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13 Nov 2007 : Column 601
7.44 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I welcome the Government’s commitment in the Gracious Speech to ensuring that all young people have the opportunity to continue their education up to the age of 18. That has been referred to, somewhat carelessly, as “raising the school-leaving age to 18”, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) so eloquently explained, it should not be seen in that way. That conjures up a negative image of young people reluctantly sitting at their desks and trying hard to do anything but listen to the teacher. That is a very mistaken image as the Bill is about ensuring that all young people have as wide a possible range of choices in combining opportunities for employment with continued training, through schemes such as apprenticeships, or to continue in full-time education on courses that provide them with up-to-date skills.

Since 1997, we have increased the number of apprenticeships from 75,000 to 250,000 in 2007. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to make more apprenticeships available to young people and adults. Time and again, constituents tell me how much they or people they know have benefited from an apprenticeship. An apprenticeship offers young people the opportunity to develop their skills in context and to work with people who have years of experience and can offer the best form of education—immediate, one-to-one feedback on what the apprentice is doing and suggestions on how to improve. It is often only when a young person is trying to do something in the workplace that they realise what skills and knowledge are necessary to make real progress. It is then that they are ready to go back to college one day a week to increase their knowledge and skills, and gain accreditation.

We need to start earlier. Some good work has already been done in providing an alternative style of education from 14 onwards for pupils who are clearly not benefiting from the current conventional curriculum. While GSCE results improve year on year and we must ensure that we do not close off opportunities for pupils, there are those who could benefit from much greater contact with the world of work from 14 and the development of skills that they perceive as relevant.

We have made huge strides forward in raising achievement in schools, improving GCSE results, increasing the number of pupils staying on in school until they are 18 and increasing the numbers in higher education. No one would have dreamt 30 years ago that nearly 50 per cent. of the age group would go on to higher education. In addition, large numbers of young people are successfully taking a range of courses up to the age of 18. However, we continue to have a small number of young people who, for whatever reason, drop out of the system and become so-called NEETs—not in education, employment or training.

The figures for NEETs are often exaggerated by counting individuals who are in transition from one activity to another. Nevertheless, we must ensure that we identify those who are genuine NEETs and re-engage them, so that they do not end up drifting aimlessly into deprivation and possibly being vulnerable to exploitation by criminal elements. That is why the Government proposals to improve tracking systems are vital. We have already seen improvements
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in tracking systems that mean that we have reduced the number of young people whose activity is not known from 13 per cent. in 2003 to 4.9 per cent. in 2006, but even 4 per cent. of our young people is too many. That is why I support our proposals to improve tracking systems and ensure that every young person has a choice of provision that enables them to progress and acquire the skills that they need for life and work.

A trial is being held of an extension of the education maintenance allowance, with more courses eligible. The planned rolling out of the EMA to a wider range of courses will undoubtedly help more young people stay on in education and training.

As we extend the apprenticeship scheme, we need to look carefully at the uptake of apprenticeships in different sectors by young men and women. I pay tribute to the work done by the YWCA’s “More than one rung” campaign in highlighting that issue. Far too often, the uptake of apprenticeships is starkly polarised by gender. Although the increase in mechanisation and the use of technology means that there is much less dependence in many sectors on physical strength than in the past, we still see very few young women taking up apprenticeships in areas such as the electrical and automotive industries, construction and engineering. When I say “very few”, I mean very, very few. They make up a mere 1 to 2 per cent. of the apprentices in these areas.

Why should that matter? It means that young women often miss out on opportunities that may lead to much better-paid jobs than those in the areas into which many young women are pigeonholed. The choice of training routes and apprenticeships has a significant impact on future earning capacity and the choices that young women make at present contribute significantly to the disparity in pay between men and women. We need to build into the legislation a duty on local authorities and key personnel to make sure that young women are genuinely encouraged to consider the full range of opportunities.

That we get this right also matters from the point of the view of the economy and our skills shortages. We could make much better use of women’s potential to fill some of the gaps in our skills. Increased skills are vital to our economy; they are vital to the survival of individual companies and to all our citizens to enable them to adapt to the changing opportunities that they will encounter in the course of their working lives. Here I pay tribute to a company in my constituency, Schaeffler—it is commonly known to us as INA Bearings—which has upskilled its work force, making itself far more competitive. It is now in a position to take on apprentices again, and I very much welcome that.

I welcome the Government proposal that will guarantee that all young people up to the age of 18 continue to develop their knowledge and their skills.

7.51 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a great privilege and pleasure to take part in this Queen’s Speech debate—I am not sure whether I am using the right terminology—on health and education, which are the twin pillars of public services in this country and make such a contribution to our
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society. They have something in common in terms of the pattern that has been in place since the Government came to power. In both cases, the Government have put in vast amounts of increased expenditure. In cash terms, I think that they have doubled expenditure on education and trebled the expenditure on health. However, productivity has fallen and the hopes of Ministers and not least the rest of the country and those who pay taxes have not truly been delivered.

We have not yet had a Secretary of State for Health or for Education in this Government who has been prepared to be as entirely honest with the House as they may be with others behind closed doors. Who could be more frustrated than the Ministers of this Government who have put in so many resources and seen so little in return? That is not to say to the Secretary of State for Health that there have not been improvements; of course, there have. There have been improvements in every decade since the second world war. That is certainly so of health and I hope also of education, but the improvements have been too little for the money spent.

If we consider issues such as social mobility and the aspirations of many Labour Members and Conservative Members—although Labour Members are often too grudging to accept that we share similar aspirations—it appears that, at a time of record levels of spending, we could have seen a real change in the opportunities for those with the least in this country and that we could have tackled the sustained levels of disadvantage that for too long have been a feature of this country. In many countries of western Europe and, indeed, across the world, those problems have been tackled more effectively than they appear to have been here. The Government deserve congratulation on being prepared to will the means and to will the funding, but they have not been able to deliver the policy framework that would have delivered the change that we all hope for. Social mobility has not improved.

I wish to touch on a comment made by the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) who, as I said in an intervention, was parroting the remarks of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families that Conservative Members are somehow interested only in the few and not the many. I hope that any fair-minded member of the Labour party would accept that that is absolutely untrue. Because the issue is about willing the means as well as the ends, Labour Members must accept that the legislation going through the House over the past 10 years, when coupled with the funding, have not been enough to tackle disadvantage—be that health inequalities or inequalities of outcome in education. For Conservatives Members to take a differing view and to challenge the Government’s record and new legislative programme is not a sign that we are uninterested in the outcomes that we all devoutly wish for. We challenge them because of a profound disagreement about how the outcomes could be delivered.

That neatly brings me to the subject of the diplomas over which there was a rather angry exchange because the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families entirely misrepresented, I think deliberately—

Michael Gove: Shamefully.

Mr. Stuart: And shamefully.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has not remembered what Mr. Speaker ruled on these matters. The hon. Gentleman is treading into difficulty territory when he uses such terminology.

Mr. Stuart: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for correcting me on the language. I obviously need to study more to find out precisely what language one can use.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. On pain of taking the hon. Gentleman’s time, I point out for the benefit of the House as a whole that it is as well to follow the advice in “Erskine May” and to use moderate and temperate language at all times.

Mr. Stuart: I am grateful again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for forcing you to come to your feet again. The word that I could use on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is that he feels “traduced” by what the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said. The position of Conservative Members is not that there should be excellence only for the few, but that we must not have a policy framework that destroys the opportunity for academic excellence in the name of creating vocational excellence. We wish to see differentiated paths for people to take, and we do not consider that the academic route is somehow superior to the vocational route. We need excellence in both and we need to support that.

A policy for diplomas that undermines the academic standard bearers of excellence—namely the A-levels—is not one that we can support. That is not because we are not committed to providing opportunity for people, but precisely for the opposite reasons. We know that those with most in this country will find a way round even the most foolish of Government policies to ensure that their children prosper. We want a system that allows those with least and with the least support to prosper. The Government’s proposal for diplomas will fail to do that.

It ill behoves me in a debate about education not to ask the Government to look at the funding for local education authorities. The East Riding of Yorkshire is the fourth lowest-funded education authority in the country. It is a large geographical area, with high transport costs and pockets of deprivation. Therefore, it has a real need for a fairer funding system. My understanding from the Government is that there would be a fairer funding system. Because of the deprivation in the Hull constituency of the Secretary of State for Health, it would necessarily receive more money than the East Riding. However, having factored that in, we would not expect the gap between the two to widen over time. I hope that we can find a way of bridging the gap and ensuring that we have greater fairness in the system.

As I have mentioned, inequalities in health care outcomes have not been removed. Hull is a classic place to see the failure of Government policy in that respect. I hope that getting rid of health inequalities will be a high priority for this Secretary of State, not just in the rhetoric but in the delivery of policy and in outcomes.

In the context of spending on health, the Secretary of State will no doubt rehearse some numbers, and I
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suppose that Members of the House necessarily tend to be a little selective in the figures that they use. However, the following numbers from Reform throw a harsh light on the performance of our health service given the money spent on it. The five-year survival rate for leukaemia in England is 28 per cent. compared with 39 per cent. in Germany. The survival rate for prostate cancer, of which my father unfortunately died a couple of years ago, is 44.3 per cent. in England, but it is 67 per cent. in Germany. The difference is significant. For breast cancer, the rate is 66 per cent. in England, but more than 80 per cent. in France and Sweden.

Dr. Gibson: Where are the figures from?

Mr. Stuart: From Reform. Estimates from a Government report suggest that 10,000 lives are lost each year because of the failure of the NHS to deliver the European average on outcomes for cancer care. Of course, that must be coupled with last year’s 6,500 deaths from hospital-acquired infections. At a time of such record spending, those deaths are not something of which the Secretary of State or any Labour Member can be proud.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that after 15 years of economic growth and 10 years of this Government, it is a badge of shame for the Government that they have managed to embed welfare dependency, given that 5.4 million people in this country are economically inactive and we are in a position of having to recruit people from across Europe and the rest of the world to do jobs that should be done by many of those 5.4 million people?

Mr. Stuart: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One must couple that scandal with the waste of resources and the wasted hopes and opportunities of many clinically trained individuals in this country who have found that there are no jobs for them because of the fiasco in the training system. I hope that this Secretary of State—I have far more confidence in him than his predecessor—will be able to make a positive difference to that situation.

Like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), I hope that the Secretary of State will take the opportunity at the beginning of this Session to restate the Government’s commitment to reform in the NHS, rather than ducking down for safety. I am sure that the Secretary of State has read the Wanless update, so he will know that there is no safe place to be found by avoiding reform. If we do not tackle the failure to increase productivity and to improve health outcomes in this country, the NHS will be overwhelmed. If it is not transformed, it will be unlikely that political support can be sustained for the financial inputs that will be required.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) might be interested in the fact that the Wanless update said:

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Wanless wrote a report in 2002 as a main Government adviser, but he had to be asked by an outside body to look at the issue again.

The Secretary of State knows that I take a great interest in community hospitals in not only my constituency, but throughout the country. He has asked me twice in the House—with several months between each time—to recognise that a new hospital is being built in Beverley. He is clearly not being briefed properly by someone because I have news for him: no new hospital is being built in Beverley. It is at the bid stage and we are waiting for an early announcement. I met the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), yesterday and I am pleased to hear that we will have an answer on the next round of funding soon. I am hopeful that the Secretary of State’s view of what is happening will be the case in the future.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say to the House that I will allow the next speaker 10 minutes under the rule that applies at the moment? However, to ensure maximum possible participation in the debate, after the next speaker has completed his remarks, a revised time limit on Back-Bench speeches of seven minutes will apply.

8.3 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): I will try to speak for only seven minutes as well, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I do not usually seek to catch your eye during an education debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which has perhaps endeared me in the past to colleagues who are in the Chamber today, even if that will not be the case this evening. However, I strongly support a proposal in the Queen’s Speech that I believe is one of the most radical measures brought forward by the Government since 1997. I think that the extension of the participation age to 18 will be warmly welcomed in my constituency.

My constituents say to me, “Why can’t these youngsters get a job?” It is sometimes difficult to find the answer to that. The economy has been buoyant—unemployment in my constituency is much less than half what it was in 1997—and many extra jobs have been created, so people wonder why youngsters are not getting jobs. The situation has crept up on us. It is perhaps in only the past year or two that many of us have become aware of the phenomenon, although we were focused on the issue by the statistics on immigration that were being thrown about between Front Benchers two weeks ago.

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