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13 Jan 2010 : Column 713

First, let me wish the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) a happy new year. I am pleased to be here in the Chamber at this early point in 2010 to put the Government's case yet again. It has been interesting to watch with marvel his transition from a flint-hearted monetarist to a caring, sharing and compassionate Conservative-perhaps securing his place in some future, distant Cabinet.

Mr. Boswell: I reciprocate, collectively, the Minister's best wishes for the new year. He mentions the year 2010; was not that the target year by which 50 per cent. of young people were to participate in higher education? Is that target being met? Is it the Government's intention that it should be met, or has it been tacitly dropped?

Mr. Lammy: As a former Higher Education Minister, and as someone who is recognised across the House as one who is constantly aware of the detail of issues, the hon. Gentleman will, I know, be aware that that is an aspiration of this Government and that it has been consistently opposed by the Conservatives. Labour Members are very proud of the participation rate of 43 per cent. and of the fact that more young people are in higher education than ever before.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I am delighted to learn of that aspirational facet of the Minister's great concern. Will he tell us simply when he hopes that aspiration will be achieved?

Mr. Lammy: If we continue to invest and to ensure, as we will, that despite having more students in higher education this year, there will be even more next year, we will meet that aspiration. Of course, in difficult economic times it is also important that students who need it get a grant to be in higher education-a grant that the Tories abolished and we introduced. It is all about managed growth, and we stand clear on that.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I have met many young people in Blackpool who have benefited from the high aspirations put to them by the Government. Through the Government's Aimhigher programme and the reintroduction of grants, those young people are now going into higher education,
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which they had never before even thought about. They are exactly the young people who have benefited from the Minister's and the Government's programme.

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We stand by Aimhigher, and I know that my hon. Friend will be very sad to know that the Opposition are committed to abolishing that programme, which supports the poorest young people across the country to make their way into higher education. I hope that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will clarify his position on Aimhigher when he concludes the debate. We wish that the Opposition would match their words with deeds, which yet again we have not heard from the Conservatives today-it has to be action, not just words.

The Opposition motion talks about the Government's higher education policies, but it does not, of course, talk about what we have achieved, so it is important that I put that on the record this afternoon. Since 1997, the total investment in higher education has risen by 25 per cent. in real terms, while spending on science and research has more than doubled. That is a Labour achievement. The last decade has seen 340,000 more students get a place in our universities because of the 50 per cent. aspiration, making about 2 million more home students in total. Again, that is more than ever before in our country's history-another Labour achievement. There are more people applying to university from non-traditional backgrounds and from the most deprived constituencies than ever before, with applications from constituencies like mine up not just by 10, 20 or 50 per cent., but by 100 per cent. That has happened under this Government and is a result of such programmes as Aimhigher, which Conservative Members would scrap. Once again, this is a Labour achievement.

Mr. Marsden: My right hon. Friend is talking about the Government's achievements in this area and about people from non-traditional backgrounds. Does he agree that the important steps that the Government have taken to support and improve the situation for part-time students, which the Conservatives had left virtually without support in 1997, have played a significant part in the story?

Mr. Lammy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting the position of part-time students on the record. It is this Government who have introduced support for part-time students for the first time. My hon. Friend will have seen that in our grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, we flagged up the position of part-time students. He will also have recognised that we asked Lord Browne to look specifically in his review at the further support that will be needed to get more equity into the system for part-time students. The Conservatives have not faced up to any of that.

Everyone recognises the huge £6.4 billion capital investment in our university infrastructure across the country. Science facilities are now there, whereas they were falling apart under the Conservative Government-not to mention our commitment to research and teaching. All of that has taken place under a Labour Government.

Mr. Jim Cunningham: Does my right hon. Friend agree that research and development is the lifeblood of manufacturing and industry in this country and that
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any proposals that Opposition Members have to cut that funding will have a major effect on the economy of this country, particularly in Coventry and the west midlands?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right: we cannot get back to growth without a ring-fenced research budget or without a commitment to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He will have been alarmed at the £610 million cut to my Department's budget that was proposed by the Opposition 18 months ago. They wanted to do that 18 months ago-before the further, deeper, quicker, faster cuts that were called for by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on "The Andrew Marr Show" at the weekend. That would mean that there was absolutely nothing to support advanced manufacturing, nothing to support the low-carbon industries that we need for the future, and nothing for our digital economy or for our life sciences. It would mean a cut to the budget that they rely on.

Mr. Cunningham: If that is the Opposition's proposal, does the Minister agree with me that it would have a major impact on apprenticeships as well? It will affect apprenticeships and industry, which shows that the Conservative policies are a sham?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend knows that there is a £34 billion black hole in the Opposition's proposals that cannot be costed. It absolutely means the loss of those advanced apprenticeships that they say they want. He also knows that the Opposition are not only unable to explain where the money would come from, but are also proposing-I hope to hear more about this in the winding-up speeches-to cut and abolish Train to Gain. That would undercut the parents of young people-often those from the poorest communities-who will be deprived of the training and skills they rely on in order to move forward. The Opposition are also very equivocal about unionlearn, which we are very proud of.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): On the potential future-or non-future under a Tory Government who want to scrap it-of Train to Gain, does the Minister agree that the employer reaction to the implementation of that scheme, not just from big employers but from the small and medium-sized ones, has been very positive, showing that this is the type of scheme that they want to participate in in greater numbers?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Tories are standing in the face of the CBI, small employers and the millions of people who have benefited from Train to Gain. Those people gained qualifications that they did not previously have. They are the engine of our economy-the people on the factory floor who want to improve their skills and drive the economy forward. Let me say that I remember the old CSEs, which meant young people in Tottenham being streamed off, failing to get the qualifications that they should have had. It is this Government who have put the qualifications back in place under Train to Gain.

Mr. Willetts: Let me clarify our position on two points that the Minister has made. We believe in refocusing Train to Gain on apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship
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training, and we believe that that was the right decision to take, given the evidence that much of the Train to Gain budget is spent on training that would have happened in any case. We also believe this is the right decision in a recession.

Secondly, the Minister suggested that we did not believe in unionlearn. Let me make it clear that I have visited unionlearn projects and I believe that it does a valuable job in spreading access and knowledge of training. We do support unionlearn.

Mr. Lammy: Yet another difficult-to-believe conversion from the hon. Gentleman! This cosying up to the unions, my God! Most people will be very surprised to see the hon. Gentleman cosying up for beer and sandwiches with our unions across the country. We do not believe it.

Mr. Willetts: One thing that we like about unionlearn is that it is very cost-effective, and we in this party believe in the scrupulous management of public money. The amount of encouragement and training that one receives for relatively modest sums of money is very attractive indeed.

Mr. Lammy: That is amazing: the Conservatives are praising a Labour party policy-which they opposed-for its cost-effectiveness. This debate is beginning to make the Lib-Dem flip-flop on tuition fees look mild in comparison.

Another new-found concern is the one about young people who are not in education, employment or training. The hon. Gentleman often mentions them, but not the 4.6 million young people who are in work or in full-time education. That is an important figure, because it has risen from 3.9 million, which was the figure in 1997. Of course, at this difficult time for our economy, we are concerned about young people and, particularly, those who are not in employment, but that is why we have to stand by them at this time and not walk by on the other side.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to think back to the days-I think it was 1984-when he worked in the then Prime Minister's policy unit and the downturn was more severe because of the absence of Conservative proposals. They took the view that the recession and unemployment were a price worth paying. Yet again this afternoon we have heard nothing from the hon. Gentleman about whether he would keep the future jobs fund for young people and whether he supports our September guarantee for young people. They were not even mentioned.

We heard no proposals at all-other than 10,000 extra student places-to support young people at this time, even though the hon. Gentleman knows that, in any downturn, young people who are a long way from graduation are the people who are most affected. I have yet to hear one Conservative party proposal to support those young people. The hon. Gentleman has not uttered anything and, for a party that is serious about taking power in the upcoming general election, that cannot be acceptable.

Once more we heard the confused policy concerning 10,000 extra university places in priority subjects for one year. The right hon. Member for Witney repeated it at the beginning of the year, but said nothing about the dead-weight cost of £300 million and the fact that young people are already paying it back. Nothing has
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been said about that cost; and very importantly, nothing has been said about whether the hon. Member for Havant has received permission from the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) to increase public borrowing to meet that extra cost. The increase is inevitable, because the Government borrow the money. The proposal would add to the current deficit, which the hon. Member for Havant says he is against. I see him squirming, because he is not used to not doing his maths, but he would add to the deficit for the taxpayer, and the policy is uncosted.

There is also the question of who the Conservatives would really help. Which students would be most likely to pay back that money? What constituencies would they be likely to live in? Surely they would be from better-off families. The policy feels like the Conservatives' position on inheritance tax-benefiting the few over the many-and that cannot be a sensible way to proceed.

Mr. Willetts: I should like to make the situation absolutely clear. Extra cash would go to the Exchequer because the policy would involve the early repayment of student loans. The people who would benefit are marginal students who, otherwise, would not have got places at university; and we all know that, sadly, those students are most likely to come from less-advantaged backgrounds. Like so many policies from today's Conservative party, it is a highly progressive measure.

Mr. Lammy: How can another form of borrowing be a highly progressive measure? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is another form of borrowing?

Mr. Willetts: No; it is not.

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that it is not, but I must put on the record that that is a mistake. He does not understand the way in which Government finances work, and again the public cannot take that proposal seriously.

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the problems that we have had at the Student Loans Company, and I have been at pains to ensure that, on this issue, the House has been kept fully informed at every stage. I shall do so again today. The company informs me that by 11 January, 918,600 students had had their student finance approved. That is 48,000 more than at the same point last year, and I hope that the whole House will join me in welcoming the assurance, which I have received from the company chairman, that he is taking the action that is required to improve the service so that students and their parents receive the service that they rightly expect.

I know that there has been concern about students who have applied for disabled students' allowance. Just over 19,000 applications have been made this year: 6,000 have been approved; and more than 9,000 await further information from the applicant or the assessment centre. The hon. Gentleman will understand that every year students take into their own hands the process of going to receive their medical assessment, and I hope he recognises that about 70 per cent. of those students present with dyslexia. Many take some time to go through the assessment process, but over the exam period their many requirements prompt them to move quickly through the process.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): On exactly that point, I have been approached by the mother of an autistic constituent whose travel to the Guildford college where he does a music degree was paid for last year. A taxi driver has taken him to college since last term, but the student has not received his funds and the taxi driver has not been paid. Nobody is asking for more information; the work just has not been done. If the Minister could look at the case, he would really help that anxious student, his anxious mother who has just been diagnosed with an illness and the small taxi company that is losing money because of the problem.

Mr. Lammy: I am happy to ask the chief executive of the Student Loans Company to look specifically into that case. By necessity, all such cases are complex and there is an onus on the company to ensure value for money and probity in the applications that are made. However, my hon. Friend refers to a situation in which the student previously received funds, so I am happy to look into what has happened.

Importantly, overall we are doing all that we can to help young people during this difficult time. The foundation stone of much of that work is the young person's guarantee, and on that point I should like to clarify our amendment. We announced in December that that guarantee, including the future jobs fund, would be available to young people after six months of unemployment. The £1 billion future jobs fund is part of the Government's overall investment of £5 billion to help young people back to work during the recession. The White Paper, "Building Britain's Recovery", which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions published before Christmas, announced that the young person's guarantee will be extended, so that all 18 to 24-year-olds still unemployed after six months will be guaranteed access to a job, training or work experience. This will be supported by more time with their personal adviser and a proper personalised back-to-work plan.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): While the Minister is on the subject of guarantees-and I apologise for drawing him back to the student loans issue-he did not clarify the position for January and February admissions. He will know that a significant proportion of students enrol in those months, so can he give the House an absolute assurance that they will have no problems with their finances?

Mr. Lammy: The process for this year began just before Christmas. It is under way and it is going well at this stage. There is a commitment from the Student Loans Company-from the chair and chief executive, right through the company-to act on the report by Sir Deian Hopkin to ensure that it does not make the mistakes that were made last year in processing and scanning, or in people's inability to contact the company. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman will continue to hold the company to account to ensure that that commitment is honoured.

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