Skip to main content

ESOL Classes

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 15 March 2007

5. If he will make a statement on proposed changes to the funding and provision of English for speakers of other languages classes. (127474)

10. If he will make a statement on the proposed changes to fee remission of English for speakers of other languages courses. (127480)

English for speakers of other languages has been a real success, with more than 1.9 million learners since 2001. The current rate of increase, however, is unsustainable. Numbers and funding have tripled, but further increases will adversely impact on other skills for life provision. Therefore, in October I announced changes to ESOL funding involving charging those who can afford to make a contribution and excluding adult asylum seekers from access. Following representations made as part of the race equality impact assessment, however, I have made it clear in the past week that I am minded to consider a range of new measures, compared with the original proposals, to reprioritise funding towards the most vulnerable.

With 29 per cent. of Hackney residents having been born outside the UK, I welcome the Minister’s rethink on the issue. Of the 2,500 ESOL and life skills learners at Hackney community college, an estimated 20 per cent. would be affected by the rules. Will he meet me and representatives of Hackney community college to discuss this matter and its impact on Hackney residents?

I will happily meet my hon. Friend, as I have met many colleagues, to discuss the issue. Let me make it clear that we are not reversing the fundamental thrust of our policy on the issue. The current trajectory is simply not sustainable, and will impact on the budget for other skills for life provision unless we make changes. Under the changes, over 50 per cent.—indeed, over 80 per cent., as I understand it, in the college to which my hon. Friend referred—will continue to get access to free ESOL. As a result of the representations made, we are considering a number of other indicators to ensure that we assess low income properly and that those who genuinely cannot afford to pay continue to get free ESOL.

It may be right to ask for fees from people who can clearly afford to pay, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is most important to make applying for fee remission simple? In particular, we should rely not just on working tax credit as an indicator of low pay, but on other indicators too.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have announced in the past week that I am minded to consider a range of alternative indicators of low pay, at a local level, that would enable a person to access free ESOL. Clearly, the system must be as simple and easy to understand for the individual as possible.

Many people have come into this country from the new European Union states. That has put pressure on courses such as those about which we have been hearing, but also on small primary schools that are being asked to support the children of families who are new to their areas. What action is the Department taking to supply those schools with extra resources?

Additional funding streams are available for schools in those circumstances, but the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to an important issue. It is true that if the challenge of funding ESOL is to be met, we need a significant contribution from the Government—who have tripled funding over the past five years—and it is true that we need contributions from individuals, if they can afford it. However, we also need employers to meet their own responsibilities to train their work forces properly. In the context of the changes that I have announced, we are keen to address that issue, together with the CBI and the trade unions and through the social partnership.

Surely we should focus more on youngsters whose first language is not English. According to a report that I read recently, a young girl was placed with a group of three others who did not speak English as a first language. Everything had to be translated in that science group, and the young girl who spoke English felt that she was being held back because everything had to be translated. When she asked to be moved to another group, she was condemned for doing so. Can the Minister ensure that those who need English language teaching are given the focus they deserve so that their skills can be improved, while those who do speak English are not held back simply because attention must be focused on those who do not?

I respect the intention of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I have learned through long experience that when one starts digging, newspaper stories of the kind that he has related turn out to be far more complicated than they appear. A number of other issues tend to be involved. If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of the case, I will examine them. However, in primary schools where there is a significant cohort of legitimate migrant communities, it is important for us to ensure through the additional funding stream that all children, regardless of circumstances and background, receive the teaching that they require.

I know that the Minister shares my view of the importance of a grasp of the English language to both social inclusion and community cohesion. I had many concerns about his original proposals, but I am extremely grateful for the concessions and changes that he announced recently, which will go a long way towards allaying my concerns and those of colleagues. Nevertheless, there remains real concern about people on low incomes. Will the Minister’s door be open to representations from Members in the light of experience of the changes and particularly of their impact on people with low incomes, and will he meet my colleagues from Woolwich college to discuss the issue?

I certainly undertake to do that. In recent weeks I have met a number of colleagues to discuss the matter, because although I genuinely believe that the status quo is not an option, I also believe that we must get the changes right. I agree with my hon. Friend that if there is to be real community cohesion we must ensure that people can understand and communicate in English, and our changes are intended to give everyone that opportunity.

This issue is not just about refugees and asylum seekers. I recently went to Kashmir with members of the Muslim community from Banbury, and as a result I appreciate that many young people who have grown up in this country still expect to enter into what we would call arranged marriages with partners from, in many cases, Kashmir. Brides who come to the United Kingdom may still not have English as a first language, and may well be joining low-income families. Is not the ability of those people—who will live here for the rest of their lives, will have children here and will become part of the community—to speak, learn and acquire English important both to community integration and to good race relations?

I entirely agree. I think it is critical for people to live genuinely as part of communities rather than being hermetically sealed in individual areas. One of the changes that I intend to make, which I have announced in the past week, is the reprioritisation of funds at local level to provide free access to ESOL for spouses who are priority learners in hard-to-reach groups, and unlikely to have access to their own money or family benefit documentation. I believe that that will go a long way towards allaying the hon. Gentleman’s concern.