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Topical Questions

Volume 487: debated on Thursday 29 January 2009

We know that now is the time to invest in skills and training to prepare people for the upturn. This would be the very worst time to cut public spending, as some are proposing. Since my Department’s last oral questions, we have boosted the number of apprenticeships, which will rise by a further 35,000 next year, and have allocated almost £250 million extra to provide additional training opportunities to those facing or experiencing redundancy. We are working with major employers and the third sector to encourage internships and volunteering, and we are helping people to retrain by trebling the number of professional and career development loans and supporting the Higher Education Funding Council’s new £50 million programme to help firms and individuals meet the economic challenges that they face. We have learned the lessons of the past. We will neither abandon people nor push them into incapacity benefit. We are taking action now and providing real help for families and businesses in the downturn.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply; I heard what he said in relation to apprenticeships. However, the principal of my local college, Carshalton college, which is very much in the front line as regards apprenticeships and wants to expand, says that there is a shortage of apprenticeships available. What more can the Secretary of State do to stimulate demand for apprenticeships in the public and private sectors, and what can he do to ensure that apprentices who lose their placements as a result of the company that they are working for going bust are able to complete their final qualifications?

One of the real challenges for the coming year is to ensure that the public sector plays as big a role as possible in providing apprenticeships. If all the public sector, say in local government, provided as many apprenticeships as the best local authorities, we would make a massive increase in the number of apprenticeships.

Secondly, we are working with major apprenticeship suppliers such as Rolls-Royce, which is agreeing to train additional apprentices over and above its needs for its own company to provide people for the local work force. As for redundancies, we have ensured that some of the rules and procedures that have prevented people from returning to college to finish the technical qualification part of their apprenticeship have been changed, and we are working with a clearing house to place as many people as possible who lose their jobs with a new employer to fully complete their apprenticeship.

T4. Ten years of Government funding and commitment mean that apprenticeships such as those delivered by the excellent Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college are a popular mainstream option for my constituents. Does the Minister agree that the plans to cut apprenticeships, from whatever source, would be hugely damaging to businesses and to people? (252543)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I would not wish to try your patience, Mr. Speaker, by referring to the policies of the Conservative party; but from wherever a proposal came to cut the apprenticeship programme, for example to stop all apprenticeships for those over 19 this year, it would be a real disaster. We have rescued apprenticeships, and we must not go back to where we were 10 years ago.

The Prime Minister recently promised to bring forward our capital spending programmes, but Members in all parts of the House will have been contacted by further education colleges that are very worried that the opposite is happening, having found that their building programmes are being halted mid-stream. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many projects have been delayed, what is the value of the projects affected, and why his Department has been so slow to act when it was first informed of this problem last autumn? If he will not take the Prime Minister’s requirements for more capital spending seriously, why should the rest of the House?

I am grateful for the opportunity to make the position on capital spending absolutely clear. It is thanks to this Government’s investment that we will spend £2.3 billion over this spending period. There is no freeze in that spending programme. There is no question but that the £110 million brought forward for this year and the £100 million brought forward for next year will be spent. The issue is that the Learning and Skills Council decided in December to defer a number of proposals awaiting approval, and there are others in the pipeline. It did so so that it could assess the likely impact of the downturn on the viability of future proposals. It does not in any way affect the more than 250 projects that are already under way. However, of course there are concerns for colleges that are in the pipeline and looking for approval. That is why the LSC is appointing Sir Andrew Foster, at my request, to undertake an independent review of how the current situation for future projects came about. I hope that by March there will be a clear way forward for colleges currently facing some uncertainty. However, I must stress that there is no question of the money that has been allocated for this spending review not being spent; indeed, the spending profile has been brought forward.

T6. Those are reassuring words from the Secretary of State, particularly for colleges such as my local college, Basford Hall in Nottingham, which has submitted its plans to the LSC and agreed a way forward, but is caught in the moratorium, which I understand is essentially caused by land deal considerations because the price of land has fallen in the downturn—something that does not affect my local college, however. Will the Secretary of State make it very clear that we will clear through all those pending applications with extreme urgency so that we are ready to take advantage of an upturn when it comes? (252545)

All hon. Members champion their local colleges, but I do not think that anybody has championed theirs as enthusiastically as my hon. Friend. Land is one of the issues that the LSC is looking at, because a number of both current and future schemes depend on land sales. Should that be affected by the downturn, we will need to see where we stand. It is important for the LSC to take a comprehensive approach to the programme rather than single out individual items. I am afraid that my hon. Friend will need to wait until we have worked through the current process with the LSC.

T2. The Federation of Master Builders has stated that some 50 per cent. of its companies will declare redundancies in the next three months. The Construction Products Association has likewise stated that the industry is shedding jobs at an unprecedented rate. Although the Government have announced that they will make more apprenticeships available and that they will bring forward major infrastructure projects, which I warmly welcome, what are they doing to prevent existing apprentices who are currently in post from losing their jobs? (252541)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It reinforces the point that I made earlier about why we are anxious to ensure that when possible, the public sector construction projects that are proceeding include a training agreement for the provision of apprenticeships and other workplace-based learning. Our college programme has already created about 500 apprenticeships through that approach.

In case people lose their jobs, we are working with the construction industry training board and have established a clearing house so that whenever possible, we can relocate apprentices in another job or enable them to continue their training in college. We are continuing to develop that process and will extend it to other areas of apprenticeships.

T7. On research funds, does my right hon. Friend recognise the outstanding work undertaken by the newer universities, particularly Northampton, both in levering in private sector funds to support their research funding and in undertaking research that is directly related to the local jobs situation? That research might be in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related subjects, but it is also in other subjects, particularly the creative industries and public service development. (252546)

I recognise the wide range of very useful and sometimes excellent research carried out in universities such as Northampton, which I believe the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will be visiting in the near future.

There has been pressure in the past for us to apply an arithmetical approach to distributing research funding, perhaps particularly to the newer universities. Actually, the research assessment exercise that was published recently showed that those universities can win four-star grades for international-quality research purely on the merits of their research, without taking an artificial approach to distributing funding. We have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to recognise that when it comes to distribute research funding in March.

T3. On apprenticeships, and given that nearly 50 per cent. of those being laid off are under 25, will the Government consider giving each area’s local authority, local college and local chamber of commerce regular information about what opportunities there are, so that it is available for everybody in an agreed place? Will they consider having in each local council area one private sector and one public sector champion of apprenticeships who, by their records, are well placed to take on that role? (252542)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The London apprenticeship taskforce, which met again this week, is discussing that very issue. Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, is co-ordinating that activity across London councils with the LSC, to ensure that we can increase the number of apprenticeships in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s. They will ensure that local authorities and the NHS can do more, along with the many companies in London that, notwithstanding the economic downturn, want to recruit young Londoners to ensure that they benefit from the apprenticeship scheme.

T9. Swindon needs a university now more than ever to help regeneration and recovery from recession, but if we are successful in our bid, will my right hon. Friend help us work with the university of the West of England to establish a university in the town centre instead of using the Coate Water site, which most people oppose? (252548)

My hon. Friend has been a considerable champion of Swindon’s case for a university. I have visited the town and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is going there.

It is not for Ministers in London to intervene in complex planning issues. However, I stress to my hon. Friend and all hon. Members who support new university developments that getting together an agreed local priority is critical to the process. I know that she will do everything she can with the local authority and others to bring people together and get a consensus about the way forward, because that is essential.

T5. An agreed local bid has been put forward for a new university in north Northamptonshire and I am pleased that it has made the shortlist of 27. It has huge potential for job creation and boosting the local economy. What weight will the Higher Education Funding Council give the redevelopment potential of new university applications? (252544)

As the hon. Gentleman knows from my meeting with him and my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who supports the same proposal, it is for the Higher Education Funding Council to determine the successful areas. We hope that it takes into account fundamentally the need locally for higher education but also, when possible, the ability to maximise economic development and regeneration and to bring in partners such as local businesses and the regional development agency. We suspect that those places will receive priority.

I listened to what the Secretary of State said about the capital funding programme for colleges. It affects my own college—so much so that demolition work has already started on it and the funding has been withdrawn. Although the Secretary of State says that there is a review of funding, that the funding is in place and that decisions have been deferred, representatives of Barnsley college went to a meeting with the Learning and Skills Council on 9 January, and they were told that the LSC was reviewing its priorities for all capital programmes, and that no assurance could be given that any individual project would be funded or, if funding was agreed, on when it might be released. It looks as though the LSC is saying one thing and the Secretary of State is saying another. Will he look again at the project? Barnsley college has been left in a difficult position.

I need to make it clear that no funding has been withdrawn from any college that has been given final approval to go ahead. [Interruption.] Yes, the final decision. Until a college has been told that it has approval to proceed, it does not have that approval. It is critical to emphasise that there is no question of our not spending all the money that we said we would spend on the FE capital programme. However, colleges in the pipeline that have not yet had approval in detail are affected, and the LSC is addressing that. As I said earlier, I understand the position of colleges that anticipated approval at a specific time and now must wait till March to see what the situation is. That is why I have said to the LSC that I want it to appoint Sir Andrew Foster to undertake an independent review of how the situation has been allowed to develop, but that must not cloud the fact that we will spend the money that we have been given and introduce the capital programme, as promised.

T8. Staff at Yorkshire Coast college in Scarborough have noticed an increase in recently unemployed people coming for training to get back into work as quickly as possible. However, some have had to be turned away because the available funding is for in-work training, such as Train to Gain. Is there a need to rebalance the budgets in the FE sector to take account of the change in the economy? (252547)

We are deliberately increasing the Train to Gain budget, but the greater part of our resources do not go through that scheme, but go through colleges’ adult responsive budget at level 2, level 3 and pre-level 2. We are introducing greater flexibility in those colleges to meet the needs of newly unemployed people and we have recently announced additional money from our resources and the European social fund to provide that flexibility. I therefore hope that we will make a significant move towards tackling the problem that the hon. Gentleman identified.