HC Deb 31 March 2004 vol 419 cc1726-32

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

7.38 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con)

I am most grateful for the opportunity this evening to present the important subject of the proposed closure of Wansfell college, which is in my constituency and lies on the edge of Epping Forest. The way in which a society deals with education funding is a mark of its civilisation. Indeed, we have spent most of today debating that subject—what exciting debates and votes they were. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for staying on after a long and arduous day of debating higher education. He and I served on the Standing Committee together for many hours. Although that business has not quite concluded, I am glad that he has time to devote to education business, that, although rather more local and particular, is nevertheless as important to all the people who are involved with Wansfell college as the large and nationally important measure that we debated earlier.

I begin by paying tribute to Marilyn Taylor, the principal of Wansfell college, who, for the past 11 years, has worked night and day and weekends, along with her dedicated staff, to build Wansfell college into a popular and successful institution. I also pay tribute to the governors and friends of the college who work in their free time, out of love and respect for the place, to keep the grounds, gardens and building so beautifully. They also raise money to ensure the maintenance of the fabric of the college to which they are dedicated. It is especially well maintained, not only for the benefit of the people who visit from time to time but as an important asset to the village of Theydon Bois in which it is situated.

It is sad that we have to face the imminent closure of such an excellent institution. The issue of the future of Wansfell is a classic case of the buck being passed from one authority or Government body to another, of responsibility being denied by all concerned, and of the merits of the case being lost in a pile of official paperwork and financial statistics. That is why it is so important to bring the matter directly to the Under-Secretary's attention on the Floor of the House.

Wansfell college provides residential adult and community education. I could spend some interesting moments explaining exactly what the college does, but I do not need to do so because that is well documented and I expect that the Under-Secretary is well aware of it. I draw hon. Members' attention to the publication by City and Guilds called "Time to Learn", which lists many courses and which are popular and taken up by a wide spectrum of people in colleges that are similar to, but not exactly like, Wansfell college.

City and Guilds would not produce such a booklet and Wansfell college would not feature in it if the courses were not popular, there was not a demand for them and a considerable benefit did not derive from them. I commend the booklet to hon. Members. I do not imagine that many people who serve here will have much time for extra learning, but I assure hon. Members that many hundreds of people do.

Wansfell college is extremely popular, as is shown by the enormous number of letters that I have received from people who live in my constituency and from far and wide. They protest most strongly against the proposed closure. Again, I could read excellent quotations from some letters, which are well argued by people who present their arguments well. Not one argument can be rebutted. There is an enormous range of reasons why Wansfell college should remain open, and why so many people have protested so strongly against its proposed closure.

Many other Members have received similar letters in support of the work of the college, and I suspect that the Minister knows that because he has replied to a large number of hon. Members who have passed their constituents' letters to him. I know, therefore, that he has been aware of this issue for some weeks. I fully expect him to try to answer my points simply by stating, as he did in his replies to other hon. Members, that Wansfell college is the responsibility of Essex county council and the Learning and Skills Council, and that it has nothing to do with the Government or with him. Thus he can try to pass the buck and to escape criticism, but that is simply not good enough. It is the Government who have made promises about lifelong learning, and they have a duty and a responsibility to keep their promises. The buck has been passed here, there and everywhere on this issue, and when it comes to the House of Commons and to the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, the buck must stop here.

The director of skills and lifelong learning at the Learning and Skills Council has said: The Learning and Skills Council does not directly fund Wansfell College, which is owned and managed by Essex County Council. It is ECC's decision on how and where funding is spent. In other words, "It's not us, guv. It's nothing to do with the Learning and Skills Council." Well, I challenge that. What is the point of having a Learning and Skills Council if it does not take positive action to provide learning and skills? By that, I mean learning and skills right across the board, not just the specific qualifications needed by certain people to undertake certain jobs. That is, of course, an important part of the LSC's work—indeed, it probably represents 90 per cent. of that work—but that does not mean that this other part of the council's work is irrelevant.

Passing the buck is not a reasonable response to such a serious matter as the loss of this unique facility. Wansfell college is unique and it deserves to be treated as such. It has been ignored by everyone concerned: the Government, the Learning and Skills Council and Essex county council. The fact that it is the only adult residential college of its kind in an enormous area of south-east England has been ignored. There is no alternative; there will be nowhere else for people to go if Wansfell college closes.

The Minister has tried, in his letters, to pass the buck to Essex county council. That is not surprising, as it is the usual ministerial response, but I want to tell him why this case is different. Passing the buck in that way is nothing more than a dereliction of duty. Essex county council is in a difficult position. It has a problem because its funding from the Government was severely cut last year and the year before that. The Minister might argue that it was not cut this year, but finance has to be looked at as an ongoing matter. The world does not stop and start at the beginning and end of each financial year. The Minister looks puzzled; perhaps I should put that in a different way. There is no point in looking at the funding statistics for one year and saying that they have gone up by a certain percentage if, in the previous two years, they went down by a much larger percentage. If we look at the overall position, the facts are undeniable: over a three or four-year period, the Government have drastically reduced their financial support for Essex county council. That has put the council in an extremely difficult position and forced it to consider ways of cutting its budget and maximising its resources, or of massively increasing council tax.

Essex county council has been a responsible local authority, and it is rightly trying to keep council tax down. Therefore, Essex has had to examine its policy on the provision of adult learning, among other matters, directly because of the Government's financial decisions. I could go over all the arguments about finance and funding for Essex county council, but I will not do so because I accept that that is not the Minister's responsibility, and I will not make unreasonable requests of him this evening. I do not expect him to answer for Essex county council—[Interruption] I am glad that his Parliamentary Private Secretary agrees.

I want to use the time available to focus on the issues that the Minister can address. I am sure that if he is well briefed on this subject, he will have seen the decision from Essex county council, the reasons prepared for the executive and audit scrutiny committee, and the way in which the matter was looked at on 23 March and subsequently voted on. I will not rehearse the arguments on that.

However, in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), dated 16 February this year, the chief executive of Essex county council rightly said: A target of £90 million"— £90 million— to be raised through the sale of property over this and the following two years, has been set by elected Members. The money is to be used in funding service provision, to supplement the Capital Programme and to contain Council Tax increases … The county council is therefore reviewing its remit for residential Adult Learning to determine its value in meeting the learning needs of Essex residents". He goes on to make two arguments in favour of closure, one of which is valid and one of which is not—that is the crux of the matter.

First, the chief executive argues that Wansfell college has had a deficit over the past three years. That is technically true if we just look at the figures. The Minister appears incredulous—I do not deny that we must look at the figures, but we must also look at what lies behind those figures and how such a deficit has occurred. The answer is that the deficit occurred because of a sudden and dramatic cut in funding, which came without warning, over the last few years.

Were the Minister to examine the figures looking forward to the extrapolation of future funding, as well as looking backwards, it would become obvious that the deficit has been made up and that it will be further made up. Wansfell college is a viable going concern. It is a thriving business that makes money. It could be self- funding in its running costs. The argument that Wansfell college must be closed because its running costs must be subsidised is therefore simply not true.

Anyone who examines financial statistics, in any walk of life, knows that one can prove almost anything by figures. Certainly, one can prove that Wansfell college has been in financial difficulties. One can also prove, however, that because it is so popular it has no difficulty attracting people to its courses. People are willing and happy to pay the prices of those courses, and especially the residential costs—which are very reasonable and cover the costs of residential provision at the college. Because it is not difficult for the college to attract customers, it is not difficult for the college to make money. It will not be difficult in coming years for the college to attract people to pay the fees that it charges to build up even more of a profitable going concern. That argument is therefore simply not valid.

There is another problem, however, which is increasingly affecting adversely almost every aspect of life in the Epping Forest area and other similar areas in the south-east of England. I refer to land and property prices. One of Wansfell college's great attractions is its location, on the very edge of our beautiful, ancient Epping Forest. I am not biased when I say that Epping Forest is clearly one of the most beautiful areas in the country. That means that the land on which the college stands would be very valuable if it were sold for housing development, for example. If we go in the direction in which we are currently going, there will be an unsustainable balance in our environment. There will be far too many houses and no other facilities, because there is such a drive to sell land for housing development in our area. There will be no schools, hospitals, transport facilities, doctors, corner shops or any other kind of public or, indeed, private service provision. The Government seem to make finance, and nothing else, their criterion for environmental and social planning.

The Essex county council argument that is valid concerns the significant proportion of people who attend the college and come from outside Essex. I should say, to be fair to the council, that it is not its responsibility to provide education for people from all over the country; that is the Government's duty. By passing the buck to Essex county council, they are avoiding that duty.

It is no surprise, when it comes to issues such as this, that the Government say one thing and do another. Chapter 1 of the skills strategy White Paper—the Minister sighs, but the White Paper constitutes the Government's promise of what they will do for learning and skills councils and lifelong learning—gave a commitment. It said that the Government would safeguard the provision in each local area of a wide range of learning for adults, for culture, leisure, community and personal fulfilment purposes.

It does not just say, "We will provide training for jobs for 20-year-olds, or 19-year-olds, or 25-year-olds." The commitment that it gives sounds good, and it is good, but the Government do not follow it through. If Wansfell college closes, that will prove that they say one thing and do another. As usual, the Government are blowing their own trumpet. In that same White Paper, they say: During the course of the past six years, significant process has been made in our quest to make high quality lifelong learning a reality from the cradle to the grave.

They are taking credit for the progress that has been made, while at the same time halting progress at Wansfell college. If they stand by and let the college disappear for ever—if it closes now it will never be resurrected in any form—they will cut off an educational opportunity for a significant section of the population.

We must ask ourselves why the Government will not take steps to save Wansfell college. Why will they not direct the Learning and Skills Council, help Essex county council, or take over responsibility for a college that is an asset not just to Epping Forest and to Essex, but to the whole country? Is it because so many of those who attend the college are over 60? If there were discrimination on the grounds of race, sex or ethnic origin, that would be politically incorrect and not allowed, but discrimination on the ground of age does not matter. That will be proved if the Minister does nothing.

Are the Government failing to act because of location? Is that because Wansfell is not in the inner city and the Government want to put all their education provision into the inner cities, pouring money into certain parts of the country and ignoring other parts, notably Essex and Epping Forest? If the Minister thinks that Wansfell serves only what he might consider the leafy suburbs and the countryside of Essex, he is quite wrong. A large proportion of the people who attend Wansfell college come from inner London.

It is no coincidence that such an institution is on the edge of Epping Forest, because Epping Forest itself was one of the first facilities provided for the people of the inner cities. Queen Victoria gave Epping Forest to the Corporation of the City of London in 1882, and in the speech that she made in Epping Forest when she did so she said: It gives me the greatest satisfaction to dedicate this beautiful Forest to the enjoyment of my people for ever. Queen Victoria spoke those words specifically to encourage people to come out of the dirty city and enjoy the fresh air of Essex. Wansfell college is part of that historic, ongoing provision. It is a great asset, which is about to be lost.

I am not asking much of the Minister this evening because I know that he does not have the power simply to say, "All right, we'll keep it open." Although he cannot say that, however, I ask him for two things. The first is a delay in the closure of Epping Forest—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): Of Epping Forest?

Mrs. Laing

I am sorry, a delay in the closure of Wansfell college. Epping Forest college is another matter—it is doing perfectly well.

I ask the Minister for a delay in the closure of Wansfell college so that it is not lost for ever this autumn. Secondly, I ask him to look at other ways of providing funding for institutions such as Wansfell college, which serve not just a local area but the community and the country as a whole. Will he consider ways of keeping open this valuable asset? If he does not do so, he is reneging on the Government's promises.

8.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this Adjournment debate, although I do not congratulate her on leaving me only a short time—five minutes—to respond. There are few Conservative Members with whom I would like to spend such an historic evening, but she probably comes quite high up my list.

Where we agree is on the fact that Wansfell college has, over a number of years, provided extremely important learning opportunities to a wide range of people. I pay tribute to the leaders of that college, the governing body and the staff for their work to provide learning opportunities for many people, some of whom might otherwise have been denied them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has mentioned a pleasant few days that he spent there some years ago, tutoring a maths course. He also told me about some of the excitement that he had, singing "Danny Boy" in the early hours and so on; he certainly has fond memories of Wansfell college.

There is significant consensus that Wansfell is a good college, with good provision, which plays its part in ensuring that we deliver high quality lifelong learning to people in that area and in our country. However, I must part company with the hon. Lady over her attempt to pass the buck and to deflect attention and responsibility for this matter from Essex county council, which has made this decision. I do not make a judgment on whether that decision is right or wrong, but it has been made by Conservative-controlled Essex county council, which the hon. Lady should surely have more influence over as the local Member of Parliament.

I will expand in a minute on the additional resources specifically being invested by the Government in lifelong learning. I would make the point to the hon. Lady, and through her to her constituents, that when the shadow Chancellor recently committed the Conservative party to future spending plans, he said that it would attempt to match the present Government on schools and the national health service. The consequences for post-16 education, for Sure Start, and for anything that is not schools within the education and skills budget, based on that commitment, would be horrendous—there would be no hope for colleges like Wansfell. Hon. Members should not come here and try to mislead their constituents by pretending that this closure is somehow the consequence of the Government's policy; the hon. Lady's Conservative colleagues on Essex county council have failed dismally to reflect the views that she expressed in this debate.

The hon. Lady says that the county council has had financial difficulties not just this year, when the amount that it has been awarded has increased, but in the preceding two years, but that does not stack up in terms of the history. In 2000–01, the college deficit was £50,000. By the following year, it had risen to £64,000. In 2002–03, apparently a difficult year, the college was given further additional funding of £37,000 by the county council to help reduce the deficit. It also paid the salary for a year of a full-time co-ordinator to help move the college forward in a year when, as the hon. Lady says, it was having difficulties. In 2003—04, the college has received a total of £93,500 in addition to its core funding of £103,000. The total shortfall carried toward from 2001–02 and 2002–03 was wiped out, apparently by the county council, at the end of the 2002–03 financial year, and in 2003–04 the college moved to the same funding formula as adult community colleges, which actually resulted in a 7 per cent. increase in funding.

The hon. Lady cannot come here and try to deflect attention. I quote her Conservative colleague, the cabinet member for lifelong learning on Essex county council, Bonnie Hart, who said: I have serious concerns about continuing to fund a residential college which isn't wholly benefiting Essex people. My remit is for Essex as a whole.

The Conservative council maintains that it is closing Wansfell primarily because of its deficit, but it also cites problems with limited disabled access, the state of repair of the attractive Victorian building, the fact that the college is full only at weekends and the fact that 59 per cent. of learners who use the college come from outside Essex. The county council has considered the case for Wansfell college very objectively, in a very detailed way, and has made a choice at a local level to close this college. What is dishonourable is for the hon. Lady to come here and imply—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKERadjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eight minutes past Eight o'clock.