HC Deb 11 November 1996 vol 285 cc5-6
4. Mr. Sutcliffe

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the progress of the skills audit. [1300]

The Deputy Prime Minister

The Government published the skills audit in June this year alongside the third competitiveness White Paper. It provides objective information on our education and training performance compared to that of some of our major competitors. This will support our continuing drive to ensure a world-class work force.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Is it not a disgrace and an insult to the long-term unemployed, particularly young unemployed people, that the Government have taken 17 years to deal with skills shortages? Will the Deputy Prime Minister comment on the position facing the printing industry, which he knows well? Although the German and UK printing industries are equivalent in size, last year the number of new entrants in the German industry was 4,000 and the number in the UK industry was only 400. When will we have less rhetoric about intervention and see something really happen to help the long-term unemployed?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate it if I say that I have no working familiarity with the printing industry. I have never been in that industry.

I take seriously the issue that the hon. Gentleman put to me, however, because it is one of the most important issues facing the country. We have been dealing with skills and education deficiencies since the early 1980s, which is why, to take the most obvious example, one in three young people now go on to higher education, as opposed to one in eight when the Conservative party was elected. We have introduced a national curriculum, testing and the publication of results. The skills audit made it clear that the UK is world class, particularly in higher education. We are dealing with areas where we have weaknesses.

Mr. Sykes

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind Opposition Members of the unemployment rates for young people in Spain, Italy, Germany and France compared with the rate in this country? Will he also remind them that the effect of tomorrow's judgment on a 48-hour week, which the Opposition support, is likely to destroy jobs for young people for many months to come?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are determined to continue with our record: we have had five years of economic growth and we are addressing the critical issues of rising standards in education and training.

Mr. Caborn

Will the Deputy Prime Minister answer the questions about the position portrayed by last week's cohesion report from Europe, which clearly showed that we have the lowest productivity rates and have failed to invest in skills and training? I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman revisits the criteria on which the skills audit was based, because they clearly do not give the same answers as Europe gives, which involve very objective criteria.

The Deputy Prime Minister

The explanation is simple: we were so far behind in 1979 that we have not yet caught up. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, we have been catching up. The best evidence of that comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund, which have clearly stated the pre-eminence of the British economy. Perhaps most eloquent of all is the fact that 40 per cent. of all inward investment in Europe is coming here because world industrialists know that this is the best place in which to invest.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the surveys that put us at the bottom of league tables on education or skills are just so much nonsense? In reality, companies that invest in this country believe that we have a highly skilled and educated work force and it is only Opposition Members who want to run Britain down.

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I do not disagree with the broad approach that he adopts, but everybody knows that, since about 1860, our education standards have not kept pace with those of continental Europe. The difference is that this Government began to do something about it and the gap is closing; in some cases, it has already closed. Apart from our economic achievements, that is one of the most impressive tributes to this Government.