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Stephen Williams: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Front Bench or in the Whips Office, or whoever has been feeding him these press releases.

I repeat that all political parties have to respond to the dire economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. We have made it clear that, on principle, we do not believe that tuition fees are a fair way for students and graduates to contribute to the cost of their higher education. Over time, we would phase out that funding model so that, at the end of six years, tuition fees would form no part whatever of funding for higher education. I do not think that I can be any clearer than that, so I shall now move on to the other elements of my speech.

Mr. Burns rose-

Stephen Williams: I have been quite generous to the hon. Gentleman. I have already given way to him twice, and that is where I am going to end it.

Mr. Jim Cunningham: We now understand the Liberal Democrats' stand on tuition fees-or, at least, I think we do. We have a rough idea of what it is, anyway, but the hon. Gentleman has not yet told us what they would do with the outstanding debt.

Stephen Williams: That is an interesting question. At no point-either in 1998, when my party initially opposed the introduction of tuition fees; in 2004, when we opposed tripling them to £3,000 a year; or at the 2005 election, when we said that we were committed to abolishing them-did we say that our policy was retrospective and that we could wipe out the debts that had already been incurred. I do not think that any party would say that. I do not think that we have ever implied that any policy of ours would be retrospective. If it helps the hon. Gentleman, I am happy to place that on record now.

Mr. Cunningham: I think that the hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding me. I am not trying to twist any policy that the Liberal Democrats are expounding. I am saying that, if they abolished tuition fees, even after six years there would still be an outstanding debt that would have to be either repaid or abolished. I am merely asking him where he stands on that.

Stephen Williams: I do not think that any party could reasonably say that it was going to abolish a debt that had been contractually entered into and incurred for a service in higher education. That is why we are saying that we will phase out tuition fees over six years, starting with final year students, so that there will be no further accumulation of debt. We would not abolish the debts incurred by students who are currently in the system during their first or second year. They would still have to make repayments of that element of the debt. However, as they enter the final year of their degree courses a further £3,000 worth of debt will not be added to the debt that has already accumulated. Over time the next cohort of graduates will be better off, and after six years all graduates will undoubtedly be better off. [Interruption.]

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I think that I have now said enough about Liberal Democrat higher education policy. I entirely welcome discussions of Liberal Democrat policy, but if Members want to embark on a general discussion, the best way to ensure that that happens is for the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property to lobby the leader of his party, the Prime Minister, and to ask him to call an election. Then we can get on to the hustings and engage in such a discussion.

I, at any rate, am setting out what my party will offer students at the general election. Both Conservative Front Benchers and the existing Labour Government will be saying to students "Wait and see what happens", rather as people said before the 1924 or the perhaps the 1923 election. They will say "Wait and see what is in Lord Browne's review." I think that students, whether or not they like what is offered by the Liberal Democrats-we recognise that ours is not a perfect solution-will at least give us credit for offering them an alternative rather than saying, as the Conservative and Labour parties will both be saying, "Wait and see what the review comes up with. We are not going to give your generation a meaningful choice."

Mr. Binley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Williams: Yes, but this is the last time I shall give way on this subject.

Mr. Binley: I am confused, as many people in the country will be. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why the Liberal Democrats have chosen six years, and will he explain the economic thinking behind that? Is there any special formula which we need to know and which will help my constituents?

Stephen Williams: I think that we have engaged in enough discussion on this subject. We shall welcome the debate when the hustings finally arrive. The hon. Gentleman could have intervened on the hon. Member for Havant at any point to ask exactly what the Conservative party would be saying.

Mr. Binley: I have asked you.

Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman could have told us what he will be saying to students in his constituency about what the Conservative party is offering. He cannot give a clear answer. At least I have an answer for students.

Mr. Willetts: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify one point? Is his party proposing to replace the income that universities will lose if-in some way unspecified-fees are abolished?

Stephen Williams: Yes. It has consistently been our position that the income hypothecated from fees that universities currently receive from the Treasury via the Higher Education Foundation Council for England should continue. In cash terms, there is very little difference in the short term in any event. The Treasury continues to hand over the roughly £3 billion a year equivalent of fee income, and it will be quite a long time before the present generation of graduates repays that money in cash terms. What we are focusing on is, in fact, an accounting difference. By the end of that six-year period
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we will certainly have found a better way of funding higher education in the long term. As I shall say to Lord Browne very shortly, I hope that his review will take an open-minded approach not just to an extension of the fees model, but to alternative models that have been proposed and are worthy of consideration.

Let me now leave the subject of central Government, for local government has a role as well. I was pleased to note on Monday this week that Bristol city council, which is now under Liberal Democrat control, has welcomed 19 new apprenticeships in fields as diverse as security services, recycling, finance and the museum service. However, it is not just the state that has a contribution to make. A contribution can also be made by social enterprise, which is a theme that I have raised many times during debates of this sort. I am thinking particularly of organisations such as Aspire, which, in my constituency and elsewhere in Bristol, gives work to people who are not in education, employment or training-as well as recent offenders-in, for instance, ground maintenance, window cleaning and other practical skills.

That social enterprise and many others would benefit from more flexibility on the part of both central Government and local government in the awarding of contracts. The Government have a multi-billion-pound procurement budget, but far too much of it is spent with large companies rather than small and medium-sized enterprises or social enterprises. Charities also have an important role to play. I have often mentioned Fairbridge, which is based in my constituency, and I recently visited the Bristol Foyer in the city centre. All those organisations work hard to provide young people with an informal route back to learning and employment.

In the long term, we need to develop a low-carbon economy in which people also have digital skills. Another Liberal Democrat policy that does not receive much attention from the other parties involves the offer of bursaries to enable people to study stem subjects at university. That is important, as is the advice given to children at school on the opportunities that are open to them, so that they know that a career in engineering is not only worth while in itself but an important contributor to the finding of solutions to the challenge of climate change.

The Conservative motion mentions the Student Loans Company. I hope that the Minister will confirm not only that the existing, or in some cases the new, management of the company has learnt the lessons of the debacle of the past year, but that he is tracking its progress to ensure that the next tranche of applicants do not face the same situation.

Mention has been made of the £600 million of further cuts in higher education that were proposed in the pre-Budget report. The Minister said that we have not had the comprehensive spending review. That was, of course, the choice of the Government and the Chancellor, rather than the result of some external factor visited on them. However, the pre-Budget report specifically mentioned that those cuts would be imposed on the existing arrangements for student maintenance. Will the Minister clarify what he thinks will happen to student maintenance, and also to the science budget? We are still in the 10-year guarantee period during
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which the current Prime Minister and the former science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, said that the Government would ring-fence funding for science, yet the pre-Budget report implied that the science budget was one of the options for cuts. If it is not, why did the pre-Budget report imply that it was?

The pre-Budget report also mentioned two-year degree courses. I am not necessarily conceptually opposed to them, if it is possible for students to complete, say, vocational degree courses in a condensed period of two rather than three years. Foundation degrees already exist on the basis of that principle, and I see no reason why it should not be considered for other degrees. However, we should bear in mind the practical implications, given that this country is a signatory to the Bologna process. Perhaps we could hear from the Government what discussions have taken place about the possibility of a shorter English degree course. English degree courses are already among the shortest in Europe. Surely, if there is to be a fundamental reform of higher education provision, it should be well thought out, and the result of a review rather than a knee-jerk response to what we hope are short-term budgetary pressures.

The motion also mentions freeing up further education. Last night I was pleased to respond to a speech given by Professor Alison Wolf on the occasion of the launch of her book "An Adult Approach to Further Education" at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Among her many interesting comments was the observation that further education is treated unfairly in this country, particularly in the light of the resources given to higher education. We believe that in the long term there should be a more level playing field, especially when further education is delivered in a further education or community college context.

In conclusion, we need a fairer system of funding across higher education, further education and apprenticeships. If we are to have that fair and open intellectual-if not financial-market, students must be well informed through receiving impartial advice and guidance. So far in this recession, young people have borne the brunt of our worsening economic circumstances, and they need measures to help them now, but in the long run, it is through education and skills that we can drive social mobility and build a sustainable and prosperous future.

2.40 pm

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the Opposition for once-this is not something I often do-for calling a debate with substance. The subject is very important in all our constituencies and throughout the country. People in Barnsley and Doncaster, the towns I represent, know only too well how difficult it is to come through a recession. We particularly remember the 1980s, of course, when the Thatcher Government decided to close all our pits almost overnight, thereby making 30,000 people redundant at a stroke and consigning a generation of young people to the scrapheap. The catchphrase at that time was that unemployment was a price worth paying.

David T.C. Davies: Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that a significantly larger number of pits were closed under the Labour Government between 1964 and 1970? Why do Labour MPs always forget that?

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Jeff Ennis: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point, and I shall address it. He mentioned the fact that in the 1960s Tony Benn closed more pits than Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Heseltine ever did. That is absolutely right, but let me explain the difference. In the 1960s, a lot of the pits that closed were worked out; everybody who has ever been involved in the mining industry knows that a pit has only a specific lifespan before the coal is worked out. All the pits we closed in the 1960s were worked out. I shall give the hon. Gentleman a classic example. My local pit, Grimethorpe colliery, where my dad worked, closed in 1993 under the Heseltine pit closure programme.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am reluctant to stop the hon. Gentleman, but I should just say that it is the next debate that is about energy security. I think he is in the right debate and has been led astray by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), but it would be good if he could now bring his remarks back to education.

Jeff Ennis: You are absolutely right, Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have been led astray. The hon. Gentleman has drawn the comparison, however, so let me say that when the Grimethorpe pit was closed it had 60 million tonnes of workable coal left, and in the last six weeks of production it made £250,000 profit. What Government of any persuasion would be so insane as to close a pit in such circumstances? I would hope that Opposition Members have learned that lesson from history. From what we have heard from them so far today, it appears that they might have done so, so perhaps their party is now more compassionate.

This is an important debate, and it gives Labour Members the chance to shine a light on the raft of measures that the Government have introduced since we came to power to support young people in their education, skills and training in times such as the current recession. I wish to focus most of my remarks on the future jobs fund and how we are implementing that in Barnsley, particularly to assist young people with limited qualifications; I am talking primarily about people who would be categorised as NEETs-those not in education, employment or training.

The FJF was announced in the 2009 Budget, and it forms part of a range of initiatives aimed at reducing benefit claimants in the 18-to-24 age range, under the young persons guarantee. The FJF is one of the largest national jobs programmes, and will create nationally 150,000 new jobs over two years, of which 100,000 are for 18 to 24-year-olds, under the young persons guarantee. Also, 50,000 jobs will be created in areas of high unemployment. The recipients can be of working age, but they must come from an area where unemployment is 1.5 per cent. above the national average, based on the claimant count. These areas are known as hot spots, and the vast majority of wards in my constituency fall into that category. The programme is being managed by the Department for Work and Pensions. Jobs must last for a minimum of six months, be additional and benefit the community, and the Department will pay £6,500 per job created.

I want to shine a light on the Barnsley scheme, because I consider it to be the Rolls-Royce scheme. It is currently being administered by the Barnsley Development Agency. Barnsley has committed to creating quality, real jobs for up to 12 months, rather than for the
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minimum of six months. We have achieved that through the local authority and partner organisations deciding to match the DWP contribution; indeed, Barnsley metropolitan borough council is contributing £2.5 million from its own budget to the project. In other words, we are putting our money where our mouth is. Barnsley council is one of only 14 Labour councils left in the country, but after the next elections-the general and local government elections might be held at the same time, in May-there will be a lot more Labour councils, and also the retention of the Labour Government.

Over the next two years, the council will create 412 jobs, with another 162 provided by partners in the public and voluntary sectors, and it is hoped that a further 40 jobs will come from the private sector. Therefore, a total of 644 such jobs will be created in Barnsley over the next two years. So far, 178 people have started on the programme since it was launched. Barnsley council, through its various departments, already has 149 people, the primary care trust has two, Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has six, Voluntary Action Barnsley has six, South Yorkshire Joint Secretariat has one, Barnsley college has two, Barnsley Community Build has five, Berneslai Homes-the arm's length management organisation for the council houses in Barnsley-has five, and Priory Campus, in Lundwood in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), has two.

A unique aspect of the Barnsley scheme is the fact that it is providing wrap-around services to the people being employed under it. That will be the key to its success, and it should be replicated across other schemes. The features of the wrap-around service include the provision of a rapid recruitment service. The aim is to get people on to the scheme within six weeks of the original application, when they have been out of work for, say, 12 months. The scheme is achieving that average, but whereas sometimes people get on it within a week, at other times it can take up to 10 weeks. That is because of the need for Criminal Records Bureau and occupational health checks.

The scheme also provides a tracker system, which keeps real-time information on the people being employed, such as through real-time returns from employers. The Barnsley Development Agency can keep a record of each individual from the application stage onwards, and it knows where they are in the system-at interview stage or pre-employment stage, perhaps, or near the employment start date.

Another feature of the scheme is that weekly updates are given on the vacancy profile to all people on the scheme from Jobcentre Plus, to try to get as many of them off the scheme and into jobs as quickly as possible. There is also a pre-employment training day, which is funded by TUC training-that is part of the training for people who fall into the NEETs category-as well as personal mentoring via individual opportunity advisers. An initial assessment is also provided leading to Skills for Life training. Another important feature is vocational training up to national vocational qualification level 2 and training for health and safety qualifications. After three months on the scheme, CV-building and job search opportunities will be provided.

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