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Mr. Speaker: I am deeply saddened to hear this news from the hon. Gentleman. I have no powers on this matter, but Ministers will read Hansard and see what he has said.
 
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Orders of the Day

Child Benefit Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.12 pm

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is a short and straightforward measure consisting of seven clauses. None the less, it is a significant milestone in the Government's commitment to removing the financial barriers to young people staying in education or training after the age of 16, helping them to gain the skills and qualifications that they need to succeed in the modern global economy.

I would like to start by thanking the many organisations that have contributed to our consultation on the Government's review of financial support for 16 to 19-year-olds. Their views and evidence have been invaluable in informing the development of our proposals, including this Bill, which is an important first step. We have also been keen to involve young people and parents directly in the policy making that affects them.

Last September, I took part in a consultation event with young people organised by the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services. I was very impressed by the dedication and insightful comments of the young people whom I met. Their ideas and suggestions are now shaping the future of financial support for 16 to 19-year-olds. Indeed, Centrepoint arranged for me to have a very long meeting with a number of young people, who again demonstrated at every point their sensitivities, understanding and determination to have access to education and training to better their opportunities in adult life.

In short, the Bill will enable the Government to lay regulations extending child benefit to new groups of learners aged 16 and over. The House may find it helpful if I explain briefly the background of the steps leading up to the Bill so that hon. Members are able to understand its purpose in the context of the Government's skills agenda and our overriding commitment to build a strong economy and a fair society in which there are opportunities for all.

The Government's stable macro-economic framework has already contributed to lower levels of unemployment and record levels of employment. However, we know that to continue to thrive in the modern global economy and to deliver social justice to all—becoming both a fairer and more prosperous society—we need to improve the skills and fulfil the potential of all our young people and adults. Skills help our businesses and public services to achieve greater efficiency, innovation and excellence and they help individuals to gain employment opportunities and achieve their ambitions for themselves, their families and their communities.

We all know that skills matter, but we also know that the United Kingdom educational system has unfortunately suffered from historical underachievement. Although we perform strongly in higher education and have a large number of highly skilled workers compared with other countries, the historic failure to invest in
 
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training and education until recently has led to major shortfalls in terms of the intermediate skills that we need to secure sustainable employment and opportunities for all. As a result, far too many young people and adults are prevented by their lack of skills from getting secure, well-paid jobs and all the social and personal benefits that go with them.

About 7.8 million working-age people in the United Kingdom do not have the level 2 qualifications—the equivalent of five GCSE A to C grades—that are needed as a foundation for many careers. This failure is particularly apparent when we compare ourselves with our key competitors. Some 33 per cent. of the United Kingdom work force have low skills compared with 19 per cent. in Germany and 15 per cent. in the United States. In fact, we have the highest proportion of unskilled workers in any major European Union country.

In the Chancellor of the Exchequer's pre-Budget report statement, he set out the steps that the Government are taking to close Britain's skills gap. Part of this strategy involves ensuring that every adult who has missed out at school will have the funds and the opportunity through time off work, free training and help from employers to acquire skills, starting with a first level 2 qualification. Our commitment to deliver that was underlined by the announcements to roll out the national employer training programme and a pilot of a new learning allowance for benefit claimants, building on the success of the new deal for skills launched in the Budget of 2004.

The Government know, however, that these measures are not enough on their own. In order to secure greater productivity, flexibility and fairness in the United Kingdom economy in the long term, we know that we must ensure that, in future, all young people reach adulthood equipped with the skills that they need to succeed in the economy. Too many adults fail to reach their potential when young. Despite significant increases in the number of young people participating in education and training after the age of 16, a quarter of 15 to 19-year-olds are still not in formal education.

The United Kingdom compares unfavourably in this regard internationally. We currently lie 25th out of the 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for participation in education at the age of 17. This situation did not occur overnight—it is the result of years and decades of failure to invest in education—and it cannot be put right overnight. However, the Government are committed to increasing the flow of skills into the labour market by ensuring that all young people can reach the age of 19 ready for skilled employment or higher education. Our long-term ambition is that by 2015, United Kingdom staying-on rates after 16 will move from one of the lowest in the OECD to one of the highest. Since 1997, we have been putting in place the effective strategy to achieve this ambition, taking an holistic approach that brings together three different areas of policy with the aim of setting clear expectations for all young people that they should continue in learning beyond 16—whether in school, college or the workplace.

First, we are reforming the curriculum structure for young people in England to provide more coherence, choice and flexibility, including by raising the quality and profile of the vocational route. Much has already
 
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been done to improve the quality and quantity of training places. With the expansion and reform of the apprenticeship programme, we are now able to offer a ladder of opportunity from basic to advanced skill levels.

A record number of young people are currently engaged in Government-supported training, with more than 250,000 in England alone gaining skills, experience and qualifications in thousands of businesses. The Government have welcomed the proposals of the working group on 14 to 19 reform, which was led by Mike Tomlinson and recommended the development of a single curriculum structure with the aim of giving academic and vocational qualifications greater parity. We will shortly set out our detailed response to those proposals in the form of a White Paper.

Our second strand of policy is designed to underpin those curriculum reforms by strengthening the advice, guidance and support offered to young people to ensure that they are able to make informed choices about the range of learning options and opportunities that are now available to them. Connexions partnerships and the devolved careers services are playing a vital role in that area and reducing the number of young people outside work, training and education. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), for working tirelessly in his Department to bring those benefits to our young people.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Much of what the Paymaster General has said has been unexceptionable and I acknowledge that there is a good deal to be said for the Bill. However, she used the term "missed out" in relation to people who did not get what they should have had, or had hoped to receive, at school, and for whom provision must be made thereafter. I am not making a partisan point, because this a matter of great national concern, but does she know why the proportion of companies in recent business surveys saying that the three R's are not good enough and that we must provide remedial training is going up, not down?

Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Gentleman follows such subjects closely, so he will know that we must also have a strategy on literacy, numeracy and developing skills in our primary schools, as we do. By putting the Bill in such a context, I was trying to demonstrate to the House that we are addressing the problem by raising standards and developing basic skills in primary schools and through curriculum change in secondary schools. The Bill and other proposals are designed to remove financial barriers and distortions that force young people to take options that are perhaps not right for them, but are the only ones available—some have no options at all. Our measures go all the way through to the announcement in the pre-Budget report of an adult skills agenda. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is not a single answer. The most important thing that we must engender is the value of education and the opportunities that that can give to young people, so early years provision, primary and secondary schools, training opportunities and higher and further education must all reinforce that.
 
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