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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): Of Epping Forest?

Mrs. Laing: I am sorry, a delay in the closure of Wansfell college. Epping Forest college is another matter—it is doing perfectly well.

I ask the Minister for a delay in the closure of Wansfell college so that it is not lost for ever this autumn. Secondly, I ask him to look at other ways of providing funding for institutions such as Wansfell

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college, which serve not just a local area but the community and the country as a whole. Will he consider ways of keeping open this valuable asset? If he does not do so, he is reneging on the Government's promises.

8.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this Adjournment debate, although I do not congratulate her on leaving me only a short time—five minutes—to respond. There are few Conservative Members with whom I would like to spend such an historic evening, but she probably comes quite high up my list.

Where we agree is on the fact that Wansfell college has, over a number of years, provided extremely important learning opportunities to a wide range of people. I pay tribute to the leaders of that college, the governing body and the staff for their work to provide learning opportunities for many people, some of whom might otherwise have been denied them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has mentioned a pleasant few days that he spent there some years ago, tutoring a maths course. He also told me about some of the excitement that he had, singing "Danny Boy" in the early hours and so on; he certainly has fond memories of Wansfell college.

There is significant consensus that Wansfell is a good college, with good provision, which plays its part in ensuring that we deliver high quality lifelong learning to people in that area and in our country. However, I must part company with the hon. Lady over her attempt to pass the buck and to deflect attention and responsibility for this matter from Essex county council, which has made this decision. I do not make a judgment on whether that decision is right or wrong, but it has been made by Conservative-controlled Essex county council, which the hon. Lady should surely have more influence over as the local Member of Parliament.

I will expand in a minute on the additional resources specifically being invested by the Government in lifelong learning. I would make the point to the hon. Lady, and through her to her constituents, that when the shadow Chancellor recently committed the Conservative party to future spending plans, he said that it would attempt to match the present Government on schools and the national health service. The consequences for post-16 education, for Sure Start, and for anything that is not

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schools within the education and skills budget, based on that commitment, would be horrendous—there would be no hope for colleges like Wansfell. Hon. Members should not come here and try to mislead their constituents by pretending that this closure is somehow the consequence of the Government's policy; the hon. Lady's Conservative colleagues on Essex county council have failed dismally to reflect the views that she expressed in this debate.

The hon. Lady says that the county council has had financial difficulties not just this year, when the amount that it has been awarded has increased, but in the preceding two years, but that does not stack up in terms of the history. In 2000—01, the college deficit was £50,000. By the following year, it had risen to £64,000. In 2002—03, apparently a difficult year, the college was given further additional funding of £37,000 by the county council to help reduce the deficit. It also paid the salary for a year of a full-time co-ordinator to help move the college forward in a year when, as the hon. Lady says, it was having difficulties. In 2003-04, the college has received a total of £93,500 in addition to its core funding of £103,000. The total shortfall carried toward from 2001—02 and 2002—03 was wiped out, apparently by the county council, at the end of the 2002—03 financial year, and in 2003—04 the college moved to the same funding formula as adult community colleges, which actually resulted in a 7 per cent. increase in funding.

The hon. Lady cannot come here and try to deflect attention. I quote her Conservative colleague, the cabinet member for lifelong learning on Essex county council, Bonnie Hart, who said:

The Conservative council maintains that it is closing Wansfell primarily because of its deficit, but it also cites problems with limited disabled access, the state of repair of the attractive Victorian building, the fact that the college is full only at weekends and the fact that 59 per cent. of learners who use the college come from outside Essex. The county council has considered the case for Wansfell college very objectively, in a very detailed way, and has made a choice at a local level to close this college. What is dishonourable is for the hon. Lady to come here and imply—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Madam Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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