HC Deb 29 November 1984 vol 68 cc1108-16 4.35 pm
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Tom King)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about skillcentres.

In the White Paper entitled "Training for Jobs" the Government set out their proposals for doubling the number of adults receiving training under Manpower Services Commission programmes, including a substantial increase in the number of unemployed training for jobs, and for ensuring that resources available for training are used in the most effective way. The Skillcentre Training Agency yesterday put forward to the MSC its proposals for improving the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the skillcentre network. Copies of the full proposals and background information are available in the Library.

The proposals will be considered by the MSC at its next meeting on 13 December. In the light of its considerations, the commission will advise me how it will propose to proceed. I shall of course keep the House informed of further developments.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

The previous statement by the Secretary of State for Social Services was about saving money at the expense of people who are looking for jobs and this statement is about saving money by making it more difficult for people to get training. The statement in no way shows whether the Government are at all anxious about the MSC's proposal to throw 1,000 people on the dole—many of them are skilled training staff— and to close 29 skill training centres, or one in three of the total, most of which are in areas of extremely high unemployment.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the commission-has made these proposals simply to meet the cash limits imposed on it by the Government? Does he note, yet again, that areas of the United Kingdom north of the Trent are to carry the extra burden of the cuts, once again exposing the Government's two-nation policies? Has the Secretary of State seen the Confederation of British Industry's statement on last week's survey saying that 57 per cent. of its members were experiencing shortages of skilled labour—reflecting yet again the small amount of money being put into training in Britain as compared to our international competitors?

The House will welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to double adult training but, in reality, because of the shortage of funds, it will be achieved by cheaper lower technology training, more in keeping with the part-time unskilled service-based economy which the Government are imposing on Britain and which will not be accepted by the House.

It is about time that the so-called wets in the Government—in that I include the Secretary of State—stopped whining, like the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) on television at lunchtime, about their concern for the unemployed and used their political muscle to reverse the Government's policy of deskilling the nation and driving it to ever-increasing mass unemployment.

Mr. King

The first thing that is clear from the hon. Gentleman's comments is that he has not begun to look at the proposals made by the Skillcentre Training Agency.

Mr. Prescott

I have read them all.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman talked about our saving money. The Government have doubled the provision for training since coming into office. We intend to provide more training opportunities in every region in the coming year. The hon. Gentleman talked about deskilling. When I look at the list of courses being operated, although admittedly not in the skillcentre network, I find that they include computing, computer-aided design and computer-aided draughtsmanship. The hon. Gentleman must understand that the nation must face up to rapidly changing circumstances.

Mr. Prescott

Like closing one third of the skillcentres?

Mr. King

The MSC is charged by the House with ensuring that it is training people for the real needs of the future——

Mr. Prescott

So it is closing skillcentres?

Mr. King

—where the real jobs will come. We have to face up to the need for new skills—it is no use training people for yesterday's jobs.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that for some time now it has been difficult for those living In rural areas to get to skillcentres to pick up the new skills that they need for tomorrow? Has he any message of hope within the new framework that those living in rural areas will have an equivalent opportunity to develop the full skills for tomorrow?

Mr. King

The proposals of the Skillcentre Training Agency include a massive provision for mobile instructors. [Interruption.] Labour Members on the Front Bench appear to be blithely ignorant. They seem to believe that training in Britain should be confined to the conurbations and that the rural areas should go hang. I am proud that, while the main provision is in the conurbations, far greater attention than in the past has been given to the provision of mobile instructors, so that training can go to the people and is not wholly dependent on the location of bricks and mortar.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that any proposal at such a time as this to close or run down a skillcentre is an outrage? Such proposals have been made before. In my constituency the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor proposed to shut a skillcentre by cutting off its money and we had to fight to keep it. We did so in association with local industrialists who wanted the skillcentre and who used its services. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to increase Britain's total training facilities, he should add to the skillcentres that already exist. Therefore, will he give an undertaking that he will not close any skillcentre before the House has had a chance to vote upon that policy?

Mr. King

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity recently to look at some of the performance figures of skillcentres which show the reality of the present situation. Unfortunately, it is true that many skillcentres giving training in the traditional skills are training many people who will not get jobs and that there is insufficient training in those skills which will give people the best prospect of a job. We must ensure that every pound that goes into training is spent in the best interests of the people whom we want to train. The right hon. Gentleman must look hard at the justification for paying for the maintenance of buildings that are under-used when there is a crying need to give our people more modern training. We shall be increasing the number of people in Wales, as well as in every other area, who will have the opportunity in the coming years to receive training more appropriate to their needs.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

For the Minister's attitude to be credible, he must be able to tell the House those skills that are currently being taught by skillcentres which he believes to be redundant. Will he do so?

Mr. King

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the papers in the Library, he will see a list of such courses. Of course they are not completely redundant, but one must bear in mind the level of demand. All the traditional skills being taught are in some demand. We have substantially increased the amount of money that is going into training and we are determined to spend every pound in the best interests of those being trained. I am disappointed in the hon. Gentleman. I should have thought that he would approach the problem in a more objective way. We shall increase the number of people who get the chance of being trained. We shall double the adult training provision. Against that background, the hon. Gentleman should look much more seriously at the needs of his constituents. He should be anxious to see training maximised in that way.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it has always been a weakness of skillcentres that many of the people who become instructors teach obsolescent trades but that many of them will now, demonstrably, have learnt a new skill—that of dealing with young people? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when the MSC makes staff adjustments it takes that into account and makes it possible for those who have shown a real skill in dealing with young people not to waste that skill but to deploy it elsewhere?

Mr. King

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had a chance to consider the proposals, copies of which are in the Library. The proposals of the Skillcentre Training Agency include a substantial provision for the retraining of instructors. The massive development of the youth training scheme will also provide a massive opportunity for instructors. I hope that the Opposition will look more seriously at the proposal than, I suspect, they are doing at the moment.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Govan)

Is the Secretary of State aware that those who have been following the matter for the best part of a year now have been clear all along that if the Government persisted with the determination that the Skillcentre Training Agency would be self-financing within three years, and put on a commercial basis, there would inevitably be wholesale closures, and that that is now happening? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in my constituency, where male unemployment is more than 30 per cent., the Govan skillcentre is down for closure? That is an utter scandal because it has a perfectly good building which has been there for only 10 years. It is utterly flexible and can meet all the modern demands for modern training. Will at least that proposal be reversed?

Mr. King

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that if funds are used, perhaps to fund a deficit which is likely to be caused by the cost of maintaining buildings that are under-utilised and providing new buildings, that money will be denied to people for training in more appropriate tasks. That is the reality. [Interruption.] No matter how much hon. Members shout and scream, they cannot walk away from that. The money that goes into the maintenance of under-used facilities is denied to people who could benefit from more appropriate training. That is the reality of the choice that has to be faced and which is contained within the paper on which the commission will have to reach its decision.

Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage)

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the skillcentres and adult training are sufficiently responsive to the development and use of new technology?

Mr. King

There have been some encouraging developments in many skillcentres. The House will know that the main customer of the Skillcentre Training Agency is the training division of the MSC which has a duty to determine and provide the most effective training that it can for as many people as possible. Some skillcentres are doing excellent work in many fields. Others find it more difficult to provide the sort of training that is most likely to equip people for jobs. That challenge cannot be walked away from. Shouting and screaming is deplorable on an issue of this seriousness. People should be concerned with the real issues of training the British people.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, when the rumours first circulated that, as a result of Treasury pressure for Civil Service cuts across the board, training centres were to be shut down, I caused a telephone call to be made to the MSC on 23 August during the recess to tell it that, were those rumours true, I was certain that the Select Committee on Employment would want an immediate inquiry? Is he aware that the Government appear schizophrenic about training? They only pay lip service to training because we are told on all sides of the skill shortages and how our rivals train more effectively. Yet the Government's response is to send 450 instructors on to the dole queue. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, prima facie, the Government have a crazy and lunatic policy, which it is his duty to resist in the Cabinet?

Mr. King

Expenditure on employment and training measures is £2,000 million. That is a pretty funny form of lip service. This is not an attempt to reduce expenditure on training. The money that we shall save will go on the training of people. We are investing less in bricks and mortar and more in real training.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that skillcentres at Long Eaton, Birmingham and Leicester are of little assistance to areas such as mine and that his statement that there will be mobile instructors is very welcome as there is a crying need for them in those areas?

Mr. King

I am absolutely persuaded that we must be flexible if we are to tackle the real problem of improving skills, giving people a better chance of employment and making it possible for the economy to expand by being able to man the new technologies sufficiently. There will have to be changes. I am discouraged by the reaction to this first announcement. I had hoped that hon. Members would be willing to look at the matter seriously, as I shall have to do in due course——

Mr. Prescott

It is a disgusting statement.

Mr. King

It is no good the hon. Gentleman saying that, because he is implying that he would rather that money was wasted on bricks and mortar than spent on training people.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement is totally disgraceful? Since his statement, any confidence that I had in him has completely disappeared. I have a skillcentre in my constituency that is on the list. Like a coward, the Secretary of State is hiding behind the MSC and blaming it for the decision that is to be made a little later. The closure of the skillcentre in my constituency means that people will go on the dole and that those already in the dole queue will be unable to get the training that they are used to. It is a disgusting state of affairs and the right hon. Gentleman should resign.

Mr. King

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has even begun to look at the proposals, or whether he knows, for example, that a substantial increase is proposed in the training for people in his area, as in others— [Interruption.] If he is not interested, and just wants to shout——

Mr. Haynes

Well, do something, then.

Mr. King

——I hope at least that some of his constituents will realise that. The hon. Gentleman accused me of hiding like a coward behind the MSC, but I have come at the first opportunity to make a statement in response to requests, although the matter is not yet before me. The MSC has not even reached a decision yet. The proposals were put forward, and I was anxious that, if the House so wished, it should have information about them. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can accuse me of hiding behind the MSC.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Will my right hon. Friend agree that his statement is not his last word on the subject? The Middlesbrough skillcentre in my area is due to be closed, but obviously the officials who give advice have no concept whatever of what it is like in the north-east of England or of what the transportation problems will be for my constituents in Langbaurgh who will have to go to Billingham for the next nearest centre. Although I welcome the idea of the mobile training provision, it should be in addition to skillcentres and not at their expense.

Mr. King

My hon. Friend will obviously wish to make his views known at the appropriate time, and will be communicating his thoughts. I think that he understands the procedure involved rather better than one or two other hon. Members. The proposals were sent yesterday to the Commissioners and came from the Skillcentre Training Agency. They go before the commission on 13 December and it will advise me on how it proposes to proceed thereafter.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I realise the importance of the matter, but there is an important debate to follow. I shall call those hon. Members who have been standing in their places, but I am afraid that I cannot call any more than that.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

The Secretary of State asked us to take the matter seriously and said that the issues had not yet been brought before him. He has mentioned the MSC and the Skillcentre Training Agency but what part is the House to play? Are we to have a chance to influence the Minister and/or the MSC, or did he say that the MSC would make the decision? Are we wasting our time?

Mr. King

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House happens to have arrived in the Chamber at the right moment and he will have heard the right hon. Gentleman's comments on what further discussions there should be. However, I shall keep the House informed and it is for it to decide how it wishes to proceed, depending first on the outcome of the MSC's deliberations.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will the mobile instructors relate to existing skillcentres such as the excellent Perivale skillcentre in my constituency? If so, will not that be a considerable gain to the skillcentres as well as to the surrounding areas?

Mr. King

Those who have studied the present situation recognise that there is considerable scope for improving flexibility. The sort of development that my hon. Friend is talking about is one example of that. There have also been developments in the increased use of employers' premises, and that may be more relevant to the needs of Langbaurgh. However, I am sure that flexibility is important and that we should ensure that instructors in the new technologies and skills are available, as that is very important to the development and efficiency of the agency.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Why does not the Secretary of State come clean? Is it not true that industry's long-term interests and needs are being sacrificed in the short-term interest of the Treasury? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that for years a reappearance of growth in the economy has met with a shortage of the very skills in traditional industries— not in the new technologies— that skillcentres are designed to overcome? Will he reconsider his statement and ensure that, instead of cutting skillcentres, he expands them in future?

Mr. King

I think that the hon. Gentleman will have heard my comments about the need to expand the number of people receiving appropriate training. One area of expansion is access to the new technologies. We are seeking to develop that. Part of that development is the successful development of information technology centres which are available for the youth training scheme. We are expanding the use of ITeCs to make them available to adults as well, and to ensure that they have access to the area of new information technology. Of course there will continue to be training in the traditional technologies, but it is a question of striking a balance and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that there is scope, and that the exact method is a matter for consideration by the MSC. But it is undoubtedly important to keep training provision flexible and appropriate to the country's real needs.

Mr. Forth

Although I understand, and indeed support, the thrust of this policy in seeking increased effectiveness and value for money in the training effort, I regret that the skillcentre in Redditch in my constituency is one of those to be closed—[Interruption.] I shall be seeking further information about the criteria upon which it was selected. Some of my constituents may now have to travel to the nearest skillcentre, which I believe will be in Birmingham, Handsworth. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that they will not find themselves out of pocket? At present I believe that they may have to pay the first £4 of additional travelling expenses. Is he prepared to look at the matter and to ensure that where possible people do not have to pay more for their training?

Mr. King

As I think is clear, I am prepared to look at any aspects of the matter; it has not yet been brought before me as it awaits further consideration by the MSC. However, I believe that that is one of the points that it has very much in mind.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

It is proposed to close the Llanelli skillcentre, which serves the counties of West Glamorgan and Dyfed. But it has one of the highest occupancy rates of any skillcentre in Wales and one of the best records of placing trainees in jobs and it has, over the past 18 months, developed new courses to keep up to date with the new technologies so that industry can be better served. Why is that skillcentre proposed for closure?

Mr. King

I think that the hon. Gentleman will have heard my remarks. The proposals have been put by the Skillcentre Training Agency, and it has judged the network's best operation and the best use of the funds available. I understand that the proposals include the Llanelli skillcentre, and obviously the MSC will consider that in its examination of the proposals.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House in the clearest possible terms that these proposals will not in any way affect the total spending on adult training, and that any savings which may be made will go straight back into training more young people?

Mr. King

I am happy to give that clear assurance. The statement is about the most efficient use of resources. This is not a proposal to save funds on training. We seek to ensure that funds for training are spent on training people and not on maintaining under-utilised premises or on training in areas where there is no clear prospect of jobs when there is a desperate need to train people in areas where there is a real prospect of jobs.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

If, as the Secretary of State says, some skillcentres have run courses in obsolete skills or skills for which there is no real prospect of jobs, why has he tolerated it? Why does he not change that, instead of closing skillcentres? He proposes to shut the centre at Castle Bromwich in my constituency, where unemployment has trebled. Is not the sad fact behind the statement an admission that there is no point in keeping many of these skillcentres open because, as he knows better than anyone else, there will never be jobs for the people who pass through them to go to?

Mr. King

As I tried to make clear to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), the skills are not necessarily obsolete, but they are skills for which there is not sufficient demand. I understood his second point to be a criticism— that, if changes are needed and the Skillcentre Training Agency should put them forward, it should have put them forward earlier. That point needs consideration.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, when we unravel the double-speak in which all Government pronouncements are now couched, training for today's jobs means training for no jobs and means less training? Is not that the underlying explanation of the statement? Will he confirm that his suggestion that there has been a doubling of training under the Government is an inaccurate assessment? We have seen a collapse of the apprenticeship system, a cut back in TOPS training and a lot of expenditure on low-level YTS entry-to-work type training, which does not produce real skills. Will he explain, if there has been a doubling of skill training under the Government, why, in the depths of the recession in the west midlands where people are desperately short of jobs and 30 per cent. of those in the inner core of Birmingham are unemployed, there are skill shortages in the city? Will he further explain why he proposes to close the Handsworth youth training centre, when in my constituency 80 per cent. of 16 to 18-year-olds are unemployed?

Mr. King

I completely agree with the hon. Lady's first point, that there are fewer jobs than we wish to see. The hon. Lady refered to skill shortages. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that every pound spent on training for jobs will give someone the best possible chance of employment. The hon. Lady is not the youth training scheme's greatest admirer, but I hope that she will concede that it has been much more successful in giving people a chance of full-time employment than she cares to admit.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Mr. Speaker, you will be aware that one of the skillcentres to be closed serves your constituency and mine. When I wrote to Lord David Young about the closure of the Waddon skillcentre, he said that there would be a new building and increased adult provision at Lambeth young persons' training centre, which would provide a better geographical spread of adult training, with some redistribution towards the inner city. That is now to be negatived and Lambeth young persons' skillcentre is to be closed. The only thing that has changed since Lord David Young wrote to me is that there has been an increase in unemployment so that two out of three black and one out of two white school leavers in Lambeth are unemployed. Will Lord David Young and the Secretary of State support what Lord Young said two years ago, or will they support cuts by the training agency?

Mr. King

I am not aware of the letter from the then chairman of the Manpower Services Commission. I hope that he will support my statement, because he is making an identical statement in the House of Lords at present.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Will the Secretary of State be totally honest with the House and assure us that yesterday's statement from the MSC and his statement today do not present a fait accompli, which will come about without a long and good debate in the House on the future of skillcentres and training? The reality of the announcement is the end of quality training for unemployed people.

It is no good the Secretary of State telling the House that the Government are doubling the amount of training. We know that this means the end of proper courses in skillcentres and a move towards the substitution of cheap short-term courses in skillcentres where they still exist, and to an unproven, extremely short scheme on the community programme, which will have a training element in future. Will the Secretary of State come clean and tell the House how much quality training there will be for both unemployed and employed people?

Many people will see the news of this great list. What is the statement about? Does it mean that, where there is high unemployment, there is no room for skill training? With a few exceptions, such as the golden triangle in the South, that is the truth. The statement means the end of skill training. Will the Secretary of State promise us that we shall have a full debate on the matter in the near future? The Opposition will not take this lying down, but will fight it every inch of the way. This presents a real cut and genuine deprivation of opportunities for our people. It means no skills, no tech and no jobs in the future. [Interruption.]

Mr. King

My hon. Friends took the words out of my mouth when they said that that was a little over the top. It was well over the top. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) has done his bit of shouting; perhaps he will have the courtesy to allow me to reply. I have already advised the House how the matter may be considered by the House hereafter. It is not a fait accompli. Owing to the slightly difficult structure of the MSC—there is this matter of documents going to the MSC—I thought it right that the House should he aware at this stage of a proposal which will go to the MSC. It has not even been considered by the commission yet.

For the hon. Member to say that this is the end of quality training is so fatuous that it almost beggars belief. The hon. Gentleman supported a Government who spent considerably less than we are spending on training. We are now spending more than double what the Labour Government spent when unemployment was rising substantially. There is undoubtedly a major contribution for skillcentres to make to training provision. But to assume that only skillcentres are capable of training to deride completely the contribution being made, especially in some new technologies, such as computers and computer-aided design and draughtsmanship, by a number of the leading private companies, in which we shall be anxious to see provision for training, and to say that it means no tech and the end of proper training is absolute rubbish. I assure the House that that is quite untrue.