We must make poachers pay

Yesterday the Government published its Green Paper on lifelong learning - downgraded from the White Paper expected since the autumn. The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, backs it, while John Edmonds asks where the money is
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Britain has consistently missed the bus when it comes to training for the majority of the workforce. Much to my regret, David Blunkett has passed up a golden opportunity to tackle this problem, with publication of the Government's much delayed and much watered-down discussion document on lifelong learning.

We were promised a White Paper detailing action on providing learning for 40 years in the home and workplace. Instead, we have a weak and ineffectual Green Paper which, in effect, rules out any government action in this important area for the next four years.

Why the change of heart from a government committed to "education, education, education"? According to David's advisers, it was the wicked Treasury. Chancellor Gordon Brown simply would not provide the extra resources to fund new lifelong learning programmes. Rather than put up, ministers prefer to shut up altogether, on a policy that is vital to our industrial performance in the 21st century. As a nation, we are extremely good at producing an academic elite from an education system that has not been geared to the educational needs of the majority. But that elite has then shown scant interest in training the rest of the workforce.

Far too many of our young people leave school at 16 without any qualifications, compared with our main rivals on the Continent. The cultural difference in attitudes to training is identifiable, even in the language used. In Britain, post-16 education is viewed as "staying on", while the rest of Europe describes leaving high school at that age as "dropping out."

The figures for 16-year-olds leaving with basic intermediate qualifications (GCSEs) show alarming weakness when compared with our main European rivals. Only 26 per cent of the UK working population have such basic qualifications, compared with 49 per cent in France and 55 per cent in Germany. And British companies have a long tradition of poaching skilled staff rather than training their own. Many companies regard it as more cost-effective to poach. In a typical German workforce, average employees receive up to 40 hours off-the-job training a year, compared with 14 hours here at home. In Germany, all vocational training is free to the employer, whereas in Britain employers must pay.

In Germany, training is systematic, and is appropriate for an individual's chosen career. Here it is a free-for-all which depends not just on your career, but also on the attitude of your employer, and a lot of luck.

Despite this unsatisfactory state of affairs, ministers plan to leave employers free to do as little as they like regarding lifelong learning. Laying no obligation on them to provide any will mean continuing the failed policy of the past.

Reliance on voluntarism lies at the root of the UK's failure to match skill levels and career opportunities abroad. It also explains why so many workers with so much potential never get the chance to develop their talents to the full. Too many people are in dead-end jobs because their learning came to a dead end at 16.

A more powerful approach is needed to make the poacher pay, if we are ever to climb the training mountain facing us. All employers should be required to invest the equivalent of 2 per cent of their pay bill in training, and that should be backed with financial penalties on any employer who falls short.

I accept that unions in the past should have done much more to promote learning opportunities. We have now put that right, and when bargaining in the Nineties we negotiate about building skills as well as paying bills.

Labour has accepted that there does need to be a revolution in training, but without the mandatory involvement of the employers there can be no successful transformation to lifelong learning in the workplace. Once again, we are letting the poachers get away.

The writer is the general secretary of the GMB.