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House of Commons

Thursday 12 March 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before questions

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [ Lords]

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (15 January),

Hon. Members: Object.

The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 19 March.

Canterbury City Council Bill, Leeds City Council Bill, Nottingham City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (15 January),

Hon. Members: Object.

The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 19 March.

Protection of Children in England


Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Student Housing

1. Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on student housing need. [262849]

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The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last met the Housing Minister at the end of January.

Mr. Reed: I know that my hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues understand the issues of studentification and of meeting housing needs in constituencies like ours. He will recognise that Loughborough is held up as a beacon of good practice in dealing with the problems that arise in the partnership that exists. Can he give an assurance that he is applying pressure to the Department for Communities and Local Government to give local authorities the planning powers that they need to prevent such problems arising in other constituencies across the country, and to reduce the problems associated with studentification in areas like mine?

Mr. Lammy: I congratulate my hon. Friend on doggedly continuing to champion the issue, which arises in constituencies across the country. Indeed, in my constituency there are occasionally problems in relation to the many houses in multiple occupation in which students live. Certain things can be done to help local communities, such as running helplines and appointing community liaison officers, but my hon. Friend is right that planning issues are central, which is why we continue to have dialogue with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am pleased that they will consult in the spring on the Ecotec report.

Apprenticeships (Mitcham and Morden)

2. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase the number of apprenticeship places in Mitcham and Morden. [262850]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): Last year 240 people started apprenticeships in the Mitcham and Morden constituency, the highest number for five years. We are taking a wide range of steps to encourage more people to take up apprenticeship places and more employers to offer high quality places. We have established an apprenticeships taskforce to oversee expansion of the programme in the capital. Last year we saw a record high with 225,000 people starting an apprenticeship, up from a pathetic 65,000 under the Conservatives. The Prime Minister recently announced a £140 million package to provide an extra 35,000 apprenticeship places, of which at least 21,000 will be in the public sector.

Siobhain McDonagh: We are delighted that next year Merton college will have twice the amount of funding and twice the number of apprentices in training. Does my hon. Friend agree that in these difficult financial times, it is more important than ever for the Government to confirm their commitment to giving young people skills through apprenticeships?

Mr. Simon: My hon. Friend is an unmatched champion of apprenticeships and of the needs of young people and the importance of skills in her constituency. She has put her finger on it. In times such as these, the Government should support skills, training and young
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people. What they should not do is cut Train to Gain or £610 million from the skills, science and universities budget, as the Opposition would do.

Unemployment (New Skills)

3. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to assist those who lose their jobs in acquiring new skills. [262851]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): This is exactly the time to increase investment in skills and training. We need to provide real help now. The Government are spending £4.7 billion on adult skills this year, which will help about 3 million people get the skills that they need to get on in work. In addition, we are providing more than £240 million to support those facing redundancy or who have become unemployed, allocating a further £140 million for 35,000 extra apprenticeship places, trebling the number of career development loans, and supporting the Higher Education Funding Council’s £50 million fund to help universities provide swift and responsive help to employers and employees.

Ms Taylor: Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that women have always been seen as the reserve army of labour? What is the Department doing to ensure that women equally access skill training at this time?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We keep a close eye on that. I am pleased to tell her that on the most recent figures, a clear majority of those benefiting from further education and skills spending were women—61 per cent. We have looked at the number of people accessing nextstep for advice. Just under half are women. In addition to the programmes that I have mentioned, we are working with colleges to make sure that the offer that they make on skills is increasingly flexible and able to meet the needs of those who may have to reskill as a result of the downturn.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State be willing to meet members of the William Morris Craft Fellowship scheme to discuss what can be done to encourage more young people, and those who have lost their jobs and are looking for other careers, into a career in the crafts?

Mr. Denham: I cannot imagine anything more delightful than the prospect of a meeting with members of the William Morris Craft Fellowship scheme. The hon. Gentleman has championed this issue over many years. Yes; among the many high-technology, highly science-based, high-value-added activities that will be the core of our economy in the future, there will be space for traditional craft skills, which need to be developed. Let us have a meeting and see what can be done.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to celebrate people who achieve decent skills in any sort of industry—whether the manufacturing, nuclear or construction industries? It is easy to get an academic to give a view on something, but it is difficult to get hold of a skilled plumber to fix the loo. Surely we need to celebrate what those people do.

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Mr. Denham: I entirely agree. It is pleasing to see that many, if not all, further education colleges now hold celebration evenings and events during the year. Last week, we had an enormously successful apprenticeships week in England. That was a particular opportunity to celebrate the success of people who have achieved real and valuable vocational qualifications. I am pleased that as a result of actions taken by party political colleagues north of the border, there is now—rather belatedly—to be added investment in the apprenticeship programme there; more young Scottish people will be able to celebrate success in apprenticeships too.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): The Secretary of State has answered the question put by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat), but how would he deal with my constituents’ problem? They believe that those on jobseeker’s allowance should be able to access training courses much more easily than they can under current Government rules.

Mr. Denham: Many FE colleges structure courses to be compliant with the 16-hour rule that normally operates in respect of JSA. In addition, as part of the package of new measures, those providing the courses, totalling more than 70,000 places, to be available to those who have been out of work for six months, will be required to show that they can run them so that a person can start training while continuing their job search—and, when they get into work, carry on with their training. In these times, we need that sort of flexible, personal system that fits in with the benefits rules.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): In my constituency, 60 new apprenticeships have been announced at Tarmac and the county council has an excellent record of delivering vocational and non-vocation skills in adult and community education over many years. Furthermore, we have the university of Derby at Buxton, a new university blossoming with skills across the board in the further education and higher education sectors. In Derbyshire there is also a big take-up of Train to Gain from employers. Will my right hon. Friend come to High Peak to see how things should be done and how we meet the clearly apparent thirst for skills?

Mr. Denham: I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and look at some of the good practice. I have visited the university of Derby, but would like to see many of those other activities.

Let me reinforce an important point that my hon. Friend made. There are significant investors and companies—my hon. Friend mentioned Tarmac—who understand the need to invest in skills training now. During the recession of the late ’80s and early ’90s, many companies thought that the training budget should be the first thing to go. I believe that that attitude has changed. Many companies have to make hard-headed decisions, but there is a much more positive commitment to maintaining such investment. That is why the Government are maintaining investment in skills and rejecting the advice of the Conservative party, which would cut my Department’s budget by £610 million.

Mr. Speaker: I call Stephen Williams.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con) rose—

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Mr. Speaker: I did not realise that the hon. Gentleman’s name was Stephen Williams. [Laughter.] I call Stephen Williams.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I am sure that all Government Front Benchers, and perhaps all Conservative Front Benchers as well, were avidly watching the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate last weekend. We discussed rebuilding the economy by nurturing all of Britain’s talent. We reaffirmed our commitment to ameliorate student debt by removing university tuition fees and also discussed the barriers to adults’ acquisition of skills, whether through further education or apprenticeships.

Does the Secretary of State agree that there are two measures that could be adopted to help adults who need to reskill—because they have lost their jobs or because of the dynamic 21st-century economy? The first is to remove the ludicrous rule that once someone reaches the age of 25 the state will not fund their first level 3 qualification. The second is to encourage employers to offer apprenticeships; the full, off-the-job training costs of adult apprenticeships should be met.

Mr. Denham: I did spend the entire weekend watching the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate. It was rather like watching a festival of yogic flying, because the hon. Gentleman achieved the remarkable position of promising £3 billion of unfunded commitments on university fees while at the same time abandoning a target of 50 per cent. participation in higher education and promising to cut Train to Gain, so denying hundreds of people the chance to study at work. It really was a quite ridiculous package, and I hope that the Liberal Democrats will not be going around claiming that they are going to cut people’s university fees when they have absolutely no way of paying for that without reducing the number of people who can go to university.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In times of recession, when employers are running down their numbers of employees, that is often done on the basis of last in, first out. The last in are sometimes those who have had physical disabilities, who even in times of economic boom have found it very difficult to get into work. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what particular focus there will be on retraining and reskilling for those who have had physical disabilities that have prevented them from getting into the workplace very easily?

Mr. Denham: One of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been able to invest significantly more in his Department than was planned even a few months ago is his determination to ensure that the rising number of people who are out of work does not hit the Government’s ambitious plans to give greater support to people such as those coming off incapacity benefit, who want to work, and with the right support could work, but might otherwise lose the chance to do so. We are determined as far as is humanly possible to maintain investment in the services that have been developed in recent years to support the very people whom my hon. Friend is talking about and get them into work.

Mr. Speaker: I call David Willetts.

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Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Willetts: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry for my over-eagerness earlier in wanting to respond to the Secretary of State’s caricature of our policies.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about something that I hope he will agree is very important in ensuring that people have training and skills in the recession, which is the role of further education colleges. What does he say to a college that had moved out of its old buildings having been promised capital for a rebuild, but will now find itself operating out of temporary classrooms because of his Department’s incompetence in its management of the capital programme? How does that contribute to investing in skills in a recession?

Mr. Denham: As the hon. Gentleman knows very well from my having made a written ministerial statement last Wednesday as promised, we will spend the £2.3 billion that we have been allocated in this spending review period on capital investment in FE colleges. That is in sharp contrast to the position 10 years ago and comes on top of many hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in recent years. His own constituency has benefited from no fewer than 11 different FE capital projects in recent years. He did not say anything about that, surprisingly.

The Learning and Skills Council informed me about 10 days ago that it had given approval in principle to another 79 colleges, with more in the pipeline. It is clear that we cannot fund all those in the next two years, which is why we have done two things. We have asked the LSC to consult the Association of Colleges and others on ways to prioritise those that are in the pipeline, to give colleges some certainty. Secondly, the LSC has agreed to my request that it appoint Sir Andrew Foster to provide a report to me on how this situation could have arisen.

Mr. Willetts: Havant college is actually one of the many colleges affected by the moratorium. We calculate, on the basis of the Secretary of State’s own statement, that 144 will be affected. He said that he had invited Sir Andrew Foster to explain to him what went wrong. Will he confirm the details in the LSC’s minutes, which we have obtained with a freedom of information request, that senior officials from his Department attended every meeting of the LSC when the capital moratorium was discussed, and that it was specifically concluded at the end of the meeting when the moratorium was first imposed that he should immediately be informed? Why is he now saying that he needs a review, given that his Department was kept in touch throughout this unfolding disaster?

Mr. Denham: The position is clear. Ministers were first alerted to a potential problem with the capital programme at the end of November—I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the date. We received the next information just before the December meeting, at which the decision was made not to approve any further colleges in detail. Ministers were not given the picture that I was able to put in the written ministerial statement last week until the week before last—I think, but I will give him the date—as a result of the review that we asked the LSC to conduct. The numbers of
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colleges that the hon. Gentleman has calculated that were promised approval in detail, and the numbers in the pipeline—that is significant, because not only colleges that have had approval in principle are waiting for funding clearance—did not become available to Ministers with any clarity until that date. We shared the information with the House within the most reasonable timetable possible—after the LSC met last week to consider which colleges could be approved and the shape of the rest of the programme.

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