HC Deb 11 July 2002 vol 388 cc1022-4
3. David Hamilton (Midlothian)

What steps she is taking to increase investment in basic skills among small firms. [66368]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths)

The Government are committed to raising the level of adult literacy and numeracy in the work force and aim to provide free high-quality training and advice on basic skills for all small businesses. We have already trained 447 workplace basic skills brokers and we are recruiting employer champions, all with a proven basic skills track record in their sector, to help guide other businesses.

David Hamilton

When I started in the coal industry in Midlothian at the age of 15, there were 12 companies employing more than 1,000 people. In Midlothian now, there are 1,000 companies employing fewer than 12 people. It is therefore critical that people acquire not just the basic skills, but the trade skills that are needed throughout the area. In the past, it was easy to get plumbers, electricians and so on, but now it costs an arm and a leg to get them, and they come when they choose to come, because there are so few in the area. How can the Government assess those micro-industries, which in most cases are family companies, to see how best they can deliver, so that we remain the fourth state in the world in economic terms?

Nigel Griffiths

My hon. Friend is right. The Government already support training in small businesses through the small firms training loans scheme. We strongly support modern apprenticeships. My hon. Friend will share my pleasure at the fact that 728 young people resident in Midlothian are working towards vocational qualifications through skill seekers' training programmes. We are committed to training and we welcome all the support that we are getting from small businesses, as well as from all hon. Members.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)

The Minister will be aware that small firms have a limited time horizon, and their employees have great difficulty in getting away from work for any sort of training. As we are speaking of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of small businesses, what are the Government doing to support Learn direct on the Internet? What targets are they hoping to achieve for the hundreds of thousands of businesses that will qualify for such support, and how many people have indicated an interest so far?

Nigel Griffiths

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting Learndirect. I had the pleasure of visiting J. and K. Ross in Warrington on 29 March this year to see the firm's pilot Learndirect pod. It is a worthwhile and valued project. We aim to roll it out as quickly as possible. We will learn from the pilots and then, I hope, apply them nationally.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of improving basic accountancy and engineering skills is for workers in small firms to form that firm as a co-operative? Will he ensure that the Small Business Service is mindful of the virtues of co-operative forms of organisation when it gives advice to small firms about their training needs?

Nigel Griffiths

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting that aspect. When I was in Plymouth I was able to visit a social enterprise and to learn from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) the great value of co-operatives there. I also know of co-operatives elsewhere in the country.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) in stressing the importance of co-operatives, the contribution that they make to the economy and the contribution that they make, which he asked me to highlight, to uprating the skills of the work force. Their commitment is second to none.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

Basic skills, including reading and writing, are grossly inadequate in this country and rapidly falling behind those of our European competitors, and yet the Government consistently fail both to support the further education sector in the way that they should and to put in place initiatives to encourage businesses to work productively with the FE sector to the benefit of all concerned. Would the Minister care to comment?

Nigel Griffiths

I was shocked to learn that as many as 7 million people in the work force are functionally illiterate; that is the case, according to Digby Jones of the CBI. I believe that that figure is an indictment and an indicator of the sad decline in education in the 18 years from 1979. We are doing a great deal, as I have highlighted in earlier answers, to reverse functional illiteracy in the work force, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is doing a great deal to ensure that before people reach the work force we eliminate that sort of functional illiteracy—a shameful legacy of a previous Government.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)

Will my right hon. Friend recognise, as many of the more progressive employers throughout Britain do, the valuable work that the trade union learning reps do at the workplace? Will he use his good offices to work with the trade union movement in rolling out that programme, particularly among small businesses?

Nigel Griffiths

My hon. Friend is quite right, and I am very pleased that in the Employment Act 2002 we have extended those facilities. Indeed, it is one of the great benefits of employers working with and recognising trade unions that they can ensure that the work force embrace that learning experience and upgrade their skills. That is vital for the modern economy and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) pointed out, as more and more small businesses become the driving forces in the economy, it is vital that they too have the skills to allow us to compete in the modern world.