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Topical Questions

T1. [177271] Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): Last week, in pursuit of my departmental responsibilities, I launched a consultation on how the provision of English for speakers of other languages can make the biggest possible contribution to community cohesion and integration by prioritising assistance to those with a long-term commitment to building their lives in this country.

Mr. Burstow: Given that learning in retirement has been shown to have health benefits—prolonging life and as a consequence reducing the burdens on our national health service and social service care budgets—will the Secretary of State or his ministerial team look again at the redefinition of the vocational courses currently provided by institutions such as the Sutton college of liberal arts and lifelong learning in my constituency? The narrowing of the definition has meant that courses that many older people have come to love, rely on and enjoy over a number of years are being priced out of their pockets, and that is having knock-on effects on costs in the health service and elsewhere.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I will continue to defend the way in which the Government have concentrated resources on building up the skills and qualifications of people of working age for reasons set out in the Leitch report, but education that is undertaken purely for fulfilment, enlightenment and general personal development—another purpose of education, which is important throughout life—matters to the Government as well. Next week I shall launch a consultation on how informal adult education of that sort can be developed in the years to come. Yesterday I consulted the University of The Third Age, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the BBC, Help the Aged and the association representing museums and galleries—a wide variety of organisations. I think that this is an important challenge for the Government and for society as a whole, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will participate in the consultation when it is under way.

Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab): At the end of November, our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched a multi-million pound plan for the regeneration area of the Thames Gateway. An integral part of that plan was the skills, training and opportunities sector. What progress has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made with the commitment to deliver three new campuses throughout the gateway area? Will he accept an invitation to visit—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is just about enough for the Minister to handle.

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Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue because the plans for new campuses are not only exciting, but some elements of them are unique, particularly the proposal that all students who gain a level 3 qualification be given the chance to progress to higher education. Progress is being made: the university of Essex in Southend had its first intake of undergraduates in September 2007, and further developments are in the pipeline. However, I would very much like to take up my hon. Friend’s invitation to visit the campuses that are in, or that serve, his area to see for myself the progress that is being made.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): To follow on from the question of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), does the Secretary of State agree that colleges have an increasing role to play in the provision of vocational education? Many millions of pounds have been spent on the college in Macclesfield; it is part of the new learning zone, and it is very welcome and is doing a wonderful job. What increased support can the Secretary of State give to colleges, which exist to provide the skilled people this country needs for the future?

Mr. Denham: Part of the support is obviously the Government’s spending, which is increasing as I mentioned earlier: there will be a 17 per cent. increase in spending on adult skills over the next three years. Secondly, there is a major capital programme—more than £2 billion will be invested in the further education and training estate colleges, improving them to world-class standards to develop specialisation over the next three years. The hon. Gentleman did not ask his question in a partisan spirit, but I will point out that there was no capital programme for further education in 1997; we have already spent more than £2 billion on further education colleges, with another £2 billion to come in the years ahead.

T3. [177273] Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State outline what plans he has to advertise and promote the Government’s new and exciting package of student support, so that especially young people from families from which nobody has ever been to university respond, and do so before the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service deadline of just next week and therefore have an opportunity to access university education from September?

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We have been running a major TV, radio and DVD advertising campaign to get across the benefits of the new system of student financial support. Indeed, last week we launched the First to Go campaign, targeting that one-third of young people from families from which nobody has previously gone to university. We must get across the fact that under the new system two-thirds of students will be eligible for non-repayable grants, which is in stark contrast to the system we inherited from the last Government.

T4. [177274] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): In the light of revelations that almost half the colleges on the Department’s list of approved providers for
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overseas students are bogus, what action will the Secretary of State take to deal with that, and does he agree that it is a very serious problem that adds to illegal immigration?

Bill Rammell: We need to get the balance right. Overseas students are a significant benefit to our universities and to the country; they are worth about £5 billion to the UK economy. However, we have to tackle illegal immigration. That is why we established the education and training register three years ago. Since then—I regard this as a virtue of the system—124 colleges have been removed from that register. We now conduct unannounced visits to institutions that wish to go on to the register, and I believe that the introduction of the new Australian points-based immigration system will give us greater powers to identify bogus colleges and remove them from the list.

T5. [177275] Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Men who live in Slough earn about £450 a week, yet men who work in Slough earn £550 a week on average. That is a reflection of the low skills levels of the residents I represent. They are working with local business to try to tackle that. A striking finding from the research we did with local businesses is that they want soft skills—they want people with a determination to learn. What can the Government do to help to promote soft skills, and enable ordinary people to get the kind of work that is available in Slough, which my constituents cannot access because of their lack of skills?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She rightly says that such skills are what employers are identifying—indeed, that was the first thing on the agenda of the new business council that the Prime Minister set up. We have asked the new Commission for Employment and Skills, led by Sir Mike Rake, to examine how we can improve on this issue. More than £1 million of funds within Train to Gain will be available for businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises in particular. Part of those funds will be able to be used by small businesses in particular, where managers and owners recognise a problem and want to deal with it. We are taking this matter seriously, and I suspect that the new commission will make proposals later this year.

T6. [177276] Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): May I ask the Minister for Science and Innovation whether he has visited the survey ship James Cook? If he has not, will he make efforts to do so in order to lend his authority to the work that it does, using tools such as the remote submersible Isis, in exploring the under-sea ecology, and which through international co-operation is adding hugely to mankind’s knowledge of those environments?

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): I have not been on the James Cook, but I would be delighted to do so in the future. I am aware of some of the wonderful research work that it does. Obtaining a greater understanding of our oceans and of how climatic conditions are changing, as they are at the moment, is important in supporting the overall picture that we have on climate change. Ensuring that we get a better understanding and better predictive models is one of our important priorities.

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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Ministers have a job to do to explain away the decline in the number of apprenticeships. Perhaps less controversially, may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it is essential that future employers will want to take on the apprentices who have qualified? Can he give us the assurance that he will pay particular attention to the destinations of qualified apprentices and to their being able to obtain long-term employment, rather than merely being able to complete the course?

Mr. Denham: It is obviously important that apprenticeships lead to secure employment. Of course, the crucial part of an apprenticeship is that an employer knows that the individual has a solid grounding in the world of work, as well as the particular technical and vocational skills that go with it. The apprenticeship review that I hope we will publish in the fairly near future will set out how we strengthen the leadership of the apprenticeship programme. I hope that it will find ways of demonstrating more clearly that the programme is delivering what we want, which is an increase in the number of people both going on to apprenticeships and successfully completing them. Those are clearly the real-world outcomes that we need to be able to measure and report on.

T8. [177278] Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend tell us about the progress that has been made in respect of diplomas as a means of entry to universities? Specifically, what is the attitude of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to diplomas? What discussions has he had with the Russell group of universities about their attitude to diplomas?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend raises an exceedingly important point. If diplomas are to work, as we strongly believe they can and will, we must ensure that they are seen as a legitimate entry means to university. The recent decision by UCAS on the tariff for the diploma is an encouraging example. The participation of the higher education sector in the development of the diplomas is crucial, and we need to ensure that people who take the diplomas can see them as a means of progressing right the way through the education system to university.

T9. [177280] Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the concern in the science community, in particular the physics sector, about the allocation of science funding,
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not least from the volume of questions asked by hon. Members this morning. I am sure that many will welcome the review of science funding announced by the Secretary of State. I am not certain that institutions that have invested heavily in physics, such as Durham university in my constituency, will be comforted by simply referring the matter to the research councils. Is there more that the Government could do to protect physics research in those excellent institutions, so that they remain economically competitive in terms of international research?

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is important to make a big statement of principle on this issue. The Haldane principle, established many years ago, says that Ministers should not intervene directly in the funding decisions of research councils. That is to protect the autonomy of research councils in deciding where research should take place. When the Science and Technology Facilities Council made its proposals, despite its above-inflation increase in grant, to reduce certain areas of physics expenditure, it would not have been appropriate to breach the Haldane principle, to step in and to take money away from the Medical Research Council and give it to the STFC. However, because of the concerns, I did my job by asking Professor Bill Wakeham, the vice-chancellor of Southampton university, to produce a report on the health of physics as a discipline, which will consider our overall funding of physics, including those areas that have attracted controversy. As the Secretary of State, I have done what it is right for me to do and—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have to stop the Secretary of State there.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): In the light of an earlier answer, do the cases of Frank Ellis and David Coleman not show the extent to which academic freedom is under threat, and how fragile it is in this country? Does the Secretary of State agree that academics should have the freedom to explore unpopular and unconventional views in universities of all places, and not be put off by the intolerant, illiberal and politically correct bullies?

Bill Rammell: When we compare academic freedom in this country to that in many other countries, we find it is very robust and at the heart of a successful university system. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman that academic freedom is a key tool in tackling violent, extremist ideology, and we need to push that forward strongly.

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UK Energy Policy

11.31 am

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on UK energy policy. Our strategy, as set out in our energy White Paper last year, is designed to achieve two objectives—first, to ensure that the UK has access to secure energy supplies and, secondly and together with other countries, to tackle the global challenge of climate change.

The competition for energy resources is increasing. Access to supplies across the world is becoming increasingly politicised. As a result, the cost of energy is rising. And few who have been exposed to the science of climate change now doubt the immediacy of the threat to our planet. As the UK shifts from being a net energy exporter to a net importer, our ability to source a diverse range of secure, competitively priced energy supplies will be one of the most important challenges that we face as a country—affecting our economy, our environment and, ultimately, our national security.

Our strategy to manage these risks is based on three key elements, which are increasing energy efficiency and helping people and businesses make a real contribution to solving the challenges we face; using the widest range of cleaner energy sources; and ensuring that the UK is as energy independent of any one supplier, country or technology as possible. Let me touch on each of these.

We have already set out the measures that we are taking on energy efficiency. These could result in savings of between 25 tonnes and 42 million tonnes of CO2 by 2020. We will keep these measures under review, going further and faster wherever we can. We are also planning for the amount of UK electricity supplied from renewable sources to treble by 2015. The Energy Bill, published today, will strengthen the renewables obligation and help to speed up the deployment of an even greater share of energy from renewable sources. Offshore wind, wave and tidal power will all gain from that new approach.

The Government are also committed to funding one of the world’s first commercial-scale demonstrations of carbon capture and storage. CCS is a technology that has the potential to make a critical contribution to tackling climate change. Measures in the Energy Bill will enable that to move forward.

If we are to be as energy independent as possible, it is also vital, first, that we continue to press the case for energy market liberalisation in the EU, and secondly, that we look to maximise economic domestic energy production. Finally, we must ensure that energy companies have the widest range of options open to them when it comes to investment in new low-carbon power generation.

Over the next two decades, we will need to replace a third of the UK’s generating capacity, and by 2050 our electricity will need to be largely low-carbon, so we must be clear about the potential role of nuclear power. In October, we concluded a full and extensive consultation across the UK, seeking people’s views on whether new nuclear power should play a continuing role in providing Britain with the energy that it needs. Today I am publishing the Government’s response in the form of a White Paper alongside our analysis of the comments that we received. I can confirm that, having carefully considered the responses, the Government believe that new nuclear
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power stations should have a role to play in this country’s future energy mix alongside other low-carbon sources. The Government’s view is that it is in the public interest to allow energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations and that we should therefore take the active steps necessary to facilitate that.

Nuclear power has provided us with safe and secure supplies of electricity for more than half a century.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): At enormous cost.

Mr. Hutton: It is one of the few proven low-carbon technologies that can provide base load electricity. Nuclear power currently provides us with around 19 per cent. of our electricity requirements.

Nuclear power will help us to meet our twin energy challenges: ensuring secure supplies and tackling climate change. First, a continuing role for nuclear power will contribute to the diversity of our energy supplies. Secondly, it will help us meet our emissions reduction targets, as every new nuclear power station will save the same amount of carbon emissions as are generated by about 1 million households. The entire lifecycle emissions from nuclear power—from uranium mining through to waste management—are only between 2 and 6 per cent. of those from gas for every unit of electricity generated. Thirdly, nuclear power will reduce the costs of meeting our energy goals. Analysis of future gas and carbon price scenarios shows that nuclear is affordable and provides one of the cheapest electricity options available to reduce our carbon emissions. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Flynn must be quiet. It is unfair to the Secretary of State while he is making a statement to the House.

Mr. Hutton: Our energy suppliers recognise that, and in a world of carbon markets and high fossil fuel prices, they recognise that nuclear power makes commercial sense. For those reasons, I do not intend to set some artificial cap on the proportion of electricity that the UK should be able to generate either from nuclear power or from any other source of low-carbon energy. That would not be consistent with our long-term national interest. Given that nuclear power is a tried and tested, safe and secure form of low-carbon technology, it would be wrong in principle to rule it out now from playing any role in the UK’s energy future.

Not surprisingly, however, some important concerns were expressed during the consultation about nuclear power. They fall in to four broad categories: safety and security, waste management, costs, and the impact of nuclear power on investment in alternative low-carbon technologies. Ensuring the safety and security of new nuclear provision will remain a top priority. Having reviewed the evidence put forward and the advice of independent regulators, we are confident that we have a robust regulatory framework. The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that our regulatory framework is mature, flexible and transparent, with highly trained and experienced inspectors.

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