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National College for Wind Energy

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the National College for Wind Energy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I wish that this debate was not necessary, but with the autumn statement in just three weeks’ time, once again the Government look set to omit a deal for the proposed national college for wind energy, meaning that the project will stay stalled. The college was first announced in December 2014 by the then Business Secretary, the former Member for Twickenham. Three other colleges were aimed at addressing existing or forecast skills shortages in particular industries, and the policy included £80 million of Government funding to be matched by employers. However, difficulties at the due diligence stage of developing the bid with the private sector meant that the funding application could not be submitted in time, and the project was not included in last year’s autumn statement.

The original proposal was for a hub-and-spoke model. The college located in the Humber area would deliver training, allow partners to use the site for expertise that was not available elsewhere, and act as a co-ordination point for other skills providers located elsewhere in the country in order to maximise access. Following the failure to develop a funded plan for that before the deadline, alternative proposals were suggested, including one whereby there would be no physical college, but merely a national college badge for training providers as a guarantee of quality. I am glad that that idea no longer seems to be under consideration.

I will come to the various barriers that are preventing the deal, but it is important to note that this proposal was a pre-election promise by the coalition Government to invest tens of millions of pounds into the Humber region and to boost our local offshore wind industry. As it stands, that is a broken promise, which can be added to a pile of pre-election northern powerhouse funding commitments that quickly unravelled after last May.

Clearly the Government need to take the wheel if the college is ever going to be delivered, but I am now really concerned that the new Government are neglecting this proposal. When I and colleagues representing constituencies in the Humber, who I am delighted have joined me here today, met the previous Ministers for Business and Energy—the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom)—back in March 2016, they assured us that they remained committed to delivering the college, but now it simply does not seem to be on the Government’s radar. Following the appointment of the current Cabinet in July, I wrote to the Secretary of State for the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, calling on him to work with the Education Secretary to ensure that a suitable proposal for the college was ready in time for this year’s autumn statement. I am still waiting for a reply.

The Prime Minister sent an awful signal to the energy industry when in one of her very first acts she scrapped the Department for Energy and Climate Change. She now has to show the industry that she is serious about giving it the attention that such an important sector of our economy requires. The day after my application for this debate was granted, my office received a call from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It wanted to know whether it or the Department for Education needed to send a Minister to respond today. That suggests that there has been absolutely no communication between the two Departments on this subject for four months, and that is incredibly disappointing. I say to the Minister here today that when he goes back to his office, he should pick up the phone to his colleagues in the BEIS and get to work on delivering what was promised.

When the college was first announced less than two years ago, the then Business Secretary said:

“The UK can no longer afford to lag behind countries like France and Germany, which have invested heavily in technical skills at the highest level for generations. The National Colleges will function on a par with our most prestigious universities, delivering training that matches the best in the world. They will help build a strong, balanced economy that delivers opportunity across all regions in the UK.”

That all remains true today: skills provision in this country does not match its ambitions and there is still a need to support industries such as offshore wind that provide good jobs outside London and the south-east. As a relatively young and fast-growing industry that demands high levels of skills, it is no surprise that offshore wind sites have sometimes struggled to find workers already equipped with the necessary capabilities for the jobs. Mike Parker, who was chair of the Humber local enterprise partnership’s employment and skills board, said that the national college would be

“a major step forward in helping the UK bridge that gap.”

RenewableUK, the trade body for renewable energy, has highlighted some of the challenges specific to offshore work in training employees. Personnel need to receive training in real working environments, and it has to be done safely; such conditions are difficult to replicate. That accounts for the need for advanced skills training in the construction and operation of turbines offshore. It takes four years of training to become a wind turbine technician.

A RenewableUK study from two years ago found that more than a third of wind and marine energy firms were having difficulty filling certain positions. The TUC argued in its “Powering ahead” report that the skills gap in renewables requires training to be given equal weight to what are currently described as the three pillars of energy policy: security, affordability and sustainability.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The Humber local enterprise partnership has prioritised skills and training and it has done a good job. Does she agree that a Government commitment to deliver and complete their promise on wind energy, by agreeing to get the college moving forward, would be a real, much-needed vote of confidence in the Humber LEP and the Humber region?

I could not agree more. The significant skills gap across many industries has been noted and recognised in the local area. The Humber region is particularly eager to capitalise on the growth in the offshore industry, whether we are talking about Siemens, DONG Energy, E.ON, Centrica—I could go on. The number of international companies that are choosing to base themselves in the Humber area is increasing by the week and we must have the local workforce skilled to meet the requirements of industry.

The report argues that not only are apprenticeships and further education courses needed to provide opportunities for young people to access the renewable energy industry, but we need institutions such as the national college in order to give workers in the oil and gas industries the skills to transfer over, as high-polluting industries are gradually replaced by those in the green economy. I do not think that the issues that made the college necessary two years ago have altered that much in the past two years. I would argue that the only major changes we have seen since 2014 make it more important that the college is developed.

As foreign companies are looking at whether to invest further in the UK, the uncertainty over future immigration policy makes it vital for the UK to be able to offer workers with the necessary skills and training to do the job. Following through on the national college for wind energy would be a commitment to the future of the industry, assuring energy companies that Britain is committed to the offshore wind sector for the long term and therefore providing the certainty they need to continue investing in our economy.

Developing the college is also of regional and local importance. The Humber region was due to be the location for the college under the original plans for a really good reason: thousands of people across the energy estuary are employed to work on the wind farms and in the supply chain, with the Hornsea, Race Bank and Triton Knoll sites all set to employ hundreds more in the near future.

Organisations within the region have welcomed the new industry with enthusiasm. The Humber LEP, for example, set an ambition in 2014 to make the region

“the national centre of excellence for energy skills.”

We have already seen investment in training and opportunities for young people. Indeed, an apprentice from a local firm was at an event in the House of Commons today, so apprentices I have met in Grimsby are making the journey to champion their organisations here in Parliament. They have the opportunity to take advantage of the fantastic new £10-million training facility that AIS Training built last year. That investment shows the confidence that local business has in offshore wind.

An apprentice I have had the pleasure of meeting is Michael. I have told his story a number of times but I am going to do so again, because it made a significant difference not only to me and the way I view the offshore wind industry, but to hundreds of people in a room at a skills fair that I held earlier in the year. Michael was 19 at the time, and his ambition was to be a skipper on one of the North sea service boats that go out and maintain the turbines. I invited him along to the skills fair; he thought he would be telling a small group of young people in a classroom a little bit about his job, so having never spoken to an audience before, he was rather surprised to be in front of an auditorium of about 200 people, who were all very keen to hear about how he found his way into an apprenticeship in the wind industry.

The significant thing about Michael, in his own words, was this:

“Seven months ago I was on jobseeker’s allowance, and had no plans and nothing to bring to the table. North Sea Services didn’t judge me for all my tattoos and took me on. Seeing the wind turbines close up is mind-blowing. The work that goes into them is unbelievable. I’m trying to show them that I’m worth keeping on.”

Happily, North Sea Services did keep him on, and Michael was part of the vessel crew that took my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and I out to visit the Humber Gateway turbines in June. His story shows why it is so important that this industry continues to grow and that the college is developed: so more young people in towns such as Great Grimsby have a chance to make something of their lives, and to have a job they can be proud of.

Great Grimsby was one of three sites in the Humber region that were originally touted to host the college. I want to say why it would be so important for the development of my town, and I hope that my neighbouring colleagues will excuse me for championing my town as the host town for the college. For more than a century, Great Grimsby was a one-industry town. Fishing not only employed thousands of local people but gave them their identity, their community and their pride, and we are still feeling the effects of its decline. My constituency has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and because of the lack of opportunity one in three of our children grows up in poverty.

I have said it before, but it is true: offshore wind has brought a renewal of hope to Grimsby. It is playing an important role in redefining what my town offers not just to our own people, but to the rest of the country. We are already the renewable energy capital of England and being home to the national college for wind energy would be vital for the same reason. It would also give more local people the opportunity for a proper career, with high-skilled work—something that until recently young people felt they would have to go to the big cities to find.

The Prime Minister said last month that the Government’s industrial strategy was

“about identifying the industries that are of strategic value to our economy and supporting and promoting them through policies on”,

among other things, “training” and “skills”. She also spoke about the importance of economic revival in parts of our country that have lagged behind London and the south-east for too long. If this Government are to live up to the Prime Minister’s conference speech, they need to show leadership and get this project moving again. If industry is now reluctant to commit funds to the project, citing greater risk, lower growth, and a lack of clarity on skills policy, the Government should assuage those concerns by committing to support the industry.

We have seen in the past week that the Government are willing to support specific industries and even individual companies, as with Nissan. It is good news that Nissan’s future in Sunderland is secured, but it is just as important that the Government meet their commitments to the wind energy industry. The Government should also remind the energy companies that they have a stake in this. They have received large subsidies from taxpayers and have a responsibility to ensure that their business benefits the towns and cities in which they operate, and it is in their interest to build a workforce for the future. I hope that the Minister gives us, at the very least, an assurance that the Government have not given up on this project and will set out how he plans to move forward with it.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn)—my Member of Parliament—on securing the debate and on outlining the importance of such a college to the Humber region and, even more important, to the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area, which is very much dependent on the development of the offshore renewables sector for the local economy to succeed and develop. In order to do that, as she pointed out, the correct training facilities are essential. We want to get local people, particularly younger people, trained up so that they can take advantage of the new industries.

At the moment, too many highly-skilled workers are being imported from Denmark, Germany and the like. We must get to a situation in which our younger people develop skills so that they can move into those jobs in the near future. As has been pointed out, the companies have a duty. I think that the hon. Lady was a bit too critical of the Government. I have never been shy of criticising the Government when necessary, as my Whip would happily confirm, but on this occasion we have seen a commitment, certainly from the coalition Government when the original announcement was made, and subsequently.

The hon. Gentleman said that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) was critical of the Government. Does he not agree that it is a bit damaging, to say the least, that the Prime Minister—within a few minutes, apparently, of taking office—scrapped the Department that everybody, including all those investors, were looking to in order to make things happen?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not agree. There is an obvious synergy between the various Departments that were merged into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—BEIS, as I think we are supposed to call it. What matters is that there are spokesmen such as my right hon. Friend the Minister who are determined to develop skills and the energy aspects of the Department, so I will sweep aside the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby knows, there are facilities in our region. She, like me, will have visited the Grimsby Institute. I know that she has visited HCF CATCH, the training facility at Stallingborough in my constituency. We also have the newly established Humber University Technical College in Scunthorpe. There has been a clear and positive contribution from the Government and some parts of the private sector.

The hon. Lady is right that we urgently need to develop the college in the Humber region, preferably on the south bank and, even more preferably, in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area. I am even prepared to support her bid to have the college in Grimsby, because it is in danger, in some respects, of being one of the left-behind towns to which the Prime Minister has referred. Grimsby is in urgent need of regeneration, which, in part, has to come from the public sector. The private sector will get on board, but the Government need to show willing. The hon. Lady and I have been supporting each other in trying to develop and bring forward a number of other projects in north-east Lincolnshire, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

I think, to be very local, that the east marsh area and perhaps the Freeman Street area, with such proximity to the docks, would be ideal locations if there were a new build. From my conversations with the LEP, I know that there are discussions about whether the college should be a new build or whether we concentrate too much on new builds. However, locating the college on such sites would be particularly helpful with regeneration.

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in supporting a call for a new build precisely to evidence the support of the Government for assisting a grand regeneration project for Great Grimsby?

I am very happy to support the hon. Lady. As I mentioned a moment ago, the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area, particularly the rundown areas of Grimsby, are definitely in need of regeneration, which has to come from a public sector-led development.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to give a positive lead. From previous discussions with him, I know how committed he is to training, apprenticeships and giving every support to our young people. It would be a real bit of encouragement to those in our area if he could give a positive lead and answer the questions raised by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and me.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing the debate and on putting forward a compelling case for why the proposals for the college should go ahead. I am not going to get involved in the discussion about whether it should be in Great Grimsby or Cleethorpes, largely because I do not know what I am talking about when it comes to that—not that that has ever stopped me in the past.

Education is devolved in Scotland, so that side of the debate has no implications for Scotland. However, the industrial side of things, including the ability to provide the marketplace with enough skilled folk, very much resonates with Scotland. Energy policy, which is a reserved matter, also has an impact on the general attractiveness of the whole United Kingdom as a destination for investment in renewable energy. In the past few weeks, we have slipped further down the Ernst and Young rankings for countries with renewable energy attractiveness—from 13th to 14th—after not being out of the top 10 for a decade or so. That is regrettable.

I will not talk about the educational merits. National colleges are not a model that we have used in Scotland; our investment is through existing educational providers. However, I will talk about the message sent to the investment community, young people and the whole industry by announcing something like the college and then not funding it once it has gone ahead. This is another of the substantial number of announcements that the Government have made in the realms of renewable energy that have been unhelpful and that have probably added to the UK’s diminished investment attractiveness.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned that it was unfortunate—I do not think that that was her exact word, as it is probably worse than that—that the Department for Energy and Climate Change has been abolished. I share that frustration. The justification for abolishing the Department was to put industrial strategy back into the political lexicon. Well, taking climate change out of the political lexicon was particularly short-sighted. The biggest challenge facing us as a species perhaps deserves a bit of recognition by the Government.

I understand the argument made by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) about the synergies that can be created by bringing the two Government Departments together. Unfortunately, it does not sound as though those synergies are working well, if the hon. Member for Great Grimsby cannot get a response to a letter for several months. I have also found that letters are going unanswered, and colleagues in the Scottish Government are having incredible difficulty getting proper information out of the new Department. We all understand that putting new Departments together takes time and will cause confusion for a while. We also understand that Brexit is eating up an awful lot of the Government’s time—for their thought process and to think about what can be done—but there is a day job that needs to be done properly, particularly when it comes to the investment and skills for vital industries that have a four-year lead-in time, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned.

The joined-up approach that is supposed to come from BEIS needs to come quickly, and the college is a particular example of where that could happen. The proposal is on the table. Put the money into it. Provide that incentive for others—a vote of confidence in an industry that will require significant investment in skills. We have huge question marks on the electricity supply in this country, which will get harder as a result of Brexit.

I am interested by the TUC’s argument, which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned, on adding the skills shortage as a fourth pillar of the trilemma. I have not previously heard that argument, but I think it is key. We have teased out that there are skills shortages in this area. Can the Minister provide us with more up-to-date figures on the skills shortage in the renewable energy industry, particularly in offshore wind? The problem is not going to get any easier with the expected restrictions to free movement of labour as a result of the Brexit process. As well as failing to attract folks from Germany or Denmark, whom the hon. Member for Cleethorpes mentioned, we are already losing skilled personnel from the industry. Skilled people are losing their jobs in the onshore wind sector—there are clearly significant synergies between onshore wind and offshore wind—because of the Government’s lack of investment.

The hon. Members for Great Grimsby and for Cleethorpes both touched on this but if I have one plea on the development of an industrial strategy, it is that Government expenditure, particularly in areas of deprivation—the Humber is not an area I know well, but I understand that there are issues of historical unemployment—boost the economy and provide long-term economic and societal benefits. Money spent by this Government need not just be seen as money going out the door; it needs to be seen as an investment in the future and in communities that need help from their Government for whatever reason. There will be a return on that investment. There will be a benefit if we invest, as a country, in areas such as Great Grimsby and in technologies and industries such as offshore and onshore wind. If we do not do those things, either the jobs will go unfilled or we will have to bring people in from Germany, Denmark or wherever. Electricity will still be needed if we do not build onshore or offshore wind, but we will get it from Norway, France or Holland.

Let us think about a joined-up approach, as BEIS is meant to do. If we invest in skills and provide certainty that we will build x amount of offshore wind and y amount of onshore wind, the money, the jobs and the energy security will follow. It is a pretty simple proposition, but it is one that the Government must get right.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I warmly congratulate and applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing this debate. As she said, she has a long track record on this issue. It is extremely disappointing that, almost two years after the proposed national college for wind energy was first announced, the Government still have not finalised the funding or the strategy and still have not given an open date for developing a college that would help to address the skills shortages in the industry and the wider region.

I obviously listened with great care to my hon. Friend’s speech, but I also listened to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and what he said about the importance of seeing the whole area as a forcing point for these technologies. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) spoke a great deal of sense about the need for a holistic approach.

In a way, the little episode that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby described, about the Department that never was, indicates the issue. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South and I were both relocated, if I can put it like that, in the summer period, and I am no stranger to changes to the machinery of government. I remember the issues that were discussed in 2007 when the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, as it was called, was split from the Department for Education.

When we have such changes, such necessary disruption, it only becomes more important that things that have been sitting in the filing tray, virtual or actual, should be looked at with greater urgency by the incoming Department. That is not too much to ask when we know that offshore wind presents a great opportunity for expanding our low-carbon generation profile and can play an important role in helping us to decarbonise the power sector and meet our climate change targets.

In August 2016, a strategic review of east coast port facilities identified the offshore wind sector’s enormous potential to accelerate economic growth on the east coast of Britain. It found that east coast ports have the capability to support the ambitious pipeline of offshore wind projects that will be built out on the North sea in the decades ahead. The construction of such major infrastructure projects will stimulate economic activity in some of the most economically deprived areas of the UK.

As we have seen in other industries, such as the nuclear industry or the aerospace industry—I am particularly familiar with the aerospace industry, having BAE Systems only a few miles down the road from me in Blackpool—supply chain companies would serve projects in British waters and export goods across the world. We all know that jobs created directly in an industry are often exceeded two or threefold by the jobs created in the supply chain. The secret ingredient in that process, of course, is skilling and training, particularly high skilling and training. That is one of the reasons why the college that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby is so strongly advocating would be essential.

My hon. Friend has said that the Humber area is an ideal location for the college. Grimsby is the renewable energy capital of England, not least because of the involvement and investment of Siemens in the region since 2014. Siemens has announced its decision to invest £160 million in wind turbine production and installation facilities across two locations, and its port partner, Associated British Ports—ABP—is investing a further £150 million in the Green Port Hull development.

In my first spell as shadow Minister for further education and skills, I was privileged to visit Hull to meet the local enterprise partnership and other stakeholders about their hopes and expectations for this project. We spoke about how crucial it is for the area’s wellbeing and the local enterprise partnership’s strategy. When I moved across to become shadow maritime Minister, I was lobbied on the issue by the excellent port group, ABP, because it was keen to see progress. Now that I have returned to shadowing the Department with responsibility for further education and skills, I find that the same issue has cropped up again in my new portfolio, which shows how important and widespread the project is. We need to cut across the silos of Government to get the results that my hon. Friend wants.

The then chair of the Humber LEP employment and skills board, Mike Parker, welcomed the project in 2014:

“Our economy is growing; building on their Grimsby presence, Siemens are set to locate in Hull, and E.on, Centrica, Vestas and Dong Energy have chosen the south bank of the estuary as their preferred sites. Supporting the generation companies is a growing supply chain of maintenance and facilities management. Wind energy generation is still relatively new and demands higher level skilled employees, the lack of an able qualified workforce has led to the sector facing a serious challenge in filling vacancies.”

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes made that point when he spoke about generating skills locally, rather than importing them from Germany and Scandinavia.

Does the shadow Minister agree that growth and new investment from DONG Energy, which has decided to establish its operations and maintenance base in Grimsby, make it even more vital that we have enough young people and skilled local people able to take on jobs at the site when it is built?

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes a critical point: there has to be a synergy—a symbiosis, if I can put it that way—between the timing of the creation of these new initiatives and the supply chain of skills to feed them. Getting that wrong would not only cause great disruption in that supply chain but send out a message to other potential investors that this is not an area in which to risk their money.

Let me quote again from the former chair of the Humber LEP skills and employment board:

“Having a dedicated National College will be a major step forward in helping the UK to bridge that gap.”

The need to tackle skills shortages has not shrunk but increased over the past two years. One has to ask why the Government have still not committed to the college.

In response to the strategic review carried out earlier this year, the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), commented:

“The UK is the world leader in offshore wind and it’s important that we make the most of the many jobs and business opportunities that arise from this growing industry.”

What more appropriate way to achieve that than by taking action on this project?

When the college was first announced in 2014, it was envisaged that it would open its doors in late 2016. A significant feature of the college—not least in view of some of the issues that the Minister and I discussed in an earlier debate in this Chamber today about the balance of skills and apprenticeships—is that it would offer new and mature students professional qualifications and short courses in addition to bespoke programmes directed and sponsored by employers.

Beyond the specifics of this project in Grimsby, that would help to address the bleak situation that many adult learners face in further education and higher education. As the Opposition argued when we debated the Higher Education and Research Bill, we really need to put the same emphasis and passion that have been put behind the apprenticeships programme into the expansion of adult learning and skills. Those are the areas in which we have lost big time over the past four or five years, especially in comparison with our continental counterparts.

The TUC’s report “Powering ahead”, which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has already mentioned, states—rightly, in my view:

“The TUC believes there should be a fourth pillar of energy policy: skills…It is…essential that if today’s workers are to become tomorrow’s workers, using new technology, they will need the skills for this change. Upskilling must become a normal and regular part of a worker’s life.”

That is crucial. We will have more than 13 million job vacancies over the next 30 years, but only 7 million school leavers to fill them, so reskilling adults is paramount. That growing skills gap has to be at the heart of the agenda to bridge the gaps and shortages appearing across the workforce. There is so much potential in lifelong learning, but unfortunately the Government are still moving too slowly and letting the sector down.

Wind energy is a growing industry. Employment is expected to increase and engineers, technicians and other specialist roles will therefore be in greater demand. Many of those roles can and should be filled by young people starting their careers. However, there are other roles, including at other levels, in which experience will be extremely important, particularly in coastal environments. We know that there are already large skills gaps across the wind energy sector and that 37% of vacancies are found to be difficult to fill. A national college in Grimsby would go a long way towards providing a strategy on addressing those shortages and would help new and mature students to advance their skills.

I have great sympathy for Grimsby in this case. Like me, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby represents a coastal constituency that has seen challenges. Second-level towns, particularly seaside and coastal towns, have been particularly challenged in recent years by the decline of traditional industries and traditional sources of income. They are the towns that particularly need regeneration and the benefits that come with it—skills, jobs and potential spin-offs—especially given all the unknowns and uncertainties that their communities face, whatever happens as a result of the 23 June referendum.

Opposition Front-Benchers, alongside the TUC and others, have been pushing for a review of the increasing demands on adults to take out advanced learner loans to fund vocational upskilling. As the TUC report “Powering ahead” states:

“In light of the fact that the bulk of funding for apprenticeships will switch from government to employers in the coming years, there is a strong case for government providing more direct subsidy for retraining and upskilling of adult employees in priority areas as the economy transitions to a sustainable industrial scenario.”

If funding for the college is an issue, the Government really ought to give their attention to it. They have to rebalance their skills basket to focus on adult workers as well as on those starting out. The message of the Leitch review, which is now nearly a decade old, is still very pertinent: because of the democratic demands, new technologies and new skills cannot simply be left to the young.

The take-up of advanced learner loans is not very good: only about 50% of the money allocated is being used and the rest is being sent to the Treasury, so the Government need to find a way to incentivise adults to take out loans. Initiatives such as the potential national college for wind energy would offer a fantastic opportunity for people over the age of 24 or 25 to gain new skills and a path into employment in a fast growing, vital industry. As well as dealing with today’s skills, a college such as the one proposed for Grimsby could also promote cutting-edge research into new skills for generation 2.0 and 3.0 of these innovative new technologies.

I sat on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee when it did a report on renewables in the late 2000s. We spoke in that report about the lost opportunities for UK plc to capitalise on the expanding renewables markets, and about the dangers of relying on assemblage outside the UK for our renewable technologies. Sadly, some of the Committee’s fears have come to pass, but that is why it is even more important that we take the initiative now that we have the opportunity. Frankly, the Government have delivered enough knocks to renewables initiatives in the past couple of years—first with the problems in trying to decide whether to have nuclear as well as renewables, and then by encouraging subsidies for solar power, knocking them back and dithering over onshore wind. The signals that that approach sends out are not encouraging.

In Blackpool, our own energy college, Blackpool and the Fylde College, is going to look at renewables. When I look out from Blackpool towards Liverpool bay, I have a particular interest in seeing those new renewable energies offshore continuing to flourish. The national college for wind energy in Grimsby that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has promoted so valiantly today would be an important part of that strategy. We hope the Minister will be able to say some positive things today to get it moving on its course.

I propose to conclude the debate at 5.45 pm. If the Minister could give Melanie Onn a few moments to wind up, that would be helpful.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing this debate; she is a brilliant advocate for her constituency. I also pay tribute to my genuine hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and thank him for his remarks.

It is clear from the hon. Lady’s interest in this subject that she rightly wants to ensure that people of all ages in Grimsby have access to high-quality further and higher education to acquire the technical skills that employers are increasingly demanding. The Grimsby Institute is already helping to meet those needs as one of England’s largest providers of higher education, providing a wide range of training at a variety of levels. The hon. Lady spoke movingly about the apprentice she met. She will know that there were 840 apprentice starts in her constituency last year, and there were more than 5,210 between 2010 and the end of 2015. I know she would like to see more; hopefully, the impact of our commitment to deliver 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 will be felt in her constituency.

The hon. Lady raised important issues about the skill needs of the energy industry, which is timely because it allows me to set out what the Government are doing to address the skills needs across all sectors of the economy in England. It is a key priority of the Government to ensure that we have the skilled workforce required to support development and growth in all areas of the UK economy. The country has all the ingredients required to compete with other skilled nations, but we have to create an education system that can harness and develop that talent, starting at school and going right through to the highest levels of education and training.

We are making progress. Many more of our young people are now taking up high-quality apprenticeships and training, leading to good jobs and careers in their chosen profession. Our post-16 skills plan will build on that, creating a more streamlined system of high-quality technical education that truly delivers the skills that industry need, but the Government cannot do the job by ourselves. We want to work with employers and colleges to unlock the potential in this country. There are already good examples of colleges and employers working in close partnership to create world-class facilities and teaching, but there is more to do.

I am not afraid to acknowledge that our education system does not always deliver the high-level technical skills in the volumes that our economy demands, especially at levels 4 to 5—the bit between A-level and graduate level. The fact that only 10% of people in England hold higher-level technical qualifications has contributed to a chronic shortage of highly skilled technicians. The OECD estimates that we will need around 300,000 trained technicians entering the labour market by 2020. Every year, the UK produces only around a third of the number of people trained at technician level that Germany produces. Higher apprenticeships are beginning to address that, but we are growing from a low base. Things are not going to get any better in a system in which only 4% of students are studying further education at level 4. Although there is good higher-level technical provision in some areas, it is spread too thinly across the country overall.

National colleges, which we have heard about this afternoon, will play an important role in helping to meet the gaps, within the context of the wider reforms set out in our 16-plus skills plan, which outlines the most radical shake-up of post-16 education since the introduction of A-levels almost 70 years ago. It will transform technical education for most young people and adults into an education that is world class, with clear pathways to skilled employment. It will build on the success we have already had by investing in apprenticeships, with the aim of creating a skilled workforce that is the envy of every other nation and that meets the needs of our growing and rapidly changing economy.

National colleges will have an important place in the new technical skills landscape, helping to define and deliver the routes required. They provide specialist facilities and training and lead the way in the design and delivery of higher level technical skills in industries or sectors that are critical to economic growth—industries that currently rely heavily on imported skills to meet the skills gaps at higher levels.

The Minister is setting out some of the Government’s new proposals in this policy area, on which we will no doubt touch again as part of our discussions of the new Further Education and Technology Bill, which was announced last week. Regarding the hopes of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) for the college at Grimsby, does the Minister accept that there needs to be a recalibration in Government to ensure that older people who have experience and skills participate in the new set of national colleges as well as younger people? It seems that too often the Government’s rhetoric has excluded them.

I would like all people to participate if they need the skills. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman: our apprenticeships, skills offerings and national colleges are all open to all ages.

The Government are investing £80 million to support the development of five national colleges, and we expect that money to be matched by investment from industry in the respective sectors. The ambition is for the colleges to train up to 20,000 learners by 2020. I recently visited the new Hackney-based National College for Digital Skills. The facilities, the enthusiasm of the staff, the passion of the students and the strong support from employers such as Google will make it the success that I know it will be. Employers in other industries are crying out for higher-level skills, and particularly for technicians who combine deep knowledge of technology with up-to-date experience in industry.

National colleges will be set up only in those sectors where there is a clear gap in skills and where employers have clearly demonstrated their support and willingness to contribute to the operation of the colleges. Those that have been successful so far have had a clearly defined scope and sector focus, with evidence of strong employer support—High Speed 2, nuclear and the creative and digital industries—and wind energy is no exception. An industry-focused skills solution would need to demonstrate strong employer commitment and willingness to contribute capital, equipment, senior management time and access to facilities.

I am encouraged by the considerable work done to date by key partners to develop a proposal that meets the existing and future needs of the energy sector. Officials from my Department have been in discussion with the local enterprise partnership and others to provide advice on what we would want to see from a national college for wind energy. I understand that the LEP and RenewableUK are working with industry to identify skills gaps and to build a case for a viable national college model. The latest proposal has changed, but it is still very much consistent with the original vision of a national college. I am encouraged by the work that is going on, and look forward to further progress on the national college proposal. It will follow, as it must do, the same robust assessment process as for every other national college that has been agreed. Widespread employer buy-in and engagement will be a critical factor.

Might this be an opportune moment for the Minister to throw his full and forceful weight behind accelerating the programme as much as possible and encouraging all the agencies in the area to provide a blueprint so that we can all receive some assurance? My original concern was about the problem of the timing, in advance of the autumn statement; perhaps he can comment on that as well.

As I have said, as long as the same propositions that others who have set up national colleges are followed—it looks as if a lot of work is being done to do that—I will of course support and work with the relevant bodies, such as the LEP, as well as with the hon. Lady and others. Nevertheless, the detailed plan must be produced, and it has to meet the conditions that the plans for other national colleges had to meet. There is no doubt that, as I have said, this industry is vital to the economy and that, as I have also said, we need a skills training system that can deliver the skills needed to fill these jobs.

During the Commons debate on the Humber energy estuary in February, the Government set out our ambition to have a strong industrialised UK supply chain with the capability and capacity to win even more orders. We are working with developers to see how we can attract further investment and promote rejuvenation in areas such as Hull. We want UK companies to be able to benefit from offshore wind development, by ensuring that they are in the best possible position to compete for business.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby for raising this important issue today and I know that she will work hard to try to help establish the national college in her area.

I will take the Minister up on his offer to work together, because the only way that this project can be achieved is through significant political championing. I look forward to many an exchange of correspondence with him; hopefully, he will visit my area, which may assist him in gathering ever-increasing enthusiasm for my vision—not only for the college, but for my constituency.

I thank the hon. Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) for their very considered contributions to the debate. Obviously, the local knowledge that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes brings to the discussion highlights how keen local MPs are to see our constituencies benefit from all of the projects available in the local area. I also recognise the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who are no longer in their places.

Some of the skills that need to be developed go beyond those of a wind turbine technician. Only a finite number of wind turbine technician vacancies will ever be available in this industry, but the skills required in the industry go beyond those of such a technician. There are maritime skills, operational skills, mechanical skills, digital skills and technical skills, as well as the engineering side of things. A vast range of skills is required, all of which need to be taught up to a very significant level.

I recognise the commitment of companies that have based themselves in the Humber area to try to secure as many local people as possible—they are trying to employ the local workforce—and to assist with local training facilities by having a direct input into the development of training, so that they do not have to send their staff to Denmark or Germany to access training when it can be accessed locally. Nevertheless, it would be an enormous boost to our area to have a centre of excellence that everybody in the whole country could be proud of, with high-level provision of skills for a really exciting and fast-moving industry. We are already behind on skills training.

Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that, although we have spoken a lot about getting our young people trained up for these industries, there are many people who have past experience in the offshore oil and gas industry and require only modest retraining? If the retraining courses were available, that would open up new opportunities for them.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; in fact, I briefly referred to that issue in my speech and obviously my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), the shadow Minister, has been very keen to focus on adult skills.

However, such training should have been provided when the investment was being made, because we are already playing catch-up. This is advancing technology, so we should be looking at the research and development side of things as well as providing the basic skills, because 15 years ago turbine blades were 16 metres long and now they are over 80 metres long. This industry has developed rapidly in the last 15 years and in my view every delay leaves those of us in the Humber area even further behind in getting the very best out of the offshore wind industry. So I urge the Minister to take a particularly keen interest in this issue.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the National College for Wind Energy.

Sitting adjourned.