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The scheme grew to £100 million, reflecting the encouragement given to colleges by the LSC to raise their sights and build for the 21st century. On one visit, the LSC officer told the college that he hoped the main
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administrative building would be knocked down and replaced because it looked dreadful. It was not, and that is not in the plan at the moment.

The college applied for in-principle approval in Andover last November, expecting the go-ahead in February or March. In the meantime, it got planning consent from Test Valley borough council. The scheme was an integral part of the regeneration of Andover town centre, complementing plans that have already been introduced in one part of the town and are about to be in another. Then, along with 143 other colleges, in March we were told that the deal was off. There is great disappointment in the town.

To pick up on points that have been made in the debate, I understand that decisions are about to be taken on how to spend the money that is available, topped up by the funds announced in the Budget, which I welcome. It seems that schemes that are “shovel-ready”, to use the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, will get the go-ahead, while other schemes that might have progressed in the near future will go to the back of the queue. It would be helpful if the Minister said a little more in his winding-up speech about the criteria that will be applied when deciding who goes first and who comes last, and if he could indicate for local consumption the earliest date at which the project in Andover might now get the go-ahead.

On top of the capital debacle, there is also a revenue headache as a result of the gamble that colleges were encouraged to take by the LSC in bidding for funds. Some will now turn in financial deficits, which would not have been the case, unless the LSC is able to step in and refund their fees. I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon say that his local college has had an offer of a contribution towards abortive fees, although I am not quite sure why it has to decide so quickly. In the case of Andover, about 70 per cent. of the £2 million spent in fees is now abortive. That risks turning a potential surplus of £500,000 into a potential deficit of £900,000. Will the Minister say something about which colleges are getting help, and of what sort, in meeting the abortive fees?

The other frustrating thing is that the LSC is responsible for monitoring the financial health of colleges. In many cases, the reason for the deterioration has nothing to do with the college but is entirely due to the LSC. Unless it can come up with the necessary help with abortive fees, some colleges will go into deficit and may breach financial covenants. Many will have to borrow funds from the bank, incurring interest payments.

I move on to a subject that has not been touched on at all—provision for adults with learning difficulties and disabilities. There is a need for much greater clarity about what is done for adults on the education side of the equation and what is done by social service departments on the social and personal development side. A few years ago, colleges would accept those with learning difficulties on courses, and would interpret the rules broadly. People would continue to attend college year after year, even though they were not really progressing. It was an important part of their life and self-development.

A few years ago the rules were tightened, and colleges are now required to ensure that courses attended by adults with LDD lead to clear, successful outcomes in qualifications. When an adult has fulfilled the requirements of a particular qualification and there is not necessarily
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anything appropriate for them to progress to, they are unable to be recycled year after year, so they stop going. That change was made a few years ago at the point of transition. That issue might not be one for the Minister, but it is certainly one for the Government if we are to have joined-up government.

This morning I was rereading “Valuing people now”, the Government’s three-year strategy for people with learning disabilities. It is very much a health-focused document, with not a lot in it about education, but I found one sentence about education that I will have to read out, in the hope that the House will understand what it means better than I can. It states:

I hope that that means that folk will be able to go on courses that are suitable for them, but I say to the Minister that it is by no means clear how the education-social services interface will work. I hope that he will ensure that there are suitable courses for people with learning difficulties that are provided either by social services or by education.

I turn briefly to some other issues in the motion. The number of NEETs in my constituency, as in those of other colleagues, has risen. It is now at 185, having risen from 135 in December, five months ago. Many fewer adults are now attending training courses at Andover college than was the case in 2005. I suspect that that is because in some cases there is a real issue of affordability when it comes to the fees. There was a 29 per cent. drop in 2007-08 compared to 2006-07, and a 41 per cent. drop in 2007-08 compared to 2005-06. I hope that the Minister will say a little about the Government’s response to that.

We heard a great deal from the Secretary of State about Train to Gain, which, in a sense, has been too successful. In my constituency, as in Skipton and Ripon, we now have a moratorium on new starts. Private providers and colleges have been told to stop, current activity with employers has been curtailed, and future contracts are being held back to avoid over-commitment in the forthcoming year. There is considerable frustration about the fact that after everyone has been geared up, they are having to be geared down again.

The subject of unfunded students was raised earlier, and I need to see what the Secretary of State said in response. At present there are about 120 unfunded places for the autumn in my constituency. The college has submitted a bid. The Secretary of State’s speech suggested that we might be given answers about the bids; perhaps the Minister could shed some light on that. As for apprentices, there is understandably less capacity in the workplace to take on, in particular, young and inexperienced trainees. Sadly, in Andover we have seen a rise in the number of apprenticeship redundancies, which has pushed up the number of NEETs.

Let me make a general point. Further education colleges find sudden changes in funding flows very challenging. When commitments to engaging additional
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staff are required, the stop-start approach to funding is very difficult to manage. As all Members have pointed out, colleges are crucial to the economic and social well-being of the areas in which they operate. They cannot be expected to operate as a very small business might be expected to, moving resources in and out from one week to the next.

I hope that the Government will exercise continuing stewardship over the financial well-being of colleges. That is especially important when the commissioning of much of their work switches to local authorities, with funding supplied via the Department for Children, Schools and Families, while the overarching stewardship of colleges rests with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Finally, let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who will wind up the debate, that it would be interesting to hear whether he considers that we are totally satisfied with the rather blurred responsibility for the age group that we are discussing, or whether he thinks that the issue might need to be revisited in a year’s time.

6.12 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It is possible that I am the only Member present who served a full apprenticeship, although I stand to be corrected on that. When I served an apprenticeship as a mechanic, there was respect for the traditions of people who had served apprenticeships for many years. We felt, as apprentices and as craftsmen, that we were part of a culture in which what was learnt was passed on, and it was part and parcel of the pride that we took in doing the job that young people were introduced to it. It was heartening for me to become a time-served craftsman and work with young people in learning skills. However, it was disheartening for me to be part of a generation that saw the last of the apprenticeships in the industry in which I worked, the coal industry.

It was directly owing to the policy of the Conservative party that we saw a decline in apprenticeships. It made policy decisions that largely destroyed the coal industry, decimated the railway industry, did away with the shipyards, cut back the steelworks and privatised British Gas, the electricity boards, the water boards and BT. All those were national companies with major training schemes, which employed many, many young people. What happened to young people in my village was that, instead of working with people like me—as apprentice mechanics, electricians or welders—they ended up as apprentice burglars and apprentice drug-takers, and became very good at taking cars without the owners’ consent and taking radios from cars. That is not much to pass on to the next generation.

In the days when I trained with the National Coal Board, everyone had some form of education, right up to degree level. People were not just given vocational training; they were taught how to stay alive underground and, importantly, how to keep their fellow workers alive. A huge vacuum was created at the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, but I am thankful that my party’s Government have begun to fill it. It is true that things are not perfect, but we have, without a doubt, modernised and restructured apprenticeships in a way that addresses the challenges of the 21st century. Those
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challenges are, and will continue to be, different from the challenges that I faced when I became an apprentice. The fact remains that the Government have invested additional money this year. They have agreed to provide a further £140 million, which will fund 35,000 apprenticeships. That is good for the public, and for the people for whom the apprentices are working. In 1997 there were only 65,000 apprenticeships in the country; today there are a quarter of a million, and completion rates are at an all-time high. That is something we can be very proud of.

During the Secretary of State’s speech, I raised the subject of union learning reps, which is never mentioned by the Conservative party. That may appear unsurprising, given its attitude to trade unions. There are 22,000 accredited union learning reps out there working with people. I was involved, with the National Union of Public Employees, in a scheme called Return to Learn, which helped people many of whom had no literacy or numeracy skills, and experienced great problems even in reading or writing. For the first time since leaving school, in many cases as young as 15, people were told “We value you. You may only be doing menial, manual work in society’s eyes, but your contribution is important, and because of that we want you to become re-engaged in the world of education.” Such schemes have been one of the keystones of workplace learning in this country. Last year, a quarter of a million people were given access to learning at work through union learning reps.

Mr. Willetts: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I had a most enjoyable meeting with TUC representatives only the other week, during which they made the case for union learning reps almost as eloquently as the hon. Gentleman is making it now.

Mr. Anderson: I am very glad to hear that, but I did not hear the hon. Gentleman say “I agreed with what they said, and I will continue to provide and develop the union learning scheme.” I will sit down and let him say it if he wants to, but it appears that he has no reply.

Mr. Willetts: I was very sympathetic to the case that they made.

Mr. Anderson: I love the hon. Gentleman’s use of the word “sympathetic”. I realise that he has two brains, but it does not take two brains to understand what the word “sympathetic” means. What I am asking him for is action, but he is clearly not prepared to commit himself to that.

Last week, I was not talking to the TUC; I was talking to learning reps on the ground at Gateshead council. I was talking to people such as David Smith, who has helped many young people, as well as older people, into the workplace. They benefited from real dedication and real praise from their employers and others who took part in the schemes. Last year I was very proud when an old colleague of mine, Felicity Mendelson, who works for Newcastle city council, was recognised by the Queen for the great work that she had done as a union learning rep. She was awarded the MBE.

Real credit has been given to people who have done real work for people on the ground. But credit must again be given to the Government for the money that they have invested in the foundations of building colleges, and expanding further education. I am aware of the
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problems, and it would be wrong for me or any other Member to deny that the LSC has let people down, but I do not think that the Secretary of State intends to do the same.

Last week I met representatives of Balfour Beatty, who are worried about what may happen if we do not put right what has gone wrong in the last few months. I know that the Conservatives do not agree with this, but I strongly believe that we should be building our way out of the recession. We should be using that terrible term “fiscal stimulus”, and companies such as Balfour Beatty—along with many other people—should be rebuilding colleges and schools. The Balfour Beatty representatives told me that a potential 40,000 jobs are available to people who could be employed in the building industry, but may not be. The Government must start to address that. I hope that, when he responds, the Minister will go some way towards allaying my fears.

Like every other Member who has spoken so far, I shall say something about the colleges in my area. I want to tell the success story of Gateshead college, which has never been afraid of embarking on partnerships. It does not believe in standing about whingeing, or in promoting doom and gloom. It wants to get on with the real work. That is why last year it moved out of the building in Durham road where it had been for many years, sold that building and went forward in partnership. It has been given £60 million by the Government to build the new Baltic college on the regenerated Gateshead quayside. It has been a tremendous success. There are 7,000 students and 500 staff, working at a college that is a source of great pride to me and the people who live in the area.

A £5.5 million skills academy on a nearby industrial estate has done tremendous work with companies such as Nissan and others in the automotive industry, which is so important to our local economy. A £15 million academy for sport has also been developed on the former Gateshead stadium site, and I hope it will play a major part in the development of Olympic athletes for this country.

The college has been recognised across the board. In the last two years it gained “outstanding” grade 1 marks in Ofsted inspections in all six areas tested. It has a success rate of 83 per cent. and it is within the top 10 per cent. of colleges in the country.

The college completed the renovation of its estate with the opening of the Baltic campus and the skills academy, the result of a £60 million investment. It has been recognised by the LSC for outstanding financial performance in a very challenging environment, and by Ofsted for providing outstanding value for money. It has provided more than £10 million to local companies for Train to Gain, and turnover has increased by more than 25 per cent. In 2008-09, it also achieved growth in the number of full-time 16 to 18-year-old students, which rose from 1,757 to 2,272. It has been officially named as the top college in the region for delivery of apprenticeships and the lead provider for the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing. It secured the Ford master apprenticeship programme for the north-east and it is the preferred training provider for Nissan. It has also been awarded many other accolades.

We are proud of Gateshead college, and so we should be, but the outside world is also proud of it. It entered the culture for success competition, and Andrew Dixon, chief executive and judge, said this about it:

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This is not a doom and gloom story, therefore; it is a story of real success on the back of hard work by many people.

The college is continuing that work. Shortly before Christmas, it answered the call; Nissan was facing serious problems and it asked the college to help it try to keep people in work. Working with MPs, and with a great contribution from the Secretary of State concerned, the college and Nissan drove forward training programmes from this year to the back end of last year, which extended the working life of hundreds of Nissan employees in Sunderland. Although for some of them it was extended only for a short period, it at least meant they were able to get to Christmas without facing the threat of the dole.

The college is also working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions, the regional development agency and local authorities to establish an early warning system, so that when people may be about to lose their jobs, or have lost their jobs and have been made redundant, the college and other partners are there to pick up the pieces and help them get back into work as quickly as possible. The college is working closely with the local council, which has decided to bring forward its capital programme. It is helping the council create 500 new apprenticeships, and it is also working with local businesses to get even more apprentices into work. If we want to use a slogan that many people may well have heard of, we could say that this is an example of “Real help now”.

This is all about creating choices, and about denying the official Opposition’s narrative that everything is doom and gloom and we should stand back and do nothing. We will not stand back and do nothing, either in this party, in this Government or in the place that I come from. We are going stand up for people, and stand by them; we are not going to stand back. The official Opposition may be led on this issue by a man with two brains, but the leaders on the issue should be people with some heart.

6.24 pm

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): The importance of this debate is underlined by the OECD’s economic outlook; it says that unemployment in our country could rise to 10 per cent., and it said in November that it could rise faster than in any other G7 country. Accurate and promptly published analysis of unemployment trends is important for the providers of training and further education, particularly in a recession, which is also an opportunity for reskilling. In terms of the data available to inform training providers, the jobseeker figures provided by Jobcentre Plus and the Office for National Statistics seem to vary by between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent. That is concerning in itself, but when we add in the number of those who are economically inactive but who want a job, the unemployment figure in Gravesham is almost trebled.

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