By December 2007, more than 950 companies covering almost 2.7 million employees had made a skills pledge to develop the skills of their employees, including basic skills such as literacy and numeracy and work towards relevant valuable qualifications to at least NVQ level 2, which is equivalent to five good GCSEs.
I thank the Minister for that reply. In Halifax, thousands of my constituents work in small and medium-sized businesses, which are vital to the economy. Can the Minister tell me how many people in Halifax have participated in the scheme, and what skills and benefits they have developed through that?
Thirty-nine organisations in the Yorkshire and Humber region have participated in the skills pledge, but my hon. Friend will be aware that large companies such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Royal Mail have also signed up to the pledge. The most essential programme in her constituency, as in others, is Train to Gain, with its more than £1 billion of investment over this comprehensive spending review period. That engagement of employers with a broker and local colleges in skilling up their work forces is what will produce results in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Does the Minister agree that, although it is fine for larger and leading organisations to commit to the skills pledge, it is equally important and yet a great deal more difficult to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to participate actively? Will he ensure that the minimum of bureaucracy is required, and does he acknowledge that the maximum of encouragement is expected from Government to ensure their participation, both in apprenticeships and other structured training programmes?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The first thing to say is that this endeavour cannot be just a national one; it has to be a local one, and there is certainly a role for local chambers of commerce across the country to pursue skills agendas in their areas. Secondly, we have ensured through the Train to Gain programme that the absolute priority is hard-to-reach companies, and that includes companies that have not invested in skills in the previous period. Through that, and our plan for growth where we recognised and introduced changes to make this as simple as possible, we can ensure that small companies are able to access the relevant money to upskill their work force.
As someone who went through a craft apprenticeship training scheme where education and training were available up to and including degree level, I am aware that this is very costly for smaller employers. Has my hon. Friend any plans to extend finance to SMEs in particular?