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Skills Strategy

Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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How many further education colleges he and other Ministers in his Department will visit between 10 April and the publication of the skills strategy to discuss the strategy. [108244]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

Ministers visit colleges on a regular basis. All local learning and skills councils will have discussions with colleges and other providers on the forthcoming skills strategy during April and early May.

To help to address skills shortages, further education colleges have been invited to bid for extra learning and skills councils' moneys for additional post-19 non-basic skills courses such as plumbing. Will my hon. Friend tell the House how much extra Government money—over and above that already built into baseline provision at colleges—will be available from the Learning and Skills Council nationally as part of the skills strategy for post-19 non-basic skills courses from September? If that information is not currently available, can he tell me the date on which it will be?

One of the great challenges of the skills strategy is to define the respective contributions of the Government, the individual and the employer. Central to that will be the creation of a funding system that is sufficiently flexible to focus not only on national outcomes such as basic skills level 2 qualifications, but on specific regional skills needs and sectoral skills shortages and gaps. One of the central challenges of the strategy will be to create a more flexible financial and funding framework that will allow us to focus resources on sectors such as plumbing and joinery, in which there are serious skills shortages. The details will be published in the strategy in June.

When the Minister visits further education colleges between now and June, will he clarify the Government's thinking on the delivery mechanism for adult learning and skills? Colleges have been asked to provide three-year plans under the success for all programme, for example. Will that be the vehicle for delivery? Yesterday, the Chancellor appeared to announce that employer-led training will be the vehicle for delivery through the training tax credits. The Minister has also said that the regional development agencies and the sector skills councils will have a key role. Are the Secretary of State and his Ministers running this programme, or is it the Chancellor? What advice would the Minister give to college principals on this matter?

One of the challenges of the skills strategy is to focus on the needs of the customer. The customers in this case are the individual learners and the employers. We need a combination of interventions to create a much higher level of investment in skills in this country. This is about raising the standards of colleges and training providers generally, which is why the success for all programme is so important in terms of investment and reform. It is also about stimulating employer engagement and investment. That is being done through sector skills councils, through the use of the supply chain and through the use of intermediaries such as banks, financial advisers and others. So we need a high-quality supply side, in terms of educational institutions, but we also need to incentivise the demand side with regard to individual learners and employers. There is not a choice between the two. One of the challenges of the skills strategy is to reduce bureaucracy and create a clearer and more transparent system that small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, will be able to understand how to access far more easily than at present. The skills strategy will seek to address that.

When my hon. Friend goes about his business around the country, will he consider coming to North Yorkshire, and, specifically, the Yorkshire coast and Scarborough and Whitby? We have particular challenges in terms of the peripherality of our community, and of the delivery of these services in a rural context. We also have entrenched long-term unemployment, and it is a particular concern of mine that we are not getting to those people at the moment. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss these issues with some of those people, so that we can roll out the strategy effectively in my constituency.

It would be a pleasure to visit Scarborough on any occasion, particularly to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents. We tend to talk about skills in the context of young people doing better and of post-16 staying-on rates. We also talk about work force development in terms of adults who are already in employment. We should not forget those adults who are close to the labour market but who continue to be unemployed and find it difficult to access employment, often because of their lack of basic skills. We intend to focus our strategy in June equally on the needs of those individuals. We have record levels of employment, but we cannot be complacent about those who remain outside the labour market.

I congratulate the Minister on having produced the quintessence of the Government's approach to everything—a combination of interventions, as he called it.

Let us look briefly at the Government's record. Individual learning accounts are 50 per cent. over budget, and fraud and abuse are costing taxpayers £100 million. Then there is the folly of winding up national training organisations while only half the sector skills councils are in place. Given the harsh and entirely unmerited things that Ministers have said in the past about further education colleges, should we not look forward to the launch of the skills strategy in June less with anticipation than with dire apprehension?

When I spoke on a platform recently about skills, in the company of the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, he said that for 20 minutes he had heard the most sensible words that he had ever heard a politician utter on the subject. I said that I did not think that that would do me much good in my own party, but it did, I hope, show that the Government are taken seriously in this regard.

For the first time, we seek to produce a strategy across Government. This Department, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions are working together on it. We also seek to develop a strategy which genuinely, for the first time, engages with small and medium-sized enterprises. The failure to do that has historically been a major weakness in our system.

As for further education colleges, those in the sector themselves say that this is the most exciting reform and investment programme they have seen for 30 years.

Will someone teach Ministers the skill of speaking plain English without resorting to the appalling verbiage and dreadful jargon that smother good sense and do no credit to any holder of public office?

There speaks the contempt and arrogance of a party that is destined to remain in opposition for a very long time.