HC Deb 29 January 1998 vol 305 cc487-8
5. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

What representations he has received concerning the activities of training and enterprise councils. [24183]

Dr. Howells

I regularly receive representations about TECs on a variety of issues.

Mrs. Bottomley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Government are in danger of giving the impression that they are so blinkered by the limited welfare-to-work programme—money and priority are only for that—that they are squeezing out all other topics? Small and medium enterprises in my area tell me that their problems are recruitment and skills shortages—something that the Surrey business link identified in its latest survey. Will he particularly commend the Surrey TEC, which has involved more than 1,000 companies in its modern apprenticeship programme?

Dr. Howells

Although I have no hesitation in congratulating the Surrey TEC on its achievements—and they are great achievements; more than half the new starts in Surrey are modern apprenticeships, and that is a model that every TEC should follow—I have to dispute the assertion that the right hon. Lady made at the beginning of her question. This year, there will be 72,000 new, modern apprenticeship starts—10,000 more than under the present arrangements. We value them, and want them to expand and continue.

Mr. Derek Foster

I invite my hon. Friend to reconsider the relationship between TECs and regional development agencies. At the risk of offending his national sensitivity, may I suggest that he follows the Scottish model? Would it not enable the RDA to pursue a coherent economic development strategy, including a skills strategy, within the regions?

Dr. Howells

My right hon. Friend raises some interesting issues. We are looking at every possible option. We want our training to be the best in the world, and for that we must have the most efficient means of brokering, commissioning and paying for training. I am interested in what he says. I shall look at it carefully. We are looking at the models not only in Scotland but in Wales, where they seem to work quite well.

Mr. Keetch

Is the Minister aware that hon. Members were told this morning that training and enterprise councils are required to keep approximately £70 million in reserve, but they would like to keep £170 million in reserve? Yet, in a written answer to me today, he accepted that more than £278 million is in reserve, which he says will be used for Government priorities. Will he assure the House and the TECs that that money will not be directed simply to bolstering the new deal but will be used for the benefit of TECs in their areas?

Dr. Howells

I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that that money will be used for the best possible projects, which will strengthen competitiveness and the employment infrastructure in the areas that the TECs serve. I want it to be spent on an array of new projects. We have some interesting ones in mind. Perhaps, over a cup of tea, I could talk to him about them.