HC Deb 18 November 1987 vol 122 cc1067-82 3.45 pm
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on a new training programme for unemployed people. Unemployment has now fallen for 16 months in succession by a total of nearly 500,000. Over the last 12 months, long-term unemployment has shown a record fall and the latest figures for unemployed young people also show that we are well on the way to eliminating the problem of school leaver unemployment. This September there were fewer unemployed school leavers than for 13 years.

I believe that this is the right time to review the Government's programmes for unemployed people. We need to be sure that we have the right programmes to meet the demands of an improving labour market. We need to be sure that we are giving unemployed people the help that they need to take advantage of the increasing number of jobs now becoming available, and we need to be sure that the programmes we operate are helping to provide the skills that we require to compete in world markets.

I am clear that the priority now must be to provide training for the long-term unemployed. The emphasis should be switched away from providing temporary jobs as an alternative to unemployment and towards providing training to help unemployed people to get back into permanent jobs. But more than that, we must ensure that the training we provide is geared both to the needs of the individual and to those of the economy.

We already have a unified programme for young people —the youth training scheme. I have now decided to bring together all the existing programmes for unem-ployed people over 18 into a single new programme. It will involve the substantial reform of the community programme, including a major enhancement of its training content. The new programme will offer up to 12 months training for anyone who has been out of work for more than six months. Entry to the programme will be through the restart interviews and jobcentres. Training agents will then assess the needs of each person and training providers will arrange a suitable programme. There will be special arrangements for disabled people and others with special needs.

This new programme will involve employers and a range of other organisations like chambers of commerce and voluntary and training bodies. I hope that managing agents now in the community programme and the job training scheme will play a full part. The programme will provide training and practical experience with employers and on projects. The emphasis will be on practical learning to help people get back into employment. Accordingly, the training will range from basic working skills, including numeracy and literacy, to training at craft and technician level. The aim is that the new programme should improve significantly on the number of people who obtain jobs when they leave.

For all its merits, the community programme in its present form does not attract unemployed people with dependants and with higher benefit entitlement. It has become increasingly a programme for single people rather than the family man with children. It has also become overwhelmingly a part-time programme, with little opportunity for training. We need to tackle those problems at the root. It is essential that unemployed people who join the new programme know that they will be better off than they were on benefit. I therefore intend that all trainees in the new programme should be paid a training allowance that will give them a lead over their previous benefit entitlement.

The budget for the new programme will be just under £1.5 billion a year, so maintaining the provision for the schemes it will replace. When the new programme is fully operational, it will be possible to provide training for some 600,000 people a year. It will therefore make a major contribution to fulfilling the Government's commitments to the long-term unemployed. It will also help to ensure that we train the work force with the skills that we shall need in the 1990s and into the next century.

I am asking the Manpower Services Commission for its comments on the new programme and to let me have proposals for introducing it from September next year. I propose to publish a White Paper early next year setting out the detail of the new programme and putting it in the context of the Government's overall strategy for employment and training.

At a time of rapid growth and change in employment opportunities, training through life is of key importance. That means training for the young and for adults, for the unemployed and for the employed. The programme I am announcing today focuses on the long-term unemployed and complements the youth training scheme for young people and our efforts, through employers, to improve and increase training for employed people. No other country has a programme on this scale. It will provide new opportunities for long-term unemployed people to obtain the skills and qualifications employers need. This programme will benefit unemployed people, employers and the economy as a whole and I hope that it will command the support of the whole House.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, while the Opposition have consistently called for improved training for the unemployed, we strongly reject the Government's strategy of providing mass programmes of low-level work experience dressed up as training such as the Secretary of State has described today? Is he aware that his much-vaunted guarantee of a job or a place on a scheme in reality means compelling people by threat of withdrawal of benefit on to low-paid placements without choice and with minimal training? The Government talk about freedom of choice for everyone else. Why then do they not have the confidence, if those schemes are so worthwhile, to allow the unemployed to make a free choice?

Does not the statement mean that the community programme will be dragged down to the level of the JTS, which has been a monumental flop in which the Government have only managed to fill a quarter of the places that they intended? Is the Secretary of State aware that even near his constituency some two months ago only 3 per cent. of people on JTS found jobs after completing the course?

Is the Secretary of State also aware that the community programme managers running the schemes are deeply opposed to his plans and expect there to be poor take-up, resentful participation and a loss of momentum on those schemes as a result of a switch from the rate for the job to merely benefit-plus? Is the Secretary of State further aware that the Government have already cut the rate for the job from £89 a week under the community enterprise programme to an average of £67 a week under the present community programme? With a further near 50 per cent. cut to about £35 a week proposed for a single person, is it not clear that today's announcement is much more about cutting low pay than about improving training?

Why has the Secretary of State not told us exactly what the so-called training programme entails? In reality, it is benefit-plus. That was the major omission from his statement. It is widely rumoured that it will be only £4 or £5 a week above social security levels. Will the Secretary of State confirm that figure?

As the training allowance will almost certainly be less in many cases than necessary work expenses for travel and clothing, and since the link with benefit means that in future the employer top-up will no longer be available, is it not clear that the Government are now officially sanctioning poverty wages on those schemes? Is the Secretary of State also aware that his claim that he is increasing training is scarcely credible from a Government who have abolished 16 of the 23 industrial training boards, closed 29 skillcentres and cut apprenticeships to half their pre-1979 level? Is he aware that his claim of enhanced training today is totally incredible when he is offering no additional funds whatsoever?

The Secretary of State's statement perpetuates his myth that people can get training on the cheap. Is he aware that his proposals today will actually worsen the situation for many people on the community programme? Is he not writing off persons over the age of 50? Is he not penalising those who need part-time work, such as single parents and disabled people? As the people on the schemes will be reduced to the status of benefit claimants rather than employees, will they not lose entitlement to sickness or industrial injury benefit and the protection of health and safety legislation?

The statement is not about training. It is about compulsion and working for benefits. By contrast, the unemployed want to volunteer, not to be forced. They want to have the chance to train for real skills and recognised qualifications, and when they work they want to be paid the rate for the job and not to provide cut-price labour at benefit rates.

Mr. Fowler

The response of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is even more nonsensical than usual. The hon. Gentleman has once again gone raving over the top in his typical way and has avoided all the points that have been announced. Let me try to tell the hon. Gentleman about—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Fowler

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman about the scheme and respond to his questions. The programme will cost £1.5 billion and will provide training for 600,000 unemployed people a year. That is an improvement on the 400,000 people who receive training at the moment. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

The fact is that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues made exactly the same mistake with YTS. They condemned it at the time and have been shown to be totally wrong in their judgment. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Oldham, West and his hon Friend—if that is what he is — the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) give the impression of being terrified that the unemployment position in this country is improving, which it is.

On training, I should like to respond to what the hon. Member for Oldham, West said about the job training scheme. The cause for concern about the job training scheme is that at the moment 50 per cent. of those who agree at a restart interview to go on to the job training scheme do not turn up even for the start of the scheme. They do not even look at what is on offer. I should not have thought that the hon. Gentleman would justify that.

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we are retaining the good features of the community programme. We want the continuing involvement of the voluntary organisations which do useful work. However, I must advise the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench that at the moment training does not take place on the community programme. It is part-time—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. May I ask the House not to ask questions while the Secretary of State is giving answers, since otherwise there is little point in asking them afterwards.

Mr. Fowler

The community programme is part-time work, not full-time.

As far as the benefit-plus premium is concerned., the comments of the hon. Member for Oldham, West are simply not the case. I have asked the Commission to advise on all aspects of the scheme, including the level of the training allowance. I am obviously required to do that. We aim for a lead over benefit not only on the community programme but on other programmes, such as the job training scheme. In other words, that will apply not only to the community programme but to every scheme in the programme.

Mr. Meacher


Mr. Fowler

I have just told the hon. Gentleman that I have asked the Commission to advise on all aspects of the scheme, including that. I can certainly give the lion. Gentleman an assurance that the amount will be more than the £4 or £5 that he alleged a moment ago.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the present structure of benefit-plus means that predominantly single people will benefit from the community programme. The new structure would treat everyone according to his individual circumstances. A training allowance would mean that, for the first time, married men with children could benefit from the community programme.

This is a good and serious attempt to provide better adult training for the unemployed, and I deplore the hon. Gentleman's response to it.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

My right hon. Friend's statement is welcome and timely, because there is a real need to reach out to the long-term unemployed with families. The Opposition's frenetic shrieking about the transferability of benefit is completely misplaced. because we cannot help the wide variety of long-term unemployed unless we accept the principle of the transferability of benefit, plus a suitable premium which allows for the training that a person desires. I commend my right hon. Friend's decision to proceed by way of a White Paper, in which many of the niggles that we hear shrieked by the Opposition can be properly discussed with the Manpower Services Commission. I hope that all those who are really worried about the long-term unemployed and those who want proper training leading to qualifications which will get them jobs will participate in that discussion, and that there will be no repetition of the niggardly way in which the Opposition have greeted this statement.

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Many people inside and outside the House recognise the need for a unified scheme such as the youth training scheme for young people. The present schemes and the community programme provide too little training. We need a full-time scheme, not a part-time scheme, and we need training that will meet the needs of the individual. The programme is intended to achieve that, and I am sure that it will.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Does the Secretary of State accept that his announcement will be greeted with much scepticism by many of those who are involved in training the unemployed, especially in view of the Government's declared intention of compelling people to join schemes in exchange for taking them off benefit? Does he accept that the premium that will be paid on a training allowance will be a crucial factor in whether people regard the scheme as cheap labour or as real training? Does he further accept that many of those who run training schemes do not want unwilling people forced on to them to lower the morale of those who want to be trained?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the demise of the community programme, which many of us believe is wrapped up in this statement, will be resented? The community programme has demonstrated that there is a great need for such community work. But the Government should fund it so that people can gain training and then go on to full-time jobs in the community. At present, the Government are not providing such funds.

What special schemes does the Minister have in mind for the disabled? Will he provide interpreters so that the deaf may benefit from training which many of them are now denied?

Mr. Fowler

The disabled will be an exception to the rule that people should be unemployed for six months. We shall make any other reasonable exceptions that we can to meet the problems of the disabled and other groups.

My announcement does not remotely mean the demise of the community programme. We shall try to retain the good features of the community programme. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that much good project work is done by many organisations, including voluntary organisations. But I hope he will agree that it is better to have full-time training than the part-time work that we have now. Above all, there should be training inside any such programme.

I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the benefit-plus concept, and we shall take it into account. But the £67 average that is paid on the community programme does not meet the needs of many married people with children—irrespective of what the plus will be—whose benefit is already more than that. Those on the job training scheme are paid benefit with no premium at all. We are trying to rationalise and improve the system.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

My right hon. Friend has put a welcome emphasis on skills being provided that will lead to jobs for people, and on the skills that employers want. Does the statement mean that he is thinking of expanding the technical and vocational education initiative courses in schools in which his Department is involved? May we have an assurance that, as they build their expertise, the Government will make full use of city technology colleges, which are very much involved with chambers of commerce and employers?

Mr. Fowler

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance on both points, especially the second one. We want the TVEI to be built up, and the most encouraging trend is that now all local education authorities are taking part in the TVEI. A few days ago, I saw an example of that near my hon. Friend's constituency.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Is this not a curious statement, in that it does not tell us much? It hides more than it tells us, and it gives us no figures. It does not tell us what the wage—if I may call it that—will be. It gives a figure of £1.5 billion, which is meaningless because it represents the gross cost, not the net cost. The community programme costs £1 billion in gross terms, but the real cost is one third of that.

The trade unions okay each scheme on the present community programme. Will they be involved in the new scheme, or will they be shut out of the Training Commission? Another six employers' representatives will be added to it, but will the trade unions be involved, as they were with the community programme?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said, the JTS has been a monumental flop. If we turned the community programme into something like the JTS, it would degrade and even ruin it in the eyes of many people like me. If there is to be financial compulsion, most of us fear the worst. Does the Secretary of State agree that there should be full consultation and proper discussion in the House and with the trade unions?

Mr. Fowler

Yes, I do, and that is precisely why I made this statement. The hon. Gentleman asked about its purpose; it is to tell the House that we are consulting the MSC on our proposals and that early in the new year the Government will introduce a White Paper setting out the full details of the scheme. I have set out the outline of the scheme, which I believe will meet some of the fundamental criticisms made about adult training by committees such as the Select Committee on Employment, which the hon. Gentleman chaired. It will provide better training while retaining the best features of the existing provision.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

My right hon. Friend has outlined the scheme, and I am most grateful for his assurance that people taking part in it will be better off than those living on unemployment benefit. In the past, so many of these schemes have been designed by townees ignorant of everybody except those who live in towns. As unemployed people in rural areas can have to spend up to £3 a day merely to get to training schemes, I am happy with my right hon. Friend's implied assurance, but I would ask him to spell out that their transport costs to and from the schemes will be covered; otherwise, they will be worse off than if they did not participate in the scheme.

Mr. Fowler

With the benefit-plus premium, we will ensure that the training allowance which is paid gives a lead over the benefit that the individual would otherwise have received. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning travel costs. I shall ask the MSC to consider especially the exceptional travel costs which trainees must meet, because I see the force of my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, even if there was a lead of £15, one person on the scheme might be receiving £40 a week while the person sitting next to him received £120? Is not that bound to lead to tension and rankling feelings between such people, and towards difficulties in the scheme?

Can the Secretary of State comment on the position of a married couple, both of whom are unemployed? How will the lead figure be worked out in those circumstances?

Mr. Fowler

We are trying to provide a rate for the individual, rather than for the job. We are talking about a training allowance, which means that married men with children will, for the first time, have an incentive to go on to the training programme. That is the whole purpose of benefit-plus.

Mr. Tom Sackville (Bolton, West)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in deploring the total absence of any welcome from the Opposition Benches for the rapid and continuing reduction in unemployment to which he has referred? In complete contrast, will he confirm that the Government's principal aim in bringing in these changes is to ensure that those entering training schemes will leave them better equipped to find permanent, full-time work?

Mr. Fowler

I entirely agree with both those points. I believe that the public generally will want to make their views known about the reaction that we have had from the Opposition. As for the point about skill training, there is no doubt that, if people are increasingly to go into jobs — that is what is happening— they will need to be trained for the skills that those jobs require. Moreover, if the country is to remain competitive, we shall need skill training. Both those points are behind what we are doing. The Opposition do not begin to understand the concept.

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)

Will the Secretary of State recognise in his proposals for training—the current position on training is disastrous — that some skills cannot be taught in 12 months? Some take far longer than that. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to make some adjustment, so that skills that require two or three years' teaching. or even longer, can be taken into account?

Mr. Fowler

Obviously, I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. The training that the individual receives, leading to a qualification or a credit towards a qualification, will be of help to him by providing him with skills that he needs. However, if anything further can be done, I shall do it. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's rather more constructive approach.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Is it not clear that the jobs of tomorrow will require higher skill levels and qualifications? Over half of today's unemployed have no qualifications whatever. Unless we take action to ensure that more people have skills, there will be persistent skill shortages, combined with persistent unemployment.

Today's statement is concerned with ensuring that the unemployed have the necessary skills to tackle the jobs of tomorrow. Conservative Members are engaged in a skills crusade. The Opposition must decide whether they wish to join us—and, I hope, every employer in the country—in being part of that crusade. Or do they prefer to sulk in their tents?

Mr. Fowler

I entirely agree. What we require in this country is training through life: that applies to the unemployed and the employed alike. However, unless the lesson is taken on board, we shall not be able to compete with our major international rivals. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and the Opposition are entirely wrong.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

Is there riot a great mystery at the centre of the statement, and also a great nonsense? The Secretary of State tells us that the scheme will cost £1.5 billion, which works out at about £48 a head. How much of that will be allocated to the people taking part, how much to the cost of training and how much to the Commissioners?

Is the right hon. Gentleman really announcing a scheme Costing £1.5 billion without knowing how much will be paid to the 600,000 people participating in it? Is not the real conclusion to be drawn that, once again, a number —in this instance, 600,000 — will be taken off the unemployment figures? Is this the 23rd or the 24th time that the right hon. Gentleman has changed the figures, and has not every such change reduced them?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman is not right about that. I am asking the Manpower Services Commission to examine the details of the proposals. Clearly, the Commission will want to look at the balance between the provision and the allowances and other matters connected with it. But it will work within the budget, the limits of which I have made clear. I have also made it clear that we shall be introducing a benefit-plus arrangement.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

In view of the excellence of the programme that my right hon. Friend is putting forward today, does he not agree that it would be heartless to continue to pay benefit to those who do not take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that are being provided? As, in some areas of the country where job availability is at its most abundant—in London, for example—male unemployment is also at its highest, does my right hon. Friend not agree with me that the greatest training aid that some people need is a well-placed boot up the backside?

Mr. Fowler

The scheme seeks to provide better training for the benefit of the country, and of the long-term unemployed in particular. Certainly, the normal arrange-ments for checking availability for work will continue.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)


Hon. Members

Tell him to withdraw.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The phrase used by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) was inelegant.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I agree with you, Mr. Speaker. It was inelegant.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Ask him to withdraw it, Mr. Speaker. You would if one of us had used it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The phrase was not unparliamen-tary. I said that it was inelegant.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

When the Secretary of State says that no other country has a programme of this size, does he not mean that no other country has a programme of this nature? Most of our European counterparts have real training schemes and real apprenticeship schemes, offering the real prospect of real jobs at the end of them. Does he not understand why many of us are cynical about today's statement? There seems little likelihood for many people here of a job at the end of their training.

During the consultation period, will the right hon. Gentleman please ensure that education authorities are involved? Many of our further education colleges that are involved in training schemes are already bursting at the seams, and are desperate for resources.

Mr. Fowler

The education colleges will certainly be involved in the programme. That has always been our intention.

The hon. Lady will recognise that, during recent months, the unemployment rate has been falling faster in this country than in many of the countries to which she referred. I am not remotely complacent about interna-tional comparisons, but I think that the training scheme for the long-term unemployed, with which the statement is basically concerned, will be one of the major schemes in Western Europe.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

While welcoming the statement, may I put it to my right hon. Friend that there is a case for concentrating particularly heavily on institutions — for example, our technical college in Canterbury — that make a considerable effort to ensure that their schemes are oriented towards the needs of the local market place?

Mr. Fowler

Obviously, my hon. Friend is right. Training generally must be orientated towards the demands and needs of employers, because that is where the jobs will come from.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Secretary of State aware that it comes ill from some of his friends to attack the unemployed? One example is this one here — the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow)— who is a member of the goose-stepping tendency. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that we can do without lectures from moonlighting Tory Members, some of whom have three or four jobs and are picking up more than £50,000 a year? If he wants a tip on how much should be paid, why does he not copy the training system in another place, where £55 is paid each day tax-free with all the extras? There is no need for consultation. Get on with that.

Mr. Fowler

It seems that the hon. Gentleman, who comes from the hectoring tendency, has not quite focused on what the Government are proposing for the long-term unemployed. I am sure that, when he has, he will welcome it with his customary fairness.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Perhaps we can get back from the hectoring and the goose-stepping to the unemployed. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that those who have been on the community programme, or who are on it, have often expressed the wish that it should contain some element of training? As the Government's most welcome statement suggests that the long-term unemployed will be given precisely that for which many of them have been asking, is my right hon. Friend surprised by the extraordinary hostility of Opposition Members?

Mr. Fowler

The extraordinary hostility of those on the Opposition Benches is surprising. It comes partly from their terror that the unemployment position is improving and partly from their recognition that this training proposal will improve the position of many who are currently unemployed. What my hon. Friend says about the community programme is right. Many have argued for a long time that the programme should include a much greater element of training and should be full-time, not part-time. That is precisely what we are proposing.

Miss Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

The Secretary of State and some of his colleagues seem to question the attitude of Opposition Members and imply that there is some cynicism. That is understandable, because the right hon. Gentleman has not given us the facts. He keeps saying —[Interruption.] I shall get to my question in about 30 seconds. I hope that I shall be allowed to preface it as others have prefaced theirs. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he will communicate with the MSC and enter into discussions with it, but he has not given us any background details. I have a short and straightforward question for the right hon. Gentleman and I shall appreciate a short and straightforward reply. How much new money is there?

Mr. Fowler

The £1.5 billion that is being made available is the budget that is being provided for the existing schemes. It is now being put to the new programme.

Hon. Members

No new money.

Mr. James Cran (Beverley)

Conservative Members might be entitled to say that the comments that we have heard from Opposition Members will merely undermine the confidence of many of those who are on the schemes of which we are talking. I think that I am entitled to say that that is disgraceful.

My right hon. Friend has said that he expected a rather larger contribution from the private sector. As corporate profits are now at a high level—I think a 20-year high— we must not have the private sector pleading poverty when it comes to it making a contribution to make the new scheme a success.

Mr. Fowler

I hope that we shall see an increasing contribution from the private sector. I pay tribute to the training providers who are working within the JTS and other areas, but we would look for an even greater contribution.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Will the Secretary of State accept that there is a part of the United Kingdom where unemployment has increased, not fallen? This is an area in which employment in manufacturing industry has decreased to the extent that there are more unemployed who used to work within it than there are currently employed. In the light of this experience in the north of Ireland, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, unless skills are translated into jobs, we shall have nothing more than another large piece of blotting-paper to soak up the unemployment figures?

Mr. Fowler

I recognise the position of Northern Ireland, but that does not apply throughout the United Kingdom. The unemployment rate has been falling in the rest of the United Kingdom. In all regions of it there are jobs available, certainly in Northern Ireland. The figures that we announced last week were the best for Northern Ireland for more than 10 years. Increasing numbers of jobs are becoming available throughout the country and it is crucial that individuals should have the skills to enable them to take up these jobs.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the great involvement of the private sector in the community programme will be most welcome? Will he accept that one of the problems so far has been that the public sector has been unable in many instances to offer the unemployed long-term prospects?

Mr. Fowler

Yes. One of the problems of the community programme is that the long-term unemployed have not been able to find jobs after leaving the programme. The design of the scheme has made it ring-fenced and has kept it away from the normal employment programme. I hope that the flexibility within the new programme will enable jobs to come through from project training and from training with employers.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

In the light of the statement, will the Secretary of State consider the letter that I forwarded to him on Monday of this week? This is a letter that I received from David Ward of 25 Palmerston street, Stockton-on-Tees, in which he gave an account of his first visit to the restart programme a week last Monday. He asserts that he was encouraged to complete his form falsely. He develops that to an accusation that the set-up is no more than a semi-disguised confidence trick that is designed to persuade people to complete forms to the effect that they are asserting that they will accept employment at a much reduced rate of pay so that employers can come along and pick them up for the labour market under the threat of them losing their DHSS benefit. Will the Secretary of State have the courage to answer that letter? Will he deny that the programme that he proposes is nothing more than a fulfilment of Mr. Ward's fears?

Mr. Fowler

It is not remotely a fulfilment of what the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am prepared to give the guarantee that I shall consider the individual case that he has sent to me. His description of the restart interview process is not remotely general and is not remotely a fair description of it.

Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a major distinction to be made between a training programme and work? The constant sniping about the plus part of benefit and the training allowance demonstrates clearly that there is a serious lack of recognition that training is in itself a major benefit and will provide opportunities for earning greater sums in future. Does my right hon. Friend accept that there will be a great welcome for the proposals that he has outlined in many parts of the country, including my constituency, where at any one time there are over 1,000 vacancies that connot be filled because of a lack of necessary skills?

Will my right hon. Friend agree with me, finally—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be brief.

Mr. Paice

—that there is a welcome on this side of the House for the aspect that he mentioned about basic literacy and numeracy? We have just heard that £1.5 billion equates to £48 per head for the people that have been mentioned. Does my right hon. Friend accept—

Mr. Speaker

Order. In fairness, I think that that is enough.

Mr. Fowler

I agree very much with what my hon. Friend says. The importance of training cannot be over-stated. There are many who will recognise its importance, and what my hon. Friend has said in underlining that is right.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall endeavour to call those hon. Members who have been standing. However, there are likely to be further opportunities to question the Secretary of State.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

While we all want improvement in the quality of the training available to unemployed people, will the Secretary of State accept that there is often a sharp contrast between the aspirations of Ministers and what happens on the ground? Is he aware that, despite the shortage of skilled building craftsmen in Greater London, skillcentres have reduced the number of training places for bricklayers and carpenters? As a result, my unemployed constituents must wait two years for a training place, while building firms cannot employ skilled labour. Is there anything in what the right hon. Gentleman has announced today that will deal with that short-sighted nonsense?

Mr. Fowler

The purpose of this new programme is to seek to match the needs and demands of the economy. I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's aspirations in that regard.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, more than any other region, the northeast will welcome his announcement of better value training that is better tailored to each individual according to his needs and ability? Will he confirm that one of the targets of his new programme will be to increase the striking rate—the rate at which those who enter the programme go on into real work at the end of it?

Mr. Fowler

Yes, sir, I can confirm that that is our aim. We want training that will meet the needs of the individual, with individual assessment. This is the first time that that has been done in Britain.

Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

Is the Minister aware that the voluntary organisations, which act as managing agents, will view his statement with great concern and distress? They have made representations to the Minister about rumours that they heard, and today he has confirmed them. Will he confirm that he is spending the same amount of money on 200,000 more people? Inevitably, that means that the quality of training for the individuals who take part in the scheme will be diminished because quality training needs quality resources.

Mr. Fowler

The budget for this programme —£1.5 billion—is what we are providing for existing schemes; I said that in my statement, so there is no surprise about it.

I am not sure that I regard the hon. Lady as a spokesman for voluntary organisation up and down the country. We have spoken to a number of them, and I believe that a number of them will welcome these changes. I should like to see voluntary organisations fully involved in the new programme.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that in Wales his statement will be especially welcome? Long-term unemployment in Wales has fallen faster than in any other part of the country. Does he accept that one of our largest problems is that 25 per cent. of those who go on restart interviews are shown to be functionally illiterate and innumerate? Therefore, before they receive training they must have had a basic education. Will this new programme take account of that?

Mr. Fowler

One of the issues with which we must deal — I hope that there will be no disagreement on this point — is that of literacy and numeracy. The restart interviews demonstrate the need in that regard. I hope that we shall use not only the colleges of further education but open learning techniques and the open college to solve the problem.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

As there is no new money available, is it not a dishonest charade to ask the Manpower Services Commission to make recommendations to the Secretary of State when he must know to the nearest pound what the basic training allowance will be? Will there be an official or unofficial upper age limit for entry into the scheme? Will any previous training scheme debar a long-term unemployed person from joining the scheme? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that if a person refuses a place on the scheme he will be suspended from benefit?

Mr. Fowler

The normal rules will apply ; there is no change in that regard. The scheme will be open to people of any age, but clearly the top priority is people between the age of 18 and 50. They must have been unemployed for six months—with the exceptions that I have given, such as the disabled—but there will be room for people above that age group. I hope that we shall be able to provide a training programme that will offer training to people of all ages.

Mr. Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the MSC gives training in the skills that are needed to fill vacancies in Sheffield — [Interruption.] I do not interrupt Labour Members, so I hope that they will not interrupt me. In Sheffield there is a mismatch between vacancies and jobs.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The hon. Gentleman is unaware of the realities of the matter.

Mr. Patnick

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that training is made available to people who require jobs? I have listened to Labour Members, and they seem to enjoy the fact that people such as my daughter have been unemployed and unable to obtain retraining in skills for jobs with vacancies.

Mr. Fowler

I agree with my hon. Friend. What we are trying to do, and what my hon. Friend is rightly urging, is to ensure that training matches the vacancies in the job market. That must be the sensible thing to do, and that is what this training programme is about.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will the Secretary of State accept that Labour Members' complaints are compounded by the fact that he failed to repudiate the vicious attack on the unemployed by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow)? It was a disgraceful example of an unscrupulous attack on people who are not here to defend themselves. Will the right hon Gentleman accept that his speech will have no credibility unless he gives the amount of the training addition? Will he further accept that many people outside the House will consider this measure to be a cynical manipulation of the unemployed, creating a conscript army forced into low-paid jobs as a smokescreen for the coming slump that will inevitably hit the Government and this country?

Mr. Fowler

I am not sure that I take the economic forecasts of the hon. Gentleman too seriously, and I doubt that the Labour Front Bench does either. We are demonstrating our concern about unemployment and the unemployed by reducing, by a record amount, the numbers of unemployed, by providing and producing a new scheme that is geared and aimed entirely at bringing the long-term unemployed back into work.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the more interesting elements of his statement — the concept of the needs assessment — has been ignored by Labour Members? Does he consider that that development would be of particular benefit to older people who have been unemployed for a long period, to help them return to work and reintroduce their skills to the labour market? Will he give consideration to producing a document, perhaps entitled "Training for Jobs", to communicate the benefits of his programme? That document could be along similar lines to the successful "Action for Jobs" leaflet.

Mr. Fowler

I shall consider that proposal. As to my hon. Friend's first point, we want to provide training for older unemployed people and bring them back into employment. I shall consider his proposal regarding a document on action for training, which was a useful suggestion.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

It ill becomes the Minister, who earns almost £1,000 per week, together with the Alan B'Stards with whom he surrounds himself on the Government Benches, to lecture the unemployed on the need for another cheap labour scheme. Why does he not consider Coventry, where, according to his fiddled figures, 22,000 people are out of work? Less than 500 vacancies exist, and even if everybody was equally better trained, there would still be 43 unemployed people for every vacancy that was filled. This has nowt to do with unemployment, but everything to do with reducing the unemployment figures.

Mr. Fowler

As the hon. Gentleman should know, in the west midlands generally, including Coventry, the rate of unemployment has declined faster than in any other region of the country. The hon. Gentleman knows, or should know, of the tremendous achievement of many companies in Coventry, such as Jaguar, which are providing new jobs and better products than ever before.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that he will not fall into the trap of believing that the best and most effective training is carried out in a training school or behind a desk? What sort of measures does he intend to introduce under the new scheme to improve the quality and level of on-the-job and field-based training?

Mr. Fowler

We want to do both. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We want on-the-job training in the conventional form. We also want training in the open learning sense, through the open college. We want all the new techniques, and they will be available under the programme.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Does the Minister understand the real anger that is felt when Ministers who could no doubt quote BP share prices to several decimal points, are unable to answer the simplest of questions to which any person considering a job would need to know the answer ; that is, how much in pounds will the individual receive each week for going on one of the schemes? Will he say — he should be able to do so, as he represents a west midlands seat —that the simple answer to training is restoration after the collapse in engineering appren-ticeships that has occurred in the past eight years? Why on earth should an employer establish a proper engineering apprenticeship scheme when he knows that he can get labour schemes on the cheap?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman refers to the wrong age group, apart from anything else. The apprenticeship schemes, which were good, were for a minority. Schemes such as the YTS and the programme that I announced today provide much more general training for the population at large. I have answered the hon. Gentleman's first point before. We are asking the MSC to examine the details of the proposal. I make it absolutely clear that the payment will he above the level of benefit of any individual training.

Mr. Henry McLeish (Fife, Central)

Opposition Members are interested in real and effective training. That is why we have no enthusiasm for the Minister's cheap, complacent statement. Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on his statement about eligibility criteria? It seems that 18 to 25-year-olds will be excluded from his new programme because it is targeted at people aged 25 and over. Will the Minister tell the House that that is a fact? If this is about conscription, if people do not accept a place on the Minister's new programme, will they remain on the register, with benefit being paid to them? The MSC is talking about using the restart programme, the merger of benefits and the employment office further to harass the unemployed and exclude them from the register. Will he comment on the Treasury suggestion that £6 will be the training premium? That would be a disgrace to the people who enter the programme.

Mr. Fowler

There is no change in regard to benefit and the withdrawal of benefit. As I have said, I have not made any proposals on that matter. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the proposal regarding age groups. The fact of the matter is—

Mr. Skinner

The fact of the matter.

Mr. Fowler

The position is that our aim will be to provide training for people in the 18 to 25 age group and also the 25-to-50 age group. One of the priorities will be the 18-to-25 age group.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

I congratulate the Minister on his effrontery. Not once did he acknowledge the fact that his own Government removed the training element from the community programme. It is rather like Santa Claus turning up with presents that he stole from children several years ago. We cannot have bold new initiative without bold new money. Will the Minister confirm the impression that he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Miss Mowlam), that there will be no new money? If that is the case, is it not a three card trick rather than a brave new hope on the Minister's part?

Will the Minister acknowledge also that the measure is based on a cruel and crucial deception — a gulf of understanding between Conservative Members and the poor souls who work in many of the schemes — that there is quality training available for them'? Does he accept that that is a fraudulent conception? Will he agree further that to conscript people into schemes on the basis of that fraudulent proposition is indeed criminal and immoral?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman was wrong in virtually everything that he said. The gulf of understand-ing to which he referred is the gulf of his understanding. He does not appear to understand the value of training and the need for training not only unemployed but employed people. Nothing is more important.

It is recognised that we need to reform the community programme to make it full-time and not part-time and also to ensure that people are better off on the programme than they are on benefit. That is what we propose. The result will be a training programme that will be a great improvement on what has gone before.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

Will the Minister accept that, far from being good news, as suggested in the grovelling question by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), the statement is bad news for Wales and other areas with high unemployment? It merely means shuffling money with no new resources. It depends on voluntary organisations and companies putting in more resources if there is to be quality of training. Therefore, in areas with high unemployment, voluntary organisations and firms will be under pressure and will not be able to contribute. Areas of high unemployment such as south Wales will once more be disadvantaged as a result of the three card trick that the Minister has tried to play on us today.

Mr. Fowler

That is totally untrue. It means using the £1.5 million more effectively than it has been used up to now. By any standards, that is a vast budget for training in this country.