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Rob Marris: Put him on the Committee.

Mr. Francois: I suspect that that may yet happen too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester has already explained to the House that the Opposition do not oppose the Bill in principle and that we do not intend to seek to divide the House on it tonight. However, we will have some specific questions to ask in Committee about particular aspects and the attendant draft regulations, some of which I should like to touch on.

The Bill's genesis goes back several years, arguably to a report by the social exclusion unit in 1999. That then evolved over time into the Government's more recent
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consultation document, "Supporting young people to achieve", which was published last year alongside the 2004 Budget. Following on from the results of that consultation, the Bill extends the scope for those qualifying for child benefit in essentially two respects: first, by making it available to the families of unwaged trainees on named programmes of Government-supported training; and, secondly, by making it available to the families of 19-year-olds completing a course of full-time education or unwaged Government-supported training that was started before their 19th birthday—in other words, by extending the cut-off that currently operates at 19.

In themselves, those are not particularly contentious measures, but the Bill is not without fault. To begin with, it does little to reduce the overall complexity in the benefits system, which was laid out in some detail by my hon. Friend. The Government's social exclusion unit, in its 1999 report, "Bridging the Gap: New Opportunities for 16–18 Year Olds not in Education, Employment or Training", had already made the point that the system of financial support for young people was extremely complex, so the Government themselves have admitted that for some years.

If we then come forward to today, the Bill's wonderfully entitled "Supplementary partial regulatory impact assessment", published alongside the draft regulations just this week, effectively reiterated the complexity of the current system and then in paragraph 20 stated:

We are therefore faced with a system that is already so complex that very few people understand it in detail and, in particular, there is a lack of understanding among those people to whom the system is directly meant to apply. I am not sure that the Bill helps to rectify that as best it might.

Moreover, the Government's consultation document described the proposed changes in the Bill as "interim measures", in lieu of a more fundamental review of the system of financial support for young people. The outcome of the review, as predicted by the House of Commons Library briefing note that accompanies the Bill, will be set out in the 2005 Budget. That is the Library's assumption, but could the Minister in his reply confirm that it is still the Government's intention to reveal their longer-term strategy on the whole issue in the 2005 Budget? We have some elements of the package, but we do not have the package in toto, and it would be helpful to know when we might receive it. I am not asking him to betray the date of the Budget, although that would be nice. As a planning assumption, the Budget announcement will be about two months today, and the Government therefore appear to be proposing to introduce an interim measure today that, according to their own draft regulations, would not come into force until at least April 2006, but which they are effectively planning will be superseded in two months' time in any event.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman cited the Library brief, but with due respect, I think that he slightly mis-cited it. Page 16 states:

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I draw his attention to the words "further details". The Library does not say that it is expected that the Government will announce their long-term vision, but refers to further details.

Mr. Francois: I have two things to say to the hon. Gentleman. First, the Government's approach has been very disparate—we have had the information very incrementally. The Economic Secretary will appreciate that we are asking for the final package and I am seeking to tease out of him whether we are likely to receive that in the 2005 Budget. Perhaps he can throw some light on that point. Secondly, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West chose to intervene on me, I hope that he will not think me uncharitable in saying that he was rather pushing the envelope in making his remarks about driving licences. I say to him charitably that we debated the Road Safety Bill yesterday, not today.

For the record, I appreciate that part of what the Government are seeking to do is to correct an anomaly in the already very complex system whereby parents of those aged 16 to 19 in full-time non-advanced education receive child benefit, while parents of those in the same age group who are unwaged training do not receive it. We can see what the Government are seeking to achieve, but is there not at least a practical argument for cutting to the chase and simply waiting two months for the overall answer and the entire package, if the Government are likely to come up with it, and to move forward from that stage?

The Opposition also have concerns about the timings for dealing with the Bill. This may be a relatively small Bill, but it is nevertheless an important one, not least to those who stand to receive the expanded benefit. That being the case, the Bill has many of the hallmarks of a rush job. First, it is largely dependent on a set of subsequent regulations that were issued only on Monday, along with the now famous regulatory impact assessment, and which did not allow much time for consultation with interested parties, at least on the regulations themselves, which form the heart of the Bill. Secondly, the Bill is now to be hurried into Standing Committee as early as Tuesday next week.

Why that headlong rush, not least for a measure that is not scheduled to be implemented for more than a year in any event? The conclusion has to be at least in part that this is an electioneering measure that the Government are desperate to get on to the statute book prior to an expected election in May 2005.

In addition, I ask the Economic Secretary what the Bill will do for the so-called missing million among our young people—the more than 1 million people mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds who are not in employment, education or training. The latest figures, from the quarter August to October 2004, which were published by National Statistics as recently as December, show that the number of under-25s unemployed and not in education or training rose by 36,000 on the previous quarter, while the number economically inactive and not in education rose by 5,000—an increase of some 41,000 to give a new overall total of 1.118 million which is well over a million. That represents a sixth of our young people under 25, and has been described by the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the
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Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), as a lost generation. It is not clear what this Bill, which is a relatively minor measure, will do to seek to address a problem that now exists on that scale and is a definite blot on the Government's record.

In reality, the Bill is yet another element in the Brownite agenda. It is not unworthy in its own right, but it has become just a very small part of a much larger game—the struggle between the Chancellor and the other spending Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, for control of the Government's social policy agenda in the run-up to the election. It is meant to be part of Brown's Britain, as opposed to Blair's Britain, Milburn's Britain or even Johnson's Britain. Unfortunately, the Bill that is being introduced today by this now obviously divided Government is a benefit Bill, but it is for the Chancellor's benefit rather than anybody else's.

4.14 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): We have had a good debate this afternoon. Although the Bill is short and straightforward, it paves the way for significant improvements in the support that we provide for young people who continue in learning beyond the age of 16. The Government are determined to offer that support to allow all our young people to realise their potential, regardless of their financial circumstances. I am glad that the Bill has received a widespread welcome from organisations that take an interest in the field and, as I understand it, from both major Opposition parties, which have decided not to oppose it this afternoon.

As my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has explained, the Government are committed to ensuring that all young people reach the age of 19 ready for higher education or skilled employment. Skills are important for the life chances, employment prospects and earning potential of individuals, but they are also important for the flexibility, productivity and competitiveness of our British economy. The Government are interested in all those matters. Intensifying international competition, accelerating technological change and changing patterns of consumer demand are all likely to increase the demand for higher level skills. By 2010, it is forecast that 80 per cent. of new jobs will require high or intermediate levels of skills and that 95 per cent. of them will require at least a level 2 qualification.

That is why young people moving into the work force must have a firm, strong skills foundation on which they can continue to build throughout their working lives. The Government have already taken steps to broaden the opportunities available to young people, and that is why we are reforming the curriculum and range of learning in England. To support that strategy, we must remove the financial barriers to young people staying in education and training after the age of 16, which is why the Chancellor announced the review of financial support for 16 to 19-year-olds in the Budget 2003, which was followed by the publication of the report "Supporting young people to achieve: towards a new deal for skills" alongside the Budget 2004.

Before I had the privilege of serving in the Treasury, I served as Minister with responsibility for adult skills in the Department for Education and Skills. In February
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2002, I visited the excellent further education college in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts), where I met him, the principal and the student support officer. My hon. Friend was the first to raise with me the issues addressed by the Bill. He pointed out that families in St. Helens at that time were refusing to allow their children to enrol on work-based training schemes. Such families would lose benefits if their children enrolled, and the rules often led to family disputes over money. He also made it clear that young people refused to accept work-based schemes, even if such schemes were the best options. Many hon. Members have subsequently raised similar points, but the process started with my hon. Friend.

In his contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) underlined the historical and future importance of vocational skills in his region and recognised the value that the changes in the Bill will provide for young people in the west midlands who want to pursue training that is, at least initially, unwaged.

My hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-West, for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) and for Hartlepool (Iain Wright) described the skewed educational choices that young people are sometimes forced to make because of their family's financial circumstances. All hon. Members who have examined the issue closely or who have discussed the matter with local training providers will recognise the present problem. In my home town, Rotherham, we have a good learning provider called Morthyng. Last year, it supported some 1,500 people back into learning, 369 of whom were between the ages of 16 and 21. The company tells me that, last year, 55 young people rejected, at age 16, offers of work-based training places precisely because of the family loss of child benefit and tax credits, and in preference tried to take up college places because of the support that they would receive. The chief executive, Chris MacCormac, told me that, with the new Bill, the company estimates that it can support a further 55 to 90 young people a year in entering learning—learning that suits their needs, that will reduce drop-out, improve achievement and reduce the numbers of those not in employment, education or training locally by 10 per cent. year on year.

The story is the same for the excellent further education college in my constituency, Dearne Valley college, which draws students from Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham local authority areas. Barnsley and Doncaster were education maintenance allowance pilot areas; Rotherham was not. The college principal, Sue Ransom, reports that the impact of the EMA pilot in the Dearne area was significant. During 2002–03, it resulted in a 15 per cent. increase in the retention of EMA pilot students compared with non-pilot area students, and an increase of 26 per cent. in the achievement of the EMA pilot level 1 students over non- pilot students. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool made similar points about his constituency.
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That, in part, is the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) about the likely behavioural effects of these measures—whether they will encourage people to stay on in education or take up unwaged training options.

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