HL Deb 29 November 1984 vol 457 cc1033-7

4.45 p.m.

The Minister Without Portfolio (Lord Young of Graffham)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement on Skillcentres being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. My noble friend the Chief Whip has asked me to offer his apologies to your Lordships for inadvertently misleading the House in this respect. The Statement of course is the Statement of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Statement is as follows:

"In the White Paper Training for Jobs, the Government set out their proposals for doubling the number of adults receiving training under Manpower Services Commission programmes including a substantial increase in the number of unemployed training for jobs, and for ensuring that the resources available for training are used in the most effective way.

"In this connection, the Skillcentre Training Agency yesterday put forward to the Manpower Services Commission its proposals for improving the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the Skillcentre network. Copies of the full proposals and background information are available in the Library.

"These proposals will be considered by the Commission at their next meeting on December 13th. In the light of their considerations, the Commission will advise me how they would propose to proceed in this matter. I shall of course keep the House informed of further developments."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for correcting that slight error and for repeating the Statement made in another place by the Secretary of State for Employment. However, it appears a bit odd to me that this Statement had to be made at all today. This time yesterday, up to 6 o'clock, we were involved in a debate on unemployment, and this fact was known, had been made available to the press and was embargoed, I think, for 5 o'clock. I make no accusations against Lord Belstead, for whom I have the greatest respect, but I think if it was made public at that time it ought to have been made known here and it might have saved us this exercise today.

What strikes me about the Statement is its real lack of meaningful content. This is the second Statement that has been made in the last 24 hours. I should like the Minister to tell us whether he would agree with the observations made this morning by such responsible organisations as the CBI, the TUC and other organisations involved in industry and commerce, that both these measures that are going to be brought in by the present Government will exacerbate still further the unemployment figures published today, which I understand are the worst set of figures we have had in any November since statistics were taken.

Would the Minister also not agree that the proposals, taken in total, once again affect more adversely the northern regions of this country as against the South, which appears once again to be receiving more favourable consideration from the Government? I should like the Minister's comments on those two points because that is the view that is being taken outside this House on the two sets of proposals.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement being made in another place. In view of the fact that, as the Statement says, discussions are going on about the proposals put forward to the Commission, we would like to stress again the tremendous importance we attach to a rapid increase in facilities for training for skilled trades, which are in short supply. It is becoming increasingly clear that such recovery as this country is having will be retarded because we are already unable to fill key jobs through lack of skilled personnel. There is an urgent need, as in wartime, that it should be regarded as a matter of high priority to speed up the training of such categories of people so that this obstacle to recovery does not continue.

I should also like to ask the Minister whether, in these new proposals which are coming forward and in the changes which are taking place, it will be possible for training programmes to start much more quickly than they have done in the past in response to identified need. It is of the greatest importance that, when an unemployed man, or indeed a man in an occupation, who wishes to train for another occupation makes a decision to train, he should be able to get this training without delay. As the Minister knows, it is at present often a matter of months before such a person can get on to a training programme.

If we mean business about training and meeting our skill shortages, the speeding-up of the training is of the highest importance. It is common knowledge that in some countries this can be done. Sweden, for example, claims that if a man decides on a Thursday to go on a training course, he can start the following Monday. This is the way to meet skill shortages. May I further ask the Minister whether there is to be any increased provision for residential accommodation in connection with highly specialised training? Obviously, highly specialised training cannot be made available in every centre. However, in order that this training can be undertaken—it is jobs of this kind that form bottlenecks and prevent progress—every incentive should be given to people to go on residential courses for concentrated highly specialised training.

Lord Young of Graffham

In thanking your Lordships I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, that the timing of the Statement was dictated perhaps by events occurring in another place and also by the receipt of the proposals from the Skill-centre Training Agency which have been laid in the Library of the House. I am sure that no slight was intended against yesterday's debate. I, for one, apologise for not being here for that debate. It is important to look at exactly what are the proposals of the Skillcentre Training Agency. They are all there within the framework of the adult training strategy—a strategy that was drawn up by the Manpower Services Commission last year after full consultation with employers, with trade unions and with the world of education, approved by the commission in November 1983 and submitted to Ministers and approved by the Government early this year.

Within the adult training strategy the number of people helped in adult training will be doubled, from 125,000 to 250,000. Within the delivery of that particular programme, it appears that the commission has looked (it announced back in January that it would be so looking) at the proposals for the Skillcentre Training Agency itself. I would be surprised, and regret it, if bodies such as the CBI or even the TUC criticise these proposals once they have seen them in detail. These proposals are to do with the efficiency of running the particular programme, and are concerned very much with providing not yesterday's skills but the requirements for tomorrow's jobs.

The proposals involve a small reduction, from 12,500 to 10,500, I think, in the number of training places being provided, but also a vast increase from 7,000 to 54,000 in the number of weeks provided by mobile training instructors who can move round and train in employers' premises or otherwise train in locations. There is no major conurbation that will not have its Skillcentre. However, it is premature to look at the plan. These are proposals which have been published by the Skillcentre Training Agency. They are to be considered by the Manpower Services Commission on 13th December. No doubt that decision will be communicated to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment in due course.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, that we would accept, and I am sure that the Manpower Services Commission would accept, that there is a requirement for changing quickly the nature of training. I suspect that that is what these proposals are about. I hope, on due reflection, that noble Lords will decide that these proposals are about updating the provision for training in this country to ensure that it is people who benefit and not buildings.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord has been good enough to deal with those two questions very fully. We are grateful to him. The noble Lord has of course been appointed in an effort to deal with the appalling unemployment problem that is a source of so great a worry to all of us. Is he aware that this matter was dealt with when we heard the Statement repeated yesterday about the Government's new regional aid policy? It is very difficult to think of questions to put to the noble Lord in view of the paucity of this Statement. However, is he aware that the words, improving the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the Skillcentre network", do raise doubts in my mind? This is usually the classic introduction to a cut in expenditure.

Can the noble Lord say, as we have not read the report in the Library, whether the recommendation is that there should be a cut in the number of Skillcentres? Can he say whether the number of Skillcentres in Wales, in Merseyside, in the North and in Scotland, for example, are to remain the same?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, if I may say so to the noble Lord, I think it would be premature to start debating the detail of the plan that has been placed in the Library. There is a reduction in the number of Skillcentres nationally. There is a reduction in the number of Skillcentres both in Wales and in Scotland. However, the point that I should like to put to your Lordships this afternoon is that the amount of money spent by the Manpower Services Commission within the adult training strategy remains unchanged. What we are talking about today is a plan by the Skillcentre Training Agency itself, submitted to the Manpower Services Commission, on a way to improve its efficiency. That means changing its reliance upon buildings and existing locations, perhaps, and, it may be, upon training for yesterday's trades, and looking at a different method of delivering training for tomorrow's skills.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is it the effect of the changes that are to take place that more and not fewer people are going to be trained? It does not seem to me to be of any significance whether they are trained in Skillcentres or by peripatetic trainers "in house" in organisations. What is of interest is that the total number of people being trained, particularly for jobs and skills where there are shortages, will be increased by the new proposals.

Lord Young of GrafTham

My Lords, I am happy to assure the noble Baroness that under the adult training strategy the number of people trained will be doubled.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, may I briefly ask the Minister before he sits down whether he would care to comment on that part of my question in which I stated that the TUC, the CBI and other organisations had expressed the opinion that both the packages put together would further increase unemployment?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I do not think that it is for me to comment upon the views of the CBI or the TUC on regional aid. I would be surprised—I have yet to see its statement in detail—if the CBI had inferred from the plan of the Skillcentre Training Agency that this will increase unemployment. Quite the contrary. A large part, I believe, or a part, certainly, of unemployment today is due to the absence of the proper skills. I hope that this is part of a process that the Manpower Services Commission is devising to produce the right skills in the right place at the right time.