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That was the Prime Minister’s attempt to explain his egregious remark. If we take him at face value, the only explanation left for the failure of the workers we see protesting to get the jobs they hope to secure is the failure of his Government’s policies on skills. That is the only explanation left if we accept what the Business Secretary said and what the Prime Minister has offered as the meaning of his remarks. He meant that he was going to raise the skills of British workers so that they could secure those jobs, and they are protesting because they cannot get them.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I know the hon. Gentleman wants to be constructive on this issue, and it is clear that we want more skilled people and that there are people in this country who need more skills if they are to compete in any labour market, be it in England, Scotland or elsewhere. I have no particular knowledge of these matters, but I want to make an observation about remuneration and the rates for the job. I do not know what arrangements are made for workers’ accommodation—for instance, they may be put up in a large hulk or vessel—so we must be careful about this matter. The real point is what they take home and what they can send home, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that we must be constructive in our approach. We want as many skilled people as possible in this country, and it does not matter whether they are 20 or 60.

Mr. Willetts: The right hon. Gentleman’s comments are a very salutary warning for Lord Mandelson, who should bear them in mind before he makes remarks such as the one that I cited about pay rates for workers from different countries.

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Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman represents the party that gave us “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”, at a time when hundreds of thousands of British workers had to flee because there was no work for them here. He is talking about European directives, so can he confirm that, were his party to win power, its official policy would be to withdraw from the European social rights packages that are part of the law of this land—yes or no?

Mr. Willetts: We believe that that is one of the things that need to be looked at as part of a negotiation about how the EU can tackle the jobs crisis that it faces. I am trying to focus on the Prime Minister’s words: his defence of the statement “British jobs for British workers” was that he meant that, by investing in more skills, we would be able to secure more British jobs for British workers. By its own measure, that approach has clearly failed.

We need more apprenticeships, and we can finance them by refocusing the money in the Train to Gain budget; that would pay for more apprenticeships, especially for people aged over 19. Labour Members raised the issue of the age range of people studying. The difference between the funding for apprenticeships for those aged under 19 and those over 19 is a form of age discrimination that we do not think is right. We want to offer workers aged over 19 a better deal when it comes to apprenticeships. We also want to offer a better deal to small and medium-sized enterprises. We believe that that, too, could be financed by a refocusing of the Train to Gain budget.

I have waded through one of the more tedious Government documents—their response to the Cabinet public engagement event in Birmingham in 2008. On that occasion, the Cabinet went to my home town and apparently met large numbers of local people, who raised with the Cabinet their concerns about various aspects of Government policy. Most of the comments in that Government document are pretty sanitised, but on skills for employment, the following crept in:

That is the Government saying that Train to Gain is not meeting the needs of local employers. That is what employers tell us, too, and that is why we think that the money should be focused on helping with apprenticeships.

I have set out the problems that the nation faces when it comes to skills. We want investment in apprenticeships, and we want more opportunities for people to get practical training, including adult learning places that are not linked to paper qualifications. What we have from the Secretary of State is an endless flow of announcements, many of which, on close inspection, add up to very little. Last week in oral questions I referred to the national internship scheme, which does not appear to exist.

Perhaps I could refer to another of the Secretary of State’s announcements—one that made the front page of The Daily Telegraph before Christmas, on Tuesday 9 December 2008. Underneath the fantastic banner headline of an article by Boris Johnson, “When did
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Christmas Trees Get So Expensive?”, there was the following headline: “Jobless middle class get study cash”. That article included the statement:

I was in the House debating with the Secretary of State on 8 December, and I read that day’s Hansard. There was no such announcement by the Secretary of State. He did not announce any use of VAT. He had briefed The Daily Telegraph [Interruption.] Well, the story comes from him. He had briefed The Daily Telegraph on an announcement that he did not even make in the House of Commons. That is typical of the way in which the Government approach skills—through bogus announcements with no real policies behind them. That is no way to tackle the skills crisis that we face in this country.

Mr. MacShane: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: I have already given way to the right hon. Gentleman. What we need is very simple: less bureaucracy, less interference in further education colleges and fewer fake announcements. We need more real apprenticeships, more adult learning, and more assistance to get young people who are not in education, employment or training into work. We need a more robust and responsive skills system. That is why we Conservative Members will vote for the motion tonight.

4.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

I shall choose my language with care. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) chided his Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), for using the words “up-skill”
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and “re-skill”. He may not know that I know that the hon. Member for Havant took those words from the recent Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee report on skills—the same Select Committee that recently criticised my Department for using “impenetrable” jargon in our annual report. This is probably a topic where we should all tread very carefully, because it is easy to slip into the jargon of the insider and the professional.

I very much welcome the debate. The hon. Member for Havant has saved me a little time and effort, as I had been urging the usual channels to hold a debate in Government time on the very same topic that we are discussing today. The debate is needed to remind everyone just how much the Conservatives neglected skills and further education when they were in government, and how much the legacy, such as the appalling number of adults left without basic numeracy and literacy at the end of the Conservatives’ term of office, has hung over, and still hangs over, the population of this country. The debate is necessary to remind people just how much of a threat the Opposition still pose, because they get it wrong time and again—as we have heard this afternoon. They misunderstand the problem and propose the wrong solutions time and again—as we have heard this afternoon.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Can the Minister explain why, after 10 or 12 years of a Labour Government, 40 per cent. of school leavers are unable to get five GCSEs, despite the fact that those have been watered down, and 60 per cent. of working class boys are leaving school with virtually nothing at all—one in four people unable to read and write after 10 or 11 years of Labour government? How on earth can the right hon. Gentleman put the blame for that on the Conservative Administration?

Mr. Denham: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman go back and look at the statistics about 10 years ago, and he will see that on every one of the measures that he quoted, there has been a dramatic improvement under this Government as a result of the investment that we have made. I, and other Labour Members, give nothing to the Opposition for the fact that we remain dissatisfied and want to continue to press forward, but we have every right to know how much we have achieved following the appalling legacy that we inherited.

I acknowledge, by the way, that there are hon. Members on both sides of the House concerned about local further education college projects currently in the pipeline, and I will deal with that situation as fully as I can in a few moments.

Mary Creagh: Does my right hon. Friend find it interesting that the Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition totally neglected to mention the huge amount of money that has been spent on union learning representatives—the £400 million or so that is vital to provide peer education? In Wakefield 39 per cent. of people in work have no formal qualifications whatsoever. Is it not vital that we invest in peer education and making sure that those people have qualifications? When we talk about ancient history and people in the 1980s going on youth training schemes and on the other botched training schemes that the Conservative Government ran, we should recognise that those people are now in their 30s and 40s, and will be working for the next 20 years.

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Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right on both points. It is indicative that the hon. Member for Havant was unable to recognise one of the biggest success stories of recent years—that by providing modest financial support for people at work to encourage their friends to get involved in learning, we have reached many thousands upon thousands of people—about 250,000 every year—who would not otherwise have gone into learning. And they often volunteer for learning in basic numeracy and literacy, two areas where people find it most difficult to say, “I’ve got a problem and I want some assistance.” My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

I shall set out the huge gulf between the Opposition and the Government in respect of skills. We believe that in a downturn we need to invest in skills and training. The Opposition want to cut investment in skills and training. It is not acceptable for the leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), to announce that if his party was in power, from 1 April 2009 it would cut billions of pounds from public expenditure, and to name the Departments that would be protected and those, including this area of work, that would not be protected, and then for the hon. Member for Havant to say that there would be no cuts in any of these areas of spending. It is not credible or believable, and until I get a different answer, I will proceed by analysing the share of cuts that would fall to this Department and telling the House exactly what those Conservative cuts would mean for education and training.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend noticed that there are seven spending commitments in the Conservative party motion before us? They are:

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a lack of shame is a hallmark of the bourgeoisie, and is now being exposed in Conservative Front Benchers, who put forward all those spending commitments but also wish to cut spending?

Mr. Denham: I might choose more temperate and moderate language. However, it is reasonable to assume that many Conservative Members seeking to intervene will, like the hon. Member for Havant, want to suggest that more money should be spent. Conservative Members need to understand that they come from a party whose leader has told them that less money—that includes less money for skills and further education—should be spent. That means cuts.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): On the subject of Train to Gain, I should say that the Government, along with the various bodies, have announced some important flexibilities for small and medium-sized companies. That will be really important for constituencies such as mine.

We have talked about how money has been spent in different ways. Does my right hon. Friend not find it curious that the Conservative party seems to be unclear about whether it intends to abolish Train to Gain or whether—like the Liberal Democrats and their “penny on income tax” before the last election—it intends to spend the money in about five different ways?

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Mr. Denham: As the Conservative party has made clear, the whole £1 billion in the Train to Gain budget for 2010-11 would not be spent on those activities. I shall come back to that issue later. The whole package of support for small businesses, and now for larger companies, and for the 1 million people who will gain qualifications every year under the Train to Gain programme, would be removed. There is no doubt about that, and it is a great shame.

Anne Snelgrove: Further to my right hon. Friend’s comments about cuts, does he share my puzzlement that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) claimed that under his plans there would be more apprenticeships for young people over 19? In fact, the cuts announced by his party leader would mean that not one young person over 19 would have an apprenticeship next year.

Mr. Denham: I am afraid that that is true. If we move to cut hundreds of millions of pounds from a budget in just a couple of months’ time, large areas of spending will not be possible. For that sort of cut, we could shut six universities—but of course we could not do that overnight, and huge costs would be involved. The only things that could be turned off to achieve that are those that can be turned off quickly, and that means cutting all apprenticeships for those over 19.

Mr. Chaytor: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Denham: I shall make a little progress and then come back to my hon. Friend.

We believe that, in addition to support for investment in skills and training, there should be an increase in support for those who lose their jobs. The Conservative party opposed the measures needed to pay for that. It would do what it did before—nothing. We should work with Britain’s businesses to deliver the training that they say they want. That would give people the chance to gain the skills that they need. As we have just said, the Conservative party would take that chance away from 1 million people and thousands of firms.

In these difficult economic times the Government have three priorities: first, delivering global action to tackle a global downturn; secondly, delivering real help now to families and businesses to help them through the challenges of the here and now; and, thirdly, delivering real hope for the future by stepping up investment in our infrastructure, industries and skills.

Let us start with investment. When the Conservative party left office—at the time when the current, recycled, shadow shadow Chancellor was Chancellor of the Exchequer—the budget for further education colleges was zero. At the time, the National Audit Office described FE colleges as

Colleges were not fit for purpose. Since 1997 the Government have invested more than £2 billion in renewing and modernising FE facilities, and we will spend another £2.3 billion in the current spending review period. Since the programme began, nearly 700 projects in 330 colleges have been agreed.

Mr. Burrowes rose—

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Mr. Denham: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, yes.

Mr. Burrowes: I sense from the Secretary of State’s tone that he welcomes this intervention. I hope that he will be able to give good news in advance of his visit to Southgate college, where people are hoping to improve their build dramatically but where its principal and governors, and other constituents, are concerned that although a lot of money and time has been spent on these plans, which went to the planning committee last Thursday, they have effectively been withdrawn because of the removal of capital approval. Will he now give a commitment that there will be approval for Southgate college’s plans?

Mr. Denham: As I understand it, no college plan has been presented to the LSC in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency for approval, even in principle. It may well be that his local college has aspirations and hopes to move forward, as many others do and rightly should, but it does not do this debate much good to claim that colleges were on the verge of final approval when they are clearly some way further down the line in terms of planning procedures. I will be happy to discuss the situation at the college when I visit it in a few days or a few weeks’.

As I was saying, since the programme began nearly 700 projects in 330 colleges have been agreed. At present, 253 schemes are under way or are fully approved. Only 42 colleges in the whole of England have yet to receive any investment. Last summer, the National Audit Office reported the programme as making good progress with the renewal and modernisation of the FE estate. It found that the great majority of projects had come in on budget and delivered great improvements for learners, and said:

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