Previous Section Index Home Page

I welcome this debate. We all know that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) cares passionately about apprenticeships and formal adult learning, and he expresses that with a great amount of humour, usually in Committee or in this Chamber. This afternoon, not only have we seen that humour on display again, but he has shown a great deal of audacity by calling this debate in order to slash Train to Gain numbers to fund his half-proposals.

We have heard nothing from the hon. Gentleman about the central issues that are important to young people in this recession. I thought that the Conservatives might finally be up front about the £610 million of cuts to our universities and skills budgets announced by the Leader of the Opposition in a flurry on 5 January—those cuts would have a particularly catastrophic impact on young people—but of course we heard nothing about them. I thought that we might hear whether the Conservatives now support our ambition to enable 50 per cent. of young people to go to university, but of course we heard nothing about that. I thought that we might hear whether the Conservatives now support our policy to raise the participation age in education and training to 18, but we heard nothing about that. I thought that we might hear whether the Conservative party will match our September guarantee of a paid-for place in education or training for every 16 and 17-year-old, but we heard nothing about that from the hon. Gentleman.

Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): The 50 per cent. target was an ambition of the former Prime Minister for some a considerable time—I believe for 10 years. Given that we have never reached more than 42 per cent., does the Minister agree that it is time to stop looking at numbers and targets and, instead, to concentrate efforts on children and teenagers who need more practical help, such as that provided by the apprenticeship schemes? We should not be focusing on that ambiguous target of 50 per cent. which neither this Government nor the next one are likely to reach.

Mr. Lammy: I am surprised then that the hon. Lady and her party do not support the September guarantee for 16 and 17-year-olds. She will be surprised to learn that the Leader of the Opposition proposes to cut £610 million from the Department’s budget, and I hope that she has written to him about that. I am surprised that she also disagrees with the concerns that her Front-Bench team have expressed in the motion about young people’s chance of attendance at university.

However, let us first concentrate on what we all agree on. All hon. Members could cite many examples from their constituencies of the local effects of this global recession, whether on an 18-year-old struggling to find their first job or on a 55-year-old facing up to redundancy for the first time. So let me restate my conviction, and that of all my Labour colleagues, that those suffering
6 July 2009 : Column 726
from the downturn have a right to expect the support of the state, because the cost of failure is high. Those of us who grew up in the 1980s in inner-city communities such as the one that I represent or in other parts of our country, particularly former coal mining areas, recognise what it was like at that time to be cast aside and cut adrift with the failed youth training scheme. We know, only too acutely, how important it is that the Government are on the side of our young people, investing in them, not cutting budgets—that is what I hope to set out.

We should invest when the times are good, as we did when others opposed us. This Government increased the number of young people going to university. Last year, 330,000 people from England were accepted to a university, compared with 250,000 in 1997, with the percentage of young people from the poorest backgrounds up 80 per cent. last year.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): This Government have also taken economic recession to a new level. We now know that this is the worst economic slump since the 1930s, but in my constituency, unemployment is now 82 per cent. higher than it was in 1997, entirely on this Government’s watch.

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman has not seen the latest from the OECD, which says that unemployment in Britain is the lowest in the G7. I remind him of a former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer who said that unemployment was a price worth paying, as it went over 3 million.

Nadine Dorries: I thank the Minister for providing the figures for teenagers starting university last year. Can he also tell us how many dropped out within the first 12 months?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Lady raises an important issue, which goes back to something that goes to the heart of the Conservative motion, and I will come on to that. We should ensure that we manage growth and do not cut the funding. My Department, through its widening participation budget for the Higher Education Funding Council, will ensure that the funds are there so that universities can invest in retention. Therefore, across the HE sector, it is right to say that retention has improved, compared with some of the problems that we faced in 1997.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister knows that, notwithstanding the immense amount of money that the Government put in to widening participation, social mobility in Britain has declined. People from the sort of disadvantaged backgrounds that he mentioned a few moments ago are less likely to prosper now than they were in the year of my birth, 1958. It is indefensible that so many people from the community that he represents and others like it are being failed by the system.

Mr. Lammy: We recently had a very good debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) in relation to his work on the panel considering access to the professions. The issue of social mobility is complex, and that is why the Prime Minister asked my right hon. Friend to look into those matters. Compared to the cohort in 1958—the hon. Gentleman’s cohort—the 1972 cohort, to which I belong, entered higher education in 1990, under the Conservative Administration. If we compare their approach to participation, unemployment—such as the YTS—and
6 July 2009 : Column 727
apprenticeships with our approach to unemployment, which includes investment, the new deal and now the September guarantee, we can start to explain what social mobility is about and why we must invest in those areas.

Mr. Hayes: In that connection, will the Minister say something about those young people not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs? Figures from the labour force survey suggest that in 2001 there were 671,000 NEETs and in 2008 there were well over 800,000. That growth was during a period of economic success, not failure—what will it be like after this recession? Will the Minister be as straightforward about that as he has been about the other subjects?

Mr. Lammy: I will come on to the subject of young people who are not in education or employment, but the hon. Gentleman knows that if he is right on this issue, he should support the September guarantee, and he has not been able to do that. He also knows that there are more 16 to 18-year-olds in education, employment or training than ever before in our history.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that any downturn will affect the young. That is the nature of this debate and that is why all the things that we are doing to invest and support them are so essential. However, he will not help those young people if he cuts adrift the skills on which their parents depend through Train to Gain. He has repeated again to the House, to my great surprise, that he would abolish the Train to Gain budget and he has done so against a backdrop in which the CBI and the Institute of Directors have said that they depend on Train to Gain. He would abolish it—how would that help? How would it help the young people who are dependent on those apprenticeships? How would it help the 61 per cent. of companies that say that it helps their productivity or the 66 per cent. of companies that say that it helps their competitiveness? How would it help them to come forward and offer apprenticeships?

Mr. Hayes: Of course, we acknowledge that some good work is done under Train to Gain. However, I said that it is cost-ineffective. Perhaps I can ask the Minister to comment on a statistic. There were 666,800 Train to Gain starts in the first nine months of 2008-09 and 290,000 Train to Gain achievements. With that rate of success, it is hard to defend a policy that the Government are putting all their emphasis on. They have all their eggs in this basket. Would they not be better backing apprenticeships, adult community learning and the kind of policies that I have laid out?

Mr. Lammy: We are backing apprenticeships. That is why we rescued them and they are now up to 250,000 starts. We are backing adult learning. That is why we have a transformation fund of £20 million and why we put £210 million into informal adult learning every year. The hon. Gentleman’s party has set its face against the deputy director of the CBI, who said that he was “concerned” by the plans of the official Opposition as Train to Gain is a programme that is designed to ensure public funds are invested in training and that it delivers improved business and work force performance. Miles Templeman of the Institute of Directors has said that

6 July 2009 : Column 728

That is what he has said, and that is why we have invested that £1 billion.

Surely it is axiomatic that we cannot impoverish the parents of our apprentices, many of whom rely on the skills for life programmes, the literacy programmes and the numeracy programmes. Many of them do not have GCSEs and have taken the opportunity to get those level 2 skills. How can anyone take that away from them and away from companies and then say that they would divert the money to apprenticeships having already said that they will cut £610 million from the budget? The House deserves better. The hon. Gentleman knows that, and I am frankly surprised by the nature of the debate that he has set out this afternoon, given its importance.

That is why we have invested in programmes such as Aimhigher for our new graduates—again, the Opposition were opposed to that—and funded universities to reach out to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, through summer schools, university taster lessons and mentoring schemes. Every university in the country now has links with local and regional schools. We have increased student support with 40 per cent. of students now expected to receive a full grant on top of a very generous loan. Again, we have been opposed when we have attempted to increase the budget that we give to our universities. Since 1997, we have increased investment in higher education by 25 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman will also remember when he talks about the base of employment that our young people need to go into and when he talks not just about the skills but the sectors of the economy that we will need to rely on in the future—I suspect that that is why he made the recommendation in relation to masters programmes in science, technology, engineering or mathematics—that essential to that will be our science budget. Again he will remember that, in the 1990s, leading academics campaigned to save British science. We came to power; the campaign wound up. We have doubled the science budget and safeguarded it with a ring fence. I would love to hear whether the official Opposition will match that and keep the ring fence. The research councils are now receiving £2.4 billion more than they did in 1997. The Universities Funding Council—from what I heard this morning, I understand that it is one of the non-departmental public bodies that might be abolished, although it safeguards the autonomy of our universities—has also seen its budget rise exponentially.

Mr. Heald: As the Minister will know, I have a great concern that a lot of young people leave school unable to read, write and add up properly and that a rising number of young people are not in education, employment or training. The number was going up during the good years; its looks as though it will probably go up even more in the bad years. If everything is going as well as he says and it is all absolutely fantastic, with every Government scheme pumping in money and helping people in all the ways that he mentions, can he explain why on earth such large numbers of people—40,000 a year—leave school unable to read, write and add up properly? Why is the number of NEETs going up?

Mr. Lammy: Well, we have discussed this before in the House, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the overall cohort of young people has increased in the
6 July 2009 : Column 729
country anyway, because of the demographics and habits of the baby boomers— [ Interruption . ] That is not my generation. He will know that we have increased or seen a continued rise in the GCSE and A-level attainment of our young people. As I said before, there are more 16 to 18-year-olds in education, employment or training than ever before, and that is good news. But he will also know—I think that we discussed this previously in the Education and Skills Committee—that one of the reasons why we wanted to take the participation age to 18 was, indeed, to ensure that we did more, and that is why we have also proposed the September guarantee, neither of which is supported by the Conservative party, and I struggle to understand that. So investment in the good times is important, and in these more difficult times, it is important that we continue to invest.

Student numbers will continue to rise with 18,000 more applicants from England last year and 23,000 more this academic year. The cash available to students has increased by 4 per cent. since last year. In cash terms, we are planning to spend more than £5 billion on student support this year, and we will continue to invest even more next year. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that that is one of the most generous packages in the developed world.

We recognise that the downturn has a huge impact, not just on universities but on communities. That is why we set up the economic challenge investment fund, worth £58 million. It helps young people to find internships, working with universities and spin-outs, including on knowledge transfer. It also supports businesses, whether local, regional or proximate to our universities, at this difficult time. As I have said, we should also invest in our research budget. The science budget has risen by £160 million this year, and now totals £3.7 billion.

Mr. Hayes: I do not want to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman’s flow, but he must acknowledge that he cannot have it both ways. In answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about NEETs, the Minister said that it was not the number, but the percentage, that counted, because of changing demographics. He seamlessly went on to discuss the number of students, and moved from percentages to numbers. If the issue is about percentages, let him explain why the Government have stalled in their ambitions to move towards a 50 per cent. target. If it is about numbers, let him answer my hon. Friend’s question more directly.

Mr. Lammy: I think that Hansard will demonstrate that I did no such thing, and I will not be bullied into thinking that I did. I should just say that I am incredibly proud that this Government have taken the participation rate up to about 43 per cent. That is a huge achievement. What really impresses me, and should really impress the whole House, is that when one looks behind those figures at constituencies such as mine, Tottenham, or at Camberwell, Peckham, Brixton, Moss Side in Manchester, or inner-city Sheffield, one sees that in all those areas, there has been a rise of more than 100 per cent. in the number of young people from the poorest communities going to university. I applaud that. It is a noble ambition, and one that we should retain by investing. I have to
6 July 2009 : Column 730
remind the hon. Gentleman that that is in marked contrast to the position of his party when it was in office.

The Conservative party tried to expand higher education, but it did it on the cheap. Public funding per university student fell by 36 per cent. The learning experience of students and the financial viability of universities paid the price for that. Lord Patten of Barnes, a Minister in that Government, has admitted publicly that that Government doubled the number of students by halving the investment in each of them. As he said, that meant

That is his record in government, and we can never go back there again.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings doth protest too much. If the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) is to be believed, the Opposition’s proposed cuts in education would mean cutting 32,000 university places. Who has got it wrong: the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire or the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings? We need an answer.

We should not forget that getting a place at university has always been, and should be, a competitive process. This is a nervous time for students and parents, as they wait for A-level results, but this year, as always, every student who has an offer from a university and meets the grades will get a place. Against a backdrop of expansion, with 300,000 more students in the higher education system than in 1997, we should remember that we are talking about a competitive process. In any year, the proportion of applicants who gain a place is around 80 per cent. Britain’s world-class university system, which produces a record number of universities in the highest positions in the league tables, deserves the very best applicants. But those who are unsuccessful on their first attempt often reapply, and 80 per cent. are successful second time round.

We also recognise that this year’s graduates face a more challenging labour market than has been the case for many years. We are not alone in that. This is a global downturn and its effects are being felt everywhere. In China, 1.5 million graduates failed to find jobs last year, a 500,000 increase from 2007. In the USA, over a million graduates lost their jobs in 2008. But, as Carl Gilleard of the Association of Graduate Recruiters said today,

The statistics bear this out. The unemployment rate for those with graduate-level qualifications today is three times lower than those qualified to level 3 or below. The report from the Association of Graduate Recruiters also showed that graduate jobs are still out there. Nearly 40 per cent. of the top graduate recruiters are increasing their graduate programmes, or holding recruitment steady.

For graduates who are unable to secure a job, we are taking action. We launched graduate talent pool, a new website that brings together a graduate matching service, information and guidance and an employer response line. Employers can now upload details of their internship vacancies, and graduates can register their contact details ready for the full service that will go live later in the summer. Microsoft, Network Rail, Marks and Spencer and the police service are just some of the companies up and down the country that are offering internship places.

Next Section Index Home Page