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Education and Training Inspections

4. Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): If he will make a statement on area-wide inspections of education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds. [119619]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Area inspection reports provide, for the first time, an overview of education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds in an area. They will identify issues to be addressed, and it is vital that these are followed up in the interests of the young people concerned. The first report, a very useful one on Hackney and Islington, was published on 7 April. The new inspections are an important mechanism in our strategy to achieve decent options for young people.

Dr. Vis: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that, from next year onwards, the local learning and skills councils will play a crucial role after the inspections have been completed because they will integrate both funding and planning for 16 to 19-year-olds? Is it not the case that the Conservative party divided schools and colleges--providers of education--in such a way that they could not sensibly plan?

Mr. Wicks: I agree with my hon. Friend. We inherited a difficult situation in which too many young people--about one in 11 throughout the nation aged 16 to 18--are not in education, training or employment. We are determined to rectify that appalling situation in the interests of those young people and their families--hence the importance of the Learning and Skills Council. It will be set up by the Learning and Skills Bill, which is in Committee. I agree with my hon. Friend that it represents an important new mechanism. It joins education maintenance allowances and the new Connexions service for young people to ensure that each and every one of our young people will have the best chance in life. In these endeavours, it would help our school sixth forms if the Tory party did not send them missives containing political propaganda and giving misinformation about the Government's intentions for high-quality sixth forms.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Leaving aside the Minister's gratuitous abuse, is it not time that he put his house in order by taking a grip on the grotesque anomalies that are being created directly by his Department in relation to inspections, whereby the training of young

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persons is the remit of the adult learning inspectorate and their education is the responsibility of Ofsted? Any area inspections will have to be led somewhat uncomfortably by a framework arrangement between the two inspectorates. When the Minister has sorted out these bristling anomalies, will he get whatever inspectorate he then brings forward to consider carefully recruitment into further education, where on Government targets enrolments should be rising by about 10 per cent. a year on average? In fact, last week's figures from the Further Education Funding Council showed that they were falling between 1 and 2 per cent.

Mr. Wicks: We are concerned about quality as well as quantity. We inherited a situation in which the numbers were inflated and quality was declining as a result of abuses of the franchising system. We shall stick to our targets, not for the sake of the arithmetic, but because we are concerned with quality and quantity. There can be no doubt about that. The Hackney and Islington inspection shows that sensible inspections are taking place; indeed, we are confident that different kinds of inspection can work well together.

Serious and rigorous debate about good practice is needed, not the Tory scaremongering that I highlighted. The Conservative party wrote to schools giving misleading information to parents about our intentions for school sixth forms, which have an important place in the future.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): In general, does my hon. Friend believe that further education colleges providing for that age group are equal to the task, bearing in mind the big reorganisation that they have undergone in recent years? Is he aware of my concern for those young men and women who are not academically able and tend to find themselves always at the bottom of the pile, especially in relation to their job prospects? Would my hon. Friend care to visit the Deeside further education college in my constituency and see the good work that it is doing with young people?

Mr. Wicks: I certainly agree that our further education colleges are doing some extraordinarily good work with, for example, some of the most disadvantaged people, giving those young people the second chance that further education is all about. I should like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the college mentioned by my right hon. Friend and other colleges throughout the country.

Economic Activity Rates

5. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): What measures the Government are taking to raise the economic activity rate for men aged 50 to 65 years. [119620]

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Ms Tessa Jowell): The Government have put in place a range of measures to help to raise the economic activity rate among men aged 50 to 65. Those measures are designed to expand the labour market and address skill shortages. The new deal for people aged 50-plus--which was launched by the Prime Minister last month--and the new deal for disabled people are helping many people over 50 to find work.

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That drive is supported by the attack on age discrimination made through the code of practice for age diversity in employment, the publication of which was warmly welcomed by the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.

Mr. Williams: Does my right hon. Friend agree that an ethos has developed over the past 20 years which resulted in people over 50--many of whom voluntarily took early redundancy--feeling that they were on the scrap heap, but that that has now changed? As we approach full employment, the skills, expertise and extra output of those people is needed. Indeed, the income that they can bring is needed in many low-income households.

Will the new deal for the over-50s have a regional bias to help older industrial areas--such as my constituency--and those areas where there are high numbers of over-50s on incapacity benefit?

Ms Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend and entirely agree with his emphasis on the importance of halting the waste of skills and experience and delivering for all people of working age the prospect of employment for those who can work and security for those who cannot.

The important point is that the jobs are there and we must ensure that employers recognise the clear benefits of diversity in their work force. We are tackling age discrimination by putting in place job search programmes such as the new deal which, in its pilot phase, has already had considerable success in getting older people into work, offering individuals help, employment credit and assistance with in-work training. The new deal offers a package of measures and practical help, putting people into available jobs. It is linked to the intensive help being provided through employment zones in areas of high unemployment and the work of action teams who, later this year, will begin to tackle incidences of high unemployment. We have made a good start. There is a lot more to do, but older workers should recognise that they have much to fear from the Tories, whose hostility to the new deal and the help and opportunity that it has provided to young people and unemployed older people has been unremitting.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The only reason that we are not enthusiastic about the new deal is that it simply does not work.

I should declare an interest in connection with the question, in that, later this year, I shall fall into the relevant age category.

Is it not true that what will count will be not the new deal or other programmes, but a change of attitude on the part of employers? Is it not true that older people, even old, grey-haired sketchwriters, have as much to offer as anyone else? With your permission, Madam Speaker, I shall read one paragraph from a very good and very lucid letter that I received this morning. It is actually about the possibility of our changing to a dollar currency, rather than to the euro, and I entirely accept that it would be out of order were it not that it demonstrates that age should be no barrier. It states:

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Ms Jowell: Let me deal first with the hon. Gentleman's unfounded assertion that the new deal does not work. Do not take it from the Government--take it from independent research that confirms that the new deal is getting young unemployed people into work, that they are staying there and that it is having a substantial impact on reducing the scourge of long-term unemployment. If I had to choose between listening to the Opposition's assertions about the new deal and talking to young people who know that they would not have got into work without it, I know whose views I would take more seriously.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of changing culture, but such a change alone is not enough. The new deal for older people, which offers practical help, advice and support, is the way in which we shall deliver on the hopes and ambitions of older people to leave benefit and get back into work.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): When 2.8 million people between 50 and retirement age do not work, half of them are on benefits and half have been jobless for five years, why do the Government offer them only a tiny fraction of the funds that are given to the young unemployed? Exactly how many of the older unemployed does the Minister expect to return to the labour market as a result of the new deal for the over-50s? When she answers that question, will she explain why she has stood idly by as older people are driven out of the civil service, the teaching profession and the armed forces; and why the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) have been denied ministerial office, simply because they are not spring chickens? Is that not proof positive that Ministers preach inclusion of older people, but then kick them in the teeth?

Ms Jowell: Perhaps we can take that as an Opposition mea culpa for the decision of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) not to seek reselection for the next election.

To return to the question, we expect that the new deal for older people will help about 45,000 people to go from benefit into work. However, it is in its early stages. The new deal offers the personal help, advice and support that people need, and the sort of help that older people need differs from that which younger people need.

As with all the new deals, we will learn the lessons of experience and apply them in practice, and will continue to build on the success of the new deal. We will take the advice and help offered by employers and young people who have participated in the new deal, rather than taking lessons from the Opposition, who have always been hostile to the opportunities offered by the new deal to young people.

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