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House of Commons

Thursday 29 June 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Adult Education

1. Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): If he will make a statement on recent changes to the provision of adult education courses at colleges. [80879]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): In 2006-07, we plan to invest £4.8 billion in further education for young people and adults, an increase of around £2.5 billion since 1997. Our overall investment in adult learning will be broadly maintained at £2.9 billion and will be focused increasingly on our priorities of providing support for those adults who lack basic skills or the level 2 platform of skills for employability, and of ensuring opportunities for developing skills at level 3. It is essential that funding is prioritised on those areas if we are to address skills weaknesses and improve productivity.

Mr. Rogerson: In Cornwall, courses aimed at people with special educational needs have been cancelled because of reductions in the additional learner support funding stream. Given the Department’s targets for concentrating money on provision for 16 to 18-year-olds, can the Secretary of State give any hope to the vulnerable people who depend on those SEN courses that no further cancellations will be made?

Alan Johnson: I should very much like to know about what is happening in Cornwall. We should not cut funding for the 640,000 people with learning difficulties and disabilities in this country. That provision must remain a priority, and it is not part of the reprioritisation that I set out in my response. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me, we will look into the matter further.

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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): There is much to be applauded in the priorities that my right hon. Friend has just set out, but does he agree that community education is the basic building block that allows people to get back into education? Often, it is the glue that holds the whole system together. Will he look carefully at how his decisions are impacting on community education for adults?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I do not think that he, or his Committee, would disagree that there is a need to reprioritise, but there is concern about the community support that he mentioned. We are maintaining funding at £210 million for learning for personal enrichment. That is safeguarded and ring-fenced in the Learning and Skills Council budget.

My hon. Friend asked about courses designed to introduce people onto the ladder of opportunity and skills, but the effectiveness of some courses has been questioned in the past. For example, with regard to entry into employment, the statistics do not show that the courses always lead to progression. That is why we are looking at the foundation learning tier, as we want to turn the current complex structure into a much more coherent set of units that is easier to understand and operate. My hon. Friend makes an important point about a matter that we will look at in the future.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that the Leitch review of skills made it clear that, because of demographic change, it is vital that we reskill and upskill the existing work force to meet the challenges of a changing world economy. However, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has said that the Government’s target culture has discouraged hard-to-reach groups from returning to learning. Will the right hon. Gentleman say why the number of people studying at further education colleges—not just those with special needs, but including all those between 25 to 59—has fallen by 9 per cent. in the past year?

Alan Johnson: I do not accept that comment from NIACE. The Leitch review, and the review that we have had from Andrew Foster, will be crucial in pointing us in the right direction, as will the further education White Paper that will subsequently become a Bill. The problems in FE were highlighted in Andrew Foster’s report, which showed that the sector has put up with poor provision for too long. There are some very good FE colleges, but others still believe that employers should accept their thesis about the education that they require for their work force. There has been too little engagement with employers, but we are putting them at the heart of the matter and trying to do something about the alphabet soup of qualifications that currently exists. We are also working to sort out the units available in foundation learning to which I referred earlier, and I believe that we can tackle the problems in FE by adopting those approaches. Certainly, the FE sector is much more of a priority now than it ever has been for previous Governments.

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Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I accept the merit of the reprioritisation policy, but will my right hon. Friend look at how the funding formula operates? Last year, for example, the better that learning and skills councils seemed to do in encouraging participation among 16 to 18-year-olds, the worse they seemed to do with the 19-plus allocations. That was especially true in north Yorkshire.

Alan Johnson: I will look at the point that my hon. Friend raises, but I am glad that he supports our reprioritisation policy. The problem with FE and adult skills is that to prioritise everything is to prioritise nothing. We are concentrating on longer courses for people with no level 2 qualifications whatsoever, whatever their income, and we will also introduce an entitlement to level 3 for 19 to 25-year-olds on a similar basis. That must be our priority, but I shall certainly look into whether provision for 16 to 18-year-olds is affecting adult participation rates, as described by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware of concern in Hull and the East Riding about the reduction in courses, particularly for older people. The Government’s policy is a commitment to lifelong learning: education does not exist purely to increase skills to help people into the workplace and to aid the economy but is about broader issues. I am sure that he, like me, will have had concerns raised at his constituency surgeries. Will he respond to those concerns, perhaps giving reassurance to those who see courses that add to their quality of life being cut back? Will he give a message I can take back to those I represent?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is right to say those problems have also been raised with me. There are problems across the country, and saying that we will reprioritise or that we will increase the level of fees in further education is not easy. There was always an implicit expectation that there would be a contribution of 25 per cent. from students, but very few colleges introduced that. We are gradually moving towards the expectation of a contribution of 50 per cent. by 2010. From constituents I have spoken to, and this is reflected in the MORI poll, I think that most people accept that if they can make a reasonable contribution to a course that they are pleased to be taking—whether in languages, learning for recreation or learning just to increase knowledge—they should make a contribution. When that is explained, along with our priorities for the country and the economy, people tend to accept what is, I accept, a sometimes difficult message.

Runaway Children

2. Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): What steps he is taking to ensure that children who run away or go missing from care or home have someone to talk to and a safe place to go. [80880]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): I acknowledge the excellent work that my hon. Friend is doing to raise the issue of children and young people who run away from home. They certainly need someone
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to talk to and somewhere to go, but they also need help with the underlying problems that cause them to run away in the first place. It is the responsibility of local children’s services, working closely with the police and the voluntary and community organisations, to provide the help that young runaways need. The Government are supporting them strongly through the Every Child Matters programme, which is driving improvements for all children and young people but particularly for the most vulnerable.

Helen Southworth: I thank my right hon. Friend, particularly for considerable improvements in safeguarding vulnerable children. May I draw her attention to National Missing Persons Helpline, a charity that has set up a 24-hour helpline for runaways, and which, in 2005, took 57,000 calls? Will she, with me, meet people from the helpline to discuss the role that it can play in safeguarding very vulnerable children who run away?

Beverley Hughes: The helpline is one of a number of important vehicles by which children and young people who run away can get some immediate advice, although I think it is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of children who run away return home within 24 hours, which should be our primary objective. The helpline also gets considerable funding from the Home Office—about £900,000 this year, including £600,000 core funding. I am certainly willing to arrange a meeting to discuss the work of the helpline if that is thought to be useful.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): In addition to the other support that they rightly receive, when, how and to what financial tune will children who run away from home or care be offered personalised learning, either to prevent their falling behind, if at all possible, or to assist them to catch up and fulfil their potential?

Beverley Hughes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. The position of children who are looked after by the local authority—in care, as we used to call it—is of considerable concern, not only because some go missing but because in their general outcomes they are falling behind other children and young people, which should not be the case. That is why the Government, across a number of Departments, are working hard to see what are the barriers to progress for looked-after children, including issues around why they might run away. We shall publish a Green Paper outlining a range of issues, including precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman rightly raised, which is the need for dedicated personalised support so that children do not drift in care and achieve the same improved outcomes we want for all young people.

International Students

3. Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): If he will make a statement on the plan to attract an additional 100,000 international students to the UK by 2011. [80881]

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The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): The objective of the second phase of the Prime Minister’s initiative for international education is to secure and sustain the UK’s position as a leader in international education in both the further and higher education sectors. We are working with the British Council and the higher education and further education sectors to increase the number of international students studying in the UK and to support UK universities and colleges in developing collaborative partnerships with institutions overseas.

Daniel Kawczynski: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and I am very pleased with the Government’s measures to attract more foreign students. My constituency certainly houses one of the best international schools in the country, Concord college, and I invite the Secretary of State to come along and see the work that is done there. Its impact on the rural local economy is huge, with so many foreign students coming in and contributing to it, so it is important that we continue to get our fair share of foreign students coming to learn in our country.

Alan Johnson: I would be delighted to visit Shrewsbury at some stage in my schedule to see that college in action—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): In Atcham.

Alan Johnson: In Atcham and in action. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is absolutely right to stress the importance of overseas students, particularly to the UK economy. It is estimated that overseas students bring in £5 billion in fees and other spending while they are over here. Overseas students studying in the UK are crucial to our need to address the economic problems of the 21st century, particularly in respect of globalisation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is exactly why the second phase of the Prime Minister’s initiative was announced in April

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the Labour-led Scottish Executive’s fresh talent initiative, which not only encourages students to study in Scotland but to live in Scotland after they have qualified. Can the Government learn any lessons from that initiative?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and we are already learning the lessons in our discussions with the Scottish Executive. The Scottish Executive and the UK Government are involved in a constant process of learning from each other in respect of such initiatives.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): But the Secretary of State will be aware that Scotland’s fresh talent initiative offers overseas students a two-year visa extension if they go to a Scottish university. If they go to an English university, however, it is only for one year and it applies to a much more restricted range of subjects. Is it right to have separate visa regimes for overseas students going to Scottish and English universities?

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Alan Johnson: We make different decisions, which is what devolution is about. Our decision to extend the visa by 12 months, which we recently announced, is based on the demography and availability of work in this country. It is a different decision, but along the same lines as that reached by the Scottish Executive. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), we will learn the lessons from Scotland, but the circumstances are different north and south of the border. We believe that the extension to 12 months is the right way to proceed.

Mr. Willetts: I have with me a list of reserved subjects post-devolution. Among the reserved subjects for UK policy are

Although education is a devolved matter, visa rules are not. Is the Secretary of State really telling the House that he believes that having different visa regimes for students in Scotland and England are consistent with the devolution settlement that his Government introduced?

Alan Johnson: Yes, but there is no contradiction between that and our deciding that there are different circumstances—demographic factors, employment prospects and so forth—in Scotland as opposed to the UK. Actually, the extension to 12 months has been widely welcomed by UK universities and there has not been a big debate about what happens north and south of the border. The circumstances are different. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is not a devolved issue, but it does not detract from the different circumstances in the two countries.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): In figures given in the Official Report on 6 June at column 536W, the Department showed that, in higher education institutes alone, there are almost 1.9 million students studying in Britain. Incidentally, 100,000 of those study at the four universities in Greater Manchester. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only the impact on the local economy while the students are studying in Britain but the continued contacts and influence that they take with them when they return to their countries are important?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and has identified a crucial element. Not only the money they spend in this country but the links that they retain with this country after they have left university are important. That is one of the principal reasons for the Prime Minister’s initiative, alongside other separate initiatives for considering links with, for example, Russia and China. All the initiatives are important for the future of this country.

Drug Use

4. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): What progress is being made on meeting the Government’s target for reducing drug use among young people. [80882]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): The overall picture of drug misuse among young people is one of stability with some downward trends in the use of specific drugs. The Government have set out a comprehensive national programme to deliver local universal, targeted and specialist services for young people to make a further impact on reducing drug misuse. Local areas have been very effective in focusing children’s services’ attention on substance misuse issues.

Mr. Flello: I am grateful for that answer but I hope that my hon. Friend is aware that the amount of money for the young people substance misuse partnership grant in Stoke-on-Trent is around half of that of Nottingham, which is a comparable city with similar problems. Given that overall funding for drugs services in Stoke-on-Trent is around £11 a head compared with £23 a head in Nottingham, what extra resources are the Department prepared to direct towards tackling that curse on our young people in Stoke-on-Trent?

Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend makes his point about his constituency in his customary manner. I expect him to champion his constituency and its causes and he is doing that today. I reassure him that there is no postcode lottery for drug treatment, but a formula that was set up with the assistance of academics at the university of York. We specifically examined local demographics and the prevalence of misuse, and we ensure that the overall pooled budget—the young people substance misuse grant—is spread around the country by focusing on those elements through the formula. However, there are 30 high focus areas and another 18 will be announced shortly.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What assessment has the Under-Secretary made of the quality of some of the printed material that is used in drugs education? Does he share my concern that some of it contains far too much value-free information and not enough of a robust warning to young people about the dangers of drug taking to their health, education and career prospects?

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Lady makes a fair point but it is important to talk to young people not necessarily in the language that she and I speak but in a language that they understand. The information and advice service FRANK has been especially useful—there have been 1.3 million calls to the FRANK helpline, 11.3 million hits on the website and more than 82,000 e-mails. From 1998 to now, the British crime survey figures show that, among 16 to 24-year-olds, the use of cannabis has reduced by 16 per cent., that of amphetamines is down by 66 per cent., that of LSD has decreased by 83 per cent. and that of glues has reduced by 66 per cent. There is much more to do but information and advice services such as FRANK help to solve the problem.

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