5 Jul 2001 : Column 381

House of Commons

Thursday 5 July 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

Standing Orders (Private Business)

Ordered,


Standing Order 27,


Standing Order 27A,


Standing Order 29,


Standing Order 30A,


Standing Order 31,


Standing Order 32,


Standing Order 34,


Standing Order 37,


Standing Order 39,


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Standing Order 45,


Standing Order 47,


Standing Order 101,


Standing Order 147,


Standing Order 154,


*refers to the Standing Order text as amended by the House on 28th February 2001.

Oral Answers to Questions

EDUCATION AND SKILLS

The Secretary of State was asked—

Further Education Lecturers

1. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What recent discussions she has held with representatives of further education lecturers. [869]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): My right hon. Friend has not recently met representatives of further education lecturers. However, I met the general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education on Tuesday this week, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning and I are due to meet representatives of NATFHE again on 18 July.

Dr. Cable: Does the Minister share my deep concern that moderate and responsible further education lecturers are being driven to strike over pay? Does he agree that the underlying cause is a chaotic, inconsistent and unfair

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system for financing further education, in which, for example, lecturers on £25,000 a year are being paid £5,000 a year less than A-level lecturers in schools doing an identical job a few hundred yards away? Does he further agree that there needs to be a radical overhaul of the whole system of funding for further education, without which the Government's programme for post-16 education will not be able to deliver?

John Healey: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's comparison between further education establishments and schools. In many ways, schools are different institutions with different problems, including many unqualified or part-time staff. Direct comparisons are, therefore, not appropriate. I share his concern over industrial relations in the field, but NATFHE's claim for an across-the-board £3,000 increase is simply not on the cards.

What is in place this year, for the first time, is the teaching pay initiative, which provides money on top of the general funding for colleges. For the first time, this will give us the ability substantially to increase supplementary pay arrangements to reward better teachers, deal with recruitment and retention problems and recreate a proper career structure in further education. It will also allow us to create more funding for courses and colleges that are delivering the best training in the sector, and there will be extra funding this year, for the first time, for capital modernisation and information technology. In many ways, therefore, this year is the first year of a new era for further education, by contrast with the rather dispiriting and demoralising picture painted by the hon. Gentleman.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position on the Front Bench—a post that is fully deserved. I also welcome the last answer that he gave. I have two excellent sixth-form colleges in Cambridge, serving my constituency. However, representatives of the colleges tell me that they are under severe pressure owing to a 4 per cent. increase in staff salaries, inflation that has risen by 2.5 per cent. and only a 1 per cent. increase in their funding. Will my hon. Friend investigate the circumstances in Cambridge?

John Healey: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words of congratulation. I will certainly look into the position of the colleges in Cambridge that she has mentioned. I know that the colleges in her area are among the best and deserve support. She points out the need, and our plans, for rebuilding professionalism in further education and for rebuilding the resources available to the sector. There are still too many unqualified teachers, too many substandard courses and too many weak managers.

This year, we have put in place—through the teaching pay initiative, the standards fund and the other money going into FE for specific purposes—rewards to encourage better teachers, backing for better training and professional qualifications, recognition for departments and colleges providing first-rate FE training and substantial support for colleges with special weaknesses that need special help.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Does the new Minister, whom I sincerely welcome to the Dispatch Box, appreciate that if—after what I understand was a somewhat extended departmental away-day which took

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him out of town later on the day—he had been able to attend the meeting in the Palace of Westminster with NATFHE lecturers, he would have seen a very lively meeting, at which the concern expressed was entirely genuine and moderate, and in no sense politically motivated?

In particular, does the Minister realise that the problems might possibly be due to bureaucratic problems in getting the money through the local learning and skills councils, rather than the colleges themselves, which have their own problems, particularly with core funding? Money earmarked under the teaching pay initiative for current-year pay improvements has not always got through. There are real worries about the recruitment and retention of lecturers, and there is a question mark over the possibility of fulfilling the Government's ambitious targets for enrolment and the development of the further education sector. This is not, essentially, a party political issue, but it is one that is giving rise to widespread concern.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am required to get through the Order Paper; therefore, questions and replies must be brief.

John Healey: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for that guidance on my first outing at the Dispatch Box.

I thank the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for his genuine congratulations. I respect his experience and knowledge of the field, but in this case he has got the wrong end of the stick. The learning and skills councils are ready, willing and able to provide money for the teaching pay initiative. Indeed, the provisional allocation has already been made to colleges. However, it is for colleges to conclude agreements with staff for the extra money, and they must provide the Learning and Skills Council with the simple assurance that it will be spent in line with the design of the scheme. It will be backdated to 1 April, so that no one loses out. My message to college managers and staff representatives is this: we have ensured that the money is available—get on with it.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): I remind my hon. Friend of the circumstances at Barnsley college, where, at the end of last month, 120 lecturers were released because of its particular problems. As he is aware, the difficulties resulted from the loss of courses through franchising, which has left it with a £2 million budget shortfall. Will he reconsider Barnsley's circumstances to establish whether any Government help could be given to those whose jobs are under threat?

John Healey: I am well aware of the problems at Barnsley college, as some of my constituents are students there. One of my first actions in my first week in the job was to ask for an update on the situation. As my hon. Friend said, there have been serious problems and serious financial irregularities there. A full report is with the Learning and Skills Council and the local learning and skills council is developing, and will support, an action plan for the recovery of Barnsley college's position. In the meantime, we shall do all we can to ensure that courses, the position of lecturers and, above all, the provision of training for students at the college are not further damaged.

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