HC Deb 21 February 1985 vol 73 cc1230-9 5.16 pm
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Tom King)

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

I advised the House on 29 November of the Skillcentre Training Agency's proposals to the Manpower Services Commission. On 24 January, the chairman of the commission informed me of the commission's conclusions.

The proposals for the reorganisation of the skillcentre network are designed to eliminate the present waste of resources and to enable the funds thus released to be employed in substantially increasing the number of training opportunities.

The proposals form part of the adult training strategy adopted by the commission over a year ago, after the widest possible consultation. Under that strategy, the number of adults being trained under the commission's programmes is planned to rise to 250,000 by 1986–87. That is more than double the 1983–84 figure. It includes a substantial increase in the number of unemployed helped. All parts of the country will benefit from this expansion.

The reorganised skillcentre network has an important role to play in further development of training. I very much welcome the emphasis the centres are now putting on new and higher technology skills, which will now be more widely available. I have today confirmed again to the chairman of the commission further capital investment in the network of £10.5 million for 1985–86. The addition also of a new 300-strong mobile instructor force is an imaginative and positive innovation. It gives greater flexibility, and allows coverage in remote areas not previously covered by the skillcentre network.

I have now considered the proposals, taking into account the evidence given to the Select Committee on Employment on this matter and all the further representations made to me. Following consultation with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales, I have today written to the chairman of the commission, and I am placing a copy of my letter in the Library.

In my letter, I have asked the commission to implement the agency's proposals. I have asked the chairman to make quite sure in doing so that when any closures are involved, they should not take place until satisfactory alternative provisions have been identified. I have asked that the fullest consultation takes place with the staff and trade unions, with particular regard to negotiating new working practices designed to help the overall efficiency of the network, and to avoiding compulsory redundancies wherever possible.

The proposals for the reorganisation of the skillcentres make sense as a necessary step in improving the cost-effectiveness of training programmes, thus enabling substantial expansion in training opportunities, for unemployed as well as employed people, throughout the country.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

This is a shameful statement. It calls for the closing of 29 skillcentres, the scrapping of their equipment, the scrapping of jobs for hundreds of skilled instructors at a time when Britain has more than 1.5 million long-term unemployed, and the least qualified labour force of any developed economy—all this at a time when, according to the CBI, industry is desperately short of every kind of skill. This will be music to the ears of our competitors, and it will add insult to injury. Instead of a justified increase in the number of places, the Government's emphasis is simply on quantity rather than the quality of skills. The Secretary of State is a disgrace to his office and responsibilities, quite apart from his shameful behaviour in joining with management to intimidate workers against joining their protest to this House last week.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that this is now a Government decision to close these skillcentres and to sack hundreds of skilled instructors? He cannot hide behind the commission, given that the majority of commissioners are against these proposals. Will he reaffirm his comment to the Employment Select Committee that he would be loth to go against the majority of the commission? If that is the case, why did he do so?

Is not the real reason for these closures the financial remit which the Treasury has set for the Manpower Services Commission, involving the closure of six profitable centres in London, Gloucester, Bristol, Southampton and Medway? What kind of market economics is that?

Does he accept that the Opposition welcome any proposal to increase training facilities, but we do not believe that the quantity of training should be increased and improved at the expense of quantity — [HON. MEMBERS: "Quality."] I apologise, that is what I meant. I hope that my point has got across to simple minds.

Does not the Secretary of State recognise that these proposals are a kick in the teeth for the 1.5 million long-term unemployed, who are desperate for such training courses? At a time when the Government have abolished industrial training boards, and given the collapse in the number of apprenticeships, it is hypocrisy for the right hon. Gentleman to talk about improving the quality of training.

Is he aware that the London Business School report, produced for a Select Committee of this House, emphasised the future viability of the network and made it clear that if policies such as these were applied to the whole network, the remaining centres would be unviable and could face possible closure? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his claim about yesterday's skills provided by yesterday's instructors finds no echo in industry, where there is a desperate shortage of every kind of skill? What is his definition of yesterday's skills which are provided by the existing centres?

Mr. King

It would be shameful if anyone in my position allowed the losses that are occurring and the under-use of capacity to waste existing financial resources, thereby preventing those resources from being made available to absolutely essential training which is needed.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has studied the evidence given to the Select Committee. He will know that the effect of the proposals for the Skillcentre Training Agency will reduce available places from 17,000 to 13,000. He will also know that the number of places taken up this year is only 12,500, and that more than £20 million in lost money for under-used places could have gone towards training other people.

It is a sad reflection of the present employment situation and the change in skills that less than half those coming out of skillcentres find occupation in the trades for which they have been trained. Against that, there is an urgent need to ensure that training is increased in those areas where there are now skill shortages and where there is a real opportunity to ensure that people obtain skills which will give them the best chance of obtaining jobs.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I again remind the House that an important debate is to follow, but because of the great interest in this matter I shall allow questions to continue until 5.50 pm and then we shall have to move on.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Govan)

The Secretary of State referred to under-used places, but is he aware that the skillcentre in my constituency has such places because it has been deliberately run down in anticipation of the decision that he has announced today? In any case, are not a majority of the MSC commissioners against these proposals? How, therefore, can the right hon. Gentleman go ahead on that basis, unless this is a decision of the Secretary of State rather than the MSC?

Mr. King

The right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point, but I am not sure whether I agree with it. As he knows, since the MSC met and the chairman wrote to me, I have received a letter from one Commissioner who reported the commission's conclusions to me. That gentleman's proposal was not that the scheme should be rejected but that it should be postponed. Against that background, the adult training strategy has been agreed unanimously by all the commissioners, as has the cost recovery objective of the Skillcentre Training Agency. Are we then to have a further period of uncertainty, and should the commission reduce the training opportunities available which could otherwise be funded from the savings that could be made by eliminating waste, or should a decision be taken now? My judgment—and I have come straight to the House to announce it—is that a decision should now be taken.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Association of British Chambers of Commerce recently published a report on education and training, which makes clear its desire that employers should have the major say in the quality of training? Is he also aware that in the evidence given to the Select Committee it was made perfectly clear that the employers were not entirely satisfied with what was happening, and it was felt that the creation of mobile instructors, using employers' premises and equipment, was a much more satisfactory way of meeting training needs?

Mr. King

I accept what my hon. Friend has said. Perhaps I can also reply to the point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) about yesterday's training for yesterday's skills. I have never used that phrase. The truth is that the demand for some skills has diminished, but in my statement I paid tribute to the valuable part that the skillcentres have to play. Anyone who looks at these figures objectively will see that at present the range of the network is out of phase with training needs. There are urgent needs for training in other areas, not least an expansion in the training programmes which I have announced to enable the unemployed to get back to work. There is simply no point in allowing losses to mount up in bricks and mortar and to under-use facilities of various kinds when that money could be made available for training people. We are in the business of giving the maximum help to people, not to institutions.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the great concern that has been caused in Redditch in my constituency by the proposed closures. If I noted his words correctly, he said that no individual closure would take place until satisfactory alternative provision had been identified. I believe that my constituents will take some comfort from that. Can he assure me that in an area such as Redditch the full resources released by the closures will be put into additional training facilities in the locality and that, in particular, employers will have a greater incentive to provide private training facilities on the premises and on the job? Let us get back to the old apprenticeship schemes to which we all believe we should return.

Mr. King

I certainly give that assurance to my hon. Friend in relation to the requirement laid on the chairman, which my hon. Friend correctly observed in my statement.

We are trying to make training as appropriate and flexible as we can. I have made it clear that skillcentres have an important part to play, but at present their capacity is out of scale with the demand for them. We need to use the resources in other areas. If we can achieve this change and get the strategy going, we shall ensure that there will be a 157 per cent. increase by 1986–87 in the number of people in the west midlands area who will have training opportunities. I make no apology for making that possible.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Does the Secretary of State realise that his statement would be more credible if he identified the skills for which there will be less training and attention through these modifications? I am sure that he would not try to mislead the House that that is not the conclusion of his statement. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) referred to "satisfactory alternative provisions". Will the Secretary of State explain what that means? Does it mean satisfactory in terms of quality or quantity? Who will judge whether an alternative is satisfactory, because unless it is monitored that statement is meaningless, as I suspect it is?

Mr. King

I think that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the structure of the MSC and with the area manpower boards, on which industrialists, educationists, trade unionists and local people sit and work with the MSC. They work extremely carefully. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman takes an interest in the training that takes place when he asks what the equivalent alternative provision is. We are now launching a whole range of different schemes. I would have thought that he of all people, as the representative for Cornwall, would recognise the values for rural areas, such as those that he and I partly represent, of having a mobile instructor team as a reinforcement and of making the very best use of the facilities that exist. I hope that he will recognise that this is an attempt to expand training opportunities and to make them as effective and relevant as possible.

Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

Will my right hon. Friend accept the appreciation of my constituents at the Dudley skillcentre that the Minister of State, Department of Employment came and spent many hours considering the position there? Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be a smooth transition, if there is to be a closure, which is subject to consultation, and that it is critically important that training is expanded at in-house level? My only hope is that the money which is to be allocated will produce the figures that he quoted for more training in the area.

Mr. King

I am aware of the close interest that my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) take in their local skillcentres. I can certainly give the assurance that my hon. Friend seeks.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

How can it possibly make sense to close a skillcentre in an area where 100,000 jobs have been lost and 449 factories closed since the Government came to power in 1979? Is it not incumbent on the Secretary of State to tell the House what the real alternatives are for the people of Merseyside as a result of the closure of the Liverpool skillcentre? Does it not smack of putting the cart before the horse to tell the House that he will close the Liverpool skillcentre before he has alternatives, bearing in mind that many jobs are being lost, including 300 at Guinness, precisely because we do not have the skills for the new technology? We in Liverpool have a right to know what the alternatives will be before a closure takes place.

Mr. King

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman listened to my statement. His request for an assurance that the skillcentre should not be closed before alternative arrangements were made, was precisely the point that I sought to make because it is so important. I hope that he will recognise that, as a result of the reorganisation, we are likely to be able to double the opportunity for training for people in Liverpool and Merseyside. I would have thought that he would have welcomed that.

Mrs. Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)

While I accept the sense of my right hon. Friend's proposals for extending training opportunities, will he reiterate his assurances to my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) and for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn) that when constituents, such as mine, are likely to be faced with the closure of a skillcentre, the MSC will make every attempt to explain what will happen with the greatest possible clarity?

Mr. King

I certainly accept that point. Part of the reason why I made the statement today was that there should not be any continuing uncertainty about the position.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

Does the Secretary of State agree that this is another example of the short-sighted short-term policy pursued by the Government? The people in Doncaster will be disappointed. Will he assure the House that if there are no suitable acceptable alternatives, those skillcentres will remain open so long as there is a need for them?

Mr. King

I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman about that. He came with his colleagues to see me about the position in Doncaster. I understand their anxiety. In my statement I specifically sought to give the assurance that he seeks. The hon. Gentleman talked about the shortsighted attitude of the Government, but these proposals derive partly, as is widely known, from the training division of the MSC and its identification of need. The funds are there, and the question is what is the best way to use them. Opposition Members find it easy to stand back from the reality of these matters, but if they were faced with the same choice, would they waste money on unused bricks and mortar, or would they insist on making training available for people?

Mr. Christopher Chope (Southampton, Itchen)

How does my right hon. Friend's strategy justify closing the annexe in Southampton, when both the main centre and the annexe are making a profit, when it is an area of recognised skill shortage, when it has the support of the local chamber of commerce, and when the people who work there work hard and are highly respected? Will he reconsider the matter and, if he will not, will he consider the alternative option of privatisation?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend will understand that it is a question of available capacity. If there is under-used capacity it makes good sense to use it in the most effective way. The question is not whether an individual centre is profitable so much as where capacity is. We want an efficient and relevant network. I certainly take note of my hon. Friend's comments, and I know that he has taken a close interest in the Southampton annexe.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Why does the Secretary of State persist in conveying the impression that he does not know what on earth we are worrying about, when we are all deeply worried about what he is doing? Does he remember that last week, despite his intimidation, many people came here to lobby the House? There would have been a bigger lobby if they had not felt intimidated and threatened with the loss of their jobs. Is it not a fact that 29 skillcentres will be closed, that many people who need training for the new technologies and who are out of work want to be trained but will not be trained, and that those people who came here know that more than 1,000 of them will lose their jobs? That is what we are worried about. We have come for bread but he only gives us a stone. He should explain to the House the words "satisfactory alternative provisions". No hon. Member believes that those satisfactory alternative provisions will come about, because the unemployed and the Opposition mistrust the Government and believe that an increasing number of people will be out of work.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman made an absolutely untrue allegation, which was referred to obliquely earlier, that somehow I sought to ban civil servants from taking industrial action about this matter. Ministers were not consulted. Civil servants followed normal personnel arrangements and asked, not whether they could come, but if they could demonstrate at the House on annual paid leave. Without consulting Ministers, civil servants observed the rules that had traditionally operated throughout the life of the Civil Service. I must tell the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans), who I think was the parliamentary private secretary on one occasion to a Minister in the Labour Government, that we identified the occasions when precisely the same refusal was given. A refusal was given by the Labour Government to civil servants who sought during the winter of discontent and the Society of Civil and Public Servants' strike to take annual paid leave. So I hope that he will keep quiet about that.

I take the matter extremely seriously and I respect the right of people who wish to demonstrate, to do so, not on annual paid leave, but with the loss of pay, as under the standard Civil Service procedure. If the hon. Gentleman has not understood the point of my statement, if he thinks that losses should be made in the upkeep of old buildings that are being under-used, and that money should be denied to people for training, I am glad that he is not in charge of our training programmes.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

I welcome the concept of the mobile training force, but how many places will be available nationally and how many will be available in the south-west? Can my right hon. Friend outline the basis on which arrangements are to be made?

Mr. King

The MSC intends to make wide use of various alternative provisions, sometimes involving colleges of further education, and sometimes using employers' premises for existing employees. Indeed, on Friday I saw excellent facilities at a substantial workshop in Cheshire. Those facilities are now under-utilised, but they could, for example, be employed by the MSC. The numbers involved will be as many as can get on to the appropriate programme.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

Does the Secretary of State realise that the deep concern goes far beyond the staff affected? Today's statement will not end the public's puzzlement about why skillcentres are being closed when the country is desperately in need of skill. Have the disabled training facilities often found at such places been taken on board by the Ministry in its forward planning?

Mr. King

I think that the public were probably puzzled as to what on earth was going on in maintaining a training network that was only two-thirds used, especially when only half the people being trained used the skills. After all, the public know that there are serious skill shortages in other areas for which resources are not available. That was the cause of their puzzlement. If I am to be criticised, it is perhaps because the situation should have been tackled a long time ago. However, we shall certainly seek to maintain provision for training the disabled.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that misgivings will be felt in Langbaurgh and Cleveland this evening about the decision not to keep open the Middlesbrough skillcentre? Although the additional finance is welcome, if skillcentres are failing to do the job for which they were set up they should be revamped, reorganised and set up again properly. To close them before the experimentation of the travelling trainers has been carried through is to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Mr. King

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I know of his close interest in the subject, as he has talked to me about such matters. He will realise that after these changes, the skillcentre network will have more capacity than is now needed, and that is even before we consider mobile training instructors, and so on.

The Opposition are being singularly unconstructive, but I hope that my hon. Friend will realise that the MSC and the Skillcentre Training Agency have made a determined attempt, with the support of the training division and professional trainers, to ensure that the very best training facilities are provided within the resources available.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

May I again ask the Secretary of State a question about the closure of the Llanelli skillcentre which serves Dyfed and West Glamorgan? Perhaps he will do what he failed to do on 29 November and answer my question. That skillcentre has one of the highest occupancy rates of any skillcentre in Wales and one of the best records for placing trainees in jobs and has responded over the past 18 months by providing courses to keep up with the technological changes. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether what I have said is incorrect? If it is not incorrect, let us have the facts.

Mr. King

I understand from my hon. Friend the Minister of State that it is certainly true that the skillcentre has improved its occupancy rate, but I think that there is still under-used capacity there. The matter has been fully discussed with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, and he and my hon. Friend the Minister are determined to ensure that the undertaking given at the end of the statement about alternative provision is fulfilled.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the purpose of training is to spend money not on buildings but on the improvement of individuals' skills? Will he give some assurances about the training of the disabled in the north-west in view of the proposed changes at the Denton skillcentre in Manchester?

Mr. King

We certainly seek to protect the position of the disabled. I cannot give my hon. Friend the full details about the north-west now, but I shall arrange to write to him, and will give him the full details. However, I am grateful to him for stating so clearly the essential point at stake. If we are to compete with the new technologies and to meet the needs of an expanding economy in the years ahead, we must modernise our training. If the Opposition stick to their present attitude, when the lessons to be drawn about the steps that should be taken are so patently obvious, I tell them that the Government do not intend to sit back and to allow training to fossilise. We will modernise it and give the best chance of jobs for our people.

Mr. James Hamilton (Motherwell, North)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Secretary of State for Scotland was with him when the closures were discussed? Did the Secretary of State for Scotland acquiesce in the closures that are to take place in Scotland? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the commission reached its decision with the smallest majority possible, and that one of its members saw the error of his ways and would have wanted to change his vote if the commission had been recalled? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that one member of the commission was inadvertently absent on other business but would have voted for the retention of those centres? Given that, and the fact that Strathclyde region has the highest population of any region in Scotland and the highest number of people unemployed, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his decision and decide to save those centres in Scotland?

Mr. King

I consulted the Secretary of State for Scotland on these matters. When the hon. Gentleman referred to an absent commissioner, I think that he was referring to a TUC commissioner, and his vote was also considered. The commission's views, and the letter that the chairman of the MSC wrote to me — a copy of which has been placed in the Library — make it clear that the views of those not present were taken into account. I understand that that letter had the full support of every member of the commission.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Will my right hon. Friend ignore the hysteria that is usual for Opposition Members when any proposal is made to improve the quality and quantity of something in this country instead of just throwing money at it? Will he take it from me that the proposal for a mobile force of 300 instructors is most welcome? If it is discovered that we need more of them, will he guarantee to increase the numbers to whatever figure is necessary, as that will help rural areas such as mine?

Mr. King

I am very pleased to have been able to announce the increase in the number of training opportunities. I am determined to see how we can improve training. But to do that, we must be ready to make changes. We cannot allow the situation to remain as it has always been, when the facts are staring us in the face and we know that losses are being incurred by a failure to act. We will act, but we shall do so entirely in the interests of training opportunities for our people.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the annexe to the Southampton skillcentre, which he intends to shut, operates at a profit, has a waiting list of applicants, and is used largely by local firms, which are very satisfied with it? Will he ensure that the instructors who will not be so mobile at last visit my constituency—I hope that he is listening—as we could do with them? The right hon. Gentleman is shutting a profitable annexe and skillcentre, which is contrary to everything he has said from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. King

If an hon. Member cannot listen with both ears at the same time, he should not be in the House. But, to be serious, I am well aware of the concern felt about the Southampton annexe. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has had discussions on that matter. He will be reporting hon. Members' views on certain aspects to the chairman of the commission. I take note of the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I made a further visit to the excellent Perivale skillcentre in my constituency last week? May we have an assurance for the people working there, because some of them fear that they may be replaced by people who have served longer at other skillcentres which face closure? Will he also examine the cost recovery principle and assure me that he will not press that to the ultimate, bearing in mind that I chaired a conference designed to bring more money into that skillcentre? That has had some success, but it is not easy.

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the close interest which he takes in his local skillcentre. His question is a sign of that interest and the positive role that he has played. My hon. Friend asks about changes in staffing and what might happen after reorganisation. That is a matter for the Manpower Services Commission and the Slcillcentre Training Agency. They will take note of my hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Since the majority of MSC commisioners now disagree with the proposal to close 29 centres, and in view of the Secretary of State's previous statements about his inability to direct the MSC, could the MSC now reject the proposal in his statement?

The Minister says that no individual skillcentre closure will take place until a satisfactory alternative has been provided. Will he explain what is the satisfactory alternative to a good, well situated and well run skillcentre? Why close valuable skillcentres when the Minister has already conceded the need for satisfactory alternatives?

Does the Minister accept that his claim that he is expanding adult training is a charade because he will provide only a smattering of low-level, occasional training? Is not that completely in line with the Tory party's determination to turn Great Britain into a low-pay, low-technology economy?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman makes a brave attempt yet again to beat a flagging horse to life. We have discussed the matter long enough this afternoon to know that it simply will not run. The better alternative to many of the skillcentres is the establishment of skill training places that will be used, but put to full benefit and from which people will move to real and full-time jobs. That is better than facilities being under-used and being used by people half of whom will not be able to get jobs in the skills for which they are trained.

Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House his claims about low technology and an inadequate service when I have just announced an increase in capital expenditure on the reorganised network precisely because we want to take advantages of the new technology?

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. From the Minister's response to the question by my hon. Friend—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That immediately rules out the point out of order. I can answer points of order only if they concern questions that are put to me for my decision. It is no good drawing my attention to a Minister's response.

Mr. Clarke

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was trying to refer to what I thought was your response to what the Minister had to say. I thought that you showed extreme impatience at the length of the reply. If you did, many of us would agree with you. I certainly do. I have been here since 2.45. If you were to make a plea to Ministers to give brief replies so that hon. Members like myself could ask brief questions, we would agree with you.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps it is a good thing that we do not have television in this place.