Skills White Paper: timid, unoriginal and likely to fail

18th July 2003 at 01:00
The dust has already settled on the Government's delayed White Paper. As with just about every other policy statement in this area for the past 25 years, the latest Whitehall offering adds up to sometimes plausible, often cited, but ultimately fallacious arguments about how best to improve the nation's skills.

Charles Clarke, a no nonsense politician with a natural aversion to bureaucratic intransigence, has on this occasion allowed his officials and the CBI to get the better of him. Because when the fanfare has died down, this paper may only be remembered for what it failed to say and will fail to do.

Unusually for aWhite Paper there is not one new legislative proposal. The headlines that accompanied its launch said every adult would have a right to "free learning" at least to a level equal to that already provided to most school-leavers. But there is nothing original about this commitment - it pre-dates the 2001 manifesto. How-ever, if this is genuinely a "right" to lifelong learning as the Chancellor has argued for passionately, then why not let Parliament put substance behind the rhetoric and enshrine this "right" in law?

Instead, with no extra money forthcoming, the criteria for accessing this "free" learning are yet to be drawn up. Watch out for the usual small print that may leave many missing out.

It's not all bad news. For years students in further education have had little or no financial support towards maintenance or tuition costs.

Ministers hint this welcome redistribution from the richer university sector to FE will continue. New adult learning grants of pound;30 per week - although probably too low to have a major impact - are an historic development and one the Government should seek to build on.

It is also right that employers and the economic case for learning are central. After all, firms and public services employ the lion's share of existing and potential learners - without whose co-operation real progress on skills will prove difficult.

After a decade of packing business people on to local public-sector boards there is a realisation - at last - that the best way to really engage employers is through their own organisations and the industrial sectors that directly concern them. This will be achieved by asking employers voluntarily to come up with "sector agreements", brokered by the new sector skills councils. Employers are being exhorted to identify skills needs and how to meet them in their industrial sector and region.

But are such plans - which rely on firms' voluntary co-operation - yet another predictable and timid response? A more radical solution might have been a compulsory training tax on employers. The Government says the case for this is "not proven". The case was not proven for the New Deal or the minimum wage either but Labour pressed ahead anyway.

The paper betrays a post-Thatcherite view of the world. For anyone hoping the unions might finally be put on an equal footing with business, then look again.

The biggest disappointment - the area where the Government has most obviously hoisted the white flag - is the decision not to bring back individual learning accounts. It was departmental bungling as much as fraud that led to the closing down of this popular initiative. So where now for new Labour's radical idea of putting purchasing power in trainees' own hands?

The only people celebrating this decision are the technocrats who believe that they know what is good forlearners. Indeed, that is the only original proposal in all 93 pages of the White Paper. In future every vested interest will be brought together in a new talking shop - the "skills alliance".

The Learning and Skills Council was established to do this partnership job at national and regional level. But it seems even umbrella bodies now need umbrella bodies to oversee what they do. Ministers need to be wary that all this doesn't add up to a victory for those who never wanted a skills strategy in the first place.

Tom Bewick is a former adviser to Labour ministers. He is currently writing a book

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