I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but how would she reply to the Association of Colleges and, indeed, to my constituent, Mr. Colin Ratcliffe, who attends a sculpture class at York college? They both welcome the emphasis on basic skills, but are concerned that fee rises for non-examined adult education courses might undermine the principle of lifelong learning, particularly among less well-off pensioners and adults.
I recognise my hon. Friend's interest in these matters, as I recognise the importance of adult education. Sometimes such education does not lead to a recognised qualification in basic skills or a level 2 qualification, which is why we said in the White Paper that we would safeguard the funding available for the provision of adult education. Within that, it is for individual colleges to decide their charging structure. They should take ability to pay into account. There remains a significant contribution to the subsidy provided and I suspect that practically all colleges would exempt all poorer pensioners from any charge.
In her statement on Tuesday, the Secretary of State said:
"I am committed to supporting people in gaining the skills and qualifications needed to get satisfying jobs and a decent standard of living for themselves and their families."—[Hansard, 22 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 732.]
Following the previous supplementary question, I am rather sad to hear that the Secretary of State sees adult learning purely in terms of employment prospects. Important though it is to give people skills to do jobs, does she agree that adult learning also has a crucial part to play in enhancing the quality of life for students and their communities—as, for example, with the provision of language training for people who may be involved in town twinning? Does she accept that enhancing the quality of life is just as important an aspect of Government business as enhancing the standard of living?
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he was clearly not listening to the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend Mr. Grogan, in which I made it clear that I recognise the significant contribution that adult education provides and that we should acknowledge its value for its own sake as well as for helping people to get or progress their jobs, which is another important aspect of adult education. That is why we have agreed indicative budgets with the Learning and Skills Council that maintain the level of public funding for adult education, secured through local education authorities. At the moment, many FE colleges do not raise as much as they could from those who are able to contribute towards the cost of their learning, and it is for FE colleges to decide their own charging structure. As I have told the House, we will safeguard the central Government funding for adult education.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be our ambition to be as generous with adult education as we are with higher education? Is she aware that many students are coming into higher education a year early? If they enter in September 2006, their financial package of bursaries and grants—with parents paying nothing and nothing to pay back until the students are earning £15,000—offers them a much better deal. Should we not tell the world about that and point out that the Liberal Democrat voices are misleading?
I agree with my hon. Friend. There has never been a better time in this country to be a poor but bright student going to college. We are reintroducing grants and ensuring that students have nothing to pay while they are studying, so poor students should aim to go to college: it will be worth their while for the future, as well. My hon. Friend and others should look at the report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which pointed out that all students would be better off under our proposals and that they would be £1.5 billion better off under Labour than under the Conservatives.
Do not the Secretary of State's warm words about adult education, though welcome, fail to conceal the reality that charges are going up and courses are being axed in FE colleges throughout the land? Earlier this week, my hon. Friend Mr. Davies pointed out that his local FE college has seen a 29 per cent. increase in the number of adult learners, but only a 1 per cent. increase in the resources to pay for them—and many other colleges face the same situation. Do not most colleges, including the one mentioned by Mr. Grogan, want a return to the days when funding was not linked solely to the outcome of qualifications? Would they not be best advised to vote Conservative?
I am astonished by the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Not only are we securing adult education, we are investing heavily in all adult education. As a result, the 15 million adults who need basic skills education to bring them up to level 2 standard in numeracy, and the 5 million who need it to bring them up to level 2 standard in literacy, will get that qualification provided free.
I am intrigued by what the hon. Gentleman said, as he told the House last week that the Opposition were committed to matching the Government's overall spending on education and skills. Will he confirm that he now disagrees with Mr. Howard, the Leader of the Opposition, who this morning pledged to match our funding only on schools? The hon. Gentleman describes himself as a banana—
I have a very specific question. The Budget contained the welcome announcement that an additional £350 million would be made available over two years for what was called the longer-term transformation of the FE sector. Will my right hon. Friend expand on that? Is that money intended to be used for buildings? More specifically, is it likely that some of those resources can be used to enable the excellent Redcar and Cleveland FE college to achieve its ambition to rebuild, with substantially enhanced facilities? That would enable it to continue its excellent work of making available skills provision to those in Redcar who still need it.
I certainly can provide that confirmation. The extra £350 million announced in the Budget means that we will be investing £1.5 billion in the FE sector over the next five years. Our long-term commitment to the FE sector means that colleges throughout the country will be able to provide world-class facilities.