I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) on securing this debate.
The Government's ability to shoot themselves in the foot really does beggar belief. They have a success story for which they should be able to claim some credit. In practice, however, in the past few weeks alone they seem to have managed to alienate the principals of almost every further education college in the country. There was the announcement from the Further Education Funding Council, following receipt of communication from the Department for Education and Employment, that, from the beginning of 1997, funding for demand-led student enrolments was to be withdrawn just over a third of the way through the academic year. Just a couple of weeks later, that decision was turned around and the cut will not be made; the pain is simply being transferred to next year.
Colleges were left uncertain, and, naturally, all the people involved in their administration now feel mistrustful. They feel that the Government have not only broken their trust with them but proved themselves to be incompetent. In many ways that is a shame, because the Government's record is good. Even the hon. Member for Hyndburn said that the number of students at further education colleges had increased by 100 per cent. since 1990.
Although credit should be given where it is due, the Labour party has nothing to offer on this subject. As the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) said, the Labour party is pledging nothing for increased funding. Labour Members bleat about the crisis in further education. They wear their bleeding hearts and shed their crocodile tears, but Labour is not promising any additional finance to support further education in years to come.
The increase in student numbers has been achieved not simply through additional funding over the past years but through efficiency improvements made by the colleges themselves—11 per cent. only last year. In the academic year 1997–98, funding is expected to be some £40 million less than that expected two years ago. Less and less money is being provided per further education student.
I hope that the Government will recognise that all hon. Members want efficiency and the most efficient and effective use of money, but there is a danger that, far from following the philosophy of getting a quart out of a pint pot, the Government may risk spoiling the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar. The growth in student numbers over the past few years, although commendable, is still a great deal less than colleges want, and less than they have sought in their strategic plans.