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I wish to highlight a group of motivated adults who could not read or write but were turned away by their college of further education. They had all taken the
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difficult step of deciding to learn to read and write and had filled in all the forms. Some of them were motivated to do so because they wanted to start to do homework with their children, some because they wanted to expand their businesses, while others just wanted to achieve their potential. They went to their local FE college and, to its credit, they found a great class that they enjoyed, but there was a problem: the Government’s policy to phase out funding on equivalent or lower qualifications. They had taken a huge step in admitting that they could not read or write, and had grasped the basics, but they wanted to do more advanced things such as write job application letters. That was deemed to be a bit too advanced to be funded, however. Indeed, the policy required members of the group to learn individually using a specially designed computer programme. The group set itself up in a local church hall, and a saint-like teacher from the local college agreed to work on a much lower rate of pay. Some of the adult learners valued what they were learning so much that they funded the course from their benefit payments. I am delighted that this community group was able to fund and deliver that learning and development, and such community-organised solutions are always refreshing, but do we want motivated people to be turned away from training?

Another group I wish to highlight is those who are already skilled but who want to retrain for work in sectors that are offering jobs. Let me offer the examples from Gravesham of a construction worker who had a back injury and a bus driver who had suffered a stroke, which prevented them from performing manual work and driving. Both men enjoyed computing and wanted to be retrained in that field, where one could expect a motivated and qualified person to find a job. The man with the stroke was expected to recover fully over about three years and, rather than sit around on disability benefits during that period, he wanted to spend the time retraining. He faced some hurdles, however. Under the current rules, jobseekers can wait up to 18 months before they are able to take a full-time training course while claiming benefits. Nevertheless, jobcentres can help to arrange shorter training courses sooner than that. The problem is that the choice is fairly limited unless one wants training in basic English or maths, which many newly unemployed people do not need.

I can also offer the example of a man who was a service manager in a car dealership, which is not a good organisation to be employed in right now. He therefore wants to reskill as a locksmith as he has identified a gap in the market, but he is finding it very difficult to get help to retrain to do that.

Another problem is that any additional training can be limited to what are described as “growth areas”. I identified Gravesham’s only growth area when making representations following a visit to 50 employees who had worked for the local branch of Woolworths. They were mainly women in their mid-40s and 50s, and a fair number of them had left school without qualifications, and had gone to work for Woolworths after raising a family. I made inquiries on their behalf at our jobcentre to determine what training they would receive, and was told that the only identified growth area was the care sector. The care sector offers good careers in Gravesham, of course, but what struck me was the idea that that was the only available option, because not everybody is suited to working in the care sector.

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Training opportunities for people should be not only rational, but flexible; they should not simply be linked to the main growth areas. We must keep the recently unemployed keen, motivated and focused and then get them back into work. The Government must do more to differentiate the recently unemployed and the long-term unemployed. Of course all unemployed people should remain on our radar, but we must avoid the recently, first-time unemployed joining the long-term unemployed—their needs are not very subtly different. The newly unemployed need rapid training to avoid their joining the benefits-cycle club.

In conclusion, we need more accurate data; a streamlined funding model for further education that is flexible to the needs of the local community and individuals; and rapid retraining, specifically of the recently unemployed. Finally, I would be grateful if the Minister could update me on the position of the building works at North West Kent college in Gravesend.

6.30 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): This has been an important and interesting debate on the vital subject of skills in the recession. Regrettably, Britain is in a serious recession and there is a serious skills shortage within our society. A new approach is absolutely necessary, because this Government have undoubtedly failed in their attempt to improve skills. In the main, we have had a constructive debate about the issues highlighted in our motion, and Conservative Members have presented the Government’s failings in the areas of college capital funding, apprenticeships, training, skills shortages and adult education. In our motion and in a number of speeches made by my Conservative colleagues, we have put forward an alternative approach with policies designed to ensure that we have the necessary skills for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) opened the debate with a characteristically analytical approach to the failings of the Secretary of State and his team, highlighting the real problems facing us, noting the failings of Labour in government and presenting our approach. My hon. Friend’s excellent speech raised the concerns of colleges, employers, students, workers and adult learners. Regrettably, in his speech, the Secretary of State floundered and gave the usual Government gloss —[Interruption.] The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) laughs, but he did flounder and did give a gloss, and he was very selective in his responses. He was terribly party political, backward-looking, disappointing, faltering and unconvincing— [ Interruption. ] And he enters the Chamber at this very moment. Even he did not appear to be convinced of his arguments and explanations, let alone the rest of us. Regrettably, he made wide generalisations and, as always, his contribution was rather lacking in detail. He said that the college failings should not have happened, but they did—they happened on his watch. Why was that? We heard too much history, not enough of the contemporary and not a lot for the future—it was very disappointing.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, made some very good points and covered, with a broad brush, most of the points in our motion. I agreed with some of what he said, but not with all of it.

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Stephen Williams: I owe the hon. Gentleman an apology, because it was of course he who spoke at the adult learners week reception last week. I had got the constituencies muddled and said that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who does so many joint events with me on such occasions, had done so. I just wanted to correct that point.

Mr. Evennett: I am very grateful for that. There are real concerns within our society and across the country about skills, training, opportunities and employment. As has been said, in every constituency, whatever its political colour, there are real concerns for the future. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) on his excellent speech, in which he gave an account of the issues facing Craven college in his constituency and small businesses in the area.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made an excellent contribution, highlighting, in a powerful speech, the issues of further education capital funding and regeneration, and the disappointment in his constituency at the situation in which the constituency and the college find themselves. He also raised the situation of adults with learning difficulties, on which he made some effective and constructive points. May I reassure him, as he wanted Conservative Front Benchers to do, that our further education funding council will have a simple funding flow? It will be one body and it will be less bureaucratic. I hope that that provides the reassurance that he sought on that matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), who is my near neighbour, also made a powerful contribution, in which he spoke with real passion about his constituency, community groups, funding issues and North West Kent college—he was obviously particularly concerned about that. I also wish to note the contributions made by Labour Members, as they also highlighted the problems in their constituencies caused by the funding situation for the colleges.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) made a powerful contribution, raising serious points about what would happen if the refurbishment and redevelopment did not take place in his area and his college. The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) talked about the economic situation and the need for smarter regulation, rather than a lack of regulation. He went on to discuss NEETs and young people with disabilities, all of which are crucial issues that we should be addressing, as we have tried to do today. I did not agree with him on local education authorities taking responsibility for 16 to 19-year-olds, as per the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is going through Parliament at this time. We think that that is a retrograde step and not one that we could support. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) spoke with real passion about the issues in his area, and I listened with great interest to him.

Hugh Bayley: Even though the hon. Gentleman and I disagree on whether LEAs should take responsibility for the funding of FE colleges, does he agree that there should be a level playing field for funding—the same amount per pupil unit for sixth-formers in schools and colleges?

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Mr. Evennett: This is an area that we need to look at. Everything has to be looked at on its merits, but we always want a fairer funding system.

Mr. David Anderson: The hon. Gentleman said that he was interested in what I had to say in my contribution, but is he interested enough to tell us whether he will commit to continue the funding of the union learning reps scheme?

Mr. Evennett: My hon. Friend the Member for Havant has already answered that by saying that we are looking at things very sympathetically. We must move on, because the time available to us is very short. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for West Ham, who is a Parliamentary Private Secretary, seems to want to make a contribution—she has made more of a contribution from a sedentary position than many others.

In the short time available I wish to concentrate on two things: NEETs and the college capital programme. Unemployment is a real tragedy and the failure of young people to be in training, education or employment is a real concern. This recession is hitting the younger people in our community even harder. The level of youth unemployment is rising and we are very concerned that it will continue to rise, with the result that there will be more people in this situation. A record number of people are not in any form of education, employment or training, as shown in the official figures. That is a tragedy for individuals, for local communities and for our country’s future, thus it is so important that we look constructively at dealing with the situation.

In the past, the UK’s position on youth unemployment was a lot better than the OECD average, but I regret to say that it is deteriorating. We have heard in speeches today how much more it will deteriorate—even by the Government’s own admission—in the forthcoming future. This is a disaster and it is an indictment of what the Government have failed to do in their term in office.

The Prime Minister, long before entering No. 10, stated that youth unemployment would be one of his priorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant said, this Government always have good intentions and they are good on rhetoric, but the reality is always something quite different. That is terribly disappointing. The Association of Colleges says that existing problems include a funding system that is “too slow”, rules that restrict the movement of “money between funding pots” and an obsession with

It has also said that

Restrictions on other training providers are also causing problems. A number of training providers with tried and tested ways of helping young people engage with learning and the labour market have found that they are ineligible for public funding because they do not tick the right boxes. In some instances, they have had to halt all provision as a result. Training providers face a difficult and uncertain future due to constant internal reorganisation at the LSC and the Government’s education Bill, which is going through Parliament at the moment and will create more new quangos, more bureaucracy and more ineffective delivery of facilities for training and opportunities for our young people.

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The recession will result in there not being enough jobs for people leaving school, colleges and universities. We need to support those people along with the recently unemployed, and to give them advice, perhaps access to further training and opportunities for employment and new careers, so that they are prevented from becoming long-term claimants. The Conservatives are very concerned about how we can help young people coming out of colleges and universities to get into jobs.

Britain, regrettably, starts from a weak skills base. We hear too often how many people—5 million or whatever—are classed as functionally illiterate, and millions more struggle with basic literacy and numeracy. The Secretary of State scratches his head, and he might well do so, because such problems are real in today’s society. [ Interruption. ] He can make comments from a sedentary position, but people matter and there is no point in being flippant about these situations.

We are looking to train more people. We heard that there has been a cut in adult learning places. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) intervened and made it quite clear that it is often vital for many people to go to adult education and get some qualifications before they can go on to get further qualifications. Women returners, in particular, as well as other people, need that opportunity and focus to go into education again. The Government have cut those opportunities and we have seen the number of places dramatically reduce in the past few years.

Mr. Hayes: By 1.4 million.

Mr. Evennett: Yes, by 1.4 million. I will reiterate the figure yet again to highlight the catastrophe.

Let me go on to the disaster of the capital funding for colleges. We have heard concerns today from both sides of the House that have highlighted the impact of the mismanagement of the capital programme, which has had consequences for the colleges and the young people who are learning or hoping to learn. We have heard the numbers—144 colleges were going ahead with major building work and are now at a standstill, incurring, as we understand it, an average of about £1.2 million in expenses. Many colleges have spent much more.

We welcome the report by Sir Andrew Foster for the Department. He was particularly damning of the Government’s handling of the capital programme and suggested that the reorganisation of DIUS led directly to confusion and the prevailing financial problems in FE. He said that the

There is a continuing problem. It is not just about the past, but about what will happen as we go forward.

I have been privileged enough to visit Thanet college and to have seen the problems there. There was regeneration and new building, which have been stopped. I have been to the Wellingborough, Corby and Kettering campuses to see the problems with their capital programmes. There are regeneration projects, too, as we heard from Members from both sides of the House. The college rebuilding programme and the capital programme are part of regeneration. I met some people from the college in King’s Lynn in Norfolk who highlighted the problems. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk
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(Mr. Bellingham) has given me more details. The college is in partnership with others—with businesses and the local community—to regenerate the centre of King’s Lynn. It cannot do that if it does not get its part of the funding. That is the reality on the ground.

The Secretary of State is always unwilling to answer direct questions on these matters, but I want to put a couple to him. He did not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Havant on the subject of the criteria that will be set, which the Secretary of State highlighted and which will go through shortly. I want his colleague, the Under-Secretary, to respond to three points to do with the criteria. First, what are the criteria? Will regeneration be a top priority for the funding that will be available for the colleges’ future? What is the chronology, and will it be the people who put in first—those who are “shovel ready”—who get the funding or not? What will be the effect on the other players, providers and agencies?

Most importantly, as mentioned in a brief from the Association of Colleges, the Government must confirm what happens to the money. For example, £215 million is being spent on capital expenditure on stalled projects; £187 million will be written off in colleges’ accounts if the projects do not go forward, which will put most colleges in deficit and wipe out their reserves; and there will be £269 million spent on extra costs, such as maintenance, in the next five years. There needs to be a full, fair and fast compensation scheme that we run to a clear timetable and the Government need to get a grip of that—they should do so now—and to let us know openly what their priorities will be.

In conclusion, because time goes so quickly—

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): It is not going quickly over here.

Mr. Evennett: The hon. Lady calls out again from the Parliamentary Private Secretary’s Bench—she is an entertainment in herself.

What do we really need? The capital funding programme should have fairness, transparency and clarity, and rigorous criteria should be applied to the projects awaiting approval. On apprenticeships, we need an expansion of real, work-based programmes. We must make it easier for companies to mix apprenticeships by cutting excessive paperwork, instituting direct payment to employers and injecting support for apprentices of all ages, delivered through lifelong learning accounts. We need more community learning and employability, and to provide funds specifically for NEETs, targeting help to those most in need after leaving school. We also need investment in an adult and community learning fund for much-needed courses to help people to update their skills or to gain new skills. We need to set FE colleges free from the bureaucracy of the LSC and its planned successors. We need a revolution to improve the careers service, which is, at present, inadequate. In too many areas, the focus is just on universities. Funds should be refocused from the current provision to provide a new all-age service and to set up a new web-based skills matching service.

The Government have failed to deliver the skills, training and education needed if the economy is to emerge stronger from the recession. The Secretary of State and his team have neither the vision nor the constructive policies to deal with the situation.

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