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6 May 2009 : Column 75WH—continued

10.17 am

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing this important debate, some six weeks after it first became obvious that the funding promised to our sixth forms in our schools was to be severely cut. I should like briefly to point out, if I may, that it is something of a disgrace that those six weeks passed without the Government volunteering any statement whatever, even if there have been answers to parliamentary questions and an apologetic passage in the Budget saying that they are trying to remedy a situation that should never have arisen in the first place.

I was first alerted to the situation when I received a copy of a letter that was sent to the Minister by Langley Park school for boys, which is in my constituency. The school is expecting a huge increase in the size of its sixth form—Bromley schools offer a very good education, so it was no surprise to any of them that their sixth forms should increase when children are faced with a lack of opportunity that has largely been brought about by the Government’s economic incompetence.

The schools are facing 7 per cent. cuts in their budgets and they are having to say to children who need sixth-form education, “You are not welcome.” My LEA has worked well and has been prepared to dig deep into its reserves even if it should not have had to do so. It told me that it was going to try to accommodate the children, and that was followed by the Budget, which sounded as though the £650 million was extra, new money, rather than money that was being cut. We saw through that fairly quickly.

Although my head of education is somewhat reassured that the money will be available for the first year, so we will be able to educate our children up to the level that they want, need and deserve, there are serious concerns about education the year after. The biggest outrage of the lot, as many of my colleagues have mentioned, is that although the Labour party’s mantra is “education, education, education”, no Labour Members are interested enough in education to be here.

My local schools are determined to educate the children of Bromley and get them into university, but the 7 per cent. overall cut is extremely hard for them to deal with in what is a tight economic settlement anyway. Langley Park school for boys, the school that wrote to the Minister and first alerted me to the situation, pointed out that it had expected to be able to provide education for every person who applied.

In one sense, I rejoice in the fact that the Learning and Skills Council is disappearing; on the other hand, I am heavy-hearted that it is being replaced by yet more bureaucracy rather than a return to the status quo ante, which was that the Department took responsibility for sixth-form funding. That was one of the biggest mistakes
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that this Government have made, but as usual, they wish to deny responsibility for their decisions, pass it on to quangos and hold their hands up.

Schools cannot impress on the LSC the need for the money. The departing LSC members are probably suffering from something that we all suffer from: end-of-termitis. They know that they are going and they have no responsibility, so they do not care. This Government have set up a system that has let down children of all abilities, in order to keep theoretically within a budget that is clearly so expandable that within days during the Budget proceedings, they found the £650 million that would have been cut from senior school funding. It is yet another example of how the Government are falling apart as we watch. Every single person in this country is affected by sheer incompetence right across Government and the loss of the will to govern. We as a society will have to deal with the consequences of the incompetence emerging daily not just from the Department but from the whole of Government.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, we have about eight minutes and only two speakers left. I hope that they will recognise the importance of giving the Minister sufficient time to answer the many points made, as I am sure he is eager to do. We should make sure that he gets enough time.

10.22 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I had not intended to speak in this debate, but I am so incensed by the complacency and indifference shown by the Government that I have been moved to speak. It is extraordinary. I have never been in a Westminster Hall debate where the Minister has arrived five minutes late, the officials 10 minutes late and the Parliamentary Private Secretary 21 minutes late. It shows complete and utter contempt for a subject that is important to Members of all parties, and no Government Member has bothered to turn out.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). We share the serious problems faced by Worthing and Northbrook colleges, our two major colleges with a sixth form. It is a double whammy. About a month ago, we took a delegation from those two colleges to see the Minister with responsibility for further education, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon). The situation that they are facing is desperate. They put up £1.5 million that they can ill afford, and that money has now been put in limbo, as has the future of their necessary rebuilding programme, for the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned.

The colleges do not just want to upgrade for the sake of upgrading. We are trying to deliver education for students in the 21st century in huts, in an area of high need. The colleges have tried to do everything that the Government have asked of them to improve the training and skills of the local work force, and they have been kicked in the guts by the way in which the Government have handled the situation. The finances of those colleges are already stretched because the Government, through the incompetence of the Learning and Skills Council, have reneged on the capital spend anticipated by the colleges.

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I have a letter from the head of the Coastal West Sussex partnership that says:

It is important in our part of the world. It is not an affluent area. We have had serious unemployment problems recently due to job cuts by big employers. Norwich Union announced the loss of more than 600 jobs, and GlaxoSmithKline and BOC Edwards have also announced job losses. One serious problem that local employers face is an insufficiency of local skills. If they can take on more skilled people, they can take on less skilled people on the back of that.

Peter Corrigan, the principal of Worthing college, e-mailed my hon. Friend and me. In the wake of all the problems with capital funding shortfalls, he said:

That is crucial. It is a double whammy that should not have happened at all. It has been compounded by the Government’s incompetence and now by their indifference, and they have the brass neck to challenge the Opposition to match their funding commitment. That commitment was given late in the day, and we still lack the details, which are sorely needed at the sharp end by schools and colleges.

This debate is timely. It should have been a topical debate in Government time. There is little more topical at the moment, or of interest to so many Members. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on bringing it to the attention of a lacklustre Government Front Bench.

10.27 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): We have before us one of the most caring and assiduous Ministers in the Government. He is an excellent chap and a superb Minister, but I do not envy him his position today. He has a difficult wicket on which to play. The King John school in my constituency was one of the first sixth-form colleges in the country—perhaps the first—and it certainly remains one of the best. However, like others, particularly SEEVIC college, it has suffered cuts in its capital funding. Such colleges trusted the Learning and Skills Council, and they now feel betrayed. However, we have been over all that, so I will not trawl through it again.

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The cuts have come at a time when we should be expanding the provision of further education and sixth-form opportunities for youngsters who will need them, particularly in my constituency, where traditional opportunities and outlets for them in the City of London have dried up somewhat, as we all know. I put it to the Minister, though, that creating yet more quangos is not the way to solve the problem.

We should not be churlish, of course; we must be fair-minded. We should welcome the extra money that the Government have put into education. Over the past decade, they have done extremely well, but this problem is serious. I am sure that the Minister will do all that he can to address it. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. I want him to tell my sixth-form colleges how they can continue to provide a superb service for local people in my constituency.

10.29 am

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing the debate and drawing such a crowd from his own party. I am pleased that the Minister turned up eventually. As those of us who have just completed consideration of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill will know, including the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), a habit is developing of Ministers not turning up on time for proceedings. However, I will follow your exhortations to other hon. Members, Mr. Hancock, and try to keep my remarks brief so that the Minister has plenty of time to answer questions.

This debate is on the latest in a litany of failures in the two new education Departments. Last year, they failed to send out confirmations of education maintenance allowances for young people. Moving to the next age group up, that was followed by a complete miscalculation of the number of people who would qualify for student grants. That led to the budget for higher education places being trimmed, which will cause a crisis this summer. On the Learning and Skills Council, we have had several debates in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber on capital expenditure for further education colleges. There has been a long-term gap between the funding received by colleges and schools for 16 to 19-year-olds.

This year, there is a real cash shortage in the provision that schools and colleges are receiving from the Government. That has led to yet another emergency announcement and emergency measure. Why has that taken place? As the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) said in his powerful speech, it appears that it is partly because the Government were taken completely by surprise by the over-subscription caused by students deciding, rightly, to stay in education beyond the age of 16. That is amazing because, as he rightly said, the number of people in that cohort was known with considerable certainty before that time. We know from previous recessions that more 16 and 18-year-olds decide to stay in education and training at such times.

With last year’s student grants fiasco and the upcoming crisis in university places this summer, the two education Departments are building a record of being caught out and surprised by what goes on in the real world. Whichever
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party is in government in two years’ time, I hope that the Departments will not be caught out again because we will have more people staying on at school sixth forms and going to further education colleges post-16. I hope they will ensure that there are enough places for 18-year-olds to continue in training or education, whether through adult apprenticeships or higher education.

The Chancellor announced more emergency funding for this sector in the Budget, just as he had to do for the college capital expenditure programme. This year there will be an additional £250 million and next year an additional £400 million. That is not recession-related funding. It is not a bail-out for the banks or a loan for car companies; it is a bail-out for another Department that is guilty of mismanaging its budget. It is ridiculous that one reason why the Government were forced into the bail-out was the spectre of being sued by schools and colleges. That remains to be seen.

A squeeze on future education budgets was also announced in the Budget. There will be a renewed efficiency drive in the sector with hundreds of millions of pounds having to be saved. Extra money was announced on the one hand, and on the other the sector was told that it will have to make significant savings. That could take us back to square one. What a way to treat a sector that is central in delivering the objective of the Government and other parties to have skilled people who can weather the recession and enter the workplace. This sector is crucial in delivering the diplomas for 14 to 19-year olds that are being rolled out across the country. It will also be crucial if the participation age is raised to 17 and then 18 over the next few years.

After the fiasco in college capital expenditure, the Government were obliged to set up an inquiry into their own mismanagement or into that of an agency under their control. With this fiasco, I hope that the Minister will not announce an inquiry, nor hide behind officials at the Learning and Skills Council, but will take some responsibility for the two education Departments and answer the pertinent questions that have been put to him by hon. Members.

10.34 am

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The subject of this debate characterises the fallacy, falsehood and failure that lie at the heart of the Government. Falsehood follows fallacy, and failure follows both. The most eloquent expression of those failures is in the field of education, in which the Government go from one farce or crisis to another. As my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) said, Ministers refuse to come to the House to explain serious matters that have damning consequences for schools, colleges and universities, and therefore for learners and potential learners up and down the country.

This debate on sixth-form funding is yet another expression of the tortuous calamity that characterises the Learning and Skills Council and its relationship with the Department. There is blather and there are blunders: blather when promises are made and blunders when those promises are broken. The blunders illustrate institutionalised maladministration. We can examine this issue because my hon. Friend the Member for
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Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) has brought it to our attention, on which I congratulate him. As has been said, this debate would not have happened had it been left to Ministers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said, we have known about this matter for six weeks, yet there has been no statement and no debate in Government time.

If I sound cross, it is not for myself or for the Opposition. I am cross for the learners, teachers, managers and governors in the schools and colleges that are so seriously affected by this incompetence. There will be a shortfall in funding for the next academic year brought about by what my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has described as a catastrophic miscalculation of the number of students staying in education. He said:

Indeed, that course of action was positively encouraged by the Department.

Although I acknowledge that £250 million was found hastily to cover the shortfall, this debate is vital. We must know why this happened and we must be assured that it will not happen again. Fallacy, failure and falsehood are symptomatic of a Government in their death throes. Edmund Burke wrote:

this Government are certainly feeble.

The LSC wrote several times to schools and sixth-form colleges about provisional funding allocations for 2009-10. It seems certain that it knew that those provisional calculations were wrong. We want to hear whether Ministers knew that too, and if not why not. On 2 March, the LSC wrote again to confirm the funding and indicated that the number of learners was

and that it was seeking permission to fund the learners in full. Finally, on 30 March, the LSC wrote a third time with reduced allocations for school and sixth-form funding. Did realisation dawn on Ministers in the space of just one month? Surely that suggests falsehood—it is certainly indicative of failure. In respect of fallacy, what about the Prime Minister’s claim that Labour has “transformed” education?

The Association of School and College Leaders said that a sixth form of 250 pupils would be £50,000 to £55,000 worse off than expected under the new arrangements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, many schools are worse off than that. A sixth-form college of 3,000 students stands to lose more than £300,000. The minimum funding guarantee of an annual increase of at least 2.1 per cent. per learner for school sixth forms that have a funding rate per “standard learner number” of less than £3,200 has been scrapped. It is therefore unsurprising that Dr. John Dunford, the general secretary of the ASCL, wrote to the Chancellor telling him that there was

among schools that will suffer from the shortfalls.

There seems to be an emerging pattern in which quangos and Ministers do not speak. Rather like estranged partners in a marriage, they seems to have no
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communication, even though they are living cheek by jowl. It is extraordinary that the lines of accountability have been broken—or perhaps Ministers knew and did not say. I cannot believe that of this Minister or any others, but if that is not the case, there are fundamental problems with how the Government communicate with some of their key quangos and the way in which they act upon information from those quangos. As we have heard, however, they are about to set up several new quangos, which is likely to lead to further problems, as my hon. Friends have indicated.

The tendency that I have described is perhaps most damningly seen in the administrative upheaval surrounding the Building Colleges for the Future programme, which has been mentioned. Those who have argued that their sixth forms are having difficulties could equally have said the same of colleges in their locality. I know, for example, that Peterborough Regional college is struggling, and that colleges across the country are suffering a similar fate, because we heard that in yesterday’s debate. This is the second time that I have spoken on this issue in just a few hours, so I am certainly earning my crust. I guess, in that regard, that the Minister is too.

The colleges programme was mismanaged by the very same officials in the LSC who are responsible for the problems that we are debating today. There seems to be endemic failure: information about capital projects has been mishandled, mismanaged and miscommunicated to Ministers. How could that possibly have happened? Perhaps we do know because, in that case, the Government commissioned a report from Sir Andrew Foster, who concluded that there was

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