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Skill Centres

Volume 175: debated on Tuesday 26 June 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the progress towards the privatisation of skill centres.

The sales of the training businesses at 51 of the 60 skill centres plus the Skills Training Agency's head office, mobile training service, sales teams and colleges have been completed.

Is the Minister aware that very few people understand why the Government have given a few selected individuals £14 million of taxpayers' money to take away valuable skill centres, including the one in St. Helens, which have an asset value in excess of £100 million? Does the Minister agree that if a group of Labour councillors had attempted to give away public assets on that scale, they would probably have been had up for corruption?

It is not for me to comment on the possibility of Labour councillors being accused of corruption. The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. If he studies the profits of the STA, he will see that it broke even only once in the past five years. In 1989–90, there was an estimated loss of £30 million. The tender was conducted properly after professional advice was given. The National Audit Office is carrying out its usual value-for-money audit, and I am perfectly satisfied that when it announces its findings they will show that the hon. Gentleman's suspicions are entirely ill founded.

Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to condemn Labour-controlled Chesterfield city council for forcing the closure of its local skill centre?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. He has referred to one of the more unpleasant and nasty examples of a Labour-controlled council acting for wholly doctrinaire and political reasons, in this case, by refusing to extend leasing facilities to the new owners of a skills training centre simply because it disapproved of the act on political grounds. It would be difficult to find a more shameful example of political interests being put above the interests of those whom the training schemes are there to serve, but of course the Opposition will defend such action.

The privatisation of the Skills Training Agency is a public scandal. Why have £120 million worth of assets been given away, why has £25 million in sweeteners been given to the private sector and why was £40 million of employment training budgeted funding taken out and used to adjust the accounts and estimates of the Skills Training Agency? When will the Government pursue practical policies to improve our skills performance with the same enthusiasm as they pursue privatisation and profits for the very few?

The only scandal that emerges from this exchange is the hon. Gentleman's extraordinary inability to understand that an organisation capable of losing £30 million is not the sort of concern that can be sold for an immediate profit. The hon. Gentleman can scrabble round and cast aspersions as widely as he wants, using words like "scandal", but the sale represented a good deal for the taxpayer and a good deal for those who need training. The one thing of which we can be certain is that when the National Audit Office produces its report, the hon. Gentleman will not have the good grace to apologise to the House.