HC Deb 28 April 1993 vol 223 cc1126-32

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

2.24 am
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

The timing and date of an Adjournment debate is certainly a lottery, but even at this early hour of 25 minutes past two in the morning, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of youth training in Norwich, to refer to the difficulties that must be faced, and to make positive suggestions about how to tackle them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment for being present on the Front Bench at this late hour. I look forward to his response to the debate tonight. I also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) and for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown). I am grateful to them for their support. In my last Adjournment debate I forgot to welcome the Whip. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) is here to listen to the debate.

It is clear that there are problems in youth training. There certainly have been problems in Norwich, although considerable strides have been made in recent years. I wish to place on record my thanks to Sarah Prettejohn of the university of East Anglia for the research that she has done, on which I was able to draw in preparation for the debate. I am also grateful to many trainees, firms and other organisations in Norwich who have provided a wealth of information which has been helpful for the debate.

I believe that too little is known locally and nationally about the positive work of the Department of Employment, the training and enterprise councils and the careers service in tackling youth employment and meeting young people's training needs. Too little value is still placed on technical and vocational training. Employers and young people often have limited understanding of the importance and relevance of national vocational qualifications. You will have noted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I spelt that out in full. I have become fed up during my 10 years as a Member of Parliament of everything being referred to in acronyms such as NVQ. It is right that we should spell out what we mean: national vocational qualification. It is important that we press for a better understanding of such qualifications.

Some of our young people are difficult to motivate, partly because of the failure of many of our schools to produce completely literate and numerate youngsters and partly because the training that they are offered is not of high quality. Employers cannot expect to attract and retain high-quality staff unless they contribute more. Higher quality training costs money. Our record in training is still not comparable to that of many other advanced countries. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address those issues in his reply.

A major publicity drive to raise public awareness of our training programmes and vocational qualifications should be mounted as a matter of urgency or at least as soon as practicably possible. I hope that my hon. Friend will respond to that point. Such a publicity drive would help to change attitudes and make sure that opportunities were not missed.

I should like to be assured by my hon. Friend the Minister that closer links will be forged with the careers service and schools and that earlier and better advice will be given to children well before they reach school-leaving age. The time for education-business compacts has arrived. As a member of the Education Select Committee before the last general election, I visited Germany. It was clear that there was a stronger link than in Britain between industry and the schools. We have a long way to go.

If, as is likely, some schools in Norwich opt for grant-maintained status, links between education and business can be further encouraged. The Confederation of British Industry has recently suggested that the best way of reducing the false distinction between academic and vocational qualifications would be to integrate them within one overall system. I am not sure that that is the right approach. It is important that national vocational qualifications and vocational training generally should have better recognition.

It is not clear whether everyone should gain national vocational qualifications, as some of the training and enterprise councils appear to believe. It is important that quality in training should not be sacrificed in the search for universal qualifications. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would agree that we must secure the higher quality training, with greater employer commitment, which will enable us to compete effectively with our foreign rivals in the decades ahead.

Almost 10 years ago, in my maiden speech in the House, I praised the Government's youth training initiatives. I have kept my interest in the youth training scheme and in matters concerned with education and training ever since. I have visited many training providers in Norwich. Even this week, I had discussions with the Norfolk and Waveney training and enterprise council. At one time I was also involved with Norwich engineering project, which was founded to increase young people's interest in engineering and related skills in my constituency.

The research that Sarah Prettejohn and I have conducted in the past weeks in Norwich has shown up clearly some of the problems under which the present system operates. In recent months, the Norfolk and Waveney training and enterprise council has been subject to some criticism and a lack of co-ordination with the careers service has been evident.

Although training generally has held up during the recession, the nature and structure of the local economy, which has few large national companies based in the city, has imposed constraints on the opportunities available. The recent decision by Norwich Union to stop taking on school leavers had an immediate impact throughout the area. Matching potential trainees to suitable places became more difficult if youngsters were expected to travel long distances across, or out of, the city.

Employers have, quite naturally, been uncertain about their ability to offer places to young people under the youth training programme because of its two-year life span. If a company is making its adult employees redundant and cannot judge what its markets will be like in three months' time, its reluctance to take on 16 or 17-year-olds is understandable. It has been all too easy to cut training budgets and to fail to offer financial incentives and wider differentials to acquire training qualifications. All that has been left has been seen by youngsters as training in quantity rather than in quality for the future.

It has been said, too, that there has been a problem with the attitude of a small number of youngsters seeking training. One Norwich company told us that its trainees left a lot to be desired. It said that those young people did not understand the need to be at work on time and lacked the motivation to get the most out of their training. The company regarded that as the fault of the schools, which had tolerated those attitudes and downgraded vocational skills. I am sorry to say that there is more than a degree of truth in those charges.

It is not entirely clear how many young people have been training locally, which is due to a difference in the criteria used by the careers service and the Norfolk and Waveney training and enterprise council. The careers service has considered that its figures might be an underestimate while the training and enterprise council thought that they were probably an overestimate and included those who had gone back to school or college. In the training and enterprise council's view, those who did go back for an extra year found it more difficult to get training places once they left school.

An extremely important development has been the creation by the Norfolk and Waveney training and enterprise council of foundation training specifically designed to help youngsters who had experienced problems in finding a training place. By offering preparatory counselling on suitable careers, by involving youngsters directly in training to improve motivation, social and interview skills and by helping them to appreciate the importance of team work, that programme is offering those youngsters the chance to achieve their objectives rather than to fall and to fail at the first hurdle. Training providers will be able to recruit motivated people who want to gain national vocational qualifications and pursue a career with realistic prospects.

We have found that the results of the training and enterprise council's efforts are already beginning to show through. Eight month's ago, there were 1,408 youngsters eligible for youth training, of whom 353 had waited for a start date for more than eight weeks. This month, there were 692 eligible youngsters, with only 11 who had waited more than eight weeks; some of them had either just moved into the area or were long-term sick. I suspect that the recent visit of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to the training and enterprise council has had a salutary effect to improve the situation. I welcome the recent improvement, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm the figures that I have quoted.

Every young person seeking youth training at the beginning of January has now been offered a place, and everyone accepting the offer has actually started on his or her course or placement with an employer. Overall, some 4,200 young men and women are undertaking training under the Norfolk and Waveney training and enterprise council's auspices. I also understand that the careers service and the training and enterprise council are now working more closely together to tackle the employment and training needs of young people, and will go on doing so.

So progress is being made in Norwich. It must be consolidated, locally and nationally. As the economy recovers, employers, particularly in the manufacturing and engineering sectors, will need encouragement to take on trainees and to meet the additional costs of training in their skills. This point has been discussed constructively between representatives of the Engineering Employers Federation and the training and enterprise council. More apprentices will be sponsored this year in spite of a reduced employers' contribution. Better links with teachers are being built. Similarly, a major publicity drive is under way to attract young people into engineering, as the engineering stand at the recent Job Scene East careers exhibition at the Norwich sports village showed.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the recovery in the economy will be abortive if we suffer a skills shortage. I can recall some years ago being called to meetings by employers in Norwich because they were desperately worried about a skills shortage. We have heard less of that recently as the economy has gone through a more difficult period, but I suspect that it will not be long before we start hearing about a skills shortage again. That is why I am emphasising the point now.

I am particularly grateful to have had this opportunity to raise the subject of youth training in Norwich. It is a matter of great importance to young people in Norwich and throughout the country, including young people in the constituencies of my hon. Friends who have supported me tonight, the hon. Members for Great Yarmouth and for Cirencester and Tewkesbury. We must get the right sort of training for our young people who are leaving education and entering the world of work for the first time. It is in their interests and in ours that they acquire skills that will be useful for the rest of their lives.

I believe that these objectives are accepted inside and outside the House, even if there are differing views on how to achieve them. I believe, therefore, that a campaign to stimulate interest in training and enthusiasm for vacational qualifications will have widespread support, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and their colleagues will be able to take a lead in this. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to respond positively to the points that I have discovered in my research on youth training in Norwich and to the suggestions that I have made in opening this debate.

2.37 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) for raising this important topic tonight. I know how strongly he feels about the need to ensure that every young person has the opportunity to enter a quality youth training place. I share his concern. I particularly pay tribute to the way in which he has championed and fought for the rights of young people in his constituency. Let me, therefore, first of all make it clear just how important youth training is to the Government.

Our record on providing training for young people shows what progress we have made in the past 10 years. There were only 7,000 young people in Great Britain on training programmes under the last Labour Government in 1979. The numbers now entering youth training and training credits exceed 200,000 each year. This is an outstanding performance at a time when our economy has been under considerable pressure.

Before this Government came to power there was no such thing as today's youth training. Very few people then understood how important it was to provide well-structured routes for all young people, helping them with the transition between schooldays and working life. Thanks to this Government, the picture is now vastly different.

My hon. Friend has stressed both the need to raise the profile and status of vocational qualifications and employers' commitment to training. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear her intention to have a promotional drive to underline the importance of employers meeting the Investors in People standard and the importance of national vocational qualifications for business and individuals alike. My hon. Friend's point about the need to promote NVQs more vigorously is not lost on the Secretary of State.

The Department has been holding detailed consultations with TECs, industrial training organisations, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and others on how best to deliver such a campaign. My right hon. Friend will be making an announcement shortly.

We have made available £844 million this year to fund youth training. This is despite the continued reduction in the number of young people joining the labour market immediately after school leaving age—partly because more stay on and partly due to the falling number nationally in the age group. I repeat, as I have so often in the past, that the Government remain fully committed to the youth training guarantee and that no training and enterprise council will be prevented by lack of resources from meeting it.

Through the training and enterprise councils, we have given leadership in delivering training programmes to key players in the local business community. This approach has tapped in to the commitment and ideas that people on the spot have to offer and means that local programmes are tailored to the needs of the local community and overseen by business-led bodies: the TEC boards. To allow TEC boards to exercise their business acumen, we make it their responsibility to contract with local providers to secure the training which the Gvoernment fund.

On the Government side, the contracts are managed by the Employment Department's regional offices. It is the responsibility of the regional office to liaise with the TEC, to monitor performance and try to resolve any emerging local difficulties. This, of course, includes any difficulty the TEC may have in meeting the YT guarantee in a particular area.

TECs work with the careers service locally to ensure that the contracted provision fits the needs of all school leavers wanting to go into youth training, and that no young person misses out on the opportunities available.

My hon. Friend highlighted the importance of links between the careers service and schools. I am pleased to say that the Employment Department has undertaken a number of initiatives in this area, such as careers libraries to enhance the quality of careers information available in schools; the teacher placement scheme; and education-business partnerships. These are designed to bring schools, TECs and careers services closer together, improve the links between schools and the world of work, and put young people's career choices on a much firmer basis.

In addition, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill, currently in another place, proposes major changes for the careers service. It will be the duty of the Secretaries of State for Employment, for Wales and for Scotland to ensure that careers advice is provided to the statutory client group who are at or have recently left schools and colleges. This is a fundamental change which reflects the importance that the Government attach to good careers guidance.

I would now like to turn to my hon. Friend's constituency. Youth training in Norwich is delivered under contract with Norfolk and Waveney TEC, which also serves the Secretary of State's constituency. It contracts with 12 providers making youth training places available to young people in Norwich. These include organisations such as Norfolk county council, the training workshop and Broadland district council.

I would like to put on record some of the major achievements of Norfolk and Waveney TEC in helping young people. Since its creation in November 1990, many young people have benefited from the youth training courses that it has run. We must not forget that at a time when, nationally, number, in this age group are in marked decline, East Anglia is unusual in that the reduction there is much smaller than in other regions. The numbers of entrants into the TEC's youth training courses in 1991–92 was 3,776; in 1992–93 it was 3,636. These figures put into better context some of the numbers that critics have bandied about—of young people without suitable offers of a youth training place.

Much concern has been expressed about the YT guarantee. As I have explained, we regard this as of crucial importance, and all TECs, working with careers services, are in no doubt about the priority that the Government attach to it. That said, if there are continuing difficulties in Norwich, they need to be addressed by the processes that I have outlined.

We have said throughout that no TEC would be prevented by lack of resources from implementing the guarantee. We have agreed a budget with Norfolk and Waveney TEC, earmarked for youth training, of more than £10 million for 1993–94. These negotiations have only just been completed, and while we have been negotiating with the TEC, it has been negotiating with its many providers. Inevitably, while negotiations are in train and different positions are being argued, there will be temptations to overdramatise how harshly a new pricing framework will bear on one or other of the parties to the negotiations.

I accept that Norfolk has faced far greater difficulties this year than previously in dealing with the demand for youth training. There has been local media comment on the number of young people still seeking places and a gathering recognition that something more is needed to be done. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to discuss the issues with Mr. John Lineker, the TEC chairman, and his chief executive, Mr. John Wooddissee, on 25 January.

Following this, the TEC, in discussion with senior officials from my Department, was able to formulate an action plan which committed the TEC to ensuring that all eligible young people were offered a place and started training by early March. As a direct result, the number of young people awaiting the offer of a suitable YT place for more than eight weeks has plummeted. In the TEC's area, in November, 375 young people, on the careers service count, had been waiting for over eight weeks. I am happy to say that the comparative figure for the April count is only 31. Within the Norwich careers service area, the equivalent figures show a fall from 82 to just four.

I emphasise the success of youth training. Some 3.5 million young people have been trained since its predecessor, the youth training scheme, was introduced in 1983. There are currently some 250,000 in training, including youth credits, in Great Britain: 76 per cent. of those who complete their planned training go into jobs or further training or education; and 53 per cent. of those who complete their planned training gain a qualification. All young people under 18 who are not in full-time education or employment are guaranteed the offer of a suitable training place.

That is the picture for the whole of Great Britain. Youth training is just as important for Norwich as it is for the country as a whole. Youth training is a success story built on the success of YTS, but it is more flexible and with a stronger focus on qualifications. The normal minimum attainment level built into training plans is NVQ level 2. Youth training is now the accepted route into work in many occupational areas, a part of the infrastructure of working life.

Not least, youth training, alongside the national curriculum and other new education innovations introduced by the Government, is one of the key routes by which we will raise standards and meet the national education and training targets.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the particular issues that concern him about Norfolk and Waveney TEC's approach to securing the right provision in Norwich. I have explained how our contractual relationship works and the onus that my Department places on TECs to ensure delivery.

We shall continue to monitor the situation very closely to ensure that the TEC continues to address the need to provide for Norwich's young people quality training opportunities and that it discharges its responsibilities for meeting the YT guarantee. In like fashion, the Department will continue to press upon the careers service the need to work co-operatively with the TEC to diagnose the needs of the city's young people in good time to allow the right provision to be brought on stream, and after that to ensure that each young person leaving school in Norwich is helped to find the right opportunity.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue, which has given me the opportunity to place on record the great importance that the Government attach to the youth training guarantee. The debate has also enabled me to underline our message to training and enterprise councils throughout the country and not just in Norfolk and Waveney. It is vital for the youth training guarantee to be met.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Three o'clock.

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