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16 July 2009 : Column 433

Jessica Morden: The announcement last week of further job losses at Corus in Llanwern, coming on top of the 500-plus job losses already announced earlier this year, is more bad news for Welsh steelmakers and their families. Can the Minister reassure me and my constituents that progress is being made on the crucial issues of stimulating demand, energy prices and more money for training?

Mr. McFadden: In my discussions with the company, Corus has said that demand is the critical issue. Global demand for steel has fallen sharply, and the United Kingdom is not exempt from that. At the moment, Corus has the capacity to produce around 3 tonnes of steel for every tonne that it sells in the UK market. That is why it is critical that we maintain both the capital expenditure programme, in construction for example, which uses half the steel that Corus produces, and the car scrappage scheme, which has helped to boost automotive sales, and that we resist the pressure for public expenditure cuts, as advanced by the Opposition, which would hit demand and threaten steel jobs even further.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): In supporting the hon. Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden), may I ask the Minister to go a little further? Steel is an essential part of the UK manufacturing sector. He has talked about bringing forward construction projects, but could he be more specific? Major civil engineering projects could take up quite a lot of the product of Corus, so could he give us any indication of the sort of projects that the Government are genuinely bringing forward at this time?

Mr. McFadden: Just last week we announced more social housing, which will help to stimulate demand in the construction sector and increase demand for steel. My advice to the hon. Gentleman would be to speak to his Front-Bench colleagues, because I very much agree with the sentiments of Mr. David Blanchflower of the Monetary Policy Committee, who has said:

I heartily agree.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): In congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden), let me say that her campaign goes well beyond Wales, vital though that is. In my county of Lanarkshire we have men and women with the skills and potential to do still more, but we would like to know what Corus's strategy really is.

Mr. McFadden: I believe that Corus values its work force, and that it is doing its best to maintain capacity in a very difficult trading situation. As I have said, it has the capacity to produce roughly 3 tonnes of steel for every 1 tonne that it is able to sell at the moment. In those circumstances, it is also working with the Government on extra training help for the work force, and we have offered £5 million of help for that training effort in order to work with the company to help maintain its work force through this difficult period.

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Graduate Job Prospects

8. Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): What steps he is taking to assist students graduating in the summer of 2009 to find employment. [287056]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): These are undoubtedly tough times for graduates, but we should not forget that a degree remains a strong investment. Businesses are continuing to recruit through the downturn, and the Government are obviously committed to helping graduates. Working with employers and universities, we are boosting the number of internships and offering more loans to support further studies, so graduates should remain positive in difficult times.

Lynda Waltho: Recently, there was an announcement of 1,000 new jobs, training places and internships in the west midlands, and young people, their parents and their lecturers in my constituency and in the wider west midlands certainly welcome that. In Dudley, however, we are already suffering the effects of a botched school closure programme and a failure to take up Building Schools for the Future. What future does my hon. Friend foresee for the young people in my constituency if they are to suffer possible cuts alongside that idiosyncratic education policy?

Mr. Lammy: I know that my hon. Friend is a keen advocate for the young people in her constituency, and I am very pleased that internships are coming up in the west midlands for them. It is important to get that regional spread. She will be aware of the September guarantee to ensure that young people in her constituency are offered training or guaranteed a job, should they face unemployment. The Government are doing all they can, working across the Departments, to support young people, because we do not want to see a lost generation, as we saw in previous downturns.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): Graduation parties taking place around the country at the moment are not the joyful occasions that some of us might remember, as graduates discuss their miserable job prospects. Yesterday, we heard the announcement of the Government's aspirations for green jobs and a greener economy, but we cannot meet our 2020 climate change targets without investment in skills-particularly in our engineering base-or without innovation. Would now not be a good time to ensure that all new graduates in physics and maths have a good chance of getting on to a research programme? At the moment, two thirds of such applications are turned down.

Mr. Lammy: That is why we are supporting the innovation fund, which the Minister for Science and Innovation, my noble Friend Lord Drayson, brought forward. That is also why we made the announcements yesterday on low-carbon jobs. And that is why we have established knowledge transfer partnerships to support young people, particularly those doing post-doctorate studies, working with businesses, often in low-carbon areas. All of this is going on because we have balanced and managed funding for higher education, which is something that the Liberal Democrats have yet to commit to.

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Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Many proud parents will be attending their children's graduation ceremonies this week; indeed, I am one of them. I can report to the Minister that there is a lot of concern about the job prospects for graduates. Why does not he back the proposal that we have put forward to ensure that there are more opportunities for young graduates to go on to do taught masters courses at university? We have identified specific savings this year to make that opportunity available for 25,000 graduates. Is that not far better than his tiny internship scheme, which does nothing to match the scale of the problem, when one in five young people are now unemployed?

Mr. Lammy: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman; this must be a wonderful time for his family. May I also remind him that we have seen a massive increase in masters courses and other postgraduate study over the past 13 years? The figures are up, not by 30 per cent. or 60 per cent., but by 90 per cent., and 450,000 young people are now in postgraduate study, 350,000 of whom are studying STEM-science, technology, engineering and mathematics-subjects. The Opposition's proposal is a little bit too late.

Overseas Students

10. Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): What his latest estimate is of the number of overseas students in universities; and if he will make a statement. [287059]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in total, there were 112,150 non-UK EU students and 229,640 from elsewhere studying in UK higher education institutions in 2007-08.

Mr. Kennedy: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Gosh, we have reached question 10 and it is only just 11 o'clock!

Given the additional administrative and legal requirements that the Government have placed on all universities for the handling of visa requirements for overseas students, does the Minister recognise that there is additional complexity and inconsistency in the way in which these applications are handled in the various home countries? There is also the length of the appeal process to consider and the fact that if a foreign student studying at a university in Britain has to apply for an extension, they now have to go via the UK Border Agency at an average individual cost of £357. Does not all that cut against the university policy encouraged by the Government to win more overseas students to the UK generally?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman is right that there has been concern in the higher education sector about the new points-based system. We have worked consistently, particularly with Universities UK, to address those concerns. I am pleased that application rates are now equivalent to last year's levels and that the number of refusals has come down. There will be a meeting next week on 20 July between university vice-chancellors and the UK Border Agency to address any outstanding concerns, but there have been regular discussions and progress is being made as we make this transition.

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Economic Downturn

12. Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the role of higher education in assisting individuals and businesses during the economic downturn. [287062]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): Universities play an important role in helping businesses and individuals through the downturn, but also in securing our future success in a knowledge-driven economy. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has a £60 million economic challenge fund, which is expected to help 11,000 business and 50,000 individuals through a range of activities.

Tom Levitt: I am grateful for that reply and I am sure that my right hon. Friend would wish to pay tribute to the university of Derby at Buxton, which is co-ordinating work with nine major companies in the food industry to promote and co-ordinate apprenticeships and the upskilling of the work force. Will he recommend that regional Ministers throughout the country follow the example of the east midlands in taking the university sector on board as members of the regional economic cabinet?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right. I was pleased that universities acted so swiftly to ensure that they were plugged in and engaged with businesses regionally. It is right to say that the university of Derby has provided an excellent example. As well as the project to which my hon. Friend referred, there is the economic challenge fund bid, which is £2.27 million worth of support for the unemployed in the area, working with industry and business. The university of Derby's corporate project is also about engaging with highly skilled people in the area. I congratulate the university, and I also congratulate the sector on what it is doing to support businesses in a difficult time.

Further Education Colleges

13. Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): If he will bring forward proposals to increase capital funding for further education colleges. [287063]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): The Government have already made a substantial commitment to extra funding for capital investment in further education colleges in the Budget. We will be spending over £300 million more in the next two years, taking total planned spending to £1.2 billion.

Mr. Sanders: The recent announcement of funding for FE colleges did not include a single college in the south-west region. Will the Government make available the papers that show the decision-making process here, so that people can see that the entire process was transparent and that there was no political agenda behind the choice of colleges to receive funding?

Kevin Brennan: A robust and thorough assessment by independent consultants took place, and the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council has already committed to give the colleges their individual scores under the
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system, and to publish them in full in the near future. The process will be open and transparent, as recommended by the Foster review.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Last week, I visited the brand new York further education college once again. It draws students from my constituency and neighbouring Liberal Democrat and Tory constituencies. It was made possible by capital from the Government, and is a fantastic £60 million new college. Will the Government continue to fund the building of new colleges so that young people and adults in other towns and cities in the country get the benefits seen in York, and that building workers get jobs during the downturn?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, we will continue to do that. We have a forward programme, and so far, since 2001, 700 projects have been built and nearly 330 colleges funded under the scheme. That has transformed the further education estate for learners. How do we judge a party on such an issue? We judge it on what it does and what it says it will do. The Conservative party did nothing when it was in power, spent nothing on FE capital in its last year in power, and has no plans for the future either.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Basingstoke college of technology has already spent £1 million on developing plans for future expansion. Basingstoke is, as designated by the Government, one of the most important employment areas in the country, and is part of the country's future economic growth. Will the Minister reassure me that such important strategic investments will get the priority that they deserve, because that has not always been indicated in the past?

Kevin Brennan: In the autumn, the Learning and Skills Council will consult colleges on the future capital programme, and a strategic approach will be taken based on priorities-learning priorities and so on. I assure her that the process will be fair, transparent, thorough and objective.

Vehicle Scrappage Scheme

14. Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): How much funding has been disbursed under the vehicle scrappage scheme to date. [287064]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Ian Lucas): More than 110,800 orders for new vehicles have been placed since the scrappage scheme was announced in the Budget. July vehicle registration figures are not published yet, so I cannot give an exact answer. However, industry has indicated that total sales in June were 15 per cent. higher than forecast. To date, £15,080,000 has been paid out, and a further £14.5 million-worth of claims from manufacturers are being processed for payment.

Mr. Breed: I thank the Minister for that response. May I also draw his attention to a slight discrepancy in the rules regarding cars that were first registered in Northern Ireland on or before 31 August 1999? My constituents, Andrew and Rachael Budd, found that although Ford, Renault and Citroen would gladly scrap their vehicle, Vauxhall and Peugeot said that they would not. Therefore, there are different interpretations of the rules. Will the Minister assure the House that cars first registered in Northern Ireland are covered by the scheme?

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Ian Lucas: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to that individual case. I will certainly look into the matter and try to take it forward. There have been glitches in the scheme, which the Department and officials working with me have been anxious to address. I am grateful to Members of Parliament for bringing individual cases to my attention, and I urge them to do so again.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Here is another case for the Minister. One of my constituents has had a car in her family for many years, but sadly, her husband, in whose name the car was registered, died a few months ago, and it appeared that the car was now outside the rules. I e-mailed an urgent inquiry to the Minister's Department on 5 June, and followed it up on 23 June and 2 July. It is now 16 July, and there has been no answer on a clearly sensitive issue. I would be grateful if this was one of the glitches he ironed out.

Ian Lucas: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am surprised that he has not received an answer, because the circumstance to which he refers is one that we have worked to address, and we hope that we have found a solution to the problem. I will come back to him immediately after questions.

Automotive Assistance Programme

16. Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): What progress has been made on the automotive assistance programme. [287067]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Ian Lucas): This is well worth waiting for, Mr. Speaker.

I refer the hon. Member to the earlier answer.

Mr. Spring: Well, Mr. Speaker, it certainly was well worth waiting for.

Have any specific discussions been undertaken with Nissan, and, if so, have any assurances been given about jobs located in the United Kingdom?

Ian Lucas: I regret to say that the discussions taking place with individual car companies are subject to commercial confidentiality. However, we are having active discussions with many car companies. In particular, we are investigating the development of green technologies, and discussing, in the context of the automotive assistance package, the impressive way in which car companies-including Nissan-are developing, for example, electronic vehicles. We hope that announcements can be made about the sector very shortly.

Small and Medium-sized Enterprises

20. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What recent progress his Department has made in securing greater access to finance for small and medium-sized enterprises. [287071]

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