HC Deb 13 February 1985 vol 73 cc349-50

4.4 pm

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide more employment opportunities for young people. I am not, of course, unaware that the cancerous evil of unemployment is present across the age spectrum. I am aware equally that it rots the soul of those in all age groups. It causes resentment, bitterness and despair across the age generations. Yet, in terms of the future society, to which we must address ourselves, it is surely at its most evil among young people. From November 1984 we have had about 364,000 who have never worked since leaving school. These disaffected jobless youngsters become disillusioned and often the knock-on effect is one of crime, drug abuse, vandalism and general apathy.

In my 12 years as a Member of this place I have never accused the party in government of deliberately creating unemployment. Mad though I believe other parties often are, I doubt very much whether they are that mad. However, I have often said in employment debates that criticism is justified of the Government's attitude to unemployment. I gather that that view is now shared by some Conservative Members.

I have long believed—I have said this previously in the House—that unemployment, especially among the young, is too serious a matter to be treated as a party political football. We all know that Bills that are introduced under the ten minutes rule stand little chance of becoming law. However, if my Bill were to provoke cross-party discussion and serious thought and discussion, that would be at least a step forward. Two of the proposals in the Bill are certainly matters for discussion and if the Bill were to proceed I should be willing to listen to argument upon them.

The first proposal is to appoint a Minister for youth with responsibilities for young people in the hands of his Department. There are those who will be sceptical of the idea, but I remind them that there used never to be a Minister with responsibilities for small companies. We now have such a Minister, thanks to the Liberal party. The idea has worked in that instance and it could work again if we had a Minister with responsibilities for youth.

The second proposal in the Bill is the establishment of an environmental corps. I envisage the corps giving training in skills that will be a training for life and living. I see the corps undertaking projects and initiatives that are presently beyond the reach of local or national Government. I remind the House that the environment includes the inner cities. I stress that recruitment to the corps would be utterly and absolutely voluntary. Part of its training would be residential and this could lead to a meaningful base training for thousands of young people.

The third and main proposal is a type of statutory apprenticeship scheme. The number of apprenticeships in manufacturing industry fell from 155,000 in 1979 to 99,000 in 1983. Many of the 99,000 apprenticeships have not been filled by school leavers. One of the major criticisms of the Government youth policy and youth employment schemes is the application of the schemes and subsidies to 17-year-olds and not 16-year-olds. I speak with some experience as an employer.

My Bill would enable the Government to place a levy on employers employing more than 50 people who fail to take on a proper and agreed number of apprentices. We tend to think of apprenticeships as largely within the engineering industry, and I submit that that is the wrong approach. We need to have new ideas about apprenticeships, and wider visions.

In Western Germany there are thousands of apprenticeships in the hotel and catering industry, for example, but in Britain there are comparatively few. There are many similar examples in Western Germany and not in Britain. Statutory apprenticeships in Western Germany are the norm; almost 500,000 of them exist. About 50 per cent. of German youth complete a three-year apprenticeship. In Western Germany, the state and industry—industry includes trade unions as well as employers—consider such schemes to be a social responsibility. The state has taken power to implement a levy but it has never had to impose one, such has been the voluntary response of industry to that legislation. In Belgium, too, there is a scheme of statutory apprenticeships.

I employ apprentices in my small company, and I know the problems and the financial costs involved. Much of the Government money now being spent on what I would describe as tarting-up schemes, and much of the money being spent on paying people not to work, could be diverted to financing statutory apprenticeships, with the state bearing much of the cost, not as extra expenditure but as a better use of existing expenditure. There could also be tax incentives and rebates to industry to encourage companies to employ more apprentices. But should industry fail to respond, under my Bill the Government would have the power to impose a levy.

We need the will, leadership, drive, enthusiasm and determination—in short, we need the right attitude. My Bill is an attempt to start the ball rolling and to ensure that we have a trained labour force in the future and that, instead of putting youngsters into schemes for one year and then throwing them back on the dole, we give them meaningful and purposeful training during their adolescent years. That can be done, and it is being done in other European countries. If the will was there, it could be done, and I suggest that International Youth Year is not a bad time to start.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Cyril Smith, Mr. David Alton, Mr. Paddy Ashdown, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. Malcolm Bruce, Mr. Alex Carlile, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Michael Meadowcroft, Mr. David Penhaligon and Mr. James Wallace.