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Further Education Colleges

5. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What estimate he has made of the costs incurred by further education colleges in seeking (a) application in principle and (b) application in detail status for the capital expenditure programmes. [279004]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): The Learning and Skills Council and independent property consultants are working with colleges to understand the extent of the costs. Until that work is completed we will not know the exact expenditure that colleges have incurred, but no college that has acted reasonably will be left unable to meet its financial obligations relating to that matter.

John Howell: How many colleges have had to abandon building projects over the past nine months, and what impact will that have on their ability to cut costs to meet Treasury efficiency targets?

Kevin Brennan: It is important to acknowledge the concern felt as a result of what happened, the fact that there was a review subsequently, and the fact that there is a process in place through which colleges will receive decisions in a way that is objective and meets the
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priorities involved. It is also important to remember that we are talking about not whether, but how investment will be made. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could pledge that his party will meet the investment in further education that this Government are promising.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend knows that his new Department will be judged on how well it does its job, so may I urge him to prioritise the decisions on colleges? When a constituency college of mine, Kirklees college, Huddersfield, took over the failing Dewsbury college, it was given clear promises that it would have a rebuilding scheme. It has been delayed and delayed, however, so it is about time that that bureaucratic nightmare ended and we allowed people to get on with such schemes, which are good for education and good for the regeneration of our towns.

Kevin Brennan: Yes, and may I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work in his constituency and in his role as a Select Committee Chairman? There is a process in place, and all parties agree that it is the right process to deal with what occurred following the Foster review. The Learning and Skills Council will very shortly take decisions on those projects that meet the priorities and criteria that the Foster review set out. I can promise my hon. Friend that he will not have to wait long for those decisions to be announced.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Colleges throughout the country will have been dismayed to receive from the Learning and Skills Council yet further correspondence stating that the decisions that were supposed to be taken on capital programmes last week have been delayed. Indeed, the LSC’s national projects director said:

Does that not indicate to the House that the LSC is still in turmoil? Perhaps the Minister will reassure the House today. Exactly when can our colleges expect to know whether they will get the money that they so badly need?

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Lady will know that the previous chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council resigned over the matter and that Ministers came to the House and gave an explanation and an apology for what had occurred at the LSC. The new chief executive wrote just last week to all college principals to explain that he was hopeful of announcing the projects that will go through to the next stage of the process very soon, and I have no reason to believe that that is not the case.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): May I congratulate my hon. Friend and fellow MP4 band mate on a well-deserved promotion to his new post? We look forward to hearing the song that he will no doubt write about it.

On the colleges issue, my hon. Friend will be well aware of the worry that has been caused, the delay to the capital programme and the money that colleges have already expended in order to be shovel-ready. In my constituency, Goole college, which is part of the Hull college campus, is trying to push forward a project
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as part of the town’s renaissance project; and, in north Lincolnshire the excellent John Leggott college is shovel-ready and a local contractor, Clugston, is ready to go in and deliver. Will my hon. Friend look into the issue as a priority and give those people the news that they hope to hear?

Kevin Brennan: I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to my post. Being shovel-ready—to use the phrase that appears in some papers relating to the issue—is one of the criteria, along with a scheme’s impact on the local economy and local learning, and so on. Those criteria are now being used to come to an objective decision. On his concerns about the expenditure and costs that have been incurred so far, as I said in my answer to the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), reasonable costs will be reimbursed to colleges. I also assure my hon. Friend that the Learning and Skills Council’s decisions will be announced shortly.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I, too, welcome the Minister to his new job or, should I say, jobs, because he has a couple. He has inherited a lamentable situation, but I wish him personally very well and success.

Further education colleges are strongly rooted in their local communities and characterised by their localness and accessibility. They successfully attract many learners from non-traditional backgrounds. What message does the Minister have for the thousands of learners and lecturers who now have to use sub-standard Portakabins and other accommodation as a result of the continuing delays that have been caused by the mismanagement of the capital programme and budget? When does he expect them to have proper classrooms again?

Kevin Brennan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He and I worked closely together when we were both Whips, and I am sure that that will aid our working relationship in our new roles.

My message to those learners and to people across the country would be that I am positive that far fewer students are in Portakabins now than under the hon. Gentleman’s party when it was in power. During its last year in power, it invested not a penny in further education colleges; there were 7 per cent. real-terms cuts in further education budgets during its last four years of power. From what we heard yesterday, I am afraid that it is clear that if it came back to power, there would be more of the same.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): Barnsley college has spent £12 million in preparing for its capital programme refurbishment. It is halfway through a four-phase redevelopment, two phases of which have already been completed. The third phase led to the demolition of the college. We are not only shovel-ready, to use the silly phrase, but the shovels have been on site since last year. Our programme has been interrupted, but there is absolutely no reason why the Learning and Skills Council cannot allow the project to continue. Barnsley college is £12 million in debt—technically, it is insolvent.

Kevin Brennan: I can reassure my hon. Friend by repeating the commitment that no college will be allowed to become insolvent as a result of the process. My hon. Friend raised the matter with the Prime Minister yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, and he was probably
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reasonably pleased with the answer. Barnsley college is one of the colleges being considered by the Learning and Skills Council under the objective criteria following the publication of the Foster report. I am pleased that there has been a high level of investment so far in the college, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will not have to wait long to hear from the LSC about whether Barnsley college has been successful in its next phase.

Adult Numeracy and Literacy

6. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of adult numeracy and literacy courses. [279006]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): Since we launched our skills for life strategy in 2001, we have enabled 2.8 million people to achieve nationally recognised qualifications. Our strategy is changing lives and helping people to find, stay and progress in work, increase their earnings, help their children and play a more active role in their communities.

Laura Moffatt: I very much welcome that response, and I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. Does he agree that there are some real signs of improvement in our colleges due to the Government’s early action? Job losses, however, remain part of the landscape. Will he encourage more people to take up the courses so that, if they happen to lose their jobs, they will be in a much better place from which to apply for new ones?

Kevin Brennan: I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome, although she slightly inflated my status. It is important that we commit to going further and try to be ambitious about our targets and ambitions for literacy and numeracy; that is why we recently refreshed our skills for life strategy in relation to those skills. It is also important to remember that the skills impact not only on the adult who acquires them, but on that adult’s family. The ability to read a story to the children and help them with their sums and homework is really important. It is essential that we change the culture around such issues in our country—particularly in respect of numeracy, which has not been given the importance that it should have been in relation to literacy. We have a lot more to do, but good progress has been made so far.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Should not numeracy and literacy be taught first in the home? We should encourage families to eat together, speak together and learn children the language and social skills that they need, rather than leaving that to public sector funding. We need to resolve the problem of broken families.

Kevin Brennan: We do, although we should teach the children rather than “learn” them, as the hon. Lady said. Seriously, though, she is right that such skills must start in the home. That is why it is so important that those basic skills should be taught to adults who have not acquired them. We are trying to address the issue from both ends, through, first, improving literacy and numeracy delivery in schools. That has been going on
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for the past 12 years. Remember that children who started school in 1997 are now young adults coming through the system. We are also trying to make up for the decades of neglect of literacy and numeracy. We could blame Macmillan, Harold Wilson or anyone we like, but the legacy needs to be dealt with. That is what we are trying to do. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We must try to think family as we try to enable the skills to be taught from an early age.

Higher Education Facilities

7. Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the Higher Education Funding Council for England on new locations for higher education facilities in England. [279007]

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): On 6 May, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) wrote to the HEFCE reaffirming the Government’s commitment to the new university challenge.

Sir Alan Beith: Is the Minister aware that probably nowhere in England is further away from any institute of higher education than Berwick-upon-Tweed, and that a very good community-based bid involving Sunderland university and institutions on both sides of the border is going to be submitted? May I ask her and her fellow Ministers to take a close personal interest in filling this gap and bringing something to Berwick that would be hugely beneficial on both sides of the border?

Ms Winterton: As the right hon. Gentleman may know, some 27 areas have expressed an initial interest in applying for a new university centre. We have been delighted with the enthusiastic response from partnerships across the whole of England. I am sure that the application from his constituency will be considered alongside all the others, but we certainly take a special interest in it.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that in South Yorkshire our only higher education institutions are based in Sheffield. As long ago as the early 1990s, the three former coalfield boroughs of Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster were successful in winning city challenge funding from the previous Government. We tried to make our flagship project the establishment of a university of the coalfields in the Dearne valley. Would it not be fantastic if this Government could achieve the grand objective that the boroughs set, as long ago as the early 1990s, of establishing a university of the coalfields in the Dearne valley in South Yorkshire?

Ms Winterton: I know how passionately my hon. Friend feels about the quite low aspirations, in a sense, to go to university that there have been in our area among young people. I know, not only as a fellow South Yorkshire MP but as the regional Minister, that he has been campaigning extremely hard on that. He is absolutely right—we need to do everything we can to support young people in our area in going to university. That has been our aim, and it will continue to be so.

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Intellectual Property

8. Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): What steps he is taking to tackle illegal distribution of intellectual property. [279008]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): The Government work to tackle IP crime in three main areas. First, we have to get the legal framework right, so I have been working with my ministerial colleagues on the “Digital Britain” agenda, particularly on the problem of file sharing. Secondly, we have to co-ordinate enforcement activities. That is why I have set up a new ministerial group to deal with issues of enforcement and to support the IP group. Of course, we also have to raise capacity and awareness.

Mr. Whittingdale: Does the Minister agree that online piracy represents a threat to the survival of the TV, film and music industries? What progress has he made in persuading internet service providers to take action against illegal file sharers by adopting a graduated response? Can he confirm that the Government will legislate to back up any action that is agreed?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman is right; this important issue is challenging Governments across the world. Indeed, over the weekend elected politicians have been standing on that agenda in Sweden, and he will be aware of issues that have been raised in France. In this country, we have said that it is important to move to notification, which will reduce file-sharing activity so that people know that what they are doing is illegal, and we will move towards legislating to compel internet service providers and rights holders to work together.

Apprenticeship Courses

9. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): How much has been allocated to fund apprenticeship courses in (a) South-West Bedfordshire and (b) England in 2009-10. [279010]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): Funding allocations to apprenticeship training providers in England, including Bedfordshire, for the 2009-10 academic year have not yet been confirmed. The national apprenticeship service will notify providers later this month. We expect to spend about £1 billion on apprenticeships in 2008-09 and more than £1 billion in 2009-10.

Andrew Selous: Why are the Government cutting 30 student places at Dunstable college this year?

Kevin Brennan: Of course, we are not cutting any student places. In relation to apprenticeships in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, my understanding is that Bedford Training, for example, has exceeded its maximum contract value and reported a waiting list of 20 learners, but will have enough funding in 2009-10 to recruit all 20. However, if I am incorrect about the issue that he raises, I will meet him and ensure that we look into it.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but I hope that he accepts that there is a funding problem. It has been primarily caused by many employers trying to cope with the recession and having in their terms to cut back, and apprenticeships are one
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area in which they are doing so. A number of young apprentices in my constituency have finished only 50 per cent. of their courses. I ask my hon. Friend to look at that problem to see how he can help those young people to complete their apprenticeships.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, although I should point out to her that adult starts on apprenticeships have risen from 300 in 2006-07 to 27,000 in 2007-08, so the context is increased investment rather than any reduction. We have to make that clear. However, she is absolutely right to point out that redundancy can have an impact on apprentices, as it can on anyone else during an economic downturn. The national apprenticeship service provides a one-stop shop for employers, providers and learners to access information support should that occur, and the intention is to place apprentices on suitable schemes. Also, the length of time for which they may undertake training if they cannot immediately be placed has been extended. However, it is important to set the context of the increased investment and number of apprentice places.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I welcome the Minister and the rest of the team to their posts. Members of all parties are really pleased to see the rise in the number of adult apprenticeships, and the funding for 2010 looks reasonably secure. The problem that the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) raised was about employers taking part.

On 9 June, in a comment to The Guardian, the Chancellor made it clear that education would be one of the priorities after 2010, together with housing, transport and health. Will the Minister give the House a categorical guarantee that in that period the funding for adult skills—particularly adult FE and higher education, which will be crucial to the future of our economy—will be maintained and not cut?

Kevin Brennan: The commitment of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to apprenticeships is well known and long-standing, and I confirm that it will remain an absolute priority of this Government to grow the number of apprentices and invest in them. I have been appointed Minister with responsibility for apprentices and will work in the Department for Children, Schools and Families as well as the new Business Department, which shows our commitment to connecting the under-19 and adult apprenticeship schemes. I also commit to engaging an apprentice in my own private office.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): I, too, congratulate Ministers on their new posts, although we believe that our colleges and universities are not simply the instruments of a Business Department, and they certainly do not look forward to reporting to Alan Sugar.

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