The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, details of a pilot scheme to attract people of outstanding ability from abroad to enter the country to seek work, rather than a prospective employer applying on their behalf, were published in the Pre-Budget Report. The criteria will enable people with PhD or equivalent level qualifications or not less than five years' experience at a senior level to apply for their own work permit to seek work.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Has the Minister yet tried to use the system, as I have? I put myself into the position of an applicant and checked the Overseas Labour Service website, for which the noble Baroness is responsible. Although it is updated and can provide some information, it fails because it refers the user to the Home Office website, which has not been updated for months, despite promises to the contrary. It holds no details as regards special skills. Furthermore, does the Minister realise that the respective telephone helplines for these services each refer the caller to the other line? Although I have 30 pages of printout from the website, I still have not been able to track down the necessary information. For years, countries such as Australia and Canada have operated good, co-ordinated systems of this kind. Given that, when can we expect to see a co-ordinated system put in place here?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, has had so much trouble with this. I have to admit that I have not tried out our website, but I am a little puzzled because the pilot scheme is not due to be launched until the turn of the year. Given that, I am not entirely sure what the noble Baroness has been looking for on the website. However, I agree that we need to co-ordinate the activities of the DfEE on work permits with what is being done by the Home Office in another pilot project, which is also about to be launched. I shall
Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the Government ensure that the criteria mentioned by the Minister will be made known to non-British citizens already staying in this country? I refer, for example, to asylum seekers. Furthermore, will the Government use this requirement for skilled workers as another means of facilitating the reunion of families, some of whose members are already living here?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, that is not the purpose of the scheme. It has nothing to do with asylum seekers and the requirements put in place for them. This scheme seeks to recruit a relatively small number of people with special skills. We are discussing hundreds of positions rather than thousands. Those positions need to be filled by extremely highly qualified people. They will work in areas where we are experiencing skills shortages. However, that is not the primary purpose of the scheme. Some of the suitable applicants will not want to work for one employer. It is for that reason that the normal route to acquire a work permit, namely, that of an employer securing a work permit for a new employee, is not appropriate. The scheme aims to attract people with very high levels of qualifications and skills who want to build up a portfolio of different jobs.
Baroness Blackstone: No, my Lords, the scheme is not designed primarily for those coming into the teaching profession. It may well be that some of those who come here through the scheme will work at senior levels in our universities. They may want to combine consultancy with research and possibly some higher education teaching. However, this scheme is not aimed at schoolteachers.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that a good deal of direct recruitment from abroad is currently being carried out to secure teachers for our schools. Indeed, the newspapers have reported that at least one school has a predominance of teaching staff who have been directly recruited from abroad. What programmes are in place to ensure that such teachers are competent and fully conversant with the system of education in this country?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I think that the question put by the noble Baroness moves rather wide of that which has been set down on the Order Paper, which concerns work permits for a quite different group of people. However, it is important to ensure that, when we employ teachers from abroad, they should be fully qualified to teach in our schools. Before recruiting, we take into account the present
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that at present there is a surplus of general practitioners in Australia, whereas in this country the National Health Service is desperately short of them? Is not this a typical example of the kind of person who should be encouraged to come over here?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, yes. The noble Baroness has cited a good example. Highly qualified people in the medical professions, in particular those with postgraduate qualifications, may be able to establish themselves quickly over here. However, I should point out that we are training a substantial number of additional medical students to try to meet the shortfall in the number of doctors working in NHS hospitals and in general practice.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, will applicants be fast-tracked through the Home Office procedures? As someone who, in the past, has had to recruit people from abroad, I experienced considerable problems coping with Home Office procedures, particularly in regard to people from eastern Europe. Can the Minister assure us that in future highly-qualified PhDs will be processed quite quickly?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important question. Such a pilot scheme requires the DfEE to work closely with the Home Office to ensure that, when an overseas application is received, there are proper fast-track arrangements and that immigration procedures do not stand in the way.
The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, the proposal concerns the treatment of some 13,600 products from the 48 least developed countries in the world, 39 of which are also ACP countries. The European Commission's proposals should benefit these ACP countries and their exports, as well as the nine LDCs that are not ACP countries.
The Commission has recognised the sensitive nature of three products--rice, bananas and sugar--by proposing that duty-free access for them should be phased in progressively over three years. At the request of member states, including the UK, the Commission is currently looking at the various impacts that the proposals could have. Discussions are continuing in Brussels. The Government have launched their own written and electronic consultation and are producing their own analysis. The Government support the proposal. The ACP countries have also welcomed it, while calling for its impact to be studied.
Baroness Young: My Lords, I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I do not have the usual courtesy to thank him for that Answer. It is, if I may say so, very complacent about an extremely serious situation for the countries of the Caribbean. If those countries are unable to export their basic commodities, they will turn to drugs. The ACP countries signed the Cotonou agreement in July, under which the transitional period would extend until 2008. The new initiative overrides that, thus breaking a freely entered into negotiated agreement. Does the Minister think that this is the right way to proceed?
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