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4. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will increase financial support for science in the north-west and if he will make a statement. [177249]

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): The science budget is not allocated on a regional basis. However, it will grow over the next three years from £3.4 billion this year to £4 billion in 2010-11. Universities in the north-west are well placed to share in that growth.

Ann Winterton: Is the Minister aware of the potential damage that will be caused by the Government’s reduction in support for academic research in science and its impact on Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy, including Jodrell Bank observatory,
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one of the world’s leading astronomical centres, which last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Lovell telescope? Will he review urgently the £80 million shortfall in research funding to prevent damage to the United Kingdom’s research capacity and effectiveness in physical science, and to its international reputation?

Ian Pearson: It might help the House if I put a couple of facts on record. The budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council is going up over the next three years by 13.6 per cent.—an increase of £185 million over the budgetary period. The STFC will spend £1.9 billion during that three-year period, a significant proportion of which will be spent in the north-west. Like other research councils, the STFC has to make some difficult decisions, and it has to decide what its priorities should be. The Government are concerned about the health of all the disciplines, which is one of the reasons we have asked Research Councils UK to undertake a series of reviews of the health of the disciplines, starting with physics. Bill Wakeham will lead that review, and its terms and references have been scoped out.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): The noble Lord Sainsbury of Turville created three important science sites in Britain at Harwell, near Oxford, where the diamond synchrotron project is now operating, and one at Daresbury in Cheshire, which serves all the northern universities. Is my hon. Friend aware that 300 to 400 jobs—three quarters of the staff at the Daresbury site—are at risk due to the £80 million shortfall in the STFC budget? I recognise what my hon. Friend says about significant increases in the STFC budget, but it appears to have been badly handled in this financial year.

Ian Pearson: The Government remain absolutely committed to developing Daresbury and Harwell as sites and innovation campuses. Figures have been quoted in some of the press in the north-west about potential job losses, and I say in response that for a number of years there have been plans to close the second generation light source, or SRS, and some redundancies will be associated with that. Because of the difficult decisions the STFC has had to make, it has announced a voluntary redundancy programme for all its sites, not just Harwell, but Daresbury and in Scotland as well. It will be some time before the pattern of voluntary redundancies becomes clear. I do not think that it is right to say that there is a definite figure for job losses at Daresbury or anywhere else. The Government will, of course, continue to monitor the situation closely.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Dr. Brian Cox of Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy has said:

I am concerned that most of the cuts that will occur as a result of the £80 million shortfall will not be to major facilities, but to small grants going to physics and astrophysics departments, not only in the north-west, but throughout the country. What assurances can the Minister give that that bedrock of blue skies research in physics and astrophysics, which brought us things such as the MRI scanner, will be protected?

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Ian Pearson: I agree with Dr. Brian Cox that scientific research is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity, and in the north-west a great deal of world-class scientific research is conducted. During the past few weeks, the university of Liverpool have been developing a model that can predict the risk of any person developing lung cancer in a five-year period. The university of Manchester, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, has discovered a key process that may be involved in the spread of cancer, which could lead to new treatments to stop 80 to 90 per cent. of cancers in their tracks. A great deal of research into other matters, too, is being undertaken at north-west universities. As I said earlier, the budgets of all research councils have grown—for example, the STFC budget has increased by 13.6 per cent. and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s budget has increased significantly. However, it is up to research councils to determine their priorities, based on their best assessment of the science. There will be change because we live in a changing world and difficult decisions have to be taken, but it is best if those best placed to make the judgments are allowed to do so.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and other hon. Members have demonstrated the effects around the country of the £80 million deficit in the science budget. The problems are also manifesting themselves internationally through our potential withdrawal from the linear collider project among others. The Minister, given his responsibility, must have some interest in our embarrassing withdrawal. Doubtless, he shares some of the embarrassment, but does he accept any responsibility for the problems that are affecting our international reputation?

Ian Pearson: I have a deep and abiding interest in science and the ability of our science base to contribute to our economic prosperity and social well-being in future. I passionately believe that it is vital to continue to invest in science. That is one of the reasons for the Government’s doubling the science budget in the past 10 years. It will triple by 2010-11.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at some of the facts: the STFC’s budget is increasing by 13.6 per cent. and the overall science budget is increasing from £3.4 billion to £4 billion. Yes, difficult decisions must be made. On particle physics, the STFC says that its priority is CERN—I believe that that is right and that it will be recognised as such by the scientific community.

Adult Apprenticeships

5. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase the number of people taking up adult apprenticeships. [177250]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): We have announced that, for the first time, funding will be targeted specifically at expanding apprenticeships for adults aged over 25. That will mean 30,000 additional such apprenticeships costing £90 million over the next three years.

Mr. Hepburn: Unemployment among the over-25s—the very group at which adult apprenticeships are
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targeted—is double the national average in large areas of the north-east of England. Does my hon. Friend take that into consideration when allocating resources?

Mr. Lammy: The north-east was the first area that I visited to look at apprenticeships. My hon. Friend is right that unemployment remains a problem in the north-east, certainly in his constituency. I want to reassure him that one of the criteria for ensuring that we get extra adult apprenticeships is linking them to the unemployed as a priority group.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Ministers have said that impartial advice on adult apprenticeships is available from learndirect and the next steps agency, which are both operated by the Learning and Skills Council. The difficulty is that the LSC is almost invisible in constituencies such as mine. What qualitative research is the Department undertaking to ascertain the LSC’s success at engaging with employers, especially small and medium-sized employers? All the Department’s laudable schemes will be as nothing if there is no connection between the LSC and local employers.

Mr. Lammy: We must recognise that there has been an increase in apprenticeships, led by the Learning and Skills Council. However, we should also acknowledge that we set up the apprenticeship review precisely to consider issues about the national leadership and profile of apprenticeships and their relevance to medium-sized and smaller employers.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Ministerial questions and answers are often characterised by spin and bombast. I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary will answer a straightforward and short question. A few weeks ago, on 21 November, the Prime Minister said that there were 250,000 apprentices. Just before Christmas, as the Under-Secretary knows, official figures were released detailing whether apprenticeship figures had gone up or down. Do they show that the number of apprentices at level 2 and level 3 is greater or less than the number that the Prime Minister cited in November? I have the figures here, in case the Under-Secretary does not.

Mr. Lammy: And the hon. Gentleman talks about bombast and spin! He knows that when we talk about apprentices, what is important as a statement of fact is the number of apprentices starting and then completing. Apprenticeships last for different periods across the country. They are not like university courses; they do not start in September and end three years later in June. They start at different times. I can confirm that the average number over the past three years is 250,000. I have to say that when we inherited apprenticeships in 1997, there was no inspection and the completion rate was less than 25 per cent. We therefore make no apology for ensuring quality and ensuring that some employers and providers are not in the system, which accounts for the drop most recently.

Learning and Skills Council

6. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): When he last met the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council. [177251]

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The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): I last met Mark Haysom, the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, on 12 December. Ministers in my Department regularly meet the LSC chief executive as part of the overall accountability and performance framework.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s reply. As he will know, the predecessor of the Learning and Skills Council was the training and enterprise council. In North Yorkshire there were good relations between businesses and the local TEC. I now find that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned, the Learning and Skills Council tends to be invisible to local businesses. What plans does the Secretary of State have to encourage the LSC to engage positively with local businesses to sell the skills and business training that it offers?

Mr. Denham: A number of different measures are being taken forward. First, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced over the Christmas recess that LSC funding for small and medium-sized enterprises for management training and training to understand their skills needs will increase from £4 million to £30 million. That gives the LSC a vastly increased budget with which to offer a practical and useful service to those businesses that want to understand their skills needs.

Secondly, as our response to the Leitch report made clear, we are keen to encourage the development of local employment and skills boards, as is the LSC, which will bring together training providers and employers locally to create a forum in which to discuss with the LSC how its funding is used in that area. We want that bottom-up influence on the use of LSC funding to grow in the years to come, because I acknowledge that, in the process of driving up standards in education—for example, through the improvement in the completion of apprenticeships, which is one of the LSC’s real achievements—the LSC has at times been felt to be insensitive to local needs. We recognise that, and so does the chief executive of the LSC. I hope that in the years ahead the hon. Lady will see the sort of flexibility that she is looking for.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend explain to me what the point of the LSC is?

Mr. Denham: The answer is that the Government need a mechanism to distribute the record sums of funding to deliver adult education. The amount of funding going to adult skills over the next three years will increase by 17 per cent. That will cover everything from basic numeracy and literacy to level 2 and level 3 qualifications and Train to Gain. The question for the Government is always whether every one of those decisions should be taken directly by Ministers or somebody working directly for them.

Rob Marris: Yes.

Mr. Denham: Well, my hon. Friend expresses the view that that should always be the case, but I think that there are strong advantages in keeping some distance between the practical day-to-day decisions taken locally
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and Ministers. Two Opposition Members have today talked about the need to ensure that funding is available locally. Some degree of separation between Ministers and those funding decisions is desirable. That separation should not be total, nor should the arrangements always be exactly the same as they are today; however, I am not sure that we would be better served by simply having such a huge sum of money administered by Departments and Ministers.


8. Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab): What recent discussions his Department has had on the availability of apprenticeships; and if he will make a statement. [177255]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): Alongside announcing investment of more than £1 billion in apprenticeships, we are introducing a new national online matching service. We will publish the outcomes of our review of apprenticeships early this year.

Paul Clark: I thank my hon. Friend for that response and I welcome the expansion in the number of apprenticeships. Along with that review will come further development. My constituents in Gillingham and Rainham will undoubtedly benefit from apprenticeships. I am worried, however. As this is a regeneration area where much work has been done on identifying shortfalls in skills opportunities and where we need to attract different business sectors, will the Minister ensure that his work matches the provision of services with the expectations identified through other work in other Departments and through local partnerships?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right. His area is a growth area requiring substantial housing development over the forthcoming period and the Olympics are not far away, so we need to ensure that our sector skills councils work in tandem with the apprenticeships scheme to produce growth in sectors such as construction across the piece. In respect of big national schemes such as housing, it is important for local adults and young people to come in, secure apprenticeships and benefit the local area.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): In answer to the main question and in the earlier exchange on adult apprenticeships, the Minister made much of the quantity of apprenticeships put in place by the Government. Will he give more emphasis to considerations of quality—not just having an inspection regime, but, more importantly, ensuring that our current apprenticeships are relevant for the global skills that will be required for the decades ahead?

Mr. Lammy: Yes. Key to ensuring quality is inspection, which I have to tell the hon. Gentleman did not exist before. It is also key to ensure completion of apprenticeships, which has increased from below 25 per cent. to 63 per cent.—another achievement. It is also important that employers are confident in our apprenticeships, so I was pleased to hear Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, saying:

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Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Being an apprentice does not mean only learning a trade in a certain discipline; it provides good discipline in many things that affect people’s livelihoods. I would like the Minister to recognise the status of the time-served apprentice, whether female or male. Once that is established, people in this country will be as attracted to apprenticeships as people are in such countries as Germany.

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend puts the case brilliantly. It is important to ensure that this group of young people has the same status in our society, frankly, as graduates. That is what we are seeking to achieve in the apprenticeship review, as we understand that, in the end, an apprentice is mentored and assisted in routine, discipline and dedication, which are skills that parents across the country want for their young people. We must ensure that we celebrate the success of these young people, which is exactly what we will seek to achieve in the months ahead.

Open University

10. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department’s proposals for funding for the Open university in 2008-09. [177257]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): Funding for individual universities is for the Higher Education Funding Council to determine on the basis of the grant letter that we expect to issue in the near future. We have already announced that for higher education as a whole, there will be a funding increase of 2.5 per cent. in real terms in each of the next three years. The Government’s priorities, including employer engagement, widening participation and more opportunities for mature learners who have so far missed out on higher education, will create excellent opportunities for the Open university over the coming years.

Mr. Jack: Notwithstanding his answer, the Secretary of State knows that his proposals for equivalent or lower qualifications will deprive the Open university of a stream of funding. I have read the report of the debate on this subject, but could he enlighten me as to where I can find the body of evidence that justifies the changes that he has proposed and that shows new students are being deprived by the current arrangements? When will there be proper consultation on a proposal that appears to have been introduced without any discussion with colleges such as Birkbeck, or with the Open university?

Mr. Denham: The evidence can be found in the Leitch report, which clearly described the need to increase the number of graduates in the work force by 2020. That means that people who would not otherwise have the chance to go to university can do so. The evidence is based on international comparisons—comparisons with what our major competitors are doing—and tells us where we need to be in terms of the skills of our work force in order to be able to compete internationally. Certainly there is evidence of the potential for that, as was mentioned earlier in respect of the number of people who are already qualified to level 3—those who have reached the normal level for entry to university, but have not had the chance to go there. The challenge—and
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I do not shy away from it—is to encourage higher education institutions to reach out to that group of students, and I believe that they will succeed in doing that.

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