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18 May 2009 : Column 1212

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is certainly an idea that needs to be considered.

Although the recession has increased unemployment already, it is worth remembering that even in the boom years when the economy was growing, we were suffering from an increase in the rate of youth unemployment. The rate of unemployment among people aged 16 to 24 grew from 13.4 per cent. in 1997 to 14.4 per cent. in 2007, so even in the good times before the recession hit we were already going backwards and losing ground, compared with other OECD countries.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is very generous with his time. I agree that skills are important, not only for young people but for everyone. Does he share my belief that we should be investing in skills and keeping people in employment through the short-time working subsidy, rather than allowing them to go to the jobcentre and trying to reskill them there? Would we not be better off investing in employment through the short-time working subsidy?

Mr. Willetts: That is an interesting idea that is worth considering. Indeed, that is something else—going back to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald)—that we introduced in the early 1980s, when unemployment was high before.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I have an unresolved concern about clause 84 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. My hon. Friend has at least two brains and probably an exemplary memory, so I trust he will recall that both on Second Reading of that Bill and at questions to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—that is to say, on two separate occasions—I raised my concern that clause 84 as it stands is overly prescriptive because it would preclude from participation in apprenticeship schemes people with special educational needs, who might be well suited to an apprenticeship but who do not have level 2 and level 3 qualifications. The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), and the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), said that that concern would be addressed. I hope that in the other place it will be.

Mr. Willetts: For a terrible moment I thought my hon. Friend expected me to remember what was in that clause, without jogging my memory. I am grateful to him for reminding us. It is an issue about which he is rightly passionate, and he is correct. One of our concerns about the Government’s approach to skills is that they are so obsessed with funding only the production of paper qualifications that people who, for whatever reason, may not be capable of getting a national vocational qualification level 2 are often deprived of access to training under the Government’s new model.

I remember a conversation at, I think, Coventry college, with a young lady with learning difficulties who was doing a course in horticulture. Because that course would not get her to an NVQ level 2, it was no longer going to be provided because of the priorities that the Government had set for the Learning and Skills Council. It is very important that people who can benefit from learning and from the most basic training, even if it will not get them an NVQ level 2, continue to have access to training and apprenticeships. My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that.

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD) rose—

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Willetts: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

Lembit Öpik: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making just that point. It strikes me, as a former training and development manager, that the worst thing we can do is to be over-prescriptive on the process and outcomes from a distance. Does he agree that the best thing we can do is find a system that delivers high-quality training but allows training providers to provide what is needed to achieve the outcome we all want—namely, employment?

Mr. Willetts: The hon. Gentleman may have been studying the widely read green paper that we produced on the subject, because that is absolutely our approach on the Conservative Benches.

Rob Marris rose—

Mr. Willetts: I shall take one more intervention and then try to make some progress.

Rob Marris: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity. Further to his response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), will he have a word with the Conservative-run council in Wolverhampton, which has cut £640,000 from the adult education service budget over a two-year period? That is absolutely monstrous, because it cuts courses for the very people whose access to education and training the hon. Gentleman supports.

Mr. Willetts: There have been savage reductions in adult education because of the priorities of the hon. Gentleman’s Government and the way in which the Learning and Skills Council allocates funding only to those courses that produce paper qualifications. If the hon. Gentleman cares so much about the subject, he should sign the early-day motion that I and my hon. Friends have tabled, supporting adult learning and asking the Government to change their approach so that the cuts of 1.5 million places in adult learning over the past few years are reversed.

Mr. Heald: Does my hon. Friend not think it a real cheek for the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) to talk that way when the LSC has said that the Hitchin campus of North Hertfordshire college cannot go ahead with the building project that it has been encouraged to put up? The hon. Gentleman tells us about cuts, but, goodness gracious, this Government have cut back hard. My constituents really use the facilities, and we in Hitchin need the building programme to go ahead.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend speaks for many Members, from all parts of the House, who are very concerned about what is happening to the proposals for their local further education colleges and their capital programmes.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Willetts: Before dealing with that issue, I give way to my hon. Friend.

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Dr. Lewis: When my hon. Friend turns to that horrific topic, will he make reference to Brockenhurst college in my constituency, which I think he knows a considerable amount about, and the terrible position it has been left in as a result of the LSC’s appalling mismanagement?

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: I did indeed visit Brockenhurst college recently for a briefing on the problems that it faces. I hope to turn to that specific issue in a moment, but, first, I should like to make some progress, because I have a bone to pick with the Secretary of State.

Ian Stewart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention in a moment.

The bone that I have to pick concerns what is happening to the number of young people not in education, employment or training. On the Government’s own figures, which we obtained in a parliamentary answer, and which have been constructed in a consistent series only since 2000, the number of young people not in education, employment or training in 2000 was 630,000. In 2008, eight years later, the figure had increased shockingly to 860,000. When I released the Government’s figures, the Secretary of State responded by saying that there had been a “straightforward deception”. He added:

He therefore says that, because there has been such a big increase in the number of young people, it is misleading to count the absolute figures. However, I invite him to make that point to the Prime Minister, who, when challenged in this Chamber on the number of NEETs, said:

If the Secretary of State believes that referring to absolute figures is a straightforward deception, I invite him to agree that the Prime Minister’s use of absolute figures in that answer in the House was clearly a straightforward deception. If the Secretary of State looks not simply at the absolute figures but at the proportions in respect of what is indeed a growing number of young people, he will find that in 2000—the base from which we have to take these statistics—12.3 per cent. of young people were NEETs, and that by 2008 that proportion had gone up to 14.2 per cent.

There has been an increase in both the absolute figure and the proportion of young people not in education, employment or training—and it happened even during the boom years. It is important that the Government recognise the scale of the problem over which they have presided and do not attempt to avoid the implications of the failure of their own policies.

Ian Stewart rose—

Mr. Willetts: I now give way to the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart).

Ian Stewart: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has been extremely kind in allowing me to intervene again. He will not know of my personal interest in these matters, although some of his colleagues will, and I
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should say that at times I am not an uncritical friend of the Government. My point is meant constructively. I recruited and served youth training scheme trainees, youth opportunities programme, or YOP, trainees, community enterprise scheme trainees and community programme participants. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that in those days, his Government’s provisions were make-work programmes without technical and training content. Does he agree that the Government should spend more money, because training and skills are expensive? Would he spend more money on the training and skills element?

Mr. Willetts: We have put forward practical proposals on how, in this very financial year, we could put in more money—particularly, for example, to help young people who need training in science, technology, engineering or maths, also known as the STEM subjects. However, we need a mix. We need work experience; it is better to be doing something than to be doing nothing. If we are to emerge from this recession with a stronger and better balanced economy, it is absolutely essential that we invest in training and skills. That is why the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is so important and why my hon. Friends and I have called this debate.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): On a more positive note, I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in commending the innovative work of the Open university when it comes to reskilling young people. Does he share my concerns that that fine institution has not been well served by the Government in the past couple of years?

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is an eloquent advocate of the Open university, which I have enjoyed visiting with him. He is absolutely right: the Open university, which has an enormous role to play, has suffered from the Government’s reductions in funding through the notorious equivalent or lower qualification, or ELQ, cuts. To be doing that during a recession seems absolutely extraordinary.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Willetts: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who I hope will speak eloquently in favour of the case for his college.

Mr. Illsley: I hope to do that a little later. For now, I just want to address the hon. Gentleman’s point about young people not in education, employment or training. It is not true that the Government did not make efforts to reduce the figures. My area of Barnsley has traditionally had a low take-up of post-16 education and training; last year, however, it managed to reduce its number of NEETs from about 15 to 8 per cent. thanks to the valiant efforts of the Connexions service and Government funding. If a constituency such as mine can do that, other areas obviously can. We managed to do it through Government funding and very hard work by our local Connexions service.

Mr. Willetts: I completely agree that it is possible to reduce the number of NEETs. Indeed, I have visited some fantastic programmes, often run by social enterprises, that do just that. I remember going to one in Keighley, for example, that was clearly reducing the number of young people not in education, employment or training.
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However, as in the example of those with learning difficulties, I was told that when the programmes do not yield a level 2 or level 3 national vocational qualification rapidly enough, the LSC cuts back the funding. A lot of programmes help to get young NEETs doing something—motorbike repair or whatever. However, programmes that do not immediately get students a paper qualification of the type that the LSC is willing to fund are suffering. That is partly why the number of NEETs is going up—it has gone up in absolute terms and as a percentage of the number of young people—and why the Secretary of State’s attempt to escape the implications of those figures was so irresponsible.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Willetts: I will give way to the hon. Lady, although I seem to be giving way a lot at the moment.

Mrs. Cryer: The hon. Gentleman mentioned Keighley, my constituency. I understand that he was recently there, but is he aware that Keighley now has a £35 million LSC-funded capital build programme due to be completed next year, and within budget? I look forward to that development, which will form part of Leeds City college, and I hope he will wish it well. We are heading in a new direction in Keighley, and I am very proud of what is going on.

Mr. Willetts: I am pleased for the hon. Lady that that capital programme is going on in her area. There is a lively debate about the Leeds City college plan. I personally think it is important that the merger mania in further education does not go too far. I am here to speak on behalf of the 144 colleges with capital projects that are not being funded in the same way as in her area.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): As a fellow Hampshire MP, my hon. Friend may be aware of an organisation in my constituency called ITeC. It has a fantastic record of success—87 per cent. of its students, who are between the ages of 16 and 24, go forward to be placed in employment—yet it is facing significant cuts because of LSC funding problems. It is also facing the prospect of cutting up to 50 places before the end of July—the sorts of places that would help my constituents to get back into work. Would he care to comment on that?

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reason for this debate, and the point that we make in the motion, is that there is an enormous gap between the rhetoric from the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State, which is all about the importance of investing in skills in the recession, and the reality on the ground, which is the complete opposite of what they talk about in this Chamber. Further education colleges cannot secure the capital funding that they need to improve their provision, and many practical training courses are being cut because of the inability of DIUS and the LSC properly to manage their funding streams.

Undoubtedly the most serious crisis in skills provision is in the financing of further education capital projects. I would like—on behalf, I am sure, of Members on both sides of the House—to pay tribute to the work that colleges do. Many of us who visit colleges in our own constituencies and around the country realise that they are crucial in improving social mobility, providing practical
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training and giving people hope that they can emerge from this recession with more skills and better opportunities in life. I am sure that we all also appreciate the excellent work that the Association of Colleges does on behalf of colleges.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Willetts: I will just make a tiny bit more progress, and then give way.

I have been visiting a range of colleges that are suffering from the capital funding crisis, and I have been shocked by what I have discovered. Last week, I was at Huntingdon college, where I was briefed at first hand about the problems that it faces. It clearly needs to move to a new site, which it has already secured. It is part of a regeneration project that now has a question mark over it.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con) rose—

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend, who represents that constituency, is catching my eye, and I happily give way to him.

Mr. Djanogly: I am pleased that my hon. Friend is mentioning the college in my constituency, which was grateful to him for visiting and taking the time to hear about what is going on there. He will have seen the state of its dilapidated 1960s buildings, where the staff are doing the best they can. Does he therefore understand why my constituents and staff at the college are appalled that they have lost out on £40 million that was promised for redevelopment at a time when we need to be investing in training, not taking money away?

Mr. Willetts rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, may I say that some of the interventions are now long enough to be mini-speeches? A large number of Members will be seeking to catch my eye, and this is a half-day debate. Although interventions are important, contribute to the debate and help the whole thing along, every one means that it is less likely that an hon. Member will have the opportunity to make his speech.

Mr. Willetts: My speech is being cut even more rapidly than the FE capital programme.

I accept the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) makes—I have listed other colleges, which have a similar story to tell. One example is Brockenhurst—my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is in his place—to which a clear commitment was made to provide new training opportunities. Colleges have often been encouraged to bid and then told, “Ah, you’re only bidding for £20 million—that’s pathetic. Have you thought of bidding for £50 million or £60 million?” They have been actively encouraged to do that. Even when the original idea was for refurbishment or a modest set of improvements, they were told, “No, knock the whole thing down and go for a grandiose capital project.” Having had their hopes raised by the LSC, the Department and Ministers, they now find those hopes dashed. That is a cruel trick to play on a crucial part of training and skills in our country.

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