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6 July 2009 : Column 743
6.26 pm

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Given the time constraints we are under, I shall try to restrict my comments to the debate in hand. However, following my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), let me say that there are many subjects beyond the motion that need separate debates.

I am pleased to stand up for the young people of South-West Norfolk. I know that all hon. Members here will be concerned by the fact that almost 1 million 16 to 24-year-olds were not in education employment or training in the first quarter of this year. That is an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) mentioned from the Front Bench. It is also an ongoing problem that I hope the Minister took on board and that I hope the Minister responding to this debate will address. That figure is unacceptable and does our nation no good. We look to young people to help us out of this economic downturn, because their contribution to our economic success will be vital.

Last week, we heard from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families about the Government’s plans for our schools system. I hope that the Minister will accept that not all children are necessarily academic and that vocational training provision is equally important for young people. I hope that he will address that in his closing comments.

What is the Minister’s response to the Local Government Association’s suggestion that more power should be given to local councils to provide local training courses, which would be funded from a reduction in jobseeker’s allowance claims? Unemployment has hit Norfolk hard, and the manufacturing sector in Thetford in particular. According to the most recent figures, the number of people on JSA has increased by almost 96 per cent. in one local authority area in my constituency and by more than 82 per cent. in another. Those are shocking figures, and many young people will inevitably be included in them, having fallen victim to the recession.

I am aware of cases where young people have been caught by a “last in, first out” policy, which without a doubt knocks their confidence when they happen to be in their first job. I have had many letters from young people who have lost their jobs and are desperate to retrain, but are prevented from taking up a full-time course because it will take between six and 18 months to get them on one. What advice can the Minister offer young people in South-West Norfolk who want to reskill but are unable to do so for a considerable period? Does he accept that the current economic climate gives rise to a genuine need to relax the rules on jobseekers’ ability to apply for full-time training courses?

That is an issue that I have raised before in the House, as well as one on which the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) commented. The Minister confirmed that many FE colleges structure their courses to be compliant with the 16-hour rule that operates in respect of JSA, which the hon. Lady also mentioned, but what about those who want to enter full-time training? That is an important issue, and one that increasingly fills my postbag as a constituency Member, so I would genuinely like to hear the Government’s response. The fact that so many young people are eager to retrain is, of course, extremely encouraging. However, does the Minister
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accept that it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that all those who wish to enter training are given the access that they need?

I would like to mention the specific challenges for those living in rural communities. Young people in South-West Norfolk have to travel longer distances to jobcentres and training courses. As a result, they face higher fuel costs. As I have said many times in this House, a car in my constituency is a necessity, not a luxury. For a young person on a course, that adds an extra financial burden that is not placed on those living in urban areas. What consideration is the Minister giving to young people living in rural areas who not only are struggling as a result of the recession, but are hampered by their geographical location? What advice can he offer them?

Since I was elected, I have always been keen to speak out in support of the role of apprenticeships in helping our economy to flourish. However, over the past year, there has been a fall of some 8 per cent. in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds taking up apprenticeships, while for 19 to 24-year-olds the figure has fallen by just over 2 per cent. Does the Minister agree that now is the time for more people to start apprenticeship schemes, not fewer? Like other colleagues, I have seen evidence in my constituency that many of those who are halfway through their apprenticeships are being made redundant as a result of the recession. What provision is available for those young people?

Does the Minister accept that more needs to be done to reduce the excessive red tape associated with certification and inspections, so that more companies will be encouraged to open up workplace apprenticeship schemes? Small businesses and enterprises often find it difficult to take on apprentices because of the high costs involved, despite the desire of those who run them to make a genuine effort to bring new young people into the business, train them up and help them to succeed, for the sake not only of the business but of the wider economy. Let us not forget that small business and enterprise was the backbone of our economic success in the 1980s and 1990s, and it should be the backbone of our success as we pull out of this recession.

Let us also remember that Governments do not create jobs—businesses do. It is the role of the Government, in my constituency as much as in any other, to create the environment in which business can thrive. We have heard many words today about what the Government might or could do. Can we now focus directly on empowering business people to do their job properly, so that the fiscal stimulus that was mentioned by the Minister earlier can be directed at people so that it affects the bottom line and so that they can make a contribution accordingly? What hope can the Minister offer a small business that wants to run an apprenticeship scheme but feels unable to do so financially?

I shall turn briefly to an issue that affects many of my colleagues in Norfolk as well as me. I make no apologies for raising the Learning and Skills Council’s funding crisis and its effect on further education provision. I have raised the matter in the House before. I was dismayed by the recent announcement that only 13 out of the 144 frozen college building projects have been given the go-ahead. Furthermore, all 13 are in Labour-held constituencies, and none is in Norfolk. Will the Minister look at the problems at Easton college and City college,
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both of which serve my constituents? They have both been left in the lurch. Does he acknowledge that this fiasco has left thousands of young people wondering whether they will be able to access the high-quality training opportunities that they deserve?

In my constituency, a forum has been put together in support of the new Thetford college. The aim is to build an innovative education facility for 14 to 19-year-olds that will boost the local economy and provide hope for a town that has historically been associated with deprivation, social exclusion and unemployment. Does the Minister recognise that projects such as those, with strong roots in local communities across the country, must be supported and encouraged as much as possible, not just in cherry-picked constituencies but in areas where we have fought long and hard for the young people, and particularly in my area of South-West Norfolk? Young people in Norfolk and elsewhere want a bright future anchored in a good education, with excellent training opportunities and support when times are tough. What assurances can the Government give to the young people in my constituency who are afraid that their futures will be jeopardised by this recession?

6.33 pm

Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): As the last speaker from the Back Benches, I have just a few short minutes, so I think I will abandon my speech and concentrate on just one of the points that I was going to make.

I feel that I am standing here as much as a mother as an MP, because my daughter opened her university results today and we all found out what grade she had got. It was a great day for us. I have now been a university mother for six years, and my children are the first on either side of the family to go to university. We are therefore incredibly proud of them, and Jennifer is also incredibly proud of her result—[Hon. Members: “What did she get?”] I am not allowed to say.

I want to talk about the targets for getting our young people into university. To set that in context, I would like to tell the House what I have noticed during my six years as a university mum, not only in relation to the daughter who got her degree today but to the older one as well, and to the groups of their friends whom I have got to know.

The first thing that has surprised me is the number of children who drop out in their first year. The figures that I saw when I was on the Education and Skills Select Committee were quite staggering, particularly the number of young people who drop out as a result of mental health problems and depression. It has occurred to me that some of the people doing certain courses at universities such as Newcastle and Bournemouth should not be doing those courses in the first place. They were not their courses of choice; they were the courses that they were offered subject to their GCSE results at school. They were not passionate about or even interested in the subject; they had been offered the course while going through the clearance process. Those people were often the ones who dropped out after the first year.

Sadly, many of those young people were also getting depressed and unhappy at university because they were
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not doing an appropriate course. On top of that—leaving tuition fees aside—the loan that those students, and my girls, were getting was £1,000. Out of that, they were paying £300 a month for their hall of residence, £5 to use the washing machine, £3 for the dryer, and so on. The costs mounted up, and the £1,000 student loan did not go very far. It did not enable them to eat, for example, and if they came from a family that was unable to subsidise them, they would become more and more depressed.

Students would also become depressed because they could not find employment to subsidise them while at university. An example is a student who started the course with my daughter. He applied for a job as the supervisor of a hand car wash, as he had to work in order to stay at university. He could not manage on the £1,000 student loan. He was refused the job because everyone else working at the car wash was Polish and, as he could not speak Polish, he would have been unable to supervise them. The situation was similar in every bar, café and supermarket in that town.

That poor boy dropped out of university; he did not come back after the Christmas break. Without employment, he could not afford to stay on, but he still has his first term’s student loan to pay off. Moreover, that was at a time when we were not facing a recession; it was in better times. As I said, my daughter graduated today, but she is facing a grim future. Although she will not find employment, the interest on her student loan and those of all her fellow graduates will be racking up while they try to find work. We have known for the past year that she would graduate and probably not find employment.

Along with many hon. Members, I have employed American interns. There is one aspect of the education system in America that I really like. The academic year is split into six months for studying and six months for working, if work can be found. The students can work and save up for their six months of studying. That increases the number of students who can gain access to university. It gets more bums on seats; it gets more children through.

I have commented on the 50 per cent. target; I think that it should be 100 per cent. Every child should be entitled to access to the type of education that they want, be it academic or an apprenticeship or whatever. I just wish that we had had access to similar educational opportunities when I was at school. The time has come to think out of the box when we look at our young people and our universities. During a recession, to say that we want to get 50 per cent. of our young people through universities, often studying inappropriate courses that will not equip them for employment even if they finish them, does them a disservice. Given what we are facing, the Government and the Opposition have a duty to take a radically different approach.

We are burdening young people—my daughter is just one of them—with student loans and they do not know how they are going to repay them. They do not know when they will get a job and begin to repay them. The interest on student loans is racking up—it started to be payable on my daughter’s loan today—yet there are no prospects of jobs.

Will the Minister take this thought away? In other countries, where things are done differently, more people go through universities, and with less financial hardship.
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Perhaps we should be less dogmatic in our approach, and start to be slightly more adventurous and ambitious in how we regard our young people and the academic education that we offer them.

6.39 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): We have had an important and interesting debate this afternoon, with many issues raised on very important matters, reflecting the current economic situation and the problems that our young people face. Our motion highlights our concerns about young people in the recession. It sets out the current problems and the failings of this dying and discredited Government, and proposes some positive measures to help alleviate this worrying situation. Regrettably, the Government do not seem to be listening to facts this afternoon, and they do not seem to have the degree of concern that they should have about the principal victims of the recession: our young people. I believe that this recession has been made worse by the Government’s failures and failings.

We heard from the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property a long diatribe, with the usual history and spin in equal measure, but he failed to raise his game to the occasion as we would have expected. On the other hand, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), in moving the motion, displayed his usual vigour, constructive argument, robustness, policies and logical argument— [Interruption.] No, the Minister must listen further: I am never biased; I am objective and rational.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings posed several questions to the Minister, who regrettably did not answer them and was rather partisan in his response. We were all disappointed by his flawed history lesson and his rewriting of history with artificial passion. He seemed to paint an idyllic picture, which is not borne out by the experience of people in London. The Minister is a London MP, and the suffering of young people in London as a result of the recession is among the worst. If everything has been so good over the past 10 years, as the Minister tried to tell us, why do we have the problems that we are debating today?

Before we go any further, let me correct the Minister. As usual, he did not paint the whole picture when he talked about apprenticeship statistics. The official figures show that despite his target of providing more apprenticeships for young people, the number of 16 to 18-year-olds starting an apprenticeship fell by 8 per cent. in the first three quarters of 2008-09. The Minister did not tell us that. The number of 19 to 24-year-olds starting an apprenticeship fell by 2 per cent. Both figures show a reduction in the number of apprenticeships.

Regrettably, too, the number of NEETs—the people not in employment, education or training—has increased from 671,000 or 13 per cent. in 2001 to 810,000 or 13.6 per cent. in 2008. On both the percentage and the figures, the Minister failed to come clean, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings highlighted. That is the problem with the current Government; no one believes what they are saying. The spin and the complacency that we have seen are the Minister’s rather disappointing message today.

Across the country, people are losing their jobs and families are struggling. Official figures show that unemployment is hitting young people hardest. My
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hon. Friends and I are concerned about the future for our young people, as I am sure are the Minister and some of his hon. Friends, although not many of them are in their places. About 935,000 young people aged between 16 and 24 are not to be lightly dismissed if they are not in employment, education or training. I have already pointed out the increases.

When the Government came to office in 1997, the youth unemployment and NEET rates were much better than the OECD average. However, the UK’s position has deteriorated and it is now far worse than the average in the OECD—worse than that of our competitors. This recession, together with the Government’s cuts to sixth forms, apprenticeships and the crisis in further education college capital funding means that the problems faced by NEETs are set to get worse in the next few months. Research by the university of Sheffield and the Prince’s Trust suggests that if unemployment reaches 3 million, 1.25 million or 40 per cent. of those will be under the age of 25. Let us not forget that that is a huge figure. Overall, as the Government admit and as can be seen in the figures, unemployment at 2.2 million is far too high—and, also on their admission, set to rise. Lives are blighted, talent is wasted and the human cost of unemployment is a very serious matter. [Interruption.] It is no good Ministers just barracking. These are facts that they do not like to hear, but we are going to tell them.

We have had some interesting and effective contributions, particularly from my hon. Friends, to this important debate. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, was moderate and constructive in his approach. He highlighted the complexities of training routes and spoke about employment rates for graduates and the reduction in their job prospects. All those issues are a matter of real concern for all of us— [Interruption.] If the Minister would only listen and stop talking he might be able to work with us and see what can be done to improve the situation.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) spoke with real passion about the consequences of unemployment for young people. It was her belief that we need a long-term view. Of course a long-term view is important, but today we are talking about the issues that are affecting people now. Today is the most important thing. Of course we look in the long term, but we are concerned about those young people being hit by the recession now. The hon. Lady raised concerns about the unfairness of the minimum wage for young people and said that the 16-hour rule needed review. I will leave it to her Ministers to take those matters into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) was his usual robust self, highlighting aspects of higher education courses that he did not like and speaking about skills shortages, which are important.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser), who is assiduous in supporting and speaking up for his constituents, made a reasoned and effective speech. He commented on the plight of the unemployed in his area and the travel problems experienced by young people in attending their courses. That is very important in rural areas, particularly when unemployed people have to travel in order to go on courses.

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