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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): This has been an interesting, serious, and slightly sombre debate. There has not been a lot of levity. The most that I can recall is the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) telling us about his leg waxing and
Mr. Simon: About his non-leg waxing and tonsorial treatments at his local FE college. Amusing though that was, he went on to make the point, My local FE college even does accountancy. That was a good point, well made. People can do more at an FE college now than was traditionally the case. I recently went to Matthew Boulton college in Birmingham city centre. It is a fantastic college that was built four years ago but is still a state-of-the-art beacon of what can be doneand of what we have done all over this country, as we have built new FE colleges to allow vocational learners to do all kinds of training. At Matthew Boulton, students can do not only accountancy but dentistry, too. There are mini operating theatres and a state-of-the-art broadband wireless fitting thing on which all the Sky installation engineers in the country are trained. That is what one can do in an FE college these days, and that is what people are doing, up and down the land, in the colleges that we have built and that we are continuing to build.
However, having said that, there has been a serious problem in the future funding for the FE colleges that we plan to build. The hon. Member for Bristol, West began the debate on that subject by talking about the numbers of colleges involved in the current difficulties. It was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and a couple of other Members, and I shall come back to it.
Before I mention the capital, which is the next issue that I shall deal with, I want to mention the thrust of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson). He spoke with great passion, and from experience, about the union learning fund, its representatives, what they do and achieve, and how important they are. The Secretary of State mentioned them in his opening speech, and said that he had recently been to a union learning facility in his constituency. A week or two before I was appointed to my current job, I visited a union learning facility in my constituency.
It is notable that the shadow Secretary of State did not mention union learning in his speech, and his partys lengthy documents never mention it. He intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon to say that he had recently had a meeting with the Trades Union Congress, at which his attitude had been sympathetic. I have to say that to those of us on the Labour Benches it seemed more pathetic than sympathetic that he would not guarantee the £21.5 million that we invest in that learning. There was even a parliamentary question tabled by an hon. Member from his party about unionlearn, the thrust of which was, Why are we spending public money funding people to learn about how to be trade unionists? As hon. Members will know, that is not what unionlearn is about. It is about union representatives in the workplace signposting and directing into learning workers who otherwise would not get there. It is a great programme, and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon does great work by bringing it up.
I have a feeling that in the time available to me, I might not get very much further than the subject of capital. The hon. Member for Bristol, West, talked about the number of colleges affected by the current problem. There are 144 colleges directly affected; 79 have already received approval in principle, and a further 65 have submitted their applications in principle but have not yet received approval. As I have said on many occasions in this House and elsewhere, and to many college principals whom I have met, many other colleges will have invested time, money in some cases, and certainly energy and commitment in drawing up putative plans for future investment, but will not yet have submitted their papers. We are, and have always been, consciousI have said this many times in the Housethat in addition to the 144 colleges mentioned, another subset of colleges is affected in a real but lesser way. The 144 colleges mentioned are those that are directly involved in the current scheme.
Mr. Hayes: The Minister is indeed giving a less pugnacious summing-up than he did on a previous occasion, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) recommended he should. The Minister must by now have come to a conclusion about what that extra number is. It is inconceivable that the civil servants working with him would not have come up with a figure. How many colleges are we talking about? Is it 160, 180 or 200? He must know; it is time that he came clean.
Mr. Simon: I was about to deal with the pugnacious slur, but then I found myself wanting to respond that if the hon. Gentleman had the slightest understanding of the issue, he could not possibly ask such a daft question. Of course we could not possibly put a figure on the number of people who may have been thinking about applying to have a new college in future.
Moving on to the serious points made on the issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) asked about the timetable. Again, we have gone through that subject on several occasions. The Learning and Skills Council has convened a panel of college principals, which has met and is looking into the issue. The LSC will write to college principals shortly, letting them know what the prioritisation criteria will be. Subject to the publication of those criteria, decisions will be made very quickly about which colleges can go forward with the work. My hon. Friend suggested that that might be done not in one hit, but in a two-stage process. He suggested that in the first instance, a larger number of colleges would be deemed to have met the criteria, and then a value for money process would be undergone before there was a second phase, in which a final, formal allocation was made. As far as I am aware, the LSC has not made that decision yet, although I am aware that it has been having discussions of that nature. The fundamental point remains that it and we have committed to giving firm answers to colleges about the first tranche, or this years tranche, of funding by the early summerthat is, imminently.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who I see is in the Chamber, mentioned regional LSC staff. I want to take this opportunity to
agree with him: all the college principals I meetand I meet dozens and dozens of them to talk about the issuemake it clear, time and again, that the regional LSC staff with whom they deal are doing a good job. They have no problems with those staff at all. This is a good opportunity to congratulate regional LSC staff from the Dispatch Box on the work that they do in a committed and successful way.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about Craven college and the importance of the rural. He has mentioned that issue before. I have spoken to principals who were on the reference panel that drew up the criteria. One principal of a land-based college assured me that he had raised the issue, that it had been considered by the reference panel, and that it would go forward and influence the decision on the criteria that college principals come up with.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) made the case for his local colleges, at least two of which I have visited; both are, as he says, extraordinary. He made slightly mistaken use of the word cuts when talking about his early-day motion. I hope it does not say cuts in his early-day motion; we should be clear that we were going to spend £2.3 billion on college capital this year anyway, and we are now going to spend £2.6 billion.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who I see is in the Chamber, and who bizarrely said that I was pugnacious in the Westminster Hall debate, asked whether the schemes that do not go ahead in the current tranche will go to the back of the queue. It is important for people to understand that that is not the case. There will be two processes, one of which starts now; the gateway criterion for that process is shovel readiness, if I may use that phrase. There will then be a second process, using the same criteria that were drawn up in the first process except that of shovel readiness. Through that second process, the second set of colleges will be put through. It is not a question of those colleges going to the back of the queue; they will effectively be dealt with in the same way as the first lot, but more slowly and later.
I do not have time to deal with apprenticeships or NEETs, or the many other issues that hon. Members raised. All that I would say in conclusion is that I hope todays debate has caused the hon. Member for Havant to reconsider his calls for cuts in the skills budget, and caused him to recognise, as we do, that skills are the bedrock of our economic future. Neither issueneither skills nor our economic futurecan be trusted to the Tories.
That this House notes the Governments belief that in a recession it is important to give people the skills they and their employers need to recover from the downturn; commends this years Budget for investing £1.2 billion in creating jobs and providing training to young people who have been unemployed for 12 months; further notes that there are now more 18 to 24 year-olds working or engaged in full-time education compared to 1997; commends the Government for its sustained investment in skills with record numbers of people now receiving training, far more than was originally planned for this year; further commends the Government for spending over £5 billion on adult skills this year, helping three million learners, and for increasing investment in higher education by 24 per cent. in real terms since 1997; further notes that the Government is prioritising helping people to gain employability skills; further notes that the Train to Gain budget has risen to £925 million this year; further notes the budget for apprenticeships is over £1 billion this year and that there are 250,000 starts planned; commends the Government for confirming that no current learner will lack the funds to complete their course; further notes that this Government is spending £2.6 billion on further education capital projects over this spending review period; and further notes that Sir Andrew Foster has recently produced an independent review of the Building Colleges for the Future programme.
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