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Industrial Training Boards

Volume 20: debated on Tuesday 16 March 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.43 pm

It makes one weep to consider the contrast between the descriptions of the City in the debate on Amersham International and the subject of my debate. The Minister referred to reality. This debate is about the reality of productive industry and the comparatively pitiful sums needed to keep open the road transport industry apprentices centre in my constituency, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) visited in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Employment. A comparison of the amount of money needed to train the apprentices, who, after all, will produce the wealth, with the sums discussed in the previous debate reveals a good deal about the problems of this country.

I am concerned about the chronic shortage of skilled craftsmen that is now predicted for the 1980s by the road transport industry training board and what action the Manpower Services Commission can take to deal with the problem. The number of first year apprentices—mechanics, body builders and vehicle electricians—has fallen by an alarming 70 per cent. since 1979, from 13, 000 to 3, 000.

There are no signs that companies are planning for a higher recruitment in the present training year. There is a disturbing increase in the proportion of apprentice dropouts from a traditional 10 per cent. to 14·5 per cent.— a rapidly rising wastage rate. The 1980 RTIB report predicted that industry would need to recruit about 25, 000 apprentices by 1982. At the end of 1981 the two-year total had not reached 10, 000. That means that the industry is already short of its anticipated needs by some 15, 000 apprentices. Those are the apprentices we all need if we are to have garage servicing, the lack of which people are endlessly complaining about.

In recessionary conditions many transport companies have been forced to cut training budgets savagely. Transport has been particularly badly hit. Can the Government really say that they will do nothing about it and pass by on the other side of the road because it is not their business? Faced with an increase of 7p per gallon for derv, and a number of other economic factors, the willingness of employers to pay for apprentices is reduced even further.

If recovery comes, the transport industry may be one of the first to recover and will need more help. British firms, which achieve a greater efficiency by slimming down their labour forces, often do so at the expense of the national economy. The shake-out of overmanning in industry, coupled with the reduced demand arising from the recession, has produced record unemployment. It is the country that has to meet the cost of the unemployed. Quite simply, the increased efficiency of individual firms is being achieved at a reduced overall national efficiency.

That is why it is so mad, so daft, at this point in time even to propose closing set-ups like the very efficient MOTEC at Livingston. National economic and basic social considerations require that we should do everything in our power to re-employ the unemployed. To close down the centre at Livingston would be to do the reverse of that. It is all very well to talk about industry being fitter and leaner. That might make sense if there were half a million unemployed, but it makes no sense at all in the context of apprentice training when there are 3·5 million unemployed.

Why is Government funding to be withdrawn from the training board, especially at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as reported at column 747 of the Official Report of 9 March 1982, is proposing help to small engineering firms? Small engineering firms are precisely those that will benefit from the work of places like MOTEC at Livingston.

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that there is nothing about MOTEC in this Vote. The Vote is really concerned with the increases in costs of industrial training boards. Only that can be raised.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is not the point at issue that in the Supplementary Estimate the Government provide additional moneys to wind down the training boards' activities? Is not MOTEC one example of the casualties of the Government's decision to withdraw funding from training boards and to provide for a division of particular boards?

I understand that the Vote under discussion does not relate in any way to MOTEC. It does not wind down MOTEC.

Order. I have followed the hon. Gentleman's speech carefully. It is all right to raise a general point, but he should not go into the details of MOTEC.

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, because I have been careful not to repeat the speech that I properly made on Wednesday, in the debate on the Budget. That speech was rightly geared to the particular consideration of MOTEC. However, the general considerations concern, for example, Alex Kitson and Larry Smith, who are on the board of MOTEC and who are to meet the Minister tomorrow. Many of the training boards are research establishments into training methods and techniques. That is one reason why they are so valuable.

I do not want to go into the details of MOTEC now, but where will we find apprentices for auto electrical departments? Small garages and engineering firms cannot provide anything like the simulators and fault detectors found in the purpose-built auto electrical department at Livingston. Many cars have been modified by MOTEC staff so that any number of faults can be introduced into a vehicle's system at the flick of a switch.

The Manpower Services Commission is responsible for about 100 private hirings of the Livingston facilities each year. As members of the Select Committee, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme, for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) and for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) found, there is a high use rate. That is one of the achievements of training boards. Can it be said that it is an internal board matter to close such a facility? The Under-Secretary may nod his head, but purpose-built facilities throughout the country are rotting away, although they are geared to the very objectives that the Government claim are important.

What sense does it make to spend money on providing facilities for youngsters under Service auspices to clamber around rocks—which may be estimable in itself, and to which I do not object—when the Government are taking away the facilities that allow them to clamber over vehicles to some definite purpose? Incidentally, 1, 500 of the students have passed their external City and Guilds examination. The Government seem to have a general policy of pushing training initiatives with their right hand and of destroying the wherewithal with their left hand, or at least standing on the sidelines and allowing training facilities to be destroyed. Several unique places—of which MOTEC is only one—have been closed. However, given the Chancellor's statement, those places should be encouraged. We are witnessing an act of irrationality and monumental folly given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said—as reported at column 747 of Hansard of 9 March 1982—that his main objective was to help small engineering firms.

Employers in some industries have said that they will not pay for the like of MOTEC. If employers take that view, surely the Government have a moral and, I suspect, a legal obligation—but I do not want to try your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by going into the legal obligations of MOTEC preservation—to retain training.

This place had 309, 000 training days behind it. It will not be possible to have such effective training by relying on day release. Some of us do not believe that small firms can give anything like the quality of concentrated training that the training boards have been able to offer. At the same time, the training boards have had close liaison with local education authorities. I give the example of the relationship between Livingston and Mr. Ferry and his colleagues at West Lothian college. I gather that at High Ercall there is a good relationship with Telford. So I do not limit it to Livingston.

What must concern us in this debate is the loss of skills and a situation in relation to road transport where there w ill be no skills centre north of Gainsborough. This is all very well, but it is a bit rough on the North of England, which provides 70 per cent. of the apprentices to Livingston, and on Scotland, which provides 30 per cent.

We are getting back to other North-South problems. As the Minister knows very well, I do not think that anybody is in such a position as I am to argue this case. It appears that the Scots are being discriminated against. The Minister can understand the political consequences of that. The proposals to consolidate—

Will my hon. Friend deal with the general question of the absurdity of declaring instructors redundant? He has talked of skill, but I think the Supplementary Estimate includes moneys for the training boards to provide for winding down. This must include this aspect.

Order. There is provision in the Estimates for the boards which are to be wound up, but we must not have a discussion on general policy. The Vote is much narrower than that.

I proposed to keep my speech reasonably short, but I can think of no colleague in the House who would be better placed than my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme to deal with that. He knows a great deal about it.

The instructions in these institutions, many of whom are 45, 50 or 55 years of age, are worried. If they get other jobs, they will not be using the skills which they have built up. The training board organisation fired the imagination of many good people. It is a matter of considerable sadness and often of personal tragedy that the hard work which they have put into building up these places will be lost. When the members of the Select Committee have gone round, they must have seen the result of all the work. I do not want to embarrass the instructors but many good men and women have given their lives to what they rightly thought was a worthwhile cause from the point of view of the country. I take my hon. Friend's point.

I do not understand the contrast between, on the one hand, making political speeches about new training initiatives and, on the other hand, closing down the very instrument that would allow those new training initiatives to be usefully and faithfully carried out. I leave it there.

12 midnight

The fact that this is a quieter and more reasonable debate than the previous one does not mean that we are not concerned about the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). Any Minister who has to face my hon. Friend in one of my hon. Friend's campaigns had better know what he is on about. We are indebted to my hon. Friend for having initiated this debate.

I make no pretence of being an expert on the subject. I did not serve on the Select Committee on Employment. The particular aspect of the matter to which my hon. Friend referred is not a constituency interest. As a recent addition to the Transport and General Workers Union, I had better tell the Minister that I am concerned about it from the point of view of the union and of employment generally.

Having confessed that I do not have detailed expertise, I believe that I am nevertheless entitled to pose one or two questions. It has already been said that there is a shortage of skills in the road transport industry, and in the future it will be worse.

Knowing of the reputation of the Scottish part of the road transport industry training board, I cannot square what is happening with the Government's declared intention of creating additional training opportunities for young people. It would be a criminal waste of resources, know-how, technical skills, tutoring skills and equipment in the training boards, and particularly in the road transport board, if they closed down entirely, which is a possibility facing that board.

There must be an obligation on the Government, after the time that has elapsed, to state their intentions with regard to the road transport board. They should also state their intentions for the use of the existing skills and facilities, if they take decisions that will ultimately lead to the board's termination.

Therefore, it is not unreasonable that some of us who are expressing concern about the Government's whole concept of industrial training should be relating that concern to the new initiatives announced by the Government. If they mean anything, they must mean an increase in the use of the existing skills and facilities. The Minister has an obligation to state as clearly as he can the Government's intention with regard to this resource.

12.3 am

The Government's financial policies will affect the efficiency and safety and every other aspect of the road transport industry.

Organised training through the road transport industry training board has helped to gain the industry the status that it deserves as a key part of the British economy. Eighty per cent. to ninety per cent. of the goods and raw materials in Britain are moved about the country by road transport. It is surprising that only 25 per cent. of the managers in the industry have had any formal training or have professional qualifications. The number needs to be substantially increased, and that will be done only through the training board. Voluntary arrangements for training will not go anywhere near achieving the desired results.

It is significant that accidents involving heavy lorries have fallen by one-third per thousand miles in the board's lifetime. In the same period the number of heavy lorries on the roads has substantially increased. The figures are no coincidence; they are largely due to the high standards of training carried out by the board.

When more and more drivers are involved in international journeys, proper training is essential. The Government have put themselves into the ludicrous position where, on the one hand, their policies have put proper training in peril, and, on the other, there is a considerable lobby in favour of the introduction of heavier lorries. There is also fierce anti-lorry lobbying by environmental groups and others concerned about their impact. Lorries are sometimes depicted as mechanical monsters or juggernauts. One way to ensure that lorries are operated efficiently and safely is to insist on the highest possible training standards for everyone in the road transport industry.

The Government's policies are having the opposite effect. For example, there are training and education facilities at Livingston which are second to none in Europe. It provides training for proper, permanent jobs for thousands of youngsters. It is not a job creation scheme which leaves youngsters unemployed and with no real training at the end. Most of the people who attend Livingston—

Order. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) must speak generally. MOTEC is not referred to in the Vote and is in no way related to it.

I am sorry if I have strayed out of order, but I hope that the Minister will say whether he really wants effective training arrangements in the road transport industry. If he does, it is essential that all the existing facilities operated by the road transport industry training board are kept.

As a sponsored member of the Transport and General Workers Union, and as one who has great knowledge of the industry, does my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) agree that many small firms simply do not have the facilities—even if they had the wish—to give apprentices the training they deserve? That fact applies to quite a number of other industries for which the MSC and the training hoards are responsible.

Small firms do not have those facilities. It is essential that facilities are available in different parts of the country. If there is a reduction of facilities in Scotland and the North of England, where will people from those areas receive their training? They will have to travel to The Wrekin or even further south. That will add considerably to employers' costs and to the inconvenience of people being trained. Perhaps if the facilities were in Hillhead, Glasgow, and not in Livingston, West Lothian, they would not be threatened with closure. Is the Minister serious about wanting effective training arrangements in the road transport industry? If he is, he will ensure that facilities are increased and not reduced.

12.8 am

I am glad that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) had the opportunity to raise this debate. I know that he feels strongly about training in the road transport industry. He said earlier that I would understand the difference between the North and the South, and he is right. In earlier days we were campaigners for a cause which was important to us both. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) rightly said that the Minister had better know what he was on about when the hon. Member for West Lothian has a campaign and a cause. There can be no doubt about that.

As I understand it, the matter arises under a Supplementary Estimate which the Manpower Services Commission asked for and to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State replied earlier in the year. The increase sought was for £22½ million, from £992 million to just over £1 billion. He said:
"… £14·5 million is required by MSC to meet the operating costs of industrial training boards. As announced in my statement of 16 November 1981, the Exchequer will continue to fund operating costs until 31 March 1982, instead of 31 December 1981 as previously planned. A further £8 million is needed to meet winding-up costs of the ITBs."—[Official Report, 20 January 1982; Vol. 16, c. 127.]
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the increased efficiency of British firms. I could not agree more with his remark about the need for proper training to attain increased efficiency. The hon. Gentleman also referred to a chronic shortage of apprentices. I do not believe that to be entirely true. Where there are shortages of apprentices we are funding over industry as a whole, to the tune of over £50 million a year next year. There are 35, 000 first-year apprentices being so funded.

A headline in Transport Training, the newspaper of the road transport industry training board, states:

"Industry set for skill shortage in mid eighties."
This is a reputable document. Either the Minister is right or the document is right—one or the other?

Order. Is the Minister prepared to give way to the hon. Gentleman?

The Minister says that 35, 000 first-year apprentices are being funded. From what date has that been true?

To my knowledge, although I shall obviously wish to check, it has been true for some months. I may have the figure marginally wrong, but I think I am correct in saying 35, 000 at a cost of over £50 million. If the hon. Gentleman, with his knowledge as Chairman of the Select Committee, is right, I say that I give the figure in good faith. I shall check and if I am wrong I shall inform all hon. Members who have participated in the debate of the exact figure. I think, nevertheless, that the figure that I have given is correct.

The Minister can perhaps clear up the matter by letter. If the road transport industry training board facts are inaccurate, hon. Members should be told.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when he comes to see me shortly, I shall inform him exactly how many apprentices the Government are funding through the RTITB. I hope that this will enable the hon. Gentleman to see the importance that the Government attach to the funding of future apprenticeships in this industry.

There has been some misunderstanding about what is happening. The Government have not done to the RTITB what is proposed in respect of other industrial training boards. There has been no question of a proposal for the abolition of the RTITB whereas there have been proposals for the abolition of other industrial training boards. We have suggested that certain parts of the road transport industry training board should be removed from the scope of the training board. These are buses—that is to say, road passenger transport—warehousing, agricultural machinery, security transport and removers.

There have been thoughts about potential reorganisation within the road transport industry training board. We have proposed that possibly there should be a split within the board. We have not demanded or dictated, but proposed that there should possibly be that split. A review is presently considering whether there should be a split and I do not wish to prejudge or prejudice that review because I and the Government have no views on this aspect. An independent firm of accountants has been asked to consider the review to discover what costs would 'be involved if a split was made.

Of course, if one has a contracting board, such as the road transport industry training board, its members must consider whether or not its facilities are still right, proper and sensible for continuing training. I wholly agree with the hon. Members for West Lothian, Provan and Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) that there should continue to be training within the whole of the road transport industry. I would not otherwise occupy my present position. However, one must consider whether facilities are right or wrong. When I say that "one" must consider it, that does not mean me but the board. I must clearly state that the board is responsible for how it runs the training within its industry. That is why we have a statutory board in certain industries.

I am fearful of stepping out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I know that hon. Gentlemen feel strongly about the MOTEC. The proposition apparently discussed—I would not put it as high as a proposal—at a recent meeting of the board's finance and general purposes committee, was that it should consider how it runs its assets and so on. That is no more—as I understand it, not being a member of the board—than a perfectly understandable review of the way it runs its assets. I also believe the matter was on the agenda and that there was no greater omission than that.

However, at the end of the day, I and the Government have no power to interfere with how the board runs its affairs. Hon. Gentlemen may feel that I should have power but I do not believe I should. I and the Government should be able to direct the right sort of training that should be carried out in given industries—in this case, the road transport industry. How and where the training is done should, of course, be up to them. That is the structure and nature of the constitutional relationship between myself, the Department of the Environment, the Manpower Services Commission and industrial training boards. If we did not have industrial training boards, we would be directly responsible. However, we do have them, they are statutory bodies and there is a certain amount of agreement on both sides of the House on that.

I must lay emphasis on the fact that any decision on the use of an asset which the MOTEC at Livingston is—

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Government's money must be used in a way over which they have little or no control when one is talking about operating costs. I hope that that keeps the matter within order.

To help the Minister keep in order, one can point to the contrast of France, the Federal Republic of Germany and Japan and the fact that no other industrialised country on the face of the planet takes the same view of washing its hands of training requirements.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. However, he is being less than fair when I am trying to be helpful to him. It is not true, when we will be spending more than £1 billion overall on training, to suggest that we are washing our hands of training. I am trying to explain the hon. Gentleman's predicament and to keep within the rules of order.

Will the Under-Secretary of State seek guidance on the figure that he gave me earlier? I have examined the MSC's corporate plan which talks about the intention in the coming year to provide 35, 000 places. Its plans for 1981–82, the current year, are to support 25, 000 young people. There is a gap of 10, 000 and the Under-Secretary of State should seek advice about the real figure. He will find that his brief is mistaken.

I always defer to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme because I know that he gets his facts right, but I have given the answer several times. I believed that I was talking about the present position and not the past and if I gave the wrong impression I could not apologise more. I shall correct myself if I am wrong, but I believe that the figure is over £50 million for 35, 000 first-year apprenticehsips.

That is the intention of the Government and the MSC. I quarrel with the Minister because he said that there were at present 35, 000 places. He will find that it was intended to recruit 35, 000 youngsters next year and that the actual figure is that 50, 000 people have been trained during the past two years, which is an average of 25, 000 a year.

I do not wish to argue with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that I talked about the present rather than the past position. If I misled the hon. Gentleman, I can only apologise to him. I believe that what I said was right, but we shall know tha position when we see Hansard tomorrow morning.

Perhaps I should have tried to interrupt my hon. Friend earlier in his speech, but I could not catch his eye. When discussing the Vote, which is not exclusively devoted to the road transport industry training board, will my hon. Friend bear in mind the boards that will not function in future? I believe that he has been most courteous in his discussions with the boards that are closing down. Will his officials or the MSC try to give a little more advance warning of the timetable for closure of some boards? I have in mind the ceramic and extractive industries training board.

My hon. Friend has an important point. The uncertainty is difficult for everyone. I assure him and all hon. Members that I shall ensure that the MSC gives as early a warning as possible about the timetable.

The nub of the hon. Member for West Lothian's point is not as problematical as he says, because he is talking about the problems of a board that is not being wound up. The fact of the matter is that the garage sector of the RTITB at Livingstone does most of the training, and is to remain in operation.

At the end of the day, I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman had to say about training. I hope that he accepts it when I say that like him and his hon. Friends, I am committed to training. Their commitment was made obvious in their speeches. Because of the constitutional set-up between a Minister and the Department of Employment, the MSC and an industrial training board, there are certain decisions that belong to the industrial training board and there are certain decisions that are ours. We must not interfere too much, but I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has to say.