HC Deb 26 March 1998 vol 309 cc674-5
10. Mr. Bob Russell

If he will make funds available under the welfare-to-work new deal proposals for the SEAX training centre in Colchester. [34903]

Mr. Andrew Smith

Last year, Essex county council announced that the SEAX centre in Colchester would close on 31 March 1998. There are no proposals for new deal funding to be made available. If the centre had been viable—I understand that a management buy-out is under consideration—it would have had the same opportunity to seek new deal work as any other local provider, but I cannot earmark funds for SEAX in the way that the hon. Gentleman seeks, because that is not the purpose for which Parliament has voted new deal money.

Mr. Russell

I regard that answer as very unhelpful. Will the Minister confirm that, as of Tuesday next week, several of my constituents will be out of work? For them, it is not so much welfare to work as work to welfare. Will he confirm that it is the view of all political parties on Essex county council that, if the central Government money was there, the SEAX centre would continue? Will he also confirm that, for 20 years, SEAX has been operating within the democratic framework? Why cannot public money from the new deal find its way into the public sector?

Mr. Smith

I have already explained that, if SEAX were viable, it would be able to bid for new deal money on the same basis as anyone else. Of course it is a matter of enormous concern when anyone faces losing their job.

I mentioned the management buy-out. I have sought assurances that the training and enterprise councils will give advice and guidance to those who are pursuing that. I have also been in touch with the Employment Service specifically to request that everything possible is done to help those who may face redundancy. I understand that several of those people have already found jobs with other training providers, and that prospects are quite favourable for the rest. Of course they have my sympathy.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the political parties on Essex county council. He may do well to remember that the decision was taken democratically by Essex county council, by an education committee chaired by a Liberal Democrat, and that, when the matter was referred to the full meeting of Essex county council in April last year, the Liberal Democrats voted to block reconsideration of the closure.

Mr. Rammell

The Minister makes an effective point. I believe that hon. Members are becoming disheartened by consistent attempts by Liberal Democrats first to agree to the new deal, then not to say where the money will come from, and then to disown policies that they have agreed with as a county council.

In contrast to that, I ask the Minister to welcome the initiatives that are taking place in my constituency, Harlow, where, in a matter of weeks, the new deal is up and running and every eligible young person has already undertaken an interview through the gateway process. That is transforming the life chances of those young people, who are now being given the opportunity of independence and dignity through work and training, in stark contrast to a life on dependency, as was often the case under the previous Government.

Mr. Smith

I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right about the hope and opportunity that the new deal offers young unemployed and long-term unemployed people, in Essex as elsewhere. He is right about the considerable achievements in the pathfinder areas, and especially about the value of those initial interviews with personal advisers and the fact that young people appreciate that the programme is on their side and really offers them a future.

Mr. Jenkin

Can I point out to the Minister how regrettable that closure is? The Conservatives on the county council initially opposed the proposal advanced by the Liberal Democrats—

Mr. Bob Russell

And Labour.

Mr. Jenkin

And by the Labour party. However, we were unable to reverse the decision because of the draconian local government settlement that the Government have inflicted upon the shire counties. If the Government were serious about keeping such projects going, they would not be robbing Essex of the grant to which it is entitled.

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten who was in government when the decision was taken. I can reassure his constituents and others in Essex that, through the new deal and through other Employment Service programmes working with the 70 other training providers in Essex, we shall succeed where the previous Government failed by raising skill standards and getting people into jobs.