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Mr. Speaker: If it is convenient for the House, I propose to take motions 4 and 5 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6)(Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Representation of the People

Question agreed to.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Mobile Phone Masts

7.34 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): This is the petition of Sandra Cole, Councillor Tony Hunter and 1,632 other residents of Royston, Hertfordshire in my constituency.

The petition states:

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1724

To lie upon the Table.

Morning-after Pill

7.35 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab): I beg leave to present a petition on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children against morning-after pills in schools. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who will follow me, will present a similar petition. I think that I am the last Member of this House to have voted against the pernicious Abortion Act 1967. I therefore completely support SPUC's campaign against the morning-after pill.

The petition reads:

To lie upon the Table.

7.37 pm

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Following the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), I, too, beg leave to present a substantial petition on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children against the morning-after pill in schools. I have been proud to work with that organisation during my 27 years in Parliament, and I fully support its campaign against the morning-after pill.

The petition reads:

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1725

To lie upon the Table.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1726

Wansfell College

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.]—[Paul Clark.]

7.38 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I am most grateful for the opportunity this evening to present the important subject of the proposed closure of Wansfell college, which is in my constituency and lies on the edge of Epping Forest. The way in which a society deals with education funding is a mark of its civilisation. Indeed, we have spent most of today debating that subject—what exciting debates and votes they were. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for staying on after a long and arduous day of debating higher education. He and I served on the Standing Committee together for many hours. Although that business has not quite concluded, I am glad that he has time to devote to education business, that, although rather more local and particular, is nevertheless as important to all the people who are involved with Wansfell college as the large and nationally important measure that we debated earlier.

I begin by paying tribute to Marilyn Taylor, the principal of Wansfell college, who, for the past 11 years, has worked night and day and weekends, along with her dedicated staff, to build Wansfell college into a popular and successful institution. I also pay tribute to the governors and friends of the college who work in their free time, out of love and respect for the place, to keep the grounds, gardens and building so beautifully. They also raise money to ensure the maintenance of the fabric of the college to which they are dedicated. It is especially well maintained, not only for the benefit of the people who visit from time to time but as an important asset to the village of Theydon Bois in which it is situated.

It is sad that we have to face the imminent closure of such an excellent institution. The issue of the future of Wansfell is a classic case of the buck being passed from one authority or Government body to another, of responsibility being denied by all concerned, and of the merits of the case being lost in a pile of official paperwork and financial statistics. That is why it is so important to bring the matter directly to the Under-Secretary's attention on the Floor of the House.

Wansfell college provides residential adult and community education. I could spend some interesting moments explaining exactly what the college does, but I do not need to do so because that is well documented and I expect that the Under-Secretary is well aware of it. I draw hon. Members' attention to the publication by City and Guilds called "Time to Learn", which lists many courses and which are popular and taken up by a wide spectrum of people in colleges that are similar to, but not exactly like, Wansfell college.

City and Guilds would not produce such a booklet and Wansfell college would not feature in it if the courses were not popular, there was not a demand for them and a considerable benefit did not derive from them. I commend the booklet to hon. Members. I do not imagine that many people who serve here will have much time for extra learning, but I assure hon. Members that many hundreds of people do.

Wansfell college is extremely popular, as is shown by the enormous number of letters that I have received from people who live in my constituency and from far

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and wide. They protest most strongly against the proposed closure. Again, I could read excellent quotations from some letters, which are well argued by people who present their arguments well. Not one argument can be rebutted. There is an enormous range of reasons why Wansfell college should remain open, and why so many people have protested so strongly against its proposed closure.

Many other Members have received similar letters in support of the work of the college, and I suspect that the Minister knows that because he has replied to a large number of hon. Members who have passed their constituents' letters to him. I know, therefore, that he has been aware of this issue for some weeks. I fully expect him to try to answer my points simply by stating, as he did in his replies to other hon. Members, that Wansfell college is the responsibility of Essex county council and the Learning and Skills Council, and that it has nothing to do with the Government or with him. Thus he can try to pass the buck and to escape criticism, but that is simply not good enough. It is the Government who have made promises about lifelong learning, and they have a duty and a responsibility to keep their promises.The buck has been passed here, there and everywhere on this issue, and when it comes to the House of Commons and to the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, the buck must stop here.

The director of skills and lifelong learning at the Learning and Skills Council has said:

In other words, "It's not us, guv. It's nothing to do with the Learning and Skills Council.]" Well, I challenge that. What is the point of having a Learning and Skills Council if it does not take positive action to provide learning and skills? By that, I mean learning and skills right across the board, not just the specific qualifications needed by certain people to undertake certain jobs. That is, of course, an important part of the LSC's work— indeed, it probably represents 90 per cent. of that work—but that does not mean that this other part of the council's work is irrelevant.

Passing the buck is not a reasonable response to such a serious matter as the loss of this unique facility. Wansfell college is unique and it deserves to be treated as such. It has been ignored by everyone concerned: the Government, the Learning and Skills Council and Essex county council. The fact that it is the only adult residential college of its kind in an enormous area of south-east England has been ignored. There is no alternative; there will be nowhere else for people to go if Wansfell college closes.

The Minister has tried, in his letters, to pass the buck to Essex county council. That is not surprising, as it is the usual ministerial response, but I want to tell him why this case is different. Passing the buck in that way is nothing more than a dereliction of duty. Essex county council is in a difficult position. It has a problem because its funding from the Government was severely cut last year and the year before that. The Minister might argue that it was not cut this year, but finance has to be looked at as an ongoing matter. The world does not stop and

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1728

start at the beginning and end of each financial year. The Minister looks puzzled; perhaps I should put that in a different way. There is no point in looking at the funding statistics for one year and saying that they have gone up by a certain percentage if, in the previous two years, they went down by a much larger percentage. If we look at the overall position, the facts are undeniable: over a three or four-year period, the Government have drastically reduced their financial support for Essex county council. That has put the council in an extremely difficult position and forced it to consider ways of cutting its budget and maximising its resources, or of massively increasing council tax.

Essex county council has been a responsible local authority, and it is rightly trying to keep council tax down. Therefore, Essex has had to examine its policy on the provision of adult learning, among other matters, directly because of the Government's financial decisions. I could go over all the arguments about finance and funding for Essex county council, but I will not do so because I accept that that is not the Minister's responsibility, and I will not make unreasonable requests of him this evening. I do not expect him to answer for Essex county council—[Interruption.] I am glad that his Parliamentary Private Secretary agrees.

I want to use the time available to focus on the issues that the Minister can address. I am sure that if he is well briefed on this subject, he will have seen the decision from Essex county council, the reasons prepared for the executive and audit scrutiny committee, and the way in which the matter was looked at on 23 March and subsequently voted on. I will not rehearse the arguments on that.

However, in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), dated 16 February this year, the chief executive of Essex county council rightly said:

£90 million—

He goes on to make two arguments in favour of closure, one of which is valid and one of which is not—that is the crux of the matter.

First, the chief executive argues that Wansfell college has had a deficit over the past three years. That is technically true if we just look at the figures. The Minister appears incredulous—I do not deny that we must look at the figures, but we must also look at what lies behind those figures and how such a deficit has occurred. The answer is that the deficit occurred because of a sudden and dramatic cut in funding, which came without warning, over the last few years.

Were the Minister to examine the figures looking forward to the extrapolation of future funding, as well as looking backwards, it would become obvious that the deficit has been made up and that it will be further made up. Wansfell college is a viable going concern. It is a thriving business that makes money. It could be self-

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funding in its running costs. The argument that Wansfell college must be closed because its running costs must be subsidised is therefore simply not true.

Anyone who examines financial statistics, in any walk of life, knows that one can prove almost anything by figures. Certainly, one can prove that Wansfell college has been in financial difficulties. One can also prove, however, that because it is so popular it has no difficulty attracting people to its courses. People are willing and happy to pay the prices of those courses, and especially the residential costs—which are very reasonable and cover the costs of residential provision at the college. Because it is not difficult for the college to attract customers, it is not difficult for the college to make money. It will not be difficult in coming years for the college to attract people to pay the fees that it charges to build up even more of a profitable going concern. That argument is therefore simply not valid.

There is another problem, however, which is increasingly affecting adversely almost every aspect of life in the Epping Forest area and other similar areas in the south-east of England. I refer to land and property prices. One of Wansfell college's great attractions is its location, on the very edge of our beautiful, ancient Epping Forest. I am not biased when I say that Epping Forest is clearly one of the most beautiful areas in the country. That means that the land on which the college stands would be very valuable if it were sold for housing development, for example. If we go in the direction in which we are currently going, there will be an unsustainable balance in our environment. There will be far too many houses and no other facilities, because there is such a drive to sell land for housing development in our area. There will be no schools, hospitals, transport facilities, doctors, corner shops or any other kind of public or, indeed, private service provision. The Government seem to make finance, and nothing else, their criterion for environmental and social planning.

The Essex county council argument that is valid concerns the significant proportion of people who attend the college and come from outside Essex. I should say, to be fair to the council, that it is not its responsibility to provide education for people from all over the country; that is the Government's duty. By passing the buck to Essex county council, they are avoiding that duty.

It is no surprise, when it comes to issues such as this, that the Government say one thing and do another. Chapter 1 of the skills strategy White Paper—the Minister sighs, but the White Paper constitutes the Government's promise of what they will do for learning and skills councils and lifelong learning—gave a commitment. It said that the Government would

It does not just say, "We will provide training for jobs for 20-year-olds, or 19-year-olds, or 25-year-olds." The commitment that it gives sounds good, and it is good, but the Government do not follow it through. If Wansfell college closes, that will prove that they say one thing and do another.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1730

As usual, the Government are blowing their own trumpet. In that same White Paper, they say:

They are taking credit for the progress that has been made, while at the same time halting progress at Wansfell college. If they stand by and let the college disappear for ever—if it closes now it will never be resurrected in any form—they will cut off an educational opportunity for a significant section of the population.

We must ask ourselves why the Government will not take steps to save Wansfell college. Why will they not direct the Learning and Skills Council, help Essex county council, or take over responsibility for a college that is an asset not just to Epping Forest and to Essex, but to the whole country? Is it because so many of those who attend the college are over 60? If there were discrimination on the grounds of race, sex or ethnic origin, that would be politically incorrect and not allowed, but discrimination on the ground of age does not matter. That will be proved if the Minister does nothing.

Are the Government failing to act because of location? Is that because Wansfell is not in the inner city and the Government want to put all their education provision into the inner cities, pouring money into certain parts of the country and ignoring other parts, notably Essex and Epping Forest? If the Minister thinks that Wansfell serves only what he might consider the leafy suburbs and the countryside of Essex, he is quite wrong. A large proportion of the people who attend Wansfell college come from inner London.

It is no coincidence that such an institution is on the edge of Epping Forest, because Epping Forest itself was one of the first facilities provided for the people of the inner cities. Queen Victoria gave Epping Forest to the Corporation of the City of London in 1882, and in the speech that she made in Epping Forest when she did so she said:

Queen Victoria spoke those words specifically to encourage people to come out of the dirty city and enjoy the fresh air of Essex. Wansfell college is part of that historic, ongoing provision. It is a great asset, which is about to be lost.

I am not asking much of the Minister this evening because I know that he does not have the power simply to say, "All right, we'll keep it open." Although he cannot say that, however, I ask him for two things. The first is a delay in the closure of Epping Forest—

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