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Those who are unemployed or who fear unemployment will not be interested in arbitrary targets for qualifications. They need practical help now. We need a skills strategy, not a target for qualifications. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) may no longer be in his place, but I am afraid that we do need reskilling,
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which is ever more relevant, and not just the upskilling that seemed to be the foundation of the Government’s strategy just two years ago.

Some of the targets in the Leitch report, which are still embedded in Government policy, such as the attainment of a full level 2 qualification, as well as the funding linked to those targets, are perhaps not relevant to the many people who are having to refocus their lives and their priorities. For older workers in particular who may need to retrain to get a specific new skill, attaining a broad level 2 qualification, which is the Government’s main target, is not necessarily appropriate.

Anne Snelgrove: If we take reskilling to mean learning new skills in order to move into a different area of employment, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that such work is certainly happening in my constituency, particularly with the Honda workers. The Government are not ignoring such work; in fact, it is happening apace in my constituency.

Stephen Williams: I am not saying that no reskilling is taking place at all—obviously that would be absurd—but all the Government’s targets in the strategy that was commissioned by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor back in 2006 are linked to upskilling the work force. Those targets were not so focused on whether people needed to reskill throughout their working lives. That is the point that I was making.

That point is backed up by research that some of us will probably have received in advance of today’s debate from, among many other organisations, Age Concern. A study by Age Concern has shown that an unemployed man over the age of 50 probably has only a one in five chance of returning to employment within two years. That is worse than the survival rate for many critical illnesses. Those people need a quick, personalised intervention.

We need a whole new approach to adult learning that involves retraining the older workers in an ageing work force as well as preparing the young for the fast-changing world of work. Adult learning—formal and informal—is especially good for women, as was illustrated by the conclusions of the skills study that the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) has been chairing. Perhaps he will speak about it shortly. The study shows that women in particular benefit from adult education, because many of the women who are now in the work force did not attain particularly good results when they were at school. The attainment levels of girls in the 1970s and 1980s were behind those of boys—a complete reversal of where we are today.

Mr. Marsden: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for publicising the “Women and Work” report that was published today. Does he agree that, when we are looking at reskilling in the downturn, we need to look carefully at giving proper value to what some people might call soft skills—the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is not here, so I can say that—although I prefer to call them enabling skills? They are precisely the kind of development and personal skills that will assist older workers, and women in particular, to get back into work or to improve their work skills base.

Stephen Williams: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was pleased to be able to play my part in giving evidence and taking part in the seminar that assessed the evidence
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that has led to today’s report. Soft skills are relevant to women in the work force, and to young people entering the work force. One of the most common things that I hear from employers, and the organisations that represent them, is that they want people entering the work force to have not only literacy and numeracy skills but cross-cutting skills that will enable them to sell, persuade, articulate and engage in teamwork.

Simon Hughes: Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to get across the message that we are absolutely determined that people who are just over 50 should have the same opportunities as anyone else? I had two such people in my surgery last week, one woman and one man. Such people might have 10, 15 or 20 years’ work left in them, and they have the capacity and the will to do it. They must not be made to feel that they are second class when looking for new skills, new opportunities and new work.

Stephen Williams: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a result of the demographic change that is to take place over the next decade or so, our national prosperity will become increasingly reliant on the people who currently make up that part of the work force. As a result of the economic downturn, their pensions and economic stability are now more uncertain, and many of them have realised that they are going to have to stay in the workplace for a lot longer than they envisaged 20 or 25 years ago.

One qualification that definitely needs greater support is the recognised brand of apprenticeships. A forthcoming Bill will include the Government’s provisions for dealing with apprenticeships, and I am sure that we will spend more time discussing them during its passage. In the present economic downturn, however, it is vital to support employers and help them to meet the training costs of those whom they take on as apprentices. That would be a better use of the growth in the Train to Gain budget over the next couple of years, which would release £500 million into meeting the training costs of new apprenticeships. That would not involve a cut; it would simply be a refocusing of the growth in the budget that will take place in any event.

There also needs to be greater certainty for young people—or, indeed, older people—who are thinking of entering an apprenticeship. It is not easy to find out who is offering apprenticeships, whether in someone’s own locality or further afield. We need an apprenticeship service that would, in some ways, replicate that available for those wishing to enter higher education—a UCAS-type system—so that people could find out what places and remuneration were available, and what opportunities were open to them.

The public sector should also set an example, certainly for Government construction contracts but in other Government services and procurement projects too. The Government could make a tangible difference in this area, in contrast to the rather meaningless announcements that they have made so far about interns.

The issue of capital expenditure in further education colleges was the subject of an earlier exchange. The information that I have is that more than 20 schemes were delayed for three months by the national Learning and Skills Council in December. That means a real cost to those colleges; it is not just a matter of uncertainty about whether they can proceed with their plans. Many
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colleges have already engaged architects, for example. In my constituency, a leading firm of architects has laid off a third of its work force; other architects have approached me and said that they were expecting to have the go-ahead to work on these projects, but because of the downturn across the entire construction area, many of those professional people are now fearful for their jobs. Of course, some FE colleges have sunk professional fees into working up proposals, so the delay, albeit of only three months, should not be so easily dismissed.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Have some of the colleges not also raised money? They have gained money from other sources, perhaps from private sources, so in those financial circumstances pulling the plug has very serious consequences.

Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The costs of the projects are often more than simply a central Government grant, vital though that is, as grants are often matched by sales of land, for instance, by the colleges. City of Bristol college, for example, has had a huge amount spent on it, including from Government resources, but its capital programme was made possible only because of a sale of part of the site for housing. Ironically, those houses are in the process of construction as well, so the college has got its money and had its improvements, but any college anticipating using a land sale as part of a capital project must now realise that land sales are plummeting and that their entire project might be in jeopardy on account of the delay.

I found it rather curious that the Secretary of State had to announce in Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills questions last week that he was inviting Sir Andrew Foster—whom I recall in 2006 calling further education the “unloved middle child” of the British education system—to review something that should be directly under the control of the right hon. Gentleman’s own Department.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is regrettable that colleges have to indulge in land deals to fund rebuilding? Should it not be more like the position with schools, where rebuilding is wholly funded by the public sector or the state? Does he agree that that is particularly important for sixth-form colleges, which in many ways are more comparable to schools than colleges?

Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I am not sure that I agree with him. Surely value for money for the taxpayer should be a consideration in any council programme. If any part of the public sector, whether it be a college or not, has surplus land that can be used and sold on the market in order to release its value to the public sector, it is surely right to embrace that rather than dismiss it. I am not an advocate of the state being solely responsible for funding everything.

As I was saying, it is rather curious that the Government felt the need to announce the Foster review of decisions that should have been under their control. At the very least, the Secretary of State should have been keeping
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an eye on what the Learning and Skills Council was doing, because in November the Chancellor pledged in his pre-Budget report that £400 million of capital expenditure in higher and further education was to be accelerated in this comprehensive spending review period rather than held over to a future budgetary period. Why did the Government not therefore keep an eye on things and ensure that that £400 million was released rather than delayed?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman may have missed the thrust of what I said earlier, which is that that money is being spent. That is not the problem. The problem relates to schemes outside the budget to which we have committed and are seeking approval. We are going to meet what was set out in the pre-Budget report. I will not repeat myself. I acknowledge the issue that is being raised, but the problem is not that we will not spend the money that we were given in the spending review period.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman was not listening.

Stephen Williams: I was listening. I listened carefully to the pre-Budget report statement, to what the Secretary of State said during DIUS questions last week, and to what he said today. The fact remains that the review of capital expenditure should have been under the Government’s control, especially given that they made good-news announcements and attempted to secure publicity for them just a few months ago.

Rob Marris: Three months ago.

Stephen Williams: As I said earlier, three months make a difference.

The motion also covers higher education. As I observed at the outset, undergraduates who will leave university in June and July this year will face an uncertain period. It is important to remember that they will be the first university graduates to exit from the brave new world of top-up fees and £3,000-a-year tuition fees. They will be the most heavily debt-burdened generation of graduates that the country has ever produced. [Interruption.] I thought that I heard the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) say “Nonsense”, but surely he cannot have said that.

Tom Levitt: I did.

Stephen Williams: It is an empirical fact that graduates who have accumulated probably £10,000 of tuition fee debt and £4,500 of maintenance debt, as well as credit card bills and overdrafts, are likely to constitute the generation of young people with the highest level of debts as they leave our higher education system and enter a market in which they cannot be certain of securing jobs. I do not believe that they would think that that was nonsense.

David T.C. Davies: The hon. Gentleman is certainly right in one respect—it is an empirical fact—but we may differ on another point. The real tragedy is that many of those graduates have been given degrees in subjects that will not lead to any sort of job, because there are no jobs available for people with degrees in film studies and the like.

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Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman began by making a serious point about graduate unemployment. Certainly many people with degrees—including those who may expected to enter highly paid jobs in financial services—will face an uncertain future. However, I do not share his dismissive, Daily Mail-like attitude to certain degree programmes. The employment outcomes of many people who undertake new media courses—or study golf course management, or whatever other subject the hon. Gentleman may have wished to cite—show that such courses often result in high employment and good wages.

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman has made a strong case for more investment in capital, reskilling and upskilling, and more investment for the over-50s, but how does he square all that demand for more investment with his party’s policy, which is to continue to subsidise free tuition for full-time undergraduates who come from the most privileged families and who are at the most prestigious universities?

Stephen Williams: I was expecting such an intervention from the Labour Benches, and I am surprised that it has taken so long.

All the expenditure commitments that I have made so far today have consisted of commentary on existing Government pledges. That, surely, is the point about the further education capital programme. As for funding our spending pledges at the next general election, this Opposition party—perhaps unlike the other Opposition party—always goes into a general election with a fully costed programme. The fine detail is combed over independently, usually by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The leader of my party is absolutely clear about the fact that our spending pledges on family care, schools and higher education, all of which will be debated at our spring conference in Harrogate, will have to be met—particularly in these difficult economic times—through a refocusing of other Government programmes to which we do not give priority. Obviously we shall announce what they are at the time of the next general election.

Mr. Chaytor: For the purpose of further clarification, will the hon. Gentleman give us a progress report on the specific issue of the review of the policy on university tuition fees?

Stephen Williams: I invite my friend the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) to be patient and wait until a week or two from now, when those conclusions will be published in advance of our conference.

Tom Levitt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Williams: I think that I have given way enough. I need to make some progress now.

Tom Levitt: It relates to my earlier intervention.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he must not barrack from a sedentary position. However, it appears that on this occasion his barracking has succeeded.

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Tom Levitt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for both giving way and observing the custom of the House that when a Member making a speech refers to an intervention, they then give way to the Member who made the intervention. I said “Nonsense” when the hon. Gentleman was repeating the claims about student debt that got him elected in a constituency with a high student population, because his argument falls apart when we accept that the most debt-challenged student is not as debt-challenged as the graduate who takes on a mortgage. We do not see that debt in the same way. It is not a debt that has to be repaid immediately, or a debt on which high interest rates are charged. It is a debt that will be repaid over 25 years and anything not paid will then be ignored. It is a good situation for someone—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is a very long intervention in what is a time-limited debate. I hope that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) will also, in his generosity, recall that many Members wish to speak.

Stephen Williams: I think I have been generous in allowing interventions. I say to the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) that if he represented a university city and tried that argument with tens of thousands of students, he would not get a very good reception.

If higher education is to expand in the future, it will need to be more flexible, particularly as we have a fast-changing economy. We need to have more people learning part-time, building up their degrees on a credit or modular basis. Therefore, we need to treat those who choose to study on a part-time basis more equitably than at present.

As the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) also said of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats take the position that the £100 million reallocation—or cut—from the equivalent or lower qualifications budget that was directed by the Secretary of State to the Higher Education Funding Council was a mistake. We said that at the time, and it is even more of a mistake now, when people would benefit from taking on new qualifications. It would be interesting to hear in the ministerial summing up what has actually happened to that £100 million that was supposedly refocused. The justification given for that cut in ELQs was that the £100 million was to be refocused on setting up new places in higher education, but all we have heard recently is either that applications have stalled or that the Government are warning the sector not to expect any growth in funded places in future.

The hon. Member for Havant referred to NEETs—those not in any formal mode of education, whether FE, higher education or apprenticeships. The Government’s big idea for dealing with them in the Education and Skills Bill of last year was to raise the education and training age to 18. My party resisted that position at the time. The Secretary of State has been rather cagey in some of his statements to the press about this, but I hope the Government will not be tempted to bring forward the raising of the leaving age in order to mask worsening youth unemployment.

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