[Mr Roger Gale in the Chair] — English for Speakers of Other Languages

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 3rd May 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.––(Jeremy Wright.)

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 9:30 am, 3rd May 2011

I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate, but I would rather that the need for such a debate had not arisen. Last November, the Government published a document that was somewhat euphemistically entitled “Investing in Skills for Sustainable Growth”. Alongside various changes to the funding of further education and training in the UK, Ministers announced that from 1 August this year, many people who currently qualify for free courses in English for speakers of other languages will have to pay a significant amount towards their studies. From August, anyone who receives council tax benefit, housing benefit, income support, working tax credit or pension credit will be expected to contribute £2.91 per hour to the cost of their ESOL course. Anyone who is dependent on someone who receives what the Department for Work and Pensions has defined as “inactive benefits” will also be expected to pay.

The sum of £2.91 per hour may not sound like a lot of money, but it amounts to a minimum of £1,300 in tuition fees for a full-time course. Although as a point of principle I tend to agree that those who can pay should pay, the Government are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think that those currently on such courses, or those who most need them, will be able to pay—they will not. If someone’s husband has a job on the minimum wage and works full time but still earns less than £12,000 per year, will they really be able to pay £1,000 for an English language course? It will not happen.

I cannot help but think that the proposed changes to the way ESOL is funded are woefully short-sighted. Set alongside the Prime Minister’s repeated pronouncements on immigration and the need for everyone to speak the language of their new home, they are nothing short of hypocritical. I called this debate to give the Minister an opportunity to explain the rationale behind the changes and to question him on the impact they will have, to ask him to reconsider the crude distinction that has been made between those on active and inactive benefits, and to urge him, at the very least, to delay the changes by a year to allow those involved in the provision of ESOL to work with the Government to find a way forward.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the changes are another example of this Government’s attack on women? Figures from the Association of Colleges suggest that about 77% of those affected by the changes will be women who, in a two-parent household, will not be in receipt of the benefits required.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and believe that the changes will have a hugely disproportionate effect on women and on members of black and ethnic minority communities across the country.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that acquiring English language skills is important both for women’s access to the labour market, and because women mediate so many of the social services for families such as medical appointments, dealing with schools and so on?

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I will come on to those matters later in my contribution.

One reason I requested this debate is because a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting a group of ESOL students at the Granville Park education centre in my constituency. About 25 women sat in a classroom in Lewisham and asked me whether their individual circumstances mean that they will have to pay for their courses this September. They wanted to know why the Government are making changes to the funding of ESOL courses, how much money will be saved, and why the Government are taking away the one thing that offers them a lifeline out of poverty and the chance of a better life. They wanted to know whether the Government are pushing through the changes simply because they think that they can get away with it. The people affected by the changes, such as those women, are some of the least likely to be able to mount a campaign against them. Suffice it to say, I struggled to answer their questions.

The ESOL students I met in Lewisham come from all over the world. Some are eastern European, some African, some Asian and some from the middle east. Some have come to this country recently, and others have been here for many years. Most are not in receipt of active benefits and do not receive jobseeker’s allowance or employment support allowance. Many of those people have husbands in relatively low paid jobs, and many are in receipt of tax credits. Most have children in local schools and told me that they want to improve their English in order to get a job. Without exception, all of them told me that they want to speak better English so as to get on in life and be able to speak to their doctor, their neighbours and their children’s school teacher.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and I wonder whether her experience has been similar to mine. Priory Park in my constituency has written to me to say that out of 42 students in the three classes run by that centre, only one receives benefits that will qualify them for such support in the future.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

That has certainly been my experience in Lewisham, and research by the Association of Colleges shows that a significant number of people who study ESOL courses are in receipt of inactive benefits.

I was talking about the sorts of people whom we find in English language classes across the country. Some people in the UK may ask how it is that those who cannot speak English are living in the United Kingdom. I have some sympathy with such a sentiment, although I wonder how many Brits living abroad make little effort to learn the local language. More seriously, the circumstances that led to some people—refugees in particular—coming to this country in the first place did not mean that they could say, “Hang on a minute, let me brush up on my English language skills.” Like it or not, there are people in this country, many of whom are British citizens, who have poor language skills.

When the Prime Minister tells us how vital it is that all migrants speak the language of their new home, I agree with him. When he says that practical things can make a big difference to community cohesion, I agree with him again. When he says that the presence in neighbourhoods of significant numbers of people who cannot speak the same language as those already living in the area can cause discomfort and disjointedness, I agree with him for a third time. Why on earth, therefore, are the Prime Minster’s colleagues, including the Minister present today, making it harder for people to learn English? It is completely nonsensical. Many other countries make language training compulsory for new arrivals, but we are in the unique position of running the risk of making it harder to learn English.

The situation that I described of the ESOL class in Lewisham is replicated in towns and cities up and down the country. A recent survey carried out by the Association of Colleges found that at least 90,000 ESOL students are on inactive benefits—that is 90,000 people who currently have access to free language tuition but will not if they start their course in September. According to the survey, 74% of those people are women. The AOC’s survey also found that over half of ESOL students receive inactive benefits—income support, working tax credits or housing benefit—but that only 14% receive the so-called active benefits of jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance. Did the Minister realise that when he published his skills strategy last November, and did he realise that roughly two thirds of ESOL students on inactive benefits are women? I know that he has promised an equality impact assessment of the changes to ESOL funding, as distinct from the broader assessment carried out by the skills for sustainable growth strategy, but where is it? Will he update us on when that assessment will be published?

One of the most perverse things that strikes me about the changes to the way that ESOL is funded is that we could end up in a situation where money has been allocated to colleges and other providers for courses such as ESOL, but they will not be able to use it. There is a serious risk that Government funding will just sit in bank accounts during the coming academic year because the students who should be on those courses simply will not be able to pay their half of the course fees.

The Government seem to have acknowledged that that could be a problem in the most recent guidance note published by the Skills Funding Agency. Paragraph 53 of guidance note 7 states:

The Agency recognises that new rules on learner eligibility and fee remission mean that many colleges and training organisations will have to make significant shifts in their provision in order to earn the allocation they have received for 2011/12. Given the scale of the challenge, the Agency will consider some transitional flexibility, to support colleges and training organisations making that change.”

Paragraph 54 states:

“At the end of the year, if the Agency is satisfied that a transition plan has been successfully implemented during 2011/12, the Agency will agree a manual adjustment to the final claim, to reduce the amount of funding that would otherwise be subject to clawback.”

Will the Minister explain whether that means that colleges that cannot spend their adult education budget on ESOL courses next year because the students simply will not be coming through their doors can keep the money that they would otherwise have spent?

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

Does my hon. Friend share the concern expressed to me by Trafford college that some colleges may be forced to close classes, so even for those people who can fund themselves to attend college classes, those classes may cease to exist?

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

I agree that college governors throughout the country are making decisions at this time about how they will fund courses next year and whether to keep staff on or put them on notice of redundancy, so there is a real danger that the ability to provide the courses will simply dry up.

I spoke about the possibility of funds just sitting in bank accounts this year, unable to be used, as the students will not be coming through the door because they would not be able to pay their half of the course fees. I ask myself and the Minister whether that is a good use of public funds in such straitened economic times or whether it is an admission that the Department had not really understood the significance of the changes that it included when it published its strategy document last November. What happens in a year’s time, when money has not been spent and budgets are being set for the subsequent year? Does the Minister recognise that reduced spend by colleges and training providers will be a reflection not of demand for English language courses, but of students’ inability to pay?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Shadow Minister (Equalities)

There is an additional point. If courses cease because of cuts, students who have already made some progress but who cannot afford the fees in the coming year will not be able to study. I know from my appalling French that if people do not focus on the study of a new language and maintain their learning, they go backwards.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Later in my speech, I have some testimony from Lewisham college students who make precisely that point—that to improve and, indeed, to make the best progress possible, there needs to be continuity of learning.

I was talking about the latest guidance note from the Skills Funding Agency. While I am on that subject, I would like to ask the Minister a few more questions. In particular, why is the Department treating ESOL differently from other basic skills training and foundation learning? In paragraph 47 of the latest Skills Funding Agency note, the Government state that where a learner has an entitlement to a level 2 qualification, entry or level 1 aims will be fully funded to facilitate progression. However, the note also states that skills for life, including ESOL, are exempt from that provision. Will the Minister tell me why? Simply saying, as guidance note 7 does, that guidance note 6 deals with that is not an answer to my question.

It is remarkable that colleges and training providers may not be able to spend money that has been allocated to address basic skills because of the new co-financing requirements that the Government are introducing. That just does not make sense.

I will turn now to some of the wider arguments about why investment in ESOL courses is so important. In the last few days, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has estimated that eastern European immigration has added £4.9 billon to the UK’s gross domestic product. Surely having more people able to speak the language and able to work is a good thing. The alternative is more dependence on the state and a greater outlay on benefits. That is before we start to think about the knock-on effects of poor language ability on the public purse.

In April, a series of freedom of information requests to London hospitals showed that in the three years from 2007 to 2010, £15 million was spent by seven different hospitals on interpreters and translators. We know that other parts of the public sector, whether councils or the Courts Service, have similarly high bills. Again, I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with a Minister. This time, it is the Minister for Immigration, who is quoted in connection with that story as saying:

“This illustrates very starkly why we need to do more to ensure that those people who are settled in this country can speak basic English.”

Will the Minister responsible for skills tell me what discussions he has had with the Minister for Immigration about the impact of his changes to ESOL? Has he told the Minister for Immigration that his Department’s changes will result in fewer people being able to speak basic English? It is not just the NHS that is affected.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

The hon. Lady is making a very powerful case with which most of us would agree. Given the financial constraints that the Government find themselves under because of the general economic situation, will she accept that for every pound that she would like to be restored to the budget for ESOL, a pound should be taken away from translation along the lines that she has suggested?

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

This issue is so important and has such knock-on effects that investment in English language courses is fundamental. That is why I have called for the debate today.

I was making some points about the wider societal importance of English language skills and had spoken about the NHS. Let us think now about schools and what happens to many children who grow up without English as their mother tongue. They go to primary schools and hundreds of teachers throughout the country do a sterling job in improving their language skills and helping them to integrate with their classmates. Then they go home, where perhaps they revert to speaking the language of their mother and father. Is it not much better for those children to be able to hear both their parents speaking English—perhaps not all the time, but at least so that they can see and hear that their parents can speak the language? Is it not much better for their parents to be able to understand the letter from school, to be able to speak to the teachers and to be able to contribute to the wider school community?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the very powerful case that she has made. Like me, she represents an area in south-east London with a very large number of relatively poor migrants and she will know the number of occasions on which in our surgeries we are confronted with constituents who bring a child to translate for them. Her point is very powerful: in the interests of community cohesion, it must be right to encourage those families to speak English at home and not just to depend on their children to translate for them.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. Like him, I have had that experience at my surgeries.

We are coming to the nub of the debate now. Time and again, people at the top of the Government have talked tough on immigration and community cohesion. It is often a simplistic narrative that runs the danger of inflaming tensions rather than dealing with them. However, its simplicity, even if it is problematic in many ways, demonstrates how critical language skills are to building a shared sense of what it means to be British, what it means to live together in our towns and cities and how we might all be able to develop respect and tolerance for someone else’s way of life.

That is why, on 30 March, I stood up in the Chamber and asked the Prime Minister to reconsider the Government’s plans for ESOL, given his desire to see everyone speaking English. His response was illuminating. He said:

“We will have to take some difficult decisions over student numbers, and the priority should be to ensure that our universities can go on attracting the best and the brightest from around the world...That is why we have said that there should be a post-study work route. However, it does mean that we should be tough, particularly on those colleges that are not highly regarded. The fact is that over the last year, about 90,000 students were coming to colleges that did not have proper regard at all.”—[Hansard, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 342.]

I could not quite believe what I heard. I was so incensed as I sat there that I am surprised that I did not get a “Calm down, dear.”

I appreciate that answers to unasked questions are a common occurrence in politics, but I am afraid that the ignorance the Prime Minister’s reply demonstrated was in another league altogether. I was not talking about international students coming to the UK to learn English, about bogus colleges or about 90,000 students coming to study at institutions with no “proper regard”. I actually had to watch the clip of our exchange again on Democracy Live because I thought I must have been so vague and ambiguous that the Prime Minister could not possibly have understood me, but, no, I was relatively clear, and the Prime Minister did not know what I was talking about.

I was talking about the thousands of people who are settled in the UK and who need to be able to speak our language. I was talking about the mums in Lewisham, Sheffield and Liverpool who are desperate to learn English. There may not be many such mums in Witney, but if the Prime Minister is going to insist on giving us lectures on immigration and community cohesion, he should at least have a basic grasp of the things that can make a difference to communities such as the one I represent, and ESOL is one of those things.

Before I close, I want to refer to some of the stories of Lewisham college’s ESOL students, all of whom have contacted me about the proposed changes. Solange

Makaba is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has lived in the UK for 11 years. She says:

“I heard on the news yesterday that the government is going to change everything about studies in this country and I feel disappointed and depressed about it.”

Speaking of when she first came to this country, she says:

“I didn’t know where to start and I was unable to do anything because I had a problem with my English. It was too hard at the beginning, but when I found an ESOL class, it helped me a lot. Now I am able to do something because I improved my English.”

I have another e-mail, from Nanthankumary Sivakumar, and the Minister should already be familiar with these comments, as the e-mail was copied to both of us on 10 February. Nanthankumary says:

“I am writing to you because I feel worried about the proposed cuts to ESOL English classes. I came to England in 2005, when I couldn’t speak English and no one could help. First my life was hard. Then my husband found work. After that my children joined a school. It was very difficult for me because I couldn’t understand English at my children’s school and GP. I couldn’t answer important phone calls during that period. I thought about going back to France. Then I found an English class at Lewisham College. I couldn’t speak very well but I could manage everything. If I had to pay for my course I wouldn’t have improved so quickly”— my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart touched on that—

“and I wouldn’t be able to help my children. I am worried that after the cuts people will not be able to access education.”

There is also the story of Maryam Zeinolabedini, whose e-mail the Minister was also copied in on. Maryam says:

“I am writing to tell you that I am very worried about the proposed cuts to ESOL courses…When I came to England, I couldn’t speak English. I was living in Nottingham and one day I was very sick. I went to hospital and nobody could help me. I was very upset and for 4 hours I waited for an interpreter.”

After that, she decided to learn English. She says:

“I went to college and English classes. I was very happy because I got a part time job in a factory and in the afternoon I went to college and discussed with my classmates and teacher and improved my English. If I had to pay for my ESOL course I couldn’t come to college and would feel very unhappy and couldn’t communicate with people.”

Finally, there is Percy Tabaoda, who says:

“I am writing to you because I’m so worried about the proposed Government cuts to ESOL and the effects they’ll have on the most vulnerable people and their families. I come from Peru and I’ve been living in this country for more than 10 years. I’m a British citizen now but in my experience as an immigrant I’ll tell you that what helped me gain confidence and integrate into the society was courses like ESOL. I believe the government will be making a big mistake if they proceed with the cuts because it is not a solution to the problems the country is facing.”

I repeat: the changes are not a solution to the problems the country is facing—Percy hits the nail on the head. The danger, of course, is that the proposed changes to ESOL will not only not be a solution, but will make some of the problems in our country much worse. I implore Ministers to look again at their proposed change. They should look hard at the impact assessment when their civil servants put it in front of them. They should look again at the Prime Minister’s speeches and ask themselves whether they really think their changes will result in more people being able to speak basic English.

I have not come here to score political points, but because the Government did not do their homework before announcing the changes to ESOL last November. I want to give the last word to another constituent, Nick Linford, who is a further education funding consultant and the managing director of Learning and skills—events, consultancy and training, or Lsect. I must thank Nick for his help and advice over the bank holiday weekend when I was preparing this speech. He sums up the current situation better than I ever could when he says:

“The change to inactive benefit policy will impact on tens of thousands of English language learners, something it is clear the Government did not properly consider when they announced the policy…in November 2010. It is an unintended consequence and a rethink whilst embarrassing is more than worth it…as aside from the impact on communities and people’s lives, it would avoid tens of millions in funding going unspent.”

In referring to unintended consequences, Nick gives the Government the benefit of the doubt, and the debate gives the Government an opportunity to show that he is right to so.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Substitute Member)

Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at about 10.35 am. At least 10 hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak. If hon. Members do the maths, they will work out that they have about three minutes each. I have no power to curtail speeches, and I had, in fact, been allowing for Heidi Alexander to take rather longer. However, the length of time for which Members speak is not in my gift, but in the gift of others present.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East 9:56 am, 3rd May 2011

Six or seven months before the election, I attended a session on phonics at a school where I was a governor. The session was also attended by 50 parents—48 women and two men. I am not suggesting that all those who attended were poor at English, but the parents of only 10% of the school’s children—there are nearly 700 children at the school and its nursery—were born in this country, so Members will appreciate the difficulties that the children have at times with the lack of English in their homes.

When Kate and Will looked at their contribution to reducing the deficit, I am sure that they carried out a cost-benefit analysis and decided that their wedding was worth while, because of the tourism and the extra hotel rooms that would be booked. In the case of ESOL provision, too, we really need to look rigorously at the cost-benefit analysis. We are not talking about people who are fluent in Urdu, Punjabi or Gujarati, or in the languages of Slovakia and Lithuania. Very often, although not so much in the case of eastern Europeans, we are talking about people who have never developed language skills, even in their mother tongue, and ESOL lessons are the first time that they learn not only English, but how to develop language skills.

One of the most powerful arguments used against the education maintenance allowance, which I did not agree with, was the infamous dead-weight argument that 90% of people would go to college or stay on even without EMA. However, surely that argument does not apply to the situation that we are discussing. Clearly, the majority of people who benefit from ESOL provision would not be able fully to fund it themselves. At Bradford college, 46% of ESOL students who are currently fully funded would not receive full funding, and they would not be able to access ESOL provision.

We have a social contract. I did not sign the pledge on free higher education, which has been a massive subsidy to the middle and upper classes for years, and I welcome the fact that those people will now have to contribute to the cost of their higher education. However, there is a social contract for those up to 18, and all parties agree that we should provide free education up to the statutory leaving age. We have reached that agreement, because we realise that young people need to develop basic knowledge and skills, including language skills, to make the best of themselves when they leave full-time education. Why do we not extend that free aspect? Why does that social contract not extend to those who do not have English, whatever their age? Whether people are 19 or 90, if they do not have the skills to enable them to be fully functioning members of society, why do we not extend that social contract to them, as we do to those under 18? The argument that is made is that that is a matter of equality. We do not fund, apart from those on active benefits, those who are over 19, so why should we provide ESOL for those over 19? However, the lesson that I have learned over many years in my community is that if unequal people are treated equally, inequality is reinforced. If one does not favour those who are over 19 but who lack the basic skills to be part of a functioning society, one is disadvantaging and reinforcing the inequality that already exists.

Bradford college, one of the largest providers of ESOL in the country, has considered the impact on the local community. Those on low incomes are likely to remain on low incomes, as they will lose out on the opportunity to develop their language skills and to improve their employment prospects.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, with this approach, the Government are creating an environment of social alienation, which can be so damaging to multicultural communities such as mine?

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

That approach is damaging to my community, as well. I believe that that is a fundamental consideration that needs to be taken on board. Bradford college has also said:

“The college currently makes an excellent contribution to Bradford’s widening participation, social mobility and social cohesion agendas. The ESOL team is a significant force in meeting these agendas.”

Coming from Bradford, I know the cost of not having social cohesion, which is a cost that we cannot afford. We need to do all that we can, which includes fully funding ESOL provision for all those who require it. In answer to the question whether, pound for pound, provision should be for translators or for ESOL, it should be both—maybe we could fund that from the royal family.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:02 am, 3rd May 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander on securing this important debate. I will do my best to be brief to allow other colleagues to contribute.

I wish to refer to two aspects of the impact of Government policies on my constituency. The first has been expressed in correspondence from Michael Farley, principal of Tower Hamlets college, who tells me that at the college there are 2,000 adult students on ESOL training, only 20% of whom are on active benefits. He also expects a 24% cut in ESOL funding generally. He asked me to raise three specific points with the Minister. My hon. Friend has already referred to two such points, and maybe to all three.

The first point concerns when the Minister will publish the specific equality impact assessment on the ESOL changes, which will be appreciated as soon as possible. Secondly, there has been a request to delay any changes by at least a year to allow a working group to be convened by the Association of Colleges, the Refugee Council, the University and College Union and others to try to plot a consensus and way forward. Thirdly, there has been a request to consider a sliding scale of fees depending on circumstances, which would replace the current models with colleges having flexibility to decide how they support the provision. Tower Hamlets college is a huge educational institution in my constituency, and it provides education to people from the next-door constituency of my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali. Michael Farley’s advice has been taken by both of us, and we are keen to hear the Minister’s response.

The second aspect of the impact was clear from a visit that I made to the Bromley by Bow centre in my constituency, one of the premier social entrepreneurial centres in the UK, where I met 100 ESOL students, 95 of whom were women and 85 of whom were not on active benefits and therefore will not be entitled to future support. Seeking work is obviously an important criterion, but many of those people are not looking for work and are therefore not entitled to benefits. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East has said, the ability to communicate with their children and teachers in English is very important, and the ability to present adequately to doctors—to describe signs and symptoms and be able to understand the advice and medication—is critical.

It is most important that people integrate into UK society, which is a fundamental ambition of all political parties. With these policies, we are preventing that from taking place. Those critical aspects of life are not addressed by the coalition’s proposals. The ESOL students at the Bromley by Bow centre asked me to raise those points with the Minister and to seek his response to them. I am pleased to have the chance to do that, and I thank my hon. Friend for providing the opportunity. I look forward to the Minister’s response to those important points, which I will send to my constituents.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 10:05 am, 3rd May 2011

I congratulate Heidi Alexander on securing this important debate. She spoke in a heartfelt way, although some hyperbolic concerns have been expressed by some of her colleagues.

I want to offer my input as a Government Member with an inner-London seat. I share the concerns that have been expressed about the unintended consequences at the margins of some of the proposals, and I will be listening to the Minister with interest. Westminster Kingsway college in my constituency does a tremendous job not only for my constituents but for other central London authorities.

As the Minister shadowed his role in opposition for some years, he fully understands elements of the skills gap. He is passionate about what he is trying to achieve in what has been the Cinderella area of further education for many years. We will see some tremendous advantages from some of the deep-seated work that he has done in the area. He recognises the importance of English language skills, and I hope that he will work through all the unintended consequences of the financial implications. I expect that he will say more on that point.

We are living in difficult financial straits. In the exchange that I had earlier with the hon. Member for Lewisham East, I was sincere in saying that there has been a tremendous amount of waste in translation services not only in our hospitals but in local authorities. Conservative local authorities have been equally big offenders, with huge amounts of money spent on translating masses of literature into umpteen languages. I have seen that both in Westminster and in the next-door authority of Kensington and Chelsea, where I was a councillor for eight years. I made these points time and again during the late 1990s about the amount of money being spent in rather more clement economic weather—I was not trying to be flippant and we have got to think about that. Is there a way in which we can make distinct savings and ring-fence money saved on translation services to be put into ESOL?

In the 10 years in which I have been an MP in inner London, I have always stood up for English language courses. I have always said, whenever I have been lobbied—particularly by the large Bangladeshi and Chinese communities in my constituency—about courses in their home language, that I do not believe it right for public money to be spent in that area. However, where there is a need—there clearly is—for English language skills in those communities, we should do all that we can. I accept we are living in a very different economic environment and that money is tight.

I take on board what Mr Ward had to say. This issue transcends further education; it is an issue of community cohesion, and we must take it extremely seriously. If that means the Minister knocking some heads together in the Home Office to ensure that we can parcel elements of this budget, it would be a sensible way forward.

I hope that the Minister will take on board some of the heartfelt concerns expressed today. I accept that we are in such a difficult financial state that we have to make some difficult decisions and that this is one of them. However, I hope that we can look at community cohesion in a much broader way, and I also hope that the Minister will work with other Ministers.

I look forward to hearing other contributions to the debate. I hope that we can all work together, and that it is not a matter of making hyperbolic claims about the Government being somewhat racist or sexist. We all recognise that there are difficult decisions to be made, and I hope that we can work together in the interests of community cohesion and of making life better for many millions of immigrants who are committed to this country. Many of them were equally committed to the events on the streets of London last Friday. It was great to see many coloured faces of people who recognise that the royal family represents all their interests in a way that no political party can purport to do.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 10:09 am, 3rd May 2011

On a number of occasions, I have presented certificates to ESOL graduates in my constituency. York college, which provides the majority of the courses, does an essential job.

English is one of our great national assets. It is the international language for business, science, politics and the internet. It gives our country an enormous economic advantage. It is a mistake to think of immigration as a one-way flow. Millions who came to our country helped us to create the economic boom of the noughties. They came from eastern and central Europe and from many other parts of the world, and many of them returned to their countries speaking English, which helps to give us the enormous global economic advantage of making ours the pre-eminent international language.

The Government are right to use the teaching of English for speakers of other languages as a way to help people get paid work, but they are wrong to suppose that it is only Jobcentre Plus that provides a route from benefits into work. College courses are effective, and they reach people that Jobcentre Plus does not reach and enable them to find work. The Government are also wrong to assume that paid work is the only way for people to contribute to society. What about voluntary work? The big society will fail if it does not involve immigrants and speakers of other languages. The Prime Minister is right to say that immigrants have a duty to integrate; they should not be excluded from the big society, but unless they are given the opportunity to learn our language, they will be.

The Association of Colleges has made some useful suggestions, and I hope that the Minister will consider them carefully and take them on board. It suggests a sliding scale of fees rather than students getting the course for free or having to pay the full rate. It also suggests that for many of those with basic skills needs, the learning of English is a means to an end, because without the ability to communicate in our language, they will not gain the necessary basic numeracy and literacy skills.

I know that time is short, so my final point is this. I know that the Minister has taken a huge interest in promoting apprenticeships during his time in Parliament, both in opposition and in government. He will know that black and minority ethnic people are enormously under-represented on apprenticeship schemes. If the Government cut back on giving people from other countries who do not speak English the opportunity to learn our language, that huge racial disadvantage will never be overcome.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston 10:13 am, 3rd May 2011

I apologise, Mr Gale, because I will not be able to stay for the whole debate; I have to attend the Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee at 10.30 am.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander on securing this important debate. I am grateful to the Minister for engaging in correspondence with me on the problem as it affects my central Manchester constituency. My constituency also contains a diverse and successful multicultural community, so I strongly support everything said this morning about the impact on individuals and families and on the implications for strengthening communities and community cohesion.

I wish to raise a couple of specific points, as time is so short. First, will the Minister amplify what he said in his letter of 13 April about the way in which colleges are to be encouraged to identify and draw in people from vulnerable backgrounds and communities? What processes will be put in place to make that happen? What guidance will be made available to colleges to support them in making those decisions? What auditing or monitoring will be put in place subsequently to ensure that it is indeed the most vulnerable learners who have access to those courses?

Secondly, ESOL funding is to continue for people making steps back into employment through jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. Whether those people are routed through Jobcentre Plus or Work programme providers, how will the Minister ensure that there is sufficient funding for colleges to sustain that provision and enable access to those courses? As I have said, it is a big concern for Trafford college in my constituency that classes may have to close. ESOL funding has always been patchy and stop-go, and it is difficult to rely on it. What assurances can the Minister give that there will be certainty of funding, even for those who now or under a future regime will remain entitled?

Thirdly, what attention is being to given to ensuring that ESOL provision is sufficiently resourced to meet the needs of people not only to learn English but to learn it in a way that allows them to apply it through their roles in the community and on their journeys towards employment? That applies whether or not they are on active benefits. Many women in my community in Trafford are not on active benefits, but it is none the less likely that at some point they will want to move into paid employment. They are certainly actively engaged in their communities.

The best way to reach those women is in the settings where they already go, and for English language teaching to be set in the context of the activities that they already undertake in the community—in Sure Start centres, in caring for their children, in medical centres and talking to their doctors, in improving their children’s health and well-being and in the context of the kind of jobs that they might be interested in doing in future, such as caring, catering or clerical roles. I would be grateful if the Minister were to say something about making ESOL courses useful and relevant to people’s life courses, whether in or out of work, and about resourcing and supporting them.

I am sorry that I cannot be here to hear the Minister’s response, but I undertake to read his comments in the Official Report, particularly as I am meeting the principal of my further education college in Trafford later this week to discuss this important matter.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 10:16 am, 3rd May 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander on securing this important debate. Indeed, the number of Members present shows how essential it is.

As time is short and many have spoken on the matters about which I would have liked to speak, I simply support the ideas that have been expressed and recognise the feelings in their constituencies. As a person who had little knowledge of English 42 years ago, I know that without the opportunity to learn the language in this country I probably would have been working on the factory floor. In today’s circumstances, I would probably not even have had the chance to work.

Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college in my constituency is one of the largest providers of ESOL courses in the UK, with almost 3,000 students at its five campuses. More than 2,000 of the students are women, many of whom will now be denied the chance to improve their English, their job prospects and their children’s chances of fully integrating into society. The college told me that it was concerned that the high proportion of women who will be affected will have a severe impact on families and on the next generation. They said this change will stop English being spoken at home, which means that the fluency of the younger generation will continue to be affected, thus ensuring that the literacy and language problems already present in our schools will be perpetuated, affecting educational standards.

The college also spoke to me of its dismay that women in particular will now be denied the chance to learn. It said:

“it seems to have been forgotten that many of these students have escaped serious repression in their own countries. The women in particular are also frequently fighting their husbands to have the freedom to study. The real issue, therefore, is that they have come to this country to find their voice, and in return we are locking them into silence.”

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend rightly concentrates, as have others, on the effect on students, but Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college—the largest provider of ESOL in his constituency and mine—will suffer badly because ESOL courses give people access to other courses enabling them to gain further qualifications. The college will lose £5 million, and its successful future will be jeopardised by these changes, which are very short-sighted.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

I agree with my hon. Friend. The colleges and campuses are in both of our constituencies, and I am aware of his point.

The students at West London college felt so strongly about the changes that they organised an ESOL day of action, which I, and probably many other Members in their own constituencies, attended. The students are worried that their voices are not being heard by the Government. Now is the time to stop and listen to those who will have to live with these changes. The Prime Minister wanted the Government to go further in helping those who come to the UK to learn English, and we must ensure that that wish is fulfilled. I hope that the Minister will take note of the views that are being expressed not just by me but by many of my colleagues who have experienced similar calls from their constituents. He must ensure that people have the opportunities and resources to integrate into our society and to improve their working opportunities so that they, too, can contribute to the future of this country.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford 10:21 am, 3rd May 2011

I apologise that I will have to rush away early from this debate to attend a statutory instrument Committee at 10.30. I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend Heidi Alexander on the fine way in which she has presented her case today. She said everything that needed to be said, but we all want to add a little of our own experience.

Many of the students of the Granville Park education centre, which my hon. Friend visited, are constituents of mine, and Lewisham college is in my constituency. Its excellent principal, Maxine Room, has made representations on the subject to both my hon. Friends and me.

If the Minister were to say that the Labour Government started this process of targeting benefits, I would say to him that when we targeted, we wanted to be absolutely sure that these were people who were resident in this country and who had the right to be here and to be on benefits. There is a difference between what his Government propose and what we did in 2007. We said, “If you are here and entitled as a member of our society, we want you to be able to learn English.” It is this change to active benefits that excludes so many women. Women are often not even required to sign for active benefits. They are legitimately claiming inactive benefits. Many women who are single parents have young children in their care and cannot possibly put themselves forward for an active benefit, but they are playing a real part in society. It is this matter of community cohesion that must concern us.

I have been appalled by the idea of very young children having to explain to doctors their mothers’ gynaecological conditions. Some women have no hope of getting medical help without such assistance from their child.

I remember a group of Somali mothers who came together because of their great concern that their children were not in school. Some 17 Somali youngsters were identified who were not in school and not known to the education authorities. The mothers did not know how to get their children into school. If we want community cohesion, we do not want to see children, who were never schooled in the original countries from which they and their mothers fled because of appalling violence, not being given the opportunity to be in school in this country.

I urge the Minister to look at the equality assessment objectively when it comes in. Opposition Members and, I think, Government Members, believe that that will demonstrate that this measure is against everything the Government have ever said they want to achieve in terms of community cohesion and it is certainly discriminatory against women. He must find the scope to act if he has the evidence. This issue must be grasped because we are punishing those who have often suffered already, those who have come here to make a better life for themselves, and those who just want to live a normal life but cannot access that life or integrate. Time prevents me from reading out some of the many letters that I have received on this matter. None the less, the Minister will see that he needs to change his mind. I am sorry that I cannot be here to hear him promise to do that, but I hope very much that he will.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 10:25 am, 3rd May 2011

In view of the time, I will severely curtail my points. I congratulate my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander on this timely debate and I welcome the comments from Government Members on the need to work together in resolving the issue. I tabled an early-day motion on the issue, which drew support from parties across the House. There is the potential for us to address the concerns that have been raised this morning.

I will not read out all the testimonies that I received in response to my early-day motion. A number of students from Sheffield college talked about wanting to improve their lives, to find a job, to help their children, and to be able to talk to their doctor. One said, “I don’t need an interpreter any more. I feel more confident. I can join in with things. I won’t keep myself so far from society.” Is not that what we all want to see?

Of the testimonies I received, almost all of them were from women. That is not surprising. As has already been said, 74% of ESOL students on inactive benefits—those who will be affected by the Government’s proposals—are women. Six months on from the original proposals being published by the Department, the equality impact assessment has yet to be produced. Only last week, the Minister, in response to a written question that I tabled, said:

“There is no specific date currently planned for publication of the assessment.”—[Hansard, 27 April 2011; Vol. 527, c. 487W.]

That is simply not acceptable because there is a date for implementation of the proposals. There is a real danger that we will find ourselves in a position—as the Government have on other policies—in which we implement changes before we consider the evidence. I join my hon. Friend in urging a delay in implementation.

Although, regrettably, I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate, I would like an assurance from the Minister today that he will consider our remarks and that we will receive the equality impact assessment and have the opportunity to consider it before the Government proceed with their proposals. That delay will give us the time to consider the helpful proposals that have been made by the Association of Colleges and others. My own early-day motion simply asks the Government to modify their proposals to alleviate the devastating impact that they will have on many people, and on women in particular.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 10:28 am, 3rd May 2011

My hon. Friend Heidi Alexander brilliantly summed up the main points. I just want to add a few remarks about what is happening in my area. I have been contacted by Uxbridge college, which delivers ESOL classes from the Hayes campus. The principal, Laraine Smith, has contacted me, as has the ESOL lecturer Rubina Kause. My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend Mr Sharma, is one of the most multicultural in the country and has a 100-year history of migration. When ESOL was introduced, we found that it significantly contributed to overcoming divisions and isolation and maintaining a cohesive community.

I attend the award ceremonies for ESOL classes in my area. There is a 100% attendance record for such classes, and they are mainly attended by women. When I ask them what their motivation is, they say that it is about supporting their children in education and wanting to engage in the wider community. In my area, 80% of students are not on the benefits appropriate to enable them to maintain their attendance at these classes.

The main concern expressed by the colleges is that individuals will be driven back into isolation, which will result in a divided community in the future. Uxbridge college in my constituency has already lost its capital grant for reconstruction. It has lost grants that have supported ESOL classes and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall said, its concern is that there will now be further instability that will threaten the courses that it offers in the long term.

I urge the Minister to pause again. We await the outcome of the equality impact assessment, but I invite him today to visit a number of colleges. I am happy for him to visit classes in my own area and to meet representatives of the University and College Union and some of its lecturers to talk through the long-term implications for our communities of the threat to these courses. I cannot overestimate the seriousness of the cuts to these courses for the wider community.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Shadow Minister (Equalities) 10:30 am, 3rd May 2011

I, too, want to thank my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander for initiating this debate. I also want to thank the Minister. Along with representatives of the Refugee Council and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, I had a meeting with him about this policy. At the end of that meeting, I felt a bit optimistic. I feel slightly foolish about that now; I thought that the Minister had got the point.

That point has been emphasised in speeches today. It is that this policy will affect women in an unfair way and that the women who will be affected are the mothers of children whose future is here in Britain. I do not think that we have heard enough about their children. For a child to succeed in school, the input of their parents is critical and mums who can read in English with their children make a major contribution to their children’s learning.

In my constituency, the evidence is that five times as many women as men are affected by this policy and that it is mums for whom the difference is greatest, because it is mums who quite often find it difficult to get out of their homes. That is not only because they do not have the necessary resources but because there are “gatekeepers” in their family who will not allow them out, except to something safe such as an ESOL class. It is a very liberating experience for mothers to attend such a class.

I urge the Minister to raid not only the translation budgets, which Mr Field has already referred to, but the interpretation budgets. In our police stations and health service in Slough, we spend a huge amount on Language Line. If we could ensure that patients and criminals alike could speak English, less money would need to be spent on Language Line. The Minister needs to invest to save that money.

The Minister wrote to me after our meeting and said:

“We have therefore prioritised Government investment in training for unemployed people actively seeking work.”

He is being too short-term in his thinking. The people who we are talking about today will be able to work in future, but right now they are not able to seek work actively. Unless we invest in them at this point, they will never be able to seek work actively, because one of the things that I have discovered through speaking to many ESOL teachers is that getting people early, before they have learned to get by with pidgin English, is the key to their achieving success in learning English.

I urge the Minister not only to scoop money out of the interpretation budgets for the Home Office and the NHS and use it to reduce the need for interpretation, but to invest in community provision of ESOL. That provision involves family learning, ESOL with reading and ESOL with basic skills. If he could offer that kind of provision, it would provide some of the things that we need for the mums who I am talking about.

There is another thing that the Minister could do. In his letter to me, he referred to “flexibilities” for colleges. If there were more flexibility for colleges, the risk that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East referred to—of colleges having money that they cannot spend—would be reduced. In my constituency, for example, the percentage of students who will receive fee remission in the council-run courses will fall from 82% at present to 6% under the Minister’s proposals. If he gave complete flexibility to colleges and other providers about how they used the money that he gave them, I think that they would use that flexibility well.

Unless the Minister has community-based ESOL education for free or at affordable prices for the mums I have mentioned, we will create a generation of children who, although they were born in Britain, will speak pidgin English and will not be able to use their learning as well as they ought to. Unless he invests in addressing that problem, we will lose another generation of workers.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice) 10:34 am, 3rd May 2011

I want to make two points, briefly. First, as my hon. Friend Mr Sharma has already said, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college is one of the largest colleges in the country and it is the largest provider of ESOL in the country; it has almost 3,000 ESOL students. Of the college’s total number of students, 84% are of non-white British heritage, and for 70% English is not their mother tongue. Among the students, there are 100 nationalities and 70 languages are spoken. Of those taking ESOL courses, 65% are on inactive benefits and 77% are women.

Those statistics show that ESOL is fundamental to the life and success of that college and the surrounding community. This measure is not simply “another cut”; it is destroying the basis for education for thousands of people in my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies in west London—and, of course, over a wider area.

My second point is that this policy is not only about education; it is exactly to do with what the Prime Minister has said about British values, culture and traditions. In my constituency, we had an ESOL day on 24 March, when the students at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college came together to celebrate their own history and culture, as well as what ESOL had given them. They showed great enthusiasm, producing a magazine written in English in which they not only showed off their skills but said what ESOL meant to them. I will read out one excerpt from that magazine, from Mohammed Conde, who is from Guinea:

“If you don’t speak English, that means no life for you. How do you expect to live in this country if you’re not able to speak English? There are many things you have to understand about the country. For example, the laws, the history, the culture and the lifestyle, and all this only happens when you start speaking English.”

That could have been the Prime Minister speaking.

If the Minister will not listen to Mohammed Conde and the other students at the college, perhaps he will listen to the Prime Minister and look not only for people to succeed economically in this country but for a more cohesive society as a consequence of preserving ESOL for students who simply will not be able to afford the amount—up to £1,200—that they will have to pay in the future. That will destroy our colleges and the future of many young people and adults in my community and others.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 10:36 am, 3rd May 2011

I will be very brief because of the short time we have left.

I think that the Minister has been in touch with or visited City and Islington college in my constituency. Consequently, he will be well aware of the excellent work that the college does on ESOL training, the good-quality teaching that it provides and the knock-on benefits for the entire community.

During his visit, he will also have heard from the students there—and no doubt from many other students around the country—that it is not only the college-based teaching that is valuable and important but the community-based teaching and the grant support for small community groups to learn English as a second language. That is because many people, particularly women, feel extremely isolated. For them, the concept and prospect of going to a college is quite daunting, whereas a fairly small teaching group in a community centre or a similarly appropriate location can be just as effective as teaching in a college.

Any analysis of what we are doing in this country about teaching English as a second language would show that the relatively small amount spent on it has enormous beneficial effects in later life for the children of ESOL students and for the economy and the community as a whole.

In Australia, any newly arrived migrant who does not speak English receives—as of right—up to 500 hours of English teaching, to enable them to participate fully in Australian society. That is extremely valuable. The community in north London that I am very proud to represent has dozens of different languages, possibly even 100. The multicultural concept and the associated quality of life is hugely valuable. However, there is a thirst among those people to be able to contribute to society. If we do not teach those people English, or give them the opportunity to learn English, in a college or elsewhere in a community, where will they learn it? English is not spoken in their homes, as nobody there has had the chance to learn it other than through the children. As a result, we end up with the embarrassing consequences of small children translating for their parents, as other Members have already pointed out, or we end up with children underachieving in school because their parents are unable to support and assist them. Those children underachieve and their parents are unable to access work.

We should educate the parents, particularly the mother, to speak English. The knock-on effects of doing that are enormous—for the achievements of the children in school and for the participation in society of both parents in every way, including gaining access to work and jobs. We would get back the money spent a dozenfold, in increased taxation and increased income for the community as a whole. It is a win-win situation as a result of a relatively small investment.

My plea to the Minister is that he fight his corner within Government spending requirements, that he understand both the value of English as a second language to the learners and its benefit to our entire community, and that he recognise the dedicated commitment of ESOL teachers in colleges and communities up and down the country. They not only teach English as a second language but do so much to bring the people they teach into the ambit of community life, so that they understand what it is like to live in this country and understand the rights, responsibilities and opportunities that they have. Cutting back on that is not sensible, fair or reasonable, and will simply be counter-productive in the long run. Give people a chance to communicate, participate and be part of our society; give them the chance to learn English as a second language.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 10:40 am, 3rd May 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander on the comprehensive and passionate way in which she has put her case—and, indeed, the case of so many Members on both sides of the Chamber today. She conveyed with great passion and conviction her points about the particular impact on women, which were echoed by so many, and about whether the Minister had realised that two thirds of ESOL students were women. She also made points about the practicalities of the co-funding, about why the Departments are treating ESOL differently from various other Skills Funding Agency funding streams, and about economic activity.

My hon. Friend’s passion and conviction have been shared by the other contributors. Mr Ward urged the Minister to look at the cost-benefit analysis of ESOL and focused, very importantly, on economic inequality. My hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick talked about listening to what the Association of Colleges has said about sliding scales of fees. Mr Field reminded us that the issue is broader than just further education and used, I think, the phrase “knocking heads” with the Home Office—that is a challenge for the Minister.

My hon. Friend Hugh Bayley made the very important point that the big society will fail if it does not include new entrants, and that ESOL is very important in that process. My hon. Friend Kate Green urged the Minister to look at the design of the ESOL programme, and my hon. Friend Mr Sharma made the point that many women come to England to find a voice and that we are in danger, with the legislative changes, of locking them into silence.

My right hon. Friend Joan Ruddock made some very important points about the role of single parents, and my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield said that the importance of the equality impact assessment was still not recognised by the Government, even at this late stage. My hon. Friend John McDonnell talked about how ESOL overcomes division and isolation, and my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart made a very important point about the future of Britain—about mothers and children—and said that the issue is part of lifelong learning, about which I know the Minister is passionate.

My hon. Friend Mr Slaughter talked about how ESOL was fundamental to the life and success of FE colleges, and I shall say a little more about that shortly. My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn made another important point about community-based, as well as college-based, teaching. In my own constituency of Blackpool South, many of the groups that we want to meet simply will not or cannot go to colleges, so that point is very important.

The Minister has had a cornucopia of advice and fervour today, and I think that he will recognise all the points made. ESOL courses play a key role in helping people who have arrived in the UK to learn and develop English and to integrate into our society. The Minister will know, because of his own portfolio, that that is important in equipping them to contribute to the communities in which they live, not just through their integration, but also through their skills, their taxes and their economic activities.

As we have heard several times today, no less a person than the Prime Minister has banged on about the issue in recent speeches and has rightly identified the understanding of English as a key element. Yet paradoxically, at the very time when he is being so fervent with the rhetoric, the impact of some of his Ministers’ decisions will make the job much harder. Their decision to remove ESOL funding for learners on inactive benefits—in other words, not on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance—will hit many people on low incomes. They are precisely the sort of people that ESOL courses would help, by improving their language skills and, in turn, helping them in the job market and to feel further integrated into our society, rather than being stuck on the perimeter. It is worth remembering that, alongside these changes, the £4.3 million learner support fund that gave colleges the discretion to help with fees has been scrapped, as has the funding uplift that gave ESOL courses 20% more than courses in other subjects.

I am afraid that, as with so many other policies, the Department seems to have rushed in and then stopped to ask the questions later. It is very much like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”: sentence first, trial later. Only now, after the policy has been announced, a matter of months from the changes coming into force, has the Department commissioned a specific equality impact assessment.

I urge the Minister to listen to everything that has been said today and to make that assessment a real basis for real change. How could his Department sign off on changes as fundamental as these without a proper assessment of how they could affect the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, and exacerbate the gender bias in progression and employment? I hope that he already has his officials working on a plan to counteract some of those anticipated problems.

The changes to ESOL funding are, however, only the tip of a large iceberg. The restriction of fee remission to only those on active benefits is being applied across the board by the Skills Funding Agency as part of the harsh funding settlement that the Minister’s Department was dealt by last year’s comprehensive spending review, and Lsect—a learning and skills analysis company—estimates that the move could affect up to 25% of the adult provision currently funded by the SFA. That works out at some 300,000 learners.

Last year’s Government skills strategy was called “Skills for Sustainable Growth”, but what exactly is sustainable in cutting back on support that would enable low-income earners to take courses to improve their skills and job prospects? Those are surely vital aspects of building a balanced and sustainable economy. Someone working 30 hours a week on the minimum wage, for example, who has an annual income of £9,050 and receives working tax credits, will no longer qualify for full fee remission, thanks to the changes being brought in by the Government. I believe that the policies will nudge people away from, rather than towards, work, and that they point to a fundamental and potentially fatal disconnect between the Government’s policies on skills and welfare.

It is clear from discussions that I have had with many of the key stakeholder groups, who were not consulted on the potential impact of ESOL change, that they are driven by the waste as well as the unfairness. I attended and spoke at a meeting in this House at the end of March, at which the University and College Union, the Association of Colleges, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Refugee Council and a number of individuals eloquently expressed their frustration with the Government on this issue. I urge the Minister to take on board not just what he can do in his own Department, but what he can and needs to do with the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, to prod them into rowing back from this ill-advised course of action.

The ESOL learning cuts could be, as others have said today, another blow to FE colleges, which have already had to cope with a 25% cut in their resource grant over the CSR period and the possible disastrous drop in enrolment thanks to the abolition of the education maintenance allowance. The cutting of ESOL funding could put college courses at risk, and in turn jeopardise lecturers’ positions, and that is reflected in a recent UCU-Unison survey that shows that 60 of the colleges surveyed were already planning to cut courses over the next year.

The Minister is, as others have been, fond of referring to FE as moving away from being a Cinderella sector. However, he knows—because he and I were in Birmingham at the Association of Colleges conference, where it came up time and again from the floor—that many of the colleges that right hon. and hon. Members here represent are very worried about the story’s ending. The confusion that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has caused over ESOL sums up the muddled thinking and lack of joined-up thinking across the Departments, with sweeping changes being made before their impact has been considered.

The Prime Minister has talked the talk on promoting cohesion and integration, but the Minister’s Department is failing to walk the walk. The issues being thrown up in ESOL provision will replicate themselves as general FE colleges across the country suffer the implications. The consequences will be serious for those who want to gain the skills to improve their career prospects and move on with their lives.

The issue is about the big society and moving forward. I urge the Minister to listen to what has been said today, delay the introduction of the policies, consider alternatives and convene the group that has been discussed. As I said, the Prime Minister has been eloquent on the subject. On 2 February, in response to a question on ESOL from one of his own Back Benchers, Kris Hopkins, he said:

“I completely agree, and the fact is that in too many cases”, learning English

“is not happening. The previous Government did make some progress…I think we need to go further.”—[Hansard, 2 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 856.]

Are the cuts the sort of going further that we need? I think not. The Minister is rightly fond of literary quotations. I remind him of the words of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “The General”, about Tommies on the western front:

“‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack…

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”

If the Minister does not wish himself or his Prime Minister to be associated with such an outcome, he needs to think, persuade and act fast.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes The Minister for Universities and Science, The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 10:51 am, 3rd May 2011

I am delighted to speak in this debate secured by Heidi Alexander, who represents her constituency, which I know extremely well, with a passion and commitment. I thank other hon. Members for contributing to this debate. Both the tone and the spirit of their contributions have been helpful. I put it on record that in opposition and, more especially, in government, I have always informed what I have said and done by listening to the views of others, and I am happy to do so again today. In the short time available to me, I hope to be able to give some illustration of that willingness to listen.

Let us be clear about the context in which the decisions are being made. I have two points to make about that. One was made by my hon. Friend Mr Field. We are debating in difficult times for Government finances and public spending. The strategy that we published last November, which has been mentioned, set out changes that, although positive in my view, occur in the context of spending reductions, not just in the area of English for speakers of other languages but in many other areas. We have had to consider closely how to get maximum cost-effectiveness. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber expects ESOL to be exempt from such scrutiny. It was absolutely right to consider it alongside other spending commitments to decide how we could ensure value for money.

The second contextual point is that the changes are part of a strategy. I will not plead guilty to the charge that they were not thought through. We planned our skills strategy during five years in opposition, and the document that I published was the result of a careful rethink of how we fund and manage skills in this country. At the heart of that rethink is the question of who pays for what. What contribution should individuals make, what contribution should the state make and what contribution should business make? That question has been ducked for too long. It has informed the debate on skills for as long as I have been involved in it, but it has been posed and never previously answered. We are moving towards giving some clear answer.

The context is one of difficulty and the need for a fresh range of ideas and fresh thinking. However, it is also absolutely right that changes should be made on the basis of fairness. I am strongly committed to some of the principles articulated in this debate, such as social justice, social cohesion and social mobility. They are the cornerstone of my political views and should inform what we do in respect of policy. [ Interruption. ] I will not give way. I am terribly sorry. There have been a lot of contributions, and I want to make as much progress as I can. I apologise because I normally would.

I have five points to make in the time available to me, and in making them I will try to reflect the comments made during this debate and our consideration of these matters in correspondence and meetings. The first, which is a point of disagreement with some of the comments made, is that I take Trevor Phillips’s view of multiculturalism, to be blunt. I think that there is a choice to be made in framing a society with people who started in many different places. Either we build a society around integration or we allow the co-existence of subcultures, with the potential risk, as Phillips said, of ghettoisation. In that spirit, it is important that we develop strong bonds that unite us so that the things that unite us are more important than those that divide us. Language seems central to that. Indeed, I agree that language is an absolutely crucial element in creating such social cohesion. The issue is how to fund the acquisition of those necessary language skills.

That brings me to the second point. If English language skills are critical to the kind of integration that I seek and that the Prime Minister has advocated so powerfully, how do we go about funding the acquisition of those skills? When I first considered ESOL, it was clear to me that, for example, many people who came here temporarily as migrant workers were being trained in English free of charge. As Alan Tuckett mentioned in his Guardian article on the subject last week, some firms have advertised abroad, saying, “Come to England to work and you will be taught English free by the Government.” That seemed entirely unsustainable to me. It is absolutely wrong for the Government to subsidise highly profitable companies that recruit abroad to train their staff in English. It is not acceptable, and it must end.

Other people who came here used ESOL as a way to acquire language skills that helped them socially or culturally, or because they wanted to travel further. I remember going to a college and meeting someone from another European country, whom I asked, “Why are you learning ESOL here?” He said, “So I can travel around the world. You can’t travel around the world if you don’t have English.” That also seemed to me fundamentally unacceptable.

My third point is a point of absolute agreement with the arguments made by the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Lewisham East. It is important, where women and families are fundamentally affected by the absence of good English skills, that we consider how to help and support them. The fourth point is that it is also vital, where the absence of English is an impediment to employment and the economic activity that is central to people’s social and civic engagement, that we should also help. That is why I have decided to support people on active benefits.

The fifth point is that it was I who decided that a further impact assessment should be done. An impact assessment done at the time of the skills strategy determined that there would be no disproportionate effect on particular groups, but I felt that we should go further and consider the particular effect of this policy. That assessment will inform how the policy develops.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

When will the assessment be published?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes The Minister for Universities and Science, The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

I will ensure that it is published in good time—certainly before the summer recess—so that we have a chance to consider it in detail, informed by debates such as this one. The assessment will, of course, consider issues such as family learning and the effect of the changes on children, mothers and women. In addition, we will consider closely how our support for adult community learning can assist the wider cultural agenda. I have defended adult community learning clearly and strongly—people will know that the £210 million budget remains intact, even following the comprehensive spending review. We will also consider how colleges can use their flexibility to address the kinds of particular concern in their neighbourhood that have been raised today.

In summary, yes, we needed to re-consider ESOL, as we have needed to consider all spending priorities; yes, we needed to eliminate some of the waste; yes, I will ensure that the review is completed properly and informs policy. We will then determine how we move forward, inspired by some of the comments made today.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Substitute Member)

I congratulate all hon. Members who have participated in this debate on their exemplary conduct. It has been most helpful.