We’ll soon know whether the government intends to sell off ConstructionSkills. Whatever happens, our industry will still insist on a levy to pay for training, says Sir Michael Latham
I was in the House of Commons in 1982 when Margaret Thatcher wanted to abolish all training boards, which had been set up under the 1964 Industrial Training Act. Both the construction industry and the engineering industry protested about this because they knew that there would be no training if the compulsory levy and the training grants were scrapped. The prime minister understood, and the two construction training boards were reprieved. They have been doing their work ever since.
ConstructionSkills asks the industry federations every year how they feel about the training board. They always come back with a unanimous recommendation that the levy and training grants should remain in place
I ceased to be chairman of ConstructionSkills in March, having done it for eight years. James Wates is an excellent chairman, and is well supported by Mark Farrar, the chief executive. Although the last government introduced a three-year rule for the levy - previously it had been an annual debate in both Houses of Parliament - ConstructionSkills has always asked the industry federations every year how they feel about the training board. They always come back with a unanimous recommendation that the current statutory levy and training grants should remain in place. I am sure that the same thing will happen this year.
There are more than 80,000 firms on the CITB levy register, although only 27,000 of them pay levy, because the rest are too small, or in their first year, or in liquidation or administration. ConstructionSkills also has close links with CSCS, and is heavily involved in ensuring that the health and safety test is taken before an operative can get a CSCS card.
Most of the apprentices are with firms and go several times a week to their local college of further education. However, the National Construction College, which is at Bircham Newton, Norfolk, but also in several other places in England and Scotland, does a great deal of training as well. Much of it is for plant operatives, or training crane people or scaffolders, but bricklaying, carpentry and plastering are done at the colleges themselves. If a youngster cannot be placed with an employer, they cannot get an NVQ and so cannot be an apprentice. Sadly, many apprentices have had to be laid off, and indeed experienced operators as well, because their firms have got little or no work to do.ConstructionSkills certainly does listen to the industry. Most of the people on the board are employers and from firms of all different sizes - they range from major contractors to very small subcontractors. There are also large numbers of committees and advisory panels peopled by employers and trade union leaders whose views are closely listened to and heeded. The customer-trained staff made more than 10,000 visits to employers of all sizes up and down the country last year, and the marketing staff also run employer surveys to capture industry feedback.
ConstructionSkills is formed of three organisations, which are CITB Great Britain, the Construction Industry Council, and CITB Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish CITB is quite separate from CITB Great Britain. It sets its own levy and pays its own grants. CITB Great Britain involves England, Wales and Scotland. The Scottish section spends much of its time talking to the Scottish government and the Scottish parliament, and the Welsh section spends a great deal of time talking to the Welsh Assembly. These three organisations all come together in a council meeting twice a year (one of which is an open meeting) and also in the strategic partnership panel, which is the main decision-making body for ConstructionSkills, and on which all four countries and the CIC are well represented. Most of the discussion at the strategic partnership panel is about higher education and training, or about the workload for the whole industry (not just contractors) or about sustainability and carbon reduction. CITB Great Britain alone decides the levy and grant available for the ensuing year, which is not easy at present, because of the financial problems which CITB-ConstructionSkills has had. There is a lack of levy because firms are closing, but also because firms have been claiming grants to avoid laying people off.
There is a lack of levy because firms are closing, but also because firms have been claiming grants to avoid laying people off
What happens to the future of CITB-ConstructionSkills? We will only know about that when the Comprehensive Spending Review is announced by the chancellor next week. If it is privatised, it will still need to keep a statutory levy, because otherwise there will be very little training, as the industry itself said in 1982.
Finally, I cannot agree with Tony Bingham’s article in Building last month (24 September). Why should manufacturers have to pay the levy rather than contractors? Manufacturers create things. Contractors assemble them. The industry is about assembling. And that’s what we do.