Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: Will the Minister respond, now or later, to my questions about the funding collection of money from local education authorities on account of adult and continuing education, its bulking together and its redistribution to the providers at local level? It would help the Committee if the Minister could give some more details about that and, above all, say whether it will be redistributive or whether he hopes for additional resources that will make it a smoother operation.

Mr. Wicks: The comprehensive spending review is under way and, like other Departments, my Department has put in bids for expenditure. We are very committed to adult and community education—very committed indeed. We have already given LEAs guarantees that current levels of expenditure will be maintained for the next two years, so that there are no difficulties about transition. We are ambitious about community and adult education, and concerned about the great variability in spend across the country on such education. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman those assurances.

There will certainly be coverage about the overall spending priorities in our forthcoming consultation document on funding. Although we judge it right to distinguish between provision for 16 to 19-year-olds and adults, in much the same way as the previous Government's legislation did, we do not regard learning for adults as unimportant—quite the contrary, as I hope to demonstrate in relation to amendment No. 72.

We have already announced an enormous increase in the resources available for adult learning in further education. In 1998–99 expenditure on adults in FE was £1.6 billion; in 2001–02 it will be some £2 billion. That will enable the number of further education students to increase. Indeed, we expect to widen participation substantially for all, and the major part of that expansion will be for adults. I hope that that makes clear the Government's absolute commitment to adult education in the broadest sense.

As I said, the creation of the Learning and Skills Council gives us the opportunity to address the uneven provision of adult and community learning and carry forward a major programme to stimulate lifelong learning. Individual learning accounts, and the modernisation of supply through the university for industry and its information technology learning centres. will make learning much more accessible. The new duty on the LSC to promote and encourage learning will champion the cause of lifelong learning. The LSC will take responsibility for the planning and funding of high-quality information, advice and guidance services in April 2001. That will ensure that adults have the help that they need to make informed choices about learning.

4.45 pm

Addressing the problems of basic skills among adults in particular is a key priority for the Government. We are very grateful for the efforts of Sir Claus Moser and his working group. Last year's report, A Fresh Start, highlighted the extraordinary fact that, at the beginning of the 21st century, some 7 million adults lack the literacy and numeracy skills needed to operate effectively in today's labour market. That appalling situation is the legacy of decades of neglect. What are we doing about it? In November, Baroness Blackstone announced the first stage of the Government's response—a major package of reforms to basic skills education that includes new national standards, a new curriculum, new national tests, teacher training reforms, a new common inspection framework and improved screening and support for the unemployed. To drive through those changes, we announced spending of £16 million to April 2001. The next step will be the announcement, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expects to make in the summer, of the Government's full national strategy for delivering the necessary step change in participation and attainment.

Meanwhile, the Department is giving the issue even higher priority. A new adult basic skills strategy unit is being set up to carry forward the programme. It will work closely with the basic skills agency and the new Learning and Skills Council. An advertisement for the post of unit director appeared in the press last week. In setting up the LSC and making its funding and planning arrangements, we will make clear the crucial importance that we attach to its tackling a pressing national problem.

I should also emphasise the help that the Bill will give to people defined in the legislation as suffering from learning difficulties: people who, compared to those without disabilities, are at a disadvantage when accessing learning. The LSC must take such disabilities into account when securing provision not only for learning and skills, but work experience. We have introduced a new duty on the LSC and its Welsh equivalent—the National Council for Education and Training for Wales—in respect of equality of opportunity. We have also introduced a new provision for assessing the needs of young people and young adults who are making the transition from compulsory education to post-16 provision.

However, as far as the Bill is concerned, there is a vital distinction between devoting additional resources to meet some of the demand, and creating an entitlement. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned the third report of the skills taskforce, which recommended the creation of an entitlement for education for adults up to level 2 qualification. The Government are giving that recommendation careful consideration. Of course, the Bill could provide such an entitlement for the 39 million people who make up England's post-19 population, but if it did, we would rightly be accused of making promises that we could not keep. An absolute entitlement would require a dilution of resources for the 16 to 19 age group—including provision for school sixth forms that will be funded by the LSC—and they would no longer have the priority we want to give them.

Particular issues are involved when we compare the needs of adults with those of young people—a point that I said I would return to. Many adults are in well-paid employment and can afford to pay for further education and training. Indeed, they do so because they know that it is in their interests to do so for their further career advancement and personal fulfilment. Should a highly paid City business man or woman be subsidised by the state if they want to study further? Would that entitlement be on a par with that of a 17-year-old with no qualifications?

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I cannot possibly allow the Minister to get away with that statement. Is he saying that all those who go to university at 18 or 19 should be treated in that way? If he is following that line of argument, he is saying that people aged 19 should have no entitlement by right to further qualifications and training, or to education. Even without the monstrous imposition of tuition fees, the cost of keeping somebody at university is extraordinarily high, if one breaks the cost down across the education spectrum. If the Minister wants to press that argument and wants the Committee to follow and support it, let him be honest about it and say that the Government are only interested in people up to the age of 19 receiving training as an entitlement, and that thereafter they are on their own. If it applies to the 21-year-old, it applies equally to the 19-year-old going to university.

The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be short.

Mr. Willis: I am sorry, Mr. Hancock, but I feel passionately about this matter.

Mr. Wicks: I understand the hon. Gentleman's passion, which I have never doubted, but I am trying to introduce him to some of the logical implications of the amendments.

Mr. Willis: What is the logic of the Minister's position?

Mr. Wicks: The logic of our position is that, in the context of our commitment to lifelong learning—I hope that the hon. Gentleman has listened carefully to what I have said about the Government's commitment to adult education in the broadest sense and our concern to help adults with basic skill problems—we give priority to 16 to 19-year-olds. That was my reason for introducing the hypothetical—it could be real—case of the City business man on a high salary.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough refers to university student finance, but that is a different matter with which the Bill does not deal. As he knows, we have introduced a student finance system so that those from better-off backgrounds pay some of the costs of their university education, and our loans system is designed to enable people to pay back some of those costs when they reach a certain salary. I see no inconsistency there.

Mr. Boswell: Passing over the issue of whether the Government's withdrawal of maintenance and imposition of tuition fees have improved access for the less advantaged student, I want to ask the Minister a specific question of logic. Surely in this clause and its successor we are discussing entitlements to education—access to resources? We are not, with respect to the Minister, discussing the charging of fees. It would be perfectly possible to enshrine an obligation to supply, or an entitlement to receive, to all persons, including adults, without necessarily determining whether the costs should be recoverable. I say that to be helpful to the Minister, who seeks to recover some of the cost of higher education from some students.

Mr. Wicks: The issue of fees arose because I made the mistake of answering the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who talked about fees in a sector that is not directly relevant to the Bill. Opposition Members seem unable to cope with the fact that, despite our commitment to lifelong learning, the extra funds that we are putting into adult education of different kinds and our clear commitment to helping the one in five adults in this country who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, we are giving priority to 16 to 19-year-olds. If we accepted the amendments, we could do less in future for 16, 17, 18 and 19-year-olds than we intend to do. That is what the argument is about.

A massive amount of privately funded learning is already offered in the workplace—not enough of course; we need to improve on that. I am aware of estimates of its value varying from £14 billion to £18 billion a year. I am not sure whether Opposition Members are seriously suggesting that we should extend an entitlement to all adults who can afford to pay for themselves or who at present have free provision from their employers. That would clearly divert resources away from those with a genuine need for education and training to those who are already catered for to some degree, which could lead to a gross distortion of our priorities. These are serious questions about where it is right for the state to provide a public subsidy, and I assure the hon. Member for Daventry that our funding consultation will cover those difficult and complex issues.

I hope that I have demonstrated that we share the aspirations expressed by hon. Members for adult learners. We shall continue to make progress towards meeting the country's learning and skill needs for all—young people and adults. The Bill marks a significant step along the path of extending access to learning to all, but we cannot go down the route that amendment No. 72 entices us down for the reasons that I have set out. As I have said, the Learning and Skills Council will receive clear and thorough guidance on the funding priorities for adults, backed up, where appropriate, by conditions of grant.

I hope that I have managed to present our arguments and to persuade my hon. Friends that it would be foolhardy to accept the amendments, given our commitment in particular to those aged 16 to 19. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member for Daventry will not press the amendments.

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