HC Deb 29 April 2004 vol 420 cc988-91
3. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)

If he will make a statement on funding for local colleges. [169206]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson)

In November 2002, we announced an extra £1.2 billion of investment in further education colleges over the three years to 2005–06. That record investment means that total funding for further education is set to rise by 19 per cent. in real terms when compared with 2002–03. That is the largest ever investment in further education to support a radical and ambitious reform strategy that links funding to college performance.

Tony Baldry

People often think that Banbury is a very prosperous town, but in at least two wards. more than half the adults have no further or higher education qualifications. Given the Minister's answer, I do not understand why the Association of Colleges has expressed concern that colleges haw had to dip into their reserves to the tune of £62 million for skills and vocational training this year, because they have received only some £20 million from the Department. How is it that every Member has heard concerns from local college principals and the Association of Colleges that they have been short-changed on money for skills and vocational training?

Alan Johnson

I am also puzzled by those remarks by the AOC. We meet that organisation regularly and it is appreciative of the additional investment, although—like any lobby group—it continues to seek more funding. Perhaps some of the problems have been with how the allocation of funding reaches the colleges through the learning and skills councils. The new chief executive, Mark Haysom, is aware of some of those problems, but I am willing to investigate specific problems in the hon. Gentleman's constituency to see whether I can do anything to help.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North) (Lab)

My local college—Redbridge college, of which I am an external governor—is very pleased with the extra investment from the Government, but it is having problems obtaining the payment in full of £250,000 of funding from last year. It received 30 per cent. in April, having been promised 60 per cent. in March, and it has been promised the rest by the end of May. Will my right hon. Friend investigate the delay in that funding?

Alan Johnson

I certainly will investigate the point raised by my hon. Friend, which might relate to the point that I made to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). To put the issue in context again, we have increased funding for teaching and learning in FE colleges by 17 per cent. and funded a 60 per cent. real increase in capital spending in colleges. Almost anyone one speaks to in the FE sector will agree that, with 4 million students and a further 2 million reached in the workplace, it has been somewhat undervalued in the past. The sector would like the increased funding to continue, but it appreciates that funding for FE colleges has turned a significant corner.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con)

One of the interesting things about the answers that the Minister gave to both the previous, questions on this topic is the disparity between his view and what is actually happening. It is clear that one of the essential roles of—and an apparent Government priority for the FE sector and local colleges is the, provision of basic skills and level 2 courses. Why then are the Government enabling cuts to take place in the FE sector, just as adults needing help are being turned away from literacy and numeracy classes—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) seems very annoyed that I have not called him. It is my right to decide whom to call, and he must not stare at me as if he has been deeply hurt by my decision. That is the last thing that he should do.

Mr. Simmonds

Basic skills provision is also being axed. As I am sure the Minister would agree, such courses are essential for people who are trying to escape socio-economic deprivation. Will he assure the House that the threatened cuts in places of more than 70,000 that the Association of Colleges predicts this year will not materialise? Will he assure us that he will endeavour to deliver basic skills to all who need them?

Alan Johnson

I was in the hon. Gentleman's constituency at a very exciting and well attended initiative. He received many plaudits, and I am pleased that he did. His local college was extremely appreciative of the extra funding provided.

I think that we are talking about two different things. The Association of Colleges is concerned that, in the next financial year when the level 2 entitlement kicks in, we will not be able to meet every claim for every piece of further education training in the country in the way that we did last year. Last year, every bid made to the Learning and Skills Council was accepted. The reason for the concern is that we have to have priorities and the 4 million adults who do not even have a basic level 2 qualification must be our priority. That is why we are going to give them financial help and an adult learning grant to meet that priority. If that we means that we cannot meet every single claim, we will have to accept that in the interests of meeting that priority. Nevertheless, literary and numeracy are what the issue is all about. We will strive, as always, to ensure that all the claims are met.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Socialism is the language of priorities.

Alan Johnson

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) suggests, new Labour is the language of priorities.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his answer to the initial question. On Monday, I spent the morning at Scarborough sixth-form college and saw at first hand the excellent work that is being done. However, the college stands alone and it competes with many sixth forms in the surrounding local education authority area. Students and staff alike asserted to me that there was a gap in terms of the money that was being spent in the college. May I tempt my right hon. Friend to make the short trip from Hull to Scarborough to see the excellent work that the college is doing and perhaps persuade him that we need to give greater consideration to the inequalities between LEA sixth forms and stand-alone sixth forms such as at Scarborough sixth-form college?

Alan Johnson

I will gladly make the short trip to Scarborough to see my hon. Friend. We are aware of those issues and, in this funding round, the funding gap between sixth forms and further education colleges has closed considerably. It is always a delight to see him, particularly in his delightful constituency.