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Education, Training and Skills

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010

I beg to move,

That this House notes with concern the increase in the number of young people not in employment, education or training and the fall in the number of apprenticeship starts; further notes that there will be a shortage of university places in 2010 and that the continuing problems with the Student Loans Company will impact on those students beginning their studies this year; calls on the Government to clarify its position on university places after the annual Higher Education Funding Council for England grant letter and on imposing fines on those higher education institutions that take on more students to meet the 50 per cent. participation target; further calls on the Government to consider proposals for the rapid expansion of apprenticeships and to free further education colleges from stifling bureaucracy so they may meet the needs of young people; and urges the Government to offer 10,000 additional university places in order to build aspiration, opportunity and a competitive economy.

The basis for the motion is very simple: sadly, it is a widely recognised fact that young people in our country are the first and worst victims of this recession. The shocking figures are all too familiar. The number of young people not in education, employment or training is now more than 1 million—it is 1,082,000. The rate of youth unemployment in Britain, with 950,000 young people unemployed, is one of the worst in Europe. In fact, it is a sad irony that the Government were first elected in 1997 on a pledge card that they would reduce youth unemployment by 250,000. Under their watch, it has risen by more than 250,000 since then. That is a very serious challenge to us all.

This is not just about youth unemployment or the fact that young people have been the first and worst victims of the recession. It looks as though the higher education and training budget has proved to be one of the first and worst victims of the fiscal crisis that the Government have created. The Opposition understand the need for tough measures and for public spending to be brought down, because that is the mess that the Government have created and that has to be tackled. However, we have called this debate because we want to hear from the Minister what measures the Government are taking to tackle the crisis, and a full explanation of how he believes the cuts that have been announced in stages over the past few months will impact on universities and colleges. I have to say to the Minister that the suspicion is that the Department that he represents has fallen victim to the political arguments in the Labour Government between—[Interruption.] The Minister denies it, but not with an entirely straight face. The arguments are between the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, who famously said on 20 September 2009,

“I said…that I wanted to see us carrying on with real terms rises in our key public services”—

we will not hear the word “cuts” pass his lips—and the First Secretary of State, Lord Mandelson, who said on 14 September 2009 that

“spending in some areas will be reduced”.

When challenged on whether front-line services would be under the spotlight, Lord Mandelson said:

“Everything is going to have to be examined.”

The First Secretary of State is making an example of his Department in a strategic debate that he is having with some of his Cabinet colleagues about what approach the Government should take to the fiscal crisis. If that is what he is arguing as part of Labour party strategy, we should not be surprised that it looks like, so far, by far the biggest cuts have fallen within the budgets of higher and further education.

It is worth being clear about what those cuts are, so it would be helpful if the Minister explained them properly. Our understanding is that a £180 million efficiency saving was announced in the 2009 Budget; a £600 million further reduction was announced in the autumn statements; and a £135 million further reduction was announced in a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 22 December. That adds up to what is believed to be a £915 million cut. What steps is he taking to deliver those reductions and what does he think they mean for the numbers of students and the quality of the student experience? We want to hold him to account, and universities need to know exactly what the cuts will entail.

Buried at the end of the letter to the HEFCE, was a revealing figure that brought home the scale of the reductions. At the beginning of this period, in 2007-08 prices, the planned unit of funding—the amount of teaching support for students—was £4,140. According to the letter to the HEFCE, that will fall to £3,950 in 2010-11 in constant prices. That looks to be the key figure, and it is contrary to all the assurances we have had that teaching would be protected as part of this exercise. How does the Minister plan to deliver those significant reductions in the higher education budget?

We also hope to hear from the Minister about what the reductions mean for the number of student places. We are close to the 15 January deadline for applications—we understand that it was extended by a few days because of the weather—but can he indicate to the House how many university applications he expects this autumn? From provisional figures collected earlier in the year, we know that we were already looking at a 12 per cent. increase in applications for 2010 on top of applications in 2009—and 2009 was itself a record year.

We understand the reasons for those big increases in applications. With high rates of unemployment, many more young people apply to go to university, and of course there was a mini baby boom in the early ‘90s, which means that there is now a large number of 18 and 19-year-olds in that cohort. We want to hear from the Minister how many places will be available at universities for this further surge in the number of applicants. The fear is that there will be an increase in the number of young people applying and an absolute decline in the number of places available for them.

That would be an extraordinary position for the Government to have got themselves into. They have an official target of getting 50 per cent. of people into university. First the Government set the target, and then last year universities offered extra places for those students. Now, however, we are told that institutions will be fined for taking on those extra students. This must be the first time a Government have fined an institution for taking the steps necessary to reach the Government’s own announced target—in this case, of more people going to university.

The Opposition do not believe in artificial targets, such as the 50 per cent. target, and are comfortable with the Robbins principle, which states simply that

“courses of higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”.

That seems to us a much more sensible approach than artificial targets. At the same time, we have practical proposals for how we could find more places for students in the crisis year of 2010.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about targets and pooh-poohing the idea behind them. He talked earlier about units of funding, but does he not acknowledge that the lack of targets under Tory Governments in the 1990s led to one of the lowest ever units of funding for university students?

I accept that in that period we saw a big increase in student numbers but not a comparable increase in the unit of resource per student. Labour Members used to make that criticism, but now they are presiding over a reduction in the unit of resource per student. That is why, this time, we have a specific proposal for 2010 that avoids the problem identified by the hon. Gentleman. We have cautiously and prudently identified an extra source of cash that could go to universities in the crisis likely to be faced in the summer of 2010 of so many university applications with a possible reduction—on the Government’s plans—in the number of places. We have said that there should be a bonus—a special discount—for people who repay their student loans early, which would bring extra cash into the system now, before Lord Browne of Madingley has a chance to report.

The hon. Gentleman has raised that point before. He said that it is a practical proposal, but will he tell us how he has costed it and what its cost is, including the dead-weight cost of giving a discount to those who would repay anyway?

We have made a simple and cautious assumption that by summer 2010, there will be £30 billion of outstanding student debt. We believe, from looking at similar but not identical schemes in New Zealand and Australia, that it is reasonable and cautious to assume that 1 per cent. of that debt will be repaid early—£300 million.

In order to avoid the problems now faced by Ministers, which the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) mentioned, we have fully costed university places. We have not used places costing less than the average—if anything, we have costed them slightly more highly than we believe is the average. We have said that a university place costs £10,000 a year in total public funding, which includes maintenance and teaching support. Over three years, therefore, the full cost in public expenditure of a student place is £30,000, which means that the £300 million that we have identified would provide an extra 10,000 places.

That is a carefully costed, fully explained model that does not—this touches on the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed—involve any reduction in the unit of resource per student. Those would be extra places on top of the Government’s planned number of student places. Given that we are waiting for the proposals from Lord Browne’s funding review, and given the inexorable looming crisis and special circumstances facing us this summer, that is the right thing to do. Unlike Ministers, who appear to be proposing a reduction in the number of places for students just when there is a surge in applications, we are confronting a practical problem that needs addressing, because the Conservative party cares about educational opportunities for young people who wish to go to university.

When Ministers announced their latest round of cuts before Christmas, they talked about delivering more education courses for students through two-year degrees. We fully understand the case for such degrees. They are by no means a complete solution to the pressures faced by universities, but they are the kind of option that they have to consider. As so often happens with the Government, however, they proposed apparently new ideas that in reality have been around for some time and which they themselves have been undermining through their own policies. Will the Minister confirm, therefore, that in the same week that the briefing was issued saying that we should not worry about the public expenditure reductions because in future we would have so many two-year courses, the HEFCE announced a reduction in funding for foundation degrees, which are one way in which the shorter courses are delivered? Such initiatives are already in the system. The HEFCE has said that it will

“reduce the funding provided through the targeted allocation to support foundation degrees, and keep this under review in light of any further requests for efficiency savings.”

So at the same time that this supposedly radical new approach to universities is being floated, the funding for the initiative that is supposed to bring it to pass is quietly being strangled. That is an example of the Government’s spin running along completely detached from the reality.

We are pleased that Lord Browne’s review is a funding review—something that we pressed for—and not simply a fees review. We hope that it will tackle the underlying problems and pressures facing universities. Meanwhile, we are concerned to tackle the challenge that our universities will face in 2010, because we do not believe that the Government are doing so.

While we have the Minister here in the Chamber, let me ask him about another concern, which we realise many students still face, namely the continuing operational problems of the Student Loans Company. Let me remind the House of how the Government launched the policy in July 2006 and of the expression used by the previous Higher Education Minister, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell). For those of us on the Opposition Benches who wrestle with our constituents’ problems, it is worth reminding the House that the case for the new system was that it would result in

“clearer information, faster decisions, timely payments and accurate repayments.”

That is what we were promised in 2006, when the policy was launched. Since then, of course, we have had a shocking report, revealing not just the many cases of maladministration and incompetence, but problems that go back to the Department, which was endlessly chopping and changing the rules for student maintenance, creating a system that was far too complicated for the Student Loans Company to administer.

I hope that the Minister will tell the House, first, how many students are still waiting for their student grant forms to be processed and for the money to be received; secondly, how many disabled students in particular are still suffering from such problems; and thirdly, what assurance he can give us that the problems that are still hanging over from last year will not interfere with the efficient handling of new claims for 2010, which are starting now. We know, from the spirals of problems that the tax credits system, the Rural Payments Agency and the Child Support Agency have got into, that the real problems start when we do not sort out the first year’s problems before the second year of cases arrive. That is why the issue is so important. We need to know that the overhang of historical problems will not affect the next round of student applications.

Does my hon. Friend, who is making such an interesting speech, concede that there is an analogy with student numbers? Just as the grants and loans for last year have got mixed up—they might get mixed up with next year’s too—so the backlog of students who might have taken gap years or otherwise will now impact on the further demand for student places in the coming year.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes an important point. That is another reason why we believe that there will be a surge in applications in 2010. Some prospective students who could not get a place last year will reapply this year.

On student places, the 1 per cent. from the student loan book and so on, do I understand the hon. Gentleman to be saying that the 10,000 places to which the motion refers will simply be for one year, as appears to be the case, or does he expect a 1 per cent. premature pay-down from that £30 billion every year, which is the only way, on his figures, that those 10,000 extra places could continue year on year, with other cohorts going through?

Our policy is designed for the particular problems that we will face in the summer of 2010. The places are costed for three years, so the students will be able to continue at university, and we are assuming that £300 million will be coming through. We have designed the measure specifically to tackle a crisis caused by particular reasons—because unemployment is so high and because of the surge in the birth rate—and before we have had Lord Browne’s wider proposals on higher education reform. We need to do something for an immediate, pressing crisis, and that is what the policy is aimed at doing.

I will give way to the Minister again, but let me say that we are noticing a pattern: we put forward practical proposals to solve problems and we are questioned about them by his party.

It is because they do not add up. However, will the hon. Gentleman answer the question that I asked him earlier: what estimate has he made of the dead-weight cost of his proposal, in relation to those who already pay back early?

We are talking about extra payments that we are bringing into the system as a result of the discount. Of course it is true that there is a modest amount of repayments. We have done the calculations, which include an allowance for the modest amount of repayments made, which will benefit the discount. That is why we can afford the policy, with the £300 million coming in. That is how the policy has been costed.

Let me now turn to a subject over which we have occasionally drawn a discreet veil. However, in the year when we are marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great William Gladstone, it is right that we should devote a moment’s attention to the policies of the Liberal Democrats. In the 200th anniversary year of the grand old man of British politics, we are going to lavish attention on the Liberal Democrats. I enjoyed participating in a radio discussion over the Christmas break about his achievements with Lord Adonis, who was far more passionate in his defence of William Gladstone than was Lord Steel, who was also on the programme.

We are going to give some attention to the Liberal Democrats because hon. Members on both the Conservative and Labour Benches would like to get a sense of where Lib Dem policy on university fees currently lies. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) would like to take the opportunity to clarify that in his speech. However, as he studied history at Bristol university, perhaps we should try an historical account, just to be clear where we are.

In 2005, his party, like my party, went into the general election saying that fees should be abolished. With the financial pressures facing universities, we have recognised that that is not a sustainable policy. We have accepted that fees must stay, and we look forward to seeing whatever proposals emerge from Lord Browne’s report. The Lib Dems started off in 2005 by saying that they would abolish fees. Then, when the hon. Gentleman took up his responsibilities, he looked into changing the policy. However, I have to warn him that, although it is perhaps rather sad, I keep old copies of Times Higher Education.

It is, but it also means that I have records of the various statements that the hon. Member for Bristol, West has made about higher education policy over the years. There is an article in Times Higher Education in September 2008 that is headed: “Leaders of Lib Dems to ditch fees policy”. It says:

“The leaders of the Liberal Democrats plan to abandon the party’s opposition to student tuition fees. Stephen Williams, Lib Dem Shadow Secretary of State…said that the policy was not sustainable…Mr. Williams said that Nick Clegg, the leader of the party, had come to this conclusion after ‘long internal discussions’.”

In September 2008, the original policy was apparently to be abandoned. We understood that, and that is what the hon. Gentleman said to Times Higher Education.

By 2009, there seems to have been rather a dramatic change. I have here an old Liberal Democrat press release—that is even sadder—from 17 March 2009, which is headed: “University fees should be scrapped not doubled—Williams”. By March 2009, the Lib Dems were back to their election policy that university fees should be scrapped. Their policy, which had been carefully considered after a large amount of internal debate, was going, and they were back to saying that fees should go.

Then we had the excitement of the Liberal Democrats’ party conference. By September 2009, we had a statement from the Liberal Democrats that was reported with the headline: “Liberal Democrats may ditch pledge to abolish tuition fees”. It therefore looked as though they had once more recognised that, sadly, their policy was not feasible. It was reported that:

“On the opening day of the Lib Dems’ annual conference in Bournemouth, Clegg said he had to be ‘realistic’ about whether the flagship policy was affordable given the country's mountain of debt.”

It looked as though the Lib Dems went into their party conference attempting once more to abandon their pledge to abolish their policy. However, after the latest set of changes—it is only because the hon. Member for Bristol, West is an historian by trade that I am taking the House through the background—we now understand that the Lib Dem leader is saying that

“he could not scrap tuition fees in one Parliament but said he would do it over six years.”

That is a subtle distinction. The policy cannot quite be done in one Parliament, but that extra year, taking us beyond the next election, suddenly makes it possible.

Given that we all know the kind of propaganda that the Liberal Democrats put about on the doorstep, both Conservative and Labour Members would appreciate it if the hon. Gentleman could confirm, perhaps in an intervention, that what I have described is an accurate account of the history of their internal discussions on tuition fees since the last election. We would all very much appreciate it if he could give us today’s policy.

Indeed. Will the hon. Member for Bristol, West tell us that policy, so that we can tell the people who are sometimes taken in by wild and uncosted Lib Dem promises exactly what they are saying?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to extract from the Liberal Democrats their policy on tuition fees. Is he aware that the students union also wants to know where things stand with tuition fees?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I believe that the National Union of Students has said that the Lib Dem policy is as clear as mud. That is why it is so important to take this opportunity to find out exactly what the policy is and what the magical thing is that they will manage to do in the sixth year that they could not do in the previous five.

Does my hon. Friend agree that even if he is fortunate enough to pin down the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the House, what the spokesman says will be academic? When candidates walk down streets and knock on doors, they will say anything, however contradictory, to any voter who opens the door in the hope of winning a vote.

My hon. Friend is so right, but at least we are trying to find out. I have been trying to put on the record what we know about their policies so that we have an opportunity to ensure that we can authoritatively explain the position.

I have talked about higher education, and I want briefly to ask the Minister about where we are with skills and apprenticeships. There are ambitious targets on apprenticeships that are not being delivered. That is a similar story to what happened with the ambitious targets for participation in higher education. Will the Minister confirm that the latest quarterly figures for apprenticeship starts show that in the past three months, just 39,500 young people started a new apprenticeship? That is 26 per cent. fewer than in the same period last year. Will he confirm that those figures, sadly, show a decline in trend? That is despite the fact that they include apprenticeships at level 2, which is equivalent to GCSE level, whereas the Conservatives believe that apprenticeships should stand for what they have always stood for historically—qualifications at level 3, which is equivalent to A-levels. We would like to hear from the Minister about what is happening on his record on apprenticeship numbers. We are committed to shifting money from the Train to Gain budget to ensure that there are more opportunities for people to take up apprenticeships. Doing that, and having more places at further education colleges, is the right way to tackle the problems that young people face in this recession.

The first line of my hon. Friend’s motion refers to those

“not in employment, education or training”,

which is a growing number. One difficulty for those not in education, employment or training is where on earth they should go for advice. Jobcentre Plus cannot give them advice, because it does not know where the jobs, education or training opportunities are, and Connexions seems to have disappeared for anyone who has left school. Will he confirm that when we come into government, the work clubs that we propose—some voluntary job clubs already exist—will be able to give advice to those who are not in education, employment or training about how they can get back into the world of work, or back into education or training? If that does not happen, those people will be lost for ever.

What my hon. Friend says is so true. One of the real challenges and real problems that young people face is the disappearance of the careers adviser and the shocking weakness of information, advice and guidance. The Government produce report after report identifying that problem—indeed, it was powerfully expressed in the Milburn report on social mobility—but do nothing about it. They have an increasingly fragmented system. As my hon. Friend has said, Connexions appears not to be functioning as intended. That is why we believe in having a straightforward, all-age, independent careers service. It should be armed with the latest information available on the web, and more information should be collected than is currently available, so that young people will at least be guided through the maze that the Government have created of so many different vocational qualifications and training routes. That is very important.

Finally, the Conservatives have committed in our proposals to working together to ensure that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work with the Department for Work and Pensions to tackle the problems that young unemployed people face. I welcome the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) beside me on the Front Bench, because we are very aware of current criticisms about the Government’s approach. The DWP welfare-to-work budget means jobs without training, and the fact that the Learning and Skills Council is paying FE colleges to churn out paper qualifications means training without jobs. The Conservatives are committed to ensuring that those two programmes are delivered in a coherent and complementary way, so that the work of FE colleges is focused on ensuring that young people are employable, and, equally, so that welfare-to-work providers focus on providing the training that young people need. We propose having incentives to reward them for long-term performance.

My hon. Friend has mentioned FE colleges. He will remember the fiasco earlier this year when colleges such as the former Dunstable college, now Central Bedfordshire college, in my constituency were out of pocket. That college was left £700,000 out of pocket because of the situation regarding plans that it had proposed and money that it could not get back. Will he touch on what he foresees for the future of such FE colleges, after the way that they have been treated, in relation to their future capital budget?

That is a widespread problem concerning FE colleges, about which there is a lot of unhappiness. What happened was that the colleges had become too dependent on LSC grants to pay for their capital projects, and so, as was shown by some figures that I obtained in a parliamentary answer, the proportion of the total capital spend that was coming out of the LSC capital grant was getting higher and higher. That meant that every £100 million was buying less capital than it used to. We believe that it is possible, with some ingenuity, to increase the effectiveness of the public budget to secure more FE capital.

The Conservatives are committed to tackling the problems that young people face and to ensuring that they have extra places at university next year. We are committed to ensuring that FE colleges can thrive without the level of bureaucracy and red tape that they face under this Government. We are committed to ensuring that further education and training will work alongside welfare to work. For those reasons, I commend our motion to the House.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“recognises the Government’s commitment to maintaining investment in apprenticeships, higher education and skills and its commitment not to repeat the mistakes of past recessions, and to ensure that young people are not trapped in long-term unemployment; notes that since 1997 there have been 339,000 extra students in higher education, more than ever before, and that public funding has increased by over 25 per cent. in real terms creating the world-class higher education sector enjoyed today; further notes the Government’s commitment to managed growth in higher education to sustain quality and success in widening access, creating the most diverse student population ever; commends the Government’s commitment to helping graduates through the downturn; further notes that investment in apprenticeships today is over £1 billion in 2009-10, and that in 1997 there were only 65,000 starts compared to 240,000 in 2008-09; further notes the success of Train to Gain in supporting over 1.4 million course starts; commends the September Guarantee offering all 16 and 17 year olds an apprenticeship, school, college or training place; and acknowledges the Government’s investment of £1.2 billion in the Future Jobs Fund to guarantee a job, training or work experience for every young person unemployed for 12 months, and the graduate guarantee giving graduates unemployed for six months a guarantee of a high-quality internship or training, or help to become self-employed.”

First, let me wish the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) a happy new year. I am pleased to be here in the Chamber at this early point in 2010 to put the Government’s case yet again. It has been interesting to watch with marvel his transition from a flint-hearted monetarist to a caring, sharing and compassionate Conservative—perhaps securing his place in some future, distant Cabinet.

I reciprocate, collectively, the Minister’s best wishes for the new year. He mentions the year 2010; was not that the target year by which 50 per cent. of young people were to participate in higher education? Is that target being met? Is it the Government’s intention that it should be met, or has it been tacitly dropped?

As a former Higher Education Minister, and as someone who is recognised across the House as one who is constantly aware of the detail of issues, the hon. Gentleman will, I know, be aware that that is an aspiration of this Government and that it has been consistently opposed by the Conservatives. Labour Members are very proud of the participation rate of 43 per cent. and of the fact that more young people are in higher education than ever before.

I am delighted to learn of that aspirational facet of the Minister’s great concern. Will he tell us simply when he hopes that aspiration will be achieved?

If we continue to invest and to ensure, as we will, that despite having more students in higher education this year, there will be even more next year, we will meet that aspiration. Of course, in difficult economic times it is also important that students who need it get a grant to be in higher education—a grant that the Tories abolished and we introduced. It is all about managed growth, and we stand clear on that.

I have met many young people in Blackpool who have benefited from the high aspirations put to them by the Government. Through the Government’s Aimhigher programme and the reintroduction of grants, those young people are now going into higher education, which they had never before even thought about. They are exactly the young people who have benefited from the Minister’s and the Government’s programme.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We stand by Aimhigher, and I know that my hon. Friend will be very sad to know that the Opposition are committed to abolishing that programme, which supports the poorest young people across the country to make their way into higher education. I hope that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will clarify his position on Aimhigher when he concludes the debate. We wish that the Opposition would match their words with deeds, which yet again we have not heard from the Conservatives today—it has to be action, not just words.

The Opposition motion talks about the Government’s higher education policies, but it does not, of course, talk about what we have achieved, so it is important that I put that on the record this afternoon. Since 1997, the total investment in higher education has risen by 25 per cent. in real terms, while spending on science and research has more than doubled. That is a Labour achievement. The last decade has seen 340,000 more students get a place in our universities because of the 50 per cent. aspiration, making about 2 million more home students in total. Again, that is more than ever before in our country’s history—another Labour achievement. There are more people applying to university from non-traditional backgrounds and from the most deprived constituencies than ever before, with applications from constituencies like mine up not just by 10, 20 or 50 per cent., but by 100 per cent. That has happened under this Government and is a result of such programmes as Aimhigher, which Conservative Members would scrap. Once again, this is a Labour achievement.

My right hon. Friend is talking about the Government’s achievements in this area and about people from non-traditional backgrounds. Does he agree that the important steps that the Government have taken to support and improve the situation for part-time students, which the Conservatives had left virtually without support in 1997, have played a significant part in the story?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting the position of part-time students on the record. It is this Government who have introduced support for part-time students for the first time. My hon. Friend will have seen that in our grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, we flagged up the position of part-time students. He will also have recognised that we asked Lord Browne to look specifically in his review at the further support that will be needed to get more equity into the system for part-time students. The Conservatives have not faced up to any of that.

Everyone recognises the huge £6.4 billion capital investment in our university infrastructure across the country. Science facilities are now there, whereas they were falling apart under the Conservative Government—not to mention our commitment to research and teaching. All of that has taken place under a Labour Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that research and development is the lifeblood of manufacturing and industry in this country and that any proposals that Opposition Members have to cut that funding will have a major effect on the economy of this country, particularly in Coventry and the west midlands?

My hon. Friend is right: we cannot get back to growth without a ring-fenced research budget or without a commitment to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He will have been alarmed at the £610 million cut to my Department’s budget that was proposed by the Opposition 18 months ago. They wanted to do that 18 months ago—before the further, deeper, quicker, faster cuts that were called for by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on “The Andrew Marr Show” at the weekend. That would mean that there was absolutely nothing to support advanced manufacturing, nothing to support the low-carbon industries that we need for the future, and nothing for our digital economy or for our life sciences. It would mean a cut to the budget that they rely on.

If that is the Opposition’s proposal, does the Minister agree with me that it would have a major impact on apprenticeships as well? It will affect apprenticeships and industry, which shows that the Conservative policies are a sham?

My hon. Friend knows that there is a £34 billion black hole in the Opposition’s proposals that cannot be costed. It absolutely means the loss of those advanced apprenticeships that they say they want. He also knows that the Opposition are not only unable to explain where the money would come from, but are also proposing—I hope to hear more about this in the winding-up speeches—to cut and abolish Train to Gain. That would undercut the parents of young people—often those from the poorest communities—who will be deprived of the training and skills they rely on in order to move forward. The Opposition are also very equivocal about unionlearn, which we are very proud of.

On the potential future—or non-future under a Tory Government who want to scrap it—of Train to Gain, does the Minister agree that the employer reaction to the implementation of that scheme, not just from big employers but from the small and medium-sized ones, has been very positive, showing that this is the type of scheme that they want to participate in in greater numbers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Tories are standing in the face of the CBI, small employers and the millions of people who have benefited from Train to Gain. Those people gained qualifications that they did not previously have. They are the engine of our economy—the people on the factory floor who want to improve their skills and drive the economy forward. Let me say that I remember the old CSEs, which meant young people in Tottenham being streamed off, failing to get the qualifications that they should have had. It is this Government who have put the qualifications back in place under Train to Gain.

Let me clarify our position on two points that the Minister has made. We believe in refocusing Train to Gain on apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship training, and we believe that that was the right decision to take, given the evidence that much of the Train to Gain budget is spent on training that would have happened in any case. We also believe this is the right decision in a recession.

Secondly, the Minister suggested that we did not believe in unionlearn. Let me make it clear that I have visited unionlearn projects and I believe that it does a valuable job in spreading access and knowledge of training. We do support unionlearn.

Yet another difficult-to-believe conversion from the hon. Gentleman! This cosying up to the unions, my God! Most people will be very surprised to see the hon. Gentleman cosying up for beer and sandwiches with our unions across the country. We do not believe it.

One thing that we like about unionlearn is that it is very cost-effective, and we in this party believe in the scrupulous management of public money. The amount of encouragement and training that one receives for relatively modest sums of money is very attractive indeed.

That is amazing: the Conservatives are praising a Labour party policy—which they opposed—for its cost-effectiveness. This debate is beginning to make the Lib-Dem flip-flop on tuition fees look mild in comparison.

Another new-found concern is the one about young people who are not in education, employment or training. The hon. Gentleman often mentions them, but not the 4.6 million young people who are in work or in full-time education. That is an important figure, because it has risen from 3.9 million, which was the figure in 1997. Of course, at this difficult time for our economy, we are concerned about young people and, particularly, those who are not in employment, but that is why we have to stand by them at this time and not walk by on the other side.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to think back to the days—I think it was 1984—when he worked in the then Prime Minister’s policy unit and the downturn was more severe because of the absence of Conservative proposals. They took the view that the recession and unemployment were a price worth paying. Yet again this afternoon we have heard nothing from the hon. Gentleman about whether he would keep the future jobs fund for young people and whether he supports our September guarantee for young people. They were not even mentioned.

We heard no proposals at all—other than 10,000 extra student places—to support young people at this time, even though the hon. Gentleman knows that, in any downturn, young people who are a long way from graduation are the people who are most affected. I have yet to hear one Conservative party proposal to support those young people. The hon. Gentleman has not uttered anything and, for a party that is serious about taking power in the upcoming general election, that cannot be acceptable.

Once more we heard the confused policy concerning 10,000 extra university places in priority subjects for one year. The right hon. Member for Witney repeated it at the beginning of the year, but said nothing about the dead-weight cost of £300 million and the fact that young people are already paying it back. Nothing has been said about that cost; and very importantly, nothing has been said about whether the hon. Member for Havant has received permission from the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) to increase public borrowing to meet that extra cost. The increase is inevitable, because the Government borrow the money. The proposal would add to the current deficit, which the hon. Member for Havant says he is against. I see him squirming, because he is not used to not doing his maths, but he would add to the deficit for the taxpayer, and the policy is uncosted.

There is also the question of who the Conservatives would really help. Which students would be most likely to pay back that money? What constituencies would they be likely to live in? Surely they would be from better-off families. The policy feels like the Conservatives’ position on inheritance tax—benefiting the few over the many—and that cannot be a sensible way to proceed.

I should like to make the situation absolutely clear. Extra cash would go to the Exchequer because the policy would involve the early repayment of student loans. The people who would benefit are marginal students who, otherwise, would not have got places at university; and we all know that, sadly, those students are most likely to come from less-advantaged backgrounds. Like so many policies from today’s Conservative party, it is a highly progressive measure.

How can another form of borrowing be a highly progressive measure? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is another form of borrowing?

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that it is not, but I must put on the record that that is a mistake. He does not understand the way in which Government finances work, and again the public cannot take that proposal seriously.

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the problems that we have had at the Student Loans Company, and I have been at pains to ensure that, on this issue, the House has been kept fully informed at every stage. I shall do so again today. The company informs me that by 11 January, 918,600 students had had their student finance approved. That is 48,000 more than at the same point last year, and I hope that the whole House will join me in welcoming the assurance, which I have received from the company chairman, that he is taking the action that is required to improve the service so that students and their parents receive the service that they rightly expect.

I know that there has been concern about students who have applied for disabled students’ allowance. Just over 19,000 applications have been made this year: 6,000 have been approved; and more than 9,000 await further information from the applicant or the assessment centre. The hon. Gentleman will understand that every year students take into their own hands the process of going to receive their medical assessment, and I hope he recognises that about 70 per cent. of those students present with dyslexia. Many take some time to go through the assessment process, but over the exam period their many requirements prompt them to move quickly through the process.

On exactly that point, I have been approached by the mother of an autistic constituent whose travel to the Guildford college where he does a music degree was paid for last year. A taxi driver has taken him to college since last term, but the student has not received his funds and the taxi driver has not been paid. Nobody is asking for more information; the work just has not been done. If the Minister could look at the case, he would really help that anxious student, his anxious mother who has just been diagnosed with an illness and the small taxi company that is losing money because of the problem.

I am happy to ask the chief executive of the Student Loans Company to look specifically into that case. By necessity, all such cases are complex and there is an onus on the company to ensure value for money and probity in the applications that are made. However, my hon. Friend refers to a situation in which the student previously received funds, so I am happy to look into what has happened.

Importantly, overall we are doing all that we can to help young people during this difficult time. The foundation stone of much of that work is the young person’s guarantee, and on that point I should like to clarify our amendment. We announced in December that that guarantee, including the future jobs fund, would be available to young people after six months of unemployment. The £1 billion future jobs fund is part of the Government’s overall investment of £5 billion to help young people back to work during the recession. The White Paper, “Building Britain’s Recovery”, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions published before Christmas, announced that the young person’s guarantee will be extended, so that all 18 to 24-year-olds still unemployed after six months will be guaranteed access to a job, training or work experience. This will be supported by more time with their personal adviser and a proper personalised back-to-work plan.

While the Minister is on the subject of guarantees—and I apologise for drawing him back to the student loans issue—he did not clarify the position for January and February admissions. He will know that a significant proportion of students enrol in those months, so can he give the House an absolute assurance that they will have no problems with their finances?

The process for this year began just before Christmas. It is under way and it is going well at this stage. There is a commitment from the Student Loans Company—from the chair and chief executive, right through the company—to act on the report by Sir Deian Hopkin to ensure that it does not make the mistakes that were made last year in processing and scanning, or in people’s inability to contact the company. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman will continue to hold the company to account to ensure that that commitment is honoured.

My hon. Friend has set out the considerable achievements of this Government in higher and further education and employment for young people. We need to protect research and investment in education and training to hasten the economic recovery and employment, especially in manufacturing. However, how could that be done with a £915 million cut in higher education? Would further education pick up the slack?

My hon. Friend asks a good question—he raised the same issue before Christmas—and if I may, I will come to that point later. We are supporting graduates at this time. We are committed to internships and I am pleased by the level of applications from young people in the graduate talent pool, and the fact that employers are coming forward in their thousands with internship places. The regions are acting to ensure that young people have something to do and can acquire the skills that industry and business say that they need. A range of opportunities is being provided across the country, and the Small Business Federation—as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced—has been able to support our drive to ensure the provision of internships.

We are also ensuring that there are 24,000 extra places for postgraduate study in the system, as well as more volunteering opportunities and support for young people who want to set up small businesses after graduation.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the importance of the regional dimension in the Government’s initiative. I know that the Northwest Regional Development Agency is playing a critical part, together with HE and FE institutions. Does he think that the potential for such action in the future would be helped or hindered by the abolition of RDAs, as suggested by the Opposition?

My hon. Friend is right that we have relied on RDAs to be responsive to the very different industrial and jobs situations in their areas. They have connections on the ground and have drawn up sector plans and engaged with local authorities. That is not something that can come solely from the centre, and I am surprised and staggered that the Opposition would abolish RDAs, which have done so much to ensure that this downturn has been a lot less severe than it might otherwise have been for young people.

I have had eight years of first-hand experience of one of the Minister’s RDAs—the Welsh Assembly—and I can assure him that the only jobs created there were for fellow civil servants at very high public sector rates, and with pensions to boot. I hope that I might one day be able to persuade my hon. Friends that not only should they get rid of the RDAs, but they should follow that up with getting rid of the Welsh Assembly, which purports to do the same thing in the Principality—and the Scottish Parliament, too.

The people of Wales, who democratically elected the devolved Assembly, will be offended by that caricature of it as a regional development agency.

In the grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued last month, he asked the university sector to make relatively modest cuts efficiently. The cuts will be made in a way that reduces the impact on front-line services. For example, the planned reduction in funding for teaching is only around 1 per cent. of the overall budget. It is our belief that, in times of pressure, we need to use money effectively. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that families across the country are making cuts to their budgets of much more than 1 per cent.

The Chancellor, in the pre-Budget report, asks for further savings of £600 million in 2010-11 and 2011-12, but we have not yet had the comprehensive spending review. That will come later in the year, so it is wrong to give the impression that there is a £900 million cut in the next financial year. There is nothing of the kind. There is a saving that the sector has to meet, but there will be a small cut of 1 per cent. in the teaching grant. We are committed to continuing to invest in capital spend to ensure that the infrastructure is in place.

The Opposition have said that they would make deeper cuts, quicker and sooner. That is what the right hon. Member for Witney said at the weekend. Previously under the Tories we saw unrestricted and unfunded university expansion, with institutions going to the wall, and that is what would happen if they took £610 million out of the HE budget—as they proposed 18 months ago—and if even more severe cuts were made. We would see failing financial support, stagnating student numbers and the undercutting of research and science. I remind the hon. Member for Havant of the Save British Science campaign of those days. That is the absolute opposite of what we have now, with further investment in science and research—

I am somewhat reassured by what my right hon. Friend has just told the House. However, he mentioned a 1 per cent. cut, and I agree that, while hard, that is belt-tightening for these difficult times. The shadow Minister referred to a 5 per cent. cut in the unit of funding between that for 2007-08, at £4,140, and that for 2010-11, at £3,950. Can the Minister explain the difference, or has the shadow Minister got his figures wrong, trumpeting a 5 per cent. cut when it is in fact a 1 per cent. cut?

The shadow team has got its figures wrong. In the Budget last year, we asked HEFCE to find a cut of £180 million. In addition to that, we asked for a further £135 million cut in the grant letter for this period, which would account for a cut of about 4 per cent. in the overall budget for this financial year. The £600 million is for future financial years, and therein lies the difference. This is set against a backdrop of a 25 per cent. increase in investment, and against a backdrop in which the Government commit more than £12 billion of funding to higher education and the sector is able to raise more than a further £7 billion in investment from private, commercial and charitable sources. It is able to do that because of the investment that we have made previously.

Will the Minister just confirm that the figures that I gave in my speech were directly taken from the annexe to the letter sent to the HEFCE, which showed that the unit of support had decreased from £4,140 to £3,950? Those are not my calculations; they are two figures that appear in the document. They show the 5 per cent. cut to which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) refers.

As I have said, the cuts in the sector amount to the £180 million to which we referred previously and the £135 million to which we are referring now. Of course that affects the unit of resource, but that must be set against a background of further investment. Indeed, we are able to increase that further investment this year, notwithstanding the efficiencies that we have asked of the sector, and that is the point. The picture is very different from the one that we inherited in 1997, which is why we should be proud of the increase in participation and the facilities across the country that have resulted from this Government. We are clear that this sector, like others across the country, has to assist in these difficult times, but it does so against a backdrop of our recognising that higher education is key to future growth and that we must continue to ring-fence science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

I know that the Minister would want the House to understand this fully. He has spoken of a 1 per cent., cut but in answer to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) about the unit of resource he acknowledged that there was a 5 per cent. cut. Is the Minister arguing that other increases mean that there is a net 1 per cent. cut, or was he wrong to start with? The cut cannot be both 1 per cent. and 5 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman has failed to listen carefully to what I have said, because I have made the position clear. We are talking about an addition in the grant letter that we issued just before Christmas. Our position stands in direct contrast to the Conservatives’ proposals and attitude to higher education in the past, and to the deeper cuts that the right hon. Member for Witney has outlined already.

The facts on the ground in my constituency show that we have made a real difference in improving people’s skills. We were a long way behind most of our neighbours, but Slough has really made progress. This is not just about the colleges and the local authority; this is about a real partnership between business, training providers and local community organisations, which was initiated by the then Secretary of State with responsibility for universities when we had a skills summit in Slough, and has made real difference. One of the difficulties that we have recently encountered relates to Thames Valley university. It has chosen to relocate out of the town, which has local people—

Order. I am sorry to say that the hon. Lady is starting to develop her intervention into a speech. If she could now turn it briefly into a question, that would be helpful.

The last two words that I said were “what can”, and they were the first two words of my question. What can MPs, the Government and local bodies do when an autonomous university takes a decision that damages the opportunities for people in a particular area?

These are rightly matters for the funding councils, and all Ministers have to tread lightly with autonomous institutions. I hope that my hon. Friend has made representations to the relevant funding council. I am happy to look closely at the specifics with regard to Thames Valley university, but I am glad that she recognises the investment that has been made and the threat that exists from the Conservative party, notwithstanding the half-hearted attempts that it has made, yet again, this afternoon to position itself as the party that supports students. With that, I give the Floor to the rest of the House.

I do not know whether this is the case for some or most hon. Members, but the 1979 general election is the first that I can remember, so I shall start by discussing a historical point, just to humour the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). That last Labour Government ended with a miserable winter, and a crisis in the economy and in the public finances, so we have been here before. Of course, that was followed by an even worse situation: the recession of the early to mid-1980s, when we saw large-scale industrial shutdowns, mass unemployment and devastated communities, including the one where I grew up in the south Wales valleys. Tragically, many of the people who lost their jobs at that time, particularly if they were over 40, never found meaningful or well-paid employment again.

Unemployment is rising again at the moment. In my constituency, it has almost reached its level 13 years ago, when this Government came to office. In the neighbouring Bristol constituencies, in particular Bristol, North-West, it has exceeded the level at that time. This recession hits the young in particular, who are the topic of this debate.

The hon. Gentleman refers to 1979 and what happened subsequently. Does he agree that the savage process of de-industrialisation that began at that time has caused terrible damage to our economy and made it unbalanced, and has meant that there are fewer of the opportunities for apprenticeships and training that manufacturing used to provide?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said, because I agree with much of it. I particularly agree about the callous indifference shown by the Government of the day to the consequences of their policies. I recall that when I arrived at Bristol university at the end of the miners’ strike—arguably the strike made matters worse—I had to explain to many of my new-found friends from other parts of the country what it was like to grow up in a declining industrial area where that decline had been precipitated, and the incline to climb had been made much steeper, almost deliberately as a result of Government policy. We must ensure that we do not fall into that same situation again.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to the grandson of a miner from the south Wales valleys. Can he confirm that Labour in the 1960s, under one Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, shut down far more coal mines than Mrs. Thatcher did in the 1980s?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not think that we want to spend the entire debate discussing what happened in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. We want to focus on what is happening in this second decade of the 21st century.

Young people are bearing the brunt of this recession. The unemployment rate among 18 to 24-year-olds is in excess of 17 per cent., 40 per cent. of the total number of unemployed people is accounted for by 16 to 24-year-olds and a fifth of young people who are without work have a degree. This is the worst graduate job market for a generation. It is particularly apposite at the moment to remember that this is the first generation of graduates who have left university under the new top-up fees regime, with £9,000 of student debt. I assure the hon. Member for Havant that I shall deal with that point shortly. The recession also compounds the situation of those at the other end of skills achievement who are not in education, employment or training. The number of NEETs is now heading towards 1 million. That truly shocking state of affairs illustrates the stagnation of social mobility after 13 years of a Labour Government.

We need emergency measures to help the young unemployed, whatever their skill set might be. The Minister mentioned that the Government had already amended their own training guarantee. It was originally set at 12 months, so that anyone over the age of 24 who had been unemployed for 12 months could get training. It is now set at six months. The Liberal Democrats have suggested that there should be a 90-day promise, and that no young person should be unemployed for more than 90 days. We would bridge the gap by offering paid, funded internships. Those unemployed people are being funded anyway by the DWP through their jobseeker’s allowance, and it would be much better to pay £55 a week so that they could take up an internship in a company.

The public sector, including the House of Commons and the rest of the parliamentary estate, could certainly do its bit on that front. There are many things that we could say about internships, and the detrimental effect that they have on social mobility and fair access to some professions, but Parliament could certainly do its bit and give more funding for the interns that we all rely on—

Many of us rely on them in order to carry out our parliamentary work, and I am on record as saying on several occasions that our budget for resourcing staff placements in Parliament should reflect that. In the present context, paid internships instead of JSA would provide a much more productive and meaningful experience for those young people at what should be the start of their working careers.

In the longer term, we also believe that there should be more funding for apprenticeship places. There happens to be common ground on this matter between both Opposition Front Benches. We believe that the funding should be found from the Train to Gain budget, especially for the off-the-job training costs of those who are taking up apprenticeships in small and medium-sized enterprises.

Also in the longer term, there should be a fairer way of funding higher education than simply loading more debt on to students. On that note, I have informed the Speaker’s Office and those on both Front Benches that, by sheer coincidence, I am going to give the Liberal Democrats’ views to Lord Browne for his review of higher education at 3 o’clock today. I am sorry that I might therefore not be here for the final moments of this debate.

The hon. Member for Havant took us through what he described as the historical journey of our policy development, but he left out several stages. He mentioned Gladstone, who was at one point the rising hope of the stern and unbending Tories but over the course of his career became the people’s William. Political parties—the Liberal party, the Conservative party or the Labour party—are not frozen in aspic, never to develop their policies, have a rethink or respond to circumstances. We all change over time. That was the situation in the 19th century, and it is certainly true of the 21st.

Political parties have to respond to events and, occasionally, review where they are coming from. I acknowledge that we had difficulties with our own review of higher education policy. We started that policy review in a completely different economic environment, back in 2006-07, and I do not think that any of us really foresaw the economic catastrophe that was going to come our way. We have been honest, however, in saying that we are now not going to be able to say some of the things that we would have liked to say at the next general election. All three parties are going to have to face up to that economic reality.

On principle, however, I still think that tuition fees are a rotten way of funding higher education. They are unfair to students; it is not good to load people up with debt. If the Browne review, about which I will know a lot more after 3 o’clock this afternoon, leads to increased tuition fees and a market in higher education, many of the things that we have warned about over the past decade will come true, and people will find it increasingly difficult to access higher education.

We would still like to remove tuition fees; that is our principled stance. We recognise, however, that that cannot be done immediately, at the start of the new Parliament in 2010. Instead, we would phase them out over a six-year period, starting with the people who were in the final year of their degree. That would mean that every student would be better off, having reduced their debt burden by the end of that six-year period. I hope that that clarifies matters for the hon. Member for Havant.

I am grateful for that clarification. As I understand it, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto commitment will be to phase out tuition fees over six years, rather than to abolish them outright. Is that correct?

I am not quite sure what difference the hon. Gentleman is trying to tease out. We would phase out tuition fees so that, at the end of the six-year period, they would be abolished and would no longer feature in the funding mechanism for higher education.

I am grateful for that sort-of clarification. Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is somewhat misleading for a Liberal Democrat press release on 18 December to state:

“Liberal Democrats renew pledge to abolish tuition fees”?

It goes on to say:

“The Liberal Democrats have announced that they will keep their policy of abolishing university tuition fees in their manifesto for the 2010 General Election.”

There is no mention of phasing them out over six years. This is a reiteration of the Liberal Democrats’ original commitment to abolish tuition fees. Another thing that surprises me is the disclaimer at the bottom of the press release:

“The views expressed are those of the party, not of the service provider.”

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Front Bench or in the Whips Office, or whoever has been feeding him these press releases.

I repeat that all political parties have to respond to the dire economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. We have made it clear that, on principle, we do not believe that tuition fees are a fair way for students and graduates to contribute to the cost of their higher education. Over time, we would phase out that funding model so that, at the end of six years, tuition fees would form no part whatever of funding for higher education. I do not think that I can be any clearer than that, so I shall now move on to the other elements of my speech.

I have been quite generous to the hon. Gentleman. I have already given way to him twice, and that is where I am going to end it.

We now understand the Liberal Democrats’ stand on tuition fees—or, at least, I think we do. We have a rough idea of what it is, anyway, but the hon. Gentleman has not yet told us what they would do with the outstanding debt.

That is an interesting question. At no point—either in 1998, when my party initially opposed the introduction of tuition fees; in 2004, when we opposed tripling them to £3,000 a year; or at the 2005 election, when we said that we were committed to abolishing them—did we say that our policy was retrospective and that we could wipe out the debts that had already been incurred. I do not think that any party would say that. I do not think that we have ever implied that any policy of ours would be retrospective. If it helps the hon. Gentleman, I am happy to place that on record now.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding me. I am not trying to twist any policy that the Liberal Democrats are expounding. I am saying that, if they abolished tuition fees, even after six years there would still be an outstanding debt that would have to be either repaid or abolished. I am merely asking him where he stands on that.

I do not think that any party could reasonably say that it was going to abolish a debt that had been contractually entered into and incurred for a service in higher education. That is why we are saying that we will phase out tuition fees over six years, starting with final year students, so that there will be no further accumulation of debt. We would not abolish the debts incurred by students who are currently in the system during their first or second year. They would still have to make repayments of that element of the debt. However, as they enter the final year of their degree courses a further £3,000 worth of debt will not be added to the debt that has already accumulated. Over time the next cohort of graduates will be better off, and after six years all graduates will undoubtedly be better off. [Interruption.]

I think that I have now said enough about Liberal Democrat higher education policy. I entirely welcome discussions of Liberal Democrat policy, but if Members want to embark on a general discussion, the best way to ensure that that happens is for the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property to lobby the leader of his party, the Prime Minister, and to ask him to call an election. Then we can get on to the hustings and engage in such a discussion.

I, at any rate, am setting out what my party will offer students at the general election. Both Conservative Front Benchers and the existing Labour Government will be saying to students “Wait and see what happens”, rather as people said before the 1924 or the perhaps the 1923 election. They will say “Wait and see what is in Lord Browne’s review.” I think that students, whether or not they like what is offered by the Liberal Democrats—we recognise that ours is not a perfect solution—will at least give us credit for offering them an alternative rather than saying, as the Conservative and Labour parties will both be saying, “Wait and see what the review comes up with. We are not going to give your generation a meaningful choice.”

I am confused, as many people in the country will be. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why the Liberal Democrats have chosen six years, and will he explain the economic thinking behind that? Is there any special formula which we need to know and which will help my constituents?

I think that we have engaged in enough discussion on this subject. We shall welcome the debate when the hustings finally arrive. The hon. Gentleman could have intervened on the hon. Member for Havant at any point to ask exactly what the Conservative party would be saying.

The hon. Gentleman could have told us what he will be saying to students in his constituency about what the Conservative party is offering. He cannot give a clear answer. At least I have an answer for students.

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify one point? Is his party proposing to replace the income that universities will lose if—in some way unspecified—fees are abolished?

Yes. It has consistently been our position that the income hypothecated from fees that universities currently receive from the Treasury via the Higher Education Foundation Council for England should continue. In cash terms, there is very little difference in the short term in any event. The Treasury continues to hand over the roughly £3 billion a year equivalent of fee income, and it will be quite a long time before the present generation of graduates repays that money in cash terms. What we are focusing on is, in fact, an accounting difference. By the end of that six-year period we will certainly have found a better way of funding higher education in the long term. As I shall say to Lord Browne very shortly, I hope that his review will take an open-minded approach not just to an extension of the fees model, but to alternative models that have been proposed and are worthy of consideration.

Let me now leave the subject of central Government, for local government has a role as well. I was pleased to note on Monday this week that Bristol city council, which is now under Liberal Democrat control, has welcomed 19 new apprenticeships in fields as diverse as security services, recycling, finance and the museum service. However, it is not just the state that has a contribution to make. A contribution can also be made by social enterprise, which is a theme that I have raised many times during debates of this sort. I am thinking particularly of organisations such as Aspire, which, in my constituency and elsewhere in Bristol, gives work to people who are not in education, employment or training—as well as recent offenders—in, for instance, ground maintenance, window cleaning and other practical skills.

That social enterprise and many others would benefit from more flexibility on the part of both central Government and local government in the awarding of contracts. The Government have a multi-billion-pound procurement budget, but far too much of it is spent with large companies rather than small and medium-sized enterprises or social enterprises. Charities also have an important role to play. I have often mentioned Fairbridge, which is based in my constituency, and I recently visited the Bristol Foyer in the city centre. All those organisations work hard to provide young people with an informal route back to learning and employment.

In the long term, we need to develop a low-carbon economy in which people also have digital skills. Another Liberal Democrat policy that does not receive much attention from the other parties involves the offer of bursaries to enable people to study stem subjects at university. That is important, as is the advice given to children at school on the opportunities that are open to them, so that they know that a career in engineering is not only worth while in itself but an important contributor to the finding of solutions to the challenge of climate change.

The Conservative motion mentions the Student Loans Company. I hope that the Minister will confirm not only that the existing, or in some cases the new, management of the company has learnt the lessons of the debacle of the past year, but that he is tracking its progress to ensure that the next tranche of applicants do not face the same situation.

Mention has been made of the £600 million of further cuts in higher education that were proposed in the pre-Budget report. The Minister said that we have not had the comprehensive spending review. That was, of course, the choice of the Government and the Chancellor, rather than the result of some external factor visited on them. However, the pre-Budget report specifically mentioned that those cuts would be imposed on the existing arrangements for student maintenance. Will the Minister clarify what he thinks will happen to student maintenance, and also to the science budget? We are still in the 10-year guarantee period during which the current Prime Minister and the former science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, said that the Government would ring-fence funding for science, yet the pre-Budget report implied that the science budget was one of the options for cuts. If it is not, why did the pre-Budget report imply that it was?

The pre-Budget report also mentioned two-year degree courses. I am not necessarily conceptually opposed to them, if it is possible for students to complete, say, vocational degree courses in a condensed period of two rather than three years. Foundation degrees already exist on the basis of that principle, and I see no reason why it should not be considered for other degrees. However, we should bear in mind the practical implications, given that this country is a signatory to the Bologna process. Perhaps we could hear from the Government what discussions have taken place about the possibility of a shorter English degree course. English degree courses are already among the shortest in Europe. Surely, if there is to be a fundamental reform of higher education provision, it should be well thought out, and the result of a review rather than a knee-jerk response to what we hope are short-term budgetary pressures.

The motion also mentions freeing up further education. Last night I was pleased to respond to a speech given by Professor Alison Wolf on the occasion of the launch of her book “An Adult Approach to Further Education” at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Among her many interesting comments was the observation that further education is treated unfairly in this country, particularly in the light of the resources given to higher education. We believe that in the long term there should be a more level playing field, especially when further education is delivered in a further education or community college context.

In conclusion, we need a fairer system of funding across higher education, further education and apprenticeships. If we are to have that fair and open intellectual—if not financial—market, students must be well informed through receiving impartial advice and guidance. So far in this recession, young people have borne the brunt of our worsening economic circumstances, and they need measures to help them now, but in the long run, it is through education and skills that we can drive social mobility and build a sustainable and prosperous future.

I begin by congratulating the Opposition for once—this is not something I often do—for calling a debate with substance. The subject is very important in all our constituencies and throughout the country. People in Barnsley and Doncaster, the towns I represent, know only too well how difficult it is to come through a recession. We particularly remember the 1980s, of course, when the Thatcher Government decided to close all our pits almost overnight, thereby making 30,000 people redundant at a stroke and consigning a generation of young people to the scrapheap. The catchphrase at that time was that unemployment was a price worth paying.

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that a significantly larger number of pits were closed under the Labour Government between 1964 and 1970? Why do Labour MPs always forget that?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point, and I shall address it. He mentioned the fact that in the 1960s Tony Benn closed more pits than Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Heseltine ever did. That is absolutely right, but let me explain the difference. In the 1960s, a lot of the pits that closed were worked out; everybody who has ever been involved in the mining industry knows that a pit has only a specific lifespan before the coal is worked out. All the pits we closed in the 1960s were worked out. I shall give the hon. Gentleman a classic example. My local pit, Grimethorpe colliery, where my dad worked, closed in 1993 under the Heseltine pit closure programme.

Order. I am reluctant to stop the hon. Gentleman, but I should just say that it is the next debate that is about energy security. I think he is in the right debate and has been led astray by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), but it would be good if he could now bring his remarks back to education.

You are absolutely right, Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have been led astray. The hon. Gentleman has drawn the comparison, however, so let me say that when the Grimethorpe pit was closed it had 60 million tonnes of workable coal left, and in the last six weeks of production it made £250,000 profit. What Government of any persuasion would be so insane as to close a pit in such circumstances? I would hope that Opposition Members have learned that lesson from history. From what we have heard from them so far today, it appears that they might have done so, so perhaps their party is now more compassionate.

This is an important debate, and it gives Labour Members the chance to shine a light on the raft of measures that the Government have introduced since we came to power to support young people in their education, skills and training in times such as the current recession. I wish to focus most of my remarks on the future jobs fund and how we are implementing that in Barnsley, particularly to assist young people with limited qualifications; I am talking primarily about people who would be categorised as NEETs—those not in education, employment or training.

The FJF was announced in the 2009 Budget, and it forms part of a range of initiatives aimed at reducing benefit claimants in the 18-to-24 age range, under the young persons guarantee. The FJF is one of the largest national jobs programmes, and will create nationally 150,000 new jobs over two years, of which 100,000 are for 18 to 24-year-olds, under the young persons guarantee. Also, 50,000 jobs will be created in areas of high unemployment. The recipients can be of working age, but they must come from an area where unemployment is 1.5 per cent. above the national average, based on the claimant count. These areas are known as hot spots, and the vast majority of wards in my constituency fall into that category. The programme is being managed by the Department for Work and Pensions. Jobs must last for a minimum of six months, be additional and benefit the community, and the Department will pay £6,500 per job created.

I want to shine a light on the Barnsley scheme, because I consider it to be the Rolls-Royce scheme. It is currently being administered by the Barnsley Development Agency. Barnsley has committed to creating quality, real jobs for up to 12 months, rather than for the minimum of six months. We have achieved that through the local authority and partner organisations deciding to match the DWP contribution; indeed, Barnsley metropolitan borough council is contributing £2.5 million from its own budget to the project. In other words, we are putting our money where our mouth is. Barnsley council is one of only 14 Labour councils left in the country, but after the next elections—the general and local government elections might be held at the same time, in May—there will be a lot more Labour councils, and also the retention of the Labour Government.

Over the next two years, the council will create 412 jobs, with another 162 provided by partners in the public and voluntary sectors, and it is hoped that a further 40 jobs will come from the private sector. Therefore, a total of 644 such jobs will be created in Barnsley over the next two years. So far, 178 people have started on the programme since it was launched. Barnsley council, through its various departments, already has 149 people, the primary care trust has two, Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has six, Voluntary Action Barnsley has six, South Yorkshire Joint Secretariat has one, Barnsley college has two, Barnsley Community Build has five, Berneslai Homes—the arm’s length management organisation for the council houses in Barnsley—has five, and Priory Campus, in Lundwood in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), has two.

A unique aspect of the Barnsley scheme is the fact that it is providing wrap-around services to the people being employed under it. That will be the key to its success, and it should be replicated across other schemes. The features of the wrap-around service include the provision of a rapid recruitment service. The aim is to get people on to the scheme within six weeks of the original application, when they have been out of work for, say, 12 months. The scheme is achieving that average, but whereas sometimes people get on it within a week, at other times it can take up to 10 weeks. That is because of the need for Criminal Records Bureau and occupational health checks.

The scheme also provides a tracker system, which keeps real-time information on the people being employed, such as through real-time returns from employers. The Barnsley Development Agency can keep a record of each individual from the application stage onwards, and it knows where they are in the system—at interview stage or pre-employment stage, perhaps, or near the employment start date.

Another feature of the scheme is that weekly updates are given on the vacancy profile to all people on the scheme from Jobcentre Plus, to try to get as many of them off the scheme and into jobs as quickly as possible. There is also a pre-employment training day, which is funded by TUC training—that is part of the training for people who fall into the NEETs category—as well as personal mentoring via individual opportunity advisers. An initial assessment is also provided leading to Skills for Life training. Another important feature is vocational training up to national vocational qualification level 2 and training for health and safety qualifications. After three months on the scheme, CV-building and job search opportunities will be provided.

The Barnsley scheme was the first such scheme to launch in the country, on 5 October in the new civic hall in Barnsley, and more than 160 new employees were welcomed to the world of work by the council leader, Councillor Steve Houghton, and their new employers. For many, this was the first day of work for some considerable time. I had the opportunity to address many of the new employees, and looking at the faces of all those people who had never worked before, it was clear that their first day of work was an emotional occasion. We have generations of people in the workless category. Some are the third generation who have never had jobs. The start of their active employment in the community was a great day.

Between October and Christmas last year, 178 people gained employment through the future jobs fund, and a further 100 will do so before Easter 2010. The existing candidates all completed an initial assessment that ascertains their current education level and indicates appropriate training. Many started that training after enrolling in Barnsley college. I am glad to see the Minister for Further Education in his place. I pay tribute to him for securing the £30-odd million funding to build the new Barnsley college. I am sure he will remember the sunny day that we had in October last year, when he performed the first sod-cutting of the new campus. That campus will be a fantastic asset to all future learners in Barnsley.

Many clients are already attending interviews for jobs. I am glad to say that just before Christmas one of the people on the scheme, Miss Bernice Baines, was employed in a full-time capacity by a Department. There are currently 174 people on the programme, 56 of whom are young people, and 122 are from the so-called hot spots to which I referred. The scheme has a target to achieve an equal split between young people and hot spots. There were another 20 new starters before Christmas.

The Barnsley scheme is acknowledged regionally and nationally as a model of good practice. We understand that our wrap-around support is unique. We strongly believe that that has contributed to our retention rates. Indeed, the Improvement and Development Agency, which is part of the Local Government Association, has been in touch to ask to write up the Barnsley programme as a case study.

I have witnessed at first-hand the added value that some of those workers are providing. During the past few weeks when we have had snow on the ground in Barnsley, many of those employed by the council in neighbourhood service have been playing a valiant role in clearing the pavements and roads, particularly on the old people’s estates, where all our bungalows are, and keeping old people on the move so that they can get to local shops. That has been an added bonus from the scheme.

As for the next steps, it is obviously important for the scheme to maintain its integrity, from both a client and a partnership point of view. The council is looking to increase partner members in both the private and the public sector and hopes to extend the scheme to a greater range of jobs and opportunities. The council is also trying to attract finance and funding from other funding agencies to support the programme.

With every scheme, though, there are a number of risks. For example, it is often difficult to find other organisations that can provide match funding so that the scheme can be extended. Another aspect that causes concern in Barnsley is the restriction on engaging the private sector. One of the key criteria is that the businesses involved in the scheme must be of community benefit, such as not-for-profit organisations or social enterprises. Unfortunately, the council has so far been unable to identify any private sector company, but it is engaging with many businesses that are members of the work and skills board in Barnsley. There will be an announcement in the not-too-distant future about some private sector companies employing people on the scheme.

In my opinion, the scheme is a Rolls-Royce scheme and should be considered by local authorities hoping to have a positive effect on unemployment, particularly among young people in the NEETs category. I am sorry to say that the future jobs scheme might be under threat if we have a Tory Government after the election.

As we are rather short of speakers in the debate, I will go on a little longer. Moving away from the role that local authorities and central Government can play in helping young people during the downturn, let us consider the vital role that the voluntary sector can play in helping young people through the recession. I shall highlight one such organisation, Citizens Advice, which does outstanding work in all our constituencies. Nationally there are 413 citizens advice bureaux. I have three in my area—one in Doncaster, one in Barnsley and one in Mexborough. I used to be on the management committee of the Barnsley CAB when I was a young councillor in the 1980s, before all the pits closed under Thatcher.

Every CAB is a registered charity and more than 20,000 of the people involved in the service are trained volunteers. The recession has meant that more young people are looking for opportunities to develop new skills as they find it increasingly difficult to enter education, employment and training. Volunteering for a local CAB gives young people the chance to try out new opportunities and develop skills that will help with college and university courses and in gaining employment.

As part of the volunteer programme, young people receive training relevant to the role, and in some cases that will lead to a recognised certificate from the CAB. They also receive support from a dedicated supervisor as well as from other volunteers and young people in the bureau. More importantly, they have the chance to make friends. All the volunteers are part of a team and get the opportunity, through social and celebration events, to get to know other young people better. They also feel valued because Citizens Advice listens to young volunteers and has established a youth forum to ensure that young people are at the heart of the projects that it develops. The good news is that nearly one third of the volunteers who leave the CAB service each year use their experience to secure paid employment.

Citizens Advice has recognised that in the recession it is becoming increasingly difficult for graduates to find employment. Students must gain vital experience to make them stand out if they are to succeed in the jobs market. That is why the CAB has developed a student volunteering programme, which supports students to gain vital experience during the recession. It provides unique, office-based volunteering opportunities that allow students to gain tangible work experience. Many students find that volunteering with the CAB gives them a real insight and a connection with their adopted community. Students will receive training and accreditation for the work that they do, which potential employers see as very beneficial. Hundreds of students volunteer with Citizens Advice every year all over the country.

Citizens Advice offers specialised volunteering opportunities for students of certain subjects. For example, law students can knock up to six months off their training contract by volunteering as an adviser. Social policy and politics students can see first-hand the kind of issues affecting people on the street, and can work to make a difference. Emerging linguists can practise what they have learned as an interpreter, especially in multicultural communities, though not so much in my constituency, I admit. Public relations or marketing students can volunteer as an event organiser or fundraiser. Citizens Advice has been at the heart of every local community for 70 years, and I am sure it will continue actively to support young people in need throughout the recession and beyond.

I applaud the efforts of the CAB and other organisations that are driven by volunteers, but does my hon. Friend share my concern at the rise in internships, which tend to be monopolised by the middle class? There is a question over their legality because interns are not paid a minimum wage, and there is a key difference between an intern and a volunteer. A volunteer is someone who approaches an organisation and says, “I’d like to help you,” whereas an intern often answers an advertisement for an unpaid job. We should not encourage that.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will address when he sums up.

This is a very important debate, from a central Government point of view, as regards what we can do to help young people through the recession, from a local authority point of view, and from a voluntary sector point of view.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that, as often happens in these circumstances, we started off with plenty of time but now the clock is moving swiftly on. Perhaps those Members who are seeking to catch my eye would bear that in mind when they are making their contributions.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who is always generous and very practical.

This is an important debate. I should say to the House that one of the reasons why I shall be brisk is that I need to nip out briefly before the conclusion of the debate, but of course I want to hear the Minister wind up. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) for introducing the motion and for the forensic case that he deployed in his criticism of Government policy.

The House will know that I was formerly a further and higher education Minister, so I cover the whole remit of this debate, as it were. At my stage of a parliamentary career, it is not appropriate to be unnecessarily partisan, except perhaps at the beginning. I will merely say, in view of the difficulties in which the Minister found himself in relation to the current situation, as did the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, that I would use a motto modified from a couple from the past: “If you’re in an ’ole, start aspirating.” That is how one tries to get out of it.

I also say to the Minister—I need not give him a completely free ride—that in my experience the Government have plumbed new depths of dysfunction. That applies across the field—whether, at one level, with what went wrong with the further education capital programme or, at another, with the concerns expressed yesterday in The Guardian, in terms that I never experienced as a Minister, by the Russell group, which said that it might take six months to bring the university sector to its knees—a view that was echoed by the University and College Union. In fact, I felt that that was a little over the top, but there are definitely problems.

I have been, and remain, concerned about people at the other end of the spectrum, specifically NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—and those who have learning difficulties or are without the necessary basic skills. In the first place, the House needs to understand the impact of recessionary pressures, which create what I would call a concertina effect. Graduates who are having difficulty in getting jobs may trade down to do less demanding jobs, below level 4, and in the process—it will not be their intention—tend to squeeze out of employment altogether those who are less well qualified. They will be under-fulfilling their potential while cutting off the potential for others.

We cannot deal with the problem of NEETs without reaching back into the school system and improving opportunities outside the conventional routes of the academic world from year 7 onwards. I am pleased to see the Minister for Further Education acknowledging that. That must be accompanied by proper independent guidance and mentoring, as people need help. We still need to devise—we have been saying this for 50 or 100 years—an examination and qualifications structure that complements the traditional royal road through A-levels and on to university with an alternative credible route involving proper concentration on subjects with an emphasis on at least part-vocational diplomas locked in with apprenticeships, without closing off the routes to progression. At all stages, certainly after year 11, we need greater hands-on involvement by potential employers—that also applies as people move on to continued education—and they may have to help to finance the process. There must be a common understanding of the best financial frameworks that we can afford to support learning, matched by a coherent set of qualifications.

I have spoken elsewhere about this, and I think it is no secret that I am something of a radical in this regard. I want a national qualifications framework, on which the Government are at last making some progress, I want a credit system, and I want the support system eventually to move into that area, although we will have to wait for the Browne report before we come to a final view on that. Above all, we must not switch off thinking about doing this in the recession—we need to use it as a springboard to development. The key themes of the system should be coherence, something for everyone, and flexibility in that no administrative, financial or qualification hurdle should frustrate those who, at whatever level they find themselves, want to build a career or simply—we should not forget this—enjoy the merits of education itself to lead a more fulfilling life.

One of the more interesting and challenging hours that I have spent recently was with a group of NEETs in my constituency. Frankly, when we started I was a bit apprehensive as to how we were going to get through the hour, but it turned into a quite rewarding dialogue. Of course, I remained aware of the problems before us, but there was a belief developing that they were not insuperable, provided that as a society we are prepared to put in the time—the golden element that we often forget—to provide sympathetic support and mentoring and to treat people, whatever their level, as individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses, needs, opportunities and potential.

I want to close my brief remarks by addressing two issues of principle that I have long embraced, which we will continue to need to have validated long after we have put the recession behind us. The first is the gross misconception that learning activity is either academic or “vocational”, as if the professional classes have no practical skills and the sons of toil have no need of anything but the essential, elementary manual skills. Under the pressures of the recession, matters are made much worse by the understandable demands of employers, who say, “I’m short: send me six brickies,” or six typists—whatever it may be—as though people with vocational skills were not better employees if they had an educational hinterland.

Several hon. Members have spoken about the importance of skills for manufacturing. Is it not a fact that we are leading the world in many aspects of manufacturing because we are able to combine the academic and the practical in terms of our skills mix in that sector?

I am grateful for that intervention. I am lucky enough to have a large chunk of the Formula 1 industry, and Silverstone itself, in my constituency. These are brilliant people: they have not come up through grand academic routes, but they have fantastic application. They are highly skilled—some of the best in the world—and amazingly articulate, confident and successful people in a team. That is exactly what we are looking for.

We do not just need the one-off, simple, basic skill sets—we need hinterland as well. That may come through formal qualifications or through experience, but it needs to happen. I have seen, as many of us will have done, young people come alive through well directed vocational learning programmes, particularly when they are accompanied by good mentoring that, ideally, pulls these people through the process and motivates them, with some assurance from employers that they will take them on when they have achieved qualification. The modern work force of the future will need people with those core skills, the ability to work together, and the confidence to do their own thing and adapt to changing conditions. We are not creating automata or a mass work force, but people who can think and act for themselves.

That brings me to my final substantive point, which is about the need for progression. Of course, we all represent the aspirational classes. We take it as a matter of course that we want our children and grandchildren to progress and succeed, but why should any of us think of the NEETs as having a different agenda of their own? The problem is that in the present circumstances, it is difficult to make a plausible static case for their re-engagement with the labour market. Without unreasonable measures, or sanctions that we have not contemplated, the difference between staying a NEET and taking a dead-end job is unlikely by itself to change motivational behaviour. It is only when we can throw in the prospect of job enrichment through training, leading to greater responsibility and probable eventual promotion, that employment really becomes worth while. I remember the powerful American phrase, which I have often heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, “Start with a job, move to a good job, get on to a career.” That is how we should be thinking.

There has been some talk about consensual politics. The House will know that I am essentially a one-nation Tory and have been for many years, but we will not make progress towards one nation, however we define it, if we continue to treat any one group as persistently “other”, or as some phenomenon or problem rooted in the cares of the moment, great though they currently are. We must consider people’s personalities, minds and motivations. A learning society, which we would all like, assumes progression from the years of compulsory school—that is the easy bit—towards a society in which people, as individuals, are supported into work and through their careers as much as they need to be. Those careers develop a society, and the economy develops and changes.

There is always a struggle to resource that, and not just in a recession, but equally there is a great prize to be gained. People should not have just a narrow range of evanescent skills to do the job that they have today. We need to build a wider and good society in which nobody need feel ill-equipped, marginalised or unable fully to participate. Fortunately, this is one of those happy situations in which the prudential case, the educational case and, let us face it, the moral case coincide.

The Government have today once again set out the narrative that they have built up during the recession of the past year or so. The narrative that they like to put forward is something like this: “The recession was nothing to do with us. It was all caused by other people. Thanks to our wonderful Prime Minister it has now been sorted out in this country, and we will shortly be returning to growth.” That is the message that they want young people to hear.

However, young people are not fooled, and they know that the reality is very different. It was summed up by the headline in the business section of The Sunday Times this week, which on the face of it was quite positive. It was something along the lines of, “City confident that Britain will keep its triple A rating”. However, on reading a little of the article it became clear that the City was confident about that only because it is certain that after the general election, whoever wins will have to take urgent steps to reduce public spending.

The Government may try to maintain that the recession has now passed over and that we are coming out of it, but it is very possible that the recession proper has not even begun yet. It was caused by policies that were partly the fault of the Government, such as not regulating the banks properly, and made worse by the fact that they failed, even during the times when the economy was growing, to spend what they were taking in taxation. It will be made considerably worse by the fact that with one last throw of the dice, one last gamble, they decided to borrow billions upon billions of pounds—something like £180 billion—to try to keep the party going before the general election. That is what will concern young people in the years ahead, and it is right that it should. Whoever wins the next general election, the news will be very bad.

Of course, the reality has been disguised from many people, partly because of the failings of the education system, which should have delivered the high-tech work force that we need to thrive in a globalised economy. We have heard great rhetoric today about what the Government have done for young people and graduates, but the reality is that one in four people still leave their primary school unable to read and write properly. One in four are not getting any GCSEs at grade C or above, and one in six 16 to 24-year-olds are not in education, employment or training. It was a Labour Government who promised us a welfare state that would look after people from the cradle to the grave, but in education they have delivered a failure from the nursery to the bursary. [Interruption.] I am happy to give way to Ministers if they wish to intervene.

Would the hon. Gentleman care to give us the figures for 1997, so that we can compare them with the figures that he is complaining about so powerfully?

I shall come on to what I think the Minister alludes to. I do not have the figures to hand, but what he alludes to is important. He will attempt to suggest through statistics that more people are now getting higher levels of exam qualification, which is certainly true on paper. The fact of the matter is that virtually everyone who takes exams these days seems to pass them, which certainly did not happen in 1997.

Two possible reasons have been suggested for that. One is that the exams have become easier and the other is that pupils these days are much cleverer than pupils used to be 10 years ago. I have my views about that, but let us be generous to the Ministers, who are hopping up and down now. Let us assume that the reason why more people are getting higher grades in their GCSEs and A-levels is nothing to do with the fact that the Government have downgraded exams, even though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that that is exactly what has happened. I still say to them that it is wrong that virtually everyone who takes the exams passes them, whether at GCSE or A-level. It is impossible for the universities, and beyond that employers, to distinguish those who are good from those who are very good.

The point of an exam should not be to make people feel good about themselves. It should be partly so that people understand their strengths and weaknesses, so that employers can understand who is likely to fit into a particular role and so that universities can pick and choose the best people for the courses that they offer. The Minister should ensure, if he gets the opportunity over the next few months—I do not think he will after that—that exams are properly set so that we can understand who is good, who is very good and who is no good at all.

The hon. Gentleman is in danger of disappearing into the vortex of his own illogical representations. A minute ago he was complaining about the fact that not enough people were passing exams, and now he is saying that too many pass exams. Which is it?

That is a very good question, but the reality is that at the moment people who are unlikely to pass are simply not put in for the exams. That is why one in four people do not get a grade C or above. Generally, all those who are put in for the exams come out with some sort of qualification. That is the clever use of statistics and targets that the Government are so very good at. The Minister cannot deny that one in four people are not getting a grade C or above, or that there has been a huge increase in the number of people gaining As and Bs. It is he who needs to be making explanations.

I happen to believe that the Government have failed to impose proper standards in schools. That view has been reflected by employers, who have complained that even graduates who have come to them do not understand basic English or maths. Some companies have actually had to teach people how to write letters. A member of the public walking into the House of Commons is greeted with a sign that says, “Visitors Entrance”. Where is the apostrophe? It is not there. Who wrote these things? Perhaps it is because I am rapidly approaching 40 that that sort of thing irritates me. We cannot even get our grammar right in the mother of all Parliaments, so how do we expect people leaving schools to do so? What sort of example are we setting?

We need to go back to the basics in schools and get rid of all this politically correct stuff, with people sitting around their desks chatting to each other. What is wrong with people learning by rote, in rows, one behind the other? What happened to the three R’s in schools—reading, writing and arithmetic? They have been replaced by the three C’s—cultural studies, climate change and, for five-year-olds in primary school now, carnal knowledge. That is absolutely disgraceful.

We need to get rid of the sham degrees that allow people to spend three or four years doing such things as surfing studies or game theory. I once thought that that might refer to the respected branch of economics, but it is literally about understanding the differences between Playstations and Xboxes, as far as I can see. That course is actually being offered in one higher education institute in London, which is absolutely disgraceful. We are not going to pull ourselves out of recession and help young people by setting an artificial target of sending 50 per cent. of them to university if they are going to come out with those Mickey Mouse degree qualifications that will mean nothing to employers.

What about ensuring that people can be respected for gaining vocational skills? I have letters after my name: I am David Davies HGV class 1, a graduate of the Heads of the Valleys school of motoring, Gilwern 1992! That qualification enabled me to have four years of gainful and very well paid employment as a contract driver at Lucas Girling. That is nothing to be ashamed of; I am very glad I did it because I do not think I would have benefited at that age from a university education. I believe we should give all the support we can to those who would benefit from such an education, but we cannot put 50 per cent. of the population into university and think there will be no cost to the people concerned who will rack up bills, or to taxpayers who pay £10,000 a year to fund those courses.

If we are going to get Britain out of the recession, we need to start matching the skills that are needed by employers to the skills that are offered by universities and training courses. I do not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that hundreds of thousands of people are coming into this country from eastern Europe and beyond. My wife is from eastern Europe, so I am in no way prejudiced about that, but it irritates me that all the jobs for plumbers, carpenters, electricians and other skilled tradesmen are being taken by people who have come here from other countries because nobody in this country is qualified to do them. At the same time we have graduates in things such as surf study management who cannot get a job. Surely I am not alone in thinking that that is the policy of madness—many young people and employers can see that too. They are going to be coming out at the next general election to vote and campaign to ensure that the next generation of young people are educated under Conservative policies, so that we have a work force who are able to compete in a globalised economy, and who have the ability to drag us out of the recession that this Government did so much to get us in.

I want to stay with the very narrow point of the relationship between skills training and the workplace. This issue concerns me greatly and I have spoken about it in the House on a number of occasions. I make no apology for the fact that I come from a business background. I have been a business manager for 40 years, and I can tell the House that business increasingly relies upon employees with high literacy and numeracy skills. Therein lies a serious problem. Fifty per cent. of employers or thereabouts are dissatisfied with the quality of the training and education of the school leavers whom they meet.

Literacy and numeracy training begins at primary school. It is worrying and frightening to learn that each year, about 120,000 children leave primary school unable to read and write properly. The Government are aware of the problem and are working on it, but it is already seriously inconveniencing the futures of many of our young children. We must crack that problem. Otherwise, talk of further skills training is almost meaningless: if kids cannot add up or read properly, the difficulties of training them later are considerably enhanced. That is my first point.

I will not say much about NEETs—people not in employment, education or training, about whom much has already been said—but I will make the point that Britain’s future is to an immense extent tied up with having people who are skilful enough to work in the hi-tech, highly skilled businesses that will create for Britain what I hope will be a more interesting and wealthier future when the upturn comes. I must tell the Government, as businesses will tell them, that the upturn has not yet happened. Frankly, we do ourselves no favours by saying that the recession has ended.

I normally would, but I do not have very much time.

We need a knowledge-based economy, to ensure that those hi-tech, highly skilled jobs that we could produce in manufacturing are produced, and that the opportunity is exploited. We have a real opportunity. Manufacturing jobs are coming back, because the level of skill and technical knowledge is increasing greatly in certain areas of the sector. We need to be able to exploit that, which means training people, which in turn means colleges of further education. However, to my mind , Governments of both hues have neglected and failed to enhance FE colleges properly in the past 20 years. The building programme that is under way is immensely welcome, and I recognise that in that respect, there is some hope for the future. However, this is about not only the buildings but what happens inside them, which is so important.

I spoke to a very fine principal of Northampton college of further education—which, I am delighted to say, is a recipient of the Government programme to enhance our FE infrastructure. His name is Len Closs. He is a highly skilled and experienced teacher, and leads and runs a very effective and important college in Northampton. I asked him what he thought we needed to take on board if we were to move forward, and he said:

“Firstly, to recognise that learners are individuals with their own talents and abilities…This implies further development of training curricula to avoid ‘one size fits all’ and to address differentiation in learners’ needs and employers requirements…Secondly, Skills Trainers must have a passion for the subject and the skill to inspire others to want to achieve. This implies the need to ensure that high quality practitioners continue to be encouraged to come into training and that employers continue to give access to opportunities in the workplace alongside enthusiastic practitioners.”

In other words, he is telling us that the human relationship between pupil and teacher lies at the heart of good skills training, which indeed it does; it lies at the heart of education generally, but I am focusing particularly on skills training. We need to learn lessons from what heads of further education colleges tell us, and I hope that Ministers have heard those comments.

In conclusion, colleges are vital to inform us about how to solve the problem of skills training, and we need to listen to their recommendations; that is the first piece of advice that I would give the Government. Secondly, we need to develop good literacy and numeracy skills at the base of our educational structure, for without those we will not succeed.

Thirdly, vocational and skills training should be workplace-driven, and local businesses should motivate, direct and be involved with local vocational problems. All too often, vocational training is created by educationists—although that does not happen in Northampton, I am delighted to say. We need business to be involved in the process if we are to be successful. All too often, ill-designed packages are being created and delivered away from the workplace, and they are distant from the ethos and culture of the working environment.

I could go on, but time forbids; it is right and proper that I should give the Front-Bench spokesmen the time in which to sum up. But I want to encourage the Government to understand the importance of outreach, of bringing in businesses to help create the training programmes, and of training in the workplace.

Most of all, we should ensure that we have skills trainers who are inspired to train and can make that vital connection, on a one-to-one basis, with those whom we are letting down at the moment—the NEETs. They are best handled by inspirational people in colleges of further education, to ensure that we put right the mistakes that we have made earlier, in primary education. It is a very tough job, but if we do not face up to it and make the advances that we need to make, we will not be in a position to exploit the high-tech opportunities that I believe Britain can exploit when the upturn comes. That means increasing our manufacturing base, which is so important to us.

W. B. Yeats said:

“Education is the lighting of a fire”.

In Britain today, however, there are people whose fire has been extinguished: the young people who are out of education, untrained, left behind and with little prospect of a fulfilling job. I am talking about an army—one might say a “forgotten army”—of 1 million young people not in education, employment or training. They are a generation of broken lives and shattered dreams—but the tragedy is not only personal to them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who began the debate, pointed out, the situation is a tragedy for our nation as a whole, and a growing burden on the state. The Prince’s Trust estimates that the cost of the growing forgotten army is about £3 billion a year. We know that if a young person’s first experience of the labour market is of unemployment and failure, that can leave deep scars of disadvantage. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) pointed out, prospects can be damaged for a whole lifetime.

The problem is not caused simply by the recession. Youth unemployment rose in the last decade, even when unemployment overall was falling. As the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) said, the number of NEETs has remained stubbornly and unacceptably high throughout the lifetime of this Government. Instead of more young people being helped to enter skilled employment, most new jobs have gone to people born overseas. It is not ethically sustainable that, at a time when more and more British young people, of all kinds and from all origins, are finding themselves unable to get a job and access training, we should be importing so much foreign labour. The OECD says that seven in 10 jobs created since 1997 have been filled by foreign workers.

That might have led one to suspect that the Minister would speak at the beginning of the debate with a degree of contrition, and that he would be in the mood to apologise or concede. But no—we heard a mixture of windy rhetoric and partisan bombast. I have to say that I am disappointed in the Minister—and it all comes after years of spin and debt. We simply cannot go on like that, and he knows it. We must lay the foundations for a stronger, broader-based economy by providing real opportunities to young people.

Given that such a high proportion of foreign workers come from other member states of the European Union, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that we revisited the question of the free movement of labour within the EU?

That is a different subject for a different day. I do agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to boost apprenticeships; I know that he and the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough are advocates of the apprenticeship system. They will know that in 2007 a report on apprenticeships by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs concluded that many who would benefit from an apprenticeship were not doing so, mainly because of the severe shortage of places. Again, it is time that Ministers came clean.

We might have expected an admission of falling apprenticeship numbers. In the fourth quarter of last year, we saw a fall in the number of apprenticeship starts. We did not hear about that when the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property spoke. The figures are worse than has been suggested. The fact is that all of the increase in the number of apprenticeships over the past decade has been a result of converting other forms of training into apprenticeships. That is precisely what the Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s report said in 2007.

Ministers like to count the number of apprentices in terms of apprenticeship starts, so when the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs sums up, will he confirm that at the beginning of the decade there were 84,500 advanced apprenticeship starts at level 3, and that by the end of the decade that number had fallen to less than 80,000? The number of level 3 apprenticeship starts—that is the level at which all apprenticeships were once defined, and below which a position would not be regarded as an apprenticeship in other countries—

The Minister can confirm that when he sums up, I hope, rather than interrupting my rather attractive rhetorical flow at this moment.

The Government failed because they failed to engage employers. It is time to change. A Conservative Government will make it much easier for companies to run apprenticeships. The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property invited us to give a description of our policies. We never resist that kind of invitation, so let me remind him what those policies are. We will tighten the apprenticeship frameworks so that they are relevant to each sector of the economy, we will cut the bureaucracy that surrounds apprenticeships, we will pay employers directly for the training they provide, we will boost the apprenticeship programme by almost £800 million in support from Train to Gain to help those most in need and, because we know that small and medium-sized enterprises need extra support, we will pay an apprenticeship bonus of £2,000 for each apprenticeship at an SME.

As the Minister should know, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant pointed out at the beginning of the debate, we will also introduce an all-age careers service so that people get the right advice about the right opportunities to be trained and educated. We will also put in place special additional support for NEETs, through a NEETs fund. Those are tangible, costed real policies. I do not know whether the Minister had not heard about them before today, but I know that he will go home a happier man for having done so.

The House of Lords inquiry on apprenticeships concluded that one of the biggest barriers to young people’s participating in apprenticeship training was the lack of basic skills, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley). Ofsted told the inquiry that a conservative estimate would be that 300,000 16 to 19-year-olds were unable to access apprenticeships because of a lack of basic skills. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, we need to build a pathway that helps more young people into apprenticeships and skilled employment. We need a programme of pre-apprenticeship training, with key skills such as numeracy and literacy embedded in learning a trade. That will demonstrate to young people the importance of such skills to their working life.

For the hard core of NEETs, who will at first need to take small steps back into learning and employment, we will establish extra FE college places every year. There will be 50,000 new places each year in colleges that are liberated—freed from the stifling bureaucracy that was identified by Andrew Foster in a report for the Government years ago, yet the Government have done so little about it. From new college courses through pre-apprenticeship training and real work-based apprenticeships to higher apprenticeships and foundation degrees, I want to build a ladder of opportunity that will be respected by learners and valued by employers.

The House would be disappointed if I did not say a brief word about the student loans crisis that was rightly identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant as a fundamental failure on the part of this Government. That is not merely the view of Members on the Opposition Benches or of critics of the Government on their own Benches. The report that the Government commissioned concluded that the Department itself was in part to blame, because of the confusion that it caused by moving the goalposts every time the Student Loans Company tried to organise its affairs.

I want to elicit from the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, when he sums up, some answers to specific questions. It is immensely regrettable, as I am sure that he realises, that, as the review revealed,

“new students…have experienced real and significant problems in applying for financial support”.

I wrote to the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property just before Christmas. I did not want to spoil his turkey dinner, but I felt that these questions needed to be answered. I am disappointed to say that I have still not had a reply, and so I hope that the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs will answer these questions.

On 10 December last year, Ministers indicated to the House that the backlog in cases would be cleared by the weekend of 12 December. Will the Minister confirm whether that was the case. If it is not, why not?

Will institutions that have used access to learning funds to cover the gap between students applying for and receiving loans receive support from either the Higher Education Funding Council for England or the Department? Does the Minister accept the conclusion of an independent review that many students missed the published deadlines for applications because they were not clearly stated or well publicised, and not well understood by applicants. Perhaps he could repeat what his ministerial colleagues have said: that the Government are offering a guarantee that there will be no January admissions crisis. It would be wrong were the House to learn later that the lessons had not been learned, and that students applying for admission to colleges and universities in January and February had faced the same difficulties as their predecessors.

Will the Minister give an absolute assurance that there will be no crisis this year? He has had long enough to give such an assurance, and the House wants to hear it. He knows what my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) reminded him: the Government have failed. They have failed to reduce the number of those not in education, employment or training, to expand real apprenticeships and to help more disadvantaged people into university.

I want to deal with two points that the Minister raised. He will be familiar with the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s performance indicators that were referenced in the 2006 Dearing report. However, the indicators remain stubbornly similar to those in the report, which revealed that working-class participation in universities had increased by just 1 per cent. since 1995. Participation programmes such as Aimhigher, on which the Government spent more than £2 billion a year, have produced a 1 per cent. increase in participation by working-class students.

I am not saying that we do not need to advise and guide, which is why we want an all-age careers service, and I am not saying that we do not need to address that problem, which is why we want to look at modes of learning, access points to learning and all the other ways in which we can widen participation—widening participation is top of my agenda. Let us not live in cloud cuckoo land though, but consider and address the facts, and see what we can do to change them.

I seek some clarity on one other matter, because the House would expect it to be on the record: the success or failure of Train to Gain. The Minister knows that the 2009 NAO report concluded that

“the programme has not provided good value for money”,

that the dead-weight cost was about 50 per cent., and that many employers said that they would have arranged the training anyway, although that would not necessarily have resulted in a qualification. Train to Gain is immensely cost ineffective—and Ministers know it.

We have had a decade of failure—millions of shattered dreams and broken lives. Labour Members know that but are embarrassed to admit to it. They are too timid to own up and too faint-hearted to challenge. Indeed, if Labour MPs had populated the Bounty, there would not have been a mutiny and Captain Bligh would have got away with his punitive regime. Well, we will not let the Government continue to punish Britain’s youth and Britain’s future any longer. It is time for those who have failed to step aside and let those with perseverance and passion step forward, to let Britain grow and to bring new hope, jobs and opportunity. The Government are out of ideas, they are out of good people, they are out of tune, out of step and out of line—and very soon they will be out of office, too.

This has been a most enjoyable debate, not least during the last contribution. Members’ contributions have been of a high standard, as is often the case in such debates.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on his speech. He has had to attend a Select Committee, which is why he is not in his place now. However, he gave us an example of what is going on in Barnsley, which is an exemplar for the rest of the country in terms of skills.

I would also like to congratulate the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). He knows that, personally, I like him immensely. He is a proper Tory, and we heard the authentic voice of the Conservative party in his contribution this afternoon. However, given his traducing of the training for the games industry, I should point out that it is now larger than the music industry in this country. The hon. Gentleman rather reminded me of John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, who advised him not to go into the music business because it was a complete waste of time.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), who made a thoughtful and interesting contribution. He rightly recognised the value of the capital programme at the further education college in his area, from which his constituency has benefited, and the importance of jobs in the manufacturing industry.

That leads me to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who as ever made a highly thoughtful and intelligent contribution. He sits on the board of the university in my constituency, and a welcome board member he is, with the experience and wisdom that he brings. He spoke about the importance of the modern work force and modern manufacturing—I think that the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) intervened at that point. He mentioned the Formula 1 industry in his constituency and the fact that this is still a great manufacturing country—the sixth most important in the world—with a high level of skills.

That triggered off in my mind a story told by my predecessor, who until quite recently was the First Minister of Wales, about the plane involved in the miracle on the River Hudson. Captain Sullenberger, in a display of great heroism and skill, landed the plane on the Hudson. When the passengers got out and stood on the wings, which saved their lives, they were standing on wings that had been manufactured here in the UK, in north Wales. That is an example of the great British modern manufacturing that is out there around the world. We forget that. Frankly, hon. Members in all parts of the House do not blow our trumpet loudly enough when it comes to the great manufacturing industry that we still have in this country. It is right that this Government have a policy of industrial activism to develop that manufacturing industry further, through our “New Industry, New Jobs” policies.

The speech made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was immensely enjoyable, as his speeches almost always are. They are not always entirely illuminating, but they are always hugely enjoyable and humorous. As ever, he included a poetry quotation. On this occasion it was from Yeats; if I remember correctly, on the previous occasion when we debated in the House he quoted Eliot. Perhaps I could quote for him another great lyricist—Madonna—and say that we have “heard it all before”.

I am not dumbing down, and that is an unfair accusation. I could quote poetry—my wife is a poetry editor—but we have indeed heard it all before.

Beyond that rhetoric—the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings accused my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education of windy rhetoric and partisan bombast; there were elements of kettle, pot and black in that remark. The Opposition motion asks three fairly important questions. First, should we be expanding apprenticeships, as we are doing? Secondly, should we be reducing bureaucracy for FE colleges, as we are also doing? Thirdly, should we be offering record numbers of university places? Again, that is exactly what we are doing right now, with 43 per cent. of young people going on to university. Let us look at those questions in a little more detail in the time available.

Despite what the hon. Gentleman said—he did not allow me to intervene to make this point—the expansion of apprenticeships is a remarkable story. It is a success story for the Government and for the country. It is not unfair to say that apprenticeships were withering on the vine before this Government came into power. There were 240,000 apprenticeship starts in 2008-09, which, despite what he said, is the largest number ever. He also complained and asked whether I could confirm that the number of higher-level apprenticeship starts in 2008-09 was below 80,000. No, I cannot confirm that, because the figure in 2008-09 was 81,400—it was more than 80,000, not less, as he implied.

The Minister talks about apprenticeship starts. Will he tell us about the attrition level? How many of those people do not conclude their courses?

I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman asked me that, because the success rate for apprenticeships last year rose by 6 per cent. to 70 per cent. That is more than double what it has been previously. That is a remarkable success story and a remarkable rate of growth. As I have said, the motion is inaccurate in stating that there has been an overall fall in the number of apprenticeship starts. The rate is remarkable for a time of recession, given that apprenticeships are essentially work-based training. We all have to acknowledge the challenges that economic downturn and recession bring for the younger age group, particularly 16 to 18-year-olds, who are especially badly hit during a recession. That is exactly why the Government have taken all the measures that we have in relation to young people.

I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), who deals with the under-19s, is present. We have done a lot to try to assist that age group, including through the September guarantee, which the Opposition have consistently refused to match. Neither the Conservative Front Benchers who are present today nor those in the Department for Children, Schools and Families shadow team have committed to the September guarantee. We brought in the January guarantee to make sure that people can enter employment training if they are unable to find work or other forms of training, and that is exactly why we are also introducing a £2,500 incentive for employers to support 5,000 new apprenticeship places for 16 and 17-year-olds now. As I have been able to say, thanks to the intervention of the hon. Member for Northampton, South, we are now hitting record completion rates for apprenticeships that are well over double what they used to be. Despite what the Opposition say in their attempts to downplay apprenticeships and to make out that they are something like those under the youth training scheme, which was the Conservatives response to youth unemployment, they are quality apprenticeships with a high level of success, and the young people who undertake them make great achievements.

Apprenticeships are just one of the four national learning pathways that we have introduced for 16 to 18-year-olds. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 will ensure that apprenticeship places are available for all suitably qualified young people by 2013. We anticipate that one in five young people will undertake apprenticeships in the next decade. They will be a key route to bringing us out of the economic downturn, and it is vital that we continue to invest in young people in that way. As I have said, the take-up of apprenticeships continues to rise, and the number of completions has smashed all previous records. We have hit our public service agreement target on apprenticeships two years ahead of target, so I shall not take any lessons on this issue. In our recent “Skills for Growth” White Paper, as part of the national skills strategy, we have committed to having 35,000 new places for 19 to 30-year-olds in higher-level apprenticeships in the next two years. We have introduced group training models so that smaller businesses can work together to provide apprenticeships, and that approach has the potential to develop another 15,000 places in the next few years. We have also committed £5 million for the development of new frameworks at levels 3 and 4, so the Opposition’s charge about higher-level apprenticeships is completely unfounded.

The hon. Member for Havant talked about progression, which is an important issue. He talked about the report of the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) and the importance of trying to inspire apprentices to build their skills up to the higher education level. We have committed—again in the skills strategy—to introduce an apprenticeship scholarship fund from the autumn, and we are currently working through the details of that undertaking.

By asking me to give way, the hon. Gentleman must be implying that my rhetoric is not as good as his rhetoric, because he gave the quality of his rhetoric as a reason not to give way to me. [Interruption.] I am, indeed, nicer, but I am going to carry on for a moment.

The second charge in the Opposition’s motion was about bureaucracy. We are doing a great deal to reduce bureaucracy in FE colleges. In our investment strategy and in our “Skills for Growth” paper, we have clearly indicated the types of measures that we are taking to reduce bureaucracy. Good and outstanding colleges no longer have to be inspected every two or three years, but every six years. Good and outstanding colleges may now choose to switch their money—to “vire”, to use the technical term—right across their budgets and they are subject to much-reduced audit. Indeed, all colleges, not just good or outstanding ones, can now switch their expenditure within their budget headings on learner-responsive and employer-responsive budgets, and we have reduced the number of agencies that they have to talk to. It is not true that the Government are not making progress on reducing bureaucracy, on which we should be constantly vigilant. We are determined to carry on with that simplification agenda and to carry on reducing bureaucracy.

The number of students is the third element of the Opposition motion. The Opposition called on us to clarify matters about the Student Loans Company, and I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the backlog has been cleared and that we have accepted the terms of the review, which I was asked about earlier. I cannot guarantee the hon. Member for Havant that there will not be a crisis this year, however, as according to some bookmakers, there could be a Conservative Government this year. If that happened, I could not guarantee that there would not be a further crisis. Nevertheless, the measures that we have taken and our acceptance of the Hopkin report’s recommendations will go a long way towards improving the situation.

I cannot leave the subject of extra student numbers without once again referring to the proposal in the Opposition motion to create 10,000 extra places for students next year. The hon. Member for Havant said that he could raise £300 million from getting 1 per cent. of the money returned to the Government as part of his programme. He said that he would get that money by offering a discount to those who repaid early. Well, earlier in 2008-09, £300 million was already paid back early. If his proposal were adopted, he would have to pay, with his 10 per cent. discount, £30 million to people who were going to pay the Government back anyway. That £30 million dead-weight cost would be needed in order to work the little three-card trick that he has developed to avoid facing the fact that funding extra places means providing the money.

I advise the hon. Member for Havant to go and see his hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). When he goes into his hon. Friend’s room, he should tell him to sit down and take the weight off his feet for a moment, and explain that what he really needs to do if he wants to create extra student places is decide to spend the money necessary to provide them. If he wants to do that, he is going to have to borrow the money. Alternatively, the hon. Gentleman could tell the shadow Chancellor that he wants to spend £30 million for nothing—on students who are already paying the money back.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s flow of rhetoric, which is considerable, but does he agree that the Conservative motion is not entirely clear about the 10,000 places, because the implication is that those 10,000 places would be there for ever more, whereas it is in fact a one-off for only one cohort?

As my hon. Friend rightly points out—he got the Opposition to elucidate earlier—this is a one-off three-card trick. I do not think the policy could possibly be sustained over a period of time, because it is a false way of trying to fund the extra places. If the hon. Member for Havant wants to fund these places—it is a legitimate aspiration to fund more places in higher education; we have done it year after year so that we now have record numbers of places—he has to be up front with the British people, he has to be straight with the House and he has to say that he is prepared to spend the money, by borrowing if necessary, to do so. Otherwise, he will simply not be believed, and he will waste £30 million on a dead-weight cost, which is an absolute waste of public money.

Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.

Question agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).


That this House recognises the Government’s commitment to maintaining investment in apprenticeships, higher education and skills and its commitment not to repeat the mistakes of past recessions, and to ensure that young people are not trapped in long-term unemployment; notes that since 1997 there have been 339,000 extra students in higher education, more than ever before, and that public funding has increased by over 25 per cent. in real terms creating the world-class higher education sector enjoyed today; further notes the Government’s commitment to managed growth in higher education to sustain quality and success in widening access, creating the most diverse student population ever; commends the Government’s commitment to helping graduates through the downturn; further notes that investment in apprenticeships today is over £1 billion in 2009-10, and that in 1997 there were only 65,000 starts compared to 240,000 in 2008-09; further notes the success of Train to Gain in supporting over 1.4 million course starts; commends the September Guarantee offering all 16 and 17 year olds an apprenticeship, school, college or training place; and acknowledges the Government’s investment of £1.2 billion in the Future Jobs Fund to guarantee a job, training or work experience for every young person unemployed for 12 months, and the graduate guarantee giving graduates unemployed for six months a guarantee of a high-quality internship or training, or help to become self-employed.