HC Deb 19 January 1984 vol 52 cc536-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do new adjourn.—[Mr. Major.]

10 pm

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

I am concerned about the serious situation in the town of Kirkby-in-Ashfield in my constituency and about what is happening to skillcentres throughout the country. From time to time the Government tell us that people must expect to have to transfer from a job that they may have been doing for many years to a new job, because of closures of factories or pits. Those people have to be retrained. More often than not, they turn to the skillcentre in their area.

Since 1979, a number of skillcentres have closed down because it is Government policy to save public expenditure. When some skillcentres are closed down, the catchment area of the remaining skillcentres is extended. Some skillcentres are very successful, but the Manpower Services Commission makes announcements which appear to have been prompted by the Department of Employment and by Government policy in relation to training and the closure of skillcentres.

The skillcentre in my constituency is first class. For instance, 95.5 per cent. of bricklayers trained in the centre have found jobs, and 87 per cent. of carpenters and joiners have found work. For those trained in motor vehicle repair and maintenance the figure is 61.5 per cent., for heavy vehicle repair and maintenance 71.4 per cent. for agricultural machinery repair and maintenance 80 per cent., for plating metal fabrication 77.8 per cent. and for sheet metal work 85.7 per cent. I do not need to read all the figures. It is clear that the Ashfield skillcentre is successful. No doubt other skillcentres are being equally successful in providing a valuable service for those changing their jobs. There will be pit closures in future in my constituency. In the House, I have said time and again that the National Coal Board cannot continue to move men to other units from pits that have closed down. Pits cannot keep soaking those men up. There must come a time when the NCB will say, "I am sorry, that's it. You're fininshed." However, the skillcentre is available for retraining men for other jobs.

Therefore, the first and all-important question is whether the Government are planning further skillcentre closures with particular reference to Kirkby. I have information showing that private industry, which uses the skillcentre at Kirkby, often writes to thank if for the retraining or upgrading that it has carried out. No doubt the same is true elsewhere. I have numerous letters from firms that are very grateful for the help that they have been given. They say that they will continue to use the skillcentre at Kirkby.

I shall cite just one letter, because of the shortage of time. It says: I would like to express my appreciation for the high standard of training which the skillcentre has provided recently for a number of our employees. That was written by Mardon Illingworth, a national organisation. It continued: The knowledge, confidence and experience gained have proved to be extremely beneficial and useful to us. In addition to providing similar courses in the future, we would be very interested in supporting courses which would provide further training for our mechanics and engineers in the field of pneumatics and hydraulics. Perhaps you will give this matter some serious thought when compiling a programme of courses to suit the needs of local industry. Thank you once again for your kind assistance and co-operation". I have a number of letters in a similar vein. Hermitage, which is based in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), sends workers to the skillcentre. Kodak has a massive development in my constituency, and is moving everything from Hertfordshire into the middle of it. I have even received a letter from the East Midlands Engineering Employers Association which is in exactly the same vein as the others.

The planned rundown of the skillcentre in Kirkby as well, no doubt, as other skillcentres, means that the Government must intend to close the centre completely. The figures provided by the Manpower Services Commission show that, if the proposals go ahead, Kirkby skill centre will be used to only 36 per cent. of its capacity. It would seem that some parts of it will be moved out. Despite the tremendous success of engineering and the figures that I have given, it is apparently intended to move that section away while at the same time giving the Government the opportunity to do what they want—to close the skillcentre. Yet the professional instructors there provide a first-class service. It is praise all round. The people in my constituency are up in arms. A publicity campaign has been organised not by the people, trade unionists or Member of Parliament, but by the local press. They are disgusted with some of the suggestions made about running down the skillcentre with a view to closure.

This important matter is related to the debate on Tuesday on rate-capping. One might ask what rate-capping has to do with the Ashfield skillcentre. That matter is important because if the Government close the skillcentre — I hope that we shall receive a straight answer from the Minister—£34,000 of rates will have been taken from the Ashfield district council. All local authorities are being told to keep their rates down because if they go over the top they will be penalised. If the skillcentre is closed, Ashfield district council must find another 34,000 quid. That will mean increasing rates—the Government does not like doing that—so that it can draw in the £34,000 necessary to carry out services in the locality.

The catchment area is massive. If the skillcentre closes, people must travel long distances to get to the nearest skillcentre in north Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Kesteven, Lindsey and north Lincolnshire — for example, to areas in the top of Lincolnshire such as in Mablethorpe and Skegness. If the suggestions are correct, appalling circumstances will be created. If this system is run down to a great extent the community of Kirkby and the people who use that skillcentre will face a serious problem. I hope that we shall receive a straight answer from the Minister.

Much training that cannot be provided elsewhere can be provided at the Kirkby skillcentre. Only today, I was told that services not being provided elsewhere will be provided at Kirkby. I have information about a new type of knitting machine. That is important, because my constituency has a hosiery and knitwear industry. From time to time, firms send their employees to the skillcentre for retraining because new technology is coming into the industry. Kirkby can provide such a service, and the local private industry is crying out for it all the time. Hon. Members have often talked about the hosiery and knitwear industry being on the floor. To a certain extent, it is still on the floor. We must give that industry the opportunity to retrain people when new technology is being used so that the industry can keep going, become a success and an asset to the nation's exports.

I thought, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that other hon. Members wanted to contribute. This matter may have come on earlier than expected because of what happened previously today. I have said my piece, and I shall give someone else an opportunity to have a word about this matter. It had been arranged with me—I know that you are preparing yourself to ask me about this, Mr. Deputy Speaker—for other hon. Members to speak. Some hon. Members have approached me with a view to making a short contribution in the hope that it will help the Minister to say the right thing when he replies.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. PaulDean)

Order. 1 am grateful to the hon. Member for that information. I must protect his Adjournment debate, but in view of what he has said I understand that he and the Minister agree that other hon. Members may intervene briefly.

10.13 pm
Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) for giving me the opportunity to participate in the debate. Although the skillcentre is in my hon. Friend's constituency, it serves a very wide area. Indeed, he mentioned firms in my constituency among its main users.

Our area has been a prosperous one for so long that we have always looked upon the National Coal Board as the centre providing training in the various skills needed in the area, but that is no longer the case. That is why the skillcentre came to the area. It is extremely well used by private industry and has an excellent record. It is clear that in the future our area, too, will suffer the effects of the recession. Therefore, far from closing or diminishing the skillcentre, the Minister should seek to extend it as much as possible. The centre already covers a wide area, including the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), and indeed most of Nottinghamshire.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield on obtaining this debate and by raising this important matter, doing a great service to Nottinghamshire, which has had a fair run in the House since 7 pm.

10.14 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I shall be brief, as I appreciate the time problem. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) on taking the opportunity to raise this important issue. I reiterate his comments about the constant threats emanating from Ian MacGregor and the Tory Government over pit closures. Their attack on the Kirkby skillcentre flies in the face of their own policy, because in those circumstances any Government worth its salt should be seeking to increase opportunities for retraining rather than reducing them.

Since I came back to the House this week I have been fed up with hearing the constant cries of the Tory Government that a boom is on the way and things are looking up. The Tory press has followed the same line, suggesting that everything in the garden is rosy. One reads the same thing in headline after headline, but underneath we are witnessing the mass destruction of British industry. Not content with that, the Tories are now telling the workers thrown on to the scrap heap that the Government are putting a stop to retraining opportunities as well.

10.15 pm
Mr. AndyStewart Sherwood)

I reiterate what has been said by my two colleagues from Nottinghamshire about the skillcentre. It is a wide-ranging centre, attracting people from a large area. In view of the time, I simply express my support for the comments of the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes). I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond accordingly.

10.16 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Peter Morrison)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) for raising this important subject. I am also delighted that the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) could be here to discuss it. I certainly welcome their interest. I know that the hon. Member for Ashfield recently took the trouble to visit the skillcentre in his constituency, and I entirely support his tribute to its past achievements. I appreciate the sentiments contained in the letter that he quoted from one of the employers whose employees had benefited from its services in the past. I also agree about the importance of improving this country's training performance, a matter on which the hon. Gentleman was most definite in his opening remarks.

I hope that, like the hon. Member for Ashfield, I shall be permitted to put the matters raised into the context of our developing strategy for adult training and the birth of the Skillcentre Training Agency. The adult training strategy on which the Manpower Services Commission put its proposals to the Government last November is specifically designed to meet the changing demands of industry and to ensure that the work force is as well equipped as possible to meet the challenges of new technology as patterns in the labour market and the economy as a whole develop and change.

The Government and others involved — employers, training providers and the individual trainees—must find more effective ways to meet the new training needs. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is no use sticking to a system designed generations ago when things are no longer the same.

We have to move towards a system that is designed for today's skill needs. I hope that all hon. Gentlemen will accept that too many adults up to now have been denied the opportunity to acquire skills on, indeed, to practise those skills when they have been acquired. I look on the Government and the Manpower Services Commission as being a catalyst for change. They are there to encourage everyone to take action to improve skill training at national and local levels.

We therefore have to explore new approaches because developing technology, which is going apace, means that people need to retrain or update their skills during their working life perhaps as many as three or four times. I think that the hon. Gentleman and I are at one on that point. We have to design what I can loosely describe as new and acceptable ways to train, beginning with the foundation of skill training on which people can build later. I do not intend now to go into the youth training scheme, but that is the beginning of it.

The open tech is a good example of how successful we are in going into this sort of area because it means that open and distant learning will provide people with the opportunity to upgrade their skills without full-time training. I hope that employers—I say this as often as I can—will understand more and more that to keep their work force up to date is not only a good but a worthwhile investment. Flexible training provision allows individuals to learn at their own pace and when they choose. The Manpower Services Commission's proposals are that the TOPS-type training would continue but would be, like other new programmes, more job-related and more market-oriented.

I want to assure the House that, contrary to what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, we have maintained our expenditure on adult training, but how that expenditure is spent is equally vital. The money must give good and relevant training to as many people as possible. I am sure that all hon. Gentlemen would agree with that. It is a bad use of taxpayers money not to spend that money effectively, and it is a bad use on behalf of potential trainees.

it is important to separate within the Manpower Services Commission the commissioning and provision of training. That is why it was decided that we would set up the Skillcentre Training Agency as a separate unit within the MSC which will operate on a full cost recovery basis to ensure that we have proper value for money. The agency is in the market place just like any other training provider so that the maximum number of trainees may be trained to the quality we want. The onus is on the new agency, part of which is the Kirkby skillcentre, to which the hon. Gentleman is clearly referring, to provide training of the right type and quality at the right price and, indeed, training that is responsive to local employment needs. The agency will continue to be free to sell its training provision to other providers or other employers just like the training division of the MSC.

The skillcentre network was, I believe, very successful for a long period until a few years ago. The evidence now, however, is that it is not meeting the needs of industry, and that is demonstrated by the low rate of trainees coming out of the skillcentres who get jobs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is not fair to train people for jobs that they will not get at the end of their training. It is better to direct the resources that we have more effectively to meet the skill needs of today and therefore to make a more efficient use of taxpayers' money.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

If the criterion of success of training, according to the Minister, is how many people get jobs after their period of training, the House will be interested to know how many people are getting jobs in all the range of training in the present economic disaster that has been caused by Tory economic policy.

Mr. Morrison

The hon. Gentleman makes a party political point when I am trying to deal with the matter seriously.

Mr. Sheerman

What is the criterion of success?

Mr. Morrison

The criterion of success is that training is relevant to trainees getting jobs at the end. The Government's strategy and the MSC proposals are directed to that end, but that may have consequences about which the hon. Gentleman and I may not agree.

Mr. Sheerman

Including the YTS?

Mr. Morrison

We shall see when the YTS figures become available.

A follow-up of ex-trainees at Kirkby-in-Ashfield in the quarter ending June 1983 showed that only 45 per cent. had jobs in the trade in which they trained. Another 12 per cent. over and above that had other jobs. Of course I am pleased that just over 50 per cent. had found jobs of some sort, but one must ask about the other half who did not get jobs at all. Did we provide a good service for them? Did we raise expectations, then to see them dashed? The hon. Member for Ashfield gave some interesting statistics about certain courses, and I shall look carefully at them because his figures and mine do not exactly relate to each other.

The skillcentre at Kirkby-in-Ashfield has done well compared with the situation nationally. My figures show that the average for Great Britain, compared with the 45 per cent. for Kirkby-in-Ashfield, is 43 per cent. in jobs in the trade in which they trained and 56 per cent. in any job at all, so the skillcentre there has done marginally better than the average as a whole.

As for the immediate future of the Kirkby-in-Ashfield skillcentre— it is a mediium-sized skillcentre, with a capacity of 164 places, employing 40 staff— it has a range of different facilities for craft level training, many of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It has an annexe at Chesterfield which is financed jointly with the local authority. The main customer of the skillcentre is the TOPS programme and discussions with the Kirkby-in-Ashfield skillentre are still going on to establish the precise number of places for TOPS trainees in the next financial year. It is likely to be only about 50 per cent. of the 134 places currently allocated to TOPS training.

The shortfall arises first, because the centre has an unusually high emphasis on traditional engineering and automotive provision secondly, because there is another skillcentre in the Nottingham training division's area with comparable facilities, including engineering, only about 20 miles away at Long Eaton; and thirdly because the demand for craft level manufacturing skills in the midlands has fallen more sharply than in other regions and is likely to remain at a low level.

Skillcentres are not the only providers of TOPS training in Nottinghamshire. The level of training support will be broadly maintained in the county using other providers who can meet the MSC's needs— 1,834 unemployed people next year will go through the TOPS scheme compared with 1,856 this year. I hope that the hon. Member for Ashfield will appreciate that this is not a private versus public sector argument. It is a question of getting the right training of the right quality at the right price from whoever is best able to provide it.

Last year skillcentres trained about 40 per cent. of those in TOPS. Next year this will fall to about one third. Almost three quarters of those undergoing TOPS will be on courses either providing or building on existing occupational skills. The remainder will either be trained in business skills or be helped to find employment using their existing skills by improving their job hunting abilities.

To sum up, there will be a significant shortfall in income from TOPS as against overall operating costs at Kirkby-in-Ashfield skillcentre in the year ahead. The demand for training in traditional mechanical engineering and automotive trades is, as I said, declining, and as a consequence the business being offered to skillcertres by their main customer, TOPS, is reducing. This has a particular effect at Kirkby, where these trades predominate.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock