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Topical Questions

Volume 493: debated on Thursday 11 June 2009

Our Department brings together support for business and enterprise with innovation, skills and further and higher education policy to ensure that we foster competitiveness and spread opportunity. All that is important to Britain’s economic future.

Are the Government still committed to implementing the entire package of reforms proposed by Richard Hooper on regulation, pensions and ownership? Lord Mandelson recently said that that was vital to the Royal Mail. Is it still vital or has it been ditched to save the Prime Minister’s skin?

The reform of Royal Mail is important, and Richard Hooper recommended the three elements that the hon. Gentleman outlined. The Bill to carry forward those reforms has completed its stages in the other place and been introduced here. Its Second Reading is a decision for the business managers at the appropriate time. On whether all three elements are essential, they are very important, but, as the Secretary of State also said, we will continue to try to secure best value for the taxpayer, and the timetable for any transaction for Royal Mail may be a little longer than that for the legislation.

T3. This Government have given a clear commitment to continuing to support business and enterprise during the recession. What additional dividends does my right hon. Friend anticipate from the appointment of Sir Alan Sugar to the departmental team? (279026)

Sir Alan Sugar is one of Britain’s most well known and respected entrepreneurs. He will act as an adviser to Government—not as a Minister. We believe that it is important to draw on that sort of entrepreneurial talent precisely because of the economic challenges that the country faces. While we draw on the best talent available, others are indulging in parlour games about peers and personalities. We will continue to draw on whatever talent is necessary to do the best economic job for the country.

May I congratulate the Minister on his elevation to Cabinet status in Lord Mandelson’s amazing, ever-expanding empire, which now stretches from space to defence sales to universities and further education? No doubt Lord Mandelson has other territorial ambitions in mind.

On 11 May in the House of Lords, Lord Mandelson said:

“It would be irresponsible of the Government to allow delays to the suite of measures needed to reform Royal Mail and secure the future of the universal postal service… Any delay would merely serve to threaten the sustainability of the network.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. 848.]

The Minister knows that we expected Second Reading of the Bill two days ago, on Tuesday. He knows that it is the acid test of whether this lame-duck Government are any longer capable of delivering a difficult decision about any important subject. Why is the Bill being delayed if it is not because of the internal political dissension in the extraordinary Cabinet in which he now finds himself serving?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman must know that no date for a Second Reading was announced. The Government are committed—[Interruption.] The Government are committed to reform of the Royal Mail. The challenges that it faces in addressing the pension fund deficit, the need for investment and change, and the need to change the regulatory system are real. We remain committed to the legislation, which will be brought forward. What the Secretary of State also said about the transaction is that we have a duty to secure the best value of money for the taxpayer and to have an eye to the market conditions, but the legislation will be brought forward.

T6. I am very pleased that this year 55 per cent. more young people in Stockport are going to university than in 1997. The new university centre, in which Stockport college of further education has expressed an interest, will encourage even more young people to do higher degrees. However, Stockport college is still in negotiations with the Learning and Skills Council about its capital programme. When a final decision is made, may I urge the Minister to ensure that consideration is given to the college’s excellent record of achievement and that funding is released so that the college can complete its new town centre campus? (279029)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaigning and lobbying that she has done on behalf of her constituents. I know that she wrote to the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills earlier this month to reiterate her support for that programme. As I said earlier in questions, the Learning and Skills Council will be announcing decisions in the near future. One criterion in the new objective set of criteria that followed the report commissioned earlier this year is the ability of any investment to impact on learning.

I brought a legislative reform order on insolvency before the House just some weeks ago, and I recommend the debate to the hon. Gentleman very strongly.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the provision of learning for pleasure and its importance to communities, and to older people in particular? I thank her for recently leading a lively debate with some lively elderly people in my constituency, on Bar lane in Riddlesden. Learning for pleasure can mean all sorts of things, and can create cross-departmental savings and advantages. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to hark back to 1983, when I took a course at my local college—I was unemployed at the time—in teaching English as a second language. As a result, for four years I dedicated my Wednesday mornings to teaching young Pakistani women who had entered this country as wives. They were not allowed to go to the local college, but I was able to introduce them to English, which was a useful exercise for them and me.

I have very fond memories of the meeting that I had with those lively older people in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They were extremely keen to put their views on how important learning is for older people. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have studied the White Paper “The Learning Revolution”, which sets out an ambitious vision for community learning in the 21st century, with £30 million of spending added to it. She is quite right that there is often a social impact too. The experience that she described is one that I know is shared by many others. The White Paper will do a lot to encourage that kind of activity.

T5. The Minister responsible for further education will be aware that the College of West Anglia in my constituency is one of those colleges whose capital programme has been put on hold. It was to have a new campus which would have been the centrepiece and foundation stone of a major regeneration project in South Lynn. The delay will not only impact on the wider community but cause widespread anxiety among the staff, lecturers and students at the college. Will the Minister confirm that the changes and reorganisations in his Department will not impact in any way on the LSC’s decision? (279028)

I can absolutely confirm that the changes in the Department will not impact on that, because we have already set in place the necessary measures to resolve the issue of the pipeline projects—the capital projects for FE colleges—through the Foster review, which has set out the objective criteria that are to be followed. They include considerations of the impact on regeneration and on learning, and of whether a project is ready to go ahead. I should like to add that, in this year’s Budget, the Chancellor pledged an additional £300 million for that capital project in recognition of its importance during the economic downturn. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not have to wait much longer to hear the results of the LSC’s deliberations.

T8. May I press my hon. Friend on the case for the Mid-Cheshire college redevelopment? It is an absolutely fantastic £35 million redevelopment project for a college that provides an outstanding quality of education. However, the project is not quite shovel-ready, and the fact that delays to the shovel-ready projects have already been announced means that colleges further down the line will face even more delays. The college is desperate to know the time lines for the decision on its allocation so that it can plan for the future. It is also worried that the LSC’s recent announcements on the criteria used to determine funding do not mention quality. Surely the funding should follow quality, and outstanding colleges such as Mid-Cheshire college should benefit from that funding. (279031)

Funding will follow—or will lead—improved learning opportunities. That is part of the project. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done to promote that project in his constituency. The projects that are not quite ready to be dealt with at this stage will be dealt with later in the year if they are at the appropriate stage by then. In addition to the £300 million from the Budget, which I mentioned earlier, an additional £2.3 billion will be spent on these projects during this comprehensive spending review period. Furthermore, there has already been an indicative letter from the Treasury to the Learning and Skills Council about a further pledge of £300 million a year, so this is not something that will come to an end—provided, that is, that we have a Government who are committed to making that investment.

T10. The education maintenance allowance has been a huge success. However, one of its problems is that there is a sharp cut-off related to parental income. One of my constituents, a single parent, has a son at university and another in sixth-form college. Does the Minister accept that the sharp income-related cut-off takes no account of additional circumstances and can discourage many people from staying on in education? Will he look into that? (279033)

I do not think that I can agree with the hon. Gentleman that the scheme discourages young people from staying on. Quite the contrary: when I have visited colleges, I have spoken to young people who are very grateful for the EMA. It has been a success. However, I am willing to look into the particular circumstances that he mentions, although that has not been what I have heard as I have gone round the colleges and universities.

Notwithstanding the answer that the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills gave earlier, does not he recognise that the Postal Services Bill seems to have disappeared into the legislative ether, somewhere between the other place and Committee Room 14? Does not he accept that one part of that Bill is of particular importance for the future, whatever happens? That is the regulatory toolkit that is needed and that has been agreed on by those on both sides of the House. If he is not going to bring the Bill forward, will he at least agree to bring that measure forward?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that regulatory change in postal services is necessary, and the proposal in the Bill is to put at the heart of the new regulatory system the maintenance of the universal service—the six days a week, one-price-goes-anywhere service that is at the heart of our postal system. I remind the House that the conclusion drawn by Richard Hooper was that if we did not change and reform the Royal Mail, that service would be under threat. That is what has happened in some other countries, and it is certainly not what we want to see here in the United Kingdom.

May I refer once again to the LSC’s review of further education college building, particularly in respect of the Manchester college? In terms of excellence, capacity to learn and shovel-readiness, that college’s proposals are high on the priority list. Manchester college differs from other further education colleges in that further education is the most likely route in Manchester for the overwhelming majority of young people in post-school education, as they do not go in sufficient numbers into higher education. It thus matters far more that our FE system, which is already excellent, is improved. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that point on board.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point on behalf of his constituents and shows his intimate knowledge of the education system in his constituency. I can only repeat that the LSC is considering all the projects in the pipeline and will make its announcement shortly, based on the objective criteria that we have talked about. We should remember that this is not about whether we should make investment in further education, but about how we make it, which is in stark contrast to what would happen if the Conservative party were in power.