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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) has made a thoughtful and interesting speech, and none of us would dissent from anything that he said. Many of us enjoyed walking round his constituency last year; getting to know a part of Birmingham that we had not hitherto known was an interesting experience. In 22 years as a Member of the House, this is the first time that I have taken part in a debate, other than Budget debates, to which Treasury Ministers are replying. Indeed, the Whips suggested to me that participating this afternoon would widen my horizons.

I want to make only three points, and I hope not to bore the House in doing so. The first echoes the comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill. I am fortunate enough, in my work with the International Development Committee, to travel the world fairly extensively. We often think of certain places as being poor, but if I were king for a day, I would try to ensure that as many people as possible visited China. There are cities and towns growing up in China of which we have not heard, and which are as large as, if not larger than, cities such as Coventry and Bristol. China's growth and its skills capacity are phenomenal, and it will challenge the competitiveness of Europe and the rest of the developed world in a way that UK and European business has not even begun to grasp. We think of countries such as India as poor, and some parts of it indeed are. However, places such as Bangalore are incredibly successful and high-tech. If we do not ensure that our young people acquire the maximum number of skills, Britain and Europe will fall behind; it is as simple as that. Unskilled and unqualified people will undoubtedly become unemployed.
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My second point echoes the one that I made in an intervention. The Sure Start scheme is excellent, but perhaps we also need a "firm finish" scheme. We need an undertaking from the Department for Education and Skills that every youngster, at some stage in their school education, will have an individual interview with someone from Connexions who can go through all the options available to them. It is human nature for schools to want to encourage the maximum staying-on rate. Given the current capitation formula, the more people who stay on, the more money schools get, so they tend not to explain to youngsters that other opportunities exist, such as attending local colleges and doing NVQs, BTECs, national diplomas and various other training. I simply am not confident that such possibilities are pointed out to them. To be honest, nor am I confident that Connexions is even connected in my part of the world. The learning and skills council is an element of the machinery of government that still needs to be fitted in.

On paper, having a uniform and straightforward maintenance and support system for youngsters is a brilliant idea, but parents have got to be able to understand it. I hope that the Inland Revenue, perhaps with the help of the Plain English Society and others, will produce a booklet explaining to parents how the system works. Library briefing papers and other such documents tend to assume that all parents are rational, and that we sit down and think of all the options. Often, our children tell us what they want to do and we interact with them, and we must also remember that many parents have other dimensions to consider. They may have children with disabilities, they may be divorced or separated, or their children might themselves be carers. Life is not simple, therefore, and I hope that Treasury Ministers will undertake to produce for parents straightforward information that they can understand.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and he is right to emphasise the role of parents. However, many parents are not competent in this regard—they are not fully literate or numerate—so the state has to intervene in such cases to make sure that young people get a good start. Will he not commend the Government for the emphasis that they have placed on teaching basic skills in primary education? That is the first base, which all children must get to.

Tony Baldry: We all want to enhance primary education. If the hon. Gentleman is right in suggesting that some parents have difficulties in that regard, that is all the more reason why we need to be confident that they understand the various choices available to them. Youngsters must not feel under pressure to leave school early because their parents or guardians do not believe that they have the financial resources to support them.

If we do not enhance our skills base, we will simply get left behind. Secondly, I hope that every youngster at some stage during their school career, before they take their GCSEs, can have a personal interview with a Connexions representative, who can go through the various options with them and ensure that they have some form of career and education plan between the ages of 16 and 19.
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Thirdly, I hope that we can be confident that parents will be given some straightforward briefing, and I hope that it will be better than that given for the tax credit schemes. What I am about to say might sound rather portentous, but I am not sure that it is possible to say such things without sounding that way. I am fortunate enough to be a lawyer—a barrister—and I spend all my time construing documents, yet when people come to my constituency surgery with information on the various tax credit schemes, I find trying to understand it all harder than dealing with High Court pleadings. How ordinary people can be expected to understand it I do not know.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Is not the situation even more difficult when constituents appear in our surgeries with 15 different Government documents telling them what their tax credit is? If we as Members of Parliament cannot sort out such things, our constituents certainly cannot.

Tony Baldry: There are also cases of constituents getting different letters, dated the same day, giving different amounts.

This is a non-contentious Bill that commands support throughout the House, but perhaps the icing on the cake would be a really good straightforward booklet for parents, produced with the help of the Plain English Society and others, so that we can ensure maximum take-up of the benefits that the Bill seeks to provide.

3.19 pm

Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), not least because in his comments—which, like those of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who is no longer in his place, were non-partisan—he tried to address the principal point of the Bill. As he said, we have a skills gap in this country and must deal with it in order to compete globally with the likes of China and India. I contrast the hon. Gentleman's welcome comments with those of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). He, too, is no longer in his place, but he tried to make a petty party political point.

The fact remains that since 1997, child benefit has increased from £11.10 to £16.10 for the first child. That is what really matters to parents out there. It amounts to something like a 50 per cent. increase in seven years. Perhaps I should declare an interest, as a father of four whose family receives child benefit. More important than my own personal experience, though, is that of the 8,700 families in Hartlepool who have benefited from the Government's child support schemes such as child benefit and child tax credit.

In my brief contribution I shall concentrate on the skills shortages in my constituency, and how the Bill will substantially improve the skills base for the Hartlepool economy. There is a huge anomaly in the present system, whereby child benefit is paid for 16 to 19-year-olds who stay in full-time education, but not for those who enter work-based training. That severely disadvantages young people who may not wish to go on to further or higher education, but choose to enter the employment market through unwaged training.

At the moment, choosing the route of unwaged training has a huge impact on the household budgets of families in which 17 or 18-year-olds are rightly expected
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to pay board and lodgings in the parental home. In reality, that prevents young people from exercising real choice, and can push them down a route in life that they may not really wish to follow. That sort of conditioning or soft coercion prevents people from fulfilling their potential. I think that the Bill will help to eliminate that problem, and should therefore be welcomed throughout the House.

One of the true success stories for Hartlepool in the last decade has been the educational attainment of our schoolchildren. Last year, for example, Hartlepool schoolchildren provided the fastest improving set of key stage 2 results in the entire country. More 16-year-olds than ever before are now leaving school in Hartlepool with qualifications. I believe that the figures speak for themselves. In 1996, 12 per cent. of Hartlepool's 16-year-olds left school without any qualifications; in 2004, only 5.1 per cent. did that.

Despite those successes and improvements, significant basic skills deficiencies and vocational skill shortages remain in Hartlepool. There is a recognised difficulty in progressing people from low-level, community-based training and learning to high-level skills and jobs. Some specific groups in the community have real difficulty in accessing training opportunities. I am thinking particularly of young carers, of whom there are substantial numbers in Hartlepool. Many of those are 16 or 17-year-olds caring for a sick relative. Every penny counts in such households, and the Bill's provision to continue financial support for young carers to undertake work-based training will help to ensure that they are not trapped in a benefit rut for the rest of their lives through no fault of their own, because of their wish to care for their relatives. That must surely be welcomed.

Hartlepool was one of the areas that piloted the education maintenance allowance, whereby £30 a week was paid to young people and a bonus payment made at specific points in the year. The effect on the traditionally lowest-achieving and hard-to-reach groups was hugely positive. Not only did the EMA help to increase recruitment of these difficult-to-reach groups, it had a massive impact on retention, with people not only starting training but finishing the course as well. It also improved the attendance and behaviour of individuals. I would suggest that the use of EMAs in Hartlepool has been found to have tremendous benefits for the individual, for his or her family, for the local skills base and for society in general. The experience of my constituency suggests that the Bill will have hugely positive benefits in continuing and extending financial support for young people to continue training that they might otherwise have been unable to do.

Another of the Government's successes has been the reintroduction and encouragement of apprenticeships. In the large employers in my constituency, particularly Corus, the profile of the work force is curious. It includes men and women in their 50s or older who came through apprenticeships in the 1960s or 70s. There is then a wide age gap reflecting a lack of regard for apprenticeships, perhaps in the 1980s and 1990s. There may have been a change in fashion in that respect. Then we have young lads and lasses who have started work in the past five years or so. We need more apprenticeships in Hartlepool if the local economy is to flourish.
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Anything that encourages training and apprenticeships, or the prospects of entering into apprenticeships, as the Bill does, is to be welcomed.

I believe that the Bill complements and expands on the work done in the past seven years to break the cycle of despair, decline and neglect in run-down neighbourhoods, and to create an environment of hope, opportunity, choice and prosperity. The Bill will stand with such worthwhile achievements as Sure Start and the tax credit system. It will also facilitate the improvement of skills in my constituency and elsewhere, which is so necessary to bring about the sustained economic prosperity that will help the country to compete globally. I fully support it.

3.26 pm

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