Report (1st Day) (Continued)
Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill
Lord Young of Norwood Green (Government Whip (technically a Lord in Waiting, HM Household); Labour)
My Lords, noble Lords will recall that in Committee I gave an assurance to my noble friend Lord Layard that we would seek an alternative word to "scheme" to describe the duties set out in Clause 91. We have concluded that "apprenticeship offer" is a more appropriate term which does not have the negative connotations ascribed to "scheme", referred to by my noble friend. I commend the change to the House. Government Amendment 99 would effect that change and most of the remaining amendments in the group provide for the renaming. The first amendment in the group replaces the word "entitlement", which was an amendment incorrectly accepted in Committee, for the word "offer".
On government amendments 106 and 120, your Lordships will recall that I also gave a commitment in Committee to bring forward proposals that would make the apprenticeship scheme more accessible to people with learning difficulties. We have been working with the Special Educational Consortium, SKILL, RNIB, Mencap and other key interest groups to ensure that we have proposals which address the concerns raised by them and by noble Lords across the House. On the basis of these discussions, we have decided to adopt the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, to allow people with a learning difficulty or disability to submit a portfolio of evidence which demonstrates their preparedness to undertake an apprenticeship, as an alternative to the requirements in Clause 95(1) and (2). Amendment 120 would enable us to set regulations that deliver this option to young people without in any way lowering the bar in terms of the competencies required to undertake an apprenticeship.
Government Amendment 106 also gives us the flexibility through regulations to extend the apprenticeship scheme by describing groups of persons who may elect for the scheme over the age of 19 and up to the age of 25. This is intended to allow young people with disabilities, who may take longer to reach the point at which they are ready to undertake an apprenticeship, to benefit from the scheme. We are absolutely committed to working with the Special Educational Consortium, SKILL, RNIB, Mencap and other partners, to develop sets of regulations and to ensure that we get the regulations right in terms of the criteria and accessibility.
I also reiterate my commitment to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that we will indeed ensure that, in developing these regulations, we will act in accordance with the public sector disability equality duty under Section 49A of the Disability Discrimination Act, and also the Education and Skills Act 2008, which requires us to take account of the needs of those with learning difficulties and disabilities. Let me be absolutely clear about our commitment to ensuring access to apprenticeships and other training opportunities for people with learning difficulties. My honourable friend the Minister for Apprenticeships will be taking a close interest in the development of these regulations, and he will expect to have a progress report before the end of March.
I share the commitment of my noble friends Lord Layard, Lady Blackstone and Lady Morris in Amendment 110, to progression for all young people, in particular from an apprenticeship at level 2 to one at level 3. I respect and understand their perseverance, but, as I have said, it must be right for us to focus first on securing a first apprenticeship for the many young people who have not had this opportunity. I repeat the assurance that I gave the noble Lord in Committee, that we will ensure that the apprenticeship agreement has a prescribed term that requires employers to have discussions with their apprentices, and encourages progression beyond an apprenticeship at level 2. I stress the importance of encouraging employers to understand the value and the benefit they get in encouraging apprentices to go beyond level 2. Clearly, where young people make the choice to progress to an advanced apprenticeship, we will provide funding to enable them to complete it.
Amendment 129 was another issue that we considered in Committee. I understand the motive behind this amendment, which is to incentivise more employers to take on young people as apprentices, an objective which everyone in this House shares. I am happy to reassure him that there are already administrative arrangements in place to enable employers to access funding for apprenticeship training directly from the National Apprenticeships Service. I have asked the National Apprenticeships Service to ensure that it promotes this option proactively to employers, and I will take a personal, active interest in ensuring that they really will undertake a programme to promote this option, and not leave it to employers merely to request the funding. My noble friend understands the question of ensuring that if we give direct funding, we have to ensure that there is a proper process of accreditation and that the courses provided are of the appropriate standard. I hope, on the basis of these assurances, that my noble friends will feel able to withdraw their amendments.
Finally, on government Amendments 121 and 122, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, quite rightly raised a question about why it was that the levels of qualification in Clause 96 were based on the opinion of the Secretary of State, and had no input from the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator.
The clause reflects the drafting in the Education and Skills Act 2008, and was drafted prior to the drafting of the clauses that establish Ofqual. Once again, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his forensic skills in bringing that to our attention, and I trust that he, and the whole House, will agree that the amendments, which ensure that the Secretary of State must consult Ofqual, address that omission. I beg to move.