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Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): On 12 February, the Secretary of State will have an opportunity to visit Southgate college and there to hear of the plans for an £80 million development that would transform the college and make it a community hub. Sadly, however, the rug has been pulled from under its feet, because the
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capital approval has been withdrawn. That is the reality of the future facing what the Prime Minister said would be world-class accommodation.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I hope to turn to this issue later in my remarks, because we very much hope to get clear information on it today from the Secretary of State so that our FE colleges know where they stand.

We enter this recession with a weak position on skills, youth unemployment and young people not in education, employment or training. We need to learn the lessons from this policy failure so that we do not carry on making the same mistakes. There are several such lessons.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I most warmly commend my hon. Friend for the good sense both of his motion and his speech so far? However, as he has moved on to the subject of skills, may I kindly ask him to rediscover his legendary cerebral powers and make sure that future motions in the name of our party do not contain such appalling terms as “up-skill” and “re-skill”?

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is fighting a very important battle for common-sense English. I shall take careful account of the point he makes, and we shall try to do better.

One of the reasons we face the problems that I am discussing is the policy mistakes made by this Government. One of those mistakes is, of course, the endless reorganisation of the world of skills. I am not going to give the House another potted history of the Government’s measures —[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), says that he is relieved, but we are talking about his Government’s measures: the abolition of the training and enterprise councils, at a cost of £62 million; the abolition of the Further Education Funding Council for England; and the creation of the Learning and Skills Council and its 47 different local LSC branches. They had to be abolished so that instead there could be nine regional centres and, of course, the LSC itself is to be abolished and replaced by three new bodies.

In 10 years, we have seen a classic example of Labour’s hyperactivity in its endlessly abolishing and reorganising things. The end result was very well put in the recent “Simplification of Skills in England” report, in a section entitled “Rapidity of change”, which stated that

One of the problems is the endless process of change and confusion, which means that it is very hard for individual employers, and for individual young people who are trying to increase their skills, to find their way through the system.

Another problem has been the failure to reform our schools. As well as that schools failure, there is a skills failure: the failure to establish an effective skills policy that understands the difference between skills and
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qualifications. The Government have become obsessed with paying FE colleges to churn out paper qualifications, even if they are not valued by employers and even if they are not what young people or learners of all ages need. There is more to life, and indeed to education and skills training, than simply building up paper qualifications. It is because of the Government’s obsession with paper qualifications that so many people have lost out.

Adult learners have lost out, so I commend the excellent early-day motion signed by Members from all parts of the House on behalf of the Alliance for Lifelong Learning. Some hon. Members who are present have subscribed to the

adult learner

We thought that the Labour party believed in adult learning; we thought that was one of the commitments and beliefs in the history of the Labour party. It is shocking to see this Government presiding over such a big decline in opportunities for adult learning across the country. The Government say that we do not need to worry because these are places for people to do basket weaving and belly dancing. Conservatives understand the value of those things—

Sir Patrick Cormack indicated assent.

Mr. Willetts: I see my hon. Friend nodding in assent to that proposition. It is very important that people have an opportunity to enjoy those sorts of skills and activities, but it is not just those activities, however worth while, that have suffered—many that are of direct economic benefit have lost out as well.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Willetts: I shall give way, provided the hon. Lady is a little briefer than her two colleagues were—I would appreciate that.

Anne Snelgrove: I recall that when I was working as an adviser in Surrey county council in the 1980s and 1990s, the then Tory Government cut belly dancing and basket weaving classes. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman recalls that too?

Mr. Willetts: I do not recall those exact details. My recollection is that if one examines the figures for adult learning places, one finds that there has clearly been a significant reduction in the past few years. That is a direct result of this Government’s policies, and those reductions are not simply in respect of basket weaving and belly dancing.

Only last week, I received a parliamentary answer to a question in which I asked Ministers to describe in detail the different types of learning opportunities that had been cut under this Government. It revealed that in 2004-05 the Learning and Skills Council funded 1,456,000 places studying information and computer technology, but many of those places were filled by people who were not necessarily going to get a paper qualification in the end, so the axe came down. So by 2007-08, the number of places had fallen to 590,000, which means that nearly 1 million places have been lost in the last three years.

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Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): While the number of places has undoubtedly fallen, may I commend the proactive work of the Open university? It has recently introduced the Re-launch website which acts as a search engine to find both places and potential sources of finance?

Mr. Willetts: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does on behalf of the Open university, which is based in his constituency. His point is well made and I strongly agree with him.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to Oaklands college in my constituency, which provides many courses for severely disabled learners, who struggle desperately to get funding, especially those in the 19 to 21 age bracket who cannot access student grants. The Government have severely cut the support given to my local college.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is right, and that is another example of the obsession with paper qualifications. I spoke recently to a student with learning difficulties who was studying horticulture at an FE college, but the course would not gain her an NVQ. The LSC decided that it would fund the course only if it resulted in a paper qualification, so her worthwhile activity was cut as a result of a policy decision by the Government, and they should be ashamed of that.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman regret the way in which the Conservative Government introduced the national curriculum into schools in the early 1980s? It had the effect of pushing vocational education off the curriculum and alienating a generation of less able children.

Mr. Willetts: We are now digging into the distant past. In fact, I support the principle of a national curriculum. As the hon. Gentleman will know, over the years it has been amended and changed in the light of concerns such as the one that he has expressed. I am trying to draw attention to why the decisions made by the Government have meant that this nation is not investing in the skills that we need, especially now in these tough times of recession.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): My hon. Friend has made a powerful case about elements of complacency in the lifelong learning agenda over the past 10 years, but I am sure that he and others would want to look to the future instead of going through the history. Does he agree that, in view of globalisation and the tumultuous economic events of recent months, which will have a great impact in the decades ahead, we now need to train and retrain for four or five different careers over a lifetime in work that may last for 50 years, depending on changes to the retirement age? That is important beyond the paper qualifications achieved at university and to those who may never go to university, but who will need skills in a career that may last many decades.

Mr. Willetts: I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why many of my hon. Friends were shocked by a brutal answer from the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, in oral questions last week. We were talking about the importance of what are called—if I have permission from my hon. Friend the
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Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) to use the phrase—green collar jobs. The Under-Secretary said that people could get such jobs only if they had studied a STEM subject—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—at university. We then asked about retraining, including going back to university to get a new qualification that might help people to obtain one of those new jobs. Such opportunities have been cut yet again by the notorious equivalent level qualification cuts made by this Government. They simply do not get the importance of adult learning and giving people the opportunities to learn and reskill.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: I have been generous in giving way, and I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because I know he has a longstanding interest in this subject. However, after that I will try to make some progress.

Mr. Chaytor: If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about adult training places, why is he proposing to cut £610 million from the budget?

Mr. Willetts: No such cuts are proposed. We are refocusing the Train to Gain budget on what we think is the real need in our economy, which is more apprenticeships. Those are the proposals that my party has set out and they are the right policies for the economy.

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham) rose—

Mr. Willetts: I want to make some progress by inviting the Secretary of State, as he is about to intervene, to tell us more about the facts and figures behind the concern of many further education colleges across the country about the future of their capital spending plans. That is what we want to hear about today.

Mr. Denham: Indeed, I shall do that in a moment. However, will the hon. Gentleman help us? The leader of his party announced billions of pounds of spending cuts for the next financial year. He protected some areas of spending but not this Department. That is where the £610 million of cuts comes from. Is the hon. Gentleman in complete denial about the promises made by the leader of his party on 5 January?

Mr. Willetts: The leader of the Conservative party made it absolutely clear that there would be reductions in the growth rate of public expenditure in the financial year 2009-10. They are a proposal in aggregate. Where we would make those necessary savings if we were in government is a subject for careful consideration. That is the position. I want to hear about the Secretary of State’s plans for the capital spending of FE colleges which are today trying to decide whether they should go ahead. We have already heard from several Conservative Members, but I shall quote to the Secretary of State some of the concerns that are being expressed in local papers. Let me quote from The Argus in Brighton, for example. City college Brighton and Hove was

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and other colleges “have also been affected”. We have the same concerns about Wakefield college in Yorkshire and there are concerns in north Norfolk about an FE college there. We want to know from the Secretary of State—

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: If the hon. Lady is going to tell us what she is doing on behalf of her FE college, which is faced with capital cuts imposed by this Government, we shall be very interested to hear her.

Mary Creagh: I met the relevant Minister and representatives of Wakefield college less than a week ago, as soon as I was aware of the delay to the capital spending programme. I reinforce what I am sure my Front-Bench colleagues will say: this is a three-month review. It is a delay, not a capital cut. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should be wary of exaggerating and causing greater anxiety up and down the country.

Mr. Willetts: If I may say so, the anxiety is not created by us. There is real anxiety among people on the governing bodies of FE colleges and the principals of FE colleges who are approaching us and asking us to raise on their behalf a statement from the Government about what they are doing. Perhaps it was my eternal optimism, but I thought the Chancellor meant something when he said in his pre-Budget statement last November:

I thought the Prime Minister meant it when he said in a speech on 5 January that

If the Government are bringing forward capital spending, why is capital spending being delayed in the FE college sector?

The Secretary of State said in answer to questions on the subject last week that we should not worry because it is all in the pipeline. His pipeline is about as reliable as the one bringing gas to the Ukraine. His pipeline is not delivering the capital projects that Conservative Members are fighting for on behalf of our FE colleges. If it is all so fine, why has the Secretary of State asked Sir Andrew Foster to review the matter? What is the purpose of calling for yet another review if it is not a recognition that there is a problem? We want to know how many capital projects proposed by FE colleges are affected, the size of the funds involved, and when the Department first knew about the problem.

Another matter I want to refer to is the crisis involving wildcat action by workers in various parts of the country, which has been caused by their concern about what they believe to be the threat to their jobs from foreign workers. Clearly, we have to be very careful in how we approach this, as no hon. Member on either side of the House would have any truck with xenophobia. We believe in the free movement of goods, services and people around the EU, but perhaps the Secretary of
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State will illuminate the rather striking gap between what the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform have said about the action. The Secretary of State for Health said:

However, the Business Secretary said in another place the following day that there was no problem with the EU rules on the free movement of labour. He said:

Being very generous-spirited, I shall take at face value the words of Lord Mandelson—and it is a long time since anyone has done that—about what he had discovered and the “confirmation” from Total. If all that is so, however, what is the competitive advantage of the workers being brought in from abroad over the workers we have seen demonstrating and asking for their jobs? That is the crucial question, and the crucial clue is surely in what the Prime Minister said when trying to explain the slogan—taken from the British National party—that passed his lips about British jobs for British workers.

On “The Politics Show” of 1 February, the Prime Minister said:

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