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Skills Shortages

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2001

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2.37 p.m.

What plans they have to counter chronic skills shortages in a number of sectors of the economy.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment
(Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, the Government recognise the need to raise skills levels and to boost vocational training in all sectors. We set up the National Skills Task Force to advise us on those issues. We have set out our approach to tackling skills shortages in the White Paper published last week. It puts forward our strategy for training people in information and communication technology skills and for strengthening the network of national training organisations.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As she is well aware, there are skills shortages not only in the public sector, in relation to teachers, nurses, firemen and ambulance crew, but there are also deep shortages of skills such as those required by plumbers and carpenters. Is the Minister aware that that lack of technical skills is now regarded as one of the fundamental factors holding back the productivity of the UK economy? As this Government have been in office for four years, and are sitting on the largest public sector surplus of any government for many years, why have they failed to implement the fundamental recommendation of the National Skills Task Force to entitle those aged between 19 and 24—as well as those under 19—to free tuition for technical training up to level three?

My Lords, the Government certainly are not complacent about skills shortages. We recognise that more investment is required to ensure that people have the skills needed to create the kind of productive economy that the noble Baroness wants to see, as does every noble Lord. However, this Government have done a great deal, ranging from a massive additional investment in further education, and a large additional investment in higher education for higher level and more advanced skills, including the establishment of foundation degrees. So the Government are taking action and they have done a great deal to prepare for improvements as regards adult basic skills. We know that there are many adults whose basic literacy and numeracy skills are far below what they should be.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the best way to become a millionaire is to be a plumber or an electrician? Perhaps she would pass that information on to the youth of today.

My Lords, I am not sure whether becoming a plumber or an electrician means that millionaire status will come quickly, but I accept that there is good money to be made in both those important occupations. The Government are creating a vocational stream in secondary education so that those young people who are particularly interested in that kind of career can start early. From the point of view of motivating young people who are disaffected in relation to a more academic curriculum, it is important to offer vocational GCSEs and vocational A-levels. We are also developing a much larger number of rigorous high quality modern apprenticeships in those areas mentioned by the noble Baroness.

My Lords, has the Minister's department studied the recent report that showed that a high proportion of asylum seekers are either graduates or otherwise professionally qualified? Will the department consider what can be done to encourage such people to fill the skills shortages in this country, perhaps by retraining them before the six-month period is up?

My Lords, it is important to establish the long-term status of asylum seekers before substantial investment is made in their training, but I accept that, where asylum seekers are accepted for permanent residence in the UK, it is important that we make use of their skills. I believe that that is happening already.

My Lords. to what extent are the requirements of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as laid down at the Lisbon Summit, met by these plans?

My Lords, the Government have set up the Learning and Skills Council and its 47 local arms. One of the jobs of that council, both nationally and locally, will be to work with small and medium-sized enterprises to encourage them to carry out more training and to provide them with the support to do so.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that skills shortages are as much a regional as a sectoral problem in our economy? Often the skills and the jobs are hundreds of miles apart, with just clapped-out railways and jammed-up motorways in between. Will she press her colleagues, particularly in the Treasury and the DETR, for much more powerful joined-up action to promote growth in jobs in regions other than the over-heated and over-crowded South East of England?

My Lords, the Government are doing that. Having set up the RDAs, we have asked them to look particularly at skills shortages in their areas which may be impeding economic development. The White Paper published last week set out a number of recommendations to try to encourage better training and the development of skills in some parts of the country.

I question what the noble Lord said about sectoral shortages. There are clearly some sectors where there are no skills shortages; in others, such as IT, there are substantial shortages. Again, the Government are addressing that problem by setting up a large number of IT centres for adult training around the country.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the new specialist schools will be modelled on technical colleges? Can she also say whether having 10 per cent of the admission based on vocational skills is sufficient? In order to meet the skills shortages, does she not feel that she must produce something like the technical schools that existed before 1960?

No, my Lords, because the technical schools that existed before 1960 were very few in number; they never took off; they were also selective by ability and they therefore covered only a very restricted number of young people into them. The Government want secondary schools, whether specialist or non-specialist, to provide a vocational route for 14 to 16 year-olds, which has not been available up to now, right across the board. That would produce far larger numbers of young people ready to go into apprenticeships when they leave school.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what is the current rate of adult functional illiteracy in this country? Would not reducing that illiteracy have the biggest impact on skills shortages?

My Lords, between 6 million and 7 million adults in this country have levels of literacy and numeracy far below what we would expect of an adult who is able to function properly in a job with reasonable demands. I entirely accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, as to the high priority that we must attach to making sure that all these people become both literate and numerate and, where possible, IT literate as well. Only when that happens will they be able to secure long-term employment of a highly productive kind.

My Lords, I was disappointed by the Minister's reply to my noble friend Lord Pilkington because is it not the case that the Government are now strongly in favour of selection on the basis of aptitude?

My Lords, the Government have said that it is possible for specialist schools to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils on the basis of aptitude. That is a rather different matter from going back to the technical schools that were established in the late 1940s.

My Lords, does the Minister recall my asking her about the quick-track immigration process for the specially skilled people which she told me would come into force in January? Can she tell me whether there has been any progress made on that and whether it is helping to fill these necessarily skilled vacancies?

My Lords, it is too early for me to give the noble Baroness any feedback about how the new scheme is operating since it was introduced only last month, but I shall be very happy to write to her and let her know as soon as we have information available. All these schemes are important and will help us to fill vacancies as they occur. One of the benefits of the UK system is that it is far more flexible than that of some other countries where there are rigid quotas. We need to stick with that flexibility.

My Lords, does my noble friend not feel that it is outstandingly pitiful that after 18 years of Conservative rule we still have so many people who cannot read and write?

My Lords, it is unfortunate that over the past 20 years more was not done to address the problem. In the announcement we shall make shortly about this matter, I very much hope that the Government can put in place a scheme that will attract large numbers of adults. But we shall be dependent on the employers' help and support in identifying those employees who have difficulty both in reading and in simple numeracy. I am afraid that that situation is true of just too many adults in this country.