HC Deb 07 November 1995 vol 265 cc722-4
8. Mr. Touhig

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many craft apprenticeships were offered in the United Kingdom in the last year. [40045]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. James Paice)

Information on the number of craft apprenticeships offered during the year is not collected.

Mr. Touhig

Craft apprenticeships were once the core of British industry. In 1965, British industry offered 125,000 craft apprenticeships; they have now all but disappeared. The result is a skills shortage which is harming our economic recovery. Will the Under-Secretary explain why Britain is experiencing a massive decline in skills training? Will he comment on an article in the Industrial Relations Journal which says that the Government have become increasingly less helpful in supporting craft apprenticeships and that Tory Governments are concerned about craft apprenticeships because they associate them with the craft unions? Is this another example of Tory right-wing dogma harming British industry and threatening the skills of our work force?

Mr. Paice

I am afraid that it is a clear example of the hon. Gentleman not having done his homework properly. The fact is that he asked how many craft apprenticeships were offered. Those statistics are not and, to the best of my knowledge, never have been collected. If the hon. Gentleman had asked how many people were on craft apprenticeships at any particular time, I would have told him. The most recent labour force survey, in spring this year, showed that 191,000 people declared themselves to be on apprenticeships and that, of those people, 101,000 were on craft apprenticeships. The labour force survey is the means by which the measurements are collected, and it has been for many years.

Mr. James Hill

Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the decline in the building industry could be put down to bad workmanship resulting from the lack of a thoroughgoing apprenticeship scheme? Such an apprentice scheme was the backbone of the building industry at one time. Is there any way in which we can encourage more apprenticeships in the building industry?

Mr. Paice

My hon. Friend will be aware that the building industry is the only remaining industry with a compulsory levy and a statutory training board, and apprenticeships are still offered in all aspects of the construction industry. The real problem is not the absence of apprenticeships but the trend towards more subcontract work throughout the industry. That matter is now being addressed by the construction industry training board as it reviews its training programmes.

Mr. Byers

The Minister failed to refer to the Government's modern apprenticeship scheme in relation to craft apprenticeships. Was that because of the widespread failure to recruit due to weaknesses in the scheme, with only 4,000 places being filled nationally? Does the Minister acknowledge that training and enterprise councils have had their budgets cut by some £200 million this year? How will a combination of a lack of apprenticeships and training budget cuts give our people the skills they need to get them back into work and to bring prosperity back to this country?

Mr. Paice

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Opposition Front Bench. His appointment perhaps accounts for the vast number of questions that he constantly tables on these issues, despite the fact that virtually all the information that he requests is available in the Library.

I did not refer to modern apprenticeships, because nobody asked me about them. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked me about the scheme, because it did not go unnoticed that he tabled a question yesterday about the number of modern apprenticeship starts. The hon. Gentleman failed to point out that the figure of 4,000 starts was for the first month of the scheme—it had only just started. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate his totally unjustified challenge, and the reality is that a vast number of employers are keen to take on employees. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the Government hope to get about 30,000 starts in the current year. That statement is already on the public record, and I am happy to reaffirm it to the hon. Gentleman.

As for cuts for TECs, the hon. Gentleman needs to do his homework better. There have been no cuts in the budgets for modern apprenticeships and youth training.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my hon. Friend agree that any decline in craft apprenticeships and training occurred during the years when the smokestack and labour-intensive industries were phased out and when the Labour party, in collusion with the unions, forced the wages of apprentices to levels that made their employment no longer viable?

Mr. Paice

My hon. Friend is quite right. Most reasonable people agree that the wages of people who are learning should be commensurate to their status, but that, as they develop and improve—[Interruption.] On the subject of learning, I am pleased to welcome the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), as he might learn something. The right hon. Gentleman said that any fool knows that a minimum wage will cause a shake-out, and that is precisely the problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) is referring. If there is a minimum wage which applies to everybody regardless of skill levels, how does one address the need for differentials for those people who have been through apprenticeships? The Opposition have failed year in, year out to answer that question about their minimum wage proposals.