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Adult Skills Provision

Volume 609: debated on Tuesday 3 May 2016

4. What his Department’s strategy is for the funding of adult skills provision in FE colleges for the remainder of this Parliament; and if he will make a statement. (904766)

We are protecting the adult education budget in cash terms, extending subsidised loans to advanced learners and introducing an apprenticeship levy, so funding will be 40% higher in cash terms by 2020.

We are told that the adult skills budgets will be devolved to regions that have secured a devolution deal. Will the Minister assure me that those budgets will be ring-fenced and not subjected to cuts?

We will certainly be ensuring that the budgets are spent on skills training, but the whole point of devolving them is to give the local combined authorities the power to decide which are the skills priorities in their area, not to have them asking me for permission to spend on a skills need that they have identified.

Area reviews are an important way of understanding local adult education needs. Will the Minister be encouraging such reviews to look at the needs of women returning to work after caring responsibilities, so that they can use the further education sector to really develop their skills and add to the productivity of our country?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the great opportunities in the apprenticeships programme is that apprenticeships are all age. For women who have perhaps taken a career break, or just want to change their profession, an apprenticeship is an opportunity to gain new skills while also earning an income so that they can forge a great career.

When will the Government be publishing guidelines on how skills budgets might be devolved in those areas where that devolution is being looked at?

That will depend on when exactly the devolution deal is done. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, in our own area of Greater Lincolnshire that deal is reasonably well advanced; in other parts of the country, the deals are less well advanced. Fundamentally, it is pretty simple: we want authorities to be commissioning from their local colleges the adult skills provision that they believe their area can benefit from.

Although the budget is enhanced, it is only a finite amount. Given that, it is important that it is targeted at where it will have the most effect. Does the Minister agree that those funds are best targeted at young adults, the low-skilled and those actively seeking work?

I agree with my hon. Friend that those will often be the best targets. What is even more important is that his local combined authority and those of other hon. Members are best placed to identify the particular groups or industries with particular needs, and then respond accordingly.

Further education colleges in Scotland are the largest providers of apprenticeship education. Will they therefore be exempt from the apprenticeship levy?

The apprenticeship levy will apply to all employers throughout the United Kingdom with a payroll bill of more than £3 million. Of course, there is absolutely nothing to prevent any employer in Scotland that is paying the levy from putting pressure on whoever is in government in Scotland after this Thursday to make sure that they increase their investment in apprenticeships, as we are doing in England.

Tucked away in the autumn statement was the Government’s admission that they will be cutting—their term is “efficiencies”—£360 million of adult skills non-apprenticeship funding between now and 2020. Does the Minister not see that there is a paradox in the Government going hell for leather on English and maths for young people’s apprenticeships while failing to ring-fence funding for basic skills, when England has 9 million people of working age with low literacy and numeracy, and we are ranked bottom in literacy and next-to-bottom in numeracy among 23 developed nations? Last year, the Government cut the adult skills budget across England by 18%. Now they have scrapped plans for advanced post-24 skills. Why is the Government’s key White Paper addressing technical skills shortages being delayed? Is all this a strategy or a wing and a prayer?

There was a lot of detail in the hon. Gentleman’s question, but not a lot of clarity, so here is the clarity: we are increasing total funding available for further education by 40% in cash terms during this Parliament. He talks about last year because he does not like this year, and that is because this year’s spend tells the story of a Government investing in skills for the future.