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11 Nov 2009 : Column 257

He may wish to put a cap on aspiration and ambition, but Labour Members do not. We want to see everyone achieve their potential, which is why we broadened that ambition today by saying that we want not only to expand participation in higher education but to do more on this technician class of apprenticeships and equivalent qualifications, where Britain has been historically weak compared with other countries.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned youth unemployment. Of course unemployment, including youth unemployment, has increased in the recession, but Labour Members will never say that that is a price worth paying. We know the damage it does to families and communities, which is why we have put £5 billion into helping unemployed people get back to work. A particular emphasis for us is on preventing long-term youth unemployment. Even though unemployment has increased, the level of long-term youth unemployment of a year or more is some 80 per cent. lower than it was before this Government came into power. The contrast in the response to this recession compared with the responses to previous ones is that we are not content simply to pay people benefits and leave them there. We want to create second chances for people, which is what this £5 billion investment is focused on doing.

The hon. Gentleman criticised my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, but I remind him that my right hon. Friend made a statement on the higher education framework in this House just last week, so we have not lacked reporting to the House on this issue. The hon. Gentleman says that he is going to speak to a lobby later, and I am sure he will be outlining his policy on fees in detail to them-it will be interesting for the rest of us to find out what Lib Dem policy on this is.

The hon. Gentleman rightly praises the role of the third sector in this arena. The Government, too, praise its role, because these organisations do a fantastic job. Last week, I visited a wonderful project run by the Prince's Trust, and other bodies, such as Mencap, Nacro and Rathbone, all do excellent work. Here is the difficult truth: they require Government support to do it. We fund those organisations to the tune of £353 million; the money goes to more than 400 third sector organisations, helping people to expand their opportunities. What we will not do is reduce third sector help in this area to these organisations raising their own money with no Government help. We will not make opportunity dependent on flag day. We will work with the third sector and back it with resources.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the Government on much of this statement. It is pleasing to hear that individual accounts are back after an eight-year gap, and the statement contains some other interesting things relating to apprenticeships and much else. My first caveat is that the churn in organisations puts off many people, such as employers. These people have for years invested their time and trouble in running these organisations, just to see them rationalised, changed and abolished. Secondly, there is a bit of a naive belief running through this report that the employers' assessment of what we need in the labour market is always right. It is not always right and other players are often more accurate.

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Mr. McFadden: I know that hon. Friend has great authority and knowledge of these matters and I listened to what he said with great care and respect. He is right to say that there is an emphasis on the skills system meeting the needs of employers. We do not apologise for that-we are entering a world of rapid change with the shift to a low carbon economy and we have to ensure that employers get the skills that they need from the system. The emphasis on skills accounts empowers the individual, too, and by expanding the number of institutions where skills accounts can be used and, critically, by providing high-quality information to the individual learner we not only meet the needs of the employer, but expand opportunity for the individual. It is critical that the skills system does both those things.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): May I welcome the Minister's announcement of a reduction in the number of skills bodies, which the Opposition have been advocating for some time? Now that he finally accepts the need for a reduction, will he explain why his Government allowed so many to flourish in the first place?

Mr. McFadden: The system has evolved over time and it is quite right that we should take a look at it now and say that, as it has developed, there is a need to make the system simpler for people to use. It is quite right that we should face up to that and reform the system in exactly the way that we have set out.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is familiar with many of the big manufacturing issues in my constituency, but he might not be so familiar with some of the retail related issues. Is he aware that Marks and Spencer, which is about to make its biggest investment for about 18 years in this country-it will invest in 150,000 square feet of new retail in my constituency-is attracted by, among other things, the brilliant partnership between the FE sector and retail? The creation of a retail academy has transformed the life chances of many people from the poorest estates in my constituency.

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He mentions Marks and Spencer, one of our leading companies, and the work with the retail skills academy. The partnership between the best of our FE colleges and businesses is now of a far higher quality than it was before, and that is what we want to see. We want FE colleges to be properly plugged in to the local and regional skills needs of the communities that they serve. When they are plugged in in that way, we can meet the two objectives that I have talked about and enhance life chances and opportunities for individual learners while contributing to our future economic growth.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): How much will these administrative changes cost and how many jobs will be lost?

Mr. McFadden: We seek no additional funding for these changes. As I have said, we will target some of the help that we have used during the recession at funding, for example, the level 3 apprenticeships. That might mean providing less full funding of repeat qualifications in Train to Gain, which we have allowed during the recession, and using that funding to fund the technician apprenticeships that we believe will contribute significantly to our economic recovery as we come out of the recession.

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John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): May I welcome this statement and, in particular, the Minister's words about the development of skills accounts? Does he agree that the two essential elements of that development are an extension of the number and range of providers and the passage of information, control, power and, above all, choice to the would-be consumers-that is, the trainees? These are the very elements that have driven an increased and enhanced performance in the health service. Does he expect the same sort of improvements in education and training?

Mr. McFadden: I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments. He is right that the proposals on skills accounts expand the number of providers through which those accounts can be used. They also extend choice, information and power to the learner. There are few things as powerful as an individual user of a system who is empowered to make choices about how and where they learn. My right hon. Friend, when he was a member of the Government, was a champion of the kind of public service reform that empowered individuals. I can assure him that precisely the same philosophy is reflected in this paper today.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): May I add my thanks for what will be a very interesting report? In particular, I should like to thank the Minister for picking up many of the issues raised by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee in the wake of the Leitch report, and I echo his comment about individual skills accounts. However, in an act of friendship, I say to him that one of the real beneficiaries in the current unemployment situation-and 750,00 18 to 24-year olds unemployed is something that no party can accept as tolerable-is the Department for Work and Pensions, to which a significant amount of money has been diverted. Has he had conversations with colleagues in the DWP about whether 18 to 24-year olds without level 2 or 3 qualifications can have access to full-time courses in FE colleges and keep their jobseeker's allowance while they do? That would give them at least the same recognition as is given to full-time higher education students going to university.

Mr. Speaker: I say, gently and in a good spirit, to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who has done well out of me today, that in future the abridged rather than the "War and Peace" version will suffice.

Mr. McFadden: I will take your advice, Mr. Speaker. I am very happy to pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee, which does its work in a considered, serious and committed way. In the abridged version, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we work closely with our colleagues in the DWP to make sure that our policies in these areas are lined up together and that we are doing both of the things to which I have referred throughout-enhancing opportunity for individuals, and contributing to our economy even in these difficult times when unemployment is rising.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): Coming from Blackpool, where we have a fantastic FE college with a new HE centre, I was delighted to hear what the Minister had to say about skills needing to mesh with the university system. What he said about skills accounts
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and the apprentice UCAS tariff points should go some way towards achieving that, but what more can he do to nudge some of those recalcitrant university vice-chancellors who are very quick to get out the begging bowl and ask for increased fees and so on, but who are not so quick to sign up to a very important agenda and admit those with apprenticeships and diplomas to their universities?

Mr. McFadden: I would hope that the whole higher education system is committed to access and to providing enhanced opportunities for people from all backgrounds, but we know that that has not happened in some areas. The report led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), for example, pointed out that hardly any apprentices go on to higher education. That is one reason why we have backed the recommendation in that report to create a scholarship for up to 1,000 people to go on to higher education each year. We do not want the traditional academic and vocational divide that means the two sides never meet. We want a ladder of opportunity for people of all backgrounds, and that should include the most talented apprentices getting the chance to go on to higher education in a way that many young people from other backgrounds take for granted.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): As the shadow Minister responsible for further education when the scale of the individual learning accounts fiasco became clear, may I remind the Minister of one reason for the failure? That was that the drive to meet the targets meant that there were not sufficient checks on providers to ensure that they delivered the goods. Can he assure the House that that problem has been covered, and that we will not see the scale of disaster that we saw a few years ago?

Mr. McFadden: Two critical things are needed to make skills accounts work and to avoid the problems that happened last time, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The first is proper accreditation for the providers, which we have built into the paper and which will ensure that we have good, high-quality providers giving a high-quality range of choice to individuals. The second thing is to have good information for individual learners, and I refer him to work done by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. The commission has produced a good traffic light system along the lines of food labelling-

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): See page 62.

Mr. McFadden: Yes, the system is shown on page 62 of the document. It covers things such as earning potential, the quality of the course and the employability that people will have as a result. If empowerment and choice are to work as we want, high-quality information of that kind for individuals is essential. Both of the conditions that I have set out are met in the report.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The statement will be very warmly welcomed in East Berkshire college, which is one of those colleges that have so improved in recent years. As a result, I hope that it might forgive me, because it looks as though business will prevent me from attending its award ceremony. I particularly recognise
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the proposal for advanced apprenticeships in the biopharmaceutical industry. The Minister will know that I have pressed that issue for some time on behalf of biopharmaceutical companies in Slough, and if that proposal can be rolled out swiftly, it will be helpful to that very powerful and important part of our economy.

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) talked about the importance of the retail industry, but another sector where Britain enjoys enormous strengths that we want to keep and build on is the pharmaceutical industry. That is precisely why it is right for us not only to create a target-a new objective-but to back it up with hard cash for 30,000 new level 3 apprenticeships, thus creating precisely the kind of technical skills in the technician level that are valuable to pharmaceutical companies, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Crompton Technology in Banbury is a high-tech, low-carbon and value-added business. It needs to recruit more than 200 modern technicians just to fulfil its existing business plan. It recently advertised for just 10 people. Notwithstanding receiving 130 responses, it could not fill any of the places because the applicants did not have the right level of skills. Will the Minister spare me just 10 minutes sometime in the near future to discuss how we can fast-track technician training at the local technical college, so that as many as possible of those 200 jobs can go to local unemployed people, rather than going overseas?

Mr. McFadden: In my time as a Minister, I do not think that I have ever refused a meeting with a Member of any party in the House, and I am not about to start doing so now. Of course, I am happy to see the hon. Gentleman, but such skills shortages show precisely the need for the policies that we are outlining today. The kind of low-carbon company that he mentioned needs the level 3 skills. That is why we are putting more emphasis on them. They are precisely the kind of skills that will be needed as we come out of the recession and try to support businesses that will contribute to economic growth in the future.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I welcome the acknowledgement of the importance of higher skills to deliver a knowledge economy. What discussions has my right hon. Friend therefore had with the universities, which will deliver not just the science and technology courses that he is talking about, but a variety of other courses that can also contribute to the agenda that he is laying out for us today?

Mr. McFadden: We are in regular dialogue with the universities. The participation rates in higher education have increased hugely since the Government came to power. I think that I am right in saying that some 300,000 more students are now in higher education, compared with when the previous Government were in power, and to support that progress, we have supported the funding of an extra 10,000 places this academic year.

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Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Much of this matter is, of course, devolved. I welcome the fact that the Minister is emulating aspects of the system adopted in Scotland two years ago, but on the UK matter, can he tell us how industry-wide sectors, such as the excellent one for training in the oil and gas industry, will come into the strategy? In particular, will he help them to move on into the low-carbon industry, where many of the skills are equally applicable?

Mr. McFadden: I heartily agree that low-carbon skills are essential for the future. Therefore, I cannot for the life of me understand why the Scottish National party-led Administration in Scotland do not support the need for a new generation of nuclear power stations to contribute to that, with all the jobs and skills that that would entail. The hon. Gentleman talks the talk, but he will not walk the walk. Labour Members want the population in Scotland to have access to the same high-quality jobs and skills that that transition to low carbon will create as people have in England.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): No one would disagree with what my right hon. Friend said about high-value skills, individual empowerment or helping the youth unemployed, but I know that he is aware that there is another group-a hard-to-reach group of people who have been unemployed for a long time and struggle with basic levels of skills in numeracy and literacy. They are what some people describe as the underclass. It is important that we engage with this group, help them to acquire the basic skills that they need to get back into work and encourage them to do so. What does my right hon. Friend intend to do about that?

Mr. McFadden: This Government have helped 6 million people get better skills for life in recent years. I agree that taking that first step is essential, and nothing that we suggest in the paper will detract from that. We also say in the paper that we want to place great emphasis on the technician level, which will be the real driver of economic growth in the future. I do not believe there is a choice between the kind of life-enhancing opportunity that my hon. Friend describes, and economic growth and the need for a technician level of skills that we emphasise in the paper.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Will the Minister intervene and ensure that the new vocational centre for Castle Point, which I first raised and campaigned for in 1991 and which is now finally supported by Essex county council, is funded and goes ahead?

Mr. McFadden: The wisest course of action for me is to consider that issue, discuss it with my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend's new commitment to local authorities having an enhanced role in the system of apprentice training and, hopefully, in training for technicians. Will he agree to meet Councillor Ron Round, the Labour leader of Knowsley council, to look at the possible lessons that can be learned from the excellent apprenticeship scheme that he has been leading in Knowsley?

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