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Let us turn to the further education capital programme. The position we are in, with over-commitments made and expectations raised unrealistically high, should not
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have happened. I have made that clear and, as Secretary of State, I have also come to the House to apologise to those who have been affected. It was me who asked Sir Andrew Foster to carry out the review, and I, like the hon. Member for Havant, think that his report has set out fairly the mismanagement that led to the problem. But let us be clear about the background to this debate. Twelve years ago, when the Opposition were in power, there was no budget for FE capital. [Interruption.] This is rather important, because when hon. Members talk movingly about their dilapidated 1960s buildings, as happened today, we must ask how long buildings—sometimes those much older than that—were left to be dilapidated. It is relevant that the starting point —[Interruption.]

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): They have had 12 years to sort it out but failed.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman asks me about 12 years and whether a Government should have managed, within that period, to transform all the legacy that his party left. I have to say no, but we have made a very good start—we have done much better than we would have done with the zero capital budget that we found.

The second background point is that the Conservative party, despite its history, fails to give any credit—ever—to the huge scale of investment that has been and is being made in FE capital. I would have a lot more time for the criticisms that are made by the Conservatives if they acknowledged the scale of what is being achieved. Since 2001, 700 projects, at nearly 330 colleges, have been funded and in those areas that has transformed the FE estate for learners. In the current spending review we were committed to, and will spend, £2.3 billion, and that was on top of the £2 billion spent between 1997 and 2008. It is true that despite the huge scale of that programme, its management by the LSC has raised the expectations and hopes of colleges. I can understand the feelings of those who do not know where they stand or feel that they might not get their colleges within the time scale that they had hoped. That is why, in the recent Budget, my Department was allocated £1.2 billion on top of the investment that we had already received, enabling us to get vital schemes going within the next two years and to plan for the future.

By contrast, the hon. Member for Havant went to the Association of Colleges conference last October, where he was asked whether he could guarantee that the Conservatives would deliver the planned spending even for 2010-11. He told the conference that he could not. That is the truth. While we are working through the LSC and with the AOC to begin to prioritise more schemes and to get them under way, a Government with the hon. Gentleman in it would cut the schemes that are already under way.

We are doing what the resolution calls for—or, rather, the LSC is working with the AOC to work out priorities and to deal with the difficult task of prioritisation. The LSC is out to consultation at the moment and is working with the AOC on those criteria. When I have received advice from the LSC on that, it will be in a position to publish the criteria.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con) rose—

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Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman is trying to intervene as if there is a major issue here. This has to be got right. We know that large numbers of colleges are anxiously awaiting these decisions and that is why it is important that the LSC, working with people in the sector, gets this right.

Mr. Hayes: I acknowledge the investment that the Government have made in FE capital in the past, but there is a major issue, so will the Secretary of State answer two very simple questions? First, how many colleges are affected—140, 150, 180 or 200? Secondly, did the officials in his Department know about the problem in the first half of last year?

Mr. Denham: The figure of 144 colleges that we have published is the information supplied to us in March by the LSC through its analysis. I understand that it has been suggested that other colleges felt that they had schemes in preparation, regarded those schemes as being in the pipeline, had been in discussions and so on. In reality, that is the latest and most accurate figure with which I have been provided by the LSC.

The Foster report sets out in some detail the meetings that took place where my Department was represented at official level in the early part of last year. Foster’s conclusion is that opportunities were not taken to prevent this problem from happening. That is undoubtedly a fair judgment. I would say two things about that. First, there is no ambiguity that Ministers were first alerted to the existence of a problem—not the problem as we now define it, but a potential or emerging problem—in November. Secondly, Foster raised the core issue of the clarity or otherwise of how accountability is exercised between a Department and its non-departmental bodies. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will know that when we published the Foster review, I asked the permanent secretary of my Department to carry out a view of the accountability arrangements. We have many non-departmental bodies, and they are all different in nature. It is critical that officials know precisely what level of authority they are expected to exercise.

The hon. Gentleman will know that in the case of the LSC the previous chief executive, who was himself not informed until late in the day, took responsibility for what happened and left the LSC. The hon. Gentleman will also know that the LSC is being replaced by the Skills Funding Agency, which will not be a non-departmental public body. I think that that will help. I hope that something like this will not happen in the future, but in such a situation the lines of accountability and responsibility will be much clearer.

Joan Walley: I recognise that the Secretary of State has come to the House and said that there are problems, and that he takes responsibility for putting those problems right. However, in respect of the Foster review and the discussions taking place between the Learning and Skills Council, further education colleges and their associations, it is critical that he looks at the role of regeneration in places where communities need to be transformed. I welcome the fact that on 4 March he announced to the House that detailed consent would now go ahead for the Building Colleges for the Future programme in Stoke-on-Trent and for seven other colleges. I have already had a meeting with a Minister in his Department
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on that. The Stoke-on-Trent college application related to a phased programme, which included two new builds on the Shelton and Burslem sites. It is critical that regeneration and the ability of people to change their aspirations and skills are part of the new review, so that the much-needed investment in the Burslem campus in Stoke-on-Trent can go ahead, too.

Mr. Denham: I recognise the points that my hon. Friend raises, and the way in which she has argued the case for her constituency. Of course she is right that the relationship between a college programme and regeneration must be one of the criteria. I do not want to get drawn into the criteria debate. I simply say, and I hope that the House will understand, that it is relatively simple to list the issues that should be taken into account; the challenge is to decide what weighting should be given to the different factors, so that when everybody looks at the final outcome, people at least feel that it is fair and consistent, although it will be impossible to produce an outcome in which everybody is happy. That work is going on at the moment.

I should make some progress, and bring my remarks to a close. The hon. Member for Havant repeated his criticism about the reduction in the number of non-vocational leisure courses as a result of our having prioritised training for work. That is one of the reasons he wants to scrap Train to Gain, but his priority is wrong. It is not just me saying so; the CBI and the Institute of Directors have both said that Train to Gain is the right policy. The CBI said that it was

that is, Opposition plans—

The Institute of Directors said, in response to the Opposition’s proposal:

I am as keen on learning for its own sake as anyone. That is why I worked across Government to launch the White Paper, “The Learning Revolution”, and why we have just opened bids for a £20 million fund to get informal learning going in new ways and new venues. However, the real priority today must be the skills that we need to get Britain out of recession.

Finally, let me turn to the hon. Gentleman’s proposals for new investment, because I find them a little distasteful. We are talking not about party political point-scoring, but about the hopes and aspirations of an anxious generation of young people, who deserve to be treated honestly and with respect. When he announced his £600 million package, we could not understand where the money was coming from. Then the Conservatives told us: it was to come from the cuts that they had already announced—the £610 million-worth of cuts to my Department’s budget for this year, announced by the Leader of the Opposition on 5 January. I wrote to the hon. Member for Havant on 15 January, asking what he would cut. He never replied. That is the disgraceful scam revealed. The idea is to claim that one could cut £600 million without saying how, and then publish a really attractive list of proposals funded from the same
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non-existent cuts. The point is that that is not the way to treat young people or their parents. They deserve to be treated honestly and with respect. The hon. Gentleman proposed this debate, but I think that he made a mistake.

5.4 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): Investment in skills and training is always important, whether we are in the middle of a period of prosperity or a recession; the latter is the background to this debate. I am sure that all three Front-Bench spokesmen visit many further education colleges as part of our work. I certainly visit the City of Bristol college and Filton college in Greater Bristol, and see the important work that is done in those colleges to upskill the population of Bristol. I have seen the skills work that they do in construction, and in catering. I have even had several lunches at City of Bristol college prepared by its excellent catering students, and served by those who are learning waitressing and waitering skills, if that is the right word, in the college.

I have even been offered hair and beauty treatments on some of those visits. You and I have something in common, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I do not think that tonsorial assistance in those matters would be very productive. I have had to decline several offers to have my legs waxed. However, I was interested to learn that accountancy training was offered in further education colleges. I am the only Member of the House to hold a professional qualification in taxation and business as a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Given Mr. Speaker’s earlier statement, an innovation urgently required for all hon. Members would be a crash course in accountancy, audit, transparency, disclosure and perhaps in some cases, professional ethics. The reputation of the House and the skills sets of all hon. Members would benefit from such a course.

Last week was adult learners week, and the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and I spoke at the excellent reception on the Terrace to promote adult learning. Several reports from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education were discussed. One stark finding was that after 12 years of a Labour Government, while much has indeed been done, there is still a real social mobility gap affecting those who participate in adult education and learning. People from the top two social classes are twice as likely to participate in learning post-school as people from the two lower socio-economic groups. At the reception, I quoted Helena Kennedy, a Member of the other place, who some time ago said that the problem with English education in particular was as follows:

That is a serious problem with English education and skills.

That is not helped by the Government’s fixation on the belief that learning should lead to an accredited qualification or certificate. Learning, as the Secretary of State acknowledged in his closing remarks, can have other purposes relating to emotional well-being. This morning, in Bristol, I visited the charity Studio Upstairs, which works with adults with emotional and mental
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health problems through the medium of art. It invited me to do a drawing, and I did a not-very-good illustration of the Houses of Parliament as seen from the other side of the Thames. None the less, the work that the charity does is important, and learning does not necessarily need to lead to an accredited qualification—it has other purposes as well.

The motion tabled by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) rightly mentioned the fact that far too many people are not in education, employment or training. We can have a debate about the number of people involved and what the situation was in 1997, and what the situation is in 2009, but I must tell the Secretary of State that the Education and Skills Act 2008, which raises the age of compulsory participation in education and training, is not the answer. Engagement, particularly with young people, is much more important. If, at the age of 14, people have mentally dropped out of education and at 16 are deemed to have failed the academic education offered to them under existing arrangements, forcing them to stay until they are 17 or 18 is probably not going to lead to a significant improvement in their life chances. Positive engagement with those young people, however, could make a difference. Many of us are well aware of the work of the Prince’s Trust, and in my constituency, the charity Fairbridge does excellent work with young people who have been marginalised, perhaps from their families, and have certainly not achieved well in education.

There is an important role, too, for social enterprise—a new type of business model that should be encouraged. Last week, I visited the social enterprise, Aspire Bristol. It works with adults who have been unemployed for a significant time, or people who have recently been homeless but who are now seeking to return to a productive role in society. It takes them on and pays them just above the national minimum wage in order to learn such skills as window cleaning, gardening and decorating. Social enterprise could be more encouraged and would be able to earn a decent income that it could pass on to participants if local government and central Government were able to find more of a place for it in their multimillion pound—or, in the case of central Government, multibillion pound—contracts and procurement programme.

I turn briefly to the further education capital programme. I shall not repeat everything—

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman, as ever, is making a well-informed case, but before he moves on to the nub of the FE issue, will he acknowledge what the Secretary of State did not acknowledge—that many of what the Secretary of State calls non-vocational, recreational courses are the very routes by which some of the most difficult disengaged people are able to re-engage in education and training, and that they provide opportunities for further training, leading to employment, for those such as women returning to work after having time out?

Stephen Williams: As usual, the hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. I could be cruel and mention the mistake that the Government made in their decision on equivalent and lower qualifications cuts last year. One consequence is that the ability of universities to offer evening classes to their community—for instance, in Bristol, where people from all walks of life can come together to study for a course that does not necessarily
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lead to a certificate at the end of it—will be taken away. Many universities will probably start closing down continuing education departments as a direct result of a decision that the Secretary of State instructed the Higher Education Funding Council to take, and many people will lose out on the introduction to learning that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned.

I come back to further education colleges. I shall not repeat everything that the hon. Member for Havant said, or all the many points that have been made as we discussed the issue over recent months, both in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall. Last week I visited Sussex Downs college and met the principal there, and the principal of Plumpton college, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). Those colleges are in a difficult situation. They have not, under the Learning and Skills Council’s criteria, got as far as approval in detail, but none the less, they have well worked-up schemes.

Plumpton college had a three-stage scheme. Stages one and two have already progressed and stage three was the conclusion. Sussex Downs college has invested millions of pounds in professional fees in building up the case that the LSC required for it to make its application. It was specifically encouraged by the LSC to come forward with ambitious plans. The Secretary of State asked the hon. Member for Havant for an example of encouragement having been given to a college to come forward with ambitious plans. There is one for him. But now those ambitious plans do not look as though they will be realised. Many other colleges throughout the country are in the same situation.

We need certainty from the Government soon as to what will happen both to those capital schemes and to the professional costs that the colleges have already incurred in working up their plans. As the hon. Gentleman said, we also need some transparency from the Learning and Skills Council. Unlike the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the LSC does not routinely publish its minutes on its website to show how it arrived at its decisions.

The Budget, which has not featured much in the discussion so far, announced a further £300 million in order to try to apply some sticking-plaster solutions to the further education capital funding fiasco. As well as that sum being given to the FE sector, the Budget contains a target for efficiency gains for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to find. I understand that the target over the rest of the comprehensive spending review period for the FE and skills part of the Department is £340 million. On the one hand, the Government promise something to sort out a problem that they have created, but, on the other, they are going to take it away through efficiency savings.

The provision of adequate buildings is not the only barrier to participation in learning; there are other costs, too. The motion refers to the training costs of those who are

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