English for Speakers of Other Languages

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (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 the hon. Member for Bradford East (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. 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.