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Topical Questions

T1. [187393] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): I have today given further information about the development of the new advancement and careers service in London. Getting from a job with few prospects to a good job can be as tough as getting off benefit and into work. People who want to get on need support in improving their skills and often in sorting out child care, tax credit, housing and other issues. The new joined-up approach to providing advice and support is crucial to overcoming those barriers. Two pilot services will open in London later this year. The first will serve Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth; the second will be developed in partnership with the Mayor and will have a particular focus on those who already have a job but want to develop further skills, take more responsibility and earn higher wages.

David Taylor: We talk about social inclusion and social mobility, yet the 50 per cent. of the population in the lowest three socio-economic groups obtain fewer than 10 per cent. of Oxbridge places. More than 50 per cent. of those places go to the less than 10 per cent. of the population who are educated in private schools. What urgent action is planned to tackle that scandalous social stasis, whereby many thousands of able, working-class students are being pushed out by the sharp elbows and deep pockets of the well-to-do?

Mr. Denham: As my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education acknowledged earlier, this is an important issue. Let me say this to the House. There are things that can be done directly by universities in their admissions processes. It is significant that this week Cambridge university has announced that it will drop the requirement to have a separate application form and is falling in line with UCAS. Equally, if children are educated in schools where teachers say to them, “Oxbridge is not for somebody like you,” it is not surprising that Oxbridge does not recruit those students. We also have to work with schools to ensure that young people of high ability from working class backgrounds get every support and encouragement to fulfil their full potential. That must start in the school, which cannot expect everything to be done at the moment of admission to university.

T8. [187400] John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh is one of this country’s centres of excellence for astronomical research. What assurances can he give to staff there that the actions of the Science and Technology Facilities Council will not rob the country of that first-class facility?

Mr. Denham: I acknowledge the valuable work that is done in astronomy departments right across the United Kingdom. The point that needs to be made is twofold. As with all research councils, the STFC will, over time, make decisions about changing priorities in research. The fundamental point to accept is that, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation said, total funding going into university research for astronomy will next year be 63 per cent. higher than it was in 2005. This is not a Government who are cutting science budgets, and that needs to be accepted. There will always be difficult decisions to be taken about
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where scientific research should be concentrated, but without those difficult decisions things would never move forward, and that would not be right either.

T2. [187394] Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Durham university and its partners on bidding to sponsor three academies in Durham? Does he agree that, if successful, that could be a very positive step forward in terms of raising aspirations further in this country and securing more opportunities for our young people?

Mr. Denham: I absolutely join my hon. Friend in congratulating Durham university. The structural link that needs to be built between universities and schools, whether in the form of academies, trusts or in other ways, is critical to raising aspirations and improving social equity and access to university in the way that Members of this House want. I hope that all universities will look at the opportunities that exist in their local communities and regions to see how they can build those strong and deep structural links in the way that Durham is trying to do.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that his student support regulations are seriously defective? Ministers say that students in families on between £21,000 and £38,000 should receive a partial maintenance grant based on a sliding scale, but the regulations say that they should all receive the maximum £1,230. Does he agree with the National Union of Students that students should claim whatever financial support they are entitled to?

Mr. Denham: First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise this question. I assure him, and the House, that I am advised that the intention of the regulations is clear and that their drafting would not give rise to a claim for higher payments in the way that he suggests. Local authorities and the Student Loans Company use the accompanying guidance when they assess applications for student support. No money has been paid out incorrectly, and no local authority has raised any concerns. None the less, given that he has raised the issue, we are reprinting the regulations with the correction made.

Mr. Willetts: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for acknowledging that I gave him advance notice of the question. It sounds as though we are going to get the regulations amended in the light of the points that I made to him. Let us be clear about this. In the past month, he has admitted that prisoners have received hundreds of thousands of pounds in student maintenance because of what he called an unjustifiable provision in his regulations, and this morning he has said that he is going to change the regulations again because of another mistake in the rules of access to maintenance grant. So prisoners have been getting money that they should not and students can claim money that they are not supposed to get. Why is his Department so incapable of getting the right money to the right students under these regulations?

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Mr. Denham: Of course, that is not what has happened. On the question that the hon. Gentleman raised yesterday, clear guidance was made available by my Department on that issue in December. We are not amending the regulations. We are not coming back to the House to seek its permission to change the regulations. They are being reprinted—

Mr. Willetts: But they are definitely wrong.

Mr. Denham: Yes; we are reprinting them to make the intentions of the regulations absolutely clear, as I told the House. The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong when he says that the drafting of the regulations gives rise to a higher claim. He is simply wrong about that. However, I am grateful to him for the way in which he raised that point.

With regard to payments of maintenance grants and maintenance loans to prisoners, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that as the Secretary of State who found out about that, I am the Secretary of State who took action to stop it.

T3. [187395] Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent projections that suggest that it will take woman graduates on average 16 years to repay their student debt, while it will take male graduates only 11 years. Will he confirm that that will be taken into account in the development of student financial support policy?

Mr. Denham: The issue is that repayment of student loans is income contingent. In other words, it is related to how much people earn. I believe that my hon. Friend is right in principle in what she says. However, the issue that needs to be addressed is not the structure of the repayment of student loans, but the many other reasons why women earn less than men in our society. The Government are addressing that matter through the women and work commission, and in other ways. That is where we should focus our attention.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): When the A-level courses beginning in September are reduced from six modules to four, is it the intention of Ministers that students should study the four modules more rigorously, or simply compensate by doing additional A-levels? Will that disadvantage students who are now in the lower sixth form year, who go on a gap year, and find themselves competing for university entry against fellows with more A-levels?

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): The move from six modules to four has been widely welcomed, along with the greater use of synoptic questions and the extended project. All the indications are that universities greatly welcome those changes as a means of improving what is already a very good qualification.

T4. [187396] Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I salute the Government’s support for pure research in science, including physics. Last summer, I visited the impressive and worthwhile particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva. Can the Minister tell
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me how much support the Government has given to CERN, and when the facility will reopen following a rebuild?

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): The Government have provided a substantial amount of money to CERN—from memory, I think it is something like £700 million during the past four years. I can confirm that according to current plans, CERN will be open for business, with its new large hadron collider, in July this year. It is a tremendously exciting project—the biggest physics project ever—and it will provide great opportunities for the four experiment types planned at CERN.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State use his Department’s influence with the Learning and Skills Council to see whether it can provide funding for projects such as “Mentoring for U” at Chelmsford prison? The project does fantastic work in helping dyslexic prisoners to improve their literacy skills, which helps with their rehabilitation and gives them a better start once they leave prison.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I met the LSC leadership on offender learning this week, and I will be happy to ask the council to look at the scheme he described. He will be aware that in our test-bed regions in the east of England, Bedford and the west midlands, much pioneering work is going on in relation to offender learning. I shall ask the LSC to consider the issue.

T6. [187398] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend realise that apprenticeships are the lifeblood of the west midlands, which has always been noted for its manufacturing base? What is he doing about the quality of apprenticeships?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows that, in the past few years, the Government, through the Learning and Skills Council, have rigorously raised standards in apprenticeships and withdrawn support from training providers that were not seen to deliver. We will go further through the apprenticeships review. First, it will be clear that an apprenticeship that does not involve work-based training with an employer is not an apprenticeship. Secondly, in the draft apprenticeship Bill, which we will publish later this year, we will set out the basis for clearly defining the rights and responsibilities of apprentices, employers and the training system to ensure that, nationally, across the sector and across occupations, the apprenticeship is universally regarded as a high quality training qualification.

T9. [187401] Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend impress on his European counterparts the importance of the work to reskill and upskill the employees of Vauxhall Motors in partnership with our further education sector? Will he stress that that is the way in which Europe will win the race to the top and stand a chance of competing in the global economy?

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Mr. Denham: I would be happy to discuss the details of the issue that my hon. Friend raises with him. In general, he is right that this country, contrary to what is often said, has a strong manufacturing base. We are still the sixth largest manufacturer in the world. However, our future lies in high value added manufacturing, which depends on having the research capability and the skills in the work force to do the best engineering and manufacturing. Skills are at the heart of that, and I would be pleased to discuss with my hon. Friend the work at Vauxhall Motors.

T10. [187402] David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Further education colleges work best when they are allowed
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maximum flexibility on the sort of courses that they can put together and the partners with whom they can work. What more can we do to reduce the ring-fencing of budgets in the FE sector to promote better educational partnerships with not only other educational institutions but workplaces?

Bill Rammell: May I say to my hon. Friend, who takes a keen interest in the activities of his local FE college, that there is a genuine balance to be struck between the central direction that we need to achieve our skills targets and giving sufficient flexibility beyond those targets? The current system of funding is moving in that direction, and I hope that that answers his concerns.

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Business of the House

11.32 am

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House for the forthcoming business?

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): The business for the week commencing 25 February will be:

Monday 25 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to international development followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [6th allotted day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to international development.

Tuesday 26 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to the effectiveness of the EU institutions and EU decision making, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [7th allotted day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to the effectiveness of the EU institutions and EU decision making, followed by motion to approve a local government restructuring order relating to Cheshire.

Wednesday 27 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to climate change, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [8th allotted day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to climate change and remaining amendments on clause 2.

Thursday 28 February—A debate on Welsh affairs.

Friday 29 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 3 March will include:

Monday 3 March—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [9th allotted day] covering clauses 3 to 7.

Tuesday 4 March—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [10th allotted day] covering clauses 3 to 7 not completed on 3 March.

Wednesday 5 March—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [11th allotted day] covering clause 8, the schedule, new clauses and new schedules.

Thursday 6 March—A debate on women’s representation in democracy.

Friday 7 March—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 and 13 March will be:

Thursday 6 March—A debate on the International Health Partnership.

Thursday 13 March—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Human rights on the human rights of older people in health care.

Mr. Vara: My thanks to the Deputy Leader of the House for that information.

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The Government promised that, in place of a referendum, we would have line-by-line scrutiny and 20 days of debate on the Lisbon treaty. But the House has been given only 14 days of debate, and last night a group of defence amendments was never even reached. Failing to debate such an important and weighty issue as the defence of our country is unacceptable. Will the Deputy Leader of the House commit to giving an extra day of defence debate?

We found out this week that, to meet Government targets, seriously ill patients are left for hours in ambulances instead of being admitted to accident and emergency. Over the past 15 months, such deplorable treatment of patients has led to at least 44,000 delays being reported. May I suggest that we have a topical debate on the Government’s obsession with targets and the impact that it is having on patient care?

Having lost the personal details of 25 million people and subjected millions of families to the appalling mismanagement of tax credits, staff at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are now in line for record bonuses of £23 million. That is almost £1 for every person whose details have been lost. Will the Chancellor make a statement to explain why the Government are rewarding a Department that has failed our families so badly?

The Government have spent £800 million trying to cut the number of students dropping out of university. But more than one fifth of those students are still dropping out, which is a decrease of a mere 1 per cent. over eight years. Spending £800 million for a 1 per cent. return is a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money. We need the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to make a statement to the House on the disastrous failure of his policy.

Only a small number of illegal immigrants are ever deported from the UK. But we now find that a large number of those people are turned back by the country to which they are deported and returned to the UK because the Home Office has messed up their paperwork. Even when the Home Office tries to deport someone, it cannot get it right. We need an urgent statement from the Home Secretary on the continued mismanagement of her Department.

Finally, two years ago, Tony Blair promised that our troops would get anything that they needed for their protection. But this week, commanders in Afghanistan have said that they do not have funding for helicopters that they desperately need. The Government coroner says that troops have inadequate equipment, and there are reports that defence cuts may be as much as £3 billion. This cannot be right. We need a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence urgently, explaining why the Government are failing properly to protect the brave men and women who daily put their lives at risk in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

This is a Government who have reneged on their pledges to Parliament, failed patients, let down our future generation and betrayed our armed forces. This is a Government who are staggering from one disaster to another. They are incapable, incompetent and in a mess. The British people know that they deserve better and they are not impressed.

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