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I am particularly concerned about how the LSC will be able to operate the provision. Having had the opportunity to sit on an LSC sub-regional partnership, my perception was that they are often very remote, partly because of their obligations to serve headquarters in Coventry. There is a danger that those who want to ensure that the provision works could find themselves going down the typical route of having a fairly bureaucratic application and approval process in dealing with the LSC. In his proposed concessions, the Minister helpfully suggested reprioritising funds at a local level to help spouses in hard-to-reach groups, but it is not clear how those groups will be identified. My experience of sitting on a learning and skills council
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was that it was not even capable of reaching out to the business community, let alone hard-to-reach groups.

Coming back to the extremely good point made by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), my experience in Croydon is that very few employers have been willing to be engaged in this way; in fact, in only two locations out of the many in my local borough has this been placed on an employer’s premises. That is a sign of the significant challenges that the Government would face in trying to transfer funding across to employers.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education—NIACE—recognised some time ago that there was a need for change, but its approach was to bolster level 1 instruction. That is very much in line with the Government’s overall philosophy of emphasising basic skills. In many ways, the proposals that have been made could end up compromising that basic philosophy. There is a great danger that there will be a diversion of instruction back to adult literacy classes and a desire on the part of colleges to use the train to gain approach, thereby undermining the Government’s desire to be able to put a cap on expenditure from this budget.

I am also concerned that ESOL instructors will end up doing a great deal of work in looking at the benefits with which potential users of the service will be provided given the Minister’s expressed desire to take account of benefits before deciding whether discretion can be employed.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we are not careful, the Minister’s concessions may mean that measuring to see whether people qualify will take up more time than delivering?

Mr. Pelling: That is an extremely good point. The approach of many ESOL providers is to be based in the communities that they are serving, and they could end up having as big a caseload as we all have in terms of dealing with benefits cases. Bearing in mind that perhaps more than 50 per cent. of people who might be eligible for benefits do not take them up, but are nevertheless having instruction from ESOL providers, a very significant amount of money that the Government are trying to save by placing a cap might well find its way back into the system as the increased benefits that will be provided.

The Government clearly want to push a responsibility for provision on to employers. The recent LSC document said:

I am suspicious, however, that it will not be possible to make the provision, despite the Government’s desire to put in place new, short, work-related qualifications. Those qualifications will not give the thorough grounding that many ESOL clients seek.

Perhaps there will be ways of improving efficiency. I have been interested to hear what the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) has said about the likely benefits of online learning. That has been the style within learndirect. Many people, however, want to learn within a community of learners. I was extremely impressed when I attended a recent awards presentation at Croydon college, which is doing very well these days. I saw someone there who had
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come to this country from Africa speaking no English. They had enjoyed the benefits of an ESOL course and, within a short time, are going on to higher education at Goldsmith’s college.

Concessions have been made by the Minister, but it is difficult to judge who will benefit from them. A national survey conducted through the Continuing Education and Training Service—CETS—has shown that only 16 per cent. of students felt able to afford the increased fees. I was also impressed by a more recent survey conducted by colleges in south London, to which there was a significant level of response—it received 2,615 replies. It showed that 50 per cent. of ESOL clients in south London are not on benefits. They are low paid, but do not want to claim benefits. Unfortunately, however, if they were required to pay significant fees, many of them would be unlikely to continue with the scheme. Eighteen per cent. of the respondents said that they were unable to pay the proposed increases, and 23 per cent. said that they were not sure whether they could pay. While it is important not to exaggerate, the potential exists for up to 41 per cent. of south London ESOL clients no longer to take the courses. I am also grateful for the briefing that I received from the principal of the Mary Ward centre, where 45 per cent. of students earning less than £15,000 a year are not claiming benefit.

I should like to conclude by citing a case study, to avoid the danger of dealing only with the dry nature of the changes in provision. I want to cite the case of a married lady from Burma who learned English for four years, progressing from beginners level at community classes to advanced, intensive courses at Thornton Heath CETS centre in the London borough of Croydon. She joined a child care training course with English language support, then gained part-time and, subsequently, full-time work in a crèche. Unfortunately, that lady is now widowed, but she is able to support herself and her children and to contribute to society. The real question is whether the concessions will be able to deliver for people like her.

I know that there is a real problem with constraining the budget, and that the Minister is doing his very best to accommodate that approach, but I am not convinced that hacking away at the budget in this way is going to work. I am grateful that so many Members have stayed behind tonight to take part in the debate. That suggests that my concerns are widely shared. Despite the various attempts, many of the proposed concessions might further complicate the issue.

I shall now be a Conservative and propose a way to solve the budgetary problem. If we believe that many of the people involved will be able to secure long-term work, perhaps they could pay back their fees at a later date, when they can afford to do so. It is my view that employers will not perceive it to be in their interests to pay for this provision at this time.

7.49 pm

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) for giving us the opportunity to debate this important matter. I congratulate him on
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securing the debate and on the measured way in which he put his arguments. I fundamentally believe, as I have tried to make clear throughout these discussions, that good communication is the glue that binds together a cohesive society. An inability to communicate can lead to lost opportunities, isolation and suspicion.

I want to place on record for all Members, especially my hon. Friends, the fact that the Government are committed to ensuring good ESOL provision for those who need it most. Over the years, we have rightly invested heavily in ESOL services. Since 2001, we have tripled funding of ESOL services, spending more than £1 billion. It is crucial to make it clear that the intention behind our changes is not to cut funding.

We do, however, face a significant problem: demand is outstripping supply. In the past six years, ESOL student enrolments have risen from 158,000 to 538,000. Even with the growth in provision that we have delivered, the current situation is simply not sustainable. More often than not, the poorest and most vulnerable are losing out—that is not just my view but the view of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education in its commendable research undertaken some while ago, and the view of anyone who seriously addresses the issue. In parts of the country, waiting lists are as long as two years. In those circumstances, the most vulnerable are losing out, which is unacceptable and cannot continue.

We cannot just continue to increase the ESOL budget, as that would damage other adult learning priorities. Those Members who say, “Simply let the budget rip”—that view has not been expressed much this evening—would have to explain to constituents who do not have English language needs why other Skills for Life provision was having to be cut, as that would be the consequence.

We therefore had to make some tough choices. We could have removed the additional weighting attached to ESOL courses to support disadvantaged learners, but that would have removed vital support that colleges need to engage and ensure progression for the most disadvantaged learners.

Mr. Stephen Byers (North Tyneside) (Lab): May I thank the Minister for the opportunity that he gave me before tonight’s debate to raise directly with him the concerns expressed to me by an excellent group of ESOL students attending Tyne Metropolitan college in my constituency? I believe that the changes to the Minister’s original proposals go a long way towards meeting their concerns.

On the issue of funding, the Minister will be aware that ESOL currently has uplift in its programme weighting. Concern has been expressed that that will be removed as a result of the changes. Will he assure the House that that uplift will continue for existing provision?

Bill Rammell: Let me be clear: the basic skills weighting has not been removed for ESOL. Last year, however, we committed ourselves to extending learner choice and providing suitable qualifications for those studying English mainly for work. Such courses will be shorter for people who do not have basic skills needs but who do need to improve their English. The new qualifications will be eligible for public funding, but
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with a funding rate of one: they will not have the enhanced weighting. To be clear, that applies to new business, not to existing provision. I hope that that provides reassurance.

To return to how we approached the situation, we could have simply capped the ESOL budget, but that would have done nothing to reprioritise funding towards those who were always at the back of the queue in relation to learning opportunities and improving their life chances. We have made the right choice in refocusing funding on those who most need public help and support, and on those who have little chance of improving their skills without free language learning. To help those who find it difficult to get a job or are stuck in low-income work owing to poor English, individuals eligible for jobseeker’s allowance or in receipt of income-related benefits will continue to access free ESOL through standard LSC provision. We expect at least 50 per cent. of those who are currently eligible for free ESOL to be in that category. Some of the criticism—which has not been heard this evening—of our proposals has completely misrepresented that issue. There will still be significant support and provision of free ESOL for those who need it.

There will be other beneficial changes. From April, Jobcentre Plus staff will help jobseekers agree on steps to overcome language difficulties. Moreover, 15,000 places are now available for Jobcentre Plus customers on new target provision from the Learning and Skills Council. As I said earlier, the purpose of the changes has not been to make significant savings from the ESOL budget, and I expect the overall amount available next year to remain broadly comparable with the amount available this year. This is not a cuts-driven agenda. However, it is clear that not all ESOL learners need the same levels of public support or provision.

That is why, in partnership with the LSC, we are proposing what I consider to be sensible and fair changes to ESOL provision from August this year. We expect those who can afford it to make a contribution to the cost of provision, and I think we are right to do so. When people are asked to make a contribution to the cost of learning, the state will continue to pick up the majority of costs—at least 62.5 per cent. in most cases. In some cases, because of additional allowances, learner contributions will be as low as 19 per cent. of the course costs.

We are also enhancing the choice available to those learning English who may not need the full package of support offered by Skills for Life ESOL courses by developing a suite of new qualifications focused on the needs of those who need English for work. That is an important step, and it is what many people desire and need.

Migrant workers make a significant economic and cultural contribution to the country, and we recognise their need to learn English, but in the context of free ESOL provision it is critical for us to address the skills need of priority learners first. We must press employers to make a greater financial contribution: after all, investment in ESOL provision if their work force requires it is an investment in the future success of their business. Along with the LSC, trade unions and employer organisations, we are already urging more employers to take on that responsibility for their workers.

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We are also making changes for asylum seekers. Across Government, we are taking a more consistent and effective approach to support for them. We have significantly reduced waiting times for initial decisions, 76 per cent. of which are now made within eight weeks. The Home Office’s target for appeals is six months, and we expect the introduction of its new asylum model later this year to reduce waiting times even further. Taking account of that, and of the fact that 70 per cent. of all applications for asylum fail, we think it right to review free provision of ESOL services for that group.

It is not fair to use public money to support people who, in the long term, will not have a chance to work and settle in this country; nor is it appropriate to possibly mislead them by offering support through ESOL provision when a decision about their future has not been made. For those reasons asylum seekers aged 19 and over will no longer have automatic access to free ESOL, although refugees will continue to have free access when they are on low incomes or fall within one of our other priority learner groups. I think that, in that respect, most people will consider the changes reasonable.

In making our decisions, we have listened to the views and concerns of all involved in the debate. We have rightly conducted a race equality impact assessment before introducing the changes. We have held focus group sessions and interviews with more than 150 learners, providers and other key figures in the ESOL delivery and learning chain. I have met members of the Advisory Board on Naturalisation and Integration, the Refugee Council, trade unions, the Children’s Society and Members of Parliament. I have gone out of my way to listen to their concerns, and I believe that that was the right thing to do.

To those who have listened to learners’ stories, it has become clear that we need to do more to assist asylum seekers who are here legally and whose cases take much longer than Home Office targets, or who remain in the United Kingdom owing to circumstances beyond their control. We need to do more to support spouses who do not have access to funding or to family benefit documents. We also need to help workers who are on very low wages and not receiving working tax credit. With the genuine aim of overcoming those problems, I am minded to make the following changes to our proposals. I hope to announce the details very shortly. First—this should be compared with the proposed changes I announced last October—we are minded to propose to reinstate eligibility after six months for all those who are in this country legally awaiting a decision on their asylum claim or appeal, and for those who despite being refused asylum in the UK cannot leave because of circumstances beyond their control and who are eligible for support under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. That is an important change.

Secondly, we propose to reprioritise funds at a local level to help spouses who are priority learners in hard-to-reach groups and are unlikely to have access to their own money or family benefit documentation. To respond to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), let me say that I believe that these changes can, and will, work, and I shall make clear when I publish the guidance on this matter how we intend to achieve our goals in the near future.

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Thirdly, we propose to ensure that those asylum seekers who go on an ESOL waiting list before their 19th birthday will still get free access, even if the place is not available until after their 19th birthday. That is an issue that the Refugee Council pressed me on in particular, and I am happy to provide some reassurance on it.

Fourthly, I have also asked the Learning and Skills Council to develop guidance on a raft of options in respect of benefits that providers could accept as documentary evidence—such as housing benefit and other means-tested benefits—of entitlement to fee remission as well as the working tax credit. That intended change has rightly been widely welcomed. Moreover, I am seeking to work with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office to discuss and secure a more coherent approach to ESOL across Government. I am also committed to working even more closely with trade unions, the CBI and the sector skills councils to review how we can best encourage and support employers contributing to the cost of ESOL provision for their workers. The intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) was right; we need to do more in that regard. There is a real responsibility on employers, and we should make that very clear.

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These additional measures will address many of the issues raised in the race equality impact assessment. The complete assessment will be published shortly, and will include a detailed response on how we, in partnership with the LSC, plan to address these changes and all other report findings.

The current arrangements for ESOL are not sustainable. We will continue to work with learners, providers, employers and other individuals and agencies involved in ESOL to ensure that we develop the best possible provision for those who need it most. The status quo is not an option. What we are proposing is, I believe, the best way forward.

I genuinely respect the integrity of the concerns expressed this evening. I honestly believe that our intended modifications will move us in the right direction and provide some solutions to the situation prevailing in some parts of the country where the poorest learners are excluded from the system. We cannot allow that situation to continue, which is why we have produced these proposed changes.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eight o’clock.

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