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The Government actively promote language proficiency. Since 2001, we have invested over £1 billion
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in English for speakers of other languages. Over 1.8 million ESOL learning opportunities have been taken up and over 160,000 learners have achieved a first Skills for Life ESOL qualification. Over the period since 2001, funding and enrolments for ESOL provision have tripled and demand for ESOL provision has substantially increased. That rate of growth means that the Department for Education and Skills has increased the provision and investment in English for speakers of other languages. It has also looked at reprioritising the funding towards those who are in the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. That includes those who are out of work through a lack of skills, and settled immigrant communities who are facing challenges when it comes to integration.

The Department for Work and Pensions recently set out support plans for people in this country who have struggled to get a job because of poor English. Individuals who are eligible for jobseeker’s allowance or who are in receipt of income-related benefits will continue to access free ESOL courses through standard Learning and Skills Council provision. From April, Jobcentre Plus advisers will work with jobseekers to agree steps to overcome the language difficulties that prevent them from getting a job. In addition, there are 15,000 places for Jobcentre Plus customers on new targeted provision from the LSC.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that we were cutting funding for English language training and did not take it sufficiently seriously, particularly as regards employment opportunities, but also in respect of wider opportunities relating to integration and access to services. The Government have taken the importance of English seriously. The fact that we have increased—in fact, trebled—funding in the relatively short period since 2001 indicates the importance that we attach to the English language. He will be aware that the Commission on Integration and Cohesion has made consideration of the role of the English language a key part of its work. As it has made clear, it intends to bring forward final recommendations in the summer, after it has worked up proposals in more detail. We will want to study its recommendations carefully before making any decisions, and we will respond formally to the commission, too.

We have to recognise that increases in demand for ESOL provision have resulted in pressures on waiting lists for courses in some areas, and in overall pressure on adult learning programmes that cover adult literacy and numeracy skills and other adult employability-level qualifications. That is why the Department for Education and Skills chose to review ESOL spending and announced changes, which are to take effect from August 2007.

Mr. Galloway rose—

Yvette Cooper: I will give way, briefly.

Mr. Galloway: I am extremely grateful, given the shortage of time. I welcome the promise to weigh carefully the commission’s recommendations over the summer, but will the Minister accept two brief points? First, jobcentre workers have stated, through their union and their professional association, that they are not the best people to teach English to the people who
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want to learn it. The further education colleges are the professionals in that regard. Secondly, I appeal to her as a feminist woman to accept that many women, such as the wives of restaurant workers in the east end of London, who are not in receipt of benefits and whose children are older, simply do not fit the criteria for support that she outlined. It is those women who will have to give up the classes. The classes are not a course, but an investment. It is in our interests, not just in theirs, that such people should learn English.

Yvette Cooper: I want to come on to the subject of spouses who may not have the necessary evidence when it comes to funding issues, because the DFES looked into that subject. However, it is important to put the issue against a backdrop of continued and increased investment in English for speakers of other languages, and, as I said, we should consider the issue more widely as part of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion’s work.

On the jobcentre point, Jobcentre Plus simply operates a referral system that directs people towards professional provision. Obviously, we do not expect jobcentres to run courses; clearly, the courses need to be run by the professionals who have expertise in doing that.

May I now deal with the detailed proposals from the Department for Education and Skills, and its approach? It conducted an extensive consultation, and it has received representations from many Members of Parliament—certainly many London MPs—which it considered in great detail together with the wider representations that were made. It has conducted, too, a race equality impact assessment, including consultation with stakeholders.

Three of the key themes that emerged from the consultations to which it was clear Ministers needed to respond were: first, the need to do more to assist asylum seekers who are in the UK legally, and whose claims fail to be resolved in the target period through no fault of their own, or who remain in the UK because of circumstances beyond their control; secondly, the need to look at more support for spouses who do not have access to funding or to family benefit documentation to access the full fee remission; and thirdly, the need to consider workers on very low wages who are not in receipt of working tax credit or other means-tested benefits.

In response to that assessment, the DFES has looked further at the issue. It has made it clear from the beginning that the Government will continue to support learners who are asked to make a contribution by paying 62.5 per cent. of the course fee. Even people who are asked to make a contribution will still find that most of the course fees are supported by the Government. In addition, my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning has announced that he is minded to reinstate eligibility for asylum seekers who are in the UK legally and whose claims are not resolved within six months.

In response to the points made by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, we are looking at prioritising funding at the local level through the Learning and Skills Council for support for spouses and individuals who may not have access to their
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household benefit documentation, for example, or who may not have access to their funds, and we agree with the LSC about the need for an approach to evidencing low pay for fee remission purposes to make more possible the flexible use of evidence, perhaps including wider benefits and other evidence, so that the process is easier for workers on very low wages who, for whatever reason, are not in receipt of a working tax credit or other support that might otherwise automatically make them eligible for support for English for speakers of other languages.

We recognise that there are concerns about the importance of English, and we have made it clear how important the issue is in our view. We must recognise, too, that there is growing demand for those services, so it is right that we should ensure that those who are most vulnerable are not denied access to important opportunities to learn the English language and are not simply left on waiting lists because of problems with provision, without being given a fair chance. That is why the approach that the DFES has taken is to try to look at fairness in provision. It does not propose to cut the funding for English for speakers of other languages. Clearly, it is always a matter for local learning and skills councils to review the appropriate priorities in their area, but the Government have made clear the importance of the issue. Within that extremely expanded budget since 2001, Departments must be able to set priorities and make sure that the most vulnerable people are given access to the courses that they need.

Mr. Galloway rose—

Yvette Cooper: I will give way very briefly. The hon. Gentleman will know that I have about two minutes left.

Mr. Galloway: I am extremely grateful. English is my first language, but the Minister lost me. She said that the Government were not cutting the funding—but they are cutting £27 million from London further education colleges, which have to make those cuts. I told the House that 20 staff are about to be sacked in Tower Hamlets college, joining 35 who were sacked last year because of cuts. How can she claim that there are no cuts—unless, as I said, despite being an English speaker, I misunderstood her?

Yvette Cooper: As I said very clearly, the Government’s intention is not to cut the overall funding for English for speakers of other languages. However, it is always a matter for local learning and skills councils to decide what the priorities are in their areas. The hon. Gentleman will know that, as I said previously, London Members have had discussions with my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning. I am happy to ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s points are passed on to my hon. Friend, who has been dealing with these matters.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is keen to ensure that we work with the Department for Education and Skills on issues related to community cohesion and English. If the hon. Gentleman had been clear at the outset that he intended to raise specific issues with reference to English language training, we could have ensured that
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a Minister from the Department for Education and Skills was available to respond to the detail of his comments. I am sorry if that was an error or a misunderstanding on our part.

Our Department has been working closely with the DFES to ensure that we see the teaching of English and the use of English as important not only for employment opportunities, but for cohesion. We will
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continue to do so, and we will look carefully at the Commission on Integration and Cohesion’s—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Three o'clock.


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