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Topical Questions

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was formed a year ago tomorrow. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked me to bring together three areas of work that are, together, critical to the future prosperity and success of this country and to the chance of each person sharing in that prosperity. We have to make the most of the talent and ability of each individual, we have to sustain our world-class research and scholarship and we have to bring skills and knowledge together to create innovative businesses and public services.

I should like to take this opportunity to place on record my thanks to all the staff at DIUS and its associated agencies, who have worked so hard, through office moves, new IT systems and new ways of working with new colleagues, to give the new Department a successful first year.

In Bristol, we need to do much more to encourage young people to stay on in education post 16, but, equally important, we need to do more to give people a chance to return to education if they dropped out at 16. What are the Government doing to encourage young people and to give them that second chance, so that they can get the qualifications and skills that they need to equip them for the world of work?

Some people say that we should respond to the difficult international economy by cutting investment in young people and giving tax cuts to the rich. I do not agree. I believe that investing in our young people is the best way to secure prosperity for the future. As a result of extra money given to my Department in the Budget and of decisions that I have taken, this autumn, for the first time, every 18-year-old will know that they can get public funding for qualifications whether they choose to go to university, be an apprentice or study for their first level 2 or 3 qualification until the age of 25. That means that this Government are supporting young people whether they choose to go to university, study at college or train at work.

Further to the answer given to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), will the discussions extend to countries that, hopefully temporarily, are not members of the British Commonwealth, such as Zimbabwe? Can we do our best to help students from there, too?

I think that I am right in saying that such Commonwealth grants are not currently available, and I do not anticipate a change at the moment. I do not think that that would send out the right incentive. The situation in Zimbabwe is deplorable, as Members are aware, and we need to co-ordinate international pressure effectively. Within that context, we will undoubtedly keep the Commonwealth grants under review.

T2. Year 5 children from Lawn primary school are in the House today. They have shown an understandable interest in the Government’s plans to extend the education and training age to 18. What higher education and skills benefits does my right hon. Friend think that that initiative will have for those children, and for Swindon? (213851)

It is important to recognise that raising the participation age ensures that the most disadvantaged young people and those least likely to stay in education and training will be able to do so, in most cases while they are at work. The Opposition refuse to offer that support, and say that young people who get into trouble should be put into boot camp. Our approach, which is to equip people for future lives at work, is the right one.

No one else has done so, but may I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State on his year in charge of his new Department? I welcome him back to the Front Bench after his time chairing a Select Committee.

We are about to hear about equality, so I hope that the Secretary of State will explain why such a big gender gap has opened up at our universities. Forty five per cent. of young women now go to university, but only 35 per cent. of young men. Why is there still a social class gap of almost record size in the number of people going to our universities? I invite him to agree that one of the most disadvantaged groups in Britain today is that consisting of young, single, white and working-class men. What is he going to do to spread equal opportunities to them?

First, because we have invested in higher education, far more people go to university today than were able to under the previous Conservative Government. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a marked gender gap in universities, and that is why we are developing the Aimhigher scheme and Aimhigher Associates, the young people who go back into schools to promote the opportunities of higher education, as well as forging links between schools and universities. All that effort is aimed at making sure that young people who have the ability to go to university but who do not aspire to that—or, more importantly, apply—will do so in future.

As for the gender gap, university admissions are in line with young people’s prior attainment records—the qualifications that they get at school. To deal with the gap in performance, we must make sure that schools are able to identify, spot and nurture talent among young people, and that is what we will do.

Gaps exist in relation to both gender and social class, but increasingly there is a new ethnic gap, with some white, working-class men doing especially badly. Does the Secretary of State agree that the reasons for that are clear when we look at his record? There has been a decline in the number of people enrolling at FE colleges, while the Government have clearly failed to meet their target for university expansion. Moreover, the numbers of advanced apprenticeships—the ones that really spread opportunities to move on in life—are falling. Are not those the real reasons why we are facing the gaps that I have described, and is not the right hon. Gentleman worried that he might be prosecuted by the Minister for Women and Equality for such a failure to spread equality of opportunity?

The hon. Gentleman confuses a whole series of factors, and I shall deal with each in turn. The number of advanced apprenticeships being successfully completed is far higher than when the previous Government were in power. The previous Government put people in advanced apprenticeships, but none of them completed their courses. That was pointless. Advanced apprenticeships make up 30 per cent. of a growing programme—a proportion that has remained pretty much the same—but we are investing more money in new opportunities for apprenticeships.

The latest available figures show that the number of young people from the lower socio-economic groups who have been accepted for university was the highest ever. We are the first to say that there are things that remain to be done, but the previous Government cut the amount spent on students and made no serious effort to promote opportunity. Given their record, I am proud of what we have done, and I am convinced that the Labour party is the one that can tackle these problems in future.

T3. At the Department’s previous Question Time, I heard the Secretary of State tell us about the big increase in his capital spending budget. Sure enough, I learned last week that Stafford college had scooped more than £30 million to rebuild its campus in the coming years. Will he confirm that Ministers will use their sizeable public procurement programme to push our country in the right direction—that is, towards a low-carbon economy with buildings and services that are sustainable not just environmentally but economically and socially? (213853)

We are promoting the benefits of using procurement positively in our own Department and trying to spread that message across the Government. The capital programme that we announced a few months ago for further education colleges is clear on two points. The first is that we will expect new projects to meet the new Building Research Establishment environmental assessment method, or BREEAM, excellence standard, which will be published in July. It is the highest standard available to public sector buildings in this sector, which means that taxpayers’ money is being used not only to provide better buildings but to help safeguard the future for our young people and future generations.

The second thing that we have made clear is that every single one of these projects—this will apply to my hon. Friend’s local project—must include a training plan, so that those who are building the training facilities of the future are trained while they are building them.

One of the major policy initiatives that the new Department has launched in the past 12 months, jointly with the other education Department, has been the increase in the learning and training age to 18. Is the Secretary of State concerned by the latest statistical release from his Department which came out on 19 June? It shows that for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds there has been no real growth in the number of apprenticeships and advanced apprenticeships. What steps is he going to take to ensure greater employer engagement and demand for apprenticeships?

We have made it clear that by 2013 young people with the aptitude for an apprenticeship should be able to have one; we are making that a legal right. We want to get to a position in which one in five young people are able to do an apprenticeship. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers simply reflect a pretty small shift in the age at which young people start their apprenticeships. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said a few moments ago, there has been an increase of 22,000 in the number of apprenticeships available.

I am confident that we will continue to make the extra places available. In doing that, we are talking to major employers about training over and above their own requirements for apprenticeships and about developing group training associations to develop new initiatives. Furthermore, we are having a major drive to get public sector apprenticeships. The apprenticeship model works not only in the traditional industries, but in the public sector and for white-collar jobs and service jobs. There is the huge, and largely untapped, potential for the number of apprenticeships that we need in the future.

T4. As my hon. Friends will be aware, Scottish universities increasingly rely on English students to fill places on their courses, and those full-time students currently pay no council tax. The SNP minority Administration have proposed to introduce a local income tax, which Glasgow city council has estimated would have to be 5p in the pound to maintain existing services. Will the Secretary of State urgently raise the matter with the SNP Administration? The proposal would clearly have a very detrimental effect on English students considering Scottish universities for their higher education; I am thinking particularly of those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and rely on earnings during summer recesses to keep their studies going. (213854)

My hon. Friend raises an important point; I know that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland answered a similar question a few weeks ago, he estimated that 55,000 students would be affected by the change. It is also the case that raising what council tax in Scotland currently brings in would require the imposition of a 5p local income tax. That comes against a background in which the separatists promised to get rid of student debt, but turned back on their commitment. The track record is not good.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Science and Innovation for meeting me and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) to discuss the e-MERLIN project at Jodrell Bank. Does he not accept that the project, which is critical to the organisation, has received very high ratings and assessments from technical assessment panels and that it is critical that the United Kingdom should remain in the vanguard of astronomy research and development?

The hon. Gentleman will know from our meeting that we are keen to ensure that scientists in the UK, particularly those working at Manchester university, maintain their international leadership in astronomy, particularly with things moving towards the square kilometre array and analysis of that data. The peer review process carried out by the Science and Technology Facilities Council has given e-MERLIN a higher rating. The hon. Gentleman will know that that is good news from his point of view. I reject the comments of those who say, as the shadow Chancellor has said on behalf of the Conservative party, that Ministers should intervene to take the detailed decisions on which areas of science should be funded. That happens in other countries, and it means that scientists spend all their time lobbying Ministers to get funding instead of having it decided by peer group research. While I have every sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says about e-MERLIN, neither I nor my Ministers will intervene to take those decisions, which should properly be taken after peer review by the scientists in the research councils.

T5. Given the difficulties caused by the late notification of the adult allocation in further education college budgets—the allocation for South Thames college, which my hon. Friend the Minister has visited, did not come until June, four months later than expected—can he reassure the House that colleges will receive their allocation earlier next year? (213855)

I had the opportunity to visit South Thames college with my hon. Friend earlier this year. It is doing an excellent job for the local community. I do not accept that this year’s allocation was four months late, but it was later than we would have wished given that this is the first year of the new system. The vast majority of colleges are benefiting from an increased allocation of funding, but we undoubtedly want to ensure that next year’s allocations come out earlier than they did this year.

T6. The Minister will be aware that Carlett Park FE campus in my constituency is under threat and that a consultation is under way. I have some doubts about the objectivity of that consultation. What provisions does the Department make to ensure that consultations are objective, not skewed in favour of the answer that is sought, and that all relevant information, such as the options analysis, is made available to key stakeholders? (213857)

My hon. Friend is aware that we have met and discussed his concerns in detail. The college is committed to a consultation exercise. Following our meeting, I wrote to the college principal making it clear that taking this forward is his decision and responsibility, but urging as effective a consultation process as possible. In respect of the options analysis, we will bear in mind the elements for which there is a need for confidentiality, nevertheless sharing as much of it as possible with my hon. Friend.

T7. Improving the skills of people in the north-east of England is vital. What is my right hon. Friend doing to increase the availability of apprenticeships in my constituency and in the north-east of England more generally? (213858)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of apprenticeships. This Government rescued apprenticeships from their collapse and near demise under the previous Government and have rebuilt them to a stage where more people are completing apprenticeships today than for many years. In his own county of County Durham, there were 2,408 apprenticeship starts in 2006-07, which is one of the largest numbers in England. However, we are going further. For example, Nissan is working closely with Gateshead college to meet its growing skills needs, and the college is delivering 500 adult engineering apprenticeships to new recruits.