Previous Section Index Home Page

The report wanted to enhance the role of local skills councils, so why is the Secretary of State going to abolish them and shift power to the regional level? That does not seem to be the right way forward.

Another proposal in the Bill will apparently be a power to remove college principals. The lack of principle is a sort of summary of this Government. They will remove the principals, yet they claim that that will be a liberalising, decentralising measure. However, we all know that the result will be an increase in central influence and power.

16 Nov 2006 : Column 247

I hope that the House will forgive me for being a little cynical, but when I hear that FE colleges are to get a power to grant degrees I wonder whether anything in the real world will change or whether the proposal is merely a device to enable the Government to reach their target of 50 per cent. of students receiving a higher education or university degree. The Government will not reach the target by doing anything that improves the opportunities available to young people, but merely by redefining some of the qualifications that they already receive. Will the Secretary of State say what the provision will mean in the real world, or is it simply a device for achieving the Government’s target?

One other question arises in connection with the further education Bill. The briefing note provided by the Department states that it will also contain provisions to “modernise and streamline” the way in which industrial training boards “demonstrate consensus” for their levy proposals by amending the industrial training legislation. I am not absolutely sure what that means, but I suspect that the intention might just be to make it easier for training boards to impose levies on local companies.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the provision will not make it easier to impose levies without a genuinely voluntary arrangement? That would simply be another cost on business at a time when, as the Secretary of State knows, the evidence is that employers rarely use official training providers for the training that they need.

Opposition Members believe that the proposals in this Queen’s Speech on health and education are evidence of a Government running out of steam and ideas. They have lost contact with the real crisis facing the NHS described by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire. They have not been able to deliver their new deal promises to improve employment and training opportunities for our teenagers, and have resorted to endless reorganisation instead of tackling the real problems facing our country.

5.44 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): This has not been the best attended debate but it has been one of the most fascinating that I have attended— [Interruption.] I accept that there were fewer Labour Members but there were three times more women Members on the Labour Benches. The debate has been genuinely fascinating, with some excellent contributions.

I understand very well the Opposition’s problem. Their stewardship of these two most important public services—health and education—was so appalling during their 18 years in government that they need to do two things. I can see their strategy clearly. First, they have to assure the public that our vast increases in investment, which they cannot deny, will be safe under their stewardship. Secondly, they have to convince public servants that there will be warmth, sunshine and love in their lives if a Conservative Government ever return to power.

16 Nov 2006 : Column 248

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) struggles with those two issues. As Hansard will, I hope, record tomorrow, he said at one stage that the NHS has improved, yet in his peroration he said that the NHS will not improve under the Labour Government, which is a contradiction. Although he had already announced that there would be 20,000 job cuts in the NHS, he said that that would not happen and he accepted that it was only what someone had told him and that it might not be the reality, which is another contradiction.

I learned from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health about the hon. Gentleman’s fascinating policy on the burden of disease—a new way of funding the national health service, which will take £70 per constituent from South Cambridgeshire and give it to Labour constituencies. We have also done the calculations for the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who is just returning to his place. He is concerned about his local health service, of which he is a prominent champion. He would lose £174 per constituent. The contradictory strategy of trying to demonstrate that the money is safe in Tory hands while insisting that despite all the extra money there has been no improvement is doomed to failure.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said that the Opposition would not support the mental health Bill. I urge him to listen to the—

Mr. Lansley: I did not say that.

Alan Johnson: I thought that the hon. Gentleman said that the Bill would not be supported. However, there were excellent speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) and from the hon. Members for Hemel Hempstead and for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) in support of such legislation.

I want to put the investment situation into perspective. Under the previous Government, investment in the health service was £200 billion below the EU average. That was the cumulative effect of their 18 years in power. By 2008, under the Labour Government, investment will be at the EU average. In education, under the Conservatives, capital investment in schools was £14 billion in 18 years; under the Labour Government, it was £32 billion in nine years—more than twice as much money in half the time.

David Wright: Does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in schools has enormous spin-off benefits for regenerating deprived communities? With that in mind, will he reflect on the excellent bid for “Building Schools for the Future” submitted by Telford and Wrekin council? I hope that we shall have good news in January.

Alan Johnson: I have never been so charmingly lobbied.

Capital investment in schools has been spectacular. When we came to power, capital investment in schools was £600 million, which is about the same as we spend throughout the school network on sports facilities alone. We are investing £6 billion, including refurbishing or rebuilding every secondary school in the country. That extra investment has led to 300,000 more staff in the
16 Nov 2006 : Column 249
NHS—85,000 more nurses, 32,000 more doctors—and to 36,000 more teachers and 150,000 support staff.

Tim Loughton: They are all managers.

Alan Johnson: Eighty-five thousand more nurses and 32,000 more doctors are certainly not managers.

Can the Opposition convince the public that they would maintain that kind of investment? I doubt it, given their third fiscal rule, which will oblige them to share the proceeds of growth between public investment and tax cuts. I also doubt it given the document in the name of the shadow Chancellor that suggests that there will be £21 billion-worth of tax cuts under his party. We ask ourselves, will members of his party be any less hostile to public sector workers if they return to government?

Under their previous regime the Conservatives declared war on lone parents, which the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) was the first person to say would now cease—they have apparently buried the weapons on that. They also declared war on public sector workers. Last week, when public sector workers were lobbying the House, I wonder how many of them were told about the Conservative party’s plans to tear apart, break up and disengage from the agreement that we have reached to protect the pensions of civil servants, nurses and teachers—that statement was very clearly made by the shadow Chancellor. I do not believe that anything has changed among those on the Opposition Benches.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire finished his speech with the comment that there was nothing in the Gracious Speech about education. That, along with the suggestion by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) that we were the Department for Education and Science, suggests that skills need to be reinforced across the Benches of the two main Opposition parties, so that Members wake up to the importance of further education.

I listened to a number of really good contributions today, but none was better than the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). May I add to the congratulations? It was one of the most thoughtful, incisive speeches that I have heard in the House. First, she spoke about the need to look at adults in terms of our whole education and skills programme. I shall come to Lord Leitch's report in a second, but he produced an interim report back in the summer in which he pointed out that 70 per cent. of the work force of 2020 are already out in the work force now. He also pointed out that we are not world class on skills and we need to do much more, and that is true.

The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North was so powerful because she talked about instilling the value of education. She mentioned the role of the trade union movement, historically an important role dating back to miners’ libraries, but now reinvented in the form of union learning reps. My hon. Friend's speech added to my understanding of how far we have come in the past 50 years. We have to remember that higher education—which I shall also mention in a second, given that I have had the invitation to do so from the hon. Member for Havant—was the preserve of a tiny elite 60 years ago; indeed, at the time Opposition Members fought tooth
16 Nov 2006 : Column 250
and nail to keep it that way. When A-levels were introduced in 1951 they were for the 7 per cent. of youngsters who would go on to university. So my hon. Friend's point about the culture of learning, and matching the building of aspiration to making places available to young people to meet those aspirations, was extremely important and moving.

The importance of further education is, as my hon. Friend also said, an issue of social progress—I certainly repeat that every time that I talk about the importance of skills and education—but there is also an economic argument for skills and investment in FE that is more profound now than ever before. By 2014, two thirds of jobs will need to be filled by those with at least intermediate-level skills. By 2020, 40 per cent. of jobs will need to be filled by graduates. Today, the analysis shows that there are 9 million skilled jobs, but by 2020 we shall need 14 million skilled jobs. Today there are 3.4 million unskilled jobs; by 2020, we shall need only 600,000. That is an enormous challenge for our society.

When we were pushing through the Higher Education Bill in the face of stern and fierce opposition from the Opposition, the position of the Liberal Democrats, which I understood, was that we needed the funding but we should get it through an increase in tax, but the position of the Conservative party was that we needed plumbers, not graduates. It was that we needed to shrink the levels of participation —[ Interruption. ] Yes, it was. Conservative Members shake their heads, but I can read the relevant parts of Hansard to them. The Conservatives claimed that the way to tackle the problem was to shrink higher education, so that instead of expanding to 50 per cent., we would reduce participation to 36 per cent.

I agree that there were then two further shifts before we got to the current policy. In April 2005, the current Leader of the Opposition said that the Conservatives were saying that fees should be scrapped. The hon. Member for Havant said that the Conservatives did not support the Government’s target for expansion and, as fees are necessary to finance the expansion target, if we did not have the expansion target, we did not need the fees. That policy was described by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) as coming from the planet Zog.

When the hon. Member for Havant talks to me about higher education, let me remind him that, under his Government, higher education funding fell by 36 per cent. between 1989 and 1997. The Dearing committee was set up by the Conservative party on the basis that Dearing must, under the instructions of the then Chancellor, find a further reduction of 6 per cent. in real terms. Dearing reported that the most that the higher education sector could stand was 1 per cent. However, we get comments about the threat to universities and the problems with medical students. The threat to universities came from the Conservative party and it was the courage on the Labour Benches that ensured that we generated not just £2 billion from tuition fees, but an extra £2.6 billion from the taxpayer.

The investments in higher education have been extraordinary, as have the investments in further education. In those 18 bleak years of Tory stewardship, further education funding went down by 14 per cent. in real terms. We have now increased funding by 48 per cent.

16 Nov 2006 : Column 251

Members on both Opposition Front Benches have asked an important question. The Leitch review is imminent. What we believe, coming on from Foster, to the White Paper, to the Bill, is that the further education infrastructure needs to be in place to meet the challenges that we know from the interim report that Leitch is going to raise. We do not see a need to wait for Leitch before the Bill. Indeed, we think that Leitch’s report will make such radical proposals that there will need to be a further period of consultation. I doubt very much whether there is anything in Leitch that will necessitate our changing the Bill, to answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather). However, unless we have the infrastructure in place in our FE colleges and our skills sector, we will not be able to cope with the kind of issues that Leitch will draw attention to.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Havant about the situation with 16 to 18-year-olds. The statement that I made and the statement that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made were absolutely consistent. The argument is this: we need to find ways to inspire youngsters to stay on in education or training. We have expanded apprenticeships. There were only 75,000 when we came into government; now there are 260,000. We have reduced the drop-out rate at age 16 and 17 by introducing the education maintenance allowance and by other methods. As people found in Ontario and in the Netherlands, and as they do already in Germany and Belgium, when all those systems are in place we need to send a clear message to our youngsters—not an ambiguous message—that they should not be in employment unless there is some kind of skills training attached. All of the problems that we face, in relation to demography and globalisation, suggest that, at some stage, we will have to grasp that nettle. We need to look at that idea. Before we went down that route, we would need to have the widest consultation. However, I do not think that that is inconsistent with what we are trying to do in relation to FE and skills.

The further education Bill and the two Bills from the Department of Health are necessary and important. Incidentally, I think that the education profession will be pleased to know that there will be only one education Bill on the statute book this year. For the reasons that my hon. Friends and I have set out, we should commend the Gracious Speech to the House.

Debate adjourned.— [Huw Irranca-Davies.]

Debate to be resumed on Monday 20 November.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With the leave of the House, I will put motions 9 to 12 together.


16 Nov 2006 : Column 252


Sittings of the House



Tax Credits



TSB Bank (Buckfastleigh)

6 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I am presenting a petition on behalf of the burghers of Buckfastleigh and the surrounding area, which includes the world-renowned Buckfast abbey, with its monks and fortified wine. Buckfastleigh town centre has been renewed with a £3.5 million EU grant, but that will be money down the drain if its branch of Lloyds TSB, which is the last clearing bank in town, closes at the end of the month, as is planned. I am told that the post office may also follow suit, which would leave the high street with no clearing bank or post office. For that reason, I am presenting the petition, which has been signed by Stuart Barker, a county and district councillor and former mayor, and Mel Stride, the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for the new seat of Central Devon. The petition has also been supported by 1,300 constituents.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

16 Nov 2006 : Column 253

Sexual and Mental Health Services (Yorkshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

Next Section Index Home Page