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Skills for Growth

Volume 499: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2009

Order. May I just ask right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly? We have an important statement and I know that Members will wish to hear it.

I wish to repeat a statement made by my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on our policies for skills and their role in our future economic growth.

An active Government approach to equipping the country for globalisation means ensuring that we have the skills that underwrite the industries and jobs of the future. That means skills for the high-tech, low-carbon, more high-value-added sectors that drive the growth that underwrites everything else that we want to achieve as a society. These skills are becoming more sophisticated and even more vital.

I also start from the position that skills in our society must always be an individual’s ladder up. That is why the skills system needs to mesh with our university system. We need schools and colleges to make a strong vocational offer, which will lead to a clear vocational route from apprenticeship to technician to foundation degree and beyond.

Equipping unemployed people with the skills that they need to get jobs in key sectors will be essential to a strong recovery. Let us remember that by equipping more of the domestic population with the right skills to compete for jobs, we help employers to become less reliant on migrant labour. Addressing these skills challenges has been the focus of our skills strategy in recent years, and it remains the foundation on which our new policies build.

We recognise that skills have historically been an area of British competitive weakness. Since 1997, we have made real progress in tackling the economic and social scandal of adult illiteracy and innumeracy. We will not abandon our promise of basic skills for all. We have eradicated much of the poor quality that blighted our further education system. We have transformed work place training through Train to Gain, which has trained more than 1 million employees and helped them to get on in work. We have revived apprenticeships, which were allowed to wither away in the ’80s and ’90s. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is before the House today, will ensure that this progress is sustained.

This skills strategy builds on the progress made. It reflects some important decisions and marks a radical shift in the balance of our skills priorities. It reflects the world we find ourselves in: a world where higher level skills have never been more important to our growth, and where the skills challenge has to be tackled within more constrained resources. So we have made some difficult choices. The crisis help that we targeted to help to counter the effects of the recession will progressively be refocused on the skills that we need for a sustained recovery.

We have taken three key decisions. First, we will change the focus of our skills system so that a new premium is put on higher skills, especially the technician skills that are the foundation of high-tech, low-carbon industry. Secondly, we will empower learners through more choice and better information to drive up the quality of the system through skills accounts. Thirdly, we will dramatically reduce the number of publicly supported bodies delivering skills policy, working with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to reduce them by more than 30. These choices will target public investment on the most relevant skills for the future, at the highest possible levels of quality and marketability.

The first of these decisions reflects the need for a new focus on the skills that we need in the laboratory, the high-tech factory and the computer facility. We will create a new, modern class of technicians—something that has long been identified as a gap in our labour market. To build this technician class, we will further expand the apprenticeship system by creating 35,000 new advanced places for those aged 19 to 30 over the next two years.

The aim of creating this technician class will also be aided by the new generation of university technical colleges whose creation we are supporting. To turn these apprenticeships into potential ladders to university, from 2011 all apprenticeship frameworks at levels 3 and 4 will be required to have UCAS tariff points, just as A-levels do, so that holders can apply for, and make their way into, university. We will also commit to the recommendation from the panel on fair access to the professions that we create an apprenticeship scholarship fund that will provide one-off bursaries of up to £1,000 for 1,000 apprentices entering higher education every year.

We will take a more strategic approach to the skills that we fund. That means prioritising strategic skills in key industries such as advanced manufacturing, low-carbon, digital technologies and biosciences, and in important growth sectors such as health care. Our decisions in the next bidding round of the national skills academies programme will reflect these core national priorities.

The second of our decisions is to increase the power of learners to drive up quality in the skills training sector by giving them more choice over where and when they train, and better information on how to exercise that choice. To give effect to that greater choice, we will set up new skills accounts, which will enable students to shop around for training, backed by good information on how well different courses and colleges can meet their needs.

Critically, we are going to more than treble the number of public and private institutions where accounts can be used to over 1,500—not only creating new options for learners, but creating a big incentive for providers to design courses that attract students.

The further education sector has made significant strides in improving the quality of its provision over the last decade. Many of our colleges are performing at world-class levels, and overall success rates have increased by over 40 per cent. in the last 10 years. We will build on this by providing progressively greater autonomy to colleges that demonstrate teaching excellence, but also by cutting funding to low-priority and poorly provided courses. We will invest in the courses that employers judge are in line with their needs and requirements.

Finally, we have decided to simplify the organisational clutter of public bodies delivering skills policy. We welcome the recommendation of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to reduce the number of separate publicly funded agencies by over 30 and will work with it and others to make that happen. Our new model will make the regional development agencies responsible for leading the regional skills strategy in each area, working in partnership with local authorities and others.

This skills strategy shares its fundamental challenge with our recent higher education framework. They must equip our people to prosper in a globalised knowledge economy. They must contribute to our return to sustained and sustainable growth. The goal of this strategy is a skills system defined not simply by targets based on achieved qualifications, but by “real world” outcomes—relevant quality skills with real market value. It will be driven by the realities of a changing global economy—by demand from the British businesses and individuals who have to prosper in that economy. The clearer the demand, the better the system will work.

Our expectations of business will rise. We will strengthen the role of employer-led sector skills councils and business-led regional development agencies in shaping an excellent supply of courses and training, designed in direct response to local and national employer needs, but we will also expect businesses to make a greater contribution to the funding of skills training for their work force. We need a culture in which all employers take the view that the skills of their staff are one of the best investments they can make.

Our ambition is that, thanks in large part to the innovations in this strategy, three quarters of people should participate in higher education or complete an advanced apprenticeship or equivalent technician-level course by the age of 30. This strategy empowers the further education system above all to compete to meet the needs of businesses and learners. That will put further education where it belongs—right at the heart of the knowledge economy, at the heart of our recovery and our future prosperity.

There is much in this statement that the Opposition welcome. We welcome what the Minister has said about ensuring that practical apprenticeships get UCAS points—something that we specifically proposed in our Green Paper last year. We welcome the proposal on scholarships for apprentices to go on to university—something that I proposed in my party conference speech in 2008. We welcome what the Minister has said about shifting back towards advanced apprenticeships at A-level equivalent. We also welcome the praise that the Minister rightly gave to the performance of our further education colleges and hope that he means what he says about simplifying the very complicated burdens that they face at the moment.

I have several questions about the statement. First, can the Minister explain why we should believe what he says about simplifying the system? The Order Paper shows that after this statement the House is to consider the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which will give some of the responsibilities of the Learning and Skills Council to local education authorities. Because the Government do not really trust LEAs, there is to be a new Young Person’s Learning Agency whose job is to supervise those authorities. Then there is a separate National Apprenticeship Service and also a Skills Funding Agency or SFA. In fact, when it comes to simplification, this Government’s policy is SFA—by which, of course, I mean the Skills Funding Agency! So why should we believe the Minister when he says he simplifying? He is actually making life far more complicated. Will he take the opportunity at this late stage to introduce amendments to the Bill to reverse those complexities?

The Minister said that apprenticeships had been revived under this Government. Will he confirm that what has really happened is that level 2 courses that did not previously count as apprenticeships have been redefined, and that training for people at level 3 is actually at a lower level than it was 10 years ago?

The Minister referred to the importance of replacing migrant workers with better-skilled British workers. We were relieved that he avoided crude BNP slogans such as “British jobs for British workers”. We understood the point that he was making: that he thought that a measure of the success of his skills strategy would be a reduced dependency on migrant workers. Will he confirm that since the Government came to office, 1.4 million of the 1.7 million new jobs—more than 80 per cent.—have gone to migrant workers? What, according to the very benchmark that he has offered the House today, does that tell us about his skills strategy?

Will the Minister confirm that whatever he may say today, in public, about what he is doing for skills and training, separately—in private, within the Department—a very different policy is unfolding? Will he confirm that he was one of the recipients of the paper dated 12 October entitled “Skills Investment Strategy 2010-11”, which shows how the Department is proposing to save up to £350 million on some of the very initiatives that he has been talking about today? Will he confirm the validity of the ready reckoner helpfully contained in the internal document, according to which:

“Removing £100m in the 2010-11 financial year, proportionately across the different levels and funding routes then we would lose a total 133,000 learners from the baseline”?

Will he confirm that every £100 million of cuts that he is proposing will mean the loss of an extra 133,000 learner places, and that if he raises the full £350 million of savings, a third of a million learners will lose out?

In his statement, the Minister talked about the rolling out of skills accounts. Will he confirm that the private document that he has received from his advisers in the Department states:

“we can still… achieve the target £100m by reducing the funding originally planned for the Adult Advancement and Careers Service and by delaying the roll out of Skills Accounts”?

How can we take the Government seriously on skills or any other subject when they say one thing to the House, while privately preparing a completely different strategy?

Let me begin by graciously welcoming the hon. Gentleman’s gracious welcome for the parts of the statement with which he agreed, on UCAS points and a greater emphasis on level 3 apprenticeships. He praised our further education sector, so perhaps it would be unfair of me to point out that the contrast between the state and quality of our further education sector today and its state and quality when his party was in power could not be greater. It was flat on its back. Not a single penny went into renewing the sector towards the end of that period, whereas we have renewed it substantially.

The hon. Gentleman talked of simplification. It is true that almost everyone who examines this arena agrees that we need a simpler, less cluttered system. He talked of the changes that we propose. Those changes will get rid of nine regional skills bodies, so we are reducing the number of bodies in this territory. The hon. Gentleman talked of events outside the House. I think I am right in saying that he has not been entirely beating the drum with sector skills councils, arguing that their number should be reduced.

Let me now turn to the hon. Gentleman’s final point about a story that appeared in the newspapers in recent days. The information contained in the great secret document he waved was actually announced in this House in the Budget some months ago, and in case anyone had not noticed it in the Budget, the then Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), wrote to the Learning and Skills Council earlier this year setting out the kind of savings we were looking for. We are not cutting apprenticeship numbers. This is old news; it was announced in this House, and it was communicated to the LSC.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about funding, let me ask him whether he will match our commitment to keep up spending on renewing the FE estate. He has not committed to that. Will he confirm that he will abolish the Train to Gain budget entirely? He talks to us about funding, yet he will not match the funding commitment that we have made because we want to increase opportunity and because we recognise the necessity of a high-quality skills system both for individuals and our economic future.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State has come to the House today to make a statement on this announcement, in stark contrast to his colleague, the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, who on Monday made a written statement on the long-awaited fees review, which has angered thousands of students throughout the country, including about 100 presidents of student unions, who are gathered upstairs in Committee Room 11 at present—and I hope to speak to them shortly.

We thought we had had the Government’s vision for skills—the 2020 vision for skills—three years ago in the Leitch report, but the world has, of course, changed completely since then: the United Kingdom economy has experienced six quarters of contraction, and unemployment has increased again today, particularly for young people, among whom unemployment has risen by 15,000. The unemployment rate among 16 to 24-year-olds is 19.8 per cent., which is a far greater proportion than for the population as a whole. Young people have borne the brunt of this recession. Many of them are graduates who had never expected to be in this situation, but the vast bulk are those with skills up to, or including, level 2, thus compounding the long-entrenched problem of those not in education, employment or training.

We need emergency measures to deal with the recession, as well as a long-term vision for the future of our economy. Does the Minister agree that it is simply ludicrous to expect young unemployed people under 24 to have to wait up to 12 months for what he himself described as “crisis help”? It is a pretty strange crisis if they have to wait 12 months for help. Instead, my party has proposed a 90-day guarantee.

We welcome some of the announcements in the statement. We certainly welcome—I am sure it is a welcome that will be echoed by employers around the country—any proposal to rationalise the quangos that proliferate in the entire skills labyrinth. The most common complaint I hear from all the employers I meet is that they find the skills labyrinth bewildering to negotiate. Does the Minister not agree that sector skills councils ought to be the organisations in the driving seat in respect of saying what are the skills needs of their industry, rather than the RDAs, as seems to be the case under the Government’s preferred model?

If any headline comes out of this statement, I guess it will be yet another target: that 75 per cent. of those aged under 30 should attain either a higher education qualification or an advanced apprenticeship. After 12 years of targets, I wonder whether we need another one in the fag-end period of this Government. Perhaps this is intended to obscure the fact that they will fail to meet the 50 per cent. target for participation in higher education by 2010.

The statement referred to new university technical colleges. The Government’s further education capital programme has been a complete fiasco, so I imagine this does not mean there will be new build. Will the Minister therefore confirm what these new university technical colleges will actually be? Will they be just a rebadging of existing FE provision? FE colleges will also be quite alarmed by the Minister’s comment that there will be cuts in what he calls low-priority courses. Will he define what a low-priority course is, or at least give an example of one, from the Dispatch Box today?

Much of the emphasis in the statement and in the report is on formal provision, but does the Minister agree that there is an important role to be played not only by further education and by government but by social enterprise and charities? I have been impressed by the work done by Fairbridge in my constituency and by the Bristol foyer. Often, that informal provision can lead people, particularly those not in education, employment or training, back into formal learning. We will agree—I am sure that there will be a broad consensus on this—that the future needs of this country will be high-tech and low-carbon, but does he agree that in order to get young people to take the relevant courses, they need good, well resourced and independent advice and guidance from the age of 13 right through their education and their working lives? It is not clear to me that the resources are in place to deliver that. The report is all about long-term vision, but I suspect that the tragedy for the Government is that they are not going to be there to deliver it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He attacks our 50 per cent. target, but his party does not even support a 50 per cent. target. In fact, its document states:

“We reject the simplistic 50 per cent. participation target set by the Government”.

He may wish to put a cap on aspiration and ambition, but Labour Members do not. We want to see everyone achieve their potential, which is why we broadened that ambition today by saying that we want not only to expand participation in higher education but to do more on this technician class of apprenticeships and equivalent qualifications, where Britain has been historically weak compared with other countries.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned youth unemployment. Of course unemployment, including youth unemployment, has increased in the recession, but Labour Members will never say that that is a price worth paying. We know the damage it does to families and communities, which is why we have put £5 billion into helping unemployed people get back to work. A particular emphasis for us is on preventing long-term youth unemployment. Even though unemployment has increased, the level of long-term youth unemployment of a year or more is some 80 per cent. lower than it was before this Government came into power. The contrast in the response to this recession compared with the responses to previous ones is that we are not content simply to pay people benefits and leave them there. We want to create second chances for people, which is what this £5 billion investment is focused on doing.

The hon. Gentleman criticised my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, but I remind him that my right hon. Friend made a statement on the higher education framework in this House just last week, so we have not lacked reporting to the House on this issue. The hon. Gentleman says that he is going to speak to a lobby later, and I am sure he will be outlining his policy on fees in detail to them—it will be interesting for the rest of us to find out what Lib Dem policy on this is.

The hon. Gentleman rightly praises the role of the third sector in this arena. The Government, too, praise its role, because these organisations do a fantastic job. Last week, I visited a wonderful project run by the Prince’s Trust, and other bodies, such as Mencap, Nacro and Rathbone, all do excellent work. Here is the difficult truth: they require Government support to do it. We fund those organisations to the tune of £353 million; the money goes to more than 400 third sector organisations, helping people to expand their opportunities. What we will not do is reduce third sector help in this area to these organisations raising their own money with no Government help. We will not make opportunity dependent on flag day. We will work with the third sector and back it with resources.

I congratulate the Government on much of this statement. It is pleasing to hear that individual accounts are back after an eight-year gap, and the statement contains some other interesting things relating to apprenticeships and much else. My first caveat is that the churn in organisations puts off many people, such as employers. These people have for years invested their time and trouble in running these organisations, just to see them rationalised, changed and abolished. Secondly, there is a bit of a naive belief running through this report that the employers’ assessment of what we need in the labour market is always right. It is not always right and other players are often more accurate.

I know that hon. Friend has great authority and knowledge of these matters and I listened to what he said with great care and respect. He is right to say that there is an emphasis on the skills system meeting the needs of employers. We do not apologise for that—we are entering a world of rapid change with the shift to a low carbon economy and we have to ensure that employers get the skills that they need from the system. The emphasis on skills accounts empowers the individual, too, and by expanding the number of institutions where skills accounts can be used and, critically, by providing high-quality information to the individual learner we not only meet the needs of the employer, but expand opportunity for the individual. It is critical that the skills system does both those things.

May I welcome the Minister’s announcement of a reduction in the number of skills bodies, which the Opposition have been advocating for some time? Now that he finally accepts the need for a reduction, will he explain why his Government allowed so many to flourish in the first place?

The system has evolved over time and it is quite right that we should take a look at it now and say that, as it has developed, there is a need to make the system simpler for people to use. It is quite right that we should face up to that and reform the system in exactly the way that we have set out.

My right hon. Friend is familiar with many of the big manufacturing issues in my constituency, but he might not be so familiar with some of the retail related issues. Is he aware that Marks and Spencer, which is about to make its biggest investment for about 18 years in this country—it will invest in 150,000 square feet of new retail in my constituency—is attracted by, among other things, the brilliant partnership between the FE sector and retail? The creation of a retail academy has transformed the life chances of many people from the poorest estates in my constituency.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He mentions Marks and Spencer, one of our leading companies, and the work with the retail skills academy. The partnership between the best of our FE colleges and businesses is now of a far higher quality than it was before, and that is what we want to see. We want FE colleges to be properly plugged in to the local and regional skills needs of the communities that they serve. When they are plugged in in that way, we can meet the two objectives that I have talked about and enhance life chances and opportunities for individual learners while contributing to our future economic growth.

We seek no additional funding for these changes. As I have said, we will target some of the help that we have used during the recession at funding, for example, the level 3 apprenticeships. That might mean providing less full funding of repeat qualifications in Train to Gain, which we have allowed during the recession, and using that funding to fund the technician apprenticeships that we believe will contribute significantly to our economic recovery as we come out of the recession.

May I welcome this statement and, in particular, the Minister’s words about the development of skills accounts? Does he agree that the two essential elements of that development are an extension of the number and range of providers and the passage of information, control, power and, above all, choice to the would-be consumers—that is, the trainees? These are the very elements that have driven an increased and enhanced performance in the health service. Does he expect the same sort of improvements in education and training?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. He is right that the proposals on skills accounts expand the number of providers through which those accounts can be used. They also extend choice, information and power to the learner. There are few things as powerful as an individual user of a system who is empowered to make choices about how and where they learn. My right hon. Friend, when he was a member of the Government, was a champion of the kind of public service reform that empowered individuals. I can assure him that precisely the same philosophy is reflected in this paper today.

May I add my thanks for what will be a very interesting report? In particular, I should like to thank the Minister for picking up many of the issues raised by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee in the wake of the Leitch report, and I echo his comment about individual skills accounts. However, in an act of friendship, I say to him that one of the real beneficiaries in the current unemployment situation—and 750,00 18 to 24-year olds unemployed is something that no party can accept as tolerable—is the Department for Work and Pensions, to which a significant amount of money has been diverted. Has he had conversations with colleagues in the DWP about whether 18 to 24-year olds without level 2 or 3 qualifications can have access to full-time courses in FE colleges and keep their jobseeker’s allowance while they do? That would give them at least the same recognition as is given to full-time higher education students going to university.

I say, gently and in a good spirit, to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who has done well out of me today, that in future the abridged rather than the “War and Peace” version will suffice.

I will take your advice, Mr. Speaker. I am very happy to pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee, which does its work in a considered, serious and committed way. In the abridged version, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we work closely with our colleagues in the DWP to make sure that our policies in these areas are lined up together and that we are doing both of the things to which I have referred throughout—enhancing opportunity for individuals, and contributing to our economy even in these difficult times when unemployment is rising.

Coming from Blackpool, where we have a fantastic FE college with a new HE centre, I was delighted to hear what the Minister had to say about skills needing to mesh with the university system. What he said about skills accounts and the apprentice UCAS tariff points should go some way towards achieving that, but what more can he do to nudge some of those recalcitrant university vice-chancellors who are very quick to get out the begging bowl and ask for increased fees and so on, but who are not so quick to sign up to a very important agenda and admit those with apprenticeships and diplomas to their universities?

I would hope that the whole higher education system is committed to access and to providing enhanced opportunities for people from all backgrounds, but we know that that has not happened in some areas. The report led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), for example, pointed out that hardly any apprentices go on to higher education. That is one reason why we have backed the recommendation in that report to create a scholarship for up to 1,000 people to go on to higher education each year. We do not want the traditional academic and vocational divide that means the two sides never meet. We want a ladder of opportunity for people of all backgrounds, and that should include the most talented apprentices getting the chance to go on to higher education in a way that many young people from other backgrounds take for granted.

As the shadow Minister responsible for further education when the scale of the individual learning accounts fiasco became clear, may I remind the Minister of one reason for the failure? That was that the drive to meet the targets meant that there were not sufficient checks on providers to ensure that they delivered the goods. Can he assure the House that that problem has been covered, and that we will not see the scale of disaster that we saw a few years ago?

Two critical things are needed to make skills accounts work and to avoid the problems that happened last time, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The first is proper accreditation for the providers, which we have built into the paper and which will ensure that we have good, high-quality providers giving a high-quality range of choice to individuals. The second thing is to have good information for individual learners, and I refer him to work done by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. The commission has produced a good traffic light system along the lines of food labelling—

Yes, the system is shown on page 62 of the document. It covers things such as earning potential, the quality of the course and the employability that people will have as a result. If empowerment and choice are to work as we want, high-quality information of that kind for individuals is essential. Both of the conditions that I have set out are met in the report.

The statement will be very warmly welcomed in East Berkshire college, which is one of those colleges that have so improved in recent years. As a result, I hope that it might forgive me, because it looks as though business will prevent me from attending its award ceremony. I particularly recognise the proposal for advanced apprenticeships in the biopharmaceutical industry. The Minister will know that I have pressed that issue for some time on behalf of biopharmaceutical companies in Slough, and if that proposal can be rolled out swiftly, it will be helpful to that very powerful and important part of our economy.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) talked about the importance of the retail industry, but another sector where Britain enjoys enormous strengths that we want to keep and build on is the pharmaceutical industry. That is precisely why it is right for us not only to create a target—a new objective—but to back it up with hard cash for 30,000 new level 3 apprenticeships, thus creating precisely the kind of technical skills in the technician level that are valuable to pharmaceutical companies, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).

Crompton Technology in Banbury is a high-tech, low-carbon and value-added business. It needs to recruit more than 200 modern technicians just to fulfil its existing business plan. It recently advertised for just 10 people. Notwithstanding receiving 130 responses, it could not fill any of the places because the applicants did not have the right level of skills. Will the Minister spare me just 10 minutes sometime in the near future to discuss how we can fast-track technician training at the local technical college, so that as many as possible of those 200 jobs can go to local unemployed people, rather than going overseas?

In my time as a Minister, I do not think that I have ever refused a meeting with a Member of any party in the House, and I am not about to start doing so now. Of course, I am happy to see the hon. Gentleman, but such skills shortages show precisely the need for the policies that we are outlining today. The kind of low-carbon company that he mentioned needs the level 3 skills. That is why we are putting more emphasis on them. They are precisely the kind of skills that will be needed as we come out of the recession and try to support businesses that will contribute to economic growth in the future.

I welcome the acknowledgement of the importance of higher skills to deliver a knowledge economy. What discussions has my right hon. Friend therefore had with the universities, which will deliver not just the science and technology courses that he is talking about, but a variety of other courses that can also contribute to the agenda that he is laying out for us today?

We are in regular dialogue with the universities. The participation rates in higher education have increased hugely since the Government came to power. I think that I am right in saying that some 300,000 more students are now in higher education, compared with when the previous Government were in power, and to support that progress, we have supported the funding of an extra 10,000 places this academic year.

Much of this matter is, of course, devolved. I welcome the fact that the Minister is emulating aspects of the system adopted in Scotland two years ago, but on the UK matter, can he tell us how industry-wide sectors, such as the excellent one for training in the oil and gas industry, will come into the strategy? In particular, will he help them to move on into the low-carbon industry, where many of the skills are equally applicable?

I heartily agree that low-carbon skills are essential for the future. Therefore, I cannot for the life of me understand why the Scottish National party-led Administration in Scotland do not support the need for a new generation of nuclear power stations to contribute to that, with all the jobs and skills that that would entail. The hon. Gentleman talks the talk, but he will not walk the walk. Labour Members want the population in Scotland to have access to the same high-quality jobs and skills that that transition to low carbon will create as people have in England.

No one would disagree with what my right hon. Friend said about high-value skills, individual empowerment or helping the youth unemployed, but I know that he is aware that there is another group—a hard-to-reach group of people who have been unemployed for a long time and struggle with basic levels of skills in numeracy and literacy. They are what some people describe as the underclass. It is important that we engage with this group, help them to acquire the basic skills that they need to get back into work and encourage them to do so. What does my right hon. Friend intend to do about that?

This Government have helped 6 million people get better skills for life in recent years. I agree that taking that first step is essential, and nothing that we suggest in the paper will detract from that. We also say in the paper that we want to place great emphasis on the technician level, which will be the real driver of economic growth in the future. I do not believe there is a choice between the kind of life-enhancing opportunity that my hon. Friend describes, and economic growth and the need for a technician level of skills that we emphasise in the paper.

Will the Minister intervene and ensure that the new vocational centre for Castle Point, which I first raised and campaigned for in 1991 and which is now finally supported by Essex county council, is funded and goes ahead?

The wisest course of action for me is to consider that issue, discuss it with my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, and write to the hon. Gentleman.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s new commitment to local authorities having an enhanced role in the system of apprentice training and, hopefully, in training for technicians. Will he agree to meet Councillor Ron Round, the Labour leader of Knowsley council, to look at the possible lessons that can be learned from the excellent apprenticeship scheme that he has been leading in Knowsley?

This statement is fast filling my diary, but I am happy to accede to the request made by my right hon. Friend.

The Minister spoke about the knowledge economy and the need to shape the courses to local businesses. However, is he aware that this will have a pretty hollow ring in west Norfolk, where the college of West Anglia has had its Learning and Skills Council capital programme cancelled, thus depriving it of the promised move to a new state of the art campus? Does he accept that businesses in west Norfolk and the knowledge economy in particular have been let down by his Department?

I take exception to Opposition Members attacking our record on capital spending in further education. Let me give the hon. Gentleman the facts: 700 projects in 300 colleges worth £2.7 billion in expenditure. Contrast that with the amount in the last year that his party was in power: no projects, no colleges, not a single penny.

I see that my right hon. Friend wants to simplify the organisational clutter of public bodies delivering skills policy. Will he look at what has happened to Renishaw and Delphi in my constituency, where we put in place some very exciting skills training for those on short-time working? That has taken place, but it has not been at anything like the level that some of us would have liked. Will he look into that to see if this is a good learning point so that it can help future skills policy?

I am happy to look at the constituency example that my hon. Friend cites. We made the Train to Gain budget more flexible during the recession by allowing it to be used for shorter courses and also for repeat qualifications, but we are making it very clear that in a world of constrained resources, looking to the future, we will want to focus that budget more readily on areas of future economic growth, and to use some of it to fund the level 3 technician apprenticeships that I have spoken about today.

Given the reference in the statement to the skills accounts and the fact that students will be encouraged to shop around for colleges and courses, does my right hon. Friend agree that my constituents could be disadvantaged if we cannot find a way of retrieving the capital spend for the Stoke on Trent further education college? Will he work with me to try and find a solution so that we have proper facilities in-house locally?

I know that my hon. Friend is a strong campaigner for her city and the college there. I remind her of the figure that I quoted a moment ago: we have spent some £2.7 billion on renewing the further education estate. I do not believe that her constituents will be disadvantaged by greater power and choice. It is good to give people greater power and choice—to let them drive the system, provided that the providers are properly accredited and that people have good, high-quality information. We are determined to ensure that those two conditions are met.

This statement heralds a welcome refocusing of activity. Does my right hon. Friend accept, however, that creating new places for science, technology and engineering is only half the equation—the other half is getting kids to want to fill those places? That will happen only when society holds these professions in greater esteem and we do more to inspire children in these subjects. How do the Government intend to fill that half of the equation?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I regularly visit engineering companies in my constituency, where people tell me that they have good, sometimes well-paid jobs, but they feel that young people have a distorted image of engineering, manufacturing and so on. In conjunction with the Engineering Employers Federation, we have set up an organisation, co-funded by the manufacturing industries, called Manufacturing Insight. Its task is to get out, get into schools and inspire young people with the powerful vision of a country that makes things and the careers that go with that. The policies that we have outlined today will help to equip people for those careers in the future.

As a member of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, I am proud to hear what the Minister said about the support that he is giving to industry in ensuring that it has apprentices for the future. A lot of what he said is for the long term. Leyland Trucks—in Leyland, as one would expect from the name—will benefit through its hybrid truck from the grants and support that can be given to such companies. Will he look to ensure that that support will be there? We should also ensure that we keep people in the workplace, and have another look at a short-time working subsidy for the short term to back up what he said for the long term.

I certainly agree with the first half of what my hon. Friend said. That is why the Government, working with colleagues in the Department for Transport and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, have a low-carbon industrial strategy, part of which is designed to ensure that Britain is a leading player in low-carbon transport, be it hybrid or electric vehicles. Countries have a simple choice: they either buy these technologies from elsewhere or make an effort to be manufacturers of those technologies. We very much want to take the latter route.

I welcome the focus on training for low-carbon economies and technologies, which is very much the future. My right hon. Friend talked about the regional development agencies having a strategic role in terms of training. Can he assure me that that would allow them to take a strategic approach in relation to funding from the European Union, Government grants and private sector grants in order to develop centres of low-carbon technology, as I believe that the Humber bank could become?

If we think back to the first industrial revolution, much of it was driven by energy resources—coal, steam, gas and oil. Those resources fuelled and funded the technologies of the 20th century. We stand on the brink of a second industrial revolution, which is the shift to low carbon. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of this. The role of RDAs is to work with local authorities, educational resources and employers in their area to fashion a regional strategy that meets the needs locally and regionally. That is a powerful vision, it is something that I believe they will be good at, and it is backed by the document that we have produced today.

Bill Presented

Waste Recycling (End Use Register) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. David Drew presented a Bill to require certain authorities to maintain a register of the destination of recycled materials; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 165).