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Innovation, Universities and Skills

Volume 491: debated on Thursday 30 April 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Apprenticeships

The Government have rescued and expanded apprenticeships. Apprenticeship starts have more than trebled from 65,000 in 1996-97 to a record 225,000 in 2007-08. We are taking further action to promote apprenticeships during the downturn. This week, we announced an extra £7 million for up to 10 new apprenticeship training agencies to help small businesses take on apprentices. We have recently announced a further £140 million to provide 35,000 extra apprenticeship places this year. In January, we launched the online apprentices vacancy matching service to make recruitment of apprentices easier.

The disruption of Britain’s industrial base in the early years of the last Conservative Government denied many thousands of apprenticeship opportunities, particularly in engineering. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend ensure that as we come out of this economic downturn, we have an entirely different outcome, and emerge with more skilled young people, not fewer?

As a former apprentice himself, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. There is a sharp contrast between the Government’s investment in expanding apprenticeships, the industrial policy that we outlined last week to develop our real economic strength, including in advanced manufacturing industries—the industries of the future—and the do nothing approach of the Conservative party when it was in power in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

The Government have rightly focused on the pay gap between men and women. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of tackling that is to get more women into what are seen as non-traditional sectors for them such as science, engineering and technology? What can the programme of apprenticeships do to ensure that that happens?

One of the most important things that we can do is to ensure that in promoting apprenticeships in schools, young women are introduced to apprenticeships that are not the traditional ones for them to enter. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill introduces for the first time a statutory duty on schools to promote information about apprenticeships. As part of the guidance that follows that through, we will want to ensure that non-traditional apprenticeships are promoted to young women, and young men, in school.

Just two weeks ago, the university of Cumbria announced a 40 per cent. increase in recruitment to its farm apprenticeships course, and 50 per cent. of those new recruits were from non-farming backgrounds, which is incredibly positive. At the same time, I spent much of my Easter recess visiting more than 300 small businesses in my very rural constituency, and found that the overwhelming majority had not even considered taking on an apprentice and were not aware of the scheme. Will the Secretary of State agree to give additional support not just to small businesses but to those in the tourism sector in rural areas, so that they can take advantage of the apprenticeships scheme?

May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the announcement made, I think, at the end of last week, or the beginning of this week, by my noble Friend Lord Young, about funding for group training associations to promote apprenticeships? One of the key ways of getting apprentices in smaller businesses is to ensure that a central agency run by groups of employers provides the administration and support for the apprenticeship scheme. He might like to look at his local economy and consider whether it might be appropriate for him to encourage such an application, because that is part of the practical solution to the issue that he has raised.

Will my right hon. Friend’s Department link into the fund announced in the Budget that will enable local authorities and voluntary bodies to offer employment to young unemployed people? If people get the opportunity of the six months’ employment under that scheme, that could lead to a formal apprenticeship afterwards. That is a path out of unemployment and into a better future for young people.

My Department will be involved in the jobs fund in two ways. We will receive additional funding—well over £100 million—to offer more than 80,000 additional training places to young people who have been out of work for 12 months, to ensure that they gain new skills. We will also want to work with employers who create new opportunities to ensure that young people doing those jobs can get the skills to sustain their future employment.

In a parliamentary answer on 20 April, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), assured me that funding will allow every person who has started an apprenticeship to complete it. So why are providers approaching us to warn that funding cuts for next year are so severe that they cannot be confident even of being able to maintain their current apprenticeships, let alone meet the Government’s ambitious targets for more apprenticeships? Will the Secretary of State consider our proposal for a nationwide clearing house for all apprentices who are now in danger of losing their apprenticeships before they are completed?

Two issues are involved. On the funding for apprenticeship training, it should not be the case that training providers are unable to pay for or receive funds for the completion of current apprenticeships. On the second issue of those who lose their jobs because their employers are unable to keep them in work as a result of the downturn, we already have a clearing house in construction apprenticeships, which is obviously one of the most pressured areas, and that has managed to place more than 600 apprentices; we have changed the rules so that an apprentice can continue training for up to six months at college even if they do not have an employer, so that their training is not interrupted; we have reached agreement with the Department for Work and Pensions that—this is unusual—apprentices will automatically be able to continue for up to 13 weeks seeking work solely in the line of occupation of their apprenticeship; and we are discussing with the DWP the best way of ensuring that apprentices whose technical training might be interrupted are able to do intensive work in college to complete their training. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything that I think is feasibly possible to ensure that we continue to support apprentices who might lose their jobs while they are training.

I heard what the Secretary of State said, but I have to tell him that there are training providers who, having seen the provisional proposals for their funding in 2009-10, are not sure that they will have the funding to continue providing the training for apprentices whom they have already recruited. We will be holding him to account for the assurance that he and the Under-Secretary have given. I warn the Secretary of State in respect of any thought he may have had that further education capital spending was under control. He has a plan for 50 per cent. of students to go to university next year, yet he has cut his plans for university student numbers so that it is absolutely impossible for that figure to be reached. Given the current funding pressures, will he consider suspending the reorganisation of all the quangos, which has been estimated to cost £140 million, and devoting that money instead to ensuring that apprentices and students are supported during this Labour recession?

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that on 5 January his party announced that it would be cutting my Department’s budget by £610 million in this financial year, and he has yet to reply to my letter of 15 January to explain where those cuts would fall, so he is not in a position to talk about this Department’s spending.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to follow up with me the points that he has made about training providers. I understand that although it is, of course, necessary to ensure that budgets are adhered to within the Learning and Skills Council on apprenticeships—he will entirely understand that—there should be no question of someone having the funding for an apprenticeship that they have already started withdrawn. I am perfectly happy to follow that issue up.

2. What measures are in place to ensure that contracts let by his Department facilitate the creation of apprenticeship places. (271877)

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is committed to maximising skills training and apprenticeship opportunities through its procurement programme. In Building Colleges for the Future, we have introduced a firm requirement that contractors working on college construction projects provide a formal training plan and maximise apprenticeship opportunities. We estimate that about 500 apprentices are currently being supported on further education college capital projects—that is equivalent to one in every 20 workers employed. We will ensure that this requirement is extended to cover all future FE college capital projects. We are also encouraging research councils and higher education institutions to seize opportunities to provide skills and apprenticeship opportunities through their contracting processes.

I thank the Minister for that very positive response. Good employers have nothing to fear from investing in apprenticeships for the future, but can he assure the House that those requirements will also be placed on subcontractors involved in this work? More importantly, will he ensure that any company that is found to be engaging in blacklisting people will be excluded from these contracts?

Blacklisting is an abhorrent practice. We thought that it had been stamped out in this country under Labour, but if reports of its re-emergence turn out to be true, I know that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will take it very seriously and examine it urgently. I can tell my hon. Friend that apprenticeship procurement runs throughout the supply chain and that the guidance from the Office of Government Commerce given only earlier this month sets out how Departments can find their way through the significant legal and technical complexities to ensure that they can agree contracts that provide high quality training as a fundamental requirement.

An academically talented young constituent of mine, who is dyslexic, obtained nine A-C grades at GCSE, but failed to obtain English, and was therefore debarred from taking up a level 3 apprenticeship. Will the Minister have a discussion with me to see whether we can encourage the sector skills councils to pay special attention to the creation of apprenticeship places for those who have learning difficulties?

I assume that my hon. Friend refers to the same young constituent about whom we have corresponded, in which case I recall that he is now studying his level 3 apprenticeship and progressing well. However, I know that that does not eradicate the problem and, as my hon. Friend knows, we must strike the balance between accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities and difficulties on the one hand and maintaining the rigour of the qualification on the other. I met the chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People earlier this week to talk about these issues as they might affect the specification of apprenticeship standards for England, which sets out the overarching definition of the apprenticeship framework. I would be glad to meet my hon. Friend to talk about such issues in greater depth.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker—almost overlooked. [Hon. Members: “Never!”] I welcome the wide extension of apprenticeship schemes into many trades in recent years. What can my hon. Friend tell the House about the demand for places on science, engineering and technology-based apprenticeship schemes and what more can be done to encourage young people into such trades so that we are properly prepared for whatever upturn comes at the end of this recession?

My hon. Friend is very unlikely to be overlooked, not only because of his physical size but the magnitude of his personality and authority. He has hit the nail on the head when he talks about demand for advanced and engineering apprenticeships. The provision of such courses is led by demand. Apprenticeships are jobs, and need to be required by the employer. I am glad to confirm that the number of advanced apprenticeships continues to rise and, contrary to what we often hear from the Opposition, continues to rise as a proportion of the total number of apprenticeships.

South Thames College

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Learning and Skills Council on the funding of phase 2 of the South Thames college redevelopment. (271878)

My Department has regular discussions with the LSC on the funding for capital projects and I am aware of the position regarding South Thames college following recent discussions with my hon. Friend and the college principal.

Budget 2009 announced that an additional £300 million of capital funding will be made available in the current spending review period to support a limited number of the most urgent projects. Selection of these projects must be based on objective criteria that the LSC is developing in consultation with the sector.

The Minister has been most helpful, meeting the college principal and me, as has the Chancellor in providing the extra funds. However, the Minister will know that the cranes and contractors are on site, so can he give any better indication of when the LSC is likely to reach a decision?

I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact date, but we expect the process that the LSC is leading, to make rapid decisions on the most urgent and high priority projects, to be completed in the near future and the colleges to be given the final go-ahead early this summer.

The Minister’s last answer gives me cause for hope that the predicament of Havering sixth form college might be resolved. That college has already spent £6 million on its capital project and the enabling works have included the demolition of a sports facility and three classrooms. These enabling works will have to be reversed if the money is not forthcoming. Will the Minister commit to the future of Havering sixth form college’s capital project now, so that it has some confidence that it will make the improvements as intended?

I can tell the hon. Lady that I am truly sympathetic to her predicament and that of her college. Many college principals all over the country have undertaken development and preparatory works and have borrowed and spent money on the assumption that they would be able to deliver capital projects that they now find themselves unable to deliver according to the time scales that they first thought. She knows that I will not be able to make commitments about her college now. Indeed, it is not for me to make commitments about the proposals for any college in detail. These decisions have to be made by the Learning and Skills Council through a transparent and open process, particularly in the current difficult climate. We are confident that we will get decisions on the urgent and high priority cases very quickly and on the other cases that do not make it into that category soon thereafter. Colleges that find themselves in difficulties with costs will be supported.

Further Education Colleges

4. How much capital expenditure on further education colleges is planned in (a) East Devon constituency and (b) England in 2009-10. (271879)

While East Devon college has received capital support in the past, there are currently no capital projects under way at either East Devon college or Bicton college. Therefore, there is currently no planned expenditure on approved capital projects in the East Devon constituency in 2009-10.

Budget 2009 announced additional capital funds of more than £300 million for this spending review period—2009-10 and 2010-11—and the total further education capital budget for 2009-10 is £827.6 million. That budget will cover expenditure on projects which have already been approved as well as on new projects.

I was hoping to get the Secretary of State rather than the twitterer. The Secretary of State, who is a good east Devon boy, will have heard, if not from the excellent chairman of Uplyme parish council, about the continuing discrimination against schooling and funding for schools in east Devon.

The Minister’s reply was very telling inasmuch as he said that there were no plans for capital expenditure in east Devon, which just goes to underline what I have just said. However, he will possibly be aware of plans to secure the Rolle college campus site in Exmouth following the vacation by the university of Plymouth. We are making strident moves to achieve that. Will he instruct the Learning and Skills Council—or have a discussion with it on this subject—to prioritise that plan, should we be successful?

I am happy to speak to the Learning and Skills Council about the hon. Gentleman’s project. I certainly was not saying that there would never be any capital expenditure in east Devon, but simply that, as I understand it, there are no plans for FE college capital expenditure at the moment.

The news of the £3 million capital will be most welcome for Hereward college in Coventry. I am sure that the Secretary of State knows that that college is also a national college for people with learning difficulties and various disabilities. That situation contrasts with the years when the Opposition were in Government, when they never properly funded capital programmes for colleges.

As ever, my hon. Friend speaks wisely and convincingly on behalf of his constituents. He makes the unerring and fundamental point that the college capital building programme budget under the Conservatives in their last year in government was precisely nil, whereas we have invested £2.3 million in the current period and are committed to investing as we go forward.

The Government and the LSC have said that the programme will go ahead on the basis of those schemes that deliver the biggest return on capital in terms of the enhancement of skills. Will he ensure that the criteria are drawn so that colleges with well-developed programmes that serve predominantly rural areas, which tend to be heavily dependent on a handful of relatively low-paying industries, compete on a level playing field? The move of Craven college from 11 sites to a new site is part of the regeneration programme for Craven as a whole. The upgrading of skills is desperately needed and the college has an extremely good track record in delivering that.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The importance of skills in the rural areas is absolutely understood, as are the different requirements and conditions there. I have been made aware of that in the meetings that I have had on this matter, and partly through meeting hon. Members from rural constituencies who, like the right hon. Gentleman, have raised the issue. It is something about which I am talking to the LSC, as it and the Association of Colleges put together their open and transparent process to prioritise which colleges get the go-ahead.

I fully understand the need to speed up those projects and colleges to which a financial commitment has been made, but Loughborough is well down the track in terms of planning and development. Will my hon. Friend ensure that colleges such as Loughborough are not precluded from the process? More importantly—and this ties in with the industrial strategy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned earlier—will he ensure that the smaller capital projects that would probably involve colleges such as Loughborough do not get lost in the morass of existing problems and difficulties? Loughborough has a close proximity to the university and is developing many advanced manufacturing technologies. Many good but smaller projects can have a significant impact and they should not be lost in the big picture.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point on behalf of his college in Loughborough, as one would expect. No college is precluded from the process: the LSC, in partnership with the Association of Colleges, is prioritising the most urgent and highest priority cases, but all colleges will be part of the process. The LSC is considering its decisions on this matter, and its criteria will include value for money, education and skills and the impact of investment, but I would have thought that it is also bound to take into account the potential benefit of being able to fund relatively small projects. Being small will certainly not be a bar to being considered in the future.

The West Herts college is a fantastic facility that looks after students in Watford and Hemel Hempstead. The capital programme that has been going on for some time has finished in Watford, but now the LSC has said that the final part of the project—the part for Hemel Hempstead—is to be regarded as a new project. The LSC has moved the goalposts halfway through the capital project, so will the Minister meet me and the college’s principal, Elizabeth Rushton, to explain exactly how it was able to do that? Coming halfway through the programme, the change will have a devastating effect on the town centre redevelopment that the college is part of.

The hon. Gentleman puts the case for his college very well. He would not expect me to comment on the individual case, but I would be more than happy to meet him and his college principal. I have met more than 40 hon. Members and their college—

The hon. Gentleman can be the 41st. There are more than a dozen in the diary, and I should be very glad to add him to the list and to see his college principal.

The £300 million announced in the Budget is not nearly enough to fund the approvals in detail or the approvals in principle that are already with the LSC. Clearly, that means that a rationing exercise will have to take place, and that an awful lot of college schemes simply will not proceed. We need some certainty for colleges and students, and for the building contractors and architects whose jobs are at stake. When will the Minister or the LSC be able to tell the colleges that the plans that they have already worked up and spent resources on will not be able to proceed any further?

Nobody is claiming or pretending that the £300 million of new cash that we got in the Budget to spend on building new projects this year is enough to solve a problem that clearly will not go away overnight. The process will remain difficult and will continue to take some time, but we will be able to bring certainty to urgent and high-priority cases within a few weeks. Colleges that are not able to move at that speed know that we have £750 million available to spend on new college building programmes, going forward. Over the course of the next period we will be able to prioritise, so that, relatively soon, colleges can begin to have a sense of where they stand, and of roughly when they can begin to build.

It is quite clear that our colleges were driven by the Government to spend a fortune on new building plans. Owing to economic mismanagement, the Government now say that they do not have the cash to deliver on their side of the bargain. As a result, hard-pressed colleges up and down the country have lost huge sums of their own money. I recently visited a victim of the crisis, Matthew Boulton college in Birmingham, Erdington, and it stands to lose tens of millions of pounds. So, Mr. Speaker, I would like to offer the Minister, who is the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, the opportunity to come to the Dispatch Box now and apologise to the students, his college and his constituents. The offer is an open offer. Will he take the opportunity?

I hate to point out to the hon. Gentleman that he does not know what he is talking about, but Matthew Boulton college is not in Birmingham, Erdington. Everything else that he said was wrong, too. We will be spending £827 million on college building projects this year, £300 million of which is new money. The LSC mismanaged this project, but it is being resolved and we are bringing clarity and certainty to colleges, which is much needed and in good order.

Learning and Skills Council

5. What recent representations he has received on the review of the Learning and Skills Council's capital funding programme; and if he will make a statement. (271880)

As the House would imagine, I have received many representations about the LSC capital programme, and I have endeavoured to keep the House informed about it. I am grateful to Sir Andrew Foster for setting out clearly how, despite record investment in FE capital programmes, the LSC capital programme came to be over-committed.

In the Budget, we announced an additional £300 million of capital funding for the current spending review. This will enable a limited number of projects to start soon. The LSC is now working with the Association of Colleges, the wider FE sector and my Department to agree the criteria for prioritising the projects that are the most urgent and of the greatest need.

Does the Minister agree that the decision on which colleges should be given the go-ahead should be based on need and not on who jumped the gun like in some wild west land grab? If so, does he agree that youth unemployment should be a major factor in assessing need? South Tyneside has more than 2,000 young people unemployed, so should it not be top priority?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is vital that the prioritisation reflects real need, value for money and the impact of the investment that is proposed in a college. My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for South Tyneside college, and I commend him for it. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has said, we cannot and should not prejudge the decisions that the LSC will take, but they must be taken according to criteria that are seen to be fair, transparent and right.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his letter and to the Minister for agreeing to meet me next week along with the principal of National Star college. We hope to establish that the college is one of the most deserving cases as it works entirely with young people with extreme physical disabilities and is half way through the capital transformation of its campus. If the additional funding that is being provided is taken from subsequent years’ budgets, will we not be solving some of the problem this year, but creating further problems in future years?

The Budget settlement has two elements that are important in bringing certainty and clarity, or as much certainty and clarity as we can, to the current situation. The first is that we have an additional £300 million to spend in this comprehensive spending review, so far as possible front-loaded towards the coming months rather than the latter end of the CSR. The second is the ability to plan into the next CSR at an indicative target of at least £300 million, which gives us the ability to look not just at the work that can be carried out in the next two years, but at how the programme beyond that can develop. By doing that, we hope that we can bring the greatest certainty and clarity to as many schemes as possible, not just in the next couple of years but in the years beyond that.

Where the LSC has agreed to a merger between two colleges, as has happened with Sparsholt college and the former Cricklade college in my constituency, and part of the deal was agreement to substantial capital investment on both campuses to deliver the benefits of the merger, can the Secretary of State confirm that those circumstances will have a high priority in deciding which schemes will go ahead?

I do not think that I should go further than what I said in my answer about the need for the criteria set out by the LSC to be fair and transparent and to produce the right educational priorities. Every right hon. and hon. Member can clearly argue for the priority that would most fit their case, but my comment is that we should have, so far as possible, a set of criteria that people would think fair. As Sir Andrew Foster set out, we are in a position where expectations were raised in a much larger number of colleges than could be met, albeit with the record expenditure of £2.3 billion that we have. [Interruption.] That is set out in Sir Andrew Foster’s report.

This is clearly a failure of the implementation of a good policy, and it is clearly something for which the former chief executive of LSC took responsibility. The report also sets out clearly Ministers’ role—or, indeed, lack of role—and the lack of information to Ministers as that situation developed. I now have to try to manage the situation in a way that is as fair as possible to the largest number of colleges. That is the commitment that I can make, but I remind the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who intervened from a sedentary position, that his colleague, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), went to the Association of Colleges conference last year and said that no one could rely on a Conservative Government even to maintain the then planned expenditure for 2010-11. So there is a huge question mark over the Conservative party’s commitment to FE capital, as there was in the past.

The Foster report on the Government’s mismanagement of the Building Colleges for the Future programme states that the crisis is both predictable and probably avoidable. Colleges across the country are suffering at present, and many plans have had to be suspended. Concerns about the project were raised as long ago as February 2008. The Secretary of State’s Department was represented at subsequent meetings where those concerns were repeated. As his officials knew of an impending crisis, why did he not do something about it sooner? Is he not ashamed of the shambles surrounding the programme?

The Foster report sets out very clearly where responsibility lies, and as the hon. Gentleman says, it sets out missed opportunities in the LSC to bring the issue to a head and to resolve it. We have accepted the conclusions and recommendations of the Foster report. It is a matter of fact and of record, which was accepted by Sir Andrew, that Ministers were not informed of the scale, nature and, indeed, existence of the problem until the last two months of last year, by which time all the decisions that had contributed to the current problem had been already taken. One of Sir Andrew’s recommendations was that my Department should look at the relationship and accountabilities between my civil servants and the non-departmental public bodies for which we are responsible. In part of my response to Sir Andrew Foster’s report, I asked the permanent secretary of my Department to review all our relationships with our non-departmental public bodies, so that there is no ambiguity or uncertainty about the responsibilities and accountability of officials who have relationships with those bodies. I think that that was the right response for me to make to Sir Andrew’s report.

Adult and Community Learning

6. What arrangements his Department has made for adult and community learning provision in 2009-10; and if he will make a statement. (271881)

We will invest £210 million in adult community learning in England in 2009-10. We also recently published “The Learning Revolution” White Paper, setting out our ambitious vision for informal learning in the 21st century, with an additional £30 million funding for such learning this year.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but is this not just a cover for the £1.5 million-worth of cuts that the Government brought in for these services in 2005?

I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman repeat that, because he will know that what his constituents need, particularly at this time, is investment in skills, particularly through Train to Gain, in the workplace. That is precisely what we have done and what we are continuing to do. He should separate that from the learning revolution strategy and, quite rightly, the new investment that we are now making in learning for learning’s sake and in all the fantastic activity that is going on in constituencies such as his in supporting book clubs and work funded by other Departments. That is what we are doing, and it is the right thing to do.

Adult education in Wolverhampton is run by the city council, which is controlled by the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats in a rotten coalition. I urge my right hon. Friend to take no lessons from the Conservative party—the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) referred to cuts of £1.5 million—because in Wolverhampton alone, the Tory coalition has cut £640,000 from adult education. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that as disgraceful?

It is a disgrace; my hon. Friend is right. It is also a disgrace that the official Opposition indicate that they will make cuts of £610 million, but give no sign of where the axe would fall.

Will the Minister pay attention and look at the college of West Anglia, which has a fantastic reputation for adult and community learning provision? Is he aware that it was granted in principle funding for two new sites, with capital expenditure of £150 million, but that that has been put on hold? The college has spent all its reserves and made major commitments. Is he aware that the project was to have been part of a major regeneration programme in south King’s Lynn and an aspect of a key skills agenda in an area where unemployment is going up?

The hon. Gentleman puts his case, as have many hon. Members. I refer him to what has been said.

Further Education

7. How many publicly funded further education courses there were in (a) Billericay constituency and (b) England in (i) 2005 and (ii) 2008. (271882)

In 2005-06, 3.85 million adult learners resident in England participated in LSC-funded skills courses. In 2007-08, that total was 3.28 million. The corresponding figures for the Billericay constituency were 5,960 in 2005-06, and 5,060 in 2007-08.

Given that answer, may I raise the issue of bureaucracy? According to the Association of Colleges, the funding system for FE colleges is too slow and too many rules restrict the flow of money between funding pots. Given the fall in FE enrolments that the Minister outlined, not would it be wise for the Government to cut bureaucracy and red tape instead of increasing it by creating new quangos?

I ask the hon. Gentleman to follow closely the passage of the Bill before Parliament that brings into being, with precisely that aim, the Skills Funding Agency. One of the first things that I was able to do as skills Minister was to ensure that we made more moves to deal with any bureaucracy attached to Train to Gain. We are making progress and we will continue to do so.

We heard from the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), that potential apprentices are being turned away and from my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) that the capital funding crisis could have been avoided. While the ship is on the rocks, the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) said, intend to reorganise the crew. The changes to the Learning and Skills Council will cost £42 million in vacating properties and a further £190 million in transferring pensions. In confirming those figures, will the Minister recognise that it is time that his lot jumped overboard and gave way to a new team who can steer us to calmer waters?

I always look forward to facing the hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box. As always, we do not recognise his figures. We have just had a lengthy Budget debate in which we set out the efficiency savings that we intend to make, and I am surprised that he was not paying attention.

Building Colleges for the Future Programme

9. What recent progress has been made in implementing the Government's Building Colleges for the Future programme; and if he will make a statement. (271885)

In 2008-09, the Learning and Skills Council FE capital budget of £547 million helped to support the development of 253 projects. The LSC has supported more than 700 projects at nearly 330 colleges, with only 42 colleges not benefiting from any capital support. More than half the college estate has been modernised, and we remain committed to the FE capital investment programme. The 2009 Budget announced that an additional £300 million of capital funding will be made available in the current spending review period. Also, for planning purposes, we are working on the basis of a provisional programme budget of £300 million a year in the next spending review, with the final level of investment to be confirmed during that review.

The £300 million is about one twentieth of the amount required to meet the expectations of those colleges that have—[Interruption.] I tell the Secretary of State that I would not, but the key question for him is: who was asleep at the wheel when this debacle unfolded? How much of that £300 million will filter down to Brockenhurst college?

As I said to the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), nobody is pretending that with the new money that we have got in the Budget, we will solve the problem in its entirety. We will give some colleges—the most urgent and high-priority cases—immediate go-ahead to start building this summer, and in the near future we will give the rest of the colleges in the pipeline a great deal more clarity and certainty about who can start building what, when.

The Minister spoke of meetings that he has had with representatives from a number of colleges to discuss the impact of the funding crisis on them. Cornwall college and I are very disappointed that our meeting, scheduled for Monday, has been pushed back to June. Given that the project in question will have an important impact on the wider regeneration of the area, and given that we are expecting a decision by the time of the spending review in the summer, will the Minister do all that he can to bring that meeting forward, so that the college can make representations before any decision is taken?

I sympathise with the hon. Lady. I have had more than 40 meetings with hon. Members and dozens of principals, and there are dozens more such meetings in the diary, because the issue is so important, and because I recognise how difficult the situation is for college principals and how that can put hon. Members in a difficult position. I genuinely want to help people talk through the issues, and give what reassurance we can. Inevitably when trying to hold that number of meetings in a relatively short time, as the queue stacks up, people get jumped about.

I can tell the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), in response to his comments earlier in the week, that his meeting was not cancelled—it was rescheduled. He was given another date a week in advance. While he was making statements that were factually quite wrong, I was meeting a delegation from the Iraqi Prime Minister’s education advisers. As the hon. Lady asks so nicely, I will certainly do my best to see whether we can reprioritise her meeting, because she is looking after her constituents, rather than playing cheap party politics with people’s colleges.

Topical Questions

Even in difficult times, a degree is one of the best routes to achieving a good job and a rewarding career, but recognising the current global economic climate, the Government are taking action to help ensure that graduates are able to sustain and improve their employability. Yesterday I announced the creation of the graduate talent pool, a new service matching employers with graduates, which is to be launched in the summer. Businesses such as Microsoft, Marks & Spencer and Network Rail have already signed up. We believe that the pool will support about 5,000 internships, building on the 2,000 already achieved through the Higher Education Funding Council’s economic challenge innovation fund. Graduates who have already been claiming jobseeker’s allowance for six months or more will be able to do an internship for up to 13 weeks while claiming benefit and looking for work. We anticipate that universities are likely to offer about 14,000 additional postgraduate places, supported by 30,000 professional and career development loans in the coming year.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the considerable success, by any measure, of the higher education sector in recent times has been in no small part due to its academic autonomy, and that any state interference in that area could seriously damage the very high standards of our higher education, which is the envy of the world?

I am happy to repeat a statement that I have made before at this Dispatch Box: one of the reasons why our universities are so good is that I do not run them, and I do not aspire to run them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the autonomy of university leadership is important. What the Government need to do is set the framework within which universities operate. Most important, from our point of view, has been the massive increase in real funding of the higher education sector, both for teaching and research, over the past 10 years. I am afraid that that is in sharp contrast to the period when his party was last in power, when funding per student fell by 30 per cent. in a very short period. [Interruption.]

T2. In view of the raised voices, I am not sure that I want to take part in questions. None the less, the Government have made major progress in delivering apprenticeships and building them up to their rightful place as a mainstream option for young people. Of course, that work needs to be backed up by the right for suitably qualified young people to access apprenticeships. Regrettably, we in Scotland experienced funding difficulties, but will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating those MSPs who secured extra funding for almost 8,000 places, giving Scottish youngsters the same right to a place, after the funding had initially been cut back by the Scottish National party Administration? (271902)

I very much agree. We have had quite a lot of occasion over the past year or so to draw a sharp contrast between the Government at Westminster, and our determination to invest in apprenticeships, to build up opportunities and, indeed, to legislate for a right to an apprenticeship for a suitably qualified young person, and the situation in Scotland. I congratulate John Park MSP, in particular, and his Labour colleagues in Scotland on forcing the nationalists to concede that extra money had to be invested in apprenticeships for the sake of giving Scottish young people the same opportunities as English young people. I congratulate everybody who was involved in that campaign.

T3. Given the need to invest in upskilling and reskilling so that we are ready for the economic upturn, will the Secretary of State end the funding uncertainties at my local college, Carshalton college of further education, and other FE colleges throughout the country? Recently, the Learning and Skills Council exhorted colleges to invest in programmes to deliver more workplace-based training, but having initially said that there would be demand-led funding, the LSC now says that funding is to be capped and cut back. In those circumstances, will the Secretary of State consider more flexibility for college principals in how they use the budgets and resources that are available to them? Will he stop the LSC increasing course fees? Will he find time in his busy diary to meet me and Carshalton college principal, David Watkins, to discuss those matters? (271903)

There were a number of questions within that question, but perhaps I can deal with the central one. We have been developing, and are proud to have developed, a demand-led training system, but the hon. Gentleman will entirely understand that no Government budget is entirely unlimited. It is quite reasonable for the LSC to take action to ensure that, on the growth of adult apprenticeships in particular, the budgets that we have set, and the budgets that are available, are the budgets that are spent. The LSC was right to take action as early as possible to indicate to training providers the budget that will be available over the coming 12 months.

In so far as meeting the hon. Gentleman and the college is concerned, I am always happy to do so, wherever possible. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has quite a lot of college meetings in the diary, perhaps I will be able to meet the hon. Gentleman.

T4. The National Union of Students’ report, “Meet the Parents: The Experience of Students with Children in Further and Higher Education”, is being launched in the Terrace Pavilion at lunchtime. The report shows that students with children need more flexibility and support from institutions and support providers to access education and improve their prospects, but that no one knows how many higher education students have children. Will the Minister assure me that such statistics will be collected and collated nationally so that we have those figures? (271904)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that important work by the National Union of Students, and I look forward to attending the reception in a few hours’ time. Although I know that there are complications with the questions that we ask of students at the application stage, the matter is important. We want a system that is flexible and supports part-time studies, in particular, and the Department is looking closely at those issues in relation to the higher education framework that we will publish in the summer.

T5. As this deep recession is particularly difficult for young people wondering about their future, I am sure that the Secretary of State must be concerned that the number of young people who will not get a place at university this year is higher than normal, particularly as this was supposed to be the year when 50 per cent. of all young people would go on to higher education. Does he have a proper answer to that? (271905)

More people will start undergraduate full-time education this September than ever before. The number of new university places that are available has increased by 40,000 in just two years. That reflects this Government’s commitment to expanding higher education. We want to make the largest possible number of opportunities available to young people, whatever their aspirations. We have expanded higher education, we are funding more places this September, we are investing hugely in ensuring that young people who are long-term unemployed are guaranteed training or a job, and we are investing extra money in apprenticeships. I do not wish to be partisan about this—

T6. Niche engineering and light manufacturing play a significant part in the local economy of Erewash, and will offer future employment for young people with the appropriate skills. In the past four years, the number of apprenticeships completed has risen from 190 to 310, and that trend will continue with the investment that has been announced. However, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made a reasonable point about the importance of highlighting how employers and employers’ representatives can access the funding and support for these apprenticeships following that announcement. (271906)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The reason the Department has been running, with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the advertising campaign fronted by Sir Alan Sugar is to raise awareness of the opportunities of apprenticeships with small employers up and down the country. The regional forums that we have had with Sir Alan have been very effective at raising awareness and interest. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the recent announcement of the possibility of new funding for group trading associations, which, as we have found around the country, are often the best way of reaching the small employer who might assume that it is too difficult or time-consuming to have an apprenticeship. A group trading association can reassure people and make apprentices available to a wider range of employers.

T7. Is the Minister aware that Chelmsford college wishes to rebuild on a new site to get away from the problem of antiquated and not-fit-for-purpose buildings, but as a result of constant changes and uncertainty it has recently incurred expenses in excess of £500,000 to cope with that? Does he agree with its principal, David Law, that it would be sensible to have a 10-year rolling programme for colleges so that they know where they stand and have the certainty of knowing when their time in the procedures will come, thereby taking away all the uncertainty, problems and excess expenditure? (271907)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will have heard me say that we now have, at least to a modest level, an ability to plan into the next spending review in a way that has not previously been possible. That does not give us a 10-year programme, but it does at least give us a five-year programme, which we have never had previously. That will help to bring as much certainty and clarity as possible to as many colleges as possible.

The Government have brought forward substantial sums of money in order to stimulate growth in the economy. If my right hon. Friend has not already done so, can I urge him to contact the construction industry and other Departments that are involved in such projects to ensure that we maximise the opportunities for training for young people and others who want to learn new skills so that they can benefit in future from that stimulation of the economy?

In our discussions with the construction industry training board, it has urged us to do what we have now done, which is to produce Office of Government Commerce guidance about how public sector construction contracts can include a requirement to train young people as apprentices in construction. It is already the case that in the substantial capital programme in my Department, we are expecting apprentices to be provided as part of contracts. The Building Schools for the Future programme has now introduced a similar requirement. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should maximise the impact of public procurement by ensuring that construction contracts include the requirement to provide apprenticeships whenever possible.

T10. A London School of Economics report out this year shows that for older men, the chance of finding work after being laid off declines by a quarter for each year that they are out of the labour market. Can Ministers tell us what plans they have for targeted support for older men and women workers to deal with unemployment among that category in the recession? (271910)

That is a very important point. In addition to the investment that we announced in the Budget, which is focused on guaranteeing young people work or training, my Department has already secured funding for more than 100,000 additional training courses for those just losing their jobs or who have been out of work for six months, to ensure that people can gain new skills. In the last recession, the people about whom the hon. Gentleman talks were written off. Nothing was done about them, and they were shovelled on to incapacity benefit and forgotten about. We are determined to ensure that that does not happen this time.

May I ask the Secretary of State, with regards to the further education capital programme, to look at Shipley college, which has been finalising its in principle application? The uniqueness and urgency of that case relates to the fact that the college leases the buildings in which it operates, and the leases are due for renewal. It therefore needs to know where it stands with regard to the capital programme. I know that the Under-Secretary has been very generous in this regard. Will he consider meeting me and the college principal of Shipley college, so that he understands the urgency of the situation there?

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made clear, he has already made substantial provision in his diary to meet colleges, so I am sure that he can add another one to the list. It is important to do so. We are working as hard as we can, with the additional investment that we have from the Budget, to bring as much certainty and clarity to colleges as we possibly can. That is what the LSC has been charged with doing, and it will be the LSC rather than Ministers that ultimately decides the priority programme.

I make the point that 10 years ago there was no FE capital budget. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) told the Association of Colleges that it could not rely on the Conservatives even to commit to the current level of spending on capital. Although the current situation is very difficult, let us not forget that more than 330 colleges have already benefited from capital investment under this Government, and the programme already included 253 active projects. Just yesterday I was able to go to Northampton college with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and cut the first sod on the £80 million project that is taking place there. A great deal of very valuable investment is taking place in the FE estate thanks to this Government.

T9. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Yorkshire and the Humber, we are currently trying to establish the world’s biggest carbon capture and storage project, which will hopefully be up and running in Yorkshire by 2013-14? On that note, may I tell him that all the Yorkshire universities are currently working together to provide as much research and assistance as possible to that well-designed project? Will he join me in congratulating all the Yorkshire universities on working together on this magnificent project? (271909)

I am not only happy to do so, but I add that I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the renewed commitment to carbon capture and storage announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change just after the Budget. From my point of view, we will be very keen to work with his Department to ensure that, with the universities, we develop the research, technology and skills that are necessary to make Britain a world leader in that technology.