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We want to shift £800 million of support to apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship training at all ages. We aim, as a result, to create 100,000 new training places every year. Because of greater costs to small and medium-sized businesses, they need direct financial support, which is why the Opposition propose a £2,000 apprenticeship bonus for all apprenticeships in SMEs. We should fully fund apprenticeships for people of all ages, facilitating progression from level 2 to level 3. We should also allow apprenticeships to be a route into higher and further education through scholarship schemes of the sort outlined by the Conservative party. It is because we value practical skills that we want to establish a clear pathway for apprentices. That will help business to meet their skills needs, and individuals to get the training that they want.

Apprenticeships are not the only answer. We also need to reskill and upskill, which will not always mean apprenticeships. We need to think more creatively about the advice and guidance that should be given to mature people who need to change direction. The hon. Member for Blaydon—he was echoed by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams)—was right to say that that will require a better system of advice and guidance, which is why I want an all-age careers service to have a presence in every town, and at every school and college, to offer advice to young people and older learners who need to upskill and reskill.

In the light of the debate, I ask the Minister to answer three questions. First, what will he do about the further education building programme? We heard again today from hon. Members, as we do at every opportunity—although the Government give us few—about the pressing problems faced by FE colleges. When can we expect further news about that, and how many of the 150 colleges affected will have their capital programmes approved?

Secondly, does the Minister expect the number of NEETs to grow or to fall? Shockingly, we heard last week that the number of young people not in education, employment or training has reached its highest level. Indeed, the Minister will know that the number has grown by 200,000 since the beginning of the decade. That is not acceptable ethically, socially or economically.

Thirdly, will the Minister say something about adult community learning, which we heard a little about from the hon. Member for Blaydon? That is about people taking small steps back into learning, particularly those who were failed by the education system first time round. Adult community learning has been decimated, however, and according to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 1.4 million places have been lost in only a few years. Does the Minister expect adult and community learning to grow, or does he expect that decline to continue?

I have asked the hon. Gentleman modest questions because I do not want to make excessive demands of a new Minister. If he gives definitive answers, the whole House will welcome him even more enthusiastically than it would merely as a matter of courtesy.

A recent survey found that one in eight people wanted to learn new skills. They know that education opens the door to a different future. If we can harness that ambition, we can begin to build the more cohesive,
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just and mobile society that I seek: a new hope, with a society transformed through the elevation of practical learning.

We seek to build a Britain where all play their part and all feel valued through the kind of commitment to skills that Members across the House would welcome. The Minister owes it to hon. Members, but most significantly to young and more mature people who want to gain new skills in the face of the recession, to give positive answers to the questions that have been raised today.

10.46 am

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): May I say what a pleasure it is, Mr. Martlew, to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on securing this timely debate, and on his chairmanship of the all-party group on coalfield communities, a job that he pursues with his usual dedication and passion. Before responding to the specific points raised by my hon. Friend, may I say that I will be happy to meet him and his group? I have seen the summary of the report to which he referred.

During the debate, a number of places were mentioned by hon. Members that are in some way related to my personal history. For instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon mentioned Merthyr Tydfil, which is where my grandmother was born. He also mentioned Pontypool, which is where I went to school. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) mentioned Cwmbran, which is where I was born. Like them, I too come from a mining background; my grandfather was a coal miner, as were all my uncles—my mother’s brothers. My mother came from Nantyglo; the hon. Member for Bristol, West, being a Welshman, will know that that means stream of coal. I am familiar with the areas about which we are talking, even though I now represent Cardiff, West, a rather different sort of constituency.

I shall mention briefly the other contributors to the debate. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen)—he is not now in his place, as he had to attend a Statutory Instrument Committee—made a very balanced contribution. He acknowledged the Government’s efforts on the matter of skills, and he also mentioned manufacturing. It is worth putting it on record that we remain the sixth largest manufacturer in the world, and that manufacturing has grown and been successful under this Government, albeit in a changing economy. He also mentioned further education; I shall deal with that in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) mentioned Barnsley college. The Learning and Skills Council will be making an announcement on the matter in the near future; it will not be a long delay before it does so. However, I acknowledge the LSC’s problems on that question, as did the Foster review. The process that is now under way is based on the Foster review; we are trying to find the right sort of criteria to make a judgment on which projects should go ahead—and which projects are ready to go ahead—in order to help stimulate the economy. That will be announced in the near future.

I welcome the remarks made by the hon. Member for Bristol, West. He rightly pointed out the importance of the skills of the current work force and not only of the
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young people now leaving school. He was slightly unkind to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), who met with many MPs to discuss the FE colleges issue.

Mr. Anderson: I welcome the Minister to his new post and thank him for his comments about me. On the issue of workers already in the work force, I refer him to a letter that I received around the time I called for this debate. It came from employers and trade unions within the textile industry, who expressed their concern that Skillfast-UK, which is their sector skills council, is in danger of losing its licence. Will he look into that matter, early into his new job, and work with employers and unions to ensure that their training remains in place?

Kevin Brennan: I acknowledge that point. The sector skills councils are currently under review, and I shall take a close look at any recommendations made in that regard.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) asked about FE colleges. We are talking not about whether we shall invest, or have been investing, in them, but about how we do so. In the final year of the last Conservative Government, not a penny was invested in FE colleges, and in the last four years, there was a 7 per cent. real cut in their funding. I am reluctant, therefore, to accept any lessons from him, even though he was a babe in arms, as he told us, at the time of the last Conservative Administration. Nevertheless, I wish him a happy birthday.

I also remind the hon. Gentleman that we rescued apprenticeships, which were decimated under the Conservatives. In 2007-08, 225,000 apprenticeships were running, and earlier this year the Prime Minister pledged a package of support for 35,000 additional places over the coming year. I heard the hon. Gentleman’s interesting pledges on apprenticeships, on behalf of his party, but is he prepared to pledge to match the expenditure that we have committed to FE colleges in the years to come? Frankly, given what his Front-Bench colleagues revealed recently about their spending plans, I doubt that he is.

Mr. Hayes: Perhaps I can help the Minister. He is catching up with these matters, so his figures might not be pinpoint perfect. The number of level 3 apprenticeships is about 100,000—just under, according to 2006-07 figures—but was about 130,000 in 1999-2000. Therefore, the number of level 3 apprenticeships—the level required for all apprenticeships in France and Germany—has fallen. Furthermore, how many of the 35,000 extra places will be for level 3 apprenticeships?

Kevin Brennan: As ever, the hon. Gentleman is interested in opportunities for the few and not for all. We have extended apprenticeships, but he is not interested in expanding those opportunities to wider groups. I also note that he had nothing to say on FE college investment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon asked about the amount that the Government have spent on basic skills and the remaining illiteracy and innumeracy. As I think that he acknowledged, since 2001, we have helped 5.7 million people to improve their basic skills on 12 million courses, of whom 2.8 million have achieved national qualifications. As he pointed out, however, the
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problem is of long standing and goes back generations. Although we have made much progress, much remains to be done to meet the Leitch report target of 95 per cent. of adults having at least functional literacy and numeracy skills by 2020. We have recently refreshed our Skills for Life strategy, which this year alone is backed up by £1 billion.

Hon. Members mentioned the concentration of funding on under-25s and the disadvantage to those wishing to obtain skills in the middle and later part of life. In fact, however, our adult learning programmes are extending into those age groups. In 2007-08, a quarter of people on Train to Gain were between the ages of 45 and 59. The Government certainly agree that learning should serve the needs of the whole community, including older people, either within or outside the work force. Our strategy for world-class skills and reforms of wider adult learning offer everyone, whatever their age or background, the opportunity to improve their skills, prospects and quality of life. And, of course, literacy and numeracy courses are free for all adults whatever their age.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon mentioned the importance of outreach work, which is also mentioned in the Alliance’s report. I agree that we need to invest in mentors to work with and encourage the sort of people whom he mentioned, to provide them with a way out of the poverty trap. That is why we shall ensure that the community learning champions network has more support and an improved infrastructure of connections, including with the adult advancement and careers service. In that way, it can be more effective in encouraging peers, neighbours and friends to take up learning. The champions can act as role models in the way that he wants, showing that it is never too late to learn skills and to embark on new career routes. They will be crucial in reaching out to those who need such help—and who perhaps have not been helped so far.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members also mentioned the complexity of funding structures and the need for people to understand what sort of funding is available. Every year more than 3 million people access the system successfully. However, we recognise that guidance arrangements can be improved, and that is why we shall go ahead with the adult advancement and careers service, which will be available to everyone, including lower-skilled and workless people, and ensure that people can get the right advice about what is available and how to get it.

My hon. Friend raised the problem of upskilling low-skilled people, who often need to increase their confidence before committing themselves to formal training. We recognise that, which is why we are committed to informal adult learning and shall spend £210 million on it this year. Low-skilled and hard-to-reach people are often those most likely to benefit from learning, but the least likely to seek it, as he pointed out. They find it difficult to enter such structured learning opportunities. Often adult learning for the worst-off begins with informal learning, so encouraging them back into that will help them to progress towards more structured learning opportunities.

Hon. Members mentioned the need for more local training solutions to respond to local needs. We want to gear our support towards that local need. Through Train to Gain, skills brokers and providers respond to the specific training needs of employers and individuals,
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and recent offers to support people through the recession will link skills training to job opportunities. The Learning and Skills Council has stated to providers its wish to see Train to Gain prioritised in areas with a pre-employment training offer, and it will work locally to ensure that the wrap-around services to learners and employers enable progression into work-based skills support.

My hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon and for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned that there are fewer job opportunities in older industrial areas, where we need to do more to create extra jobs. They also mentioned carbon capture. We have published our strategic vision in “New Industry, New Jobs” to set out the key areas where Government action can have the most impact. We want to invest in growth to speed the economic recovery and to build our manufacturing and service sectors.

Through the future jobs fund, which is worth £1 billion, we are taking action to provide job opportunities for those otherwise unable to find work. I contrast that with responses to unemployment in previous recessions by Conservative Governments. We aim to create 150,000 jobs to support long-term unemployed young people and others facing significant disadvantages in the labour market. It is important that we target our resources to address inequalities, and we shall continue to direct the majority of our investment towards the priority areas of Skills for Life and full level 2 and 3 qualifications.

Time is short, so I cannot go through all the points raised in this debate. However, the Government remain committed to skills. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon made many important points in his speech, and I look forward to reading the report in full and meeting him and his colleagues to discuss it further.

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Safeguarding Children (Sexual Exploitation)

11 am

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I am glad that I have the opportunity to raise this subject and that we have a new Minister to respond to the debate. I know this is a matter that will concern both her and the rest of the Chamber.

As a country, we work the longest hours, and are the least trusting and the loneliest people in the western world, according to recent surveys. We have record levels of family breakdowns, teenage pregnancies, drug abuse and violent crime. People in this country feel powerless, anxious and insecure. They no longer feel responsible for their neighbour and do not care or know what is happening next door. We live in a dislocated and broken society, with the breakdown of the family unit at the heart of the problem. The cogs of our society have been worn out, and now we face a very new and dangerous problem.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is a great expert in this area, but he is giving us a counsel of despair at the moment. Does he agree that one of the great things that characterises this nation is its well developed voluntary sector? What is his view of the Barnardo’s initiative to pilot services for children who are trafficked for sexual exploitation, and the work of the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping, both of which have received small amounts of public funds?

Mr. Steen: The hon. Gentleman has not given me an even chance to explain what I want to talk about. All initiatives that try to do good and make life better are to be welcomed. I know of the Barnardo’s initiative and can only speak very highly of it. All non-governmental agencies working in the field—or indeed any other field—are always to be supported and welcomed. Provided the hon. Gentleman does not interrupt me again, he might actually hear what I have to say.

My so-called counsel of despair was designed to set the picture. The public face may look all right, but it conceals untold problems. Too many children grow up in broken homes, with one parent or within the care system, and too many are deprived of the resources that allow them to fulfil their potential. The United Kingdom displays some of the worst erosion of family values in Europe. As a result, we feel obliged to keep passing child care legislation in an attempt to deal with the problems, but we are unable to implement most of it because of the insufficient number of care professionals. Furthermore, increasing numbers of children are brought up in ethnic minority households, with different values, morals, mores and expectations. Such children are under pressure from two worlds. On the one hand they have to reconcile their own culture and, on the other, they have to fit into the British way of life. The state cannot and should not try to provide us with substitute parents to raise children; it cannot be done. Teachers should not have to teach values that parents should impart.

More families are splitting and more children are going into care because of the fragmentation of society. Instead of trying to strengthen the family unit, successive Governments have poured resources into the substitutes.
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Yet our broken society still does not have enough substitutes. We have to find more social workers, children’s homes and foster parents to make good the shortcomings of families. Britain today has a culture of box-ticking bureaucracy that robs people of opportunities to take personal responsibility and make their own decisions.

In addition, there is the pressure of the modern high-speed internet, which brings into the home a whole new set of opportunities and dangers. Overtly, life appears normal, but, behind closed doors, there is sometimes an unsavoury picture. The debate is about the hidden world in which children are increasingly sexually abused.

Let us look at the child abuse statistics. Some 1 per cent. of children under the age of 16 experience sexual abuse by a parent or a carer, and a further 3 per cent. by another relative during childhood. Some 11 per cent. of children aged under 16 experience sexual abuse during childhood by people known but unrelated to them, and 5 per cent. of children aged under 16 experience sexual abuse during childhood by an adult stranger or someone they have just met. In total, 16 per cent. of children—one in six—aged under 16 experience sexual abuse during childhood. More than one third, 36 per cent., of all rapes recorded by the police are committed against children under the age of 16. That is the picture in Britain today. The most vulnerable of those children in our advanced society should be protected. However, in Britain we do not manage to do that. Our so-called safeguarding strategies look very good on paper, but in reality, children continue to be game to predators, paedophiles and traffickers. They are the ones most at risk of abuse, and the ones least capable of protecting themselves.

People may wonder why our society is unable to safeguard from exploitation the most vulnerable children and why the state has not been able to help more. Is it that state intervention deals only with the symptoms rather than with the root causes? Even children taken away from parents into the care of the state face multiple risks, sometimes from those who are supposed to care for them, as we know only too well. It is just not possible to replicate the role of parent in supporting and nurturing children as they develop.

On 10 June, the Department for Children, Schools and Families published “Safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation”, which is designed to help police, teachers, social workers and health workers. It has been issued to local authorities around the country. The guidance suggests that the needs of trafficked children should be met by local safeguarding children’s boards. It talks about establishing trafficking sub-groups and protocols to manage the effective care of trafficked children. I ask you, Mr. Martlew, is that really the way to go? We are talking about yet another bureaucratic organisation—the local safeguarding children’s boards—and yet another sub-group to look at the trafficking of children. We simply cannot cope with the needs of our own children in this country, let alone with the problems of migrant or trafficked children. Establishing trafficking sub-groups and protocols will not deal with existing problems or provide effective care for trafficked children.

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