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The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr John Hayes): My strong commitment to adult and community learning is well known. It is shared by my Secretary of State and the Prime Minster, who in a recent interview with "Adults Learning" made clear his belief that learning is
"about broadening the mind, giving people self-belief, strengthening the bonds of community".
That is why in 2010-11 we are developing a skills strategy with increasing importance placed on those with disabilities, learning difficulties and disadvantaged families and communities, spending £210 million in that year alone.
But that is insufficiently elegiac for you, Mr Speaker, and for this House. Lifelong learning feeds hope-builds and rebuilds lives by seeding a hunger for knowledge. It shapes people, families and communities and feeds social justice.
Andrew Percy: I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that the success and value of adult education is measured not only in terms of qualifications and certificates? Will he assure us that, as this Government move forward, the past cuts in adult education, for courses that do not lead to qualifications, will if possible be reversed, and that value will be placed on all layers of community adult education?
Mr Hayes: I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. I know of his rich experience in learning as a former teacher, and he, like me, understands that learning has a value for its own sake. I do not want to be unkind to my predecessors, because that would be slightly vulgar; nevertheless, it has to be said that the dull utilitarianism that permeated the previous regime's thinking on this subject has now, thankfully, come to an end.
Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): The Minister will be aware of the huge contribution that the Workers Educational Association has made to adult education. Can he confirm that his Government will support the WEA in its current form?
Mr Hayes: I am not only an admirer but, I would go so far as to say, a devotee of the WEA. The value that learning brings, in elevating lives and building strong communities, is exemplified by such organisations, and I look forward to an early meeting with the WEA to discuss how we can move forward together.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): We will increase the number of apprenticeship places, and we are committed to improving the quality of apprenticeships to make them better suited to the needs of employers and learners. The Government's decision to redeploy £150 million of our savings in 2010-11, creating an additional 50,000 places, demonstrates our commitment to high-quality, employer-owned apprenticeships.
Robert Halfon: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Is he aware of the excellent Essex apprenticeship scheme that does so much for young people throughout the county? What steps will he take to replicate such schemes to ensure that apprenticeships are better championed to young people? Polling data from the organisation Edge show that just one in four teachers would recommend apprenticeships over higher education.
Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this is an extremely important aspect of helping to develop the careers of young people. It is worth putting it in context that the 50,000 additional places we are providing are on top of 250,000 that existed before-a 20% increase in one year. This is specifically directed at small and medium-sized businesses, which frequently do not get the benefit of apprenticeships. I am sure that the good practice in Essex will be emulated around the country.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box. Has he read the ERA Foundation's report on the declining productive capability of our country? Does he accept that lively and proper apprenticeships will be an essential building block in facing the productive capacity changes that we need in our country? Will he remember that last time the Conservatives ruled this country, they got rid of apprenticeships? Will he have a free hand to build on the basis that we built on in the past 13 years?
Vince Cable: This Government are expanding apprenticeships very rapidly in their first few days in office. Of course the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on his basic point that apprenticeships are not only good for the very many young people who would otherwise be unemployed, but good for the productivity of the economy.
Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State to give an assurance to manufacturing companies, particularly those such as Thamesteel in my constituency, which need to recruit people with high ability as apprentices, that the apprenticeships scheme that we are proposing will not be targeted only at people with less ability?
Indeed; the hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We are talking about the full range of skills in this regard. If he wishes to pursue his point in
relation to his constituency, the National Apprenticeship Service is there to help him to steer the scheme in the right direction.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I warmly welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his position and welcome his apparent desire to carry on Labour's outstanding record on growing apprenticeships. When I became the Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships, I thought I was being radical in appointing an apprentice to my private office, but I must admit that even I would not have been as brave as this Government and gone so far as to appoint an apprentice as the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Vince Cable: Of course we cannot give numbers for that, for the simple reason that it is an offer for businesses to take up. Many of them will be in the public sector, and many of them will be in the private sector. I will keep in touch with the hon. Gentleman and give him the information that he requires as it emerges.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend and his colleagues not only to their jobs but to their commitment to apprenticeships. May I ask him, in particular, to ensure that those involved in large-scale construction projects and large-scale transport projects take their full responsibility for apprenticeships and that all chambers of commerce are engaged in the process of spreading the word?
Vince Cable: Yes, indeed; that is a very helpful point. I would merely stress that, by and large, very large companies do engage in substantial apprenticeship schemes for their own good reasons, and have the resources to do it. The particular expansion that we are engaged in is focused on small and medium-sized enterprises that lack the resources and the support to do that.
The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): We are reviewing employment law to maximise flexibility for employers and for employees. Our aim is fairness for employees within a competitive environment for business.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for that response. During the election campaign, the Secretary of State said that he and the Liberal Democrats believed that the link between the Labour party and the trade unions was corrupt. Can we have an assurance from the team that that prejudice will in no way influence the employment law review?
The Secretary of State has made it clear that he did not make those remarks. We are looking at a review that will not cut the rights of individuals, but we want a streamlined process to cut the costs of compliance
for employers. We have noticed the comments that have been made by, for example, British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors, which have called for changes to the employment tribunal system so as to streamline the process. That is what we are considering.
10. Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Whether he has discussed with Sheffield Forgemasters the continued availability of a loan facility from his Department; and if he will make a statement. 
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): At this time, I have not discussed with Sheffield Forgemasters the continuing availability of the loan facility but, as the then Chief Secretary's statement on 17 May made clear, all projects that were approved after 1 January 2010, including this one, are undergoing a process of review. An announcement will be made in due course as part of the review.
Paul Blomfield: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but will he acknowledge that the loan was crucial in levering in significant private sector investment to enable the acquisition of the largest forging press outside Japan and Korea? Over three years, the loan was subject to rigorous review by the shareholder executive and a value-for-money exercise, and this further review is causing unnecessary uncertainty. Will he therefore urgently get rid of that uncertainty, give Forgemasters the confidence to move forward and confirm the loan?
Vince Cable: I understand the importance of that project to the hon. Gentleman's constituency and to Sheffield, but he needs to understand that we inherited a very large number of projects that were agreed in a hurry in the run-up to the general election. I do not want to speculate about the motives, but we inherited a lot of projects that were of variable quality. We now have to judge those projects, including this one, according to the criteria of value for money and affordability.
Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): Let me assure the House that the Sheffield Forgemasters project was not agreed in a hurry. Does the Secretary of State understand that the decision of the last Government to provide a loan, not a grant, to that company was about not just support for one company but our ambition to secure a national capability for the United Kingdom in making key components for the nuclear supply chain that is set to grow throughout the world in the coming years? Does he also accept that if the damaging uncertainty not only about this but about other important projects, such as the electric car at Nissan and the automotive assistance to Ford, is not resolved soon, all the Government's talk about supporting a lower-carbon economy will be seen as nothing more than rhetoric, with their actions going in entirely the opposite direction?
I understand the issue because I have studied the reasoning behind the project. However, the hon. Gentleman has got to understand that we must do due diligence and a lot of projects have to be reviewed. There is also the basic question of affordability. We
have inherited a very serious financial situation and all such projects must be judged against whether money is available for them.
The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): While the existing start-up rates for female-led businesses compare favourably with other G7 nations, the Government believe that much more needs to be done to help more women in business.
I am currently talking to a wide range of businesses and considering what role the Government should play with regard to access to finance, home-based businesses and enabling more women to start their own firm.
Fiona Mactaggart: But the people who need to support women entrepreneurs and are failing to do so are at the banks, despite evidence from the Grameen bank and from the USA that investment in women entrepreneurs can grow the economy. What conversations is the Minister having with the banks to ensure that women-led businesses can succeed? Is he confident that a male team of Ministers will make that a high enough priority?
Mr Prisk: The priority of making sure that the banks are doing their job is something that both the Secretary of State and I are working on closely with the banking sector and the Treasury. We agree with the hon. Lady that we need to make sure that the banks are doing their job properly. I think there was a degree of, dare I say, complacency from some Ministers at the end of the last Government that all things were settled, but she is right to point out that they are not. She has also rightly pointed out the gender imbalance on the Front Bench, but I am pleased to tell her that my noble Friend Baroness Wilcox, who represents this Department in the other place, is working closely with me on the question of women in business. Baroness Wilcox is a successful business woman herself and I think she will make an excellent contribution. I know the hon. Lady takes a close interest in this matter. If she and other business women here would like to contribute to the debate, so that we can ensure we get the gender balance right and help more firms, they would be very welcome.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Many companies already accept the wisdom of procuring from companies that look like the customers whom they supply. We are behind many other countries, particularly the USA. I greatly welcome the Government's aspiration to procure 25% from small businesses. Will the Minister consider the issue of procurement, and measuring procurement, from women-owned businesses for Government contracts?
Mr Prisk: I would be wary on trying to secure gender balance, as it becomes very complicated. The key is ensuring that women, as business owners and managers, can have the best opportunity. I would be happy to talk to the hon. Lady about how we can do that. I extend to her and other female Members who are in business and have real experience an offer to help me ensure that those businesses can succeed.
The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): Universities will receive £5.1 billion for teaching from the Higher Education Funding Council for 2010-11. This includes an increase of £70 million since the December 2009 grant letter. That reflects the 10,000 extra university places that the coalition is committed to delivering in 2010-11.
Lilian Greenwood: I am sure that hon. Members know that for almost a decade Professor Philip Cowley and his colleagues in the school of politics at Nottingham university have been studying Back-Bench behaviour. Their findings have been published on the "Revolts" website and are widely used by journalists and hon. Members-particularly, I am told, the Whips Office. Does the Minister share my concern that the project has recently lost its Economic and Social Research Council funding, just at the time when it might yield the most interesting results from the Benches opposite?
Mr Willetts: I attended a meeting at Nottingham university before the election when Professor Cowley presented his report on the fascinating subject of rebellions in the House of Commons, so I am aware of his work. However, it would be dangerous if we got into a position whereby Ministers responsible for higher education started commenting on and micro-managing individual universities' decisions about their departments. I do not think that we should go down that route.
Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): My hon. Friend will be aware of the value for money that the US community college model provides in getting more disadvantaged young people into higher education. Is he having any work undertaken in the Department to assess what we can learn from that important system in the USA?
Mr Willetts: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's expertise in the subject and his record of campaigning on it. I completely agree that progression through college to university is one of strengths of some American systems, such as that in California. Experts from California are coming here next week. We definitely need to learn from those systems so that people have opportunities as they progress through education to move from college to university.
Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role. I know that many in the higher education sector value the continuity that he provides, but they also value consistency. In November 2009, he said:
"At a time when the jobs market for young people is tougher than ever, it is far better to find them a place in education than to leave them languishing on the dole."
Why, within days of taking up the job, has he done a volte face and condemned 10,000 young people to the dole by not providing extra student places to HE this summer? Is that not desperately hypocritical?
Mr Willetts: I look forward to my exchanges with the right hon. Gentleman, and of course I recognise his expertise as the former Minister for universities. As he held that position, I am sure that he remembers the grant letter that the former Secretary of State sent out in December 2009 to the Higher Education Funding Council, which involved a reduction in the number of students. We have delivered the pledge that we made to our party conference, and which is in the coalition agreement, of 10,000 extra places. That is why the amount of money going to universities in teaching grant this year is £50 million higher than the figure set out in the December 2009 letter.
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