Shephard pledges benefits

14th July 1995 at 01:00
The erstwhile Education Department had its first amble round the new estate this week, with Gillian Shephard defending the Government's employment record on consecutive days.

The Department for Education and Employment has now become a hydra and fully five of its heads were present to answer the scheduled questions on employment in the House of Commons. Two - Gillian Shephard and James Paice - had previously been in the now-abolished Department of Employment and switched with alarming ease straight back into the language of projected earning capacities, rates of inactivity and, a baffling one this, economic dynamism. And attacks on Labour's plans for a minimum wage of course.

Cheryl Gillan and Robin Squire also got in on the new DFEE act, offering up several pieces of good news for the nation's unemployed.

In the other place, meanwhile, an insouciant Minister of State, Lord Henley, was refusing to answer a complex question about modular qualifications for sixth-formers - this on the grounds that he knew nothing about them. He had, he said, been in the department "for a matter of just three days and two of those were spent on the beach with my wife and children".

Earlier in the week, Labour took the opportunity of its own, pre-arranged debate on the Government's Social and Economic Policy to claim that the vanishing act perpetrated upon Employment shows a lack of commitment to the plight of the nation's workers. "The abolition of the Department of Employment signals the complete lack of Government concern about unemployment, insecurity at work and skill shortages," read the hastily-prepared motion.

As it turned out, however, the newly-merged department rated scarcely a mention. The six-and-a-half hours were taken up with criticism of widening social inequality from the Opposition and of Labour's economic proposals by carefully-planted Conservatives.

The lack of focus on the new department is a sign, perhaps, of the complete surprise that the merger has occasioned. The former permanent secretary of Employment this week told a concerned Employment Select Committee that even he was informed only a matter of hours beforehand.

It could also indicate a degree of ambivalence on the part of Labour. While not wishing to abolish Employment, a key department in past Labour administrations, the party has nevertheless been in favour of bringing education and training closer together.

For Labour, amateur magician Greville Janner - who is also the chair of the Employment Committee - accused the Government of attempting to ignore unemployment by making the department disappear: "The Government has created an illusion that, with the Department of Employment gone, unemployment has also vanished and diminished," he said. All too readily, the ball which he produced from his pocket was made to disappear.

Harriet Harman, the Opposition spokeswoman on employment, asked whether the new department would now halt the planned cuts in the budget for adult training - which, she said, is set to lose 12 per cent over the next three years.

For the Government, the Secretary for Education and Employment Gillian Shephard replied: "There is no place for those who look only backwards, or for people whose hearts are in the Ministry of Labour that was founded in the 1890s, and not in the Department for Education and Employment that has been founded in the 1990s.

"There will be positive benefits and new opportunities in our schools. Schools need industry, and employers increasingly play an important role. Employers can see that, as young people from the age of 14 onwards start to make those choices, helped by the invigorated careers service, they will be better informed if careers advisers, teachers and employers work more closely together.

"They can see that we can better co-ordinate key policies to drive up skill levels and promote business success. We can encourage closer links between education and the business world. We can promote greater coherence between academic and vocational qualifications."

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