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Employment: Unskilled Jobs

Volume 693: debated on Thursday 21 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What assessment has been made of the change in the number of unskilled jobs in the United Kingdom since 1997.

My Lords, in 2004 the Government commissioned my noble friend Lord Leitch to undertake an independent review of the United Kingdom’s long-term skills needs. His interim and final reports drew on a comprehensive range of evidence and found low-skilled jobs accounting for a falling share of employment. The Government plan to publish a full response in early July, which will set out the measures that we will take to meet the challenges of a higher-skilled economy.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that the estimated number of unskilled jobs has fallen from 8 million in the 1960s to 3.4 million today and that a further fall is projected? Is he further aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that, by 2020, only 600,000 unskilled jobs will actually be needed? What action is being taken to raise skills levels, following the important speech last night of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

My Lords, raising the skill levels of the population, young and older, has been central to our policies since 1997. We have increased education spending by 50 per cent in real terms since 1997, which has enabled a substantial improvement to take place in school standards. It has also enabled a range of further education programmes to take place, including, for example, Skills for Life, the programme aimed at improving basic skills of literacy and numeracy in the adult population. The Government have spent £3 billion on Skills for Life since 2001 and nearly 2 million adults have seen their literacy or numeracy improved as a result of such courses. We have also introduced the new Train to Gain programme, which works with employers to identify lower-skilled employees and give them free or heavily subsidised programmes leading to level 2 or 3 qualifications. We are spending about £400 million a year on that. We have substantially increased the number of apprenticeships. I could go on. There has been a very substantial programme of work, but we will set out more still when we respond fully to my noble friend Lord Leitch’s report early next month.

My Lords, given the importance of the skills agenda, why do we have to wait until July for the Government’s response to the Leitch report? As each week goes by, more and more young people are being left behind and all we have heard from the Government is a deafening silence. I cannot understand why we have waited over half a year for this report. Could it be that we are simply waiting for a new Prime Minister?

My Lords, we are only a few days away from July. I am all in favour of expeditious action in these areas but I do not believe that that is an undue delay. With regard to the deafening silence, I commend to the noble Baroness the brilliant speech that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made last night at the Mansion House. Far from being a deafening silence, it was a very capable exposition of policy in this area and our commitment to improving it.

My Lords, in the light of the noble Lord’s answer to the last question, is he prepared to indicate when he last went into a pub or restaurant in the London area and was served by somebody British? Does he not accept that, as the demand for skilled operatives increases substantially within the United Kingdom, there remains a significant demand for unskilled labour which is not being fulfilled by British workers?

My Lords, the rigours of my job are such that I very rarely get into public houses, but I am happy to take the noble Lord’s word for it.

My Lords, in respect of my noble friend’s reference to expeditious action, is he aware that not 45 years ago from that Dispatch Box, in his maiden speech, Lord Snow answered exactly the same question about exactly the same problem? Governments have come and gone since then. What does that suggest to my noble friend?

My Lords, this Government will not be going any time soon, and I hope that, by the time we do, we will have transformed policy in this area. We have made very significant strides in recent years, due in no small part to our progress in education at school level. The very substantial improvement we have seen in school results will feed through into the skills of the adult population in due course. Let me say to my noble friend, who has played a big part in this work, that that is due in no small part to the substantial improvement in the quality of teaching and learning in our schools. No group of people will be more important in taking forward this agenda than teachers in our schools. Developments such as the national teaching awards and others that celebrate the achievements of teachers, with which my noble friend is closely associated, are having a transformative impact in this area.

My Lords, how many additional unskilled job vacancies does the Chancellor of the Exchequer intend to create next week, and how many noble Lords have been invited to fill them?

My Lords, I decline to answer that point. A moment ago the Minister referred to apprenticeships increasing in number, but still there are not enough. I am sure he would agree that there is a great demand. What will he do to ensure a better completion rate of apprenticeships? That is a great concern. Will the Government consider some form of recognition for apprenticeships, such as a diploma or something of that nature?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right to raise the issue of completion rates of apprenticeships, which, frankly, we accept have been too low. We want to raise the completion rate significantly. We are working with employers’ organisations to see that that happens. I take on board the noble Lord’s point and I shall come back to him on it.

My Lords, as a Member of your Lordships’ House who occasionally, with his wife, visits public houses for lunch, I ask whether my noble friend will turn his attention to the skills that need upgrading in the hospitality and tourism industry. It is a very important industry, and sometimes I feel we are lacking in that area.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a valuable point. We are looking at work we can do in the hospitality and tourism area, including the establishment of a national skills academy and the introduction of new specialised diplomas, which will focus on leisure and tourism as a subject that can be taught in schools. Once those diplomas are introduced, they will lead to worthwhile qualifications for young people, including real skills in that area, as they go into the job market.