HC Deb 27 April 1999 vol 330 cc129-32
6. Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

How many modern apprenticeships the Government intend to create in Scotland. [80994]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Donald Dewar)

The Government set a target of 15,000 modern apprenticeships by 2002 in the lifelong learning paper "Opportunity Scotland", published in September 1998. There are currently 10,500 modern apprentices in training, and 67 modern apprenticeship frameworks have been approved in Scotland. From 1 July 1999, this will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Mrs. McKenna

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should celebrate the impact that modern apprenticeships and the new deal are having on many thousands of young Scots? What plans does he have for modern apprenticeships under the Scottish Parliament, of which he will be the First Minister?

Mr. Dewar

I never anticipate events; I am a cautious man. I am not sure that it is right for me to speculate in this House on what that Parliament may do. Those who read carefully the public prints will know that the figure of 20,000 as a target for modern apprenticeships has been mooted, and it seems to me to be a splendid idea. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we expand higher and further education and increase skills in other parts of the economy if we are to compete effectively. Modern apprenticeships have been a real success as part of the skill seekers programme, and there is widespread support for the expansion of that provision.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

Given that the new deal has so far managed to fail 60 per cent. of those participating, and given the Secretary of State's appalling, abysmal record of job creation—7,000 jobs were lost in Scotland last year, and 16,000 in the first year—would not the right hon. Gentleman do better to recognise that, rather than pushing yet another hopeless scheme of apprenticeships—and having imposed more than 2,500 extra regulations and £3.5 billion in extra taxes—the Government should get out of businesses' hair and let them create real jobs?

Mr. Dewar

I fear that the hon. Gentleman, poor soul, has been listening to the Scottish Conservatives. That is a great mistake. I do not recognise the figures that he gave. Let me make a serious point. The new deal has been a remarkable success, and has received widespread support from employers in Scotland—not initial support that has tailed off, but support that has been maintained and has grown over the months. It has had a remarkable impact on the unemployment rate among 18 to 24-year olds, which has halved over the period.

Of course there will be failures. The clients have difficult records; otherwise, they would not need to be involved in the new deal. However, the flexible gateway, the dedication and positive approach of the Employment Service and the co-operation between employers and the voluntary sector have produced real benefits and gains for Scotland.

If the hon. Gentleman examines the record of this Labour Government, he will see that since we came to office the number of people employed in Scotland has risen by about 17,000, while the number of those unemployed has fallen by 35,000. I recognise the difficulties; I recognise that parts of the economy are experiencing genuine problems. The situation is not helped, however, by a Greek chorus of misery from Conservative Members, which I do not think can be any excuse for the fact that the hon. Gentleman is not often seen in Scotland.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

My right hon. Friend will know that many young people in Scotland have been cynical about previous Tory schemes. Does he share my concern, and that of my young constituents in Eastwood, about the way in which the Scottish National party has sought to exploit that concern and cynicism by undermining the new deal?

The new deal has undoubtedly been a success. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that, as part of his drive to increase the skill level and to give young people in Scotland fresh opportunities, the new deal will not be replaced by modern apprenticeships, but the new deal and the modern apprenticeships vision will work in tandem to unlock the potential of many thousands of young Scots?

Mr. Dewar

I have no difficulty in agreeing with my hon. Friend about that. There are some 38,500 skill seekers in Scotland at present, 72 per cent. of whom are receiving a wage. I believe that the concept of skill seekers has been a success, but it is true that we must work, through skill seekers and in other ways—on other fronts on which the new deal is won—to try to achieve an interlocking pattern of provision. We need to skill and encourage our people into the labour market, so that they can have the dignity and, importantly, the wages that go with regular employment.

I do not want to be too difficult about the cynicism of the SNP at the moment. I see that the party is represented by one lonely outpost today. Lest any of my hon. Friends should say anything nasty, let me add that we should have some consideration for those who are worried about their seats.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the job increases to which he rightly adverted have been mainly in the service sector, and that they have involved mainly part-time jobs? Will he further acknowledge that a real contribution to manufacturing industry can be made through modern apprenticeships? Will he give a guarantee that the central industries, such as the textile industry, that can be assisted by such apprenticeships will be properly consulted? Will he look carefully at the German model, in which there is a close relationship between schools, industry and trade unions, in doing what he can to assist manufacturing industry north of the border in the future?

Mr. Dewar

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of the interface between school education, further education and industry. Of course he is right in saying that there have been problems in manufacturing industry, but I do not think that those problems are unique to Scotland. It was encouraging to see the last quarterly report of the Bank of Scotland, which suggested that some sites were viable and could be improved. I have no doubt that there will be disappointments before we surmount the present difficulties, but the framework generally is encouraging, and it was important that we were able to announce a substantial input of financial services jobs a few weeks ago.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be fair about this. If he considers the successful efforts to preserve the Longannet deep mine over the past few weeks, and the work of Gavin Laird and his colleagues in the task force to deal with the difficulties in the shipbuilding industry, 1 think—or I would like to think—that he would be one of the last Liberal Democrats to accuse us of inattention or indifference to the problems.