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Langley Estate

7.45 pm

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): This petition is from the tenants and residents of the Langley estate in Middleton in my constituency, an estate that you will know well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, being a predecessor of mine. It used to be run as an overspill estate by Manchester city council, and it is now managed by the Bowlee Park housing association. The petition has been signed by more than 1,000 tenants and residents from the Langley estate.

The estate is the subject of a £30 million investment by the Bowlee Park housing association and is a housing market renewal investment project. Environmental improvements including fencing and boundary walls have been started. However, there seems to be a shortfall in funding to enable completion to take place. This is a once-only opportunity to create a sustainable quality of life for the local residents and the petition seeks the support of the Government to enable this to happen.

To lie upon the Table.

20 Jul 2005 : Column 1372

Dunstable College

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]

7.46 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): It might be helpful to the House if I briefly outline some of the facts about Dunstable college. It started off training workers in the printing industry. It should now more properly be called South Bedfordshire college, because although it is based in Dunstable it serves all the residents of south Bedfordshire, and notably of Leighton Buzzard, the largest town in my constituency, where the college has a learning shop. A large number of courses are also run on the Kingsland campus in Houghton Regis and the college also functions on its main site in Dunstable. It is particularly important to note that many of the college's students travel considerable distances to get to it from places throughout south Bedfordshire and a long way into mid-Bedfordshire. All this means that the college's continued well-being is vital to the future of our area.

I should like to run through a few statistics. The college reduced its adult provision in 2002–03, in agreement with Bedfordshire and Luton learning and skills council. Since then, it has met its targets every year and received support for its plans at every stage from the local LSC. College provision has been completely reviewed and the college has not asked to grow adult provision. It has replaced non-priority adult provision systematically to target priority areas.

The college is also a sub-regional trade union studies centre. It has only 18 per cent. of its provision categorised as "other", and it has grown its 16-to-19 numbers year on year from 2001–02. It has rebalanced its provision in the way in which the Government wanted it to do. The college has played the game and done exactly what the local LSC asked it to do, in accordance with the Government's agenda, over the past few years.

The Minister's surname is Hope, and that is what the students of Dunstable college are looking for tonight, because I have to tell him that all is not well with the college. This year, out of the blue, its budget has been cut by £833,000. That figure is made up as follows: for 19-plus students, there will be a cut of £533,000; for additional learning support, a cut of £73,000; the ethnic minority student achievement grant will be cut by £33,000; the learner support fund will be cut by £22,000; work-based learning will have £150,000 taken off its budget; and the local intervention and development fund will have a £22,000 reduction. That adds up to a total cut of £833,000, which is a 10 per cent. cut in funding out of a total budget of some £8 million or so. That came as a complete surprise—as I have said, the local learning and skills council had fully backed the direction of the college at every stage since 2003.

What do those cuts mean? The college will educate 1,000 fewer learners locally, 25 college staff are losing their jobs—most of which are full-time—and a further 15 staff have received "at risk of redundancy" notices. All of that is in an area in which the Government plan to add an extra 43,000 homes, as part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands sustainable communities
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plan, with which the Minister will be familiar from his previous incarnation as a Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Although Dunstable is particularly badly hit, it is not alone. As the Minister will know, there will be a cut of 200,000 adult education places across the country, including courses in basic skills to improve poor adult literacy and numeracy, which cost us some £10 billion a year nationally. The sector also faces some 4,000 to 5,000 redundancies. Dr. John Brennan, the Association of College' chief executive, a man not usually prone to strong language, has said that the Government are presiding over a "funding shambles" with 2006–07 to be worse still—a further disaster waiting to happen.

How could this be avoided? The Government have set up the biggest quango in Europe in the form of the Learning and Skills Council, which has a budget of £330 million to administer adult education. The Further Education Funding Council used to do that job for a £15 million budget. With a growing budget, it should be possible to expand 16 to 19 provision, which the Government properly want to do, and which the Opposition recognise as a valid and important objective. That should be possible, however, without cutting adult provision. It should not be a case of either/or where the overall budget is growing.

Nor is the Government's national approach sensitive to the differing needs of local communities, such as in my constituency of South-West Bedfordshire. Many older workers, from the BTR and Trico factories that have closed down recently in Dunstable, from the Lancer Boss and Courtaulds factories in Leighton Buzzard, or from the WOM International factory that closed down in Leighton Buzzard in the past couple of weeks, need to re-skill to get back into the workplace. The cuts in adult provision will make that very much more difficult.

The Government say that colleges can make up those cuts to their budgets by collecting fees. That simply will not wash. Chris Vesey, the outstandingly good principal of Dunstable college, whom south Bedfordshire is very lucky to have, said in an e-mail to me on this point:

English as a second language. She continued:

with effect from September 2005,

I therefore hope that the Minister will not say that the answer to the college's funding crisis is for it to raise more fees.

The Government have increased funding for the sector, but have not always done so in a way that achieves the greatest value for money. I am sure that the
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Minister will come to realise, as just about everyone in the sector has, that unintended consequences are involved in the policy priorities on which he and his colleagues have embarked. I ask him to be as reasonable as he can, and consider whether those really were the intended consequences of the national policy that he set out. I sent questions to the Minister's private office in advance, and I should be grateful if he answered them.

What work did the Department undertake, or what work is it undertaking, to keep FE staff who have been made redundant? We know that there is a shortage of FE staff nationally in key courses. Those people are a vital national asset. Is the Department really content for the national total of between 4,000 and 5,000, 25 of whom are at Dunstable college, to leave the education sector altogether? What work is being done to get them into the 16 to 18 sector on which the Government want to concentrate?

Will the Minister tell me, please, what risk assessment was carried out to ensure that the FE sector was not seriously damaged by short notice major cuts in college priorities? It is worth pointing out that the LSC's letter sent to colleges in November 2004, followed up by a circular in January 2005, made it clear that the cuts would not happen. They are very recent news for colleges, and it is the shortness of the period within which they must adjust to the cuts that has caused such huge difficulties.

Has the Department undertaken any research into the ability and willingness of employers and individuals to pay higher fees for their courses? I understand from correspondence with the Minister and his colleagues that the Department is arguing on those lines, but—as I made clear in quoting the college principal's words—that is not an option for us in south Bedfordshire. Can the Department guarantee that all extra demand for 16 to 18-year-olds in colleges will be fully funded? Can it confirm that there will be a reduction in funding for apprenticeships for those who will be over 19 in 2005–06? That issue is particularly close to my heart.

How was the process used to assure equity of access to 19-plus courses for those living in various parts of the country? I fear that there will be a lottery of provision across the country because of the uneven way in which the cuts are falling. Not all colleges are in the position of Dunstable college; some are fortunate enough to have received a budget increase this year. Finally, what process was used to consider whether 19-plus provision was in the priority areas—specialist, or of value to the local economic environment?

I shall end my speech before my allocated time runs out, in the hope that the Minister may be generous enough to let me intervene on those specific points. There are many very worried staff at Dunstable college. Our area has taken some big knocks industrially over the years. We are the focus of Government attention in terms of massive housing growth and, as I said earlier, I believe that these are unintended consequences of the Minister's policy. I hope that this debate will provide an opportunity for the position to be reconsidered, so that we can give some hope back to the college.

7.58 pm

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