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4. Mr. Rendel: What plans he has to consolidate 14 to 19-year-olds' qualifications into a single framework. [24182]

Mr. Blunkett: My remit letter to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority asked it to develop our manifesto commitment to a coherent and high-quality national framework for 14 to 19-year-olds. Our consultation paper, "Qualifying for success", which progresses that manifesto commitment and the earlier Dearing report on 16 to 19-year-olds, will be reported on by the QCA in February.

Mr. Rendel: Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that we should establish a parity of esteem

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between academic and vocational qualifications? If so, will he confirm that the present divide in the gold standard between A-levels and advanced national vocational qualifications is destroying that parity of esteem, and it would be better to combine the two?

Mr. Skinner: He knows all about it--he went to Eton.

Mr. Blunkett: I cannot top my hon. Friend's answer.

There is undoubtedly a divide in Britain between vocational and academic qualifications, which is reflected in the way in which people too often disparage industrial and business routes. Therefore, we are committed to providing a high-quality, over-arching certificate, on which we are consulting, which retains the gold standard of the A-level, extends its breadth and provides people, through vocational qualifications, with an equally credible and high-quality route for achieving the same goals.

Mr. Sheerman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have inherited a real problem from the previous Administration as a result of the pressure on young people from training and enterprise councils--many of which are trying to do a good job, like my own in Calderdale and Kirklees, which is doing an excellent job? Over the years, young people have been pushed towards fast training that leads to qualifications so that TECs get their money, and away from longer-term, more expensive training, such as the new apprenticeship schemes? Can we do something about that quickly?

Mr. Blunkett: I am happy to say that the new standards council that we are establishing, and our review of NVQs, will help us to ensure that high-quality qualifications are available whichever route people take post-16, as will our commitment in the legislation presently in the other place to ensure that 16 and 17-year-olds have the right to education and training in order to gain a qualification while at work, so that they, too, can take their place in the labour market of the future.

Training and Enterprise Councils

5. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley: What representations he has received concerning the activities of training and enterprise councils. [24183]

Dr. Howells: I regularly receive representations about TECs on a variety of issues.

Mrs. Bottomley: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Government are in danger of giving the impression that they are so blinkered by the limited welfare-to-work programme--money and priority are only for that--that they are squeezing out all other topics? Small and medium enterprises in my area tell me that their problems are recruitment and skills shortages--something that the Surrey business link identified in its latest survey. Will he particularly commend the Surrey TEC, which has involved more than 1,000 companies in its modern apprenticeship programme?

Dr. Howells: Although I have no hesitation in congratulating the Surrey TEC on its achievements--and they are great achievements; more than half the new starts

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in Surrey are modern apprenticeships, and that is a model that every TEC should follow--I have to dispute the assertion that the right hon. Lady made at the beginning of her question. This year, there will be 72,000 new, modern apprenticeship starts--10,000 more than under the present arrangements. We value them, and want them to expand and continue.

Mr. Derek Foster: I invite my hon. Friend to reconsider the relationship between TECs and regional development agencies. At the risk of offending his national sensitivity, may I suggest that he follows the Scottish model? Would it not enable the RDA to pursue a coherent economic development strategy, including a skills strategy, within the regions?

Dr. Howells: My right hon. Friend raises some interesting issues. We are looking at every possible option. We want our training to be the best in the world, and for that we must have the most efficient means of brokering, commissioning and paying for training. I am interested in what he says. I shall look at it carefully. We are looking at the models not only in Scotland but in Wales, where they seem to work quite well.

Mr. Keetch: Is the Minister aware that hon. Members were told this morning that training and enterprise councils are required to keep approximately £70 million in reserve, but they would like to keep £170 million in reserve? Yet, in a written answer to me today, he accepted that more than £278 million is in reserve, which he says will be used for Government priorities. Will he assure the House and the TECs that that money will not be directed simply to bolstering the new deal but will be used for the benefit of TECs in their areas?

Dr. Howells: I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that that money will be used for the best possible projects, which will strengthen competitiveness and the employment infrastructure in the areas that the TECs serve. I want it to be spent on an array of new projects. We have some interesting ones in mind. Perhaps, over a cup of tea, I could talk to him about them.

New Deal Pathfinders

6. Mr. Dawson: If he will make a statement on the progress of the new deal in pathfinder areas. [24184]

Mr. Blunkett: I commend all those who have involved with the 12 pathfinder projects for the new deal. In the first three weeks alone, 5,300 young people were invited for interview. Three thousand young people entered the gateway, of whom half have been placed for jobs, and hundreds of young people who are not yet entitled to enter the new deal have presented themselves at jobcentres wishing to be part of it. That is a tremendous start, of which we can all be proud.

Mr. Dawson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that most encouraging response about this excellent scheme.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that young people entering the new deal scheme will be offered a real choice of quality training and work placement? Can he further assure me that vulnerable young people, who are in so

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much need of this scheme, will receive the counselling and emotional support that they require to enable them to continue in ways that were previously denied to them?

Mr. Blunkett: I am happy to give that assurance. The gateway, with basic social and educational skills provisions, the specific advisers and mentors for the young people concerned, and the commitment that every young person will get education and training to an approved qualification, all demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that this is not just a makeweight scheme but a real programme that equips young people to take their place in the labour market and helps to meet the skills shortage referred to earlier.

Mr. Rowe: Have the pathfinder areas thrown up for the Secretary of State the people who are paying the real cost of the new deal? Will he explain to older people in my constituency, many of whom have made 200, 300 or 400 applications for jobs, why they are now told that their job clubs are to be cut back because of the costs of the new deal? Given that unemployment is falling, is not the money originally set aside for the new deal more than ample? How does he explain to my constituents that they are being sacrificed to the Chancellor's need to build up a war chest to win the next election?

Mr. Blunkett: I should like to inform the hon. Gentleman's constituents why they have been unemployed for so long under a regime that the hon. Gentleman helped to prop up. I should like to explain to young people in his area how we shall ensure that they do not become the long-term unemployed adults of the future and that they have the opportunity that has been denied to middle-aged people. I should like to explain, as the Chancellor said, and as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights said on 5 January, how we shall extend the scheme to older unemployed workers, giving them the qualifications and skills that they need.

Above all, we shall ensure that no young person ever again faces, at the age of 18, the prospect of not having a job year after year. They must learn to get out of bed, get themselves into a job and earn their own living for the future rather than depend on the state.

Dr. Lynne Jones: Has it yet been possible to evaluate the adequacy of the allocation for the gateway period? Will my right hon. Friend keep that matter under review, as £260 for up to four months seems a small amount?

Mr. Blunkett: I assure my hon. Friend that we shall keep the matter under review. It is important that the gateway is a quality entry into the new deal and that we let no one down in terms of evaluating the first 12 pathfinder programmes. It was appropriate to pilot the programme first to ensure that we learn the lessons and apply them when we roll the programme out for the United Kingdom as a whole.

Mr. Willetts: Let me return to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). Does the Secretary of State not recognise that, in the past week, many hon. Members on both sides of the House will have received a letter from their local employment service telling the same story about the cuts

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in job club placements and in job plan workshops for people who are not eligible for the new deal? Is it not clear that there will be two different categories of unemployed people: those with the extra expenditure of the new deal; and more than a million people who will receive less assistance in the future than they received in the past?

Mr. Blunkett: The hon. Gentleman's last assertion is incorrect. A higher proportion of adult unemployed will have access to job clubs and similar measures than is the case now. Unemployment dropped by 28 per cent. in the past year; job clubs are being reduced by only 15 per cent.; and the take-up at job clubs has been only 87 per cent. With the 750 remaining job clubs, it is therefore possible to do a better job more effectively and in the best interests of unemployed people, so that they get a job rather than attend a club.

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