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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): How big will the commission be? How many members will it have? How will they be selected? Will the appropriate Select Committee in this House have the
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opportunity to vet those members before they are appointed? How can we be sure that the commission will operate consistently? Will the members be full-time, and will they each attend every inquiry?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes incredibly important points about the future composition of the infrastructure planning commission. We envisage that some of the members will be full-time, some will be part-time. There will be a broad spectrum and range of expertise so that the commission can draw on some of the members’ expertise, depending on the type of inquiry. Clearly, we have asked a range of questions in the White Paper to get opinions from people, so that they can have their say and we can draw up the best possible composition, procedures for appointments and so forth for the infrastructure planning commission. We will set out our proposals in due course.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): My constituents are not opposed to brownfield development per se; indeed, in many cases, they actually welcome it. However, from time to time they feel it necessary to challenge over-intensive, unsustainable and downright profiteering applications. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that nothing in the White Paper will reduce their ability to challenge such overblown applications, or the ability of councils to tone them down or reject them outright?

Ruth Kelly: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We have the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and the local inquiry process will proceed as I have set out. There will be opportunities for local people to have an input to challenge applications. Although the appeals systems will be streamlined, it will work more effectively. However, I hope that we will have a system whereby we are less reliant on applications being called in to be determined by Ministers and whereby local people and local council members can determine more of the appeals themselves.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Last Friday, a public inquiry into a National Grid proposal for a gas plant in my constituency was concluded. I will not ask the Secretary of State about it, because in due course she will be advised by the planning inspector and will make a decision. However, her proposals mean that instead of the planning inspector making a recommendation and the Secretary of State, as a democratically accountable politician—accountable to the House of Commons—making a decision, the decision will in future be made by an unelected quango. Why should my constituents have more confidence in the proposed arrangements than in the present system?

Ruth Kelly: The simple answer is that there will be an opportunity for earlier engagement of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in the drawing up of the original policy. At present, it is incredibly difficult for them to have a say. When a national policy statement involves a specific local impact, that will be taken into account in the way in which it is drawn up. I would argue that there will be more opportunity for public engagement under the proposed arrangements than there is in the current system.

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Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Three years ago, agencies and officials proposed an urban development corporation for North Staffordshire. Thankfully the Government turned down the bid. I for one had little confidence in the quality of the advice provided by unelected local officials, or indeed in their real democratic accountability. Before the Secretary of State changes the system, will she reflect on the fact that for Members of Parliament working with enlightened councillors of all political persuasions, influencing planning committees is often the only effective leverage against large-scale inappropriate development?


Mr. Speaker: Order. There is only a “first” when a Member asks a question.

Ruth Kelly: I understand why my hon. Friend champions the rights of his constituents. However, I think we can make the whole process more effective, and secure better local engagement and influence when it comes to major infrastructure projects, by involving local people early in the debate and ensuring that developers consult them on the options before an application proceeds. The local inquiry will then provide another opportunity for engagement. I believe that the new system will be more acceptable to my hon. Friend’s constituents than the current one.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): It took a five-year campaign and a year-long public inquiry to stop Associated British Ports building a huge container port at Dibden Bay on the edge of the New Forest. Does the Secretary of State accept that in many cases the larger the proposal, the wiser it is to allow a long time to elapse before a decision is made? I believe that if that process had been foreshortened, there would now be a huge container port on the edge of the New Forest. I also believe that we would not have heard the admission last September that what the protesters had said all along was true, and that, having denied it for all those years, ABP could massively increase the productivity of its existing container port—which, indeed, it is now proceeding to do.

Ruth Kelly: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Dibden Bay application process cost £45 million, and ultimately the application was turned down. I understand that part of the reason was the impact on biodiversity. That could have been identified at the beginning of the process, during the drawing up of the national policy statement. In fact, it is precisely the sort of issue that ought to be identified in a national policy statement. If it had been identified then, there would have been appropriate public consultation, the developers would have known the Government’s proposals and policy, and the proposal would either have been accepted or would never have got off the ground, because the policy would have been made clear at the start. That must be a more effective system.

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Orders of the Day

Further Education and Training Bill [L ords]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.24 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Our further education system has seen unprecedented investment and reform in recent years, and continued reform is vital if the United Kingdom is to become a country with world-class skills by 2020.

In the past, education was mainly to do with social progress, but with an economic stability dimension. Now, continued prosperity in our country depends on high-quality education and training for all learners. However, social progress is, of course, still an important dimension. Good-quality training leads to higher remuneration and job satisfaction and a fuller life.

According to Lord Leitch’s review, we need a dramatic expansion of our nation’s skills at all levels. The analysis suggests that by 2020 Britain will need 4.6 million more people with intermediate-level skills and that there will be merely 600,000 unskilled jobs in the economy, compared with 3.2 million at present. The analysis also suggests that at least 40 per cent. of jobs will require graduate qualifications. Leitch also pointed out that 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force have already completed their formal education. The further education system is therefore central to meeting the Leitch challenge.

Our 14-to-19 reforms are steadily opening up a wider range of options through a more intimate association with the workplace, apprenticeships and, from next year, diplomas. The aim is to encourage all facets of lifelong learning—the gaining of skills for employability or social development—but the principal focus must be on giving people the skills they need to secure worthwhile jobs. We want this country to have full and fulfilling employment.

We have increased investment in further education: funding for post-16 learning has increased year on year to £11.2 billion in the current year of 2007-08—a 48 per cent. real-terms increase since 1997. As a result, the FE sector educated and trained more than 4 million adult learners in 2005-06. More adult learners than ever before are taking up basic skills courses, and more employers are telling us that they are satisfied with the training of the staff whom they are employing. According to the Learning and Skills Council national employer survey, the proportion of employers classified as “very satisfied” with FE provision rose by 10 per cent. between 2003 and 2005.

However, our journey is far from ended. Lord Leitch has raised our sights, and we should be grateful. Existing targets are worthy but not nearly ambitious enough. We must aim to put Britain among the very best in the world, recognising that the skills challenge will define the winners and losers in the global race for the top.

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The Bill builds on the reforms we announced in our White Paper of March 2006, which itself was modelled on the Foster review. It will lock in the progress we have made so far and boost the capacity of the FE system to deliver. We consulted widely on the White Paper and have debated the issues extensively. I look forward to continuing the debate with Members as the Bill progresses through the House.

I believe that we start from a consensus that recognises the importance of FE for our learners, employers and the economy, that appreciates the potential of our FE system and those working in it, and that accepts the need to make sure that FE provision is of the very highest standard. We have an excellent range of colleges and providers, and I pay tribute to the many excellent teachers and principals who are working tirelessly to meet the 2020 challenge. I also pay tribute to the LSC, which is a valued partner in this process.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): On that point, my right hon. Friend will be aware of an exchange that I had with the Deputy Prime Minister about the wonderful West Cheshire college, which is in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell). It has made representations to me about where it fits in and its relationship with the LSC in respect of the clauses that were defeated in the Lords on the dismissal of senior college staff. I share its view that it would be a mistake to reintroduce those clauses. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that he will listen carefully to such representations?

Alan Johnson: I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we are listening carefully to representations, and I shall come on to what we plan to do with that particular aspect of the Bill.

The Bill is divided into four parts. Part 1 relates to the Learning and Skills Council for England. The Bill will restructure the LSC to make it as efficient and effective as possible in managing system reform, and more adaptable to the changing requirements of employers and learners. We propose to remove the 47 statutory local learning and skills councils and replace them with nine regional committees and a network of about 150 local partnership teams. That combination of a statutory regional structure and a flexible sub-regional structure will allow the LSC to respond quickly and effectively to the changing needs of individuals, employers and wider communities. The new slimmer and more focused LSC will promote more flexible working arrangements and reduce administrative costs, with savings of up to £40 million that can be passed on to the front line for the benefit of learners.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Will the Secretary of State tell us what he means by the new sub-regional structure that he has proposed for learning and skills councils?

Alan Johnson: First, I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber. May I say how much we support his stance in seeking to convince his party to, in his words, “confront the evidence”? It is a huge compliment to Tony Crosland that the Opposition have someone such as the hon. Gentleman in their Front-Bench team.

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Since the establishment of the LSC, all of us thought it was rather strange, to say the least, that although we had set up regional development agencies and a number of other regional structures, the LSC did not have a regional structure but 47 local learning and skills council organisations. That was a mismatch. Four years ago, we gave a regional dimension to LSCs, but the purpose now is to establish a full-blown regional committee.

As for local partnerships, in Greater Manchester one learning and skills organisation covers the whole area, but there will be 10 much leaner, much more flexible versions of the LSC that can deal with the different communities around Manchester. In a sense, that is devolution upwards to the region but, in another sense, it is a much more powerful approach to the LSC locally.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): Clauses 11 and 12 allow the Learning and Skills Council for England both to make arrangements with Scottish Ministers and to allow it to take part in arrangements made by such Ministers in relation to assisting people

Will the Secretary of State explain how that will work under the LSC’s new regional statutory basis, as opposed to how it would work under the current framework?

Alan Johnson: The skills challenge is a United Kingdom issue. Indeed, the commission for employment and skills will be a UK-wide body, so there will be an umbrella organisation covering the whole UK. It is perfectly possible in that situation to make arrangements to ensure that the skills needs in aerospace, for instance, are properly matched, and that the skills needs in other Great British industries do not stop at Hadrian’s wall or, indeed, the Welsh border, and that there is a co-ordinated approach across the United Kingdom.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Having worked in a previous incarnation for a training and enterprise council, and having experienced four reorganisations in the past five years, may I ask whether the Secretary of State seriously believes that the training and skills needs of, for instance, Kingston upon Hull, are the same as those of Northallerton, Selby, Skipton and Ripon? If he does, will he advise the House why that is the case?

Alan Johnson: No, of course I do not believe that that is the case. However, I believe that we need a strategic overview of skills in each of the nine regions in exactly the same way that there is an overview of all other aspects of economic development. Indeed, since their foundation, the RDAs have said that is necessary.

In fact, the local learning and skills organisation in Hull will be much better, in that it will allow us to concentrate on matters such as logistics and issues relating to the aerospace industry as they pertain to our area. In contrast, the present structure means that a larger organisation covers both sides of the Humber.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I agree with my right hon. Friend’s response to that question, but does he agree that we must ensure that the quality of
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further education is raised to an equal level across the whole country? In that way, we will establish local flexibility, and equity for everyone.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes the crucial point about the Bill. The Foster report, the White Paper and these proposals have all been aimed primarily at lifting quality so that the hugely high standards of FE are uniform right across the country.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Will the Secretary of State square what seems to me to be a paradox? He is embedding the LSC’s planning function at regional level, even though the Leitch report—to which he has quite properly paid attention—says that planning bodies such as the LSC will require “further significant streamlining”. That seems to be a paradox, at the very least, if not a contradiction.

Alan Johnson: It is not a paradox. The hon. Gentleman has said several times that we should have delayed the Bill and used it as a response to Leitch. We believe that the Bill is about supply, whereas Leitch was concerned primarily with demand. The Bill deals with the specific reference to streamlining in his report. It is a £40 million streamlining of the LSC, which is why Lord Leitch is extremely supportive of the proposals.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Alan Johnson: I will give way once more, and then I want to make progress.

Jeremy Wright: The right hon. Gentleman has been extremely generous. He says that the Bill’s restructuring of the LSC will save £40 million, but does not the regulatory impact assessment suggest that the real cost will be something in the order of £55.7 million, a total that is subject to change when we have the final figures? I may have misunderstood what he said, so will he confirm that the LSC’s 2005-06 annual report attributes the £40 million of savings to some 1,300 staff losses? Does that not mean that the £40 million has been rationalised already, without the abolition of the local skills councils?

Alan Johnson: We are talking about a further reduction, but the £55.7 million is a one-off cost to secure an annual saving of £40 million. An initial investment made a couple of years ago reduced the LSC’s administrative costs from 4.6 per cent. of its total budget to just 1.9 per cent. That is an example of invest to save.

The education and training on offer must be both attractive to prospective students—appealing to a broad range of abilities and interests—and lead to qualifications that are useful to employers. New duties will also be placed on the LSC to encourage diversity, and to increase opportunity and choice in education and training provision.

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