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Column 555

Redmond, Martin

Reid, Dr John

Rendel, David

Robertson, George (Hamilton)

Roche, Mrs. Barbara

Rooker, Jeff

Rooney, Terry

Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)

Rowlands, Ted

Ruddock, Joan

Salmond, Alex

Sedgemore, Brian

Sheerman, Barry

Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert

Shore, Rt Hon Peter

Simpson, Alan

Skinner, Dennis

Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)

Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)

Smith, Rt Hon John (M'kl'ds E)

Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)

Snape, Peter

Soley, Clive

Spearing, Nigel

Spellar, John

Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)

Steinberg, Gerry

Stevenson, George

Stott, Roger

Strang, Dr. Gavin

Straw, Jack

Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)

Taylor, Matthew (Truro)

Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)

Tipping, Paddy

Turner, Dennis

Tyler, Paul

Vaz, Keith

Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold

Wallace, James

Walley, Joan

Wardell, Gareth (Gower)

Wareing, Robert N

Watson, Mike

Welsh, Andrew

Wicks, Malcolm

Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)

Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)

Wilson, Brian

Winnick, David

Wise, Audrey

Wray, Jimmy

Young, David (Bolton SE)

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle and

Mr. Alan Meale.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Madam Speaker-- forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House welcomes the support of the all-party Select Committee on Social Security for the principles of the Child Support Act ; reaffirms its own support for those principles, in particular that every parent has a duty to contribute to the maintenance of his or her child, that the amount of maintenance paid for children should be increased, and that the cost of bringing up children should fall on other taxpayers only if parents are unable to maintain their children themselves ; recognises the inconsistency and arbitrariness of the previous court-based system, which gave insufficient priority to parental support of children and left many children on benefit ; welcomes the important changes recently introduced by the Government in response to early experience of the new scheme and the Select Committee's report on its practical working ; and approves the Government's intention to keep the arrangements under continuing close review as further experience is gained.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you recently any notification of a statement tomorrow at 11 am on the investigation report on the Beverly Allitt case? That subject should be brought before the House, and if that is to be done, the appropriate Department should have notified you tonight, so that people know in good time for tomorrow morning. Has the Department had the decency, good sense and sense of co-operation to do that?

Madam Speaker : I have not been informed of any statement this evening. As the hon Gentleman and the House are aware, the House and I do not need to be notified until 10 am if the Government wish to make a statement.

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Further Education (Swale)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Conway.]

10.31 pm

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham) : I warmly welcome this opportunity for a debate on the subject of opportunities for further education in Swale. It is a matter of great importance to my constituents, whether they be young people who may be seriously losing out or the employers--large and small-- who may be deprived of the skills and professional work force on which we all depend.

Do I exaggerate when I say "losing out"? I do not think so. The latest analysis produced a startling figure. It showed that only 13 per cent. of Swale youngsters opt for further education, compared with 26 per cent. in the whole county of Kent. That suggests a serious educational deficit, and one that we can, and must, correct. Why it has occurred and how we can correct it are matters that I shall mention tonight.

I welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education. I thank him for his concern and the interest that he has already shown in the subject. I know that he already knows a lot about the borough of Swale. I shall mention some background facts that are crucial to the debate. Swale in north Kent, most of which is covered by the Faversham constituency, is rightly perceived to be a most attractive part of the garden of England. It is the birthplace of the English fruit industry. It is proud of its orchards, hop gardens, north downs villages, estuarial land, coastline and bird reserves. Agriculture, horticulture and food distribution are still the largest sources of employment. What is not widely understood is that Swale is also one of the most important industrial areas of the south-east of England. In 1989, the national percentage of people engaged in manufacturing industry was 18.3 per cent. In Swale, it was 29 per cent. The port of Sheerness on the Medway is one of the largest ports in the United Kingdom and--with the Olau line ferry-- directly and indirectly generates thousands of jobs. The steel industry produces a significant percentage of United Kingdom steel production, pharmaceuticals, electricals, glass, ceramics, three major paper mills, a major brewery, plasterboard manufacturing, many large industrial estates and much more besides.

With our concentration on industry, construction and commuting to London, we have been hit very hard by the recession. As a result, the Sittingbourne and Sheppey travel-to-work area--that is, the borough of Swale--has the 10th highest unemployment rate in England, the 13th highest in the United Kingdom as a whole, and the highest rate of long-term unemployment in the county of Kent.

Because of that, our area has been granted assisted area status : that, coupled with the prospects for economic growth nationally, presents a great opportunity, but one that can be seized only if we can offer a skilled work force for new or expanding companies in manufacturing or the service industries.

Surveys show that among the top issues that the business community wants to be addressed are further education and skill training. Two of the main constraints on expansion locally were shown to be poor infrastructure and lack of skilled labour. We are moving rapidly ahead at last on infrastructure--on road and rail investment ; the

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question is, what are we doing about skill training and further education? There we must do more, and we need Ministers' help if we are to more ahead.

As I said earlier, the number of Swale youngsters entering further education is only half the figure for the rest of the county. Almost every other borough in Kent has its own dedicated further education facility ; Swale has not. Students and trainees from Sittingbourne, Faversham, Sheerness and the surrounding district must travel to Canterbury, Maidstone or Medway.

That travelling time is the crux of the problem. Cross-county communication in Kent is never easy ; even those living close to railway stations must spend two or three hours travelling each day. Someone living at the eastern end of Sheppey--perhaps that is the most extreme example--would have to travel for about four hours each way to and from Canterbury.

Let us take a BTEC business administration course at Canterbury college. It starts at 1 pm, and ends at 8.30 pm. Someone from Sittingbourne would get back to the station at 10 pm, which is too late for most 16-year-olds, and certainly impossible for anyone living on Sheppey. Those transport problems must be the main reason why young people from Swale are not entering further education at the same level as young people in the rest of the country. That is very serious.

Swale is a large borough, with a population of 116,000. That figure is rising fast, and already represents about 8 per cent. of the county of Kent. Further education funding for 1992-93 for the whole county was £34 million, and the Swale share of that could be seen as just under £3 million.

If we could direct resources of that order--or even part of that amount-- into Swale, we could establish excellent local facilities of a good size. That is a goal worth aiming for, which should be in our minds when we consider the more immediate steps that can be taken. Our goal should surely be a Swale college, and I hope that that concept will stimulate a sympathetic response from the Department and neighbouring further-education establishments.

The right framework is already in place, in the form of the Swale training centre. That organisation has grown out of a remarkable level of co- operation between the business community and Swale borough council, the education service, Kent technical college, Swale chamber of commerce and many other agencies. It is important to underline the amount of backing and co-operation that the community would provide in support of a new further education initiative in Swale.

Swale Training Centre Ltd. is Kent's largest training provider, housed on a 1-hectare site in Sittingbourne. It has 6,000 sq m of workshops and other facilities, and is very well equipped to a very high standard. Those training facilities are very highly regarded, and are in a very good location. The training centre was founded in 1981, and now employs more than 100 staff and consultants. It assists the training and development of more than 3,000 people annually, and is accredited by most examining organisations and industry-led bodies.

Like others, I had hoped that the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 would be the springboard for expansion. The Act provides for the funding of external institutions such as the Swale training centre--further education colleges that cannot meet local needs because of, for example, location or lack of specialist provision. It required that any external institution had to be endorsed by an existing college--one within striking distance.

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Funding decisions are taken by the Further Education Funding Council, which is clearly constrained by the Act. It is not obvious how much discretion it has when a neighbouring institution is not able or willing positively to endorse an external institution that would obviously be competing for funds from the same pot. Swale training centre applied for funds last year, but the application was rejected. Although the application was routed through an existing college, the lack of positive endorsement was cited as a reason for rejection. This year we are applying again, and it is tremendously important that we secure funding for the first important step in the expansion of further education in our area.

Let us be clear what will happen if we do not get the funding : perhaps hundreds of youngsters will not get the training opportunities that they need and that could be made available in September.

The funds that we are seeking this year will be about £250,000, which would provide facilities for at least 100 full-time students. They would include a range of BTEC courses in vocational subjects such as mechanical engineering, business administration, motor vehicle mechanics, information technology and a range of courses for the new general national vocational qualification--equivalent to A-levels--in manufacturing, construction, catering, design and so on. There is a special problem, as the application forms are not yet available, although the courses start in September.

I am sure that the requirement for endorsement by an existing college was conceived with the best of intentions, but it should not be a straitjacket stifling new initiatives and local enterprise. So what is the position? The funding council might not statutorily be able to fund an external institution that has not received positive endorsement from an existing college.

Last November, however, the funding council, in consultation circular 93/34, put forward a number of options for the method of funding external institutions. One was sponsorship by a college, another was sponsorship by the local education authority, and a third was direct funding by the council to largely autonomous external institutions, of which Swale training centre is undoubtedly one. That suggests that the Act does not prevent direct funding. There is also an implication that approval could be allowed even where sponsorship falls short of enthusiastic endorsement by another existing further education college.

What specifically am I asking the Minister this evening? First, it would be greatly appreciated if he could come and see for himself just how good the Swale training centre is. I can assure him that he will be impressed. At the same time, he could experience some of the other delights of north Kent.

Secondly, will he use all his best endeavours to help ensure the success of our funding application this year? It may be that his officials at this early stage in the application--the application has not been submitted because we do not yet have the forms--could advise us on the best route to achieve approval in accordance with the requirements of the legislation. Where there's a will, there must be a way.

Thirdly, I should like to ask for my hon. Friend's encouragement and that of his Department for the concept of the Swale college, and again seek his support and advice on how best to attain that objective, albeit perhaps a longer-term one. It is not an issue of local pride, nor is it

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about creating institutions for their own sake ; it is about providing vitally needed training and further education to hundreds of young people. We have clearly identified a serious educational deficit. That gap--that deficit--exists for geographical reasons, which are unalterable. That gap exists in one of the most important manufacturing areas in the south of England. It is a gap that can and must be filled, and I repeat my hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can, and will, give us a helping hand tonight.

10.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : I must begin by congratulating my hon.Friend the Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) on securing a debate about what is, I know, an important subject for many of his constituents-- and, if I may say so, on the excellent manner in which he presented his case and the obvious concern that he showed for them, as ever. It is also a subject of general interest to the House. My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently of the difficulties that confront some of his constituents in gaining access to further education. I will turn to his specific concerns in a moment, but first, I should like to say a few words about the Government's general policies for further education. Those have two main aims ; to increase participation and to raise levels of achievement. I am glad to say that the participation rate of 16 to 18-year-olds in education and training is at record levels. That marks a definite shift in cultural attitudes. It is now normal for young people to continue in education and training after the age of 16. The participation rate of 16-year-olds in full-time education--both further education and schools--in England in 1992 -93 was 70 per cent., up from 42 per cent. in 1979-80

For 17-year-olds, the participation rate in full-time education in 1992-93 was 54 per cent., up from 27 per cent. in the same reference year. Adult participation has also increased, to the point at which adults now account for 70 per cent. of the total number of students in further education.

Those are impressive increases, but our aim must be to increase the figures still further. I am aware that, in certain parts of the country, participation rates are lower than elsewhere--indeed, there are considerable variations even in individual areas.

The Government have taken practical steps to ensure that we secure an increase in participation. In 1992, we announced that we were aiming for a record expansion of student numbers in further education of 25 per cent. during the three years to 1995-96. The expansion plans announced in the unified Budget allow for that expansion to be sustained, and for a further 3 per cent. increase in 1996-97 to maintain participation of 16 to 18-year- olds at the level that it will have reached in 1995-96.

That is against the background of the most difficult public expenditure round for many years. I believe that that shows clearly that further education continues to be at the heart of the Government's policies for raising levels of achievment and increasing skill levels.

Our plans will also enable a large step to be taken towards achievement of the national education and training targets. Those are the minimum that we must achieve if we

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are to match the levels of achievement of our competitors. I should like to take the opportunity of the debate to reaffirm the Government's commitment to achieving the targets.

That, then, is the national picture. It is one of which we can, I believe, be justifiably proud. I fully recognise, however, that it is important that the progress that we have made in recent years, and the further progress to which we are committed, are reflected throughout the country.

That is why the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 gave the Further Education Funding Council responsibility for securing the provision of facilities for all full-time education for 16 to 18-year-olds, and for certain types of part-time education and certain types of full-time education for those aged over 18. The funding council carries out its duties principally through the 465 colleges in the further education sector. However, in drafting the legislation, we recognised the need for the council to take account of other providers. That is why the Further and Higher Education Act requires the council to have regard to education provided by other institutions, such as schools and city technology colleges.

In recognition of the diversity of local provision, the Act also allows institutions outside the further education sector--known, as my hon. Friend said, as "external institutions"--to request funding from the funding council for providing certain types of part-time courses for 16 to 19-year- olds and full-time courses for older students who fall within the council's responsibility. They include courses which lead to academic or vocational qualifications, access courses and basic skills courses. All are courses of national significance. As my hon. Friend said, the mechanism by which they may apply for funding is known as the "sponsorship" mechanism, the relevant provision being section 6(5) of the Act.

I understand that that is the procedure under which Swale training centre sought funding unsuccessfully in the current year--1993-94--and under which it will be seeking funds from the Further Education Funding Council in 1994 -95. I can perhaps lay to rest my hon. Friend's fears about the forms. I am advised that they are now available from the funding council, and that they need to be returned by, I think, 21 March. I suggest that he advises the college to get on with its application.

In discussing the Swale case, it is important to be clear how the procedure is designed to work. When an external institution wishes to seek funding from the Further Education Funding Council, it must first put its case to a college in the FE sector. It is then for that college to decide whether to support the request and to make the application for funding to the funding council on behalf of the external institution.

The criteria against which the sector college--the "sponsoring body" in the legal parlance--must reach a decision are clearly laid down in the Act. The Act states that, where there are no arrangements for the provision by any other institution of any facilities of the kind specified in the application for people living in the locality, or where the arrangements for such provision are inadequate, the sponsoring body should submit the application for funding to the FEFC.

Following extensive consultations with colleges and local education authorities, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an order specifying all institutions in the new further education sector as "sponsoring bodies". However, my Department has also made it clear in

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