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Skills Strategy

Volume 408: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2003

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12.31 pm

:With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Government's skills strategy.

We are today publishing a White Paper that sets out the Government's long-term strategy for improving and sustaining the development of skills in this country. Copies have been placed in the Library of the House. I believe that there is a consensus in the House, and more widely, on the need for this country to raise its skills levels. We must do that in order to become more competitive, to raise living standards, to increase productivity and to offer better opportunities for all.

It is widely recognised that, if we are to achieve the economic success that we all want, our most pressing educational challenge is to raise skills at all levels. It is in that area, rather than primary, secondary or higher education, that this country lags behind our international competitors. For example, the proportion of our work force qualified to the crucial intermediate level of technical and craft skills is low at 28 per cent., compared with 51 per cent. in France and 65 per cent. in Germany.

That is despite the fact that we have made progress in recent years. For example, the number of vocational A-levels and vocational GCSEs awarded has risen by over 40,000 in one year to reach 128,000 in 2002; the number of young people on modern apprenticeships has risen to over 234,000 in 2002; and 75 per cent. of 16 to 18-yearolds now stay on in education or training, the highest level since 1996.

Despite those advances, there remain major shortfalls—work force skills are lower in Britain than in many other countries; there are persistent skills deficits in such important areas as technical and craft skills, maths, and management and leadership; too many adults lack the skills and qualifications needed for sustainable employability; and too many young people are leaving education without the skills that employers need.

Those shortfalls are serious and the White Paper addresses them. We have consulted widely. The overwhelming view, which I heartily share, is that the need now is not for piecemeal initiatives or clever tactical gimmicks; it is to make much better use of what is already there and to put in place a strategic approach. We need a coherent, long-term, national strategy that provides easy access to high quality training, across the full range of skills from basic to advanced. It must be based upon a framework that offers flexibility, relevance and choice, and it must deliver the skills that are needed by both employees and employers, both jobseekers and the retired.

The main elements of that framework can be easily set out. First, at national level, a network of 23 sector skills councils will be fully in place by next summer covering the major sectors of the economy. The councils are a major new voice for employers and employees in their sector. They are charged with identifying the sector's present and future skill needs, ensuring that qualifications and training meet those needs, and getting employers to act together to invest in skills to raise productivity. They place employers and the workplace centre stage.

Secondly, at regional level, a powerful new partnership between regional development agencies and the learning and skills councils will link regional economic development goals with the skills to achieve them, focused on the needs of learners and employers. This will tie in business support services, so that businesses can get better access to the advice and help that they want. Thirdly, at local level training programmes—whether delivered in colleges or in the workplace—will be sharply focused on meeting those skills priorities in a truly demand-led, and therefore responsive, system.

This simple framework will help people to gain skills at all levels. It will create a regime in which education and training services genuinely have to respond to the demands of potential students—often employees—and employers. It will mean the expansion of modern apprenticeships to help more young people move from school into high quality, work-based training. We will lift the current age cap, so that adults will also be able to benefit. It will mean new opportunities for the millions of adults who do not currently possess a good foundation of skills for employability, enabling them to get their first level 2 qualification. It will mean that the skills for life campaign, through which adults gain basic literacy and numeracy skills, will be extended to include information and communications technology. It will mean more training to fill skills gaps at the higher technician and craft level—the so-called level 3—to meet regional or sectoral priorities. It will also mean that our new foundation degrees will be developed and expanded to meet the ever-growing demand from employers for advanced vocational skills.

To build this ladder of opportunity, we will introduce major reforms. We will develop a framework of qualifications for adults, based on units and credits that give learners and employers more flexibility to put together the package of training that they want. In addition, we will guarantee protection for leisure learning, particularly for pensioners and people on low incomes. We will ensure greater employer involvement in the design and delivery of modern apprenticeships, and provide better and clearer information for employers and potential students about the existing opportunities and available support, including an employer's guide to good training. We will expand the network of union learning representatives, which is focused on encouraging the low skilled to engage in training. We will give a new guarantee of free tuition for any adult without a good foundation of skills for employability, in order to provide the training that they need to gain a first level 2 qualification. We will introduce a new adult learning grant to support full-time adult learners in those priority groups, to meet the cost of learning. And we will use our employer training pilots to inform and guide our future national employers' training programme.

Better skills are needed for Britain to flourish. They are key to our economic success in an increasingly competitive world, and they are critical to our future in the European Union. The economic reform agenda agreed in Lisbon in 2000 reflects the importance of skills across Europe. Many of the topics addressed in the White Paper reflect the concerns shared by our European partners, and they reflect our determination to tackle the challenges of skills and mobility across the EU.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the House on 9 June, in his statement on economic and monetary union, that
"labour market flexibility and structural economic reform"
"at the heart of the new … policy guidelines for Europe",
that Britain must
"have the necessary flexibility to sustain growth and employment",
and that
"we are making structural reforms that will bring increased flexibility to our economy."—[Official Report, 9 June 2003: Vol. 406, c. 407–13.]
Such flexibility was the core of the Chancellor's second test for membership of economic and monetary union.

The Government believe that, the White Paper that I am publishing today is a major contribution to this increased flexibility, which is necessary to ensure that the British economy can respond quickly and efficiently to changes in economic conditions inside the single currency area, should the UK decide to join the economic and monetary union. Our proposals will help to ensure that the supply of skills in the labour market matches properly the skills that employers demand, and they will put in place mechanisms to eliminate mismatches in the demand and supply of different skills.

The changes that I have set out today represent the most ambitious agenda yet seen to tackle some deep-seated and long-standing weaknesses in our national skills base. They have been developed through a strong partnership between my Department and my colleagues in the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions. The Government will lead by example by ensuring that each Department properly addresses its own skills needs and gaps in the way that I have described.

Even more importantly, the strategy represents not simply a Government initiative, but a commitment from all the main social partners—the Government, the CBI, the TUC and the Small Business Council. All will be represented in the skills alliance, which we are establishing to carry through the implementation of the proposals, in a sustained and determined campaign finally to tackle the skills weaknesses that have dogged us for so long. I commend the statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of the White Paper—and, indeed, for the usual steady stream of leaks and media appearances that allow us all to know what is in it long before the House can debate it.

The fact that this country's education system is relatively bad at developing non-academic skills is depressing, and it has been true for more than half a century. We never properly implemented the Butler Education Act 1944: we never built enough of the technical schools that Butler wanted; and generations have paid, and are still paying, the price. I fully recognise the sheer scale of the task facing the Government, but the question today is whether the White Paper even begins to meet that challenge. Sadly, it fails on several counts.

There are two main underlying failures. The first is that the policies in the White Paper are nothing like ambitious enough to deal with the problem—not in respect of the money spent, but in terms of recognition of the need for serious radical reform in this area of policy. The second is that the solution for which the Government have reached is predictably centralised, complicated and bureaucratic. Reflecting on the plethora of national, regional, local and cross-cutting structures that the Government are setting up, it is clear that everyone will spend more time liaising than training. By the time all the committee meetings are finished, there will not be enough energy left to produce the computer engineers, builders and plumbers that we need. I hope that the colleges that will deliver much of the training can cope, especially when page 96 of the document shows that they will be under ever-closer Government control.

Let me first address the document's poverty of vision. The £30 grant for an adult on a full-time course might help at the margin, and might encourage some people to go on a course. However, for Ministers to pretend that tens of thousands of people will find their chances in life transformed is a fantasy. How many more people does the Secretary of State believe will go into full-time education or training as a result of this measure?

Whatever happened to the replacement for individual learning accounts? As recently as 15 April this year, the Secretary of State told Computer Weekly that the creation of "ILA part two", as he put it, was "a high priority". He was right. I realise that ILAs were an expensive embarrassment for the Department, and that the Secretary of State has said that it could not afford to make the same mistake again, but giving up altogether on the idea of giving people some control over their own training needs is a hopeless retreat. Can he tell us when he decided to drop that commitment and why?

Most important of all in respect of what should be in the document but is not, is why there is so little about what will happen in schools to promote skills. Giving people a helping hand if they have fallen through the net is admirable and necessary, but it would help them even more if the net were designed in such a way that they did not fall through it in the first place. It is bizarre that the Government have produced a document on a skills strategy while waiting for a report on the school exam system, which will presumably give them some guidance about vocational qualifications and how we should be teaching skills in schools. Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the key advantages of the system used in most other European countries is the early availability of technical and vocational education, and can he tell the House why this document fails to address it?

Carolyn Hayman, the chief executive of the Foyer Federation—an admirable body—said this morning:
"In practice, those who fail to gain qualifications while at school are unlikely to fulfil their potential later in life."
She is right, which is why a skills strategy that concentrates only on adults will not work.

There is also the problem that every solution in the document smacks of central planning and regionalisation. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the charmingly named "Unique Learner Number" on page 66 is, in fact, an identity card, and can he tell the House what level of compulsion he plans for the use of that card? How fast does he expect the regional skills alliances to be formed? Given his Department's record on the sector skills councils—three years on from the grand announcement that they would transform training, it appears that only two have been fully licensed—how will he ensure that such delays do not happen again? How does he propose to ensure that employers have the real say in what they require from training and trainees. Bodies that report to the Secretary of State seem to dominate the bodies that he will set up, even though industry spends £23 billion annually on training, or three times the budget of the Learning and Skills Council.

The country needs a well-trained and well-educated work force, so that we can offer a fair deal to everyone. Sadly, today we have learned that the Government have decided just to fiddle with the edges of the skills problem. We have had lots of warm words and some minor improvements, but no sense of the urgency of the problem or the depth of the changes needed. The country needed radical reform: instead, this is a timid, half-hearted disappointment that does not measure up to the importance of the task.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in every single one of his allegations. He suggested that our solution is centralised and bureaucratic, with committees and so on. In fact, the reverse is true. Through co-operation with my colleagues in the Government, we will create—for the first time—a system that will achieve an immediate one-stop shop for everybody concerned, to do what needs to be done. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that employers, and everybody else, have had to deal with a complicated and difficult system, but we will replace it with one that will work well.

The hon. Gentleman accuses us of a lack of ambition, but I do not accept that. Ambition is not about words, but about doing. The hon. Gentleman ridiculed the sector skills councils, but the two that already exist are making rapid and major progress and the others, which are being created according to the timetable set out in the White Paper, are making progress faster than they otherwise would have done. If the hon. Gentleman took the trouble to talk to employers—for example, Digby Jones at the CBI—about the issue, which I commend him to do, he would see that employers positively want to engage in the process. That is because we have put them centre stage, as we needed to do.

The hon. Gentleman is also wrong about the replacements for the ILAs. We have put together three specific replacements. The first is the entitlement to free learning up to level 2 for those who have not achieved it. The second is the inclusion of information and communication technology in the skills strategy, and the third is the ability to provide courses up to level 3 in those sectors and regions where that is necessary. That is a comprehensive programme that will put in place real opportunities for people to learn.

I accept, up to a point, the hon. Gentleman's remarks about schools for the 14–19 age group, but he will—or at least he should—have studied the detailed document on 14&19 provision that we produced earlier this year specifically to address the issues he raises. He is right to say that we must develop a much stronger relationship between work and school for pupils from the age of 14. Mike Tomlinson's inquiry will address that specific point, and several measures to deal with it are also alluded to in the White Paper.

The response from employers has been positive, because we are putting them centre stage so that we have education and training that meets their needs. That is as it should be. The issue for colleges is whether they can ensure—it will be tough for them—that the courses they put on meet the needs of employers in their locality. That is the challenge that we are setting, and our approach to it is far more radical than anything else that has been done in recent times to address those historic problems.

I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and of the White Paper. I also thank the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, who has been running the process, for the way in which we have been kept in touch during its lengthy development. We congratulate the Government on their attempt to do what no other Government have done in my working lifetime, and that is to deal with the chronic skills shortage in the work force. That is not a modern phenomenon, because the problem has existed since the post-war years.

We also wish to support the Secretary of State in his desire to have a demand-led strategy, but that demand should come not only from employers, but from individuals and, indeed, the state—because it also has demands that need to be met. We recognise the need for an inclusive approach. We welcome the fact that four Departments will work together, but which will take the lead? As we know from the problems with schools funding, the lack of a lead Department can cause an awful mess.

We give a cautious welcome to the skills alliance. The Secretary of State would probably agree that it has all the hallmarks of a highly corporatist structure, and as such is a throwback to the 1970s and the Manpower Services Commission. We must avoid that corporatism at all costs. I hope that the Secretary of State will give us an insight into how such a massive organisation can ever hope to be responsive to individuals and individual employers. The saving grace is the late inclusion of the Higher Education Funding Council. My party accepts that the skills strategy will remain incomplete unless the universities are involved and delivering high-level skills.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the proposal is not a back-door attempt to force some universities to become teaching-only institutions, designed to deliver level 4 skills? Will he assure the House that the foundation degree—which we support—will serve both as an end qualification and as a staging post to honours and postgraduate qualifications?

We welcome the universal entitlement to training at level 2, paid for by the state, but what has happened to the universal entitlement for 19 to 30-year-olds studying at level 3? That was openly promised before. If there is to be a regional lottery for support for students at level 3, who will make the decisions—the planners, the employers, or students themselves?

How will individual learners or employers make sense of the tangled web of quangos that will exist at regional level? They will include sector skills councils, RDAs, local learning and skills councils. Jobcentre Plus and business link, not to mention the emerging regional assemblies. Those assemblies will probably appear in the north-west, Yorkshire and Humber and the north-east. Which of those organisations will take the lead?

We welcome the adult learner grant as another positive step. Will the Secretary of State explain why a full-time level 4 student studying from home needs £3,000 by way of support, whereas a level 3 student is expected to manage on £1,500? That is an important question.

Will the Secretary of State look again at the support for modern apprenticeships? We welcome the fact that the bar has been raised from 25 to 28. That is positive, but why has it not been lifted altogether? If adults are to work until they are 70, is not there a need for an adult modern apprenticeship, to encourage people in their 30s and 40s to go down that route?

We have long championed credit accumulation as the way to approach qualifications in education and skills. We warmly welcome the unit-based system. We accept the need to learn the lessons from individual learning accounts, but when does the Secretary of State expect such a system to be in operation? Will he give further education colleges immediate authorisation to deliver bite-sized units to employers? Will he enable them to draw down the necessary resources from the learning and skills councils? That is what colleges need to do, and what employers want.

Will the Secretary of State explain whether colleges are now to have what are, in effect, top-up fees? Unless they collect the resources from employers for the skills training that they deliver, they will not be able to meet their income targets and will therefore go under.

We warmly welcome what the Secretary of State has produced today. We are prepared to be supportive, but I suspect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is writing the manifesto as we speak, will deliver the big ideas for the next general election.

I appreciate that fairly strong support—albeit expressed in a lukewarm way—from the hon. Gentleman. I am glad to say that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I have worked closely on these proposals, and our work has been both strong and positive.

I shall deal first with the points about the need for the provisions to be demand led. As the hon. Gentleman said, the key must lie with employers and individuals, and to a lesser extent with the state. One of the shocking things about our skills shortages is that we do not understand enough about where they exist. What types of skills are needed, at what levels, in each sector? The level of confidence that ought to exist between employers in certain sectors and the education and training system is missing, which means that we are not getting good answers to those questions. The development of sector skills councils will allow us to address the problem in a very sharp way. The state will not decide what skills are needed: employers and the individuals involved will do that.

The hon. Gentleman described the proposals as corporatism, but that is not so. The lead clearly lies with my Department, but we will work with all the other partners. For the first time, we are bringing the deliverers together, as in the case of the Higher Education Funding Council, but we also want to continue to work with the social partners, as already happens.

I can confirm that the foundation degree, to which we give great priority, will be both an end in itself and part of a flexible system that will allow people to move on to other areas. We want the foundation degree to be regarded as an end in itself. One of the excellent things to happen in the discussions that preceded the White Paper was that many employers' organisations in both the public and private sectors regard the foundation degree as a very positive development. I am optimistic that we will be able to make good progress in this area.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about level 3. The philosophy underlying the White Paper is that we believe that employers should make a far bigger cash commitment to training than is the case at present. We identify various ways in which that can be encouraged and moved forward. We say, therefore, that the state must put in resources when employers fail to do so—where there has been what might be called a market failure. We identify skills up to levels 2 and 3—at all—ages in which there has been clear failure in a particular sector or region. That reflects our priorities in targeting economic resources.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there will be a tangled web of quangos, although that used to be the case in the past. What we propose will untangle major parts of the web, in particular by giving the RDAs the lead role when it comes to sorting out the mess that has often existed in every region.

We are talking about lifting the cap on modern apprenticeships. The question from the hon. Gentleman on that matter may have resulted from a failure of understanding. If I misunderstood his remarks on that, I shall speak to him outside the Chamber.

Finally, on the bite-sized credit approach to education, we strongly agree with that approach, but it is critical that any curriculums or bitesized credits that are available have value in the employment market. They must be of value to employers. We do not want colleges to develop products that they then try to sell to employers. We want there to be proper dialogue that allows employers to say what sort of education and skills their people need. The White Paper is all about working to make that happen.

Anyone who cares about this country's skills base in this new century will welcome the White Paper enthusiastically and warmly. That it has taken the Government six years to get around to it shows that there is a hint of criticism even among Labour Members. However, we have finally got it.

My right hon. Friend will know that the Select Committee on Education and Skills has trawled through the higher education White Paper, and its positive response will be published tomorrow. The same thing will happen with today's White Paper.

I welcome the fact that the proposals cover all Departments. For too long, there has been no recognition that a massive amount of training goes on in the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, and in the health sector and elsewhere—in fact, in many more than the big four Departments. However, there will be difficulties as a lot of corporatist, quango-type organisations are involved. I hope that my right hon. Friend is right that the web will be unravelled by making the RDAs the lead authorities, but I hope that he will remember that the people who deliver skills are the crucial ones. They are the people on the ground—teachers, lecturers, non-governmental organisations, charities and bodies in the public sector. It is very important the he gets that balance right, but the Select Committee is looking forward to examining the White Paper very closely, and we hope that we can improve it.

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's remarks. As always, I shall be delighted to debate the White Paper with the Select Committee, which always addresses these matters in a constructive way.

I shall deal first with some of the specific matters raised by my hon. Friend. I believe that the White Paper will go a long way towards untangling the existing web of institutions. However, if the Select Committee can find ways to untangle the web even more, I shall be delighted to talk about how we can take that forward.

Secondly, it is important to say that none of this will happen without the commitment of a wide range of organisations, as well as public sector employers and private sector employers. The proposals are not just about the private sector; they are not just about what goes in private businesses; they are about what goes in employment right across the piece, whether in great public services such as education and health, in prisons or wherever it may happen to be. I very much welcome that. However, what we need from each employer is commitment; more than anything else, we must generate that. The greatest danger to the success of the document would be for everyone to say, "That is very interesting but we're not really going to do much about it". We need to encourage real engagement, not only across government but across our whole society.

I welcome a lot of what the Secretary of State said, not least because businesses have been crying out for a long time for a framework that really is demand-led. Is he aware of the excellent work being done by the Construction Industry Training Board at the national construction college in west Norfolk? Is he also aware of the groundbreaking student apprenticeship programme that is being launched at West Anglia college, of which the principal, Peter Stewart, and John Brierly, of the Norfolk learning and skills council, are rightly proud?

The Secretary of State talked a lot about greater employer involvement in the design and delivery of schemes. How will that actually be achieved on the ground? How will employers and small businesses actually feed in their requirements? Is not there danger of a confused chain of command between national, regional and local bodies?

Order. I remind the House that there is to be another statement and that when we get to the main debate there will be a limit on Back-Bench speeches. I expect only one supplementary question, therefore, and I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.

I shall try to be brief, Mr. Speaker.

I am aware of the points raised by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham); indeed, I held discussions with the CITB recently. The key thing is the relationship between the college and the employer locally, and ensuring that dialogue takes place. I know that is happening in Norfolk and I believe that it will also happen throughout the country.

I especially welcome the expansion of the modern apprenticeship scheme. We are all aware that skilled joiners, plumbers, plasterers and electricians are in short supply. Our big problem is how to challenge society's perceptions whereby such people are placed low on the social ladder. How can we raise society's perceptions and give value and credit to those skills?

My hon. Friend's point hits the bull's-eye. The core of the document is that vocational and technical education is important and critical. If there is one factor that explains how badly the figures that I read out compare with those for other countries, it is that in other countries, especially European countries, vocational and technical education are valued, while, for a variety of reasons, that has not happened in this country. I hope that the document will help to achieve that.

Is not the real skills problem in this country due to the fact that 23 per cent. of adults cannot read properly, compared, for example, with 7 per cent. in Sweden? We have one of the worst adult literacy rates in the developed world. Is not the reason for that the fact that there is too little use of synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading in our primary schools? Should not that be the focus of the Secretary of State's attention in the coming period?

It is true that up to 7 million adults in this country do not have level 2 skills, but if I were a Conservative I would draw a veil over the education system during the years when that party was in charge of it. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have to focus on improving primary education in the way that we are doing, as we debate in the Select Committee and elsewhere.

I welcome the statement. I stress to my right hon. Friend that we need flexibility, especially in the funding streams, to allow community colleges and FE colleges not only to meet the needs of businesses but to enter partnerships, such as the one that he will see tomorrow when he visits my constituency. That partnership between a local primary school and the FE college has increased the skills base among adults on an estate, which is improving their quality of life and their ability to help their children through their education. Such flexibility will make the strategy work.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The document is about flexibility and about making skills and education available for everybody. My hon. Friend was formerly a taxi driver, which has tempted me to point out that taxi drivers sometimes show a combination of skills and general erudition that we might try to spread throughout the whole country.

On behalf of my colleagues, I welcome the statement. I agree that we need a coherent, long-term national strategy. Can the Secretary of State assure me that those in the Northern Ireland Office and Northern Ireland Ministers will be fully briefed on these matters, and that the opportunities will be available to our young people in Northern Ireland, too? Does he agree that all employers—whether big or small—have a responsibility to share the burden and to deliver, and that the attitude of the past, where small companies poached from larger ones, will not do for the future?

I agree 100 per cent. with the hon. Gentleman in his final point about the role of employers. Indeed, that is why employers are central to our strategy. Not only will we consult with colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, we have done so throughout the preparation of the document and I hope that it will be as useful in Northern Ireland as I believe that it will be in the rest of the country.

In developing this welcome strategy, will my right hon. Friend ensure that attention is paid to how we can tackle the occupational segregation between men and women? Last week, the Equal Opportunities Commission launched an inquiry into modern apprenticeships to find out what can be done to break down some of the barriers, which are one reason why there is still a 19 per cent. pay gap between men and women.

I can confirm that we shall do precisely what my hon. Friend suggested. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in her capacity as Minister for Women, has made a number of specific interventions in the document, precisely to meet the point that my hon. Friend made. My right hon. Friend will chair jointly with me the skills alliance nationally. I am confident that the preoccupations on which my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) campaigns, and which I, too, share, will be met throughout the implementation of the strategy.

I hesitate to ask this, but has the Secretary of State set a quantifiable target for the expansion of modern apprenticeships? After all, we are living in a world where it is easier to find someone to write a skills strategy than to get a plumber.

The target that we set for modern apprenticeships was 28 per cent. by 2004. However, in the spirit of the exchanges at Prime Minister's questions, we are looking carefully at what would be the best targets to motivate success in that sphere.

May I ask my right hon. Friend a further question about poaching? In some industries, such as print, construction and engineering, poaching has always been a major phenomenon; in effect, the good employers subsidise the bad. Although I respect much of what my right hon. Friend is trying to achieve through the White Paper, if we continue to find what he described as market failure, will he make it clear that the Government will keep compulsion in reserve?

I can confirm that. We have held substantial conversations with colleagues in the trade union movement, including the general secretary of the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, whose concerns about the printing industry are close to my hon. Friend's heart. We have to acknowledge that there are substantial differences of position across the whole range of sectors of industry. We recognise the achievements in the engineering and construction industries, which is why they are where they are now. In answer to my hon. Friend's specific question, I confirm that we shall keep open what it is necessary to do in other sectors if employers are not prepared to work in the way that we have set out, although I am confident that they will want to work in that way.

I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State say, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), that, in future, demand from employers would drive skills provision in our further education colleges and other places. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some of our more traditional industries are beginning to withdraw some of their employment, no doubt due to international competition, and that the greatest demand for new skills and the greatest number of jobs are actually in the creative industries? Can he assure us that he will not refer to such skills as Mickey Mouse skills, and that he will ensure that they are provided?

That concept is at the core of what we are about. Each sector, including the creative industries, has to establish which skills it currently needs and which skills it will need in 10, 20 or 30 years if it is to be internationally competitive. We need to determine the current state of skills in each sector and the action that needs to be taken, in terms of qualifications, provision of courses and so on, to close the gap. That will differ sector by sector; the situation will be different for each sector. The problem is that not enough attention was paid to the way that skills and innovation work together—perhaps I should have emphasised more strongly that we want to work with colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry on how to do that. There has not been enough looking to the future, so—out of a blue sky—some global competition has wiped out thousands of jobs in this country in a wholly destructive way. The White Paper is about preparing our population for the future challenges in each sector.

Does the Minister agree that there have been some dramatic changes in the pattern of work in parts of Britain—the coalfields? We got some money for Shirebrook and the Markham employment zone, and all the rest. There is a potential for 8,000 jobs, and most of those people will need retraining. We have got loads of further education colleges on the doorstep. Will the White Paper ensure that the two things are married together, so that those great projects at Shirebrook and Bolsover can go ahead successfully?

:I hope that the White Paper will do precisely that. What my hon. Friend indicates, quite correctly, is that there has been a series of different approaches—the initiatives that he describes, the employment zones and so on—all of which are all worth while on their own account, but we have to bring them together in a focused and targeted way to address the skills and training needs of the population, which he and other hon. Members represent. We need more joined-up work on that, which is what the White Paper is all about, so I hope that I can give the assurance that he seeks.

My right hon. Friend's statement will be very much welcomed in the north-west, where the acquisition of skills is essential for economic prosperity. Will he indicate how individuals, who may be in or out of employment, can gain access to the opportunities offered, so that we can make a reality of our statement that we regard the acquisition of skills as being as important as the acquisition of academic qualifications?

There are essentially three points where that relationship becomes particularly acute: first, in the place of work—the employment—which is why we have union learning funds and so on, because people in work need to know where to go to develop their skills; secondly, with Jobcentre Plus, which is why the partnership with my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions is so important; and thirdly, in schools and colleges, where that contact is particularly important. Those areas will deliver precisely what my hon. Friend is looking for, in providing real choices to enable people to improve themselves.

I very much welcome the White Paper, which is the most important statement on skills for the past 50 years. I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend's consultative approach to developing his proposals, especially the commitment to the level 2 entitlement, the role of the trade union learning representatives, the importance of learning for pensioners and the development of the national training programme.

Given that the current employer training pilot schemes are due to finish in the autumn of 2004, will the evaluation be completed in time for the national training programme to continue seamlessly at the beginning of 2005? Does he agree that it would be extremely unfortunate if there were a gap between ending the pilot schemes and developing the national scheme?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I appreciate his remarks. What is particularly important is that, as we move to the national model, we learn from the evaluation of the employer training pilot schemes. The initial perceptions of people who have seen and understood those schemes are that they have been very successful, and it is a question of taking the lessons of good practice that have been established there. The director general of the CBI told me just the other day that he had visited three schemes and seen real liberation, a thirst for learning and employers changing their views, and we need to learn from that in the new system that we establish.

I should also like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the ongoing advancement in skills strategy, particularly in light of the fact that we brought together the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils and cut bureaucracy, as has been mentioned, but will he assure me that, as well as employers, the local FE colleges will be involved in the consultation, so that they can have an input into the strategy?

I can give my hon. Friend that absolute assurance. The colleges are obviously at the centre of our approach, which we are discussing with individual colleges and the Association of Colleges, but there is a big issue, which I need to be quite frank about: it is necessary that many FE colleges take to heart the message of the White Paper, which is that our approach is employer-led in developing training courses that meet the needs of local employment. Many in the FE sector are absolutely up for that in a very positive and exciting way—this is a big reform agenda, to be frank—but they will be fully involved.

Some national skill shortages are well known—several hon. Members have mentioned plumbing, for example—but other shortages are localised. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, in collecting information about skill shortages and in taking decisions about how to meet them, some sensitivity will be given to local needs?

For precisely that reason, the local learning and skills councils and the regional development agencies will together particularly address local issues, but I have one caution: it is very important that skills assessments in any locality—whether in Staffordshire or Norfolk—take account of national trends in all the sectors. If account is not taken of the national and international market place, it will lead to significant difficulties. That is what we are trying to avoid.