HL Deb 21 February 1985 vol 460 cc707-12

5.32 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 honouranble friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about skillcentres. I advised the House on 29th November of the Skillcentre Training Agency's proposals to the Manpower Services Commission. On 24th January, the chairman of the commission informed me of the commission's conclusions. These proposals for the reorganisation of the skillcentre network are designed to eliminate the present waste of resources and to enable the funds thus released to be employed in substantially increasing the number of training opportunities.

"The proposals form part of the adult training strategy adopted by the commission over a year ago, after the widest possible consultation. Under that strategy the number of adults being trained under the commission's programmes is planned to rise to 250,000 by 1986–87. This is more than double the 1983–84 figure. It includes a substantial increase in the number of unemployed helped. All parts of the country will benefit from this expansion.

"The reorganised skillcentre network has an important role to play in this further development of training. I very much welcome the emphasis the centres are now putting on new and higher technology skills, which will now be more widely available. I have today confirmed again to the chairman of the commission further capital investment in the network of £10.5 million for 1985–86. The addition also of a new 300-strong mobile instructor force is an imaginative and positive innovation. It gives greater flexibility, and allows coverage in remote areas not previously covered by the skillcentre network.

"I have now considered these proposals, taking into account the evidence given to the Select Committee on Employment on this matter and all the further representations made to me. Following consultation with my right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales, I have today written to the chairman of the commission. I am placing a copy of my letter in the Library.

"In my letter I have asked the commission to implement the agency's proposals. I have asked the chairman to make quite sure in doing so that where any closure is involved it should not take place until satisfactory alternative provisions have been identified. I have asked that the fullest consultation takes place with the staff and trade unions, with particular regard to negotiating new working practices designed to help the overall efficiency of the network, and to avoiding compulsory redundancies wherever possible.

"Mr. Speaker, these proposals for the reorganisation of the skillcentres make sense as a necessary step in improving the cost-effectiveness of training programmes thus enabling substantial expansion in training opportunities, for unemployed as well as employed people, throughout the country."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place, which he has done in his usual courteous manner. However, my praise stops there, because I find nothing in the Statement that gives me any comfort; nor, I think, will it give any comfort to unemployed people in the country. I should like to put some points to the noble Lord, and, in view of the time factor, I shall do so briefly.

The Statement mentioned the addition of a new 300-strong mobile instructor force as an imaginative and positive innovation. Can the noble Lord say, even though this is part of the Government's intention, that the loss of jobs in real terms amounts to between 400 and 500? I should also like to ask what is meant by the Secretary of State when he says that he has asked the chairman to make quite sure that no individual closure takes place until satisfactory alternative provisions have been identified. Does that mean that, before there were redundancies of any kind in the service in a particular area, alternatives would have to be available at that time and not at some later date?

Is it not also a fact that the Minister's proposals do not at present have the support of a majority of the members of the commission? Is it not the case that when the proposals were first carried to the Minister there was a 5 to 4 majority on the commission in favour of the proposals, but still some doubters among the five? I understand that one member, who was in favour of the proposals at that time, has changed his mind and written to the Minister to declare this. Is it not therefore a fact that the proposals do not represent the commission's view at this time? I should like to hear the Minister's view. It has a bearing on how the proposals are accepted in general by people involved. Is it not also a fact that a reputable firm of accountants carried out a review of the proposals as they stand and was unable to find any viability within them?

Baroness Seear

My Lords, from these Benches I should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dean, I wish to ask what is meant by the phrase that no individual closure should take place until satisfactory alternative provisions have been identified. What are the criteria for deciding satisfactory alternative provisions? Is it a question of the remoteness of centres for training, so that people in some areas find it extremely difficult to go to skillcentres because of the distance when certain centres have been closed? How will this be determined? We should like more information.

At this point I part company with the noble Lord, Lord Dean. I welcome the changes that are going on, particularly the appointment of the mobile instructor force. A great deal of change is better done on site than in skillcentres. We may be moving towards a position in which more mobile instructors should be available so that people can be trained on the job in the setting where they are to work. This is often the best way to make training stick with the people concerned, rather than take them away and put them into a centre.

I should like to know what is being done to update the skillcentres that remain open to see that they are carrying out the kind of training that is required. It is no secret, I believe, that some centres have become somewhat out of date, possibly, although I do not know, because they have not received the kind of equipment that is necessary if training is to be relevant to modern requirements. It is surely better to have an effective team of mobile instructors, backed by up-to-date skillcentres, than to try to concentrate entirely on the skillcentres. The move is in the right direction. One wants, however, to see that both approaches—skillcentres and mobile instructors—are of the best kind that can be provided.

I should also like to ask about the use of the mobile instructors. A very important part of adult training is to deal with the long-term unemployed. It is intended especially for the long-term unemployed. The community projects are available for them, and training should be included in these projects. Surely the mobile instructors are precisely the people who could give effective training to long-term unemployed on community projects. One is appalled to be told that that training is not to be given in the course of the work on the community projects but only after people have been on them, in their own time, while they are not actually employed on the projects. This seems to be a singularly dotty way of doing it. If ever there was a place where learning for this kind of person is appropriate, it is actually on the job with a skilled instructor to help. To suggest that people should go to courses after they have done work on a project, instead of having the advantage of skilled instructors actually on the project, seems to me most extraordinary. I should be glad if the Minister would comment.

5.41 p.m.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, for his comments. I should say at the outset that some 1,050 staff of the Skillcentre Training Agency will be affected, but my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment has asked the commission to consult fully with staff and trades unions, particularly in regard to avoiding compulsory redundancies, wherever possible. Redeployment, voluntary early retirement and compulsory retirement at age 60 or over will be explored first. Compulsory redundancy is expected to be necessary for only a minority of staff.

That is an unpleasant decision to have to make, but I believe it is important to look at what the adult strategy itself is out to achieve. It is a strategy which was accepted by the Secretary of State and recommended by the commission, and one which was evolved only after the fullest possible consultation with all interested parties. Furthermore, I should remind your Lordships' House that if we look at the percentage of those leaving skillcentres over the last few years and going into employment, either generally or in the trade they have just acquired, we will find that continually, from 1980, those coming out of skillcentres have been less fortunate than those coming out of colleges of further education; and that trend has continued to this day.

If I were to be asked why that is, I would say that it is for the reason I discovered when I had the privilege of being chairman of the commission: that the skills required in the world of employment have changed over the last 10 years. What the Skillcentre Training Agency is doing today is taking steps to ensure that it provides for both unemployed and employed the skills which are required in today's world.

It is true that since the decision was made on 24th January one of the commissioners has written to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. I have had the opportunity of reading that letter. The commissioner asked for the decision to be delayed. My right honourable friend has noted Dr. Green's point, along with other representations which we have received. Delay in implementing the Skillcentre Training Agency's proposals would jeopardise the major expansion in training opportunities planned in the adult training strategy, and every pound that has to be spent on subsiding skillcentres after 1st April 1986 will mean fewer people trained. In the end, we have to consider the position of both unemployed and employed in acquiring the skills they in fact require to hold their place in the world of employment.

I should repeat once again that as a result of the new adult training strategy no fewer than twice as many people will benefit from the new form of training being provided. I am afraid that I cannot help your Lordships in regard to any viability study prepared by a firm of accountants, but I can assure your Lordships that during my time the figures were gone into very seriously and that this decision was arrived at after looking at all the consequences.

In the Statement I have just read to the House my right honourable friend said that he has asked the chairman of the Manpower Services Commission to make quite sure that he will not ask for any skillcentre closure, until satisfactory alternative provisions have been identified". Under the arrangements for the adult training strategy, and in providing for twice the number of people to be trained, steps are being taken to ensure that each region of the country has satisfactory training provision. The key point about the closure programme is that the Manpower Services Commission will take it upon itself to ensure that there is an adequate and expanded range of training available in the particular locality before it will proceed to the closure of the skillcentre.

I am aware of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, about the community programme. That is a matter at which I have little doubt the Manpower Services Commission is looking in adapting training into the community programme for the help of the long-term unemployed. That is only a small part of the adult training strategy. The adult training strategy is about bringing unemployed and employed people to a full state of readiness so that we can regain our economic advantages in this world, and training as a whole is a vital part of it. The Skillcentre Training Agency will play a very valuable role in the provision of training. This is a difficult step. It follows one which has no doubt been taken in parts of industry so that they may bring themselves up to date. I assure your Lordships that at the end of the day it will result only in the provision of more and better training.

5.47 p.m.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord some questions about two important commitments undertaken by the Secretary of State, according to the Statement. One was that all parts of the country would benefit from the proposed expansion, and the second was that no individual closure would take place until satisfactory alternative provisions had been identified. Unhappily, the Secretary of State did not condescend to give particulars about the detailed arrangements in different parts of the country. The information that I have about West Wales in general, and my native town of Llanelli in particular, is, to say the least, deeply disturbing. It may well be that there have been changes of mind since it was originally announced that the Llanelli skillcentre was to be closed. There have been discussions since then, and it may be that there has been a different decision.

When are we going to receive from the MSC the details of the arrangements in different parts of the country? In Llanelli there are over 38,000 unemployed people—an increase of 7,000 since 1982. That is an unemployment rate of 17.9 per cent., and it is still rising. The need for retraining and the market for it have correspondingly increased. In regard to the needs of the community, if the economy of the area is to survive and prosper a pool of labour is required, trained in the new technologically-orientated industries; so there is a greater need than ever before for more provision.

I do not know quite how that is going to be achieved by the threatened removal of the skillcentre and the survival of only one, apparently—in Port Talbot, which is miles and miles away from West Wales and from Llanelli. Perhaps there has been fundamental re-thinking, particularly bearing in mind that in the last three years the Llanelli skillcentre has been unique; it has been extremely successful. For instance, in 1981, while 80 per cent. of places were occupied, only 22 per cent. of the trainees were able to find jobs. In November 1984, 93 per cent. of all places were occupied and successful placements were found for a proportion well above the national average; so that is a skillcentre which is producing results.

It may well be that the noble Lord may not have information at his fingertips, or even a note hurriedly provided from the place over yonder, to deal with my questions, but I assure him that there is very grave concern in the part of the country about which I have information which does not at all fit into the Statement by the Secretary of State that all parts of the country will benefit from the expansion. Therefore, I assure the noble Lord that we anxiously and urgently await the precise particulars which are needed before these assurances achieve any reality whatever.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, because, while I have every sympathy with what he has said, his remarks in fact demonstrate the very real difficulty which has been besetting the Manpower Services Commission in the provison of training. Without wishing to bore your Lordships' House, I should like to say a few words about the general and then a few words about the particular.

At present, the skillcentres have a capacity for 17,700 people within the existing network, and they have about 12,500 places filled. After the reduction the capacity will be about 13,200. Therefore, this is in some ways a reduction which is more apparent than real, save that it is real because the amount of money that will be saved in a full year will be approaching £50 million, which will otherwise be spent in the real provision of training throughout the country.

I point out to the noble and learned Lord that, during my time at the Manpower Services Commission, Llanelli was not far from my thoughts. It was often considered. I should also like to say that, as a result of the adult training strategy, the provision of training within the Principality of Wales will, in 1985–86, be 60 per cent. greater than in 1984–85, in terms of the number of people being trained. That, indeed, is a very real advance. However, although the figures for placement—that is, for those going into jobs—in Llanelli and elsewhere have improved over the last few years, they still run substantially below the figures relating to the local colleges for further education and, in any event, run beneath half the figure for those actually receiving training. This represents not only a waste of resources but a grave disappointment to those, particuarly the unemployed, who go through a training course but are unable to find a job afterwards. It is not important that we train, but it is important that we train in the skills which will be required tomorrow. It is that with which the whole skillcentre reorganisation is concerned.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I should briefly like to ask the Minister if he would once again look at the major point that I made. I am sure it was by accident that he missed dealing with it. I should like to know what is meant by the reference in the Statement that no individual closures will take place until satisfactory alternative provisions have been made. What does that mean?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I apologise for omitting to explain in full, perhaps, what I believe to be the meaning of that part of the Statement. It simply means that the proposals originated from the Manpower Services Commission and were made to the Secretary of State as part of the adult training strategy, and as part of the training strategy the Manpower Services Commission has undertaken to deliver training in all parts of the country according to the new plan. It would wish to identify the sources of the new training before it would seek to close any skillcentre. It is concerned to see that the adult training strategy is delivered, and delivered economically.