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Education And Employment

Volume 300: debated on Thursday 13 November 1997

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The Secretary of State was asked

Voluntary Work


What plans he has to encourage and support voluntary work in the community. [14320]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Mr. Alan Howarth)

We believe strongly in the value of voluntary work. For this reason, we have recently launched a consultation document on millennium volunteers, and we have been working closely with a wide range of voluntary groups to encourage their participation in the new deal for young unemployed people.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, which I am sure will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. How does he propose to link the opportunities to be made available under the new deal and the millennium project with the social exclusion unit and the many young people who have become alienated and disaffected over the past 18 years?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which she put her question. There is an enormous problem with the exclusion of young people who have become disaffected and alienated from much of the mainstream of our society. We believe strongly in voluntary work as the most valuable means of strengthening the bonds of our society and creating a society in which all can contribute and all are valued. The voluntary sector option of the new deal and millennium volunteers are distinct programmes, as my hon. Friend knows. Both of them will be of considerable interest to others in the Government who, through the work of the social exclusion unit, will be monitoring and promoting the ways in which we address the problem.

Higher Education Funding


If he will make a statement on his proposals to increase funding for higher education. [14321]

In my statement in September, I outlined how we had identified £165 million for investment in opening up access to higher education, doubling the access funding and providing money to sustain the universities and to ensure that young people have the opportunity of taking up higher education in years to come. Yesterday, I was able to make a similar statement relating to further education.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply and for the funds that he announced for the further education sector yesterday. Does he agree that those funds will send an important signal to the students and staff of further education colleges across the country that their work is valuable—as valuable as that of the universities?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The £83 million that we have identified for direct investment, and the minimum contribution of at least £100 million from the new deal for the under-25s—which will go into further education through the full-time and part-time options for education and training—will make an enormous difference in opening up potential for more than 70,000 additional students next year. The funds will help to protect the colleges, as we did the universities, from the draconian cuts imposed by the previous Government, who paid lip service to expansion while undermining the quality and standard of education.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the various comments made by spokesmen for Scottish universities on the likely impact of the decision by the Government that English, Northern Ireland and Welsh students will have to pay the full £4,000 tuition fees, while students from other European member states and Scotland will not. Is he aware that in last week's debate on higher education funding, the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office dismissed the statements that had been made by the Scottish universities on the issue? Who is presenting the correct picture—the Minister or the universities?

We are of course talking about the £1,000 towards the tuition fee for the final and fourth year for those in the higher income bracket. There is no evidence yet on what the impact might be on English students, because applications have not yet closed in Scotland. One thing is certain: the more fear that is put in students' minds about what they can expect to find and when, the more likely it is that they will not apply. I am confident, as are my right hon. and hon. Friends in Scotland, that the quality of education at universities in Scotland is such that those who are privileged enough to have earnings that will oblige them to pay the full £1,000 fee will feel that it is worth the investment.

I know that further education colleges in my constituency will warmly welcome the announcement made by my right hon. Friend yesterday. Does he agree that it is an important part of the package to convince young people that further and higher education are worthwhile investments, and that those who take a degree are far more likely to have higher earnings, certainly by their mid-30s and for the rest of their lives, than non-graduates of the same ability?

I agree entirely. It is statistically proven that what my hon. Friend says is correct. We announced yesterday an expansion for further education, and the fact that adult students in further education already contribute towards their fees and feel that it is worth while to do so will be an encouragement to those who go on to higher education: they will see that the higher return on the investment made will be a tremendous financial as well as an educational and employment gain.

The Secretary of State's announcement of additional funding for further and higher education is welcomed in all regions of the United Kingdom, but we in Northern Ireland are concerned at speculation about the creation of an additional higher education centre in west Belfast, in which £65 million of public money could be invested. Will he consult the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), and advise him that it is our view that investment in that project is not justified and that moneys available would be better spent on the many existing further and higher education campuses in Northern Ireland?

I shall be happy to consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and her colleagues about how to provide greater access to education for all members of the community in Northern Ireland.

I recognise the problem that my right hon. Friend faces in financing higher and further education, but does he not agree that if the Government's proposals on student funding lead to a dramatic fall in student numbers, that will create an even greater crisis in the sector's finances next year? How does he intend to cope with that potential crisis?

If there is a drop in the number of students, it will be a tragedy for those who have been discouraged from taking up their places by misleading and scurrilous propaganda: propaganda that suggests that the means-tested family contribution is to rise, when it is not; scurrilous misinformation that suggests to poorer students that they will have to find the £1,000 fee, when they will not; and scurrilous misinformation that deceives them into thinking that the grant is to disappear in one year, when in fact it is being phased out.

There will not be a financial crisis if there is a drop in the number of students, because we are funding those students through the fee process, funding the residual grant and funding the loan. The tragedy would be if those young and mature students were denied the opportunity of better employment prospects and higher earnings from their investment in their own education.

Will the Secretary of State explain in as much detail as possible the connection between the decision to require students to contribute towards their fee, and the additional resources for higher education? Does he intend to ensure that the additional resources from the fee are ring-fenced for higher education, and how permanent will that connection be?

By 2005–06, on current accounting procedures, an additional £800 million would be available for the further and higher education sector from the introduction of our proposals. That sum would rise substantially under alternative resource accounting processes. That money will be available for lifelong learning. I have made it clear here and in the Select Committee that that is why we are introducing the scheme. We believe that it is an important investment which will open access to the tens of thousands of students who would otherwise be denied it.

May I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his ingenuity and skill in finding an additional £83 million to invest in further education? Does he agree that the needs of the 2.6 million students in further education are as important as the needs of the 1.8 million students in higher education? Does he further agree that the false divide in the tertiary sector between further and higher does nothing to help the opportunities for all our young people to fulfil their potential?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I entirely agree. Conservative Members might stop laughing if they realised that in our sixth months in office, my Department has identified within our existing resources, which we inherited, more than £250 million for further and higher education. That is £250 million that the Conservatives failed to identify and did not know was available. Their handling of their responsibilities was grossly incompetent.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the effect of his proposals is to raise the cost of a three-year degree course outside London for a typical middle-class student by £3,000, and that the cost of the same degree to a student from a low-income background will rise as a result of his proposals by £5,265? Why are the Government abolishing the means-tested maintenance grant when Dearing recommended that it should be sustained and when the effect of their policy is to deliver such discrimination against low-income students?

We did not accept the Dearing proposition that the imposition of a contribution to fees should not be means tested; in other words, that all students should be expected to find the contribution towards fees. A party that cut the maintenance grant year after year, introduced the current unfair mortgage-type loan scheme, resisted our requests for an income-related scheme, stood on an election platform that did not say whether it favoured maintaining the grant or introducing fees, and has done a double somersault on its previous policies has no right to question us on this issue.

Training And Enterprise Councils


What steps the Government are taking to prevent fraud against training and enterprise councils. [14322]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Dr. Kim Howells)

The principal responsibility lies with the training and enterprise councils themselves. The Department operates a number of controls to check against uncertain, incorrect or improper payments. My hon. Friend may be assured that we operate those controls with energy and determination.

Does my hon. Friend agree that national vocational qualifications form the cornerstone of essential policies such as welfare to work, the new deal and lifelong learning and that those are the policies that will appeal to and give hope and opportunities to so many people denied chances under the previous Government? Will he assure me that he will look into recent fraud cases relating to training providers offering NVQs, and ensure that people who have had qualifications withdrawn are given the opportunity to retake tests and gain the appropriate qualifications?

I assure my hon. Friend that we will do just that. National vocational qualifications are a tremendous boon to our education system. I believe in them; they have opened up possibilities for learning and entering higher education for a great many people. I have seen it wherever I have gone. Yesterday in a steel plant, I saw a rediscovered joy in learning. The men and women working there were involved in national vocational qualifications and were extremely keen to go on learning. We must ensure that there is no fraud in the system and that no nods arid winks are operated by any agency that receives money from the Government. The question of national vocational qualifications must remain completely unbesmirched by backhanders or sleaze.

Higher Education (Enrolment)


By how much he estimates that enrolment in 1998 in higher education will change, relative to the average levels of the previous three years. [14323]

It is too early to estimate higher education enrolment levels in 1998. Applicant numbers are currently slightly down compared with last year.

Does the Minister not recognise that the Government's plans will have an impact on young people, particularly from low-income families? Given the Prime Minister's famous words, "Education, education, education," will the Minister take this opportunity now to apologise for the Government's attack on equal access to higher education?

I do not know the hon. Gentleman's educational background, but let me tell him this: when I discovered the percentages of young people from different socio-economic groups who go to university and receive higher education—

If the hon. Gentleman will wrap up for a moment, I shall answer the main question. Four out of five young people from families of senior managers and professionals go on to university, whereas fewer than one in 10 from unskilled families go to university. We are going to do something about that.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our starting point on this issue is that we recognise that the current system of student support patently does not work? It is also unfair, as it requires part-time and mature students to pay fees. Does he also agree that the Government's proposals—provided that students from low-income families are protected, as they will be—are the best means of ensuring fairer access to, and better funding for, higher education?

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. We shall ensure that every student, regardless of background, has access to sufficient money now to get him or her through university degrees. We shall ensure that, when it comes to paying that money back, students will be able to afford to do so. That does not happen now. We shall institute a much better system that will allow it to happen.

Unemployment (Rural Areas)


What proportion of the young unemployed in rural areas cite lack of available transport as a barrier to employment opportunities. [14324]

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights
(Mr. Andrew Smith)

As I expect the hon. Gentleman is aware, a recent survey by the Somerset employment service showed that some 40 per cent. of unemployed young people reported transport to be just such a problem.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. When he evaluates the new deal pilot areas, will he pay particular attention to the pilot scheme in Cornwall? Will he look at the barriers to young people in rural areas, and the barriers that prevent small businesses in rural areas from providing opportunities? Will he ensure that the new deal is a genuine new deal for young people in Somerset villages just as much as it is for young people in cities?

Yes, indeed. I shall visit Cornwall on 19 December precisely to examine how the pathfinder proposals are working out there. A number of transport companies already offer discounts for young unemployed people, and those will be part of the new deal. Sheffield supertram operates a reduced fare, and National Express has announced a 50 per cent. discount for those on the new deal and free travel for unemployed people going to interviews. We want to turn that into a national programme and support initiatives with the Rural Development Commission for other ways to include transport in rural areas, such as the project in which the hon. Gentleman was involved in his constituency.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that transport is an especially difficult problem when there are no buses on which to get subsidised fares; and that there is a real need to ensure that opportunities under the new deal are genuinely available in rural constituencies, such as the one I represent, and not simply theoretical possibilities?

Yes and I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend's constituency to see the work that he and the local community are doing to address those transport problems. I emphasise that new initiatives are being developed through new deal partnerships with the Rural Development Commission, TECs and local councils. Those initiatives include, for example, pooled taxi use, car sharing and even the leasing of mopeds, and the Government welcome those local initiatives to address local transport needs.

New Deal


What measures he has taken to ensure that options offered to young people on the new deal are of high quality. [14325]

We count quality as being of paramount importance. That is why in both the gateway and the main programme there will be key elements, such as contacts with a personal adviser for each participant; contract team visits, which will be made from the Employment Service regions; quality inspection visits for both training and further education; and, of course, the supplementary hotline provided for those who have concerns or worries. It is vital that we work with both employers and the voluntary sector to make sure that this is not a make-work scheme, but a programme to be proud of.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer. May I ask that the role of the dedicated advisers be brought to the fore, especially in rural areas where people face difficulties of access and a lack of provision and where those advisers will play an interesting and important role?

My hon. Friend is quite right. In addition to the measures spelt out a moment ago by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights, there will be a discretionary fund, specifically for transport, to assist those who are taking up the full-time education option in further education colleges. We want the advisers to be able to help from the moment young people enter the gateway, with education and social advice to build up their confidence and skills before they enter the main programme and so ensure that they are able to sustain the training and education elements throughout the programme.

I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that young people, either those in the new deal or those coming into employment generally, will be concerned about the level of the minimum wage. Both the TUC and the trade unions have made representations in respect of the minimum wage. Given the new dispensation, may we have an undertaking from the Government that if, eventually, the minimum wage is set at a level equal to or above what is proposed in those representations, the donations to the Labour party made by the trade unions before the general election will be returned to them?

If the Conservative party had handed back the money every time they gave a contract to or privatised a company that was associated with, or had been in any way involved with, a donation to the party through either an individual or an organisation, they would have handed back more than they have received over the past 20 years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, just as education would help the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), the new deal will provide excellent opportunities to improve the employability of young people, which is an important product of the scheme? Does he also agree that it will be a high-quality scheme and not one designed purely to massage the employment figures, like those of the previous Government?

My hon. Friend is right. That is why every single option under the new deal will include education and training to a recognised qualification, including a year in a full-time education place. That is why the CBI, the chambers of commerce and the representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises are so supportive of the new deal programme. They recognise, as did the CBI earlier this week, that skills for the future are crucial to the competitiveness of our nation as well as to the life chances of the individual and will be a key element in ensuring that we can encourage growth without inflation and enable our economy to succeed in the 21st century.

In view of the answer that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), will he confirm to the House that a contract recently given for the delivery of the new deal in Hackney was given to Reed Personnel Services, that the head of that organisation is Alec Reed, and that that gentleman is alleged to have given £100,000 to the Labour party? Although I have no reason to believe that there was any impropriety whatever in that contract, can the Secretary of State confirm his support for the Prime Minister in acknowledging the urgent need to reform party political funding to remove even the whiff of impropriety in such arrangements?

I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman believes that there is not a whiff of impropriety because if he did believe that, he should say it outside the House.

Let us make this absolutely clear. No Ministers were involved with the letting of the contract—that is an absolute, unequivocal statement. There are many people who have given, during the past few years, to all three political parties, who have subsequently, through their organisation or company, bid for Government contracts. There has been nothing wrong, and no one has previously suggested that there was anything improper or lacking in probity in the system that has been operated.

If any Opposition Members have anything to suggest about the way in which the civil service does its job, they should do so and we will examine those suggestions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new deal scheme will work because it is a quality scheme and is widely supported by business, the voluntary sector and participating individuals, unlike the schemes that young people have suffered in the past decade? The youth opportunities programme, youth training, the youth training scheme, training for work: you name it, we have had it.

How does my right hon. Friend intend to ensure that young people—those who will benefit from this high-quality training—are involved in consultation leading up to the start of the new deal and, more important, how will he ensure that quality is maintained throughout its delivery?

Quality, continuity and accountability within the scheme are features which will distinguish the new deal from the programmes and schemes that the Conservatives introduced during their 18 years in office.

It is vital to make it possible for young people to play a part in monitoring and reviewing the programme, to say what they think about the programmes that they are engaged on and, where necessary, to redesign a system that is responsive. It is vital for us to set up outreach facilities so that that can be done. I should like to suggest that young people should be part of the review teams; in that way, we can ensure that their interests and those of their age group can properly be reflected.

Can the Secretary of State confirm a figure researched for me by the House of Commons Library, which tells me that a young person who is unemployed already has an 84 per cent. chance of moving off benefit within a year? How much better than that does he expect to do with his welfare-to-work scheme? Can he also confirm that it was one of his socialist heroes who said that socialism is about priorities? Does he really believe that putting £3.5 billion into a problem that is obviously shrinking is the right ordering of priorities when there are so many other pressures on his budget and elsewhere?

I do not believe that 15,000 to 20,000 youngsters a month reaching the point where they have been unemployed or out of education for more than six months is a minor problem, or something which should not be tackled by a Government who believe in the economic gains that can be made from investing in those young people—which I described a moment ago—and in the critical nature of social cohesion, which means that we must heal our communities instead of dividing them.

I believe that the investment is worth making. If only 10,000 young people were out of work for more than six months—as opposed to the 122,000 young people in that situation at present—it would be worth applying that money to provide life chances and heal the communities in which they live. Our investment will give young people the economic opportunity to earn their own living and pay back the Exchequer, rather than drawing on it through dependence.


How many new deal welfare to-work places he plans to create in (a) Wales and (b) the north-west in the next year; and if he will make a statement. [14326]

We shall offer help to everyone who becomes eligible for the new deal, and sufficient places will be available to meet that commitment. We are making very good progress in Wales, the north-west and elsewhere in planning and implementing the new deal. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights launched the first of the pathfinder areas this morning.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Wales's recovery from the great loss of steel and coal jobs still has a long way to go? This excellent scheme might provide a real lifeline to valleys and towns in Wales. is my hon. Friend aware that in Deeside in my constituency far too many young people have aimless, hopeless lives and have no access to worthwhile work? Is there any way in which my hon. Friend might enlarge the scheme? He knows that we will never heal the wounds of Thatcherism until we give work and hope to our young people.

My hon. Friend speaks from his deep commitment to his constituents, so many of whom have suffered as a result of the processes of industrial change. Shotton is in his constituency and Llanwern is in mine. Although his experience of these issues is much greater than mine, I well understand the trauma and the difficulty faced by steelworkers and their families who have lost their jobs and find it desperately difficult to gain new work opportunities.

Against that background, we attach much importance to the new deal for the long-term unemployed and to ensuring that a new generation of young people does not suffer the same experiences. We are determined to make a great success of our existing commitments under the new deal, and we shall see thereafter what remains to be done.

Does the Minister recall the commitment that Labour gave before the election to help 250,000 long-term unemployed under-25s to receive the new deal? Will he comment on the figures supplied today by the Library which suggest that only 122,000 people qualify—

Order. The question relates to projects in Wales and the north-west. I have warned the House before that supplementary questions must follow the substantive question. I know that Hereford is not far from Wales, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) will be able to get his question in order. If any other hon. Member wishes to speak about Wales or the north-west particularly, I shall call him or her—I thought not.

Higher Education (Scottish Universities)


If he will make a statement on funding problems in respect of students resident in England studying at Scottish universities. [14328]

Many Scottish universities offer students with good A-levels the option of entering the second year of a four-year honours course, so it should be possible for students from England and Wales to get a Scottish degree after paying for the same number of years as they would have taken to graduate at a university elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Those from low-income families will get free tuition in any case.

How will the Minister explain to students in Pontypridd and the Vale of York that they will be disadvantaged by having to pay £1,000 more than Scottish students to do the same course? Will he tell the House how Scottish universities might make up any shortfall if students who wish to do a four-year degree—as I did at the university of Edinburgh—are not in a financial position to do so? Will he invite the Prime Minister to intervene in the dispute between the Department for Education and Employment and the Scottish Office?

Thank you very much.

First, it is not the same course and, secondly, only the wealthiest students will have to pay the £4,000. The hon. Lady asked me what I will tell the students in Pontypridd. She can be sure that I shall not feed them the litany of half-truths and lies that I have heard so often on this subject.

Does the Minister accept that the failure to exempt English, Welsh and Northern Irish students from tuition fees in the final year of a Scots four-year honours course will deter potential students and cause academic and economic damage? Will he follow the good Scottish Office example, provide the funds and end the discrimination against English and other students?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman listened to the reply that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave on the subject earlier. There are Scottish universities that already accept students with two good A-levels into the second year of four-year honours courses. I hope that they will continue to do so and that many other universities in Scotland will follow their example.

Secondary Schools (Hertfordshire)


What measures he proposes for the improvement of the present admissions procedure to secondary schools in the Hertfordshire area. [14329]

New admissions criteria will provide for a genuine partnership to get schools to work together with their education authority, to ensure that we overcome the scandal of some parents finding that they do not have places for their children in September, because they have had to make multiple applications in a chaotic system, such as my hon. Friend must suffer in parts of Hertfordshire.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his acknowledgement of the problems in Hertfordshire. Is he aware that many parents in my constituency of Watford have serious concerns about the forthcoming round of selections by academic ability, which will result in some children not obtaining a place in any school of their choice, and the subsequent emotional effect on the children? Will he assure me that, in any forthcoming legislation, he will take into account the specific difficulties that face Watford and south-west Hertfordshire in the admissions process for secondary schools?

I will give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance that we will do so. Parents and children deserve a system that meets their needs and in which their preference is respected, rather than the school choosing the pupil, and chaotic multiple admissions systems that result in children failing to have a place, and therefore failing to have the opportunity that others take for granted.

Can the Secretary of State clear up a misunderstanding which was raised with me when I was in a Hertfordshire school last week? Does the right hon. Gentleman remember telling the Labour party conference that, under a Labour Government, there would be no return to selection? Will he confirm to the House that his White Paper makes it clear that specialist schools will be able to give priority to children who demonstrate a special aptitude? Can the Secretary of State make it clear to the House and the people of Hertfordshire what made him change his mind, or is there a difference between selection and giving priority to those who demonstrate aptitude?

The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends know perfectly well that recognising an aptitude for music is entirely different from selecting a child by the 11-plus examination. We all know that the commitment that I have given on selection stands. It will stand. The admissions criteria that I will publish, and the Bill that we will pass through Parliament, will ensure that every child has the opportunity to use his or her talents to the full.

Special Needs


What recent representations he has received concerning the special educational needs of children. [14330]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Ms Estelle Morris)

We are beginning to receive responses to the Green Paper "Excellence for all Children", which was published on 22 October. 1 look forward to hearing from a wide range of interests during consultation on the Green Paper.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does she recognise that the policy of integrating children in special schools in mainstream education must have strict limits to it, for there are children whose presence in the classroom would be detrimental to the education of their peers? That point has been regularly impressed upon me by teachers in the 21 schools in the Buckinghamshire constituency that I have visited since 1 May.

Of course I recognise that, and the Green Paper recognises it as well. There are some pupils for whom it is more appropriate, in their interests and in the interests of children who might be educated in the same class, that they go to a special school, perhaps for a short time, and not always for the whole of their career. Throughout the country, there are good examples of schools that include children with disabilities and children with special needs in mainstream classes. We want to encourage that. There are good reasons why, wherever possible, children who are deemed to have special educational needs should be educated with children of their age in mainstream classes. We will encourage that by spreading good practice and by reversing the cut that the Conservative Government made to the money available to schools to make the adaptations necessary for access.

Will the Minister confirm that there needs to be better teacher training so that teachers are able to identify more quickly children who have special needs such as dyslexia and autism? It is important that those children's needs are dealt with earlier.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. It is sad that many children who go through the school system with the designation of SEN would have had different levels of attainment had their special needs been recognised at an early stage. We should be trying to recognise children with special difficulties even before they start school.

That is why in our early years development plans, which we have recently launched, we have insisted that, when local authorities and others plan places for children under five, they listen to those with expertise in SEN so that the identification to which the hon. Gentleman referred can be made early and immediate action taken to support those children. If we get that right, many of the problems that surface later in a school career will not surface.

When the Minister announces the outcomes of the review of special educational needs and whatever changes she decides to make, will she confirm that there will be no diminution in the current protection that the individual child has under the law—I stress "under the law"—and that existing statutes will be maintained?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We have not suggested that the rights of a child or a parent will be changed by some of the ideas that we have put forward. The hon. Lady's supplementary question gives me the opportunity to say that parents will retain the right to seek a statement, if that is what they feel that their child needs, and to go before a tribunal.

The hon. Lady must remember, however, that, for every parent who is pushed into having to obtain a statement to get the help that his or her child needs, time and money are involved which could be better used in supporting the child without having to go through the statementing process. If there are any changes to legislation that emerge from our consultations on the Green Paper, we shall make a statement to the House.

Lifelong Learning (Coalfields)


What assessment he has made of the coalfields learning initiative partnership; and if he will make a statement on the long-term financial security of grassroots lifelong learning projects in coalfield areas. [14331]

It is too early to form an assessment of the coalfields learning initiative partnership, but we welcome its provision of adult education learning opportunities in former coalfield areas. Lifelong learning and the creation of a learning society are at the heart of our education and training policies.

Projects within the partnership have been an excellent vehicle for driving forward the Government's commitment to lifelong learning processes and the reduction of unemployment, especially in places such as the Acorn centre in Grimethorpe in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that such schemes are now established as a key component of post-16 education in the coalfield areas? Will he make the Further Education Funding Council aware of their success?

My hon. Friend has drawn the attention of the House to an important project which is operating in a hard-hit area. Indeed, nowhere has been hit harder than Grimethorpe. I know that my hon. Friend is doing an excellent job in representing the interests of his constituents.

I hope that the partnership will look to European structural funds for support and examine every opportunity to use partnership approaches for funding in future when the present arrangements come to an end. I shall certainly bring my hon. Friend's suggestion to the FEFC's attention.

Church Schools


What proposals he has for further support for Church schools; and if he will make a statement. [14333]

Thank you so much. I felt the same myself.

We have had detailed discussions with the Churches about the new school framework. We recently announced developments to that framework to meet representations made by the Churches, with a view to safeguarding the ethos of Church schools within an education service based on partnership and co-operation. I am pleased to say that the Churches have welcomed those developments.

I notice that it has taken until nearly 3.20 pm for the Minister for School Standards to make it to the Dispatch Box.

Will the Minister assure the House that voluntary-controlled schools will be able to opt to become aided schools sooner rather than later, and that if they do so they will not have to pay retrospective compensation to local education authorities?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman came into the Chamber at 3.15 pm. I was getting worried that I would not have a single question to answer.

The Government have listened to representations made by the Church authorities, in the light of which the Bill will be revised. The Government are prepared to take on board the views expressed by other parties because we know that any changes that we introduce will mean a better Bill which will serve the interests of the nation's children—unlike the previous Conservative Government whose policies were based on arrogance and dogma, who did not listen and who, as a result, were rejected on 1 May.

New Deal


How he will ensure that small and medium enterprises are able to be involved in the Government's new deal to help young people move from welfare to work. [14334]

Small and medium businesses are crucial to the success of the new deal. We are working hard to secure their involvement by reflecting their views in the design and delivery of the new deal, by helping them through local partnerships and by targeting national promotion to encourage their further involvement.

I welcome that response. Swindon has fewer young unemployed people than many other parts of Britain; nevertheless, they are a priority for the business community and the Employment Service. Swindon is aware of the Government's larger welfare-to-work programme and wants it to succeed, but the current welfare-to-work programme requires each area to go forward at the same rate. Will my hon. Friend consider bringing forward some parts of the scheme so that, from April, which is sooner than currently planned, areas such as Swindon can move forward to help the long-term unemployed and lone parents, particularly the long-term unemployed?

The programme for the long-term unemployed will start in June. I thank my hon. Friend for her constituency work in promoting the new deal. She refers to the particularly acute needs of some of those eligible for the new deal programme in her constituency. In that regard, the gateway provision is crucial, providing personal support, assessment, mentoring and help with basic skills, and it will be brought forward as quickly as possible to help the constituents of my hon. Friend and others.

Given that the Government apparently believe that the job subsidy under the new deal will create more jobs in small and medium enterprises, is it not obvious and unavoidable that the introduction of the minimum wage will cost jobs?

The new deal will result in extra employment opportunities in small and medium enterprises precisely because the prospect of that subsidy and support in obtaining a trained and ready-to-work young person can make a critical difference to whether someone is taken on. The Low Pay Commission will recommend the level of the minimum wage, taking full account of employment needs. Rather than carping about the new deal, the hon. Gentleman, like so many other hon. Members, should get behind it in his constituency to end the scandal of long-term youth unemployment and help business.

Universities (Financial Support)


If he will make a statement on the level of financial support for universities in 1998–99. [14336]

We have taken decisive action to deal with the serious funding problems facing universities. For 1998–99, my right hon. Friend has announced that an extra £165 million will be spent on higher education, including an extra £125 million to enable universities and colleges to maintain and improve quality and standards, and to make a start on the backlog of maintenance and equipment replacement.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. The Secretary of State's announcement of £165 million for higher education is a tremendous support. Will my hon. Friend seriously consider one aspect of the Dearing report which has been overlooked? Universities face a crisis in funding for research, infrastructure and equipment, for which £400 million to £500 million is required. I urge him to reconsider the funding proposals or make additional funding available.

We are examining the issue carefully. We are worried about the fact that some colleges and universities have closed important research sectors in their institutions. We are talking to colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and in other Departments concerned with this issue, and we shall ensure that this country retains an excellent research base.

Will the Minister confirm that he has already taken the decision to withdraw from local education authorities the power to make discretionary awards to students in higher education? Why has he done that without proper consultation? Is he aware that, in taking away those discretionary awards, he is also taking away the student's right to the appeal process? In Surrey county, that process has enabled up to 40 per cent. of students to get at least part of the award for which they had applied.

New Deal


What has been the response of employers to the new deal for young unemployed people. [14337]

Employers across the country are responding positively to the new deal by pledging support, and by following up those pledges with practical action.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply; it will be good news to young, unemployed people in my constituency of Dartford and elsewhere. Does he agree with me that the new deal allows employers to address the skills shortage, which causes so much damage to British competitiveness?

Absolutely. This is the right time to introduce the new deal. It maximises the opportunities for young, unemployed people to obtain work, and it helps business by ensuring that young people are equipped with skills and are prepared for work, so that they can develop their training towards a recognised qualification while in employment. That will benefit my hon. Friend's constituents and thousands of others across the country.

Does the Minister agree that, as a result of the steadily falling unemployment inherited from the previous Government, the proportion of young people who require the scheme and who are very disadvantaged, because of their social background, lack of education or other skill shortages, is growing? None of those people will be attractive to employers. Will the Minister give us an assurance that the time taken to get those young people up to the threshold at which most other young people start such schemes will be extended, so that they are on a level playing field and can benefit from the scheme?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I appreciate the understanding and sensitivity that he shows towards the young unemployed in his constituency, and towards the programme. As the overall numbers fall, those in particular need constitute a greater proportion. That is why the gateway period of up to four months of assessment, counselling and help with basic skills is so important. It also gives people the opportunity to try tasters of the different options available through the new deal.

In response to consultation over the summer, the Government have introduced another opportunity, whereby young people with particularly acute needs can, after the gateway period, have three months' intensive basic education and skills training, before going on to employment.

This is all about enhancing the employability of young people. It is founded on the good and wise principle that those who most need it will receive the greatest help.

Degree Courses


What representations he has received regarding proposals to restrict colleges to offering degree courses by only one validating university. [14338]

We have received a wide range of responses to the recommendation by the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education on the issue. The Government will announce its response to that and other recommendations soon.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply.

My constituency has benefited greatly from Barnsley college's ability to offer degree courses franchised through both Sheffield and Leeds universities. The benefits to my constituency, not only educational but social, have been very welcome. May I therefore ask my hon. Friend to reject the Dearing recommendation, and allow colleges such as mine to continue to franchise degrees through more than one university?

As my hon. Friend probably knows, the majority of the responses received so far to Sir Ron Dearing's proposals have been opposed to multiple franchising, or serial franchising as it is sometimes called, arguing that it should be stopped. They recognise, however, that there might be occasions when, for geographical or subject-related reasons, that would be impossible. I am sure that my colleagues will consider the matter carefully when we formulate our responses to Sir Ron's proposals.