Ministers from the ludicrously named Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills had questions in the House of Commons yesterday.
Shadow Secretary of State David Willetts asked about funding provision for apprenticeships:
"In a parliamentary answer on 20 April, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), assured me that funding will allow every person who has started an apprenticeship to complete it. So why are providers approaching us to warn that funding cuts for next year are so severe that they cannot be confident even of being able to maintain their current apprenticeships, let alone meet the Government’s ambitious targets for more apprenticeships? Will the Secretary of State consider our proposal for a nationwide clearing house for all apprentices who are now in danger of losing their apprenticeships before they are completed?
Mr. Denham: Two issues are involved. On the funding for apprenticeship training, it should not be the case that training providers are unable to pay for or receive funds for the completion of current apprenticeships. On the second issue of those who lose their jobs because their employers are unable to keep them in work as a result of the downturn, we already have a clearing house in construction apprenticeships, which is obviously one of the most pressured areas, and that has managed to place more than 600 apprentices; we have changed the rules so that an apprentice can continue training for up to six months at college even if they do not have an employer, so that their training is not interrupted; we have reached agreement with the Department for Work and Pensions that—this is unusual—apprentices will automatically be able to continue for up to 13 weeks seeking work solely in the line of occupation of their apprenticeship; and we are discussing with the DWP the best way of ensuring that apprentices whose technical training might be interrupted are able to do intensive work in college to complete their training. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything that I think is feasibly possible to ensure that we continue to support apprentices who might lose their jobs while they are training.
Mr. Willetts: I heard what the Secretary of State said, but I have to tell him that there are training providers who, having seen the provisional proposals for their funding in 2009-10, are not sure that they will have the funding to continue providing the training for apprentices whom they have already recruited. We will be holding him to account for the assurance that he and the Under-Secretary have given. I warn the Secretary of State in respect of any thought he may have had that further education capital spending was under control. He has a plan for 50 per cent. of students to go to university next year, yet he has cut his plans for university student numbers so that it is absolutely impossible for that figure to be reached. Given the current funding pressures, will he consider suspending the reorganisation of all the quangos, which has been estimated to cost £140 million, and devoting that money instead to ensuring that apprentices and students are supported during this Labour recession?
Mr. Denham: I would remind the hon. Gentleman that on 5 January his party announced that it would be cutting my Department’s budget by £610 million in this financial year, and he has yet to reply to my letter of 15 January to explain where those cuts would fall, so he is not in a position to talk about this Department’s spending.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to follow up with me the points that he has made about training providers. I understand that although it is, of course, necessary to ensure that budgets are adhered to within the Learning and Skills Council on apprenticeships—he will entirely understand that—there should be no question of someone having the funding for an apprenticeship that they have already started withdrawn. I am perfectly happy to follow that issue up."
There is not room to record all the interventions here, but Conservative members were deeply concerned about the funding of institutions in their constituencies. There seems to be a disconnect between what is promised and what is delivered.
Shadow Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education John Hayes brought up the Learning and Skills Council:
"We heard from the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), that potential apprentices are being turned away and from my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) that the capital funding crisis could have been avoided. While the ship is on the rocks, the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) said, intend to reorganise the crew. The changes to the Learning and Skills Council will cost £42 million in vacating properties and a further £190 million in transferring pensions. In confirming those figures, will the Minister recognise that it is time that his lot jumped overboard and gave way to a new team who can steer us to calmer waters?
Mr. Lammy: I always look forward to facing the hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box. As always, we do not recognise his figures. We have just had a lengthy Budget debate in which we set out the efficiency savings that we intend to make, and I am surprised that he was not paying attention."
Bracknell MP and member of David Cameron's inner sanctum Andrew Mackay made an excellent point:
"As this deep recession is particularly difficult for young people wondering about their future, I am sure that the Secretary of State must be concerned that the number of young people who will not get a place at university this year is higher than normal, particularly as this was supposed to be the year when 50 per cent. of all young people would go on to higher education. Does he have a proper answer to that?
Mr. Denham: More people will start undergraduate full-time education this September than ever before. The number of new university places that are available has increased by 40,000 in just two years. That reflects this Government’s commitment to expanding higher education. We want to make the largest possible number of opportunities available to young people, whatever their aspirations. We have expanded higher education, we are funding more places this September, we are investing hugely in ensuring that young people who are long-term unemployed are guaranteed training or a job, and we are investing extra money in apprenticeships. I do not wish to be partisan about this—