Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Assembly Hopes Suffer Big Blow

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Assembly Hopes Suffer Big Blow

Article excerpt

Byline: By Ross Smith

Two of Labour's most senior figures are engaged in a bitter behind-the-scenes battle over whether a North-East Assembly should be given power over training policy, The Journal can reveal today.

Deputy Premier John Prescott has hinted to business leaders that he wants to bring the region's four Learning and Skills Councils under the control of an elected regional government.

Business chiefs see tackling the region's skills shortages as crucial to its economic future and believe an assembly without this power would just be a talking shop.

But in the North-East yesterday, Education Secretary Charles Clarke went public with his opposition to the idea, telling The Journal he opposed such "major structural

reform". His words drew a swift rebuke from Mr Prescott's office, which is drawing up the draft Bill to set out in detail the powers of the proposed body ahead of November's referendum.

Premier Tony Blair is now likely to be forced to step in to resolve the impasse.

The rift will come as a serious blow to pro-devolution campaigners who are pinning hopes of a `yes' vote on being able to secure additional powers for an assembly.

A Journal poll last month showed 46pc of people in the region would be more likely to vote for an assembly with greater responsibility.

Skills policy leapt to the forefront of the regional agenda last November after the 2004 State of the Region report showed 35pc of the North-East workforce had no qualifications compared to 29pc nationally.

Business leaders see skills shortages rather than lack of jobs as the main barrier to full employment.

The North-East Chamber of Commerce last night warned that an assembly without responsibility for training would be "significantly devalued".

However, in an interview with The Journal yesterday, Mr Clarke said he wanted the LSCs to work alongside development agency One NorthEast rather than answer to a locally-elected body. …

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