Education administration: transfer schemes

Part of Technical and Further Education Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:32 pm on 9th January 2017.

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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.