Shadow skills secretary pledges to cut the quangos

May saw the publication of two reports highlighting the plight of graduates and school leavers trying to find jobs this summer. But unless employers act now to keep emerging talent engaged with the labour market, they may face long-term recruitment problems, according to shadow skills minister David Willetts.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Labour Market Outlook found nearly half (45%) of UK companies were not planning tohireuniversity or school leavers over the next three months.

Business group the CBI and the CIPD have since called on employers to boostthe internships and work experience they offer to play some role in helping young people gain key skills -something Willetts strongly agrees with.

“There’s a desperate battle for some sort of work experience for those emerging from university this year,” Willetts said. “Even if they can’t get a job, these ‘generation Ys’ are looking for something that enables them to start getting useful experience in the world of work.

“Some employers I would hope would be smart enough to offer more internships and more work experience, which is a contribution to society and a good way of recruiting as well.”

Skills dilemma

Nicknamed “Two-Brains” both for his intellectual approachto and his high hairline, Willetts said the youth unemployment crisis was only part of a UK-wide skills dilemma, created by poor financial management of training schemes by the government and the ineffectiveness of the many skills quangos.

His first job would be to slash the number of skills quangos to as little as three per sector should the Conservativescome to power next year. In some cases there are 17 non-departmental public bodies in the skills sector.

“I see this government’s skills agenda, and there are far too many quangos involved,” he said. “The basic model [should be] a funding body, an audit function and an inspection job, probably done by Ofsted. That means you would end up with fewerquangos.”

Willetts also pledged to close down any of the 25 sector skills councils -set up to reduce skills gaps -which were found to be failing their sectors.

All 25 SSCs are currently undergoing a relicensing review by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, to check that they meet the needs of employers and individuals. Last month, the Financial Services Skills Council failed a review due to weak leadership and poor employer engagement.

Willetts said failing SSCs should be “put out of their misery”, but ruled out changing the system altogether.

“Now that employers have invested a significant amount of time and effort into sector skills councils, it would be unfair to employers to change the system yet again,” he said. “Employers are saying ‘we know they’re not perfect but please not another reorganisation’, and I hear that.”

But Willetts had no tricks up his sleeve for winning the hearts and minds of employers in the event of a Conservative victory. He ruled out providing employers with taxbreaks for training, somethingseveral business groups have been calling forsince the 2006 Leitch Review of Skills.

“If we’re in government, we’ll be entering times where money is extremely tight, so finding funds for that would be extremely tricky,” Willetts said.

“[Shadow Chancellor] George Osborne has said that he wants a reformed corporate tax with fewer exemptions and lower rates, so the direction we would want to travel is the opposite from creating special allowances for training.”


Willetts also took the opportunity to criticisewhat he sees as the government’s mismanagement of the skills system. He used Train to Gain as a case in point. Little over a year ago the skills brokerage service was criticised for underspending on its £200m-per-year budget as employers weren’t interested in using it. But as soon as the government relaxed the rules and increased flexiblity of funding for smaller employers, the service became in danger of overspending on its budget for the year ahead – failing to meet demand.

“Going from famine to feast and back to famine, it’s a binge-eating model of public expenditure. You have surges of expenditure, and promises are made to FE colleges to encourage them to make big prestige developments, while similarly Train to Gain providers are told to recruit more because they were under-spending on their annual budget.”

Perhaps Willetts should spend more time on managing his own funds – he is among the MPs implicated in the expenses scandal.

CV David Willetts 

  • 2005-2008 Shadow skills secretary
  • 2001-2005 Shadow work & pensions secretary
  • 1999-2001 Shadow secretary for social security
  • 1998-1999 Shadow education & employment secretary
  • 1997-1998 Opposition spokesman for employment
  • 1995-1996 Parliamentary secretary, Office of Public Service
  • 1993-1994 Parliamentary private secretary to Norman Fowler (chairman of the Conservative Party)
  • 1987-1992 Consultant director, Conservative Research Department

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