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You will understand, with your considered view about such matters, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that apprenticeships are critical to rebuilding the nation’s skills. FE colleges play a crucial role in delivering apprenticeships, and their facilities and resources are central to that purpose. A fundamental part of any apprenticeship framework is the training provided off site, which frequently takes place at an FE college. The 361 FE colleges in England
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do an incredibly important job. It is perhaps appropriate at this point to pay tribute to them and to the people who work in them because they make such a big difference to so many lives. They educate and train more than 3 million young and older learners each year, including about 750,000 16 to 18-year-olds. That is more than school sixth forms, private schools and training providers.

The new clauses are relevant to the transfer of responsibilities resulting from the division of the Learning and Skills Council into three new bodies: the Skills Funding Agency, the Young People’s Learning Agency and the National Apprenticeship Service. Some people have described the Bill as a “bureaucratic muddle”. The British Chambers of Commerce made that very remark during the witness sessions that we enjoyed before the Committee stage of the Bill. Others have described it as “opaque”, “obtuse”, “obscure” and a “missed opportunity”. These new clauses attempt to go some way towards improving a very imperfect product.

New clause 1 would place a duty on the Secretary of State to commission a report on the FE college buildings and facilities that are so vital to delivering the training necessary to build the skills that we need. New clause 11 would place a duty on the chief executive of Skills Funding to provide a report on the progress of applications by FE colleges for capital projects.

The reasons for the new clauses have become all too clear recently as a result of the gross mismanagement of the FE capital programme. I do not entirely blame the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), for that. I still regard him as a young man of promise, although many in the House regard him as merely a young man of promises. As he knows, I have defended him, on the Floor of the House and elsewhere, against some of the assaults that have been made on him from all quarters, not least the FE sector itself when it found it was facing disappointment and disillusion resulting from the freeze on FE capital projects.

After many months of uncertainty, the Government announced in March that they would be freezing the approval process for 144 college building projects. Seventy-nine of the frozen colleges had already received agreement in principle and were awaiting approval in detail, which is the final stage of the approval process. To be considered for approval in detail, the colleges would already have had to secure planning permission and put together a full project brief. That involves not only the college staff but many other agencies, including those involved in designing the buildings, putting together the necessary infrastructure plans and project managing the process. Many others have been affected detrimentally by this cruel freeze. The colleges have therefore incurred considerable costs in order to reach that stage of development.

The other 65 frozen colleges are waiting for approval in principle. Some have already assembled a project team and put money towards preparing their bid. In my area, Boston college is in just that situation. It provides an outstanding service to many young people and adults from my constituency. In the areas neighbouring my constituency on the south side, Peterborough regional college and Stamford college are also both affected by the freeze. The new clauses would go some way towards
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ensuring that such matters would be identified and dealt with at a much earlier stage than they have been thus far.

Mr. Graham Stuart rose—

Mr. Hayes: I will happily give way to my hon. Friend, who gave such sterling service in Committee.

Mr. Stuart: My hon. Friend knows of the anger that exists in places such as Hull and Beverley as a result of what is happening to our FE colleges. Unemployment is rising fast in Hull and the surrounding area; I think that it has doubled in the East Riding in the past two years. The colleges there could have made more modest investments if they had been guided to do so, but Ministers allowed their expectations to be raised beyond the finances that were available. Hull college, which does not have permission in principle, is therefore just sitting and waiting, and two years on from getting approval in principle, the East Riding college in Beverley is sitting there—with the centre of Beverley looking like a bomb site at the moment—not knowing whether it will be able to proceed.

Mr. Hayes: I note that barely a day goes by without my hon. Friend representing the interests of Beverley and the other parts of his constituency in this regard. Indeed, many hon. Members across the Chamber have raised this issue in respect of their own local circumstances. We have heard similar cries from those on the Labour Benches whose constituents have been affected. Lives have potentially been damaged, hopes have been shattered, and dreams have at least been postponed, and possibly abandoned. What a cruel thing a feeble Government are. It was Edmund Burke who said:

This Government are certainly feeble, and that is putting it kindly.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) visited the Tresham institute in Kettering at the end of last week, and we heard the sorry tale of £60 million of investment in further education colleges in north Northamptonshire—at Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough—being stalled, thus stalling the redevelopment of the town centres in Corby and Wellingborough and potentially imperilling the university challenge bid that north Northamptonshire is putting forward. The whole redevelopment of north Northamptonshire could be put on hold unless the Government get the situation sorted out.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend makes a telling point. College building projects are often highly regenerative in their nature. They have a much bigger effect than just the immediate impact on learners and potential learners. They can involve land sales as well as work with a variety of other agencies, employers and education providers. The effect of this freeze is devastating for many communities. I know that many Members across the Chamber are feeling that cold chill in their communities and want the opportunity to explain that to the House.

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Kelvin Hopkins: There have undoubtedly been problems with the LSC, and the Government are now doing their best to pick up the difficulties and to improve the situation. But do not the difficulties derive—in part, at least—from the decision by the previous Conservative Government to throw all the colleges into a competitive business environment, instead of the planned public service environment that I would prefer? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that putting sixth-form colleges back into the Schools for the Future programme is a sensible approach?

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman attempts to take me down a path that I know you would not want me to go down, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because that would take us far from the new clauses before us. Nor am I prepared to have a debate about ancient history. I am rightly drawing the House’s attention to the mess that we are in now, which is directly attributable to the mismanagement that, in the end, finds form on the Treasury Bench. It is true that the LSC has something to answer for in this respect, but the buck stops with the people in Government, does it not? I know that the Minister will take on that responsibility squarely and own up to it. I am hoping for the apology that, so far, we have not had in the fullest, most extravagant form—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon) rose—

Mr. Hayes: I hope that this is going to be both full and extravagant. I happily give way.

Mr. Simon: The Secretary of State and I have both said in this House more than once that we are sorry for the situation that we are in. Surely there can be no more extravagant apology than that. It is not really fair of the hon. Gentleman to demand that I come and apologise when I have clearly apologised on the record, and so has the Secretary of State.

Mr. Hayes: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has said that, and I take it in the spirit in which it was offered. What he has not done, however, is give an absolute assurance that colleges will not go bust as a result of this crisis. Speaking on the “Today” programme on 19 March, he was specifically asked for such an assurance and said that he could not offer it. Because the Government do not know the full extent of the problem—new cases seem to emerge daily—it is very hard for the Secretary of State to make such an open-ended commitment. Perhaps the Minister will make it for him. Will he now give the House an open-ended commitment that the Government will support all those colleges that have been so badly affected? Will they provide the money promised by the LSC in a full and fair way?

Mr. Simon: I must correct the hon. Gentleman again: we have said it clearly on the record for some time that no college will be allowed to go bust as a result of the Learning and Skills Council’s mismanagement of this situation.

Mr. Hayes: I am delighted that we have extracted both that commitment and—

Mr. Simon rose—

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7 pm

Mr. Hayes: I will not give way again until I have made a little progress. As well as that commitment, I hope we have extracted an ongoing commitment that, as new cases emerge, they will be dealt with appropriately. I say to the Minister, and I do not say it lightly, that many of the colleges at a much earlier stage of the process have well-established bids. A number of colleges with which we have been in discussions as a result of their fears about these matters have made it clear that although they have not secured approval in principle—still less approval in detail—they have been planning a capital project for a very considerable time with the knowledge, approval and encouragement of the Learning and Skills Council. If the Minister has a better idea of the scale here—both the breadth and depth of his problem—and is prepared to underwrite the necessary capital commitment here and now, I will happily give way to him again. Certainly what has been offered so far goes nowhere towards that kind of financial commitment.

Mr. Simon: Just to be clear, the Government are on the record as saying that no college will be allowed to go bust as a result of the LSC’s mismanagement of the situation.

Mr. Hayes: We have heard that once already, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What I was actually asking the Minister for was a further assurance that those colleges that have gone a long way down the road towards putting capital bids and projects together will receive the sort of support they need. If these new clauses were in place and the Government had agreed to their addition to the Bill, we would not, frankly, be in the present position with me having to extract these promises from the Minister, because a report would have been made in good time, anticipating much of the problem that we are now dealing with. I happily give way to the Minister one final time, but then I must make some more progress.

Mr. Simon: I have to explain to the hon. Gentleman that he has not “extracted” anything, as all this information is clearly on the record. The problem is that there is a greater expectation of funding out there than can possibly be met. We obviously cannot commit to funding the unfundable commitments of the LSC; what we have committed to, however, is that no college will go bust as a result of the LSC’s mismanagement.

Mr. Hayes: We will talk a little bit more about how the Government prioritise funding and how they intend to allocate the money that has been announced. I repeat for the benefit of the House—and, in particular, for the Minister—that many projects that have not received agreement in principle, still less in detail, despite being well worked up, critically important in a regenerative sense to the community and having received encouragement, advice and guidance from the LSC, will not, I suspect, receive any degree of Government help now. That is because they do not fall into the category that the Minister will conveniently identify as deserving cases. I simply do not buy the idea that the Government will get the criteria or the support right or that they will not disappoint a very large number of colleges and learners up and down the country.

Mr. Stuart rose—

Mr. Hayes: I will give way to my hon. Friend, but then I really must make some more progress.

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Mr. Stuart: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and I welcome the Minister’s apology to the House today. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that what we have not yet heard from Ministers is any explanation of their role in the Learning and Skills Council’s exciting of these expectations around the country? We have seen the LSC blamed and we have seen the resignation of its chief executive, but are we really to believe that Ministers played no part in all this and had no awareness of what was going on? I think that that is incredible and that the House deserves an explanation this evening.

Mr. Hayes: I cannot really answer that in my all too brief contribution. I know that Members will want me to go on and on and on, but the House will understand that others may wish to speak. That point does matter, however, particularly in respect of the new clauses that I am supporting, to which I shall now turn my attention in more detail.

If the new clauses formed part of this Bill, we would know, for example, how much money had been committed in preparing capital bids. The Association of Colleges estimates that colleges have incurred costs of £170 million in planning capital bids—and that is just the colleges we know about. As I have already said, many have fallen between the cracks, as it were. Some £300 million was announced in the budget for FE capital funding, but that is not nearly enough to fund the projects that are now in limbo. We are yet to have clarity from the Government about the criteria that will determine which projects go forward. It is clear that where colleges were in the approval process tells us only so much; we need a much fuller picture of the economic value of individual projects, how far advanced in practice they are and how much colleges and other bodies stand to lose if their bid is not approved.

This crisis exposes the Government’s inconsistency—I hesitate to use the word “hypocrisy”, Mr. Deputy Speaker—as far as capital spending is concerned. It is a crisis entirely of the Government’s own making. The Government commissioned Sir Andrew Foster, a distinguished commentator, writer and thinker on these subjects, to write a review. It was he, after all who, at the behest of the Government, wrote “Realising the Potential: A Review of the Future of Further Education Colleges” in 2005. Sir Andrew Foster concluded that

So we know that Sir Andrew Foster’s answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) would be that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills had a key role to play. When we speak of DIUS, furthermore, do we not speak of Ministers? It would be quite wrong for the buck to stop with civil servants, officials and quangos when it is the politicians and the Government themselves who answer here in this House.

You will have recognised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that new clause 11 refers to

and to

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have been approved, which should be broken down to show which have been approved “in principle” and which “in detail”. The provision also makes reference to the key role of the Secretary of State because the report proposed in the new clause must go to him, making a direct link between what is happening on the ground in colleges and what the Secretary of State knows and does on—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I want to assure the hon. Member not only that I had indeed noticed it, but that I was rather hoping that at some point he might notice it, too, as he has been conducting a rather general debate as opposed to engaging with the more particular points at the heart of his proposed new clauses.

Mr. Hayes: I am grateful, as ever, for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I can assure you that I had noticed the new clauses. Indeed, they are highly pertinent to the exchanges taking place across the Chamber because they tie Ministers to an empirical assessment of where bids are, where they have come from and how much they are going to cost. That contrasts with what has happened over recent weeks and months, where the link between Ministers and those things has been opaque, obscure and obtuse. That is simply not good enough.

Since it was established in 2001, the Learning and Skills Council has undergone three major reorganisations. Under the Bill, it will be abolished and replaced, as I said, with three quangos. Perhaps it is not surprising that the LSC took its eye off the ball. The Government are, of course, now keen to attribute blame to the LSC; we hold no candle for that body, but because legislation of the kind we propose in the new clauses was not in place, it is perhaps not surprising that Ministers lost control, were unable to anticipate these matters and were unaware of some of the facts.

Indeed, Ministers now claim that they did not know what was going on. They must claim that, must they not? If they did know what was going on, they would take full responsibility rather than partial responsibility for the mess we are in. The projection of costs seems to me to be a pretty fundamental part of managing capital budgets. How can we possibly not know how much we have planned to spend against how much we have got—surely this is bread-and-butter stuff? To be told, in the Minister’s words, that the Government could not possibly meet the ambitions of colleges is extraordinary when those ambitions were fuelled and fostered by the very body charged with that purpose—a body that was, in the end, answerable to Ministers.

Despite causing the disruption, Ministers failed to monitor information that their Departments were receiving. The crisis puts into sharp focus the issue of responsibility for capital projects under the new arrangements proposed in the Bill. If the Bill remains unamended, I suspect that we might get into such a mess again, so these new clauses and what we said on Second Reading, in Committee and subsequently are made all the more pertinent by the circumstances that I have described in these few words.

The circumstances regarding FE were not entirely known when we began to debate the Bill; the truth has come out gradually. As I say, more and more colleges have made it clear that they, too, were promised the
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large investments that, clearly, the Government now are not in a position to make available. However, it is not entirely true that Ministers knew nothing until very recently, because an examination of the LSC minutes makes it perfectly clear that, as early as February 2008, doubts were raised about the capital funding of FE colleges. Certainly by autumn that year, it was as clear as crystal that a major crisis was about to engulf the sector and the Government.

We did not receive an adequate explanation from Ministers in Committee, and last week at departmental questions, the Secretary of State said:

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