP and the YTS.

In recent years the difference between the wages of young people and adults has fallen. According to the new earrings survey, it has dropped for males from 40 per cent. in 1975 to 38 per cent. in 1982; and for girls it has fallen from 36 per cent. to 34 per cent. I have been given figures by the Department which show even worse falls. The maintenance of the £25 allowance continues that process. It lowers the expectations of youth and gives employers the opportunity to tell yougsters who apply for unskilled jobs, "You are not getting much more than £25 because that is the general level of allowance paid nowadays."

I am happy to tell the House — in contrast to the speech of the hon. Member for Basildon — that trade unions are beginning to take up the cudgel in a positive way on behalf of young workers. For example, in Coventry, the National Society of Metal Mechanics and the Transport and General Workers Union have negotiated with Massey-Ferguson an arrangement by which the YTS trainees in that factory receive £74 a week — the full apprenticeship rate for their age—and a guaranteed job if they successfully complete the scheme. That is what I am promoting in my private Member's Bill. I want the unions to challenge the use of the YTS as a form of cheap labour and to regain the apprenticeship rate for youngsters.

Paragraph 29 of "Training for Jobs" tells us that attention is being given to the health and safety aspects of the yrs. That may be so, but the response has come only after pressure from the trade unions, from the families of youngsters who have suffered fatal accidents while taking part in this scheme, from campaign groups, such as Youth Trades Union Rights Campaign, and from the general pressure that has been put on the Government over the past six to 12 months. The changes in health and safety at work, sex discrimination and race relations legislation have come only from the pressure that has been exerted in exposing the loopholes in the YTS.

I received a telephone call, literally minutes before I entered the Chamber, in which I was told of the tragic death of a 16-year-old in Aston, Birmingham, on Wednesday at 1 am. He was found dead at the bottom of a degreasing bath which contained an aluminium cleansing solution of caustic soda. That youngster died from the fumes. The factory concerned risks prosecution, quite correctly under one of the Factories Acts, because it was employing someone under 16 years of age and getting him to work after 8 o'clock in the evening. Apparently the supervisor was only 21 years of age and had been employed at the factory for only one month. The youngster who died was not on YTS. But a pattern is emerging that shows that youngsters are being treated in a cavalier fashion because of the inadequacies of Government training schemes. Employers who wish to get away with objectionable practices are taking a lead from the inadequacies of the various schemes.

I received a letter this morning from the Department of Employment which told me that a study is being set up at Aston university, Birmingham, on health and safety within the YTS. The House can only be grateful for that. The more information that we have on the causes of accidents involving youngsters engaged in Government schemes, the better.

As I propose in my private Member's Bill, we must insist on changes being made to the YTS. There should be a contract of employment, so that employers are clear that they are dealing with employees who come within industrial legislation. There should be a clear definition of the jobs that youngsters are doing and no variation should be allowed without trade union or MSC health and safety supervision. There should be an increase in the allowance to £52 a week at least and the allowance should be tied to the trade union rate for apprenticeships.

One third of a million youngsters are part of the YTS. Hundreds of thousands of school leavers this summer face nothing but the YTS. For what are we training these youngsters? The Government have destroyed 20 per cent. of manufacturing industry, and investment has fallen by one third. Money flows out of Britain to the non-trade union, low-wage economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Jobs have disappeared. About 5 million people are on the dole. Unless the Government can create a massive number of jobs for our youngsters, they will always be cynical about the YTS. There is no point in being trained within the YTS if at the end of the scheme, in September, the trainee is thrown back on the dole. That has happened to many 17-year-olds. During the election campaign last summer I found that the most oft paint-sprayed slogan in the subways of Coventry—this is not something that I condone, lest anyone has a go at me for it—was: Vote Tory: Retire at 16. The YTS does nothing to change that.

2.24 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Alan Clark)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) for giving the House a further opportunity to discuss the youth training scheme. I am grateful to him also for the thoughtful and constructive manner in which he approached the subject. His contribution was in marked contrast to the intemperate and lurid manner in which the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) dealt with the subject. None the less, the House appreciates the assiduity that he has shown by attending so late on a Friday afternoon, in marked contrast to his colleagues. This is a fundamentally important subject that concerns the training of youth and there might have been a slightly better attendance than one Opposition Member—

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

There are two Labour Members in the Chamber.

Mr. Clark

But there has not been all the time. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) is also here.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East raised a number of points. I may not reach them all. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's sincerity, and he will receive a letter from me, as soon as I can manage it, in which I shall endeavour to answer his points. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the low take-up of the youth training scheme in his constituency, but that is contrasted most markedly with the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon who took a personal interest in the scheme in Basildon. I have no doubt that his interest and attention were responsible for the increase in take-up from the initial figure of 55 per cent. to the present level of 75 per cent.

Mr. Nellist

I did not refer to the low take-up in my constituency. I referred to the high level of long-term youth unemployment in the west midlands. I gave no figures on the take-up in Coventry, South-East.

Mr. Clark

I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. I thought that that was exactly what he said. Hon. Members of standing in society, who ought to know better, are culpable when they deliberately go out of their way to talk down the merits of one of the most constructive and important schemes ever offered to our youth. We all understand the pressures on the hon. Gentleman in his constituency and the obligations that he feels to posture as one in the vanguard of those who wish to destroy capitalistic society and so on, but his performance was a remarkably moderate one for him. I do not wish to get him into trouble by drawing attention to that.

In many aspects the speech of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East was reasonably statesmanlike. He gave the game away when he referred to the "youth training swindle." If people of the standing of the hon. Gentleman, teachers, educationists, members of trade councils, and so on deliberately try to talk this scheme down, there is no need to wonder why, in certain cases, young people show a certain diffidence about going on to the scheme. The House will note carefully the marked contrast between the hon. Gentleman's attitude and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon, in whose constituency there was a record increase in take-up of places of almost a third.

Since its inception the youth training scheme, more than any other training measure for many years, has provoked discussion, and rightly so. It is the most ambitious and far-reaching training measure introduced by any Government. Of course, there have been a few initial problems, and I shall deal with them. We are correcting them and doing our best to adapt the scheme as it evolves. The scheme has got off to an encouraging start. Employers and other sponsors have responded extremely well in providing training places. If the numbers taking up those places have been fewer than originally expected, it is because—despite what the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East contends—the job market for school leavers has improved. Nevertheless, thousands of young people are taking advantage of what the scheme offers. By the end of January, more than 300,000 school leavers had entered the scheme.

I understand that the argument of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East is that young people may be reluctant to go on to the scheme because at the end there will not be a job for them. It is impossible and impracticable—if the hon. Gentleman had listened to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security in the earlier debate he would have understood the verity of this—to guarantee a job for every school leaver, which is effectively what the hon. Gentleman wants. We have guaranteed that they will have a place on a training scheme. When they have completed their course, they will be better placed to obtain a job. The type of job that they will be well placed to get will generate wealth and prosperity.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, who argues against the scheme because there will not be a job at the end, is advancing the most short-sighted and negative argument that it is possible to conceive, and also one that is immensely depressing for people who approach the scheme full of hope. He tries to talk them down before they have even started. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon made a good point. He said that it is possible that at that age trainees will make the wrong choice and may find that the particular scheme—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.