HC Deb 08 February 1995 vol 254 cc433-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Willetts.]

9.21 pm
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise matters connected with a subject rarely debated in the House—horticulture. It is a topic close to my heart, first because it is a major industry in my constituency, but secondly because I am aware of the problems associated with the industry through my work as chairman of the Conservative parliamentary horticulture and market sub-committee, as vice-president of the Capel Manor horticulture trust, as a livery man of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, as an honorary member of the Institute of Horticulture, and, finally, as parliamentary consultant to the Horticultural Trades Association, which has, of course, been properly registered in the Register of Members' Interests.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to a matter that should be of concern to hon. Members: further education students training for a career in horticulture are at an unfair disadvantage compared with most students training for work in other industries.

Commercial horticultural production is an industry of great importance to the United Kingdom, with a total value of about £1.8 billion per year. There is also considerable scope for import substitution, especially in the provision of ornamental trees and shrubs used in landscaping schemes and in private gardens.

The British garden, park and rural landscape are part of our heritage, and contribute enormously to our tourist industry and to our leisure industries. Not only do our urban landscape schemes enhance the visual appearance of our towns and cities, but the trees that they contain improve air quality, filtering out dust and traffic pollution and reducing noise. The horticulture industry therefore makes an incalculable contribution to the British way of life, beyond what can be measured in purely financial terms.

This important industry relies upon a relatively small number of further education graduates—about 1,500 a year. A relatively modest slice of the UK's further education budget—a mere 0.32 per cent.—would sustain the education needs of an industry which makes a major contribution to the UK economy and to the environment.

It has long been recognised that horticulture is best taught in colleges with appropriate facilities, and excellent colleges do exist. The nature of the industry demands that such colleges, with their workshops, glasshouses and outside growing areas, should be located in rural areas. A relatively high proportion of students will also be attracted from rural areas, which inevitably means that most students either travel long distances to attend courses or seek residential accommodation.

Each horticultural college draws its students from a wide area, frequently from throughout the United Kingdom, and is equipped with extensive residential accommodation. That distinguishes the colleges from a typical further education establishment, which is situated at the centre of a public transport network in the centre of an urban area and draws upon day students who travel from home.

If the centres provided by horticulture colleges—modern horticultural units with the latest technology in keeping with the highly specialised nature of the industry—are expensive to install and run, the teaching methods employed are also costly. Small teaching groups are required because of the safety demands of the training. That those additional costs are inevitable has been recognised by the Further Education Funding Council tariff advisory committee, which recommended a higher level of funding for courses.

Despite that recognition, the facilities and the centres of excellence which contain them are in danger of being lost because the courses are hardly viable. That is due to a combination of two factors. The first is the small number of horticulture students, when taken over the country as a whole. I stated earlier that there were about 1,500 horticulture further education graduates a year. Within that number is an enormous diversity, with graduates in landscape construction, landscape maintenance and green-keeping, and a substantial number of general horticulture graduates.

The commercial production industry—which has the greatest potential for import substitution and export development—relies on about 200 graduates per year being supplied by a handful of courses.

The second, and more significant, point is that there is an increasing incidence of potential students being denied the resources to attend courses. Student fees and maintenance grants are part of local authority expenditure, and students in further education rely on discretionary awards. Although local authorities have an obligation to provide such awards in practice, funds are often not available for all who demand them.

In each successive year, there is an increase in the number of eligible students who are unable to obtain adequate awards. Statistics from 1992 show that nearly 7 per cent. of students eligible for discretionary awards were unable to take up courses in land-based subjects because grants were not available. In addition, the level of some awards was insufficient to allow the student to commence his or her chosen course. I do not have more recent statistics to hand, but all the evidence points to a deterioration of the situation since then.

Courses which are otherwise viable are therefore put in jeopardy. Discretionary awards can be denied to students for a variety of reasons, none of which relates to the education needs of the student. I shall cite a number of examples. First, despite their obligation to do so, some authorities do not make discretionary awards. Their justification for that is that their expenditure is fully allocated elsewhere.

Secondly, other authorities do not provide out-county awards where they consider that relevant courses are available in-county. That action demonstrates the local authorities' lack of appreciation of the diversity within the industry. Such authorities fail to recognise the need for the very specialised training facilities required for the various sectors of the industry. At present, different colleges specialise in different sectors. One might have excellent facilities for landscape construction. Another might have facilities for hardy ornamental stock production or garden centre operations. To combine groups of students into one general course is to destroy the excellence that currently exists.

Thirdly, other authorities will not fund land-based courses. Therefore, effective use cannot be made of existing resources, not because further education funding is inadequate but because students are denied access. That results in the available courses being undersubscribed and threatens the continued viability of such centres and the specialised courses that they provide for the needs of horticulture. That will result in valuable national resources going to waste. Also, students entering further education are discriminated against vis-à-vis students entering higher education, who are entitled to receive mandatory awards. That is unjust discrimination.

Students who enter horticultural further education are more likely to require accommodation or incur extensive travelling costs than more typical further education students. Thus there is inequality of opportunity between rural students who wish to train for a horticultural career and urban students who have easy access to local further education colleges. The current system of discretionary awards is seen to be unsatisfactory because it discriminates against students in the horticulture industry who wish to take up further education. The withholding of discretionary awards threatens the future of the excellent courses that are now available and the centres that provide them. The horticulture industry cannot tackle the problem alone. While the industry might in various ways help to support a limited number of centres of excellence, its efforts will be to no avail if students cannot obtain the grants that they need to attend those centres.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the considerable benefits of an efficient, well-run horticulture industry which provides well-trained staff and can hold its own against competition from any part of the world. Against that, he should consider the relatively modest cost of introducing mandatory further education awards for horticulture students in place of the current discretionary awards. I ask my hon. Friend to agree that such a change in the funding of students' awards in further education should be enacted. I look forward to his response.

9.33 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on her success in obtaining an Adjournment debate to raise this topic in the House. I thank her for her interesting, eloquent and informative speech. We would expect no less because we well understand her expertise in horticulture and we appreciate very much her work on behalf of the horticulture industry. In turn, she will know that my own family has been actively involved in horticulture for many years—indeed, for generations—and I can well appreciate personally the issues involved.

My hon. Friend's speech focused mainly on horticulture students in further education, but she also mentioned, to differentiate them, higher education students. Students on designated higher education courses, whatever the subject, will, of course, be eligible for mandatory awards and also for student loans. It is a matter of record that Britain's system of support for higher education students is one of the most generous in the world. For 1995–96, the total support available through grants and loans in this area will increase by 2.5 per cent., in line with forecast price increases.

With regard to further education, my hon. Friend is right to say that students depend to a large extent on discretionary awards from local education authorities. Although local education authorities are required to make grants to eligible students attending designated courses, they may make grants at their discretion to students who are not personally eligible to receive mandatory awards or who are attending non-designated courses. The decision whether to make such a grant lies entirely with the authority concerned, as does the rate of grant payable and the method of assessment.

Although authorities are entirely free to decide on the allocation of discretionary awards funding, they must make clear the basis on which their decisions are made. The public can, of course, try to influence the discretionary awards policies and budgets of individual authorities. The Audit Commission's arrangements for the publication of performance indicators for each authority's services, including discretionary awards, are promoting informed comparisons of local education authorities' effectiveness in responding to local needs.

There has been a good deal of concern recently about the supposed decline in the availability of discretionary awards. In fact, the evidence suggests that the system as a whole is holding up well. The Gulbenkian survey, published in April last year, found that the number of discretionary awards to further education students was forecast to rise by 32 per cent. between 1990–91 and 1993–94. Expenditure on those awards was also expected to rise by 14 per cent. in real terms over the same period. My Department's own statistics show that in 1992–93, local authorities in England and Wales spent almost £170 million on further education discretionary awards.

Within that overall picture, I accept that there are wide variations in local authorities' practices. To some extent, that is a response to local needs and priorities; that is inevitable and should, indeed, be welcomed. But there is evidence that potential students' chances of obtaining an award are increasingly dependent on where they happen to live and that some authorities are effectively throwing in the towel on discretionary awards, as my hon. Friend has mentioned.

The Government are concerned by this evidence and are keeping the situation under review. However, unless there is evidence that a local education authority is in breach of its statutory duty—for example, by operating a policy of saying, "No awards, come what may"—it is not open to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to intervene in an individual authority's policies. It must be for the local authorities themselves in the first instance to respond as necessary to concerns about the availability of awards. I understand that the local authority associations are currently working on a voluntary code of practice, and I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming that development.

My hon. Friend's particular concern is with the position of residential horticultural colleges. I am certainly aware of the particular difficulties faced by students wishing to attend residential colleges because of the relatively high cost to local authorities of supporting them. She will appreciate that a similar problem arises in relation to the agricultural colleges. She may like to know that I am to meet two delegations soon to hear their views on the issue.

My hon. Friend's proposed solution is simply to make mandatory awards available for students at those colleges. There are two difficulties with her proposal. First, it would require primary legislation, because the 1962 Act provides for mandatory awards to be made only to students on higher education courses. Secondly, it would be expensive. Even to extend mandatory awards only to full-time students at residential horticultural and agricultural colleges—1 doubt whether my hon. Friend would argue that the two should be treated differently—would cost an estimated £30 million a year. To extend the student loans scheme, which would be the natural corollary, would cost another £8 million a year initially. More importantly, any such move would open the floodgates to other further education students who felt that they had an equally strong claim to mandatory funding. That could be enormously expensive and in the current public expenditure climate it is simply not a realistic option.

Of course, colleges need to ensure that students are aware of other sources of finance—notably access funds and career development loans. In 1994–95, the further education access fund will give more than £5.7 million to students in financial difficulties, which is a rise of almost 20 per cent. on the previous year. In 1993–94, 118 agricultural or horticultural trainees paid for their courses themselves using a career development loan. I also welcome the support for students provided by the industry.

In the main, the horticultural sector is holding up well. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also be pleased to know the promising trend in enrolments. Between 1992–93 and 1993–94-it is always difficult to get bang up-to-date statistics, especially at this time of year before the returns come in—full-time equivalent enrolments in agriculture and horticulture colleges rose by 6 per cent., which is slightly higher than those for the further education sector as a whole, which were 5 per cent. College strategic plans show that enrolments in these colleges are expected to rise over the period to 1996–97 by slightly more than FE colleges as a whole. For full-time students, 39 per cent. in agriculture and horticulture compared with 23 per cent. in other further education.

Thirty-four colleges in England offer horticulture and there is evidence of a growth in demand for the newer courses. Pershore college of horticulture in Worcestershire reports that it now fully expects to meet its present target numbers. Moulton college in my home county of Northamptonshire is an example of effective linkage between horticultural provision and industry. Many other land-based colleges have diversified their horticultural provision to reflect new market demands. They have successfully developed flexible provision related to garden centre management and management of the countryside.

The Further Education Funding Council is sensitive to the costs of such courses and gives a higher weighting to them in its funding mechanism. In 1995–96, the council will increase the relative cost weighting factor accorded to such courses by 25 per cent.

Furthermore, in its work to develop the new funding methodology, on which it has consulted widely, the funding council found that considerable variations had existed between LEAs in the level of funding for FE colleges. The FEFC is addressing that by gradually converging its average funding per unit of activity. That means that institutions with historically low funding for their type of provision can expect to get more in future, and to flourish from it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those topics, which are of great importance to the industry. I hope that she appreciates that, in turn, we continue to review the position. We are grateful for the evidence that she has given today. I hope that she will report back to those in the industry that we are aware of the importance of their work and are doing what we can to help. In the meantime, by way of exhortation, I encourage colleges to build on their effective liaison with the industry, and to continue to develop training to meet its needs. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the House will join me in stressing the importance of a well-trained work force, both for the individual and the industry that it serves.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Ten o'clock.