HC Deb 15 September 2004 vol 424 cc1252-5
2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

What recent discussions he has had with the Education Minister in the National Assembly for Wales about the education maintenance allowance. [187920]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain)

We meet regularly.

I welcome the introduction of the education maintenance allowance in Wales to tackle the drop-out rate at 16 and boost the aspirations of young people who would otherwise never consider staying on at school or college.

Mr. Robathan

Did the Secretary of State explain to the Education Minister how the people of Wales should understand that rather illogical position? On the one hand, the Government wish to bribe young people who are not motivated to remain in education to stay on at school through the payment of education maintenance allowance; on the other, they deter anybody but the richest children from going to university by introducing top-up fees, which may mean that students leave university with debts of perhaps £30,000. What is the logic of that?

Mr. Hain

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman thinks it better for youngsters to leave school at the age of 16. The pilots have shown that the staying-on rate has been increased by up to 6 per cent., and I would have thought that he would welcome the possibility of achieving a more highly skilled, and therefore more competitive, society in Wales, and of giving those youngsters more opportunities. On student finance, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Tory policy announced recently will result in students being plunged into massive debt. Graduates on low earnings could end up with a debt of £60,000 as a result of having a £10,000 loan. That would be the consequence of that punitive Tory policy.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

The figures show that there has been a decline of 1.3 per cent. in the number of university applications among under-21year-olds in Wales between last year and this year. Does the Minister accept that that is hardly a recommendation for his Government's student funding proposals for higher education? Crucially, will he give us a more direct answer than the one he gave to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) when he tried to explain away the evident contradiction involved in financially incentivising under-18-year-olds to stay on in education while charging over-18-year-olds tens of thousands of pounds to continue in higher education?

Mr. Hain

The truth is that our policy is to encourage 16 to 19-year-olds to stay on in education in schools or colleges. That is in the interest of Wales. Our higher education policy will bring back grants of up to £2,700, which will benefit many thousands of students in Wales and provide a big incentive for people to go to university. We will also put in place a fair system for people to repay loans and fees over their working lifetime if they can afford to, and if they are in work.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

May I begin by paying tribute to Fusilier Stephen Jones, who lost his life in Iraq serving with the Royal Welch Fusiliers? I know that the Secretary of State will do everything he can to ensure that the Royal Welch Fusiliers' cap badge and traditions remain at this difficult time; they are doing a fantastic job. Our thoughts should be with the family of Fusilier Jones at this sad time.

Nearer to home, we support this education policy, but my concern is that the colleges will not be there for the students to attend. Why is Neath Port Talbot college predicting a budget deficit of £880,000?

Mr. Hain

Neath Port Talbot college has indeed hit a difficult time over the past year. However, it is now bringing its balances into line and moving forward, having made the necessary efficiency savings, which the new principal, Mark Darcy, is driving through with my support. The hon. Gentleman knows, however, that if his party were to come to power and he were to become Secretary of State for Wales, we would see massive cuts in education maintenance allowances and all the other provision and support that this Government have made for higher and further education students. That would be the consequence of the £1 billion cut in the Welsh budget planned by the Tories for the first two years of their term of office.

Mr. Wiggin

I suggest that the Secretary of State focuses on his own policies rather than making up ours. Will he tell the House why Coleg Gwent is predicting that it will end the year with a deficit that threatens more than 30 jobs?

Mr. Hain

Again, the efficiency savings being made by Coleg Gwent, some of which have been extremely painful, have been designed to bring the college's finances into balance. The truth is that further education is now getting record investment under Labour; the numbers of students in further education has been rising and the number of courses has been improving. We regard the role of FE colleges as essential and will continue to fund them generously, in contrast to the Tories, who plan to cut budgets right across the board.

Mr. Wiggin

Thirteen out of 25 educational institutions in Wales are in debt to the tune of £3.5 million, so the money is not getting through. Seventy-five per cent. of college incomes come from Education and Learning Wales. Does the Secretary of State support the changes to ELWa that Rhodri Morgan has just brought about?

Mr. Hain

I do. The decision to bring ELWa into a much more effective system of organisation was badly overdue, because it had been responsible for a number of failures. The improvements that both the First Minister and the Education Minister are introducing, in discussion with ELWa, will help to improve that situation. What the hon. Gentleman has to explain to the people of Wales, however, is how they would be short-changed under Tory plans to cut the Welsh budget by £1 billion in the first two years of a Conservative Government.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)

Will the Minister reconsider the answer that he just gave? He said that what was happening at Coleg Gwent relates to efficiency savings, but we all know that it involves sackings and the closure of two important departments—engineering and catering—in one of the most deprived communities in Wales, Blaenau Gwent.

Mr. Hain

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's concerns. He has spoken to me in detail about them and we have made representations in support. I want to see Gwent college continuing to provide a range of vocational opportunities, including in engineering, as will be the case. It is absolutely vital that whatever new plans the college management put in place provide for those much needed opportunities, which he rightly identifies.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

Plaid Cymru welcomes the education maintenance allowance, and I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating the young people of Wales on achieving such fantastic GCSE results, which put them at the threshold of further and higher education. Will he clarify what future those young people will have in 2006, both as regards top-up tuition fees and the changes in relation to A-levels and university entrance, which were announced in England yesterday by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills? This is a good opportunity to clarify what will happen in Wales to those young people now receiving this allowance.

Mr. Hain

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman's party supports the Government's policy, in one respect at least, of paying up to £30 a week to encourage youngsters to stay on in school and further education in Wales. That will help us to overcome one of the lowest rates of participation among 16-year-olds in the entire industrialised world. In respect of the review being introduced by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on university admissions, a Welsh representative will be a member of the working party that takes that policy forward. The matter is out to consultation, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in seeking to achieve a much more sensible way for students leaving school to find an opportunity to go to university than the hectic last-minute procedures that necessarily apply at the moment.