Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 21st February 2022.

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Amendment made: 10, line 5 after “assessments” insert “and publication of certain matters”.—(Alex Burghart.)

This amendment amends the Long Title to cover NC12.

Third Reading

Photo of Nadhim Zahawi Nadhim Zahawi The Secretary of State for Education 9:36 pm, 21st February 2022

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

One year ago, the Government published their White Paper titled “Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth”. We set out our ambition to deliver landmark reforms to post-16 education and training. For too long, this sector has not received the attention it deserves. We do not have enough people with the skills needed for important sectors such as engineering—one that is close to my heart—and health and social care. In many ways, that has held back our economy and prevented people from fulfilling their potential.

We must continue on our road to recovery as a nation from the coronavirus pandemic and transition it to endemic, as we witnessed today with the Prime Minister’s statement to the House. We also need to adapt our economy and society to meet our commitment to net zero by 2050 and maintain our global leadership on climate change following COP26, with all the opportunities that there are in those new and emerging sectors for the economy.

I am glad to say that our economy is in a strong position to respond to these challenges, with the highest growth rate in the G7. On jobs, we have a record 1.2 million vacancies to fill; that is 59%—almost 60%—higher than pre-pandemic levels. Unemployment is falling and is now just 4.1%, and youth unemployment, especially, is at a record low.

As Education Secretary, and in my previous roles on the vaccine roll-out and as a Business Minister, I have met countless employers who tell me about the progress that their businesses could make if they could only hire people with the right skills. I have also met young people and adults whose lives have been transformed because they had the chance to upskill or learn a new trade. That is why I am so focused on—some will say obsessed with—delivering an ambitious skills agenda to transform the prospects of people up and down our great country.

Higher skills lead to higher productivity, which in turn leads to higher wages, ensuring that we remain globally competitive and creating the economic growth—that dynamic economy—needed to pay for our world-class public services. As part of that, we are quadrupling places on skills bootcamps, with intensive courses from coding to construction. Recent data shows that more than 54% of the 2,210 adults who completed skills bootcamps went on to secure a new role or a promotion. Apprenticeships have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, with more than 130,200 apprenticeship starts between August and October last year. We are delivering the roll-out of T-levels, with a plan for up to 100,000 T-level entrants by the end of the spending review period, supported by our £3.8 billion investment in skills over this Parliament.

The Bill and our wider skills reforms are our opportunity to tackle the challenges and unlock the full potential of our people and the productivity of our economy. We have heard how the Bill will deliver essential reform to further education and skills in our country. Today, we are taking a significant step towards that goal.

For learners, the Bill will provide much-needed flexibility. I have seen for myself the flexi-job apprenticeships at the brilliant Pinewood Studios, which is making the films of the future. We are enabling people to study or retrain at any stage of their life with the reassurance that the skills they gain hold genuine currency with employers in their area. As many right hon. and hon. Members have said today, we want to see greater parity between further and higher education, no longer pushing students towards a one-size-fits-all, three-year, full-time degree.

For employers, the Bill will solidify and anchor their critical position at the heart of the skills system and give them a vital role in shaping local skills provision in partnership with providers. That will ensure that post-16 education and training is directly aligned to the skills that employers actually need to grow, now and in future, and will help employers to get the skilled workforce that they need to compete internationally.

For the FE sector, the Bill will increase confidence in the standard of qualifications, thanks to a package of measures that will help to drive up quality standards across the technical education system. In taking forward the Bill, we recognise the huge importance of the FE sector to our economy and society and its role in upskilling our workforce and creating access to opportunities, no matter someone’s background.

Alongside our wider skills reforms, the Bill will deliver on our plans to level up across the country. People will be able to get the quality education and training that they need for work at any stage of their lives in all communities across the country, ending the perception that the only way to get on in life is by moving to London or another big city. From 2025, our lifetime loan entitlement will give people access to loan funding to gain qualifications at levels 4 to 6, whether they are an 18-year-old leaver from Bradford, a 40-year-old career changer from Plymouth or a parent in Newcastle looking to return to paid work after a career break.[This section has been corrected on 28 February 2022, column 6MC — read correction]

We want our reforms to work for everyone. Several colleagues spoke about learners with special educational needs and disabilities, who make up a significant proportion of our student population; looking ahead, they will be supported by the publication of our SEND review. Pupils in schools, when thinking about their future choices, will have access to high-quality careers advice to help them to decide the best route for them—I heard the comments of my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon about his new clause 3. FE teachers will be supported through high-quality initial teacher training that helps them to deliver excellent skills provision. That is what the Bill delivers.

I thank hon. Members across the House for their contributions over the past few months. I believe that the Bill will leave this place in a much improved state, with amendments that have enabled us to fine-tune the measures in it and make it much stronger. The debate on technical qualifications has been particularly passionate and robust. I hope Members will be reassured that measures in the Bill will improve the quality of such qualifications for all learners, whatever their background or career ambitions. We have listened to concerns about qualifications reform. That is why, on Second Reading, I announced an extra year before the implementation of our reform timetable to allow more time for all involved to prepare for the changes.

The Minister for apprenticeships and skills, my hon. Friend Alex Burghart, has led the Bill through its passage with great dedication, and has spoken passionately at each of its stages. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend Gavin Williamson, had the vision to bring forward this transformational Bill; he could never have done it without my hon. Friend Gillian Keegan by his side, and I know that skills and further education remain an area of great personal commitment for her and for him. I thank my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, the Chair of the Education Committee, for his support for the Bill. He has raised many important issues, tonight and every night, including skills and training for prisoners. I hope that he is reassured by my words today, and by our clear commitment to making apprenticeships available to prisoners.

My thanks also go to the Whips; to my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend David Johnston; and, of course, to my officials, who have worked so hard and have been so dedicated to the delivery of the Bill. As for the Opposition, the hon. Members for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) have engaged constructively at every stage of the Bill, and I am grateful to them both for their work in challenging us to ensure that it was the very best it could be.

I am also grateful to the Committee for its work in scrutinising the Bill, and I am indebted to my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller and Clive Efford for chairing it. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends on the Committee: my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici), for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), for Warrington South (Andy Carter), for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for Guildford (Angela Richardson), all of whom brought considerable experience and expertise in further education, which benefited the Bill enormously.

I am, of course, hugely grateful to noble Lords for their contributions in the other place. The issues that they raised have helped us to improve the Bill, but I hope they will understand why it was not the right place for all their amendments. Finally, I thank the Clerks and officials for their diligent work in supporting the Bill’s passage through Parliament. It is an honour to lead the great Department that is delivering this transformational Bill. I look forward to the benefits that it will bring for learners, employers and the economy, and I commend it to the House.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I note that two Back Benchers wish to speak, and I am sure that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman will bear that in mind. We do have to finish at 10 pm.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education) 9:47 pm, 21st February 2022

I will certainly ensure that there is time for the voices of other Members to be heard, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Let me first thank the Secretary of State for what he has just said, and for being here for the Bill’s Third Reading. He appears to be wearing an ostentatiously large “Truss for Leader” badge. I do not know whether that is a scoop or not, but he is certainly very welcome. [Hon. Members: “It stands for ‘T-levels’.”] In that case, I apologise. I misrepresented the right hon. Gentleman, and I am happy to set the record straight. We have heard today that 5,000 people are taking T-levels this year; I have no idea whether there are more or fewer in the “Truss for Leader” camp, but at least I have been able to clarify the meaning of the Secretary of State’s badge.

I repeat the right hon. Gentleman’s thanks to everyone who served on the Public Bill Committee. We heard some excellent contributions from Members on both sides of the Committee, and we have heard some powerful contributions today. That should give all of us confidence that there are many people in this place who recognise how critical the further education and skills agenda is. There is a shared passion, throughout this place, for ensuring that we offer better opportunities to a whole generation of younger people. We recognise the importance of the sector, and the fantastic contribution played by so many professionals in it, as well as their commitment to ensuring that that new generation have the opportunities that they deserve. I think there is agreement on, at least, the importance of that agenda.

I have to take issue with what the Secretary of State said about the Bill leaving this House stronger than it was when it arrived from another place. Amendments were tabled there by people with tremendous experience, including a whole raft of former Education Secretaries and a number of other people with real commitment to the sector, and we felt that those amendments would have greatly strengthened the Bill. That view was shared by the Association of Colleges and many other contributors to the debate. It is a matter of tremendous regret that those amendments were removed by the Government and that the very sensible amendments that were proposed tonight were either voted against or not put to a vote. That is a regrettable step. The Secretary of State speaks about his obsession and passion for getting this right. We have heard from his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Alex Burghart, that in many of the areas that we were pushing, the Government agreed with the principle of what we were saying but felt it unnecessary for our proposals to be put in the Bill.

Throughout my 12 years in this place, we have had a raft of reforms from the Government, and have often heard the same sort of rhetoric. I mentioned at some length in my speech that employers are being put in the driving seat. That has been the stated aim of every reform from this Government over 11 years. We have heard about schools knowing their pupils best, and about schools being the best placed to ensure that careers guidance and work experience are delivered, yet throughout those 11 years we have seen the failings of that approach, which is why we believe that getting some of these things into the Bill and into statute is a matter of real value. I will not repeat the contributions that I made in Committee and in this debate, but I would reinforce to Members in the other place that we Labour Members believe that there was a lot of merit in their amendments, and we will continue to push for the values that were outlined in them, even though we were unable to win the votes tonight.

I thank the Bill Committee, and all those in the Public Bill Office for the substantial support they gave us on the huge number of amendments that we tabled. I also thank Lindsey Kell in my office for the huge amount of work that she has done in supporting me on this Bill. Unlike those on the Treasury Benches, we do not have an army of civil servants, but we have been very well advised and supported. I thank all those organisations in the sector that have engaged with us and supported our amendments with evidence. They have been incredibly helpful in enabling the Opposition to do our job of holding the Government to account, suggesting a better direction of travel, and outlining how a Labour Government would approach these matters differently. I recognise that other hon. Members would like to contribute, so I simply thank all those involved in getting the Bill to this stage. I look forward to continuing these debates in the future.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I would recommend about three minutes each for the remaining speakers.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough 9:53 pm, 21st February 2022

One of the pillars of this Government’s agenda is, rightly, levelling up. The recently published levelling up White Paper lays the blueprint for it; it sets out a plan to improve lives and expand opportunities across the whole country, particularly in mission 6, which involves skills. Skills are particularly important for the east midlands, as we have unfortunately seen a trend of people entering low-paid jobs and remaining in them. That is highlighted by the White Paper, which has identified that the east midlands has the second highest proportion—20.1%—of low-paid jobs in the country. We have already taken steps to try to break this cycle in Loughborough; we used advanced town deal funding to establish a careers and enterprise hub that is delivering apprenticeships, traineeships, the lifetime skills guarantee, life skills, work coaches and youth workers from Jobcentre Plus, who will support people of all ages in upskilling and reskilling. This comes alongside the Government-funded T-level centre at Loughborough College—thank you very much—and the new £13 million institute of technology at Loughborough University, Derby College and Derby University. Again, thank you very much.

Taken together, these measures will not only help people to get ahead in life but will bridge the skills gap. The Bill puts employers at the very heart of the skills system to ensure that local businesses have access to a pool of local talent with the right skills. It enables employers and education providers to collaborate to ensure skills provision meets local need, and creates a new duty on further education providers to strengthen accountability and performance in this area. Loughborough already has that embedded in our education DNA, and it is a key driving force of business development in the constituency.

During the recess, I visited local businesses, which told me of their skills shortages. The Bill will not only enable us to identify immediate needs and trends, but will offer an opportunity for businesses to highlight their future plans for growth and the pipeline for recruitment, so that careers, skills and training can be matched to opportunities and will lead directly to jobs.

The Bill will provide a clear pathway into skilled employment for everyone—not just those with a university degree, as has historically been the case—and I am delighted to speak in support of it this evening.

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield 9:56 pm, 21st February 2022

I am grateful for the chance to sneak in during the last few minutes of this debate. It is always right that Mansfield should have the last word on such subjects, so I will take full advantage.

I warmly welcome this Bill, and it was a privilege to sit on the Committee with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Alex Burghart, and to feel his passion and understanding of the subject, which is hugely important, as my hon. Friend Jane Hunt just said, for the levelling-up agenda.

I was pleased to see skills and education investment at the heart of last week’s White Paper, because we need a long-term change in communities such as mine in Mansfield to make sure that people have better life chances. We are already seeing the benefits of that agenda. My hon. Friend pointed to examples in Loughborough, and I can point to further examples in Mansfield and North Notts.

Last year, the towns fund funded what we call the knowledge exchange of business innovation and growth. That will support local businesses in north Notts so that they can do things differently, automate, look to the future, grow and employ more people. There was also funding for robotics and automation in neighbouring Ashfield and similar funding for aviation and engineering in Newark. North Nottinghamshire has benefited greatly from £140 million-odd of investment through the towns fund, and a lot of it is going to skills and education, for which I am grateful.

I read in a briefing earlier this week that further education and technical skills contribute £26 billion to the economy. I have no idea how that was worked out, but it sounds like a very big number. Its importance should therefore be clear to all of us. Education is not just about getting a university degree and swanning off to work in whatever sector. I hear so often from employers that they take on first-class graduates with excellent qualifications on paper who simply are not equipped for the workplace. Other routes have to be built with employers, so that workers suit sectors such as engineering, where practical work experience and technical skills are so important. People cannot learn it all in a classroom, and this Bill helps us to deliver for the long term, with the kind of change that will build opportunities for people in constituencies like mine.

I welcome the lifetime skills guarantee and the finance that comes with it. In a post-covid era, more and more adults are finding that the sectors in which they work and the things for which they are qualified simply are not viable anymore. If we are to rebuild, grow and allow such people to get back into rewarding work in sectors that are growing—there are plenty of them—we must support them to retrain with the finance they need, and it needs to be flexible.

If I could make one plug, it would, as always, be for West Notts College and Nottingham Trent University—I could bang on about them forever. Edward Peck, the vice-chancellor of NTU, has fantastic ideas about how we could pilot the lifelong learning loan, and how we could ensure it is flexible by allowing people to study units at individual organisations and transfer them around the country over their adult life, so that they continue to build their qualification and take it with them. It is important that it works flexibly, and I would love to have that conversation with any of my wonderful hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench. The skills Minister is coming to talk to me and NTU tomorrow, for which I am grateful.

Partnerships with employers and universities are key to providing long-term opportunities for people in my constituency, young and old, who will benefit from the Bill long into the future. That is why I am delighted to support it today.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made an important and statesmanlike statement on Ukraine. This evening, Mr Putin has recognised the two separatist regions in Ukraine as independent states, with dangerous parallels to Germany’s recognition of the Sudetenland in 1938. In these circumstances, do you accept that it would be appropriate to have a further statement, as soon as possible, on the new Ukrainian situation? The Defence Secretary himself stated today that he would update us as necessary, and this may well be the reason for making such a statement tomorrow or as soon as possible.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As he said, the Secretary of State did undertake to keep the House updated, and I am sure he will do so. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the House will be debating the sanctions regulations tomorrow. I also know that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard the point that he has made.