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Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): In eight weeks’ time, I shall be in Tanzania—at my own expense—looking at what is being done by British university students working in Tanzanian schools for the summer. They are there under the auspices of READ International, a charity of which I am patron. Does my right hon. Friend agree that however good the relationships between voluntary organisations in this country and services in developing countries, and between our Government and Governments such as Tanzania’s, our aim has to be to ensure that the capacity of Governments in developing countries is sufficient for them to make their own decisions about how they manage services such as education? That is preferable to a paternalist or dogmatic approach to the sort of education that should be delivered, which appears to be the message coming from some on the Conservative Benches.

Mr. Alexander: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of capacity-building and the continuing country-led development that runs like a golden thread through the White Paper. I pay tribute to the organisation he describes and to the thousands of others across the United Kingdom that undertake vital contributions to the task of development. Their work inspired us to announce a new innovation fund in the White Paper. It will allow small organisations in constituencies across the country to apply for often small sums that could facilitate exactly the kind of visit that my hon. Friend is making.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I applaud the renewed emphasis on agriculture and infrastructure. What are the two biggest research projects that the Secretary of State’s Department is undertaking, and from which other projects does he intend to save £155 million?

Mr. Alexander: We are undertaking a significant programme of agricultural research; we committed £1 billion towards research only last year. I will set out the figures for the hon. Gentleman in correspondence later. We have looked carefully at finding ways better to align that spend in what is a significant envelope to ensure that we get the most effective return. Our particular focus on agricultural research, which has moved up the agenda relative to the traditional health research that we have performed for several years, stems from our belief that it is the most effective way of engaging effectively within agriculture. Under a previous Government, there were a large number of agronomists within DFID, as well as many field-based workers. That is no longer the most effective contribution that we can make, which is instead to contribute to the raising of agricultural productivity, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, in a manner that was achieved on the Indian sub-continent 20 to 30 years ago.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I very much welcome the new emphasis on fragile and conflict countries and my right hon. Friend’s intention to develop joint strategies with the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. Should the statutory definition of poverty reduction be found to be a hindrance in that development of joint strategies, either here or in working with other countries, will he have an open mind in reconsidering some of those parameters?

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Mr. Alexander: I read with some interest a recent report indicating that statutory change was necessary, but that has not been my experience as Secretary of State for International Development; indeed, I struggle to think of a single instance where I have felt constrained in the choices put before me under landmark legislation passed by this Labour Government. It is vital that we continue to be trusted as an organisation that sees poverty reduction as its core task, while at the same time working in an effective and collaborative manner with our colleagues in the Foreign Office and the MOD.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The Kettering-based charity, Casa Alianza, is a world leader in providing effective aid to street children, particularly in central America, many of whom suffer abuse at the hands of state authorities and local and national police forces. What emphasis does the White Paper place on helping the growing number of street children across the world?

Mr. Alexander: The White Paper contains language on the challenge of urbanisation, which is directly related to the issue of street children. There is a strong and continuing focus on the need to provide basic health services, which are essential to the needs of street children. At the same time, we are considering the challenge of providing education, because many street children find themselves in circumstances where they are denied formal education. We are also seeking to increase our investment in social protection, because in many households it is the absence of income that has driven children on to the streets. I applaud the efforts of the charity in question, which are reflected in several other charities working on this important issue across the United Kingdom. If the hon. Gentleman sends me further details of the charity, I shall certainly be interested to have a look at them.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the growing concern in Parliament and beyond about the scandal of vulture funds. How will the White Paper allow the Government to further their work in tackling this issue?

Mr. Alexander: The formal answer to my hon. Friend is that my colleagues in the Treasury lead on these issues. I would simply reflect on the fact that, as in other areas of policy, the challenge is to build a consensus on how we can move forward. I recognise that there is strong pressure growing as regards vulture funds. I take heart from the fact that in an equivalent campaign in relation to tax havens, we have seen, as a result of the leadership of our own Prime Minister at the G20, decisive action that I hope will be taken forward in Pittsburgh in September.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The House is aware that many of the countries to which funds go have high levels of corruption and the leadership probably have overseas bank accounts. In the interests of proper accountability, is the Secretary of State able to give us a percentage of the amount of money given by his Department that reaches the people for whom it is intended rather than a Swiss bank account?

Mr. Alexander: It is a sad fact that corruption is both a cause and a consequence of poverty, and it is almost inevitable that if we have a Department focused on
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global poverty reduction, it will be working in environments where there is a real challenge in relation to bribery and corruption. It is for exactly that reason that we put such emphasis on building the capacity and public financial management of those countries. However, we have a zero-tolerance policy in relation to the misuse of British aid, and if the hon. Gentleman is aware of any examples of aid being misused anywhere across our global network, I will be grateful to take receipt of them.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I also welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. He will be aware of a recent meeting that I had with him and an agency called Christian Blind Mission, which works in the field of preventive procedures against blindness and child poverty right across the developing world. Does he agree that organisations such as CBM and others in the UK deliver the value for money that he mentioned in his statement?

Mr. Alexander: As I shared with the hon. Gentleman when I met him and a representative of CBM, I think my ancestors would cry out if I did not pay tribute to such organisations, given that both my grandfather and grandmother were medical missionaries. We are fully aware of the contribution that organisations such as CBM have made over many years to tackling the scourge of blindness in the developing world.

I also shared with the hon. Gentleman the recent experience that I had on the Thai-Burma border, where a Scottish surgeon, using his holidays from work as an NHS surgeon in Aberdeen, had flown out and people had walked across the border from Burma to receive free treatment at a hospital on the border. I hugely admire the work of not just CBM but many other committed people of conscience and good will in this field. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to take forward our dialogue with that organisation.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I warmly welcome the White Paper, with one caveat, which perhaps the Secretary of State’s grandparents would agree with. Malaria is killing millions of people, particularly children under five, in sub-Saharan Africa, yet it is not one of the key priorities such as climate change and conflict. Will he look again at that and ensure that we do nothing to threaten the funding for malaria research and prevention, and indeed consider increasing it? That is one of the key ways in which we can help the world.

Mr. Alexander: I should correct the hon. Gentleman. I emphasised in my remarks the fact that we are taking forward our spending on malaria. I am glad to say that we will be increasing the number of treated bed nets that we were committed to prior to the White Paper, because I have seen for myself in developing countries, and our experts have seen, case after case in which insecticide-treated malarial bed nets can make a huge difference to the rate of infection and reinfection. That is why I made a judgment that we should not end our commitment at 2010 but take it forward thereafter, and I am proud to reiterate that today.

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Opposition Day

[15th Allotted Day]

Young People in the Recession

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I have to tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.37 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I beg to move,

Youth is bound to hope. Benjamin Disraeli wrote that

As the recession bites, young Britons are being bitten hard; their hopes torn apart, their futures damaged. I move this motion, in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, in sorrow. We are sorrowful for the school leavers who hoped to go to university but will not; sorrowful for the graduates who hoped to find good jobs but cannot; sorrowful for the forgotten army of 1 million youths not in education, employment or training, who once dared to dream but now do not. Every Member of the House should share my sorrow that Britain in 2009 has come to this, and share my anger at a Government who could have done more and should do better.

As the economy shrinks, unemployment grows. The number of NEETs went up even in the good times. As the economy grew, we failed to give opportunities to young people, so what hope for them now? I hope that the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, who I know is a man of good faith and cares about these things, will apologise for the fact that we failed to provide opportunity for so many young Britons in constituencies such as his and mine. He knows that, as the economy grew and jobs were created, three out of four went to people coming into Britain rather than to people already here. As the demand for skills grows, the number of learners in further education plummets, advanced apprenticeship places fall and adult learning has all but disappeared from communities throughout the country.

As Britain’s chance to compete becomes ever more dependent on a highly skilled, educated work force, the number of people with level 3 skills and above remains less than that in France and in Germany. According to the OECD, Britain is ranked 17th out of 30 nations for the number of people with above low skills. The UK
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suffers from a burning skills shortage; throughout industry, companies are firefighting that disaster and need a swift and effective response to the crisis. Almost two thirds of companies need skilled workers to satisfy demand, with shortages particularly keenly felt in the energy, water, engineering and construction sectors, according to the training provider, Empower Training Services Ltd.

I want to put it on record that I value the work of trade union learning representatives—I know that that applies to those on the Treasury Bench and hon. Members of all parties. They will therefore be as interested as I am to consider the TUC’s most recent report on Britain’s skills gap. It states that throughout Europe, between 40 and 45 per cent. of young people between the ages of 20 and 24 are in education or training—nearly double the UK rate. It states that 40 per cent. of adults aged 25 to 59 in work in the UK have no education beyond the age of 16, compared with 32 per cent. in France and only 13 per cent. in Germany. It also states that in France and Germany, between 60 and 65 per cent. of the population have qualifications equivalent to NVQ level 2 or above compared with only 40 per cent. in the UK.

I hope that Ministers will not go into denial today. I hope for a refreshing bout of honesty when they speak in the debate. If that happens, it will be clear that the number of those not in education, employment or training has grown by approximately 50,000 under Labour. The Government themselves class one in six 18-year-olds as NEETs, the highest figure since records kept under the current method began in 1994. We are failing those youngsters—failing to give them hope, opportunity and a chance to be the best they can. Failing them means failing us all; it is not right that Britain’s hopes should be dashed in that way. The Government know that it is not right, and we know that they are not right for Britain.

Let us consider details that some on the Treasury Bench will find difficult. I do not want to be unnecessarily unkind; none the less, the House and the people we represent have a right to explore those details. First, let us consider university entrants. University clearing places are expected to fall by two thirds—that is why we highlighted university entrants in the motion. An estimated 16,000 new course places will be available on A-level results day, compared with some 43,000 in 2008. Despite that staggering fall, research suggests that demand for degree courses increased by almost 65,000. The Government have effectively put a hold on the number of university places in September, due to growing pressure on public finances. There are expected to be around 650,000 undergraduate courses this year. Any chance that the Government ever had of reaching their 50 per cent. target now looks remote.

The Million Plus group of universities says that that cap will leave thousands of bright teenagers on benefits. It states:

Interestingly, unlike in earlier recessions, a wide range of social groups will be affected. The group argues that everyone will be affected, from working-class school leavers to middle-class students. Some research suggests
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that students from the least advantaged backgrounds who, typically, tend to apply later for university, may be worst hit. That is certainly the view of the National Union of Students. Indeed, NUS president Wes Streeting has said:

So much for widening participation.

It has been reported in The Times that

The Higher Education Funding Council has warned universities that they will suffer a cut in funding if they try to increase numbers. What does that mean in practice? The Minister knows the answer, so I hope that he will endorse, if not every word I say, then much of the sentiment. As a result of the changes,

That is what all the reports from the universities and elsewhere are telling us.

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): I am sure that the House would like to learn what the hon. Gentleman’s pledges for this year would be if he were in government, so would he care to tell us how many additional university places he would pledge to fund this year and whether he would match the Government’s September guarantee for each 16 and 17-year-old to have a place in education or training this year?

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman anticipates the exciting part of my speech, which comes later— [ Interruption . ] I should have said “the even more exciting part of my speech, which comes later,” when I shall regale the House with Conservative proposals and set out just how much better things could be and what a brighter future the Conservatives could bring in. However, I do not want to be rushed into that. I want to build the excitement among those on the Treasury Bench before satiating their demands for Conservative policy announcements.

The Minister, whom I welcome to his new role, will know that last year some 44,000 students won their places through clearing, but that figure could be halved this autumn. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will indicate his projections for the number of students who will gain a place through clearing.

What about those who leave university? What are the prospects for graduates? The think-thank Centre for Cities says that between now and 2011, long-term youth unemployment will almost treble. Figures for short-term unemployment show that 900,000 young people are currently unemployed, but youth unemployment is expected to exceed 1 million in 2010. Some 16,835 graduates—roughly 8 per cent.—were unemployed six months after finishing their degrees, which compares with around 6 per cent. in the previous year. Five per cent. of graduates who were working were working in “elementary occupations”, which is an increase of about 1 per cent. on the previous year. The number of students finding a place on “the milk round” has dropped by a third, as companies are forced to cut back.

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