It is a pleasure to follow John Howell. What has struck me about this Budget debate compared with others that I have taken part in is the number of Conservative MPs who have risen, yes, to welcome the Budget—of course they will do that—but also to point out that they need more resources in their constituencies, particularly for schools, but for other issues, too. Clearly, this desire for the end of austerity that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have recognised is not confined to Labour areas; it has spread across the country. The population is tired and exhausted by the lack or erosion of important public services, and I will concentrate on further education, skills and mental health provision for young people. The nation clearly wants change, but the measures that we have seen so far will do little, if anything, to address the issue adequately.
Colleges in all our constituencies are the real engines of social mobility. They are places where people can get a second chance and be supported. Some young people mature a little later than others, and a college is where they get their inspiration. They are where people who want to change focus in their lives can get support. We have known for years that college funding for full-time 16 and 17-year-olds is 20% lower than in schools, which just is not right. If we want, as was said earlier, to be a place of high skills and high wages—the brightest and the best in the world—we have to enable adult learners to participate and retrain when necessary. The number of adult learners now is about half what it was some 10 years ago, and concern is widespread among employers, the Russell Group of universities, Ofsted’s chief inspector and the FE Commissioner. Thank goodness for the talented, dedicated teachers who make up for the lack of resources in our colleges and support students every day.
We can achieve little as a country, however, if we do not address the urgent but silent crisis of young people’s mental health. Too many of our children are being failed. A young woman who had been cutting her arm came to my surgery. She showed me her scars. She had been to her GP and had been referred to child and adolescent mental health services, but she and her family were told that the situation was not serious enough to warrant her being seen by a specialist practitioner. That is a disgrace. How are we to build the strong, robust, vibrant, creative, intelligent, talented, resilient workforce this country needs if we cannot care for our young people who are experiencing such a crisis?
I recently read the minutes of my local mental health trust, because I wanted to find out what was happening:
“The service has experienced an increase of 12% in referrals in the past six months and has struggled to meet demand.”
Yes, the service is struggling to meet demand. The minutes go on to say that the trust is considering ways to reduce referrals. My fear is that some of the additional investment, welcome though it is, will be used in A&E departments in crisis situations. The Government have reacted to strong campaigning from people such as my right hon. Friend Mr Jones and my hon. Friend Luciana Berger, but the money will not adequately address the need among young children for prevention, early intervention and upskilling the workforce. Those things need to happen if we are to build the workforce we need.
The greatest tragedy is that this is 100% preventable, and that is what the Government should be addressing, not throwing a little bit of money here and there to try to appease interest groups and strong campaigners—that will not do. We need to address the fundamental problems we are experiencing in our society, because the impact of the long period of austerity is now being felt by our children and by the most vulnerable people in our communities.