It is true that our debate takes place in difficult circumstances and that the public sector will be obliged to make efficiency savings. It is also true, as I said earlier-I want to be honest about this-that no guarantees can be offered about future funding. With freedom comes a fresh challenge, so as unnecessary compliance costs are reduced, I will be looking to colleges to find
efficiencies. They would expect that, as would the House. That will include encouraging colleges to find more cost-efficient ways of conducting their affairs, such as by merging back-office functions and streamlining their procurement processes. If the Government had done that earlier-when Labour Members controlled the purse strings-we could have made more progress to match and beat the performance of the competitor countries to which I referred that have outpaced us on apprenticeships and driven up the skills of their work forces to an extent that we have not. The Train to Gain programme was part of the problem. I know that former Ministers are obliged to defend it, but they know what the National Audit Office said about its dead-weight cost. They know that assessment was too often dressed up as training and that the brokerage service at the programme's heart was, at best, only a partial success.
Before my appointment as Minister, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a long apprenticeship as shadow Minister. Over those years, I held countless meetings with college principals and visited innumerable colleges throughout the country. Everything that I said in opposition, and everything that I say now in government, has been informed by the views and opinions of the sector. We will continue that dialogue about shaping further education in this country-alongside the needs of business and industry, and combined with the Government's priorities-in a way that delivers opportunities to a new generation of learners.
The stakes are high. The ability of our economy to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances depends in no small measure on the capacity of workers to adapt. They need to be sure of the promise that new skills and knowledge will lead inexorably to new and better chances in life. My aim-and my commitment-is to make good on that promise for the next generation.
Today, a start has been made, but there is much more to do to build a country with the skills that we need to compete, a country ready to elevate the practical, and a country where learning is valued for its own sake and for its economic, social and cultural benefits: proud, confident learners, colleges free to respond and a dynamic, highly skilled economy-Britain being the best that it can be.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): May I start by apologising to the House for the fact that I will not be able to be present for the wind-ups? I have already informed the Minister and you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I genuinely welcome the Minister to his post as skills Minister on his first outing since the formation of the new Government. Given his flowery rhetoric, it was kind of him to provide a visual aid in his lapel, which we all appreciated. He was somewhat ungenerous in his opening remarks, but that was slightly uncharacteristic. I know that he is a lover of poetry, and I hope that the speech that we have just heard will not be typical of his ministerial speeches, given that it contained no poetry. I am also a lover of poetry, so perhaps I may cite a line from Yeats:
"Those that I fight I do not hate".
When we were in government, we said that the manufacturing of items constructed out of composite materials probably represented part of the future for Britain, but few of us anticipated that it would be possible to meld the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to manufacture a composite Government. We can only begin to speculate about how quickly the already visible fissures in that composite construction will form into cracks, and then progressively and inevitably lead to critical failure.
The Minister is extremely fortunate to inherit his portfolio, because he has the opportunity to build on the Labour Government's tremendous record of achieving so much when we were in power, provided that his Department does not continue to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer's whipping boy in the frenzied search for cuts far beyond those necessary to bring down the deficit at a sustainable rate.
Let me briefly outline why the Minister is fortunate to inherit our record on skills. The performance of further education colleges and other providers has improved dramatically over the past decade. The satisfaction rates of employers and learners have risen. Since 2001, about 3 million adults have improved their basic skills and achieved a national qualification. Since 1997, more than 2 million people have started apprenticeships, which represents a massive increase in apprenticeship starts since the Conservative party was previously in power. Completion rates for apprenticeships have also more than doubled.
Despite the Minister's trashing of the Train to Gain programme-although I note that he has not completely axed it-employers and workers report strong satisfaction with the scheme. More than 1 million people have been able to start learning programmes at work that lead to a qualification. That has reduced staff turnover, improved productivity and engaged more than 140,000 employers in training. Earlier this year, I was proud to be able to meet Chris Scott, a process operator at William Blythe Ltd, a chemical manufacturer in Accrington, who, by completing his level 2 NVQ-yes, level 2-in business improvement techniques, became the one millionth learner from the Train to Gain programme to gain a qualification. I should also mention the record number of students in higher education, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) will say more about that later.
Kevin Brennan: It would be remiss of me if I did not welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House. I also pay tribute to his predecessor-a former skills Minister. I shall talk about the priorities for skills spending later. However, I note that although the current Minister has tried to cut the Train to Gain budget and to trash the programme comprehensively, he has not yet completely abolished it.
I am especially proud of the work that we did in government with the trade unions. Despite Conservative hostility, as even the Minister might admit, we introduced
the union learning fund, which is now worth £21.5 million a year. As a result, there are now more than 23,000 union learning reps. They get to the parts of the workplace that other trainers and providers sometimes do not reach, and they helped nearly 250,000 workers into learning last year. Latterly-I give this Minister and the Minister for Universities and Science credit for this-that even won praise from the Minister for Universities and Science for its effectiveness and efficiency. One day, the skills Minister might be able to mention the union learning fund and the trade unions in a speech and get the odd "Hear, hear!" from the Back Benchers behind him, rather than the blank looks that he got when he talked about them today.
The highly successful transformation fund for informal adult learning has also brought about a sea change in people's perceptions of themselves, and has helped to generate a marked increase in participation, particularly among those in the lower D and E socio-economic groups, and that is a legacy of the previous Government's of which I am proud.
There was huge investment of over £2 billion in building the colleges of the future, although the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the problems with the programme. That programme transformed the places in which people learn. He will have the pleasure, as Minister, of visiting many of those colleges and seeing the transformational impact of the capital investment in our further education colleges that took place under the Labour Government. He may also remind himself that not a single penny was spent on further education capital for colleges in the final year of his party's last term in office. So there is a substantial platform on which to build, and a clear strategy for the future was set out in the skills White Paper last November.
Mr Hayes: Given the spirit that has permeated our exchanges thus far, and indeed today, I know that the shadow Minister will want to welcome the extra £50 million. He was slightly critical when he said that it was to be taken from revenue and was a one-off, but he knows that that was needed and will be welcomed across the sector. Will he just say a word of welcome for that?
Kevin Brennan: I am always happy to argue for more investment and capital for our FE colleges, but later I may return to the issue of the £50 million and whether, overall, the Department should be welcoming the way in which it has been pick-pocketed by the Treasury over that measure.
As I say, there is a substantial platform on which to build. The skills White Paper, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, was published last November, set out pretty clearly the skills challenges for the next decade and a clear set of proposals to meet that challenge, including an ambition to ensure that three quarters of people participate in higher education or complete an advanced apprenticeship by the age of 30. Included in those proposals were: the expansion of the apprenticeship system to build a new technical class by doubling apprenticeship places for young adults; apprenticeship scholarships; and the focus of the skills budget on the areas from which future jobs will come. I make no apology for that, although I agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about skills being wider than simply an economic matter. I make no apology for focusing on the areas from which future jobs will come.
The proposals also include: a joint investment scheme with sector skills councils; more national skills academies; skills accounts, to which I think the hon. Gentleman referred; user-friendly public ratings for colleges and providers, to which I think he referred in his written statement today; better skills provision for those on out-of-work benefits; promotion of apprenticeships as a priority in public procurement; reducing the number of publicly funded skills agencies by over 30; and focusing resources on key economic strategic priorities. A strong record of achievement and a clear and widely welcomed strategy for the future-that is the strong legacy bequeathed to the hon. Gentleman as Minister with responsibility for skills in the new Government.
Mr Hayes: I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman too often, and I will give him some poetry, if I get a chance, in a later intervention, but he talks about the legacy that his party left. I just want him to be clear with the House about where the £300 million reductions in
"funding not directly supporting learner participation and lower priority adult skills budgets"
Kevin Brennan: I am slightly surprised by that comment, because the hon. Gentleman seemed at first in his speech to be criticising us for making those necessary savings, but later to be saying that we should have made them earlier. I am not quite sure why that suddenly became the point on which he wanted to intervene. However, he can intervene as often as he likes; I am happy to give way to him on any number of occasions, as he knows.
What does the hon. Gentleman propose to do with the strong, powerful and compelling legacy that I have just outlined to the House? First, his Department is cutting by 10,000 the number of university places that would have been on offer this autumn. That is despite him and his colleagues persistently claiming-and actually bringing my colleagues and me to the House, when we were the Ministers, to boast about the fact-that they were committed to, creating an extra 10,000 university places over and above what the Government were committed to through a sort of "buy now, pay later" student loan early payback scheme, which we argued was entirely bogus, and which appears to have been wiped from the collective memories of Government Front Benchers during their coalition reprogramming course.
Perhaps when the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) winds up, he can tell us what happened to the pet scheme to conjure up more student places for free. The Minister for Universities and Science explained in the House on many occasions how it would work, despite our scepticism. Has the Treasury finally explained to him and his colleagues what we told him all along-that it was Mickey Mouse maths and would not work? I think that the Under-Secretary agrees that it is Mickey Mouse maths; he did when he was in opposition.
What else have the Administration done on skills apart from announcing cuts to university places and budgets? They have tried to soften the Department's pain of being the Chancellor's whipping boy so far in the £6 billion in-year cuts package by recycling £200 million from the skills budget-from the Train to Gain programme-into additional apprenticeship places costing £150 million, and, as the Minister outlined, into capital for further education colleges of £50 million. The Secretary of State bragged about that yesterday in the Chamber. He tried to give the impression that it was year zero and that he was the first Minister ever to come to the Dispatch Box to announce anything about spending on further education capital and apprenticeships.
On capital, the Secretary of State has been done over by the oldest Treasury trick in the book-converting revenue into capital. He claimed that he kept back £200 million from the package when he is doing no such thing. The £50 million on capital, as the Minister generously admitted in his remarks, is for this year only. The Chancellor has picked the Secretary of State's skills budget pocket for future years to the tune of £50 million per annum and that should be acknowledged.
The Secretary of State should have made the case for capital separately, if he wanted to make such a case to the Treasury in the spending review. Instead, he has allowed the Treasury to deny the skills budget £50 million a year from next year onwards-in perpetuity-even before the Budget and the spending review. That is a little naive. He has been had and he ought to have known better.
Let us consider the apprenticeships proposal. There are no stronger supporters of apprenticeships than me, Labour Members and the previous Labour Government. No Government did more than the previous Government to rescue apprenticeships from the almost criminal indifference of the previous Tory Government, who allowed apprenticeships to fall to only 65,000, with a completion rate of only a third.
The Secretary of State should be more candid about the proposals. He is not trying to do the difficult, but most important, things on apprenticeships. He is after the low-hanging fruit-and I hope he will think carefully about that-because he hopes to claim a quick victory on apprenticeship numbers. For the benefit of the House and all concerned, let us be clear about what he is doing. Although he tried to give an impression to the contrary yesterday, he is not creating new training opportunities apprenticeships for the youngest and most difficult to place. He is not-as we pledged to do and he must still deliver, unless he wants to tell us that he will abandon the policy; I do not think that he will-trying to create more advanced apprenticeships for young adults. He is not aiming to support a particular number of new jobs. He is transferring funding in the training and skills budget from one form of funding for those who are in work into another-good, but more expensive-form of training, which he knows is overwhelmingly likely to be taken up not by employers looking to take on new young workers who are currently out of work, but by those who will train a smaller number of older workers currently in work than they would have done under Train to Gain.
Now that is fine-it is a legitimate decision for the Government to make-but the Secretary of State should not try to give the impression that the announcement and the programme is likely to result in 50,000 new job opportunities for young people, or even new jobs for older workers.
"Of learning lightly like a flower",
in the words of Tennyson. I also hope that that learning might inform the thinking of the House on apprenticeships. Of course some of the new apprenticeships will be adult apprenticeships and some will be for young people, and of course some will be about upskilling and some about reskilling, but to suggest that the people involved will simply be those currently taught under Train to Gain is nonsense. The hon. Gentleman knows what the National Audit Office said about that scheme: 25% dead-weight cost.
Mr Speaker: Order. May I say to the Minister that the erudition of his intervention was equalled only by its length? Although it is a joy to listen to his mellifluous tones, I hope that not all such interventions will be of equal length.
Kevin Brennan: It is a joy to listen to the Minister, and I am glad that he at last came up with some poetry and quoted Tennyson's words that one should wear learning lightly. Perhaps I could come back with some Alexander Pope:
"A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring".
The vast number of people who will take up the Minister's proposals will already be in work, and they will be in the older, not the younger, age bracket. He may prove my prediction wrong in future, but he does not have a rule to ensure that the apprenticeships are for younger workers-under-25s-or one to ensure that apprenticeships are for new starts only. If he wants to talk about dead weight, he should calculate the dead weight of his proposal in respect of the training that would have happened anyway.
The Minister also needs to tell us how he will drive up apprenticeships elsewhere-in the public sector, for example. How will he use procurement to help that? Unless he shows leadership-I say this to him candidly and sincerely-and knocks heads together in the Government, that will not happen. All he will get from his colleagues will be that one-note symphony that we have heard so far from the Government, like the vuvuzelas in the World cup, saying that nothing can be done on public sector apprenticeships because of cuts. That is what he will be told. My advice to him is this: he needs to fight, fight and fight again against Treasury orthodoxy on behalf of apprenticeships if he wants to make an impact as a Minister.
It is clear that the Minister's enjoyable and occasionally flowery rhetoric-if he will forgive me for saying so-hides a prosaic reality in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Secretary of State really wants to be in charge of the banks but has been walked all over by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in that ambition and, in an age-old Treasury way, has had his pocket picked over FE, skills, capital and revenue; and the Universities and Science Minister, who really wants to be the Secretary
of State and deeply resents the Liberal Democrat succubus who now has his job, has, in his absent-minded, dual-brained, batty, professorial way, carelessly mislaid 10,000 university places since the election. It is no wonder that in the confusion, the Treasury has been able to bamboozle a Department that has two heads and three brains. Now we have proposals for capital and apprenticeships that are not all that they seem.
If we are going to build Britain's skills for the future, we need strong, united leadership from the Department, not weak, divided leadership hidden by the Minister's baroque oratory. His words are fine for now, but unless he starts standing up for skills, his flowery rhetoric will wilt under the heat of political reality.