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The hon. Member for Havant set out a series of charges. I intend to rebut each one. I will set out clearly why he is wrong and why his criticisms are misplaced, and say why the Government should be proud, although never complacent, about our record. I will do more than that: I will set out why, according to all the
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evidence we have on the Opposition’s record and their current plans, they pose a threat to everything that has been achieved in recent years.

I warn any Conservative Member who plans to intervene on me that I will challenge them to tell their constituents the truth about how Conservative plans would hit their constituents and their colleges.

Rob Marris: Does my right hon. Friend find it surprising that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) lambasted rhetoric, but then proceeded—in speaking to a motion containing some good points, albeit not many—to put no flesh whatever on the bones of how the worthy proposals that he might propose would be funded? It is just rhetoric unless the Opposition say how much they would spend and how they would raise that money.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend makes a good point that I will come to later, but I make the point now that, having read the Opposition motion, I was looking forward to a detailed explanation of the plans for young people that were announced with a flourish a few weeks ago and of where the £600 million that is to be invested would come from. Despite speaking for the best part of 50 minutes, the hon. Member for Havant did not even mention his party’s policies, where the money would come from and how it would be funded. I will explain why he—despite what I have said, he is a man of integrity, honesty and intelligence—could not bring himself to discuss those policies in the House.

Mr. Marsden: Among the rather curious lacunae in the shadow Secretary of State’s speech was any reference to the importance of higher education delivered via further education, yet we know that 12 per cent. is so delivered in this country, notably in my constituency at Blackpool and The Fylde college.

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that if we were to take the previous Government’s record of investment in higher education from 1992 as an indication of what this Conservative party would do for higher and further education, my constituents and my college in Blackpool would be right to be concerned?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government’s record of investment over 10 years and of increasing real spending in higher education stands in sharp contrast to what happened in the previous 10 years, when funding per student fell by 30 per cent. The expansion of colleges such as his, which bring the opportunity of higher education to many students who, for all sorts of reasons, either choose not to or cannot travel away from home to go to university, has been an enormous achievement over that period.

The truth is that much of the speech made by the hon. Member for Havant was made up of complaints that we are not spending enough money on something when everybody knows that the Opposition’s policy is to spend less money on everything.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I understand that the Secretary of State is trying to blunt the attack from this side of the House, but we are the Opposition and it is our job to bring the problems to his attention. I was at North Warwickshire & Hinckley college on Thursday, at the college’s request. It is confronted with
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a £2.5 million cut in expenditure to which it is already committed, including £1.5 million on Train to Gain, which is 30 per cent. of the budget. Will he please be generous enough to allow me a short meeting with him to explain the situation at the college, where a little extra money would solve a lot of problems to do with committed expenditure?

Mr. Denham: Given the motion, I rather expected some reference to be made to these issues by the Conservative spokesman, but he missed them out entirely. If I may, I shall turn straight away to the position of Train to Gain and the apprenticeships programme, and the hon. Gentleman may then feel that he has been reassured.

The most important and fastest-growing programme of training for people at work is Train to Gain. It provides training at work, chosen by employers and described by the deputy director general of the CBI as

Last summer, of course, the Opposition promised to abolish Train to Gain. In the two years 2008 to 2010—this academic year and the next—we set out to train 1.291 million people. Train to Gain has been hugely successful—so successful that overall we will deliver 100,000 more starts and learners over those two years than we had previously planned. That success means that we are training tens of thousands of people today who might otherwise have started their training only late this year or next year, and who would not have been trained at all if the Opposition had their way. We need as much training as possible in the recession, so that people being trained and their employers can benefit now and make the recovery stronger.

Rob Marris: My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case in relation to the official Opposition, the Conservative party. May I urge him, when he has finished wisely and carefully savaging the official Opposition, to turn his attention to savaging the Liberal Democrats? In this debate on skills in the recession, they can muster one MP for a debate that has now been going on for more than 45 minutes. Does he not agree that that indicates what a low priority the Liberal Democrats place on skills in the recession?

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to my attention, because I must admit that I had not noticed the Liberal Democrat.

I return to the success of Train to Gain and the Opposition’s plans to abolish it and prevent 1.291 million people from learning at work over two years. It is a huge tribute to colleges, training providers and employers that they have done so much to expand training. That backs up the changes that we made to make Train to Gain more flexible and better tailored to company needs, particularly those of small businesses. Obviously no budget can be unlimited, and in the longer term we need to ensure that the commitments made do not outstrip our resources. Because the programme has been so successful, I have considered every way in which I can find more resources. Today, I am confident that the number of people who start Train to Gain this year will be in line with our published plans. As I have said, overall there will be 100,000 more starts and learners in 2008-09 and 2010-11 than we first planned.

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There has also been a huge increase in apprenticeships for the over-25s. We expect 60,000 over-25s to start apprenticeships this year, compared with the 29,000 that we had planned. That, too, is good news, and we still have sufficient money—more than £1 billion—to start 250,000 apprenticeships in the coming year.

In relation to the point made by the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) about north Warwickshire, the very success of the programme, which is doing so much for the country and for learners, has meant the LSC adjusting and readjusting contracts with colleges and providers. That has created uncertainty for some colleges and other providers. The LSC is writing to providers today, giving a similar message to mine about the coming year. It is working quickly with individual providers to resolve funding allocations for the rest of the year. I refer to the Opposition motion in saying that that letter will include an absolute guarantee that the funding will be there for every learner who has started a course or apprenticeship to complete it.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I am heartened by the news that we have just heard, but in view of the announcement that he has just made, can my right hon. Friend give me an undertaking that where there is uncertainty about local colleges having sufficient funds to carry on providing all these wonderful training opportunities, there will not be any need to make redundancies of any kind?

Mr. Denham: The Learning and Skills Council is working with colleges as quickly as possible in order to provide certainty. What I wanted to do today was give the headline news that the number of learners whom we expect to start on Train to Gain in the coming year is the same as the number that people will have seen in published plans. It is hard for me to give details of each college, but I have at least been able to specify the global amount of training that is available.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The Secretary of State has referred to the policy vacuum in the Conservative party. What does he think are the party’s plans for the 22,000 union learning reps or the 250,000 learners who went to learn at work last year? Does he think that it has any plans for them?

Mr. Denham: As far as I know, the Conservatives are completely silent on the issue. On Friday I presented certificates to learners at the town depot union learning centre in Southampton, in my constituency, and everyone there was well aware that it was the Government who had invested in union learning reps and made it possible for so many people to learn.

Mr. Marsden: I thank my right hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. Is he aware that the Conservatives recently produced a lengthy policy document on skills in which union learning reps were not mentioned once? Given their failure to make any commitment, is it not the case that we can have no trust or belief in their ability to support the programme if they ever came to office?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which I am sure will be noted by all who care about the future of union learning reps. Incidentally, that does not apply only to union learning reps themselves. One of the interesting aspects of the programme is the
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number of employers who say that it has transformed their productivity and the quality of service they provide for the people to whom they sell products.

Mr. Willetts: The Secretary of State is trying to address what is indeed a serious worry felt by many learning providers about their funding for 2009-10, but may I ask him to clarify one key point? When he refers to 2009-10, does he mean the Government’s financial year or the academic year, which is what many providers use for the purposes of their planning? The letters that they received recently from the Learning and Skills Council concern the academic year 2009-10.

Mr. Denham: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point now. His motion refers to it, but he forgot to mention it in his speech. That will suggest to many providers that he does not consider it a particularly important issue and would rather spend his time reading out large chunks of the Foster report, which all Members have been able to read for themselves.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the figures that we published, which I have described as planning totals, relate to academic years. The Department obviously works in the context of financial years, as do all of us who come under the Treasury’s remit, but the figures to which I referred related to the current academic year. I made that clear at the time, but I have now clarified it again.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): The Secretary of State spoke of the uncertainty of funding for colleges for the next academic year. Fareham college in my constituency expects to recruit another 100 to 150 16-to-18-year-olds in line with increasing participation, but there is currently no certainty in regard to whether that increase will be funded by the Hampshire branch of the Learning and Skills Council.

Mr. Denham: I shall deal with that point later, but I shall deal with it now as well. The hon. Gentleman should know that the budget for the next two academic years includes a total of £655 million for the sixth-form and 16-to-18 college sector to enable those colleges to expand and offer additional places. That is a very significant investment in the future of young people, but the Conservative party’s policy of refusing to borrow and refusing to invest so that we can grow our way out of the recession means that it could not be made if it came to power. The hon. Gentleman should tell Fareham college that the Labour Government is to invest £655 million in young people over the next two years, and then say “If you vote Conservative in Fareham you will not get the money.” That would be the honest way of approaching his constituents.

It is our belief in a demand-led training system that has enabled the successful expansion of Train to Gain and adult apprenticeships. As I acknowledged, it has created tensions between the dynamic entrepreneurial training system we want and the need to manage public finances, and I know that the LSC wants to work out with providers how those tensions should be managed in future.

Our work is not just about delivering the promises we made in the past. The recent Budget gave us new resources to invest, but the Opposition could not do that; they oppose our decision to use borrowing to
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sustain investment to grow our way out of recession, so they could not have introduced the guaranteed offer of work or training for young people who are out of work for a long period. As part of that package of £1.7 billion of investment, my Department will be able offer more than 80,000 training places for young adults who have been unemployed for more than 12 months. We will start that from the autumn. The Opposition also could not match the extra £250 million we are already putting in place to help people with flexible training and advice to improve employability skills and to get them back into work, including 75,000 training places for people who have been out of work for six months. People will be able to start that training when they are out of work by going to college, and then continue it when they are in work through Train to Gain.

Mrs. Cryer: Keighley is doing very well, with a new-build college, which will be excellent, and I appreciate that. Does my right hon. Friend remember, however, that the Thatcher Government got rid of the industrial training boards, which were wonderful organisations for producing training for skills? What will the Conservatives’ demolition job be next time if, unfortunately, they get elected again?

Mr. Denham: The reality is that everything we hear from the Conservatives suggests that they will return pretty much to the same position, which is that if employers are not prepared to pay for skills training, that should not happen.

Mrs. Maria Miller: The Secretary of State talks a great deal about the investment he plans to put into this sector but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) pointed out, that does not marry with the reality on the ground. What message would the Secretary of State give to organisations, such as ITeC in my constituency, which are cutting places before the summer comes because the money he is talking about simply is not forthcoming?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady clearly has not quite grasped the gist of the debate so far. What I have said—very clearly—is that we have far more people in training today than we had planned to have in training today. I have also said that in the coming year we will train the same amount of people whom we had planned to train. Because we have had the great success of training people early and because budgets are not unlimited, we are having to adjust the budgets of training providers, but I say to the hon. Lady that this is not a cut. We are not reducing the number of people being trained. More people will have been trained over this two-year period than we had planned. Next year, as many people will be planned for as the providers would have been expecting. I have acknowledged tensions in the handling of that, but that is the picture that she needs to take back to her college. She should say to it, “The good news is that, despite the fact that the training system in this country is currently training more people than it had planned, it is still confident that it will be planning for as many people next year as it had set out.” That is enormously good news, and I hope I can rely on the hon. Lady—I am absolutely sure that I can—to take that message back to Basingstoke, rather than to return there and say that the situation is different. The LSC will send the detailed allocations out to colleges as soon as possible.

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I have talked about the investment that the Budget enables us to make in the future of young people, and which the hon. Member for Havant and his party would not match. That is why it is so extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman raises the NEETs issue. There is an old debate here, and at the crux of it are two issues. The first issue is the hon. Gentleman’s reluctance to give the Government the credit for having 1 million more young people in education, work and training than 10 years ago. That was not an act of God or an accident; it was something that Government policy set out to achieve. The second reason we have disagreed with him is that he has always made the most of the figures by including in his list of NEETs young mothers who are at home bringing up families. I always feel that he comes here to attack the Government over NEETs and then goes outside to make speeches about the importance of family policy. I have always acknowledged that we should focus on a smaller group of young people who seriously are detached from the labour market—from education, work and training. In some ways, that is the debate that he and I have had with great regularity over the past two years.

Let us acknowledge that today there is a more pressing debate, because times are harder for young people. We are determined not to write off a generation of young people, as the Conservative party did in the recession of the late ’80s and early ’90s. That is why we are raising the participation age over the next few years to keep young people in education and training and work with training—that practical measure to help young people is opposed by the Conservatives—and why we are putting a further £655 million into 16 to 18 learning this year and next to enable colleges and sixth forms to meet rising demand. The Conservatives’ policies could not match that investment, and the hon. Gentleman cannot honestly match our guaranteed offer of work and training to young people who cannot find work for a long time. I am happy to debate NEETs. It is a serious issue and we recognise the challenges facing young people today, so I must say to him that investing in those young people and creating opportunities for work, for training and for education is how we must tackle the number of young people who are doing none of those things, not cutting the support we provide for them.

Mr. Marsden: Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that work-based learning is a key element and that in my county of Lancashire that grew by 30 to 35 per cent. between 2006 and 2007? Does he also agree that part of this is about using frameworks and structures in which employers and the general public can have confidence and that the Conservative party, by its failure to get wholeheartedly behind the diplomas process and, indeed, aspects of the apprenticeships process, has hindered rather than assisted the process?

Mr. Denham: Yes, it has always been a matter of shame that the Conservative party has blown so hot and cold on the development of the diplomas. For many young people, they provide a range of options of learning that has not been in place previously, including the important work-based learning.

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