Education administration: transfer schemes

Technical and Further Education Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 9th January 2017.

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Amendment proposed: 22, page 30, line 39, at end insert—

“3A The education administrator may not transfer assets of any further education body to a for-profit private company where he or she considers that more than half of the funding of the acquisition of the asset came from public funds.”—(Gordon Marsden.)

This amendment would ensure further education bodies with a track record of accruing assets publicly, could not be transferred to a for-profit private company.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The House divided:

Ayes 183, Noes 278.

Division number 116

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Aye

No

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs

I will now suspend the House for no more than five minutes in order to make a decision on certification. The Division bells will be rung two minutes before the House resumes. Following my certification, the Government will table the appropriate consent motions, copies of which will be shortly available in the Vote Office and will be distributed by the Doorkeepers.

On resuming—

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs 9:16 pm, 9th January 2017

I can now inform the House of my decision about certification. For the purposes of Standing Order No. 83L(2), I have certified clauses 2 to 38 of, and schedules 2 to 4 to, the Technical and Further Education Bill as relating exclusively to England and Wales and within devolved legislative competence, and clause 1 of, and schedule 1 to, the Bill as relating exclusively to England and within devolved legislative competence. Copies of my certificate are available in the Vote Office.

Under Standing Order No. 83M, consent motions are therefore required for the Bill to proceed. Does the Minister intend to move the consent motions?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

indicated assent.

The House forthwith resolved itself into the Legislative Grand Committee (England and Wales) (Standing Order No. 83M).

[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs

I remind hon. Members that if there are Divisions, only Members representing constituencies in England and Wales may vote on the consent motion for England and Wales and only Members representing constituencies in England may vote on the consent motion for England. As the knife has fallen, there can be no debate

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83M(5)),

That the Committee consents to the following certified clauses of the Technical and Further Education Bill:

Clauses certified under Standing Order No. 83L(2) as relating exclusively to England and Wales and being within devolved legislative competence

Clauses 2 to 38 of, and Schedules 2 to 4 to, the Technical and Further Education Bill.—(Robert Halfon.)

Question agreed to.

The House forthwith resolved itself into the Legislative Grand Committee (England) (Standing Order No. 83M(4)(d)).

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83M(4)(d),

That the Committee consents to the following certified clauses of the Technical and Further Education Bill:

Clauses certified under Standing Order No. 83L(2) as relating exclusively to England and being within devolved legislative competence

Clause 1 of, and schedule 1 to, the Technical and Further Education Bill.—(Robert Halfon.)

Question agreed to.

The occupant of the Chair left the Chair to report the decisions of the Committees (Standing Order No. 83M(6)).

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair; decisions reported.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Leader of the House of Commons), Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the House was greatly entertained by the farce that we have just witnessed. I hope that during the adjournment, you had the opportunity to take advantage of the facilities here and even make yourself a nice cup of tea, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it was a completely and utterly pointless waste of time.

Because of the way in which the programme motion has been designed and because of the lack of time available, it has not been possible for the Legislative Grand Committee to consider all these important English-only measures. Given that English votes for English laws is supposed to be of paramount importance and one of the main innovations of this Parliament, is it not disappointing that English Members have not had the opportunity to lend an English—

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs

Order. I think the hon. Gentleman and I both know, first, that that is not a point of order and, secondly, that an important debate took place today, and it was regarded as important to have a special debate on health as well. The fact is, however, that time has gone. The House agreed to the rules and they have now been applied. Going over all that is not going to change anything. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the point of order and he has now put his point on the record. The bottom line is, however, that these are the rules that the House has chosen, as he well knows. That is the end of it. We move on to Third Reading. Perhaps time for a cup of tea. [Interruption.] Order. If you have a problem, Mr Wishart, you should pursue it through the usual and proper channels. The fact is that you did not raise a point of order, as you well know. I know it was not a point of order and you know it was not, which was why you raised it. The bottom line is this: if you do not like it, go and get your cup of tea while the House gets on with the business.

Third Reading

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills) 9:21 pm, 9th January 2017

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I want to give my special thanks to all the individuals who have shared their time and knowledge during the Bill’s passage through the House, to the officials who have worked so hard to bring it before Parliament and to those providing written and oral evidence. I would like to thank members of the Committee for their diligent approach and careful consideration of the practical implications of the Bill, and Members who have already spoken today.

I am clear about the priorities that we want to see in apprenticeships, further education and skills, creating a ladder of opportunity for all. These include a transformation of prestige and culture; widespread, high-quality provision; a system that addresses our skills needs; social justice; and job security and prosperity. The Bill seeks to build those priorities into our system, bringing to life the fundamental reforms needed to ensure that we have a skills and education system that rivals the best in the world.

For too long, technical education has been overly complex, overlooked and undervalued. Putting employers at the heart of these changes, as demonstrated through the current apprenticeship reforms and as recommended by Lord Sainsbury’s independent report, we can provide a clear route to employment for our young people. The changes in the Bill will support the achievements of those young people from difficult backgrounds, such as those with special educational needs or disability. In response to what my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson said earlier, we are doing a lot to implement the Maynard reforms, we are spending £2 million to help apprentices with mental health difficulties, and we announced over Christmas that apprentices with severe hearing problems will be able to do sign language instead of English as a functional skill.

We expect individuals with SEND to be over-represented on technical education routes: 23% of those who access technical education routes will have some form of special educational need compared with 7% of those taking level 3 academic qualifications, and 20% of those in the cohort as a whole.

The measures in the Bill will drive up the productivity of our country, turning us into an apprenticeship nation and providing the skills we need for our country to thrive. That is why the CBI has said:

“Businesses have long called for a vocational route…so today’s proposals are a real step forward.”

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Conservative, Macclesfield

I thank my right hon. Friend for the incredible work he has done in taking the Bill forward and I commend him for his efforts. Does he agree that one of the most important factors is engaging businesses in these apprenticeships and making the route to skills more relevant for business so that this will not only help to address the productivity challenges that he has mentioned, but improve life chances for the young people involved, too?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

My hon. Friend, whom I thank for his work on the Committee, is absolutely right. We introduced the apprenticeship levy to change behaviour and involve businesses in supporting apprenticeships, we have created the institute and the employer panels, and we are giving huge financial incentives to businesses, especially small businesses, to ensure that they hire apprentices.

The Bill also introduces an insolvency regime for the further education sector that will, in the unlikely event of a college insolvency, provide clear-cut protections for learners to minimise disruption to their studies as far as possible, while offering certainty to creditors. During oral evidence, we heard from representatives of the Association of Colleges, Collab and others, who supported the insolvency regime and the protections that it includes for learners. Although there were issues about which the banks had questions, many spoke in support of the clarity provided by the proposed measures. Santander told us that it was keen to lend more to the further education sector, and said:

“On the Bill and the proposed insolvency regime, we are actually supportive of the clarity that they provide.”––[Official Report, Technical and Further Education Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2016;
c. 38, Q41.]

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

As the Minister will remember, I suggested in Committee that all colleges should have professionally qualified members with financial skills in both management and governorship, so that skilled eyes would be trained on the finances to ensure that at least mistakes were not made internally.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise, but, as I think I said in Committee, I do not want to put a straitjacket on colleges. The principal of Blackpool and The Fylde College acknowledged that there might be different requirements for different colleges. Nevertheless, there should be as much financial expertise as possible in further education colleges. When there is real financial leadership, those colleges will always be in good financial health whatever the funding pressures.

We forecast that, by March 2017, we will have spent a total of about £140 million on propping up colleges facing extreme financial difficulties. That money should have been spent on education and training priorities. While we envisage that only a very small number of colleges will ever find themselves insolvent, providing protection for learners and clarity for creditors is a crucial part of what we are trying to do, and of our responsibility to support the sector.

Since the Committee stage, we have been in a position to publish for consultation the Secretary of State’s draft strategic guidance. Following our conversations about the importance of incorporating the views of students in the running of the institute, it will come as no surprise that the guidance sets out our firm expectation that the institute will establish an apprentice panel by April this year. The panel will report directly to the board, ensuring that the learner voice—the apprentice voice—is at the heart of the institute. I am glad that Gordon Marsden is encouraged by our approach. We also intend to publish for consultation, before the institute becomes operational in April, an operational plan for the institute which will set out in more detail how it intends to carry out its functions.

As for the insolvency elements of the Bill, we discussed in Committee the protections given to students through the special objective, and the possible ways in which the education administrator could ensure that disruption to students’ studies was avoided or minimised. In particular, we discussed whether the particular regard that the education administrator must have to the needs of students with special educational needs and disabilities should be extended to any other groups. I also recognise the importance of taking account of the needs of care leavers, recognising that they may need additional personal or pastoral support to deal with any uncertainty or upheaval should their college ever be subject to insolvency. Such support is best provided for each individual by a local authority-assigned personal adviser. As I said earlier, we will take steps to ensure that the guidance being produced for local authorities on their corporate parenting responsibilities includes advice on the role of personal advisers in the event that the young people for whom they are responsible attend colleges that enter education administration.

There is much to be proud of in our current system, given that 71% of FE colleges are good or outstanding and more than 50% are in good financial health, the proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds in education or taking up apprenticeships is at a record high, the reforms made following the 2011 Wolf review have raised the quality of qualifications, and 88% of students were recorded as having a sustained education destination in the year after key stage 5.

We know that high-quality further education can have a truly transformative impact on young people. That is why we announced as part of the spending review that we will protect the 16-to-9 national base rate of £4,000 per student for the duration of this Parliament. By 2020, if we include the adult education budget, the 19-plus apprenticeship funding and advanced learner loans, more funding will be available to support adult further education participation than at any time in England’s history.

The measures in this Bill will build on the key priorities, enabling students to make better choices about their future, with the opportunity to gain qualifications valued by employers that will secure their future prosperity and that of our nation.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

In my constituency we are very fortunate in having Richard Huish sixth-form college, which has just been shortlisted as one of the six best sixth-form colleges in the country for The Times award. It runs apprenticeship courses, but there are concerns that it cannot get enough students to apply for some of the business admin courses. There is a real demand from business for those students, yet there are loads of apprentices doing courses where business does not really have jobs for them. Does the Minister agree with me and the principal of the college that provisions in this Bill to develop the synergy between education, apprenticeships and business are welcome, and indeed are vital in addressing the skills shortage in this country?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and she is absolutely right: everything this Government are doing—the apprenticeship levy, this Bill, FE and technical education reform, the drive up of standards, the encouragement of apprenticeships, the money we are putting in with £2.5 billion that will be doubled by 2020—is designed to solve the problems she has talked about.

The OECD has said about the skills plan that

“the UK has a promising plan to advance technical education from a last resort to a first choice.”

Colleges, too, have spoken highly of the plan, including the principal of my own Harlow College, who said:

“As colleges we are not just about courses, we are about careers—we therefore believe that any reform that brings us closer to employers means our students gain higher skills and better jobs.”

This Bill is a Ronseal Bill: it does what it says on the tin. It transforms the prestige and quality of apprenticeships and technical education in our country, addresses the skills deficit, protects students in the event that colleges face extreme financial difficulty, and ensures that the most disadvantaged are able to climb the ladder of opportunity. The Bill underlines the Prime Minister’s commitment to a country that works for everyone. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education) 9:32 pm, 9th January 2017

May I associate myself with the Minister’s comments in thanking the officials and all Committee members? I particularly thank my Labour colleagues, who did sterling work in supporting us on the Front Bench in the Committee. May I also commend the support that the Public Bill Committee gave to us? The role of the Opposition in challenging the Government on these matters is sometimes equivalent to that of David taking on Goliath; we do manage occasionally to get a few slingshots in, and I am grateful on this occasion they have not incapacitated the Minister concerned.

This is an important Bill with some important provisions, which is why we have not opposed it on Second Reading or on Third Reading tonight. However, that does not mean that we do not continue to have profound concerns about its implementation, process and progress. That was indicated in the excellent, although relatively truncated, debate we had on the amendments, in the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris), for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is still here, for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who gave an inspiring speech on the need for us to have vocational passions, and for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), a relatively new Member of the House. All of them talked about practical issues such as implementation, about which we still have real concerns. This is not just a matter of formulae. For a long time—indeed, until it was almost too late—there were no links between higher education and further education in the way envisaged when the previous higher and further education legislation was brought forward.

I ask the Minister to reflect on a matter that is perhaps even more important. We have had a spirited discussion today about whether we need to have a strategy for careers advice in the Bill. We still believe that we do, and we think the Minister has missed a trick in that respect. The inclusion of such a strategy would have entrenched his position and his passion for careers advice, rather than diminishing it. The broader issue, however, is that the things that the Minister and everyone else would like to see happen are not solely a matter for the Department for Education. I know that he is as passionate about delivering traineeships as I am, but to do that we need to build structures and links between the DFE and the Department for Work and Pensions and to reach a concordance over the 16-hour law and other things. If the Government want to deliver careers advice, there will need to be a similar engagement and balancing act between the DWP and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. These things cannot just be left in one particular box.

I pay tribute to the Minister for the passion that he has shown on apprenticeships, but the fact is that apprentices are still handicapped by a number of things on which the Government have yet to prove their bona fides. That includes issues relating to GCSEs in English and maths. I have heard encouraging words on that from the Secretary of State and the Minister, but they have not yet nailed that issue down and it will not go away unless there is a satisfactory solution to the often soul-destroying requirement to retake GCSEs in those subjects.

Apprentices do not work and exist in a vacuum. The question of how their families are supported—through child benefit and in other ways—needs to be looked at, not just by the Department for Education but by other Departments as well. If that does not happen, there will be a real problem. Our new clause on this matter was ruled not to be within the scope of the Bill, but this is still a really important issue.

Mention was made in passing of devolution. I do not want to go into that issue much further tonight, but the Government need to think very clearly about it. They are going ahead with the devo-max process for combined authorities, yet the structures in the Bill do not reflect the reality of what the delivery of adult education, and possibly apprenticeships, will be like. Personally, I do not think that we can have a proper long-term skills strategy on a localised basis without taking apprenticeships into account as well as adult education. That point has not been addressed in the Bill.

The Minister has talked about insolvencies, and I associate myself with his view that it is a minority issue in regard to further education colleges. Let us pray that it continues to be so. However, it is worth remembering that the Bill is being introduced in the context of a period of profound funding cuts in the FE sector. The Government need to address the fact that that is the context in which they have decided to introduce this stand-alone Technical and Further Education Bill. The Minister also mentioned travel support. I note in passing that if the Government had taken up our proposals on education maintenance allowance, the process might perhaps have been speedier.

I want to return to the question of how the provisions will be delivered, and the timescale involved. It is three months until the apprenticeship levy funding kicks in. We still do not know who the new chief executive of the institute will be, and we do not know about the board. We have had some progress on those issues today, but we are told, for example, that the Skills Funding Agency will stay in charge of the new register of apprenticeships, which raises genuine bewilderment among many people out there—the Minister will have seen the comments made to FE Week in the past couple of days on this subject—as to why it is not Ofqual, if not IFATE, that is administering the register of approved apprenticeship assessment organisations. Is the real reason why the SFA is doing this because it is basically the civil service and that it would give a reserve power to Ministers to micromanage? It is not a question of what the Minister might do but what some of his successors might do.

Those important issues will need to be reflected on in the other place. Two key issues still remain. Will the funding and the staffing numbers that were dragged out of the Government when Peter Lauener spoke to the Committee be adequate for all the responsibilities? I would say that it is doubtful at this stage. How arm’s length or genuinely independent of judgment will the new institute be, or will Whitehall still be micromanaging the strings? Those are not just petty issues. They are issues that, if not resolved properly, will not gain the full-hearted consent of stakeholders, providers and all the people whom the Minister needs, and we all need, in order to meet the targets and to make his aspirations and my aspirations for apprenticeships for the next generation a reality.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.