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6.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): It is clear from today's debate and others that all hon. Members take an active interest in the schools in their constituencies. Fewer take such a close interest in their further education colleges, and not enough are aware of the skills needs of employers in their areas—a sad oversight, especially in view of the motion. Many hon. Members have spoken from personal experience and local knowledge. Some of the strongest contributions came from that perspective. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband) made a typically reflective and wide-ranging speech, displaying a strong concern for his constituency. He pointed out that the delegated schools budget has risen by 50 per cent. since the 1997 general election—the equivalent of £1,000 a pupil. Importantly, he stressed the need for a culture of high expectations, particularly in constituencies such as ours, and the importance of focusing our resources and efforts on those who are most disadvantaged.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell- Grainger) referred to concerns in his area about the school census. The purpose of the census is to give a clearer picture of the impact and operation of policies in one go, so that data collection is managed more easily and is less burdensome for schools to provide. He also expressed concern about security. Names will be held securely within the Department and accessed only by technical staff who have agreed to, and have been trained to, the required security levels. Outside organisations will be given access only if a clear need exists. In most cases, the data in question will be anonymised.

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson)—I am glad that he has returned to his place—detailed his constituency dealings, as well as some general points about individual learning accounts, to which I shall return later. His comments were echoed by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who has made a significant contribution to the Select Committee's inquiries. He gave a balanced account of his concerns, and his contribution was more measured than the florid phrases of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green).

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) spoke with authority about the chemicals industry in his constituency. I should tell him that I launched a new sector skills council in Aberdeen this morning, which will enable us to reinforce the influence of employers in the chemicals, petroleum and extraction industry over future skills and learning provision.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) took us to task over what he described as our failure to deal with school repairs sufficiently quickly. I should remind him that, since 1997, significant repairs have been made to 17,000 schools, and we have trebled capital investment in schools. In 1996–97, £683 million was invested; last year, more than £2 billion was invested; and by 2003–04, the figure will rise to £3.5 billion.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) spoke with the authority of a former teacher. He said that half the schools in his constituency have new classrooms

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or have undergone major repairs. He also talked about the four new schools there, and pointed out that the highest standards ever have been achieved. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham)—another former teacher—said that he did not recognise the Opposition's description of the education system. His view is shared by my hon. Friends and by many outside the House.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who wound up for the Opposition, touched on higher education, further education and individual learning accounts. I welcome his assertion that the concept of ILAs was perfectly right, and I shall return to the problems associated with them in a moment.

Those contributions were in contrast to that of the hon. Member for Ashford, who got the debate off to a dismal start. He accused my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of myth making and public relations polish, but there can hardly have been a Secretary of State for Education who was more blunt-speaking, knowledgable, experienced and ready to recognise the reality of the challenges that we in the education system face. It is simply not credible to talk of crisis. As every hon. Member knows, on visiting schools in our constituencies we see more books, more computers, more classrooms and more staff than we did in 1997.

I was also disappointed with other aspects of Opposition Front-Bench contributions. The Department that I am proud to serve is called the Department for Education and Skills, and although the title of the Opposition's motion indeed refers to education and skills, the hon. Member for Ashford made no mention of skills. It was left to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire to mention further education.

The UK work force are becoming better educated, but the demand for skills is growing and will continue to grow. Between now and 2010, eight out of 10 new jobs will demand level 3 skills or above. The employment rate for people with no qualifications is 60 per cent., and for those with level 2 qualifications or above, it is 80 per cent. However, 30 per cent. of our current work force do not have level 2 skills. A yet greater scandal is that 7 million adults—half those in work today—do not have the reading, writing and mathematics skills that we now expect of our 11-year-olds. That scandal has been left untackled for too long, and I am proud to say that—at last—we have a Government who are meeting that challenge. We are putting in place the necessary resources and a national programme, and tackling those basic literacy and numeracy problems by setting arguably the toughest targets anywhere in the education field.

As the Minister responsible for individual learning accounts, I shall now deal with them. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight made clear through the testimonies of his constituents, ILAs were innovative and important and brought learning to many who had not been taught since they left school. Some 91 per cent. of ILA learning met or exceeded the expectations of those who took it up, and 85 per cent. said that it increased the training and learning options available to them. However, it was misused and abused by a minority of learning providers, who spoiled the process for their colleagues and for the learners whom they were supposed to serve.

Problems began to emerge in earnest over the summer, and we took steps to try to tackle them. We introduced a new learning provider agreement, removed 700 learning

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providers from the register, introduced new information for learners, ended the use of blanket application forms, and suspended learning providers who were misusing or abusing the system. Moreover, Capita and the Department introduced a joint compliance unit to try to deal with the problems. However, the design of the system did not allow us to stamp out abuse, so in the end we had no option other than to close the scheme. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regret that. We are very conscious of the impact on learners and learning providers.

We are trying to do three things. First, we are trying to ensure that legitimate payments are made to legitimate providers for legitimate learning. We have paid £7 million of the £21 million that was claimed in respect of learning that took place, or was booked, before 23 November, when the scheme was closed. Double that sum— £14 million—has been claimed by 193 providers, but we are withholding it because we have serious concerns about them and are investigating them.

Secondly, we are investigating complaints against 672 learning providers. Our own special investigations unit is investigating 105 complaints, and the police are investigating a further 66. Some 45 arrests have already been made; 13 people have been charged, one of whom has been convicted.

I turn now to compensation for learning providers. From the outset, the decisions that learning providers made to take advantage of the scheme were business decisions, which they took for themselves. The Government were not, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight asserted, selling the scheme to learning providers. There was no contract between the Department and learning providers, and therefore we are not considering claims for compensation for those providers.

I have been struck by the disappointment that has greeted the closure of individual learning accounts, but I have also been struck, very strongly, by the strength of the support and encouragement given to the Government to reintroduce a successor scheme, as we will do.

I return to the question of schools. I could recite the headline figures but, like every hon. Member, I know from what is happening in my constituency what a difference the Government's policies are making in schools.

I leave this thought with Opposition Front-Bench Members. As long as they overstate the case with talk of crisis, no one will take their criticisms seriously. They have no answer to problems such as the pressures of teacher work load. They have no answer to the problem of teacher retention and recruitment, other than to cut the number of circulars. They have no policies to reinforce standards in our schools. They have no contribution to make to the debate about employers' need for skills or reform in the further education sector. As long as all that remains, the Government will not take their criticisms seriously, and no one else will either.

Above all, the Leader of the Opposition is on record as approving cutting public service spending to 35 per cent. of gross domestic product. As a result, the hon. Member for Ashford cannot say that he would match our investment. As long as that remains the case, the Opposition will remain out of touch and irrelevant, with no one taking their points seriously.

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I urge my hon. Friends to reject this incoherent, irrelevant and incredible motion, and the arguments that we have heard this afternoon from the Opposition.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 180, Noes 322.

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