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My final substantial point is on the need for independent advice and guidance, not only for those not in education or training, but for 13 and 14-year-olds, who are entering a completely different landscape of educational provision, whether they go down the traditional academic path of
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GCSEs and what comes after that, or take up the new diplomas or young people’s apprenticeships. It is vital that that advice is independent of the educational setting in which they find themselves at 13 or 14. It should also be aspirational, particularly for children educated in poorer backgrounds, or those educated in more affluent backgrounds who come from a poorer family. They should challenge the stereotypes, whether based on gender or other grounds, that they might otherwise face, in order for them to be prepared for an increasingly uncertain future.

Such new skills and training should prepare young people for the emergent economy as well as for the current economic emergency. Whether the UK’s future lies in life sciences, digital media or, to use the jargon term, green-collar jobs, it is important that people are prepared for them, and have appropriate advice on the pathways open to them.

Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Williams: No, as I am reaching my conclusion, and I have been generous in allowing interventions.

It is to be hoped that we are facing a relatively short-term economic emergency, but it is creating uncertainty for young people and anxiety for those who have been in the workplace for rather longer. We need appropriately focused short-term interventions for them, but in the long term we need a cultural shift by both employers and the state, to make sure that all modes of study and training are valued equally, so that we can deliver lasting prosperity and real social mobility.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I must remind the House that the 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches begins now. I call Mr. Eric Illsley.

5.10 pm

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): First, may I make a complaint that I have made many times in this House? In a three hour and twenty-minute debate in which Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit, it seems remiss that the three Front-Bench speakers have, between them, taken an hour and a half. I suggest that it would be incumbent on them to take a little less time in future, especially when the time available to Back Benchers is so limited.

We are debating further education, so I make no apologies for the fact that I wish to speak about Barnsley college, although I do apologise to hon. Members for the condition of my voice. I want to discuss the college, first, because it has been a success story over the past few years and, secondly, because it is caught up in the capital funding programme. The rebuilding colleges scheme is excellent, and I am delighted that my local college has been able to benefit from it thus far, although I shall discuss my concerns about its continuation.

Barnsley college has done very well over the past few years and, together with other institutions in Barnsley, it has, for example, managed to reduce the number of our NEETs—an awful acronym that means those not in education, employment or training—to 8 per cent. through a lot of hard work and effort. Barnsley college is also responsible for, among other things, the Arctic Monkeys,
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whoever they are—I am told they are pretty good. I am happy with the way the college has performed and with the funding up to this point.

The college has benefited from the capital programme thus far, and we are halfway through a capital refurbishment programme—we are halfway through phase 3 of it—which involves a large building in the middle of the town centre. Work has started on the demolition of that building, including the removal of asbestos and so on, but that work has basically been frozen. If the programme is suspended, we will not be able to re-use the building, and if we do not get the money, the programme cannot go ahead—that is a matter of concern.

I have listened to hon. Members talking about the situation of colleges prior to Labour’s coming into office. When the Secretary of State said that the budget for further education colleges in 1997 was about zero, it reminded me of the problems faced in the FE sector from 1993 and the incorporation of colleges—that was when they were freed from local authority control. I remember vividly the corruption and the problems in that sector, including at my college—it lost some £6 million at that time through criminal activity. At that time, the reputation of colleges was not very good and they were not well regarded. We have come a long way from that particular point.

To reassess capital spending in the face of an economic downturn such as this one seems an entirely reasonable thing to do—I could not argue against it. If a capital programme has not been “approved in detail” and if one faces an economic downturn such as we have and probably a shortfall in the amount of funding available, it is entirely sensible to reassess exactly what spending will go ahead. But, as I have said, Barnsley college is committed to a number of phases under its capital programme, two of which have already been completed. The third phase is under way and the fourth is yet to go ahead, but all four are linked. The problem is that we have completed two, the third is midway through and the fourth is yet to have plans submitted for it, yet they are all linked. As I have mentioned, building on phase 3 has been suspended pending what we assumed would be a decision later in March on whether the funding would go ahead. But there now appears to be some confusion over what the LSC is saying and what the Government are saying. The principal of the college has said that the LSC expected the college to demolish the buildings because it was necessary to carry out enabling works before the approval of the main build projects. The LSC national and regional offices agreed on 9 January that the college had acted within its powers. So the college had the approval of the LSC to go ahead with the preparatory works and the demolition within phase 3, but a moratorium now appears to have been placed on that phase.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said last Thursday that no college that had received final approval would lose out, but the college principal wrote to me and said that he had attended a meeting in Bradford on 9 January, called by Mr. Phil Head, the head of infrastructure and property strategy at the LSC national office. It was attended by national and regional officers. The principal wrote:

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With the best will in the world, that tends to suggest that some programmes have been suspended indefinitely.

I welcome what the Secretary of State has said today, but I hope that we can look again at the situation of Barnsley college. The project has been approved at every stage as it has progressed through the system. The funding has been put in place by the college and there is no question of it not being able to raise its share of the money. The scheme does not rely on the sale of land or the use of other assets. The funding is in place, except for that coming from the grant. However, there is now confusion about whether phase 3 will continue, despite the fact that work has already started. The fourth and final phase, for which plans must be submitted in spring 2009, is also in doubt. I ask my right hon. Friend to look again at Barnsley college’s position and give me some reassurance that the last two phases—of a four-phase programme costing £55 million—are safe. With two phases completed, one half-way and another one remaining to be approved, it would be ridiculous to allow the scheme to falter at this stage.

5.18 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I hope that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) will forgive me if I do not follow his specific comments, but the whole House will understand his concerns.

Last Friday we saw in Banbury the launch of a job club, which involved pretty much every organisation locally—Jobcentre Plus, the LSC, Business Link, Oxfordshire county council, Oxfordshire Economic Partnership, Cherwell district council, the Shaw Trust, RESTORE and others. On the official statistics, the Banbury travel-to-work area has an unemployment rate of about 1 per cent., but nearly 300 jobseekers turned up on Friday to take part and get involved in that job club. That indicates the scale and the depth of the present recession. What is happening in the labour market is very serious indeed.

The people there had different needs. Some needed to maintain their skills, but one thing that struck me was that quite a lot of those people were the hidden unemployed. They are technically self-employed subcontractors, but they have been working for one or two contractors or companies. They have effectively lost their work but they do not get income-related jobseeker’s allowance and so maintaining their skills and qualifications is quite difficult. For example, HGV drivers need to do more than just maintain their HGV licence. How are they going to do that?

People need to adapt their skills, too. For example, Prodrive in Banbury will make just short of 200 people redundant this year, simply because Subaru has pulled out of world rallying. Prodrive is probably an excellent employer and those who it is reluctantly having to make redundant are highly skilled automotive engineers. How do they adapt their skills in a marketplace where other automotive engineering jobs are going, such as those at Aston Martin and along the whole corridor from Cowley to Longbridge? They need to be able to adapt those skills.

Lastly, there are people who need to acquire completely new skills. In an area such as mine, where do they go to do that? The answer is, surely, the local FE college. I am trying to understand how my constituents who turned
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up last week to the Banbury job club, which will run every Friday—in my patch, we are going to ensure that so far as is possible nobody gets left behind in this recession—can acquire those skills.

One difficulty at the local college, as I understand it, is that unless an adult signs up to a whole NVQ they cannot get funding. Many people do not necessarily need to sign up for a whole NVQ or cannot do a whole NVQ in one go. They just want to take a unit of the qualification. I do not see why the Learning and Skills Council funds adults only if they are going to do an NVQ level 2 or 3, because many of my constituents want to adapt and acquire skills on a piece by piece basis.

In a written answer last week, the Under-Secretary of State very kindly answered a question that I tabled, which asked

He said that the Department was providing

Perhaps we could have a breakdown of how that £158 million will be used. To what extent will my constituents who have become unemployed be able to access it to acquire further skills at the local FE college? The Minister also said that there would be

That is absolutely fine, except for the fact that if small and medium-sized enterprises are laying people off, it does not necessarily help those who become unemployed to acquire new skills.

In my patch, and I am sure in other hon. Members’ constituencies, we experience a dysfunction in that quite a number of people are being made redundant in retail, yet in every single nursing home I am told that it is very difficult to recruit nursing staff. The homes have been relying for a very long time on nursing staff from countries outside the European Union area, such as the Philippines. How will we ensure that we can train people to work in those areas of the economy where there are vacancies as speedily as possible? How do we share information about skills needs? I am told that my local regional development agency, the South East England Development Agency—SEEDA—is doing research on skills needs in the area. However, it seems to be very patchy and to be quite slow in coming through.

We need a speedier analysis of where the skilled vacancies are arising in the local economy and of how we match job vacancies much more quickly to those who become unemployed. For a long time, JobCentre Plus has been concerned primarily with getting people on to jobseeker’s allowance. It has rather relied on local recruitment agencies to get people into work, but they tend to know only about jobs that are immediately available in the local labour market. However, if 200 automotive engineers are made redundant in an area where lots of other automotive engineers are also being made redundant, the local recruitment agencies will not know about other vacancies in engineering elsewhere in the country. We are going to have to get a lot smarter about how we ensure that the vacancies that exist in the economy get promoted, promulgated and filled much more quickly.

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I have been in this House for 26 years and I still think that I am pretty much of a novice in these matters. I find it pretty difficult to get to grips with the Learning and Skills Council. I think that I have a pretty good grip of my constituency, but tracking down who is running the local LSC is pretty tough. Moreover, as soon as I get to understand a body—the Manpower Services Commission, then the area manpower boards, then the training and enterprise councils and now the LSCs—it goes. I am at a complete loss to understand why that happens.

Moreover, I believe that the present arrangements will end in 2010 and that we will then have to get to grips with three new bodies. One, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, will be for young people; another, funded by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, will be for adults; and the third will be a national apprenticeship body funded by a different group. How on earth are college and FE principals meant to get to grips with those three organisations? We are in an economic crisis and loads of people right across the piece are losing their jobs and needing help, so why on earth are the LSCs being scrapped now? Let us at least have a degree of stability.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend has described the rigmarole that causes confusion for everyone, but does he agree that another factor is the sheer cost involved? The Government do not seem to be encouraging economy. I find it amazing that they should be relaunching their “Life is a Great Thing” initiative to expand access to university. It is yet another promotional and rebranding exercise that will incur lots of extra expense.

Tony Baldry: I entirely agree. I cannot see the rationale behind the Government’s approach. People are in desperate need of some understanding of how to get help, and rebranding the LSC will not help them—and particularly not adults who need to acquire new skills—in that regard.

I hope that I do not sound rather portentous, but I thought some of the Punch and Judy stuff earlier this afternoon about who would make the greatest cuts was pretty pathetic, given that most of us taking part in the debate are truly concerned about what is happening in our constituencies. All of us in this House are grown up enough to know that the general black hole in the public finances means that whoever forms the Government after the next general election will have to make some difficult decisions about public spending. Those of us who have been around for a while realise how difficult they will be.

In relation to FE colleges, we are asking only for some degree of certainty. We all recognise that it may not be possible to do everything immediately that we might hope for, but it would be really helpful to know about what programmes and capital projects are not going to go ahead, as people will not then waste time, energy and effort on planning for construction projects that will not happen. We would much rather that some effort were put into what is possible, and we would also like to have some flexibility and understanding with respect to the 16-hour rule.

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That rule governs what unemployed people can do to acquire and update their training and skills without losing benefit. It is really frustrating for people if they feel that the only way to maintain their jobseeker’s allowance is to sit at home and not acquire new skills, for fear of losing their allowance.

5.29 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) will be pleased to know that, in view of the number of people who wish to speak, I will not go through all my facts and figures refuting the Opposition’s motion. I want to highlight some positive examples; I have not sought them out—I have not had time to do lots of research—but came across them in the past few weeks. They are examples of the variety of circumstances in which people can gain skills, and of the opportunities available, all of which we should treasure and encourage. I also want to pay tribute to two friends who died recently, John Hett of the Midland Railway Centre and Paul Buckley, a Derbyshire county councillor. At their funerals, I discovered what they had done to enhance training.

I want to reiterate the point made about the National Skills Forum report on closing the gender gap, and I urge Ministers to look at its recommendations. It is vital that we do not leave out certain groups in the downturn just because it is easy to do so, and that we make sure that the skills of women and others are enhanced. I chaired a report for the Business and Enterprise Committee last year called “Jobs for the girls”. These reports cover issues such as flexible training opportunities, including the possibility of offering part-time apprenticeships to enable people to go back into training, and to retrain after taking time out of the workplace. Some of the recommendations in those two reports are important, and I urge Ministers to have a look at them.

In spite of the difficult times that we are experiencing, it is not all doom and gloom. In Derbyshire, we have doubled the number of apprenticeships. In a Westminster Hall debate last year, I gave a number of examples of cases in which employers were very positive about how Train to Gain had benefited their business. I am excited about going with Lord Puttnam—David Puttnam—to open a brand-new post-16 centre, the Phoenix centre, tomorrow. It is attached to the Aldercar community language college in my constituency. The centre is a £4.6 million facility funded by the Learning and Skills Council, and it certainly is not just about paper qualifications.

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