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Topical Questions

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

In a rapidly changing world, Britain can succeed economically and be socially inclusive only if we develop the skills of all our people to the fullest possible extent, carry out world-class research and scholarship and apply knowledge and skills in order to create an innovative and competitive economy. My responsibility is to lead my Department in working to meet those challenges.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. Will he comment on his Department’s responsibility for the provision of English for speakers of other languages—ESOL—for people who need English and citizenship in order to acquire indefinite leave to remain? I am hearing some unfortunate stories about dodgy characters setting up organisations that simply charge £200 for a certificate that states that a person has attained a certain level of English. There are other organisations, such as the English Speaking Board Ltd, which are apparently perfectly all right. They charge, but the people who use them do not end up with no English; they are tested, and the courses are very useful. We need to get through to our communities the importance of knowing English. This is not just about getting a certificate; it is about actually using English.

My hon. Friend has made two points. She is absolutely right to identify the importance of ESOL, and I am determined that my Department’s budget for the teaching of English—which has trebled over the past few years—should be used to support the broader Government agenda on integration and community cohesion. I believe that the vast majority of ESOL courses that we fund are of a very high quality—the reports from organisations such as Ofsted support that view—but I invite my hon. Friend to contact me if she has concerns about particular providers, as I would be happy to have my officials investigate them.

The Secretary of State has talked about expanding the numbers in the apprenticeship programme, but how many of the extra apprenticeships are likely to be in London? Is he talking to the Home Office about ensuring that his strategy for expansion works alongside the economic migration strategy? As a London MP, I am aware that many economic migrants are working in precisely the kinds of industries in which he would like to see the apprenticeships being established. Is he having discussions with the Home Office on this issue?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The distribution of apprenticeship opportunities is uneven across the country, and it does not always match where one might think that the greatest demand is. That is certainly an issue that we want to address. Indeed, I met the Mayor of London only yesterday evening to discuss the work that we can do with him to increase the number of apprenticeships in the city. The hon. Lady is also right to say that expanding the number of apprenticeships, and the opportunities in general for young people and adults to acquire higher skills, offer the best chance for those people to get the available jobs, thereby reducing the pressures that some employers feel to bring in migrants to fill them.

Does the Minister agree that in order to be globally competitive, we need strong regions across the whole UK? Will he join me in praising the Harraton skills centre in Washington in my constituency, which is doing innovative partnership work with all the high schools across Sunderland and giving vital skills to young people to enable them to go out and play their part in the world?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate her on the work that she does in her constituency to champion these issues. We need more training providers—whether colleges or independent providers—to work proactively with schools in their area to ensure that we have continuity, that we raise aspirations and that we drive skills up to the highest levels. This will be critical in enabling us to meet the economic challenge that we face, on both a regional and a national basis.

T2. The Minister will be aware of the target to raise 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product from research and development by 2010. The vice-chancellor of Southampton university recently expressed concern that the target would be difficult to achieve because children are not taking the right GCSEs. Does the Minister accept that a reason for that might be related to another target—the school league tables? They mean that teachers often persuade children to take subjects in which they are more likely to achieve a higher grade, rather than the science subjects that children often regard as difficult. What is the Minister’s solution? (164275)

No, I do not agree. Actually, the target for the United Kingdom is not for 2010 but for 2014. In fact, a target of 2.5 per cent. of research and development at aggregate level does not make a lot of sense; it is a crude input measure. Yes, we want increased R and D, and on Monday the Government published the 2007 R and D scorecard, which shows that our top-performing companies are increasingly investing in R and D; the top 850 are up 9 per cent. this year, which is welcome progress.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of hard or easy school subjects. We talked earlier about the STEM agenda. The Government are doing a lot of work to encourage people to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics and we are seeing some real progress, but that is due to the hard work of many individuals over several years.

I am just trying to master the finer points of the new topical questions procedure, Mr. Speaker. I hope that the Secretary of State is the person to whom my question is addressed, but I am not quite sure.

I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm that the number of young people aged 18 to 24 not in education, employment or training has increased by more than 100,000 since 1997. I am sure he agrees that those are wasted opportunities and blighted lives. He would have been outraged if 10 years ago we had forecast that under a Labour Government that number would deteriorate. What is his explanation of the deterioration?

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that he greatly overstates the situation. The figures that he is using include, for example, young women who are not in work because they are having a child, and university students who are taking a year out before they go to university or before they start work after university. I do not at all diminish proper concern about anybody who is not engaged gainfully in employment, education or training, but the hon. Gentleman does his case no good by overstating it and including a significant number of people who are undertaking perfectly legitimate and proper activities.

But the definition has not changed in the past 10 years—and in some of the groups the Secretary of State identified, such as young mothers, the number has fallen over the past 10 years. The problem seems to be serious, so will he confirm that the number has gone up from 910,000 to 1,050,000? I observe that he did not suggest that compulsion was the answer for the 18 to 24 age group. Will he confirm that he does not believe that compulsion is the answer, and that the right answer is better education, better training and better opportunities?

I certainly do not believe that compulsion is the right answer with that group, but I do believe that compulsory participation up to 18 is the right answer and that the hon. Gentleman is wrong, because it is important that as a society we organise ourselves to give maximum opportunities to ensure that at 18 people are equipped to enter the world of work successfully. Beyond that, there is certainly a major challenge for my Department, with the Department for Work and Pensions, to join up Jobcentre Plus services with the training that we offer to ensure that that group of young people—the ones we should be worried about—not only get into work quickly, as a great majority of them do, but also that they stay in work, gain qualifications and remain in employment. Doing that over the next few years is a major challenge for the Government, and one that I shall be undertaking with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

T7. One of our nation’s greatest institutions was created by the nation’s greatest post-war Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. I speak of the Open university, of which I am a graduate and for which I used to work. Would the Minister care to elaborate on the rather blasé reply given to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) a few moments ago about the future of the Open university, which will, despite transitional funding, lose £40 million a year, thus imperilling 25 per cent. of its enrolled student numbers—30,000 people. That cannot have been the intention of our Government on their election in 1997, can it? (164282)

I entirely endorse the position of principle set out earlier by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, but transitional protection will be put in place by HEFCE for the Open university and for other institutions that might otherwise be hard hit by a sudden transition. More importantly, I cannot think of an institution better able to offer new forms of higher education to the millions of people in the adult work force who have never been to university and never had the chance of higher education, but will need to do so in the years to come. We will, with HEFCE, willingly work with the Open university and every other institution to make it clear how the advantages offered by the rising number of people who we want to come into higher education can be taken by such institutions. So I think that the future can be enormously positive.

T3. How would the Secretary of State answer the most difficult supplementary question that his officials anticipated that I might have asked if we had reached Question 13 on the Order Paper, about the division of responsibilities for further education between his Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families? (164277)

The answer to that challenging supplementary question is that the reorganisation of the Government into a Department focused on skills, research and innovation—my Department—and a Department focused on children and families is radical but entirely logical. It poses some serious issues that we need to deal with—for example, the funding of further education colleges that have both 16-to-19 and adult provision—but none of those problems is impossible to solve. I am working very closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and we will consult on the way that we intend to handle these issues in the spring. It was not quite so difficult as the hon. Gentleman thought.

T4. I wonder whether the Secretary of State could now answer the question that he was asked by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State: can he confirm that the number of 18 to 24-year-olds currently described as NEETs—not in education, employment or training—has gone up by approximately 15 per cent. between 1997 and 2007, judged by essentially the same criteria as were used in 1997? (164279)

The latest figures clearly demonstrate that the numbers are coming down. However, I would be the first to admit that this is an exceedingly challenging area. That is why, for example, we have local authorities, the Connexions service and others looking at the hot-spot areas in the county, to learn, from best practice, what works to target that challenging group. It is also why—I agree with the Secretary of State about this—the raising of the compulsory education and training age has a role to play. When I heard the Leader of the Opposition say yesterday that he could not give an answer on that issue because the Conservative party’s position was in flux—

T8. Stourbridge college in my constituency is delivering 40 per cent. above its original “train to gain” contract target, and it will deliver 100 per cent. next year. It is about to establish Stourbridge Training to respond to employer-led demands. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to visit Stourbridge to see what a can-do college is doing to reinforce the message that we need a relentless focus on and investment in skills and training, not just for those in colleges and schools, but for those already in work? (164283)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the close working relationship she has with her local college and the support that she gives it. Her college is doing exactly the right thing. The system of funding for adult skills is changing and will be led much more by employer demand. Colleges that succeed will be the ones that organise themselves to make the greatest contribution to “train to gain”. I am pleased to hear about what she is doing locally. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation is already planning to visit the college, and I hope that I may have the opportunity to do so in the future.

T5. By Ministers’ own admission, 40 per cent. of apprenticeships are not completed. Does the Secretary of State undertake to perform a skills audit to ensure that apprenticeships will marry up to the skills required by employers? (164280)

Apprenticeship places are created by employers, who do that because they believe that it will help them to meet their skills needs. By introducing the credit that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a few weeks ago, we hope to make the financial support available to employers much clearer. With that, and the further reforms that we will produce later this year with our draft apprenticeship reform Bill, we can make sure that apprenticeships are of a uniformly high quality. We inherited a situation in which less than 30 per cent. of apprenticeships were completed. We have done far better than the Conservative Government, with far more apprenticeships.

T6. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and wishing the best of luck to all the British entrants in this week’s world skills competition in Japan, which opened yesterday? I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) is there at the moment, and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is to go shortly. In particular, I wish good luck to my constituent Miss Donna Leach, from the Cutting Edge hair salon in Cinderford, who is representing her country in the skill of hairdressing. (164281)

Absolutely—I give my best wishes to all the team members in the world skills competition, and we all look forward to the world skills competition coming to this country in four years’ time. I am grateful that Members on both sides of the House have supported the local, regional and national competitions that helped to select the team, and I hope that they will continue to offer that support in the future.