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House of Commons

Thursday 23 March 2000

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 30 March.

Kent County Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Medway Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 30 March.

Oral Answers to Questions

EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT

The Secretary of State was asked--

Jobseekers (Internet)

1. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): If he will make a statement on the Government's proposal to assist jobseekers through the internet. [114596]

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Ms Tessa Jowell): As part of a major modernisation programme of the Employment Service, a national job bank will be available on the internet from autumn 2000. It will have more than 300,000 Employment Service vacancies and jobs from the private sector and other European countries. Jobseekers will be able to search for jobs on the internet at home or elsewhere, and, through a new learning and work bank internet portal, obtain information on learning, training, jobs and careers.

Dr. Cable: I welcome what, at first sight, seems to be a useful initiative. For clarification, may I ask, first, who will pay the internet access charges--will it be free to jobseekers? Secondly, what relation does the proposal have to earlier initiatives to equip all jobseekers with pagers and with special advisers? Does it supplant those services, or is it wholly additional to them?

Ms Jowell: The intention is to have 10,000 kiosks by which the learning and jobs bank can be accessed in every jobcentre across the country. We are having discussions

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on locating kiosks--and, therefore, access to the internet job site--in pubs, cafes, restaurants and other places where access to them will be maximised. When people use the internet site in jobcentres, the service will be available free of charge. When the service is used in the privacy of their homes, they will be liable for charges.

On the hon. Gentleman's second question about pagers and mobile telephones, it is important to understand that the jobs bank, pagers and mobile telephones are all part of a range of services being put in place to ensure that we speed the pace of communication on vacancies, and speed the process by which unemployed people get into jobs. Many of those initiatives will be delivered in the 50 new employment zones unveiled two weeks ago by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): As my right hon. Friend said, it is extremely important that access to the internet should be made as easy as possible. I hope that she will agree that that applies particularly to areas where there have long been high rates of unemployment. She mentioned various outlets where internet access could be found, but is there not also a role for schools--particularly schools that are applying for specialist technology status--in providing such access? Often, those schools are based in the community, thus allowing good access. What help and advice can she give on the role that schools can play in providing such access?

Ms Jowell: As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have a major programme of investment in information technology in schools to ensure that children, from the earliest years of their education, are able to learn and use the opportunities afforded by the internet. She also makes an important point about the need to ensure that we do not create a new faultline in our society, between the information haves and the information have-nots. That is why, later this year, we shall be launching a programme of 700 IT learning centres in some of the most deprived parts of the country, to ensure that those who are at risk of being excluded from the IT revolution have the opportunity to seize its benefits for themselves.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): May I seek some assurances from the Minister that the 10,000 booths will be spread across the country, so that rural areas also will receive their fair share of them? Will the booths have access only to the Employment Service's internet site, or will people be able to access all the private jobcentre sites that are now available?

Ms Jowell: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course we intend to ensure that this innovation provides additional information and help to people living in rural communities. I can confirm that the facility that I have described will be available in jobcentres serving rural communities. New technology will also offer further benefits to people living in scattered communities. We are in discussion about ensuring that those who have access to the learning and work bank have access also to the increasing number of high-quality employment sites that have been provided by private sector providers on the internet.

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Further Education Funding

2. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): If he will make a statement on the funding of further education. [114597]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Further education is central to the Government's economic strategy given the importance of skills, and is central to our social purpose in terms of fairness. Only last November, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced an increase of £365 million for further education in 2001-02--the biggest ever investment in further education.

Mrs. Williams: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that young people from poor homes need extra money in order to stay at college? Will he tell the House how much money will be spent this year to expand the education maintenance allowance to support the campaign to encourage young people to stay in education?

Mr. Wicks: I am pleased to confirm that £53 million will be spent this year to expand education maintenance allowances because of our determination to ensure that young people stay in education. That, together with our other policies such as the connection strategy to bring about a youth support service, the new deal and modern apprenticeships, show our determination to ensure that young people across the country are encouraged to be well motivated, well educated and well trained.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): The Minister said that the Government's policy on the funding of further education is "central to our social purpose in terms of fairness." How can it possibly be fair for English students not to receive free tuition whereas their Scottish and European Union counterparts in Scottish universities will do so? Is not the Government's policy central to their purpose of keeping together their creaking coalition in Scotland, and nothing to do with fairness or academic good sense, since people will go to the university with cheap student fees rather than one which best suits their specialism?

Mr. Wicks: The original question was about further education, which is sometimes confused with higher education. The number of young people going to university is increasing year by year and we have a fair funding system, which means that quality and quantity march together. Under the previous Conservative Government, quality suffered in universities and funding per student declined. We are maintaining standards--indeed, we are pushing up standards--while enabling more of our young people to go to university. That has to be the right approach.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Is my hon. Friend aware that, on the subject of further education, to which the question relates, many people believe that resources for special needs students for subjects such as horticulture, hairdressing and personal hygiene are important, but so is access to core subjects such as computer literacy? Will my hon. Friend encourage all

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those concerned to make access available to those courses, and that includes physical access to the buildings involved.

Mr. Wicks: The new legislation is clear about our determination to enable those with special needs and physical difficulties to have full access to our education sector, and that is absolutely right. Our further education colleges do a splendid job in enabling a number of young people and older people with difficulties to gain access to first-class education. I should like to take this opportunity to applaud the work in our college system to enable that fairness agenda to be developed.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The Minister's written answers are sometimes, perhaps unintentionally, revealing. In the light of that, will he explain two things? First, during the last three years of the Conservative Government, as his written answers reveal, enrolments in further education rose from 3 million to over 4 million, but in the first three years of a Labour Government they have stagnated at best, and, in fact, slightly declined. Given that, how on earth will he fulfil his stated target of enrolling an extra 700,000 students in further education within the next two years?

Secondly, will he explain how that process is to be helped by the blatantly missed targets on individual learning accounts? Those were due to appear nationally in April this year, but the Government have so far failed even to establish the public-private partnership to service and administer them?

Mr. Wicks: As with higher education, we are concerned not just to increase the numbers entering further education colleges, but to improve standards and quality. Under the Conservative Government, there was a scandal around franchising involving many colleges. In one case, to boost numbers, a college claimed to be educating students who were, in fact, being educated in Scotland. The Conservatives should hang their heads in shame about the franchising scandal. They created the mess and we have cleared it up. We are determined to boost student numbers in further education while maintaining and improving standards. That is our agenda and we are sticking to it.


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