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The college has already capitalised on the construction industry of the north-west, but has failed to serve the needs of local industry to an adequate degree. With the Government’s renewed emphasis on investment in apprenticeships, it seems that Carlett Park could facilitate the transition from a low-income, unskilled work force to one that masters and embraces the skills of contemporary and future industry, thanks to local work experience and partnership opportunities. I think that it is shameful that Carlett Park’s proximity to south Wirral’s industrial and managerial sector has not been exploited. The board and management should hang their heads in that regard.

I am taking up too much time, Mrs. Dean, and I will conclude shortly. On the issue of land and money, the size of Carlett Park previously made it a target for developers, and as I mentioned, some of it was sold off in 2001. Such short-term ways of acquiring money are often a driver in the wrong direction. Perhaps that feature of financing is behind the decision to close Carlett Park. It is good news that the Government, through the authorities, are making a large amount of money available. The college has an opportunity to secure a multi-million pound investment and, in order to do so, it has committed to create a world-class FE college, which does not include Carlett Park. That suggests that the long-term approach for Wirral Met college, in which the vision is to take into account the current and future needs of students across the peninsula, is not being adopted. To some extent, it appears that the college is hastening to pursue a policy of chasing the money that is available. I endorse the idea that the college should seek additional funds and grants, and that it should seek excellence, but it should not be at the cost of sacrificing such a valuable site to satisfy funding criteria. It is an upside-down approach.

It has been recognised by the management that considerable sums of money are needed to refurbish the older buildings on the Carlett Park site. Yet surely that kind of investment should be preferred over knocking down valuable older sites and building new ones, which will eventually also need refurbishment and additional investment.

Eastham is a nice and historic place in which to live. The village is in the Domesday Book, but it is not strong on facilities. Admittedly, it has a golf course, a rugby club and a country park, but it does not have a great deal of employment and facilities. We are in danger of tearing the heart out of it. There is overwhelming evidence that the campus is part of the fabric of Eastham and that it serves a crucial role in the local community; with the right direction, it could play a key role in south Wirral’s future economic development. I urge the college and the Minister to reconsider the proposal. I know that a consultation will take place, and I urge people to participate in it. The most effective way in which to cover the whole area and ensure easy access to further education would be to maintain Carlett Park.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman may wish to give the Minister time to respond.

Ben Chapman: Thank you, Mrs. Dean. I believe that decisions based principally on the availability of money need to be considered especially carefully. I am not sure that that has been the case.

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11.20 am

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) on securing the debate. He is a powerful advocate, both publicly and privately, for his constituents. Indeed, he raised this specific issue with me on the Floor of the House at oral questions last week. In the Wirral and throughout the country, we need to face up to the skills challenge and we see our further education colleges as crucial drivers. That is critical.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that in the recent past, hundreds of thousands in communities throughout England have benefited from the Government’s investment in the college infrastructure. Colleges such as Wirral Metropolitan have taken the opportunity given by our investment of more than £2 billion in the past 10 years to develop world-class learning buildings and facilities. That is in stark contrast to the situation 11 years ago, when there was not one penny of capital funding in the mainstream FE capital budget. In the past 10 years, the Government’s investment of more than £2 billion has ensured that learners have access to the state-of-the-art buildings and facilities that are essential if we are to meet our skills ambitions and the needs of our local communities.

We have recently announced in our “Building Colleges for the Future” capital strategy that a further £2.3 billion will be invested in the college estate in the next three years. I have seen examples up and down the country of the transformation of college buildings, facilities and opportunities. That gives the lie to those who claim that investment and money do not make a difference—manifestly, they do make a difference. That investment will benefit generations of learners to come, help to meet the skills needs of employers and act as a genuine catalyst for community regeneration. Capital investment plays a crucial role in the Government’s implementation of our priorities for young people and adults as set out in the 14-to-19 reform programme and our response to the Leitch review.

Modernisation of the FE estate is about not only bricks and mortar but creating the best possible learning environments that are accessible to all learners; ensuring that young people are excited by learning, so that they stay on in education and training; creating greater specialisation, so that businesses have access to a wider range of industry-specific skills development opportunities for their current and future employees; and creating community-owned facilities that meet local needs and can provide the important kick start for local regeneration. Ensuring that such facilities are accessible to those who most need them is critical, as my hon. Friend said; it is absolutely necessary if we are to maximise the public benefit of our investment.

Before talking about the specifics of the Wirral Metropolitan college, I should like to talk about the process for capital applications. It is crucial that any investment plans by colleges underpin their core mission of reflecting and responding to the diversity of their local communities, to provide high-quality learning opportunities for people in all parts of society who need to further their knowledge and improve their skills. That is a requirement for all the areas that a college covers, not just some of them. It means that a college must engage with all sections of the community when it
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is starting to plan any redevelopment project, to take into account the needs of the population that it serves. To be considered for public funding support, colleges are required by the Learning and Skills Council to demonstrate that their proposals will serve the educational needs of people in their local area. That is a genuine test through which local colleges must pass. Colleges must go through a robust, multi-stage process, whereby the educational and business cases are scrutinised. Public consultation is rightly an important part of that process and is required even before the plans can be approved in principle. Further widespread consultation will take place before planning permission can be granted.

On the heart of the argument that my hon. Friend made, Wirral Metropolitan college has begun the journey—it is at the start and not the end of a process. It is a medium-sized general FE college which, currently, as he made clear, occupies three campuses: Conway Park and 12 Quays in Birkenhead, and Carlett Park in Eastham in the south of the borough. In January last year, the college was considering a new sports facility at Carlett Park. In the subsequent months, the thinking of the college management and board broadened, and the college board of governors agreed to defer any decisions until a full range of options for redeveloping the college estate has been considered.

Following considerable research and analysis commissioned by the board of governors, a number of options have been investigated to ensure that there is an educational case to underpin them. As part of that process, the options were discussed with other interested parties such as the local authority director of children services, local councillors, and the principal of Birkenhead sixth form college. On 5 March, the college governors reached their preferred option, which is to consolidate the colleges on the two sites in Birkenhead in north Wirral at the same time as developing the business case for maintaining a presence in south Wirral. The devil, as always, is in the detail, and I acknowledge that, as the consultation process goes forward, it is incumbent on the college and its governing body to explain clearly and precisely, locally, what is meant by “a presence in south Wirral”, which is the very point that my hon. Friend made.

I should be clear that the college is at the earlier stage of the consultation process and no sites have been identified. The college’s three recognised trade unions are supportive of the concentration option, which includes looking at the business case for “a presence in south Wirral”. Since that in-principle decision, the college has begun to consult with current students and stakeholders, contacted Wirral’s MPs, including my hon. Friend, and conducted a meeting with local councillors for Eastham. That is the minimum that needs to happen, and I urge that a fully comprehensive consultation process takes place.

The next stage is for the formal submission of the application in principle in June. It would be considered by the Learning and Skills Council’s national property, local partnership, and regional finance teams. After that, it would require approval by the LSC north-west regional council and the LSC national capital committee. A full proposal is not anticipated until early 2009. I say that to communicate the point that an awful lot of water will flow under the bridge before a fully-fledged proposal comes forward. Within that, there must be
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genuine opportunities for the local community, local stakeholders and, importantly, local MPs to make their voices heard. The director of the LSC for Greater Merseyside recently said that to be considered for funding support, the college must demonstrate that its proposal provides further education opportunities that meet the needs and demands of the Wirral to support education and training for the next 30 to 40 years.

A comprehensive prospectus for the whole of the Wirral community must be put forward. Clearly, the issue of access will need to be addressed. At the moment, 85 per cent. of learners at Carlett Park travel more than 3 miles in contrast to northern campuses, where more than half of learners live within 3 miles. The issue of access and transport must be addressed.

It is ultimately a matter for local decision and for the governing body of the college as an independent institution. It would be inappropriate for me to intervene directly—I am actually prohibited by legislation from doing so. Nevertheless, I strongly urge my hon. Friend to continue to engage on behalf of his constituents with the college governing body and the LSC to ensure that the college’s plans meet the needs of all learners in the Wirral; in the whole of the community rather than just parts of it. Knowing my hon. Friend, I am sure that he will continue to make the case.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Scotland Act 1998

2.30 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Dean. I am sure that you have heard that these excursions into Scottish politics are usually cosy, consensual affairs, and I expect that we shall see some of that. I have been looking forward immensely to the debate and cannot wait to hear some of the contributions of Labour Members. They did not have an opportunity to discuss this issue and their commission at their Aviemore conference, so I thought that I would helpfully oblige by supplying the debate today.

Is it not great that we are where we are now? Who would have believed that, in one short year, we would be where we are? Everyone agreed that devolution is a process, not an event. Everyone in this Chamber agreed that more powers are required for the Scottish Parliament. Who would have believed that the Conservative, Liberal, Scottish National and Labour parties would now demand more powers for the Scottish Parliament? It is remarkable, and we should take a moment to appreciate its full significance and importance. Of course, it was all started by the Scottish Government’s national conversation. Now everyone is talking. We cannot shut them up any more.

In the past few days we have had significant contributions to that national debate. Sir Tom Hunter, Scotland’s top businessman and entrepreneur, said that a referendum is required immediately.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab): Did not Sir Tom Hunter say that the referendum should consist of only one question—yes or no to Scottish independence?

Pete Wishart: It took all of two minutes, so I am grateful for that intervention. Yes, of course it should be a one-option referendum—a yes or no. That is the Scottish National party’s favoured position. If the hon. Lady had been paying attention she would know that that is exactly what we want. I shall come back to the issue of referendums.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): At what stage may we expect the SNP to take its national conversation to the Scottish Parliament?

Pete Wishart: The national conversation will go to the Scottish Parliament. Already we have had many significant and notable contributions: a succession of Labour former Ministers, Labour Members of the European Parliament and current Labour Members of Parliament have added to the national conversation in the past few days. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton), who is in his place now, said:

The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) said:

The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), who wanted to attend the debate, but could not, said Labour

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and that

I could not agree more. Welcome to the club. The national conversation has got everybody speaking.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think that I am part of his national conversation. The first conversation that I have with him will be the last.

Pete Wishart: A conversation occurs when people talk about things, and they may even happen to agree. The most notable contribution was from the abominable no-man himself, former Scotland Office Minister Brian Wilson, who said in his usual robust way,

It is incredible that we are where we are. Of course, Mr. Wilson was referring to the Scottish Constitutional Commission that has been put together by all the Opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament, independently chaired, we are led to presume, by Sir Kenneth Calman. It is an uneasy alliance of the three Opposition parties in the Holyrood Parliament, but an even more uneasy alliance between those parties in Holyrood and the parties here in Westminster.

Mr. Carmichael: That commission process has been endorsed by the Scottish Parliament. When will the Scottish Parliament get the same opportunity to consider and vote on the hon. Gentleman’s so-called conversation?

Pete Wishart: The motion in the Scottish Parliament deals with increased fiscal powers, but it does not deal with returning powers from Holyrood to Westminster. I am looking forward to hearing the Liberals’ position on that in the debate: I am sure that we shall have it. [Interruption.]

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. Can we have a slightly more disciplined debate and less barracking?

Pete Wishart: Thank you, Mrs. Dean.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I note that the hon. Gentleman is not outlining exactly when the SNP will take the national conversation to the Scottish Parliament. In the interest of clarity, will he say when that will happen?

Pete Wishart: I know that the hon. Gentleman cannot wait for his opportunity to have his say in the national conversation—and for his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament to do the same. It will come to the Scottish Parliament when it comes to the Scottish Parliament.

To deal with the constitution, I know that the Minister will say that the national commission is still in its early stages; it has still to report, and some of the membership is still outstanding. Nevertheless, we must hear from the House today, especially if the commission is not to have a democratic mandate from the Scottish people. The House has responsibility for the constitution and the hon. Members present will have the final say. We need
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to hear from Labour Members whether they have bought into the process. Are they enthusiastic champions of the commission? We must hear that from them.

Mr. Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: If the hon. Gentleman is going to say that he is totally behind the commission and that he supports it in its entire remit, I shall gladly take his intervention.

Mr. Hood: The hon. Gentleman will take it under false pretences, then. I welcome the national conversation, but I should like it better if we could have it in Westminster. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why his former Westminster leader—perhaps his present Westminster leader will tell us—did a deal with the Government not to have Scottish Grand Committees, in which we could discuss Scottish issues a lot more than we can in this forum? If he wants a conversation, will he explain that?

Pete Wishart: I shall leave the hon. Gentleman to conduct his one-man crusade to resurrect the Scottish Grand Committee, but I welcome his contribution to the national debate. I look forward to the first intervention from a Labour Member wholeheartedly and enthusiastically backing the commission set up by the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Hood: Will the hon. Gentleman just answer the question? Is it true that the SNP did a deal with the Government not to have Scottish Grand Committees? Yes or no?

Pete Wishart: If the SNP did any such deal with the Government, I certainly never heard of it. If the hon. Gentleman wants to continue his campaign to resurrect the Scottish Grand Committee he is more than entitled, and is welcome, to do so. However, I am still waiting to hear one intervention in support of the commission and enthusiastically championing the idea.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I enthusiastically support the commission because it will develop the Scottish Parliament in a very positive manner. Is it not the hon. Gentleman’s intention to destroy the Scottish Parliament at the end of the day? That is his real agenda.

Pete Wishart: That is one of the most ridiculous interventions that I have heard so far, but I am sure that we shall get some more like it in the debate. We want to make our Parliament a normal Parliament, with the same powers as the Parliaments of every small nation in Europe. There is nothing wrong with that. I respect the hon. Lady’s position on independence, and I have my position. Those are the things that we agree on. We should be putting our positions to the Scottish people and then conducting the debate and the argument. The hon. Member for Midlothian thinks that that is the right thing to do. I do not know the hon. Lady’s position, but I suggest that she possibly does not think that.

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