HC Deb 01 July 2004 vol 423 cc427-8
6. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

What steps he is taking to secure the financial viability of further education colleges. [181598]

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

Funding allocated to the Learning and Skills Council for further education is set to increase by more than £1 billion over the three years to 2005–06. In 2003–04, the LSC increased colleges' unit of funding by 2 per cent. in real terms. Colleges that meet their targets will receive a further real-terms increase of 2.5 per cent. in 2004–05. The sector's success has created pressures on funding for this year and in recognition of that we have added £130 million extra to the LSC's budget.

Mr. Prentice

I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend said, but there seems to be a huge mismatch between what the Government are saying and the reality on the ground. I recently met the new principal of Nelson and Colne college of further education in Pendle and she gave me a briefing note listing 17 areas of concern where the financial viability of the college was being put in jeopardy by factors outside the college's control. I ask my right hon. Friend to look again not just at the Nelson and Colne college but at a raft of colleges across the north-west that are making it very clear that they cannot deliver the Government's agenda—they want to be able to—because the resources simply are not there.

Alan Johnson

Let me say to my hon. Friend that I am perfectly willing to look into those 17 points. I would be very interested in seeing what I could do to help with those problems. We know that Nelson and Colne had a particular problem in failing to recruit the number of students that it expected. The whole sector—and everyone in the House—must accept that the Learning and Skills Council cannot provide funding for students who are not there. As I understand the position, this year—let alone last year, when there was a 2 per cent. real-terms increase&Nelson and Colne will receive a further 2.5 per cent. real-terms increase in funding. I accept that there are real issues which my hon. Friend is raising on behalf of his college and I am perfectly willing to look into them, but it should not detract from the overall record levels of funding that we are currently putting into further education.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

Of course the worry for the college is that, with the Government having provided an extra £130 million, it will find in due course that it is clawed back through lower grants. The Government have a track record of clawing money back when no one is looking. Can the Minister confirm that the extra £130 million is a new baseline figure for FE budgets for the spending review period, and can he guarantee that it will not be paid for in future by reducing the annual grants increases that colleges would otherwise have received?

Alan Johnson

I would love to be in a position where we could do things when no one is looking, but that is what parliamentary scrutiny is meant to avoid. I can give the guarantee that the £130 million is not coming from the unit of funding. It is a very genuine attempt to resolve a very real problem raised with us by the Learning and Skills Council. I should like to put another point to the hon. Gentleman. I, too, welcome the consensus built up by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) in respect of 14-to-19 education, but education is so crucial that I am amazed that his party has given a guarantee to preserve funding for schools, while planning £18 billion worth of funding cuts, which is bound to hit further education. We will have a completely different dialogue, I think, if we ever get to the fairy tale of a future Conservative Government.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Is the Minister aware that one of the most important colleges in north Derbyshire was a mining college, but the Tories clawed back all the jobs? The net result was that the college had to change its nature. What is happening now is a 5,000-job development at Markham and Bolsover, about two miles away from the old mining college. Will the Minister meet Derbyshire county council—part of the stakeholders in the new project, just off the Ml, junction 29A—to ensure that we get those jobs and all the facilities for training that will be needed? As we all know, some jobs are for life, but a lot of new jobs need constant re-training; and re-skilling.

Alan Johnson

I can promise my hon. Friend that I will turn off the M1 at junction 29B, or wherever it is, on the way to Hull—

Mr. Skinner


Alan Johnson

The famous junction 29A—it's just as well I checked. I shall indeed have the meeting that my hon. Friend has asked for, as it is crucial that we have the skills and training ready to deal with the increase in employment numbers to which he referred.

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