§ 7. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
What further measures the Government propose to increase the United Kingdom's skills base. 
§ The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)
As part of our strategy for achieving a high skills and a high value-added economy, we have established the national skills taskforce, put in place measures to address basic skills needs—they are set out in the document that was published on 1 March—and created the Learning and Skills Council, which will be on stream from 1 April. We are also establishing new technology institutes and centres of vocational excellence throughout the country.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
The Secretary of State can stick his chest out about yesterday's news of the lowest unemployment for 25 years. However, does he appreciate that new problems arise, such as a skills shortage at a time when we are achieving almost full employment? In my constituency, there are many semi-skilled, unskilled and de-skilled people. Statistics show that only 22 per cent. have access to the internet, whereas the figure is approximately 86 per cent. for the professional classes.
What measures will the Government take to ensure that the people I represent, and my right hon. Friend's constituents, are enabled, emancipated and given access to the internet, in the interests of the United Kingdom economy and so that they can fulfil their moral right to develop their skills and personalities, and enjoy new technologies as others in the United Kingdom do? That's socialism!
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am in favour of all that. I was pleased that my hon. Friend's constituency received funding for two new learning centres and that I was able to launch the online programme a week ago. It provides for the development of more than 2,000 learning centres throughout the country, linked to the learning grid and our programme of investment, which was reinforced yesterday in our Green Paper. The programme is directed at those with skills needs and those who face the greatest hardship and difficulty. By doing that, we can ensure that we have an inclusive society, in which people have good quality, lasting jobs and are able to take advantage of the strength of the economy, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has ensured.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
Does the Secretary of State agree that we will not increase the skills base by putting pupils on buses that drive past excellent schools that they are not allowed to attend? Ribblesdale high 1180 school in Clitheroe has technology status and many computers. It is an excellent school, and the head has done tremendous work in turning it round. Youngsters have to drive past it to attend other schools simply because the local education authority has failed to meet the demands of local youngsters to go to it. Will the Secretary of State encourage the LEA to take more account of house building in Ribble Valley and thus ensure that people can attend some of our excellent local schools?
§ Mr. Blunkett
The question appears to be: do we agree that, whenever possible, children should be able to attend their local school, free from restrictions that prevent that and force them to pass schools that others attend? I agree. It is a pity that Conservative party policies, especially those on selection, would preclude that.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are further to increase the United Kingdom's skills base, every child must leave school having realised their full potential? Will he assure the House that under-achievement, right back to primary school, and the individual needs of children will be identified early, and that that support will continue post-primary school until children leave the school system?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I do agree with that. I am glad to get back to the subject of skills, because I realised that the previous question was not related to the one on the Order Paper. I am happy to confirm that carrying the basic skills literacy and numeracy programmes through primary to secondary education, engaging young people aged between 14 and 19, and developing classroom and work-based high quality vocational routes are all crucial. Developing the modern advanced apprenticeship schemes and vocational GCSEs and A-levels will contribute to achieving that.
§ Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the announcement this morning of the largest single overseas offshore contract, involving 750 jobs in my constituency, is a major boost for the north-east and a fulfilment of the Government's pledge to spread prosperity throughout the regions? Does he also accept that the biggest problem faced by the hard core long-term unemployed in places such as Hartlepool is a persistent lack of skills and a low level of employability, and that we need in constituencies such as mine targeted intervention by the Government and agencies, so that that gap can be remedied and people who want to work can fill the job vacancies that have been generated in the economy?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Like my right hon. Friend, I greatly welcome the investment and creation of jobs in his area. I congratulate him on his excellent efforts in ensuring that. At the risk of incurring the most venomous writing of Matthew Parris, I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on the fact that his area was a pathfinder in developing the new deal programmes for specific skills training. Indeed, yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities and I announced an extension of action teams for jobs to link people who are in danger of losing their jobs to the skills that enable them to take the new jobs announced today.