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Mr. Laws: Will the Minister give way?

John Healey: I will give way on that point, and then I should like to turn to the other contributions to the debate.

Mr. Laws: It may be that the Economic Secretary is coming to this point. Will he clarify how many of the 80,000 unwaged trainees' families will receive child benefit and the child tax credit, and how many may not receive it because of the way that the Government have defined the entitlement?

John Healey: I am indeed coming to the general point made by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) about what they see as the weakness in the available information that we have been able to set out in the regulatory impact assessment.

I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). He made a mostly measured and serious winding-up speech, which I welcome. He noted some of the detailed matters that he intends to develop in Committee, and we look forward to that. I also welcome the declaration by the hon. Member for Chichester that the Conservatives will not oppose the Bill. The Paymaster General and I are rather accustomed to his style of debate. His speeches tend to be a series of detailed questions and narrow debating points. We hear nothing from him about what his party would do or how it might pay for its policies. Perhaps he has not recently had a conversation with his boss, the shadow Chancellor, who has made it clear that his party, in government, would spend and invest less of the national income in public services, that it would cut £35 billion from the spending plans that we have laid out up to 2008, and that it would offer no protection for learning and skills activities. Learners and learning providers will face cuts, and that includes the areas covered by the Bill.

The hon. Member for Chichester also mentioned age limits, a point raised by several other Members. I understand the concerns of hon. Members and organisations cited this afternoon about financial support for young people aged over 19. However, from the Government's point of view it is necessary to decide on a sensible point at which it is no longer appropriate to pay support to a young adult through the parents. We have separate arrangements to support adults in gaining skills and qualifications. The Government's view is that someone aged over 20 should come under the adult arrangements, but we will keep that under review and consider it in light of the initial reforms that we are setting out today.

I come to the information that is available and the confidence that we can have about any cost-benefit and behavioural effects—a point that was stressed by the hon. Members for Chichester and for Yeovil. I have to tell them that we all share the problem that there is a sparsity of information available about unwaged trainees—the group of people we are most concerned
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with in this context. They are generally in small groups and are not easy to pick up in generalised surveys. Moreover, no one has specific responsibility for collecting data on them and there is no common source of data. Consequently, the RIA is a reflection of the best information that we have. As we improve the information we will certainly share it with members of the Committee and other Members.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Yeovil gave a general welcome to the Bill. He said that it would be of benefit if the Department for Education and Skills was leading on it. I could ask him why he, rather than the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), is speaking for his party. On his main serious point of principle, I can assure him that we will, in the long term, rationalise the system of support for young people. That is precisely what was set out in the joint Treasury-DFES report alongside the 2004 Budget. As he says, the Bill is something of a milestone towards that.

Mr. Laws rose—

John Healey: I had better press on, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. I have already taken one intervention from him and I am keen to deal with the contributions of other Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill clearly explained the decisions faced by young people in his constituency and how they may be penalised for taking up the option of unwaged training, as well as setting out the vision and imperative to raise skills levels in the economy and the danger to us as a nation if we do not.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) joined the debate. He cited China as a cautionary tale for us all, and eloquently made the point that increasingly in future those without skills will find that they are less securely employed and have their job and income prospects reduced. As for information, advice and guidance, the Department for Education and Skills has been looking closely at that issue and he can expect some indication of its thinking in the forthcoming youth Green Paper.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool spoke up clearly and strongly for his constituency. He recognised the increases in child benefit under this Government since 1997. I have to tell him that in April they go up again to £17 for the first child and £11.40 for any subsequent children. He also mentioned the expansion of modern apprenticeships. He is right—the number of young people in modern apprenticeships has more than tripled since this Government came into office.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), who is again in his more accustomed place on the Front Bench, offered us a wide-ranging speech from which I took a couple of specific points. I congratulate Mr. Oliver and his staff at Stowmarket high school on their status as a new technology college. They are clearly making great strides under the Government's education policies, and I welcome that. He argued that the seriousness of the skills gap means
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that there is a role for the state in helping to fill it and a role for employers in making a greater contribution and being more socially responsible.

Mr. Laws rose—

John Healey: I will give way one last time.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Economic Secretary for giving way in these last few minutes. I appreciate that he is trying to be helpful, but there is major uncertainty over one of the big issues in the Bill. The Government are saying that 80,000 young people are in unwaged training, but that only those on Government supported training schemes will get assistance through child benefit. How many of the 80,000 will have access to the additional benefits?

John Healey: There are 80,000 young people on unwaged Government-supported training schemes, and that is the number of young people who are potentially eligible for the measures that we are considering.

Let me deal with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General and I look forward to hearing the advice that he receives about possible amendments on Report. He was right to celebrate not only the extension of child benefit for which the Bill provides but, as he put it, the transformation of parliamentary opinion on child benefit. He knows as well as anyone that part of the ambition and purpose of a progressive Government is to develop not only progressive policy but a consensus that will support that policy and render its dismantling more difficult in any future change of Government. I hope that he will perceive the support for the Bill from hon. Members of all parties as a further small step towards that.

Mr. Tyrie: I sometimes wonder whether the Opposition are the only people who read regulatory impact assessments—

Rob Marris: Excuse me!

Mr. Tyrie: And one or two more attentive Labour Back Benchers. Throughout the debate, I have asked for the Government's estimate of the total number of people who will be brought into training as a consequence of the measure. I still have not received an answer. That is the most basic information that we need if we are to spend more money on training. What is the answer?

John Healey: I explained earlier the precise problems that we experienced in getting accurate information to assess the behavioural effects with any confidence.

We expect to debate the more detailed points that were made this afternoon in Committee. However, I hope that the debate has made it clear that the Bill is modest but important. It reinforces our commitment to vocational education as equal in status to academic education. It removes barriers that may restrict or distort the choices of education and training that young people make. It encourages young people to choose
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learning that is best suited to their interests, aspirations and aptitudes, rather than basing the decision on the amount of financial support available. It increases the support that we offer to 16 to 19-year-olds as a step towards achieving our ambition for all young people to stay on in education and training until the age of 19.

I commend the Bill to the House.

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