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Mr. Willis: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. We would like to associate ourselves with many of her comments about the influence that ILAs have had on an awful lot of adult learners. However, in her press release of 24 October, she said:

this is the crucial bit—

From the Liberal Democrats' point view, that is a very serious statement from the Secretary of State. There has been nothing in her speech today to tell us whether this is

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to be the end of the scheme. Will she give an assurance that the scheme is not going to end? If it is to end, that would create a far more serious situation than the one we have contemplated so far.

Estelle Morris: The hon. Gentleman asks a reasonable question. He will appreciate that we have to have an evaluation of the scheme's strengths and weaknesses, and of what action we need to take. Without taking any more time than is necessary, we want to ensure that we remedy the scheme's shortcomings. I can give the hon. Gentleman a cast-iron guarantee that this is not the end of Government funding for adult learning, or of Government support for all those who find a lack of money a barrier to returning to education, learning and training. I am hesitating a little because I am loth to say whether the future provisions will be called ILAs or something else, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait a while for that decision.

The key is that, for everyone out there who benefited from the ILA scheme, this is not the end of the Government's commitment to adult learning, in terms of energy, resources, commitment or anything else that we can do to make it work. We are not, however, about to reopen applications for ILAs next week. We need to ensure that we have overcome the inherent problems in the way in which the scheme was operating.

Mr. Damian Green: May I tell the right hon. Lady why her explanation does not wash for a minute? She has spent 10 minutes telling the House that there were very few problems, that very little was wrong and that only four people were being investigated. Yet, completely out of the blue to everyone involved, she suspended this vital programme—I agree with her that it was vital—just like that, without any warning or any hint of consultation, leaving the training sector very angry. If there was only a very small problem, that is not the action of a responsible Government. Either the problem was much worse than the Secretary of State is telling the House, or the Government panicked and acted unreasonably in the face of what she describes as a very small problem. Which is it?

Estelle Morris: I have laid out as clearly and straightforwardly as I can the number of complaints that have been received.

Alistair Burt (North–East Bedfordshire): Thousands.

Estelle Morris: I have said that there were thousands. There is no need for the hon. Gentleman to repeat it. I have already said that to the House; it is on the record.

I have laid out as clearly as I can the number of complaints. Perhaps we have different standards from the Opposition, but I thought that the potential misuse of public funds was sufficient reason for the Government to take action in the interest of public funding and of the scheme. Obviously, we went through how we should do that. I shall tell the House exactly why we did it with no notice, and I think that we were right. There would have been a risk if we had said, "Hang on. We think there is a bit of abuse of the system. We give you notice that we are going to withdraw the scheme in four weeks' time." What would those who were abusing the system have done during that four-week period? They would have abused it more and more, because they would have seen

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that the system they were abusing was going to be taken away. That is why we did what we did, and we did it absolutely fairly. That is why we said, "There will be no new accounts from tomorrow", or whatever the date was. Perhaps it was to come into force "in several days' time"; I stand corrected if it was not "tomorrow". We wanted to stop those very few rogue providers abusing the system further.

We have been absolutely fair to the 1 million people who had already signed up for ILAs but who had not yet drawn them down. We gave them until 7 December to sign up for a course so that we could pay out the subsidy. We acted fairly. We honoured our commitment to those who had already signed up, and gave them six weeks to organise their course, but we gave those providers who were abusing the system not one day longer than they were entitled to in which to abuse public money further.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid–Worcestershire): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Estelle Morris: I have spoken for far longer than I should have done, and I want to let other hon. Members in. [Interruption.] Hon. Members' comments are very touching, but I shall have to resist their invitations.

Let me return to where I began. I certainly view education—and the Government, my team and, I think, the whole House view it—as one of the most important public services in the country. We know that if we do not get education right as a nation, we shall not get anything else right.

Every Government's capacity to deliver depends on their ability to get the education system right. That is why we are proud of our achievements in early-years education, child care, sure start, literacy and numeracy, class sizes, rewarding teachers, getting more people into higher education, increasing funds for further and higher education and adult learning. That is why we will continue to communicate with schools: we will continue to work with them to spread good practice, to learn from them what works, and to take them further forward.

At the end of the day, I know what will deliver the quality education service that we all want. It will be teachers teaching well and lecturers teaching effectively—but they cannot do that unless the rest of the education service works with them. Every one of us has a part to play in that. I give a commitment to the House and the nation: this Government's record as a true, active, honest, good and worthwhile partner in the education service is a record of which we should be proud, and that is exactly the way in which we will go on working. We will not stop until the real problems of our education system have been overcome. As I have said, we will act in partnership. That is what we promised, that is what we have delivered, and that is what we will continue to deliver in the future.

4.51 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It is refreshing to hear both Front Benchers begin an Opposition day debate in a great deal of agreement. We associate ourselves with many of the comments of the Secretary of State and of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), especially his praise of teachers.

At the much-shortened Conservative party conference, it was pleasing that the hon. Gentleman used his first speech as education spokesman to make it clear to all

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teacher unions and, indeed, teachers that the Conservatives would now be the teachers' friend. He echoed those remarks today in quoting the National Union of Teachers extensively. Perhaps in future it will be Conservative policy that is made at NUT headquarters.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Dream on.

Mr. Willis: One can always dream.

The Conservatives are right to use a whole Opposition day to highlight the Government's failures. The Secretary of State tells a good tale, and is very supportive of what the Government are doing. No one would accuse her or her Ministers of not being committed to their briefs. The reality in the country, however, is very different, and we must address that reality today.

Nowhere is there a more glaring problem than in the Government's promises on expenditure. In 1997, the Prime Minister made it clear that a Labour Government would spend more of the nation's wealth on education than the previous Tory Government—a firm commitment that has not been fulfilled. During the four years before this Government went to the country, they spent 4.6 per cent. of gross domestic product on education, compared with the 5 per cent. spent by John Major's Government between 1992 and 1997. That is the reality; that is the promise that was not kept during the first four years of Labour government. Only if the Government compare 2000-01, their best spending year, with 1996-97, the Tories' worst, do they come out better.

The Secretary of State talked about every institution—schools, colleges and universities—having more money to spend, but she was disingenuous because it is only certain schools that have more money to spend. Certainly, if a school was part of an education action zone, it got some more money. If it is a specialist school, it will get more money. If it bids for the right amounts of the standards fund—or its local education authority does—it will get more money, but in reality a significant number of schools, colleges and universities are as short of cash at the end of four years of a Labour Government as they were at the beginning of Labour's term in office.

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