In the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, after section 67 insert—
67A Power for the OfS to publish notices, decisions and reports
(1) The OfS may publish notices, decisions and reports given or made in the performance of its functions.
(2) Subsection (1) does not affect any other power of the OfS to publish such a matter.
(3) Publication under this section does not breach—
(a) an obligation of confidence owed by the OfS, or
(b) any other restriction on the publication or disclosure of information (however imposed).
(4) But nothing in this section authorises the OfS to publish information where doing so contravenes the data protection legislation.
For this purpose “the data protection legislation” has the same meaning as in the Data Protection Act 2018 (see section 3 of that Act).
(5) In deciding whether to publish a notice, decision or report under subsection (1), the OfS must, in particular, consider—
(a) the interests of—
(i) students on higher education courses provided by English higher education providers,
(ii) people thinking about undertaking, or who have undertaken, such courses, and
(iii) English higher education providers,
(b) the need for excluding from publication, so far as practicable, any information which relates to the affairs of a particular body or individual, where publication of that information would or might, in the opinion of the OfS, seriously and prejudicially affect the interests of that body or individual, and
(c) the public interest.
(6) For the purposes of this section and sections 67B and 67C—
(a) a reference to a decision includes a reference to the reasons for it, and
(b) any decision made in the course of exercising, or for the purposes of enabling the OfS to exercise, any of the OfS’s functions (including making any other decision) is made “in the performance of its functions”.
67B Publication of decision to conduct or terminate investigation
‘(1) This section applies where under section 67A(1) the OfS publishes a decision to conduct an investigation.
(2) If the publication identifies a higher education provider or other body or individual whose activities are being, or to be, investigated, and—
(a) the OfS terminates the investigation without making any finding, or
(b) the findings of the investigation, so far as they relate to the higher education provider, body or individual, do not result in the OfS taking any further action,
the OfS must publish a notice stating that fact.
(3) Section 67C does not apply to the publication of the decision to conduct the investigation to the extent that it includes information other than—
(a) a statement of the OfS’s decision to conduct the investigation,
(b) a summary of the matter being, or to be, investigated, and
(c) a reference to the identity of any higher education provider or other body or individual whose activities are being, or to be, investigated.
(4) See section 67A(6) for the meaning of references to decisions.
67C Protection from defamation claims
(1) For the purposes of the law of defamation, publication by the OfS of any notice, decision or report given or made in the performance of its functions is privileged unless the publication is shown to have been made with malice.
This is subject to section 67B.
(2) See section 67A(6) for the meaning of references to decisions.”—(Alex Burghart.)
This new clause amends the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 so as to confer publication powers on the Office for Students and provide it with protection from defamation claims,
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 1—Apprenticeships for prisoners—
“Notwithstanding any other statutory provision, prisoners in English prisons may participate in approved English apprenticeships, as defined by section A1 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009.”
The aim of this new clause is to ensure that prisoners can start Apprenticeships while they are serving their sentence.
New clause 2—Provision of opportunities for education and skills development—
“(1) Any person of any age has the right to free education on an approved course up to Level 3 supplied by an approved provider of further or technical education, if he or she has not already studied at that level.
(2) Any approved provider must receive automatic in-year funding for any student covered by subsection (1), and supported by the Adult Education Budget, at a tariff rate set by the Secretary of State.
(3) Any employer receiving apprenticeship funding must spend at least two thirds of that funding on people who begin apprenticeships at Levels 2 and 3 before the age of 25.”
This new clause would provide for education and skills development up to a Level 3 qualification for any person of any age supplied by an approved provider if they have not already studied at that level.
New clause 3—Amendments to section 42B of the Education Act 1997—
“(1) Section 42B of the Education Act 1997 is amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) In complying with subsection (1), the proprietor must give a representative range of education and training providers (including, where reasonably practicable, a university technical college) access to registered pupils on at least three occasions during each of the first, second and third key phase of their education.”
(3) After subsection (2) insert—
“(2A) The proprietor of a school in England within subsection (2) must—
(a) ensure that each registered pupil meets, during both the first and second key phase of their education, with a representative range of education and training providers to whom access is given, and
(b) ask providers to whom access is given to provide information that includes the following—
(i) information about the provider and the approved technical education qualifications or apprenticeships that the provider offers,
(ii) information about the careers to which those technical education qualifications or apprenticeships might lead,
(iii) a description of what learning or training with the provider is like, and
(iv) responses to questions from the pupils about the provider or technical education qualifications and apprenticeships.
(2B) Access given under subsection (1) must be for a reasonable period of time during the standard school day.”
(4) After subsection (5)(a), insert—
“(aa) a requirement to provide access to a representative range of education and training providers to include where practicable a university technical college;”
(5) In subsection (5)(c), after “access” insert “and the times at which the access is to be given;”
(6) After subsection (5)(c), insert—
“(d) an explanation of how the proprietor proposes to comply with the obligations imposed under subsection (2A).”
(7) After subsection (9), insert—
“(9A) For the purposes of this section—
(a) the first key phase of a pupil’s education is the period—
(i) beginning at the same time as the school year in which the majority of pupils in the pupil’s class attain the age of 13, and
(ii) ending with
(b) the second key phase of a pupil’s education is the period—
(i) beginning at the same time as the school year in which the majority of pupils in the pupil’s class attain the age of 15, and
(ii) ending with
(c) the third key phase of a pupil’s education is the period—
(i) beginning at the same time as the school year in which the majority of pupils in the pupil’s class attain the age of 17, and
(ii) ending with
This new clause is intended to replace Clause 14. This clause will ensure that section 2 of the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, commonly known as the Baker Clause, is legally enforceable.
New clause 4—Green Skills Strategy—
“The Secretary of State must, before the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, publish a Green Skills Strategy, setting out a plan to support people to attain the skills, capabilities or expertise through higher education, further education or technical education that directly contribute to, or indirectly support, the following—
(a) compliance with the duty imposed by section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008 (United Kingdom net zero emissions target),
(b) adaptation to climate change, or
(c) meeting other environmental goals (such as restoration or enhancement of the natural environment).”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish a national green skills strategy which would set out a plan to support people to attain skills which will directly contribute to or indirectly support climate change and environmental goals.
New clause 5—Universal Credit conditionality review—
“The Secretary of State must review universal credit conditionality with a view to ensuring that adult learners who are—
(a) unemployed, and
(b) in receipt of universal credit remain entitled to universal credit if they enrol on an approved course for a qualification which is deemed to support them to secure sustainable employment.”
This new clause is intended to ensure greater flexibility for potential students in receipt of universal credit to take up appropriate training that will better equip them for employment.
New clause 6—Skills levels in England and Wales: review—
“(1) Within one year of the passing of this Act, and each year thereafter, the Secretary of State must prepare and publish a report on overall levels of skills in England and Wales and their economic impact, including regional and demographic breakdowns.
(2) The report under subsection (1) must in particular examine—
(a) cohort sizes and compositions of all qualifications from entry level to level 8,
(b) cohort skill achievement rates, in terms of result breakdowns,
(c) cohort placement success rates, in terms of numbers in further qualifications or new employment within 12 months after achieving each qualification,
(d) job retention and labour market turnover,
(e) labour productivity, and
(f) job satisfaction and fulfilment.
(3) The report under subsection (1) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on overall skills levels and economic output across England and Wales.
New clause 7—Lifetime skills guarantee—
“(1) All persons have the right to study a fully-funded approved course for a qualification up to level 3 supplied by an approved provider of further, higher, or technical education if they—
(a) do not currently hold a level 3 qualification, or
(b) currently hold a level 3 qualification and would benefit from re-training.
(2) The Secretary of State must prepare and publish a list of approved courses for the purposes of subsection (1).
(3) The Secretary of State must consult on the list of approved courses to ensure that they are compatible with national levelling up and skills strategies.
(4) The Secretary of State must review the list of approved courses at least every six months with a view to ensuring that they reflect the skills needed as the economy changes.”
This new clause places the Government lifetime skills guarantee on a statutory footing, ensuring that those without an A-level or equivalent qualification, or who hold such qualification but would benefit from reskilling, are able to study a fully funded approved course.
New clause 8—National Strategy for Integrated Education —
“(1) The Secretary of State must, before the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, publish a National Strategy for Integrated Education.
(2) A strategy under this section must—
(a) support the creation or development of courses offering integrated academic and vocational content, or a range of academic and vocational modules which can be combined into hybrid qualifications, at levels 4 to 8;
(b) support the creation or development of institutions offering courses under paragraph (a);
(c) set out a role for training programme providers in designing courses under paragraph (a).
(3) The Secretary of State must consult the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, Ofqual, and Quality Assurance Agency on any strategy to be published under this section.
(4) The Secretary of State must make regulations within 24 months of the passing of this Act to provide for such elements of the strategy as require enactment through statutory provisions.”
New clause 9—Integrated compatibility of modules and accreditation—
“(1) The Secretary of State must publish a National Accreditation Framework for Modular Learning. A framework must include guidance on—
(a) the unbundling of modular components of courses and qualifications;
(b) the stacking of modular components of courses and qualifications; and
(c) the transfer of modular components between institutions, for the purposes of ensuring—
(a) (i) transparency;
(ii) mutual recognition of qualifications across academic, vocational and integrated further and higher education institutions; and
(iii) clarity on the options available to learners for unbundling or stacking modules into an overall qualification which meets the needs of their own professional development, and skills gaps within the national labour-market.
(2) The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, Ofqual, and Quality Assurance Agency must assist in the preparation of any framework under this section.
(3) A framework under this section must set out a role for the Institute, Ofqual and the Quality Assurance Agency in ensuring the effective operation of the framework.”
New clause 10—Role of employers in employee reskilling—
“(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations for the purpose of ensuring that employers provide—
(a) a minimum number of hours per year for in-work training and skills development for employees; and
(b) a minimum number of hours of retraining support for courses chosen at the discretion of former employees who have been made redundant, as part of an employer’s redundancy package.
(2) The minimum numbers of hours under section (1)(a) and (b) are to be set by the Secretary of State.
(3) In this section, “employer” has the same meaning as in section 4.
(4) The Secretary of State may, by regulation, establish a skills tax credit, for the purpose of—
(a) making allowance for funding the provision of time and training under subsection (1); and
(b) incentivising and rewarding employers for investing the skills development of their employees.”
New clause 11—Transition to 16+ education—
“(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring local authorities to fulfil the function of an admissions authority with regard to admissions to further education courses provided within their administrative jurisdiction, for the purposes of ensuring admission to further education is allocated in an open and fair manner.
(2) Regulations under this section may require local authorities to run admissions processes in relation to further education in a manner comparable with the processes set out in Part III of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 in so far as they relate to the admissions processes for primary and secondary education.
(3) In this section, “further education” has the same meaning as in the Education Act 1996 (see section 2 of that Act).”
This new clause would allow the Secretary of State to require local authorities to run admission to further education in a manner comparable to admissions for primary and secondary education.
New clause 13—Access to Sharia-compliant lifelong learning loans—
“(1) The Secretary of State must make provision by regulations for Sharia-compliant student finance to be made available as part of the lifelong learning entitlement.
(2) Regulations under this section are to be made by statutory instrument, and a statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
This new clause allows the Secretary of State to make provision for Sharia-compliant LLE loans.
New clause 14—Recognition of skills in the energy sector—
“(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish an Energy Sector Skills Strategy, for the purposes of—
(a) achieving cross-sector recognition of core skills and training in the offshore energy sector, including the oil and gas sector, and the renewable energy sector; and
(b) ensuring training and training standards bodies within the offshore energy sector adopt a transferable skills and competency-based approach to training.
(2) The strategy must target all workers, whether directly or indirectly (sub-contracted or agency) employed, or engaged through day-rate or self-employed contract models.
(3) When producing the strategy, the Secretary of State must consult with—
(a) workers within the offshore energy sector;
(b) unions within the offshore energy sector;
(c) energy companies; and
(d) training standards bodies relevant to the offshore energy sector.
(4) The Secretary of State must implement the strategy within 12 months of the passing of this Act. The Secretary of State may make regulations to provide for such elements of the strategy as require enactment through statutory provision.”
This new clause would facilitate cross-sector recognition of skills and training between the oil and gas sector and the renewable energy sector.
New clause 15—Retraining guarantee for oil and gas workers—
“(1) The Secretary of State must guarantee access to training, grants, resources and other support facilities to workers in the oil and gas sector, including—
(a) assessment of existing skills and training;
(b) understanding of skills matrices for careers in the offshore energy sector, including renewable energy and oil and gas;
(c) advice on alternative green energy jobs; and
(d) funding to complete training relevant to the green energy sector; for the purpose of proactively supporting oil and gas workers wishing to transition to careers in the green energy sector, regardless of their current contract status.
(2) Support under this section must be made available to—
(a) all workers, whether directly or indirectly (sub-contracted or agency) employed, or engaged through day-rate or self-employed contract models; and
(b) workers who have recently left the oil and gas sector.”
This new clause would establish a retraining guarantee for oil and gas workers seeking to leave the sector, supporting them in transitioning to green energy jobs.
New clause 16—National review and plan for improving levels of adult literacy—
“(1) Within two years of the passing of this Act, and every two years thereafter, the Secretary of State must review adult literacy levels in England, for the purpose of improving adult literacy levels.
(2) A review under this section must identify the number of adults with literacy levels—
(a) below Entry Level 1,
(b) below Entry Level 2,
(c) below Entry Level 3,
(d) below Level 1, and
(e) below Level 2.
(3) The findings of a review under this section must be published in a report, which must be laid before Parliament.
(4) A report under this section must include a breakdown of the levels of adult literacy by local authority area.
(5) When a report under this section is laid before Parliament, the Secretary of State must also publish a strategy setting out steps the Government intends to take to improve levels of adult literacy in England.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to, every two years, review levels of adult literacy in England, publish the findings of that review and set out a strategy to improve levels of adult literacy in England.
New clause 17—Availability of humanities, social sciences, arts and languages courses—
“(1) The Secretary of State must review the availability of humanities, social sciences, arts and languages courses at Entry Level through to Level 4 in a specified area to which a local skills improvement plan relates.
(2) The outcome of a review under this section must be—
(a) provided to the relevant employer representative body for a specified area; and
(b) laid before both Houses of Parliament.
(3) Where a review under this section identifies inadequate availability of courses in a specified area, the Secretary of State must take steps to remedy this inadequacy, to ensure courses are available in all specified areas.
(4) A review under this section in relation to a specified area must be conducted each time the Secretary of State approves and publishes a local skills improvement plan for that specified area.”
This new clause requires the Secretary of State to review the availability of humanities, social sciences, arts and languages courses at Entry level to Level 4 in areas to which an LSIP applies. It would also require the Secretary of State to take steps to remedy inadequate availability of the courses.
Amendment 2, page 2, line 36, after “authority” insert
“and further education providers in the specified area”.
This amendment would provide for employer representative boards to develop local skills improvement plans in partnership with local further education providers.
Amendment 18, page 3, line 6, at end insert—
“(ba) draws on responses to a public consultation conducted by the relevant local authority for the specified area on the education and training that should be made available in the relevant area, and”
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to draw on responses to a public consultation run by the relevant local authority, when publishing a local skills improvement plan for a given area.
Amendment 16, page 3, line 10, at end insert—
“(d) lists specific strategies to support learners who have or have previously had, a statement of Special Educational Need or an Education and Health Care Plan into employment, including but not limited to provision for supported internships.”
This amendment would require local skills improvement plans to list specific strategies to support learners who have or have previously had, a statement of Special Educational Need or an Education and Health Care Plan into employment, including but not limited to provision for supported internships.
Amendment 14, in clause 2, page 3, line 15, after “England” insert
This amendment provides for local authorities to give consent in the designation of employer representative bodies, to ensure employer representative bodies are representative of the areas they cover.
Amendment 4, page 3, line 20, after “employers”, insert
“and any relevant community, education, arts, faith and third sector organisations”.
Amendment 5, page 3, line 41, at end insert—
‘(6) The functions of the Secretary of State under this section may also be exercised by a relevant mayoral combined authority in England, where the designation relates to an area within their administrative jurisdiction, provided that education and skills are within the relevant authority’s devolved competence.”
Amendment 17, page 3, line 41, at end insert—
‘(6) Representative bodies which are employers, and employer organisations which are members of employer representative bodies, must sign up to the Disability Confident employer scheme within six months of being designated, or becoming a member of, the employer representative body.”
Amendment 6, in clause 3, page 4, line 18, at end insert—
‘(5) The functions of the Secretary of State under this section may also be exercised by a relevant mayoral combined authority in England, where the designation relates to an area within their administrative jurisdiction, provided that education and skills are within the relevant authority’s devolved competence.”
Amendment 12, in clause 6, page 7, line 23, at end insert—
‘(2A) The Institute shall perform a review of the operation of the apprenticeship levy, paying particular regard to considering whether sufficient apprenticeships at level 3 and below are available.”
This amendment would require the Institute to perform a review of the operation of the apprenticeship levy, and would require the Institute to pay particular regard to ensuring that sufficient apprenticeships at level 3 and below are available.
Amendment 15, in clause 7, page 10, line 37, at end insert—
‘(2A) Subsection (2) does not apply to the withdrawal of level three courses for the period of four years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”
This amendment seeks to reintroduce the Lord’s amendment (amendment 29), preventing IfATE from withdrawing approval of established level 3 courses including BTECs for four years.
Amendment 1, page 17, line 28, leave out clause 14.
This amendment is consequential on NC3.
Amendment 8, in clause 14, page 17, line 28, at end insert—
‘(A1) Section 42A of the Education Act 1997 (Provision of careers guidance in schools in England) is amended as follows—
“(d) is provided by a person who is registered with the Career Development Institute, and who holds a level 4 qualification.”’
Amendment 13, page 18, line 5, at end insert—
“(aa) ensure that each registered pupil receives two weeks’ worth of compulsory work experience,
(ab) ensure that each registered pupil receives face to face careers guidance, and”.
This amendment would require every school to provide face to face careers guidance for every pupil and two weeks’ worth of compulsory work experience for every registered pupil.
Amendment 7, page 19, line 1, at end insert—
‘(9B) Local Authorities shall have oversight of the provisions in subsection (2A) and subsection (5), for the purposes of ensuring the provision of careers advice is consistent and high quality.”
Amendment 3, in clause 15, page 20, line 29, at end insert—
‘(3) After section 22(2)(c) of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 insert—
“(ca) for the establishment of a system of means-tested financial grants, for the purpose of ensuring that financial hardship is not a dissuading factor in the take-up of higher education or further education modules or courses.”’
Amendment 11, in clause 34, page 40, line 20, at end insert—
“(e) Sections [Recognition of skills in the energy sector] and [Retraining guarantee for oil and gas workers].”
This amendment is consequential on NC14 and NC15.
Government amendments 9 and 10.
It is a pleasure to open the debate on Report of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. We had a very good debate in Committee, and I look forward to contributions from Members from across the House today.
I rise to speak to new clause 12 and amendments 9 and 10 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The Government announced their intention to table new clause 12 in Committee last November. It inserts three new sections into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, and will give the Office for Students, the higher education regulator in England, an explicit power to publish information about its compliance and enforcement activity in relation to higher education providers.
It is important that the OfS is able to publish such information in the form of notices, decisions and reports, and it is in the public interest that it should be transparent in its work, particularly when it is investigating providers for potential breaches of the registration conditions placed on them by the regulator. Publication by the OfS regarding its compliance and enforcement functions will demonstrate that appropriate actions are being taken by the regulator, and that will ensure that the reputation of higher education in England is maintained, and that we bear down on poor provision.
Members can be reassured that this power will be discretionary, as there may be reasons why the OfS may not consider it appropriate to publish certain information. The new clause provides, in proposed new section 67A(5) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, various factors that the OfS must take into account when deciding whether to publish, including the public interest, but also whether publication would or might seriously and prejudicially affect the interests of a body or individual. The OfS should be transparent about such work, showing the sector, students and the public that it is intervening when necessary, and consequently providing confidence in the regulatory system.
New clause 12 also includes provision in proposed new section 67C to protect the OfS from defamation claims when, for example, it announces the opening of an investigation or publishes regulatory decisions. This protection provides qualified privilege, meaning that there is protection unless publication is shown to have been made with malice.
Other regulators, such as the Competition and Markets Authority, Ofsted and the Children’s Commissioner, have similar powers and protections. We are seeking a power and protection in this new clause to ensure that the OfS has what it needs for the purpose of transparency, and note the need to be as consistent as possible across the statute book. We believe there will be little material impact on the sector as a result of this change, as it simply allows more transparency about what the OfS is already doing.
Publication of notices, decisions and reports will become increasingly important as the OfS scales up its work on driving up quality in higher education and on protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom under the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
I rise to speak to amendments 12 to 16. I start by saying how much I welcome the interest among right hon. and hon. Members in improving this Bill. It is disappointing that the Bill was scheduled for debate on the first day back from recess, when the Government could have predicted that there would be a considerable number of other important statements, and so the House has less than two and a half hours to debate the 35 amendments before us. The further education sector has often been described as a Cinderella service and has often felt that its crucial role as the economic heartbeat of this country is undermined; there is nothing in the scheduling of this Bill or today’s debate to contradict that view.
Notwithstanding that, it is always a great pleasure to debate further education policy. Our country’s Government have presided over a productivity crisis, created a cost of living crisis because they are a high-tax, low-growth Government, and serially under-funded and undermined the institutions that are key to addressing those failings. Yet there is widespread recognition of the need for change, so there was considerable anticipation when the Government announced they were bringing forward a skills Bill to address a generation of failure.
We all remember that the White Paper that preceded the Bill was described as a “once-in-a-generation reform”, but Ministers seem determined to resist any substantive changes to the skills Bill. I wish those Conservative Members who have proposed amendments to the Bill well, but I am not hopeful that the Government are of a mind to allow their Bill to be improved.
We have a skills Bill here that is silent on apprenticeship reform. Our disappointment about the omission of apprenticeships from the Bill is compounded by the absence of any recognition that the apprenticeship levy has, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, “failed by every measure”.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. With great respect to the Government, the issue for me is the lack of detail when it comes to apprenticeships. Does he feel, as I do, that apprenticeships can play an important part in tackling the deficit by giving people a learning structure and valuable work experience that provides both the qualifications and the holistic skills needed for economic growth? If we want to do something to build economic growth, we need apprenticeships.
I could not agree more. I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman has overcome any shyness he may have had about speaking in this House and has decided to contribute to this debate, as he seems to contribute to them all, but he makes an important point. Apprenticeships are the gold standard as far as the Labour party is concerned. We believe they should be the heart of the Government’s approach, and it is hugely disappointing that apprenticeship numbers are down by a quarter since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy.
The apprenticeship levy has reduced the number of small businesses that have felt able to contribute to taking on apprentices; it has reduced the number of level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships and it is a significant failure in that regard. Indeed, our amendment 12, which asks for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to
“perform a review of the operation of the apprenticeship levy, paying particular regard to considering whether sufficient apprenticeships at level 3 and below”,
is the only opportunity to discuss the future of apprenticeships in this debate.
The funding of level 3 qualifications—an issue of contention since the Government tried to denigrate BTECs, to a widespread and welcome backlash—remains out of the scope of the Bill. Our amendment 15 seeks to reintroduce the four-year moratorium added in another place, to prevent hasty decisions from being made that could widen skills shortages and remove the opportunity to take BTECs. In Committee, the Government even rejected adding the one-year moratorium, which would extend funding of BTECs until 2024, to the Bill. I understand that the Secretary of State has confirmed that BTECs will continue to be funded until 2024, which is welcome, but it is disappointing that the Government were not willing to allow that to be added to the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the pain around BTECs is because they are usually the gateway for students on lower incomes, students from minority backgrounds and students with disabilities to get into further education? Taking that away is the very opposite of levelling up.
I absolutely agree with all of that. BTECs are also a qualification that is understood and respected by employers. They have a long-standing track record; they are respected by learners and understood by institutions. I am not hostile to the idea of improving them, if something can be done to bring in a better qualification. There is real merit in the potential of T-levels, and as a brand they have immediate buy-in, but the Government need to tread carefully. T-levels are changing shape in front of our eyes. They were brought in as a vocational qualification, but the Secretary of State’s current favourite anecdote is about a student from Barnsley who he met, who said he can go to any university he wants.
The T-level qualification started off on a vocational path, but the Government are now saying that it is a route towards universities—[Interruption.] It could potentially be both, but I must say that the Secretary of State’s predecessor, when it was discovered that Russell Group universities were not accepting T-levels, was very sanguine about it. He said, “They’re not about universities. They’re all about going towards the world of work.” This qualification is changing shape in front of our eyes, and the Government need to be careful before they get rid of things that work and replace them with their new qualification.
One concern I have around T-levels, which I have raised with the Government before, is the work placement aspect and the fact that the availability of the T-level is therefore based on the availability of businesses to provide those work placements. My fear for areas such as Hull, which I represent, and others around the country is that if they do not have the placements, they cannot have the T-level. Therefore, that opportunity is denied to many students, unlike the generalisation of a BTEC, which means that wherever people are in the country, they can study for the same qualification.
My hon. Friend characteristically raises an important point, and she is entirely right. When I go and speak to FE colleges, there is widespread concern about the availability of the amount of T-level work experience that is required. Particularly in some communities that do not have high numbers of larger employers and for the smaller colleges, we think there will be real difficulty getting the amount of work experience that is currently envisaged. I suspect that if we look at this qualification in two or three years’ time, it will not have the same demands for work experience; that remains to be seen. However, I share my hon. Friend’s concern.
The amendments proposed by the Opposition and many of the 29 other amendments proposed by hon. Members on both sides of the House seek to make substantive changes to the Bill that could make a real difference and offer a possibility that it will fulfil the proud boasts we have heard from the skills Minister, and his predecessor about the scale of reform proposed.
The other huge disappointment that many of us feel about the Government’s approach to this whole question is their failure to get what further education and vocational education is all about, as my hon. Friend Sarah Champion mentioned a moment ago. Further education is magical and transformative. For so many people who leave our statutory educational providers disillusioned and uninspired by education, FE has been life-changing. In my family, it was learning in FE that changed my son’s life and career opportunities; the same thing happened 20 years before for my sister, and I know it has happened for so many other people in all our constituencies. Yet the Government’s approach to this sector has been to inflict eye-watering cuts on it while continually repeating the same lament about employers not being in charge.
As we listen to the latest skills Minister’s claims about his reforms, it is worth recalling what went before them. In January 2011 the then skills Minister, Sir John Hayes, said that the entire focus of our Government’s skills strategy was in
“building a training system that is employer led.”
“At the heart of the apprenticeship drive is the principle that no one better understands the skills employers need than employers themselves.”
Two years further on, in 2017, the Government said:
“The Apprenticeship Levy is a cornerstone of the government’s skills agenda, creating a system which puts employers at the heart of designing and funding apprenticeships to support productivity and growth.”
A year later, Damian Hinds described local enterprise partnerships as
“business-led partnerships…at the heart of responding to skills needs…that will help individuals and businesses gain the skills they need to grow.”
So if the reforms in 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2018 all put employers in the driving seat, and if putting employers in the driving seat is the solution to addressing our productivity and skills crisis, why are the Government now coming back saying that there has been a generation of failure?
I was a BTEC graduate and I went to Wakefield College. Does my hon. Friend agree that hollowing out further education to the tune of 40%, and the gold standard of apprenticeships, goes against the very essence—the very notion—of levelling up? The Government should ensure that they are a driving force behind that with employers, and they are falling short.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government have been at pains to denigrate BTECs. They should be very careful before they do that, particularly before they are absolutely clear that the thing they intend to replace them with has come through its pilot and they fully understand the consequences of the introduction of that policy.
It seems that after 11 years of reforms, all of which we are told have failed because the Government now need to make reforms to put employers in the driving seat, the Government’s approach is to abandon devolution and to outsource responsibility for skills policy to local chambers of commerce in the form of local skills improvement plans. We are used to this Government believing that services can be run better by the private sector than by Government, but they are now even outsourcing policy. We have real concerns about the way that LSIPs are envisaged in their current form. Of course employers, private and public sector, must be sat at the table, but so too should educational establishments, including independent providers and FE colleges, so too should those with local democratic accountability—local authorities and metro Mayors—and the voice of learners must be heard. Our amendment 14 seeks to do just that, ensuring that employer representative bodies will not just consult but reach agreement with metro Mayors, LEPs and local authorities prior to the publication of the LSIP. There are many concerns that LSIPs as currently envisaged will focus on strategies to help those closest to the labour market who can most easily slot in and solve employers’ skills shortages. Our amendment 16, inspired by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham, seeks to ensure that local skills improvement plans list specific strategies to support learners who have had a statement of special educational needs or an education, health and care plan, which will include supported internships.
Since 2010, the Government have consistently undermined the sector with the scale of their funding cuts, particularly to adult education. By scrapping Connexions, they left a generation of schoolchildren without careers advice. The introduction of the levy has seen starts decline, priced small and medium-sized enterprises out of the system, seen entry-level apprenticeships plunge, and prevented many 16 to 24-year-olds from gaining their first rung on the ladder. That is why we have proposed amendment 13, which enacts the policy announced by my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer at the Labour party conference that reintroduces statutory two weeks’ worth of work experience and face-to-face careers guidance for every pupil, which was foolishly abolished by the 2010-15 coalition Government. We also seek to ensure that schools are assessed and recognised for the quality of their work experience and careers guidance offer, just as they are on other aspects of their provision.
I will not go through all the remaining 29 amendments proposed by hon. and right hon. Members, but I express particular support for new clause 2 in the name of Robert Halfon and others. Without that, there is no lifetime skills guarantee. We should recall what the Prime Minister said in his much-heralded Exeter College speech in September 2020:
“Of the workforce in 2030, ten years from now, the vast majority are already in jobs right now. But a huge number of them are going to have to change jobs—to change skills—and at the moment, if you’re over 23, the state provides virtually no free training to help you.”
I agree. Yet this Bill, which seeks to give legislative form to that speech, would exclude the very people that the Prime Minister was referring to. Indeed, we believe that the right hon. Member for Harlow’s amendment does not go far enough, and we tabled an amendment in Committee more closely aligned with new clause 7, proposed by Chris Skidmore, but at least new clause 2 would make a lifetime skills guarantee for the first level 3 qualification a statutory right.
We also support the right hon. Member for Harlow’s new clause 3—the so-called Baker clause—which would ensure that every pupil had three meaningful interactions with the world of work at each of the three key phases of their education. This would ensure that more students would have more informed choices about their career options and the wide range of opportunities open to them. The right hon. Gentleman has been outspoken about the ways in which the current Baker clause, which he oversaw in his time in Government, is not working, and we support his intention to address it today. He, and Peter Aldous, propose amendments that ask very valid questions of Ministers. I hope that their lordships will take notice of the level of support that there is for strengthening the Bill and preventing what is currently set to be a huge missed opportunity. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms has once again brought to our attention his new clause 13 concerning sharia-compliant loans, while in her new clauses 14 and 15 Caroline Lucas poses some important questions concerning the lack of a coherent energy transition strategy.
This Bill remains a huge missed opportunity that will not offer the reform needed for our country to tackle the very real skills shortages that blight our local economies and damage the life chances of individuals across our communities. We hope that the Government will recognise that Opposition Members, and many of their own Members, wish to help them strengthen the Bill—the same is true of Members in the other place—and that they will look kindly on our amendments without the need for them to be pressed to a vote. We also hope that an approach will emerge that sees employers, metro Mayors, local authorities and others work collectively to develop a skills and qualifications system fit for purpose and able to compete with the very best across the world.
I remind everybody that at Report stage those making contributions should really be referring to the amendments or new clauses—this is not the time for general speeches.
In rising to speak to my new clauses 1, 2 and 3, I give notice that I do not intend to press them to a Division.
The Government have already made it clear that they will make changes to prisoner apprenticeships. I am conscious of the financial considerations that need to be given to new clause 2. I have faith that the Secretary of State for Education believes deeply in skills and vocational education, and I hope to be able to continue to work with him to make improvements with regard to careers guidance and the Baker clause. I thank Mr Perkins for his support for my new clauses.
I welcome this Bill, which will revitalise an incredibly important part of the education sector that has seen its per-student funding reduced since 2010, although it is now going up again. The lifetime skills guarantee, the kickstart programme and the increase in support for FE colleges offer a revolutionary approach to building an apprenticeship and skills nation like never before. I commend the Secretary of State, Ministers and the former skills Minister, my hon. Friend Gillian Keegan, on bringing forward this legislation.
Like my hon. Friend Mr Perkins, I support the right hon. Gentleman’s new clauses. Does he agree that we urgently need the lifelong loan entitlement consultation before we try to bring forward primary legislation—this Bill—to ensure that when that legislation comes, it actually deals with the problem that we are all trying to address?
I am all for consultations, but I want this Bill to happen as soon as possible. I have wanted something like this for many years. I do have issues with it that I am going to talk about, but I am very excited about it and just want it to happen without any further delay.
As I mentioned, I support the Bill as a whole, but I have always lived and worked by the mantra, “Good, better, best.” When I was growing up and learning to walk, my old physio used to say, “Good, better, best, may you never rest, until your good is better and your better is your best”—it is the sort of thing you see on a toilet wall sometimes, but it has been my mantra, and it is what I want for this Bill. That is why I proposed these three new clauses to make sure that the ladder of opportunity can be extended to those most in need.
New clause 1 aims to ensure that prisoners can start apprenticeships while serving their sentences. The Education Committee is doing an inquiry on prison education, and investment in prison education is key to lowering reoffending rates, which are currently at 42% and are much higher for young offenders. That will strengthen the workforce and help to meet our skills needs as a nation.
The proportion of offenders in employment one year after release is just 17%. The absence of apprenticeships in prisons is a huge obstacle to improving employment outcomes. That is why I was delighted to welcome the work the Secretary of State has done in collaboration with the Justice Secretary to begin to introduce apprenticeships and other provisions to create a skills and training bridge to employment. That will help ex-offenders to find skilled work and will potentially save the taxpayer £18 billion in terms of the cost of reoffending. It is a win-win situation, and I thank the Secretary of State and the Justice Secretary for really tackling the issue. For that reason, I am content not to press new clause 1, but I ask the Minister in his response to provide a timeframe for when the new regulations to introduce prisoner apprenticeships will be laid.
My right hon. Friend came to my constituency to visit Thorn Cross prison and to look at the education taking place in that open prison. Does he agree that it is because of businesses such as Timpson, which spends a lot of time working with prisoners and former prisoners, that we can ensure that many prisoners leaving the confines of prison find meaningful employment? However, it is important that we help those prisoners with that transition, so starting things such as apprenticeships in prison is really important.
My hon. Friend is right. By the way, the prison that the Select Committee visited is an extraordinary place—it was like going to a further education college for prisoners in category D. It had a jobcentre to get the prisoners into work and into skilled jobs. It is the kind of prison that should be replicated around the country.
As for Timpson, no one could say anything bad about that wonderful company—I say that as someone who gets his shoes, his belt and his watch fixed there. I have met employees who are former convicts, and they are extraordinary people. Timpson is a remarkable company and I hope that many other companies follow its example—just so that you are clear, Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not get any money for this, and I have no interest to declare.
New clause 1 is excellent, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is good news that the Department and the Ministry of Justice want to work together on it. However, will he join me in urging Ministers to take special note of the position of women offenders and of the opportunities that apprenticeships can offer them?
As so often, the hon. Lady has got it absolutely right, and I am sure the Secretary of State has heard what she said. I hope very much that that is part of the regulations that he and the Justice Secretary introduce.
New clause 2 would provide funding for level 2 education and skills training for any person of any age, providing that they can demonstrate their intent to progress to level 3. The Education Committee’s adult skills and lifelong learning inquiry identified significant problems with low basic skills. Over 9 million working-age adults have poor literacy or numeracy skills, and 6 million adults do not have a level 2 qualification. Some 49% of adults from the lowest socioeconomic group have received no training since leaving school, and in the last 10 years just 17% of low-paid workers moved permanently out of low pay.
The lifelong learning entitlement is a really welcome intervention, allowing adults to undertake level 3 qualifications—the equivalent of an A-level—to retrain for different and better-paid jobs. However, we know that many of these adults will not have the skills needed to go straight into level 3 without further support. Level 2 qualifications are a key stepping-stone for progression for low-skilled adults. They provide those who have left school without GCSEs or equivalent qualifications with a vital chance of learning. Not having that stepping-stone of support is like asking someone who has little maths ability to dive straight into the deep end of A-levels without first learning to swim by taking GCSEs.
However, I recognise that there is a financial cost and that we are in difficult financial times. In 2018-19—the last year before covid—the adult education budget had a £56 million underspend nationally. More recently the trend of underspend has continued. In London only £110.6 million—60.7% of the £182 million given out to grant-funded providers through the adult education budget—had been spent by April 2021.
Investing in level 2 provision provides value for money for the taxpayer. Estimates suggest that for every £1 spent the net value is £21 and that could contribute an additional £28 billion to the economy. The Further Education Trust for Leadership review estimates that an additional £1.9 billion per year could be used to fund level 2 qualifications in maths, English and digital skills for the 4.7 million adults without such qualifications.
I get the financial restraints, which is why I will not press this new clause to a Division. However, I ask that the Government genuinely commit to look at funding options in the next spending review and particularly at using the underspend from budgets such as the adult education budget, even if they just introduce these provisions for maths and English. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that when he responds.
Finally, let me turn to the new clause I care most about. New clause 3 seeks to increase the number of careers guidance encounters that young people have at school and to toughen up what is called the Baker clause. As has been mentioned, I was the skills Minister responsible for bringing in the Baker clause in 2017, but despite the good intentions of all involved it has not been implemented correctly.
I have had so many encounters with young people doing apprenticeships. When I have spoken to them, they have said, “Although I’m doing an apprenticeship, they were hardly spoken about at school.” Everyone at their school seemed to be funnelled towards the sixth form, and lots of their friends and families had not heard of apprenticeships. That is precisely why this new clause is so important. We need to make sure that every young person, whether an A-grade student or not, has the opportunity to consider apprenticeships and other alternative strategies, as well as sixth form. That is why I really welcome this new clause, and I strongly encourage the right hon. Gentleman to put it to a vote.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and he is absolutely right. I go all over the country, and my first speech in this House was about apprenticeships and careers. I have done everything possible since I have been an MP to promote apprenticeships across the country, and I have employed apprentices in my office. Whenever I go around the country and meet apprentices, the most depressing thing is that eight out of 10 say their schools told them nothing about apprenticeships—sometimes it is nine out of 10, and sometimes it is 10 out of 10. Worse, I have met degree apprentices doing the most incredible, high-quality apprenticeships in engineering or whatever it may be who have offered to go back to their schools to talk to the kids—to do one of those encounters—about apprenticeships, but the schools have said no. Why? Because we have a culture in this country of university, university, university. That is partly because every teacher has to be a graduate, and I hope that the Secretary of State will one day allow degree apprenticeships in teaching, not just postgraduate degrees in teaching. We have a culture that is university, university, university, when it should be skills, skills, skills.
The reason why I am not pushing the new clause is that, in my discussions with Ministers, they say they are going to deal with this problem properly. If I did not believe them, I promise you I would bring through the new clause, and those in the House who know me and who know how I campaign know that.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. His last point, which was reiterated by the shadow Minister, Mr Perkins, is particularly important. Not every person is academically inclined. Not every person can get a degree. Not every person can progress in education. However, many people can grasp the opportunity of an apprenticeship. Back in Northern Ireland, which the Bill is not aimed at, we try to make those opportunities available through secondary schools and further education colleges. Businesses come in and show pupils the opportunities so that they can grasp that this is something they can succeed at. It is about giving young people the expectation and the opportunity to do something that they want to do and to do it well.
Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The only thing I would say is that we must never see apprenticeships and skills as something lesser, or say that someone doing skills is not good enough for university or academia. It is quite the opposite, actually, with many apprentices now earning more than graduates. Graduates often cannot get jobs, and apprentices are getting higher wages.
To do an apprenticeship, gain a skill or go to an FE college is a great thing in life that should be seen as prestigious. We should not look down on that. Mr Perkins talked about the Cinderella sector but, as I have always said, we should not forget that Cinderella became a member of the royal family. We should banish the two ugly sisters of snobbery and underfunding, which I hope the Secretary of State wants to do.
It grieves me to say that schools are not complying with the Baker clause, which has been mentioned in interventions. How can it be, if we are trying to build a skills nation, that we are not giving young people the chance to learn about the technical and vocational educational pathways that exist to support their careers? I worry about the traditionalists, still running rampant, who just want everyone to go to some kind of old-fashioned Oxbridge-type university. As I said, their attitude is university, university, university, when it should be skills, skills, skills. We need the curriculum to better prepare people for the world of work. It should be “Goodbye, Mr Chips” and “Hello, James Dyson” and I urge Ministers to listen to James Dyson—I will be inviting him to the Education Committee for our skills inquiry—because he and many others understand what needs to happen to the curriculum.
My new clause 3 would toughen up the legislation and require schools, technical colleges and apprenticeship providers to talk to pupils about vocational options. It would provide for nine careers guidance meetings in total, with three in each key year group—years 8 and 9, years 10 and 11 and years 12 and 13—rather than just the miserly current offer of three meetings in total. One meeting a year is nothing. We need this stuff going on all the time, with as much encouragement as possible. I actually think that asking for just three meetings a year is low and cautious, so I am trusting the Government to move at least some of the way on this.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. I speak as a former careers adviser and someone who used to train careers advisers, so this is music to my ears. I speak as a former adviser not through being in this place but because the right to and guarantee of impartial professional careers guidance have been decimated over time. I support the good intentions behind new clause 3 and agree 100% that we need parity of esteem between vocational and so-called academic education.
I really appreciate that support. The hon. Gentleman knows so much about this area, so having his backing means a lot.
I have visited my wonderful Harlow College nearly 100 times since being elected in 2010. FE colleges and apprenticeship providers give disadvantaged people the chance to climb the educational ladder of opportunity and to meet our skills needs. They earn while they learn—no debt to worry about—and they get a good wage, and 90% of them get jobs in the company that employed them as an apprentice. We have much to do on this, but we will only change things in this country if we transform the culture around careers. We really mean it when we say that we want people to go into schools and encourage a skills-based education and that the curriculum must prepare people for the world of work.
I stress again—this is my final point, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I know many people want to speak—that this lifetime skills Bill is a wonderful Bill. I am incredibly happy that it is backed by billions of pounds, which should be welcomed. We are offering every single person a level 3 qualification in a core subject, which is revolutionary. We are giving more support for further education, which is wonderful. I just ask the Minister to accept my suggestion or to really move on this to make a difference, so that when it comes to levelling up we know that skills, apprenticeships and further education are No. 1 in the Government’s priorities.
I rise to speak in support of new clauses 14, 15 and 11, which at their core support a just transition for North sea oil and gas workers by removing the barriers they face in transitioning into renewable energy, and ensuring that they can access the support and training needed. I may press new clause 14 to a vote if necessary.
In recent weeks, Ministers have rightly emphasised the need to support oil and gas workers. However, they have done so by resorting to more investment in extraction in the North sea, contradicting the advice of the International Energy Agency and threatening the ambition of the Glasgow climate pact to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°.
Research published in 2020 by Friends of the Earth Scotland, Platform and Greenpeace shone a light on the experiences of offshore oil and gas workers—I will come to some of their comments in a minute—and revealed a high level of concern about employment, job security and working conditions. However, it also showed a significant appetite to be a part of the transition to a zero-carbon economy, with over 80% of those surveyed saying they would consider moving to a job outside the oil and gas industry and over half choosing to transition into renewables and offshore wind if they had the opportunity to retrain and were supported in doing so. New clauses 14 and 15 would help to realise that ambition, while ensuring that in achieving our climate goals we do not leave communities behind and repeat the mistakes of the past.
The Minister may point to the North sea transition deal, announced by the Government last year. However, in reality that initiative has failed to provide any real support for workers to transition into renewables, either in investment or policy. Unfortunately, as things stand, training is a barrier and not a passport to future success. Training certificates for wind energy and the oil and gas industry are not transferable between the sectors or recognised by the two separate training standards bodies, with both OPITO and the Global Wind Organisation claiming that their training courses are too specific.
That means that offshore workers seeking to transition into renewables from oil and gas are required to complete entirely new training courses, which often come at a prohibitive cost. That is an insurmountable barrier for workers who are already paying an average of £1,800 a year, out of their own pockets, to maintain their training and safety qualifications. While some courses are unique to different environments, many cover core skills that run across the offshore energy sector, including first aid, fire safety and working at heights. Rather than narrowly focusing on courses, we should move to a skills-based approach, with standardised training where possible and top-up training available for specific environments.
Paul, an offshore oil and gas worker, says very clearly that the
“biggest problem that faces the energy work force wanting to make the transition from offshore oil and gas to renewables is the cost of the extra training needed. Some of the GWO (renewable training governing body) training is essential but most of it is a duplication of the courses used in offshore oil and gas.”
That comment is reinforced by Jack, another worker, who says he has
“thought about working in renewables, but that’d be thousands of pounds you’d have to pay to work in both industries. It’d just be too much, it costs an absolute fortune just to stay in one sector… Shelling out all this money does cause stress, and it does have an impact on your family and your living costs. There are lots of people worrying about how they’re going to pay the mortgage.”
This situation simply cannot go on.
Before recess, the Government announced that they were hitting the
“accelerator on low-cost renewable power” by moving to annual contracts for difference auctions, yet to genuinely realise this ambition, offshore workers must be supported to transition into renewables, not face multiple barriers to do that. This is a skilled workforce whose knowledge and experience are absolutely essential if we are to achieve the UK’s climate goals in a timely manner.
What would these amendments do? New clause 14 would require the Secretary of State to produce and implement a strategy to achieve the cross-sector recognition of core skills and training in the offshore energy sector, and to ensure that training standards bodies adopt a transferable skills and competency-based approach to training. Crucially, this strategy would apply to all workers whether they are directly employed or contract workers, and they would have to be consulted in its development. This amendment would enable oil and gas workers to access jobs in renewable energy. It would also mean that, while there are not sufficient jobs in renewable energy as capacity continues to be built up, workers are able to take contracts in both sectors and then move between them. It would prevent a skills drains as people leave the energy sector altogether due to difficulties with finding work, and the cost and time involved in maintaining training certificates.
New clause 15, which is complementary, would establish a retraining guarantee for oil and gas workers seeking to leave the sector, thereby supporting them in transitioning to green energy jobs. It would also ensure that they are able to access advice on suitable jobs based on their existing skillsets, as well as the funding and training needed to transition. Again, all oil and gas workers are eligible for the retraining guarantee, as well as those who have recently left the sector. This amendment would provide clear pathways for oil and gas workers into clean energy, meaning they are not left behind in transitioning to a zero-carbon economy. It would also be infinitely more affordable if accompanied by new clause 14, meaning that workers are not required to duplicate training courses. Amendment 11 would ensure that the new clauses are applicable to Scotland, which is of course essential to facilitate a just transition for workers in the North sea.
These amendments are backed by the workers who operate in this industry. Crucially, they reflect the concerns of workers and their call for cross-sector recognition of skills and training. Some 94% of respondents to a 2021 survey of offshore workers said that they would support an offshore passport that licenses accredited workers to work offshore in any sector through a cross-industry minimum training requirement. An offshore training passport is also backed by the RMT and Unite Scotland. These organisations have also called for the establishment of a training fund for the offshore passport as part of the North sea transition deal. The RMT is backing these amendments, and as Lewis—no relation—a drilling consultant from Aberdeen with 40 years of experience in the oil industry, says, “An offshore passport would be a fantastic thing. I think it is absolutely brilliant and essential for my future.”
As it stands, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is a missed opportunity for climate. A recent Green Alliance report revealed a significant skills shortage in every major sector of the economy, from energy efficiency to battery manufacturing and the energy industry. The Bill could have been an opportunity to close the green skills gap and prepare us for the zero-carbon economy of the future. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State said:
“Skills are about investing in people all across our country, about strengthening local economies”.—[Official Report,
These amendments would deliver just that, ensuring that offshore oil and gas workers are able to gain the training and skills they need to access good green jobs, while ensuring that we support communities affected by the UK’s transition to a zero-carbon economy and maintain vibrant local economies. These amendments also complement the objectives of the Bill to
“ensure everyone, no matter where they live or their background, can gain the skills they need to progress in work at any stage of their lives”,
“increase productivity, support growth industries and give individuals opportunities to progress in their careers.”
I hope that the Government look closely at these amendments and recognise that there is much more they need to do to genuinely support oil and gas workers and to make a just transition in this sector a reality.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for adding his name to this amendment, as a lead sponsor, and I think he has made a very important point. Coming off the back of COP26 and all the warm words we heard then, does he agree with me that for the Government, over the course of the next six months, simply to publish an energy sector skills strategy—we are not expecting them to go any further than that at this stage, but simply to show that they have a plan—is the very least that people listening to those warm words from the Prime Minister at COP26 would expect?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree entirely. We can already see, before the ink is dry on the COP26 agreement, that the Government are back-tracking. We only have to look at history. Many Conservative Members will look at what happened in the 1980s with the demise of the mining industry and say, “Well, we were the first to ensure that we decarbonised our economy”, when actually this was a tragedy. If we look at what happened with deindustrialisation and what happened in the mining industry, we see that actually the whole reason for the necessity of the levelling-up agenda is that there was not a just transition. This is an opportunity for us to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes as we have in the past, and that we play our part in making sure that we get to net zero in a timely manner. I think that is what most people in this House and out in the country would want, and on that I shall finish.
It is a pleasure to speak today in support of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. Ensuring that everyone has access to high-quality training and education throughout their lives is vital. I come from a family of teachers, and I retrained in my 40s so that I myself could teach, so I am particularly passionate about the opportunities that the Bill will open up. I want to take this opportunity to highlight the support of my local FE college for some of tonight’s proposed amendments.
Much is said of talent being spread equally across our country, but opportunity is not. That is particularly true in North Devon: it is not just in the country where opportunity is not equally spread, but in our county as well. We are over 60 miles from any university, and our youngsters do not in general see university as a natural next step post 18. Devon is particularly short of highly-qualified young people. Just 24% of 20 to 29-year-olds have a degree, which is one of the lowest levels in the country. It is against this backdrop that our excellent and sole further education college, Petroc, which educates over 9,000 learners and works with hundreds of employers, is well placed not only to welcome this Bill, but to highlight areas it would like to see strengthened.
Like me, the college highlights how coastal and rural areas such as North Devon have particular challenges that are masked by aggregating data, even to a county level, when our county is the size of Devon and has such variance in opportunity across its beautiful rural and coastal spread. The college was keen that I should highlight its support for new clause 7, as it is particularly concerned that the lifetime skills guarantee includes subsequent level 3 courses, so that those without an A-level or equivalent qualification, or those who hold such a qualification but would benefit from reskilling, are able to study on a fully-funded and approved course. This would facilitate adults being able to remain in North Devon and acquire new skills, enabling them to take advantage of the new jobs opening up in the area, whereas at present staying in North Devon means remaining in low-paid, low-skill employment, despite the multiple high-skilled job vacancies that do not match our local skill base.
We also hope that steps can be taken to revisit universal credit conditionality, as in new clause 5, so that those on benefits are encouraged to increase their skills to enable them to seek better employment. I recognise the challenges in this space, but similarly we need to encourage those who, due to the seasonality of our vital tourism and hospitality economy, spend part of each year on universal credit, as in North Devon, to upskill so that they can work throughout the year, as well as to encourage employers to stay open longer and extend our tourism season, given the growth in winter visitors we have seen post pandemic.
North Devon, like many other remote, rural and coastal locations, has particular challenges in raising aspiration, improving educational outcomes and enabling adults to upskill.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and I just want to echo the support for universal credit conditionality. I represent an urban seat that faces similar but different challenges from hers, and I completely support the idea that universal credit should still be allowed; we do not have an issue of seasonal workers, but we do have an issue of people on universal credit not always being able to get the opportunity to do the training they want, because they are forced to take zero-hours contracts instead. As the hon. Lady says, there is opportunity everywhere, but only if we make it so. I just wanted to speak in support of what she was saying on this.
Unlike the cities, remote rural and coastal locations such as those in my constituency face particular challenges in raising aspiration, improving educational outcomes and enabling adults to upskill. It is vital that more acknowledgement be given to the needs of these communities, which do not always fit well into a city-centric system. I very much hope there will be opportunities to work with the new education team to further develop this vital Bill, so that it works even better for remote and rural constituencies and really does deliver equal opportunity across communities such as North Devon.
We know that a Bill is flawed when not one, not two, but three previous Education Secretaries and Ministers from across the political spectrum seek to amend it. The Lords Baker, Blunkett and Willetts worked hard to stop the ending of funding for BTECs, qualifications taken by more than 250,000 students last year, so it is a shame that the Government sought to remove the Lords amendment. I back amendment 15 in the name of Mr Perkins, which supports funding for BTECs for a further four years.
The Liberal Democrats support T-levels, but the newer courses are only 25% practical and 75% academic, which puts them out of reach of some students who achieve lower grades in their GCSEs—exactly the cohort who flourish on the employment-focused BTEC pathway. We need to allow T-levels extra time to bed in. Frankly, an extra year for BTECs, as proposed by the Secretary of State, is simply not enough.
New clause 11, which is in my name, seeks to address a gap that we have identified in support for 16-year-olds as they transition within the education system. This gap exacerbates inequalities. Some young people face making life-changing decisions on the spot, with no clear idea about their options and the likely consequences. One example I heard from my constituency involved two boys who did not quite make their expected GCSE grades. Their chosen very popular local school for sixth form refused to offer them a place on their choice of A-level courses, because others with higher grades were prioritised ahead of them, and only offered them places on under-subscribed, less academic courses. A decision had to be made immediately. One of the boys had parents who had not been to university, and who struggled to provide him with appropriate advice; he was not offered advice from elsewhere. That cannot be right.
Unlike reception, 11-plus, and even university admissions, there is no oversight of 16-plus admissions, yet arguably it is the most crucial point—a time when a student’s options are permanently narrowed. There is no central body managing the process, no appeals process, and no data gathered to track whether the local offer matches what the learners want to study. That is why my hon. Friend Sarah Olney and I have tabled an amendment that would give local authorities the powers and resources to run admissions for this crucial 16-plus transition in the same way that they do for primary and secondary education, and it would include a full register to ensure no young person slips through the cracks. Although I will not press this amendment to a Division tonight, I hope Ministers will look seriously at this important issue, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
There are many good amendments on local skills improvement plans, and it is important that recommendations be taken on board from bodies such as the Local Government Association, who would require LSIPs to be developed in partnership with local authorities and further education providers. The views of interested parties such as local employers, and other education providers including universities, must be taken into consideration, too. Also, the needs of disabled people should be front and centre when developing all these plans and policies, as one of the amendments suggests.
Finally, on universal credit, I am incredulous that a Government who claim they want to make work pay and move people from welfare into high-quality, well-paid jobs—which all of us across the House would support—have removed a Lords amendment allowing students to keep their universal credit entitlement while studying. Education is the pathway between unemployment and fulfilling, interesting, valuable employment, so why would any barriers and disincentives be placed in the way? I urge the Government to reconsider their position on this issue and to support new clause 5, which comes from their own Back Benchers.
In conclusion, this Bill gives us the chance to realise that education should be an opportunity for life, whatever people’s circumstances. That opportunity should be freely available, whether to a young person starting out in life, a parent who is ready to go back to study, or someone who wants to retrain to improve their job prospects. Given the immense skills shortages this country is facing, and the green and digital revolutions we are experiencing, this Bill is a very welcome step forward, but it has serious flaws. It is a shame that some excellent amendments from the Lords have been thrown out, and that a number of those in today’s amendment paper are not being considered or accepted by this Government. I urge them in particular to look again at the defunding of BTECs, transitional arrangements for 16 year-olds, and barriers to education for those on universal credit.
Order. We need to start the wind-ups at a quarter to nine, so if everybody could take about six minutes— interestingly, the last speaker’s contribution was exactly six minutes—we should all be able to get in, and I will not have to introduce a time limit.
I will do my best, Madam Deputy Speaker, to squeeze my remarks on the 12 amendments in my name into six minutes, but I apologise in advance if I run slightly over.
To echo the words of my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, we are all here to make a good Bill better—to make it the best possible Bill—and I hope that the Minister will reflect on my amendments, which I do not intend to press to a Division, so that we can continue the dialogue and make sure that the Bill truly shines by the end of this democratic process.
My new clause 4 would require the Secretary of State to publish a green skills strategy. This has been recommended by the Institute for Government and the Confederation of British Industry, and has been backed by several Members from across the House. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education have already commissioned a report from the new green jobs taskforce, which laid out several recommendations on how to deliver on the Government’s green jobs target in the “Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”. That included publishing a net-zero strategy to promote good green jobs, yet we know that the UK will need 170,000 more workers to qualify each year in home insulation, renewable energy and electric vehicle manufacturing, and infrastructure upgrades if we are to meet our net-zero targets. The think-tank Onward has predicted that approximately 1.7 million jobs will need to be created in the net-zero industries by 2030, of which 1.3 million are in occupations that require strong, low and medium-level technical qualifications, which are in critically short supply. It is a no-brainer: the Government should make the concession at the Dispatch Box, either in this House or the other place, that we should, although perhaps not in this Bill, look at publishing a green skills strategy. That is vital for the joined-up thinking and whole-of-Government approach that is needed for net zero.
I will seek to bundle up the next series of amendments, appropriately enough, into mini amendment modules, but I first declare an interest: I tabled these amendments as chair of the Lifelong Education Commission, which I established in lockdown; having been reshuffled out of Government, I decided, with time on my hands, that I would set up this commission. I have received administrative support from the think-tank ResPublica, which has helped me prepare the amendments and a number of reports.
New clause 6 would require the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on overall skills levels and economic output across England and Wales. It can be taken with amendments 7 and 8, which would require careers advisers to hold a level 4 qualification, and which would give local authorities oversight of the provision of careers guidance for the purposes of ensuring consistency and quality. If the Bill is to succeed, there needs to be a better joined-up effort to monitor changes in the UK’s skills provision and how that is reflected in the economy. An annual report would allow data sets to be created that would provide information at national and local levels, so that areas of success and concern could be identified for targeted support. That should cover all qualifications from entry level to level 8, and details should be given on the size and composition of each cohort.
To help local authorities better craft their local skills improvement plans, such a review should include relevant information about local labour markets, and data on job retention, labour market turnover, and different measures of labour productivity. That is important for transparency, but we should be mindful of the need to balance that against data burdens on institutions, including education providers. An annual report should therefore build on existing work carried out in market intelligence on post-16 skills and education data.
On careers advice, the level 4 qualification requirement that I set out in amendment 7 should apply to all school, college and university career advisors. The Government should also take steps to ensure that mandatory registration with the Career Development Institute is not needlessly burdensome or expensive. That means crafting a national careers strategy at the same time, and working closely with further education colleges, who are best placed to design and deliver dedicated careers advisory courses.
I turn to new clause 7, which I will consider with amendment 3. The new clause would place the Government’s lifetime skills guarantee on a statutory footing, ensuring that those without an A-level or equivalent qualification, or those who hold such a qualification but would benefit from reskilling, can study a fully funded approved course. Retraining or reskilling sometimes means gaining a qualification a lower level than others that we have already reached in our learning trajectory, and anyone who wants to gain an equivalent or lower qualification should be able to access Government funding for that.
The ELQ rules should be explicitly removed as a condition for claiming a lifelong loan entitlement. Neither the lifetime skills guarantee nor the lifelong loan entitlement are truly lifelong if people who already have a level 3 to level 6 qualification are excluded from obtaining any more funding. The programme needs to be as broad and simple as possible to encourage—not discourage—participation, and should cover all provision up to level 3, irrespective of whether learners are taking a full qualification or taking one for the first time. That means removing all barriers, including any limits on repeating level 3 qualifications.
Amendment 3 would expand financial support for higher and further education courses to include means-tested grants for the purposes of ensuring that financial hardship is not a barrier to reskilling. The Bill still has limited detail about the exact structure of the LLE and how it will operate, such as the minimum credit level required to access it. In the light of that, I welcome the launch of a panel under the Minister for Higher and Further Education to review the structure and purpose of the LLE. As long as the LLE relies on a system of loans rather than grants, it will be difficult to encourage uptake in adult skills improvement among young people without assets, savings or other reserves to serve as a financial cushion. The LLE therefore risks becoming a clear clause of inequity between age groups in the education system. An 18-year-old choosing which education path to go down will have a different perspective on loan debt from someone in their 30s, 40s or 50s. As we advance through our careers, we accumulate more financial commitments, such as rent or mortgage payments and the costs of family care and support, and that makes career jumps much harder to undertake than career starts. A proper commitment to lifelong learning needs an explicit national decision about what we are prepared to fully fund. We need a national system of means-tested grants, targeted at the most disadvantaged.
I turn to new clause 8, which I will consider with new clause 9. New clause 8 would require the Secretary of State to publish a national strategy for integrated education. It would set out a plan for developing courses that had a mixture of academic and vocational content at levels 4 to 8, and would support the creation and expansion of institutions offering such courses. New clause 9 would require the Secretary of State to set out a framework of national guidelines for the unbundling, stacking and transfer of modular course credits between institutions. It would also set out a role for Ofqual, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to ensure that such a framework operates effectively. I will not go into further details on that; needless to say, such flexibilities need to be worked out at a far more granular level, and any credit system will need to be more sophisticated than just letting learners accrue a certain number of points.
Points need to be acquired in the right mix across introductory and intermediate modules. Degree-level qualifications should be awarded to someone with enough credits only if they complete a capstone module, drawing together and encouraging reflections on the overall and connected learning. One of the main barriers to transfer is how applicable a learner’s past skills and qualifications are to the awards into which they are to transfer. In addition to a national framework for unbundling and stacking, we need a mechanism for moving between awards frameworks such as from apprenticeships to T-levels or higher technical qualifications. That will require a clear and transparent framework for how different regulators can interact.
New clause 10 covers the role of employers and employees reskilling. Needless to say, it would require businesses to offer their employees a minimum amount of in-work skills development and redundancy training to be funded by a skills tax credit along very much the same lines as research and development tax credits. Employers should do more to support their employees to improve their skills, including helping those whom they have recently made redundant to retrain.
I turn to amendments 4, 5 and 6 on lifelong learning strategies as part of the future devolution of skills They would expand the membership of local skills improvement plans to include other local organisations and extend the Secretary of State’s power to designate and remove employer representative bodies to mayoral combined authorities where that is within their devolved competences. Local authorities need to play a leading role in the plans alongside business, the arts, further and higher education, faith and third-sector community organisations. Skills and education policy must be a central part of future devolution deals. I will not go into any further detail, but I encourage the Minister to look closely at the content of my amendments and to work closely with all Members on how we can make this the best possible Bill by taking up all the amendments mentioned.
To be of assistance, I am going to put in place a six-minute time limit. If we cannot stick to my helpful guidance, not everybody will get in.
We are having an interesting debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Perkins on the case that he set out from the Front Bench by rightly highlighting that, every couple of years, the Government say they will solve the skills problem by putting employers at the centre, and it never works, so they come back and do the same thing again. He was also right to highlight the failure of the apprenticeship levy, about which the Government were warned.
I rise to speak to new clause 13 in my name. Nine years ago, the Government pledged to introduce alternative student finance, but it still has not been delivered, barring large numbers of Muslims from higher education. The problem became a serious one in 2012, when tuition fees were drastically raised and student loans became essential for pretty much everybody. For some British Muslims, having to take an interest-bearing student loan simply meant that they could not go to university at all. Riba—interest—is prohibited in Islam as it was in Christianity until the middle ages. Some Muslim young people defer university until they have saved to pay the fees outright. Some, with a heavy heart, take out a loan and feel bad about it ever after. Others do not attend at all. That is the reality facing young British Muslims today.
Last October, Muslim Census published the findings of a survey on the scale of the problem. It concluded that, every year, 4,000 Muslim students opt out of university altogether because alternative student finance is not available, 6,000 choose to self-fund, severely limiting their course choice and student experience, and four in five who took loans felt conflicted as a result, sometimes leading to mental health consequences requiring clinical intervention. It is in nobody’s interests to fail such a large group of bright young people who we need to contribute their full potential in the years ahead. As Prime Minister, David Cameron promised to change that. At the World Islamic Economic Forum in London in 2013, he said:
“Never again should a Muslim in Britain feel unable to go to university because they cannot get a student loan - simply because of their religion.”
The promise he made was very clear. Nine years later, there is still not even a timetable for keeping it. It looks to young Muslims as if Ministers simply cannot be bothered.
A year after David Cameron’s speech, a Government consultation attracted 20,000 responses—a record at the time—on a proposed takaful system, in which students pay into the system to guarantee each other against loss. This co-operative structure is generally recognised as sharia-compliant. Repayments, debt levels and cost to the Government would be the same as for conventional student loans. But progress since then over eight years has been glacial. In November 2015, a Green Paper said:
“we are looking to develop the ‘Takaful’ product more fully.”
A White Paper the following year said there was a “a real need” to support students who felt unable to use interest-bearing loans and that:
“we will introduce an alternative student finance product for the first time”— which—
“will avoid the payment of interest”.
That was seven years ago. In 2017, campaigners hoped the new Higher Education and Research Act 2017 would enable a takaful loan model. Ministers then said that the May 2019 Augar review would cover it. It did not, but ever since Ministers have used the forthcoming response to that report as a justification for still not doing anything. The response to the Augar review was supposed to be published at the time of the spending review, but six months later there is still no word.
British Muslims make up nearly 5% of the UK population and almost 10% of students. In the borough I represent, Muslims are about a third of our population. It is extremely hurtful that the Government simply cannot be bothered to keep the promise they made nine years ago to so many people. Thousands of young Muslims miss out on university. Others struggle over the conflict between what they believe and their hopes for higher education. Our system should not be doing that to people, as the Government recognised nine years ago. New clause 13 requires the Secretary of State to at last make the long-awaited regulations. I hope the House and the Minister will support it.
I rise to speak on new clause 4 and will make a brief round-up in support of new clauses 2, 5 and 7.
On new clause 4—our proposal for a green skills strategy—I and others firmly believe that we have a green skills emergency and that net zero cannot happen without know-how. Existing workers, who in some cases are already losing their jobs due to covid or chronic instability in the oil and gas sector, can be brought over to new industries such as wind, low carbon, hydrogen and energy-efficient homes. Meanwhile, young people want to work in sectors they know are good for them and good for the planet. Providing green skills is therefore a positive part of the net zero debate. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, and the Department, to seize this opportunity, with his leadership and influence over other Departments. Young people will not only be prepared for the future, but provide solutions for the future.
I welcome the much-needed focus on how the country will deliver its net zero targets, and what they mean for individuals and families. That honest conversation cannot come soon enough. We have lived with our 2050 targets for some time now. The majority of people want to protect the planet and ensure they leave a healthy environment for their children, grandchildren and future generations. Yet people are nervous. With inflation and energy prices starting to bite and the cost of paying for the pandemic in the background, it is understandable that suggestions that they are going to be forced into changing their cars, changing the way they live or insulating their homes in an expensive way are quite terrifying for some. However, when I speak to families who are worried about that aspect of the 2050 targets, they are absolutely clear that they recognise there are jobs to be had not only for them, but their children.
We know that the market will do a lot of the work of creating demands for a skilled net zero workforce, but the market also needs help to plug gaps to ensure the right qualifications are in the right place. Unfortunately, education settings are not quite there yet. They need more support to deliver courses and qualifications. My right hon. Friend Chris Skidmore made a few points about what we are missing. Only 5% of mechanics know how to fix an electric car. In 2019, only 3,500 workers could install energy-efficient measures. It is estimated that we will need an additional 20,000 engineering graduates a year.
In Stroud, a combination of businesses—Active Building Centre, South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, The Green Register—have come together. We recognise there is a lack of standardisation in qualifications, and a lack of understanding and confidence on the part of the public around being able to hire people who know what is best for their homes and next steps. If we do not grasp this issue, we will not provide that confidence to the public and to the tradespeople who want to retrain and reskill. They will not invest in a course if they do not think it will be important next year and the year after. They want guidance from the Government and they need to know that the public will believe in it. I fear that if we do not do that, we will end up with cowboys in the market or people not taking the actions we know they need.
It is not just my amazing Stroud experts who talk to me about this issue all the time, but small, medium and big companies. I have had some good conversations with SSE, which was one of the first companies in the world to publish a just transition strategy. It sets out a number of principles for supporting the transition to net zero in a socially just and fair way. Key principles for green jobs and skills include guaranteeing fair and decent work, and attracting and growing talent. It has created principles for action and I urge the Department to look at them if it has not already done so. I believe the example recommendations for the Government fit very neatly into what we think could be a green skills strategy by the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Government as a whole.
Arguably, the Government do not need to wait for Back-Bench MPs to agitate for a green skills strategy and nor does it really need to be in legislation. My hon. Friend the Minister can agree to create a green skills strategy, or get his bosses to do so, and set out a plan to support people to attain education that creates the support and meets environmental goals. I therefore urge the Education team to work with us those of us on the Back Benches to do that work and support the plans. We can certainly bring some fantastic examples to make that a reality.
Very briefly, in conjunction with my local further education college, South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, which the Minister very kindly came to visit, I support new clauses 2 and 7, which put the lifetime skills guarantee on a statutory footing and extend it to level 3 courses, so that those without A-level or equivalent qualifications will still benefit from fully funded courses. I believe that the college spoke to the Minister about that when he was with us. I also support new clause 5, on reforming benefit entitlement rules, so that people on benefits can still attend college while unemployed without losing out. However, I am very grateful for the passage of the Bill at pace.
There are very many sensible amendments before us this evening. I am very pleased to support new clause 16 on adult literacy, tabled by my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood, and to add my name to new clause 13, which my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms has just spoken about, on an issue of great importance to my constituents. Many Muslim families are unable to access non-compliant funding and are forced, as a result, to either wait many years while they save up to pay outright or take out a loan they feel uncomfortable with that is incompatible with their faith. I also know of families who have been able to send only one child to university, an invidious decision for any family to have to make. As we have heard, it is simply ridiculous that nine years after David Cameron first, and rightly, committed to taking action on sharia-compliant funding, we still have no timeline even for when the Government intend to bring forward proposals.
I echo what was said about the importance of protecting the option of BTECs. I was very pleased when, on Second Reading, the Secretary of State confirmed at least a one-year extension of funding and said that it would be possible to combine BTECs with A-level study. That combination of vocational and academic study is important in keeping the choices and options open and broad for our young people. Sadly, T-levels will not offer that option. They will take young people uniquely down a vocational route. I urge Ministers, in developing the T-level model, to look at how that can ensure that it does not box off options too early for young people who are forced into a vocational specialisation that limits opportunities for them further down the line.
As a Greater Manchester MP, I also want to talk about the proposals for a role for mayoral combined authorities and local authorities and to support amendment 14, which was tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Perkins. The Government amended the Bill in Committee to ensure that due consideration would need to be given to the views of metropolitan combined authorities in developing local skills improvement plans, but that is still too weak, given that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority already has full responsibility for the adult education budget and that its economic and regeneration strategies will drive and determine our skills needs.
I welcome amendment 14 as a means of ensuring that employer representative bodies are representative of the area that they cover. With significant skills gaps in the north, and The Times reporting the other day that it will take 17 years for the north-west to catch up with the skills levels of London, it is really important that we have sensible, strategic planning and the involvement of combined authorities and the adult education budget to achieve effective skills planning that can close that gap. I also politely suggest to the Minister that given that the adult education budget is already devolved to Greater Manchester, that infrastructure enables it to highlight and test early and quickly the effectiveness of some of the proposals in the Bill. I am thinking particularly about how regeneration, economic and skills strategies can be joined up and contribute to levelling up.
The Minister said in Committee that statutory guidance would be provided on how the metropolitan combined authorities would be involved in the development of the local skills improvement partnerships and that that would draw on the learning from the trailblazer pilots. Of course, Greater Manchester is not one of the trailblazer areas and I would be grateful if he could assure me, in responding to the debate, that the trailblazer learning will be sufficiently pertinent for areas that are structured quite differently in terms of some of their economic and skills needs. Greater Manchester already has access to data and labour market intelligence and the knowledge of local providers, so the creation of a national provider register must not preclude the combined authority from contributing its local knowledge and expertise.
Finally, I echo the regrets that Members around the Chamber have expressed that the lifetime skills guarantee will not be available for people to take a different level 3 qualification, when one may be currently qualified to work in an industry where jobs are disappearing and becoming obsolete. I also regret that there is no pipeline to enable the guarantee to be used first to enable people to obtain a level 2 qualification, which would lead to them being able to undertake a level 3 course and progress further in due course if they wish. That is really important for us and for economies such as that of Greater Manchester, where we have seen a very significant shift in the kinds of industries and opportunities that exist not only for young people today, but for workers who have been in the workforce for the past 20, 30 and 40 years and who, in their 40s and 50s, face a real fear that they may not be able to work again. I hope that the Minister will take on board the deep concerns that have been expressed around the House about limiting the lifetime skills guarantee in the way that it currently is.
It is a pleasure to follow Kate Green and to speak in this debate, because I spoke in the last such debate, and I was part of the Bill Committee, too. I will refer to new clause 1 and touch on new clauses 14 and 15, but I will start by echoing many of the comments of my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon. This really is important legislation. Not only does it build on the commitment made in the Government’s 2019 manifesto to overhaul the training system in this country—a system that helps to support public services, existing businesses and the businesses of the future—but, most importantly, it prepares our future workforce with the skills that they will need to propel their careers, helping them to secure rewarding, valuable and well- paid jobs.
My recess week very much felt like preparation for this debate. I spent time at University Technical College Warrington meeting the students and their teachers. It is a fantastic skills-based school for young people aged 13 and above, including up to sixth form. I urge the Minister, wherever possible, to promote UTCs, because they provide something very special in many communities across the country.
After that, I joined the Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan, on a visit to my sixth-form college, Priestley College, to meet some of the first students in the country who are taking T-levels and, just as importantly, to hear from some of the employers that are offering them placements. It was a fascinating insight that I will talk more about in a second.
On Friday, I then met some of the new work coaches at the jobcentre in Warrington. They are helping people who are looking for work to match their skills to the current vacancies and to help them to navigate, where appropriate, the opportunities that allow them to return to college or to update their qualifications so that they can engage with employers. One of the Bill’s fundamental aims is to ensure that people can access training and learn flexibly through their lives with information about what employers really want to see. I pay tribute to the team at the Jobcentre Plus office on Tanners Lane who are very focused on helping young people, in particular, to find a way into employment through apprenticeships—on the dual effort of people not only getting into work but earning while they are learning.
I mentioned that, on my visit to Priestley College, we heard from some of the young people studying T-levels for the first time. They are the first cohort to do so, with Warrington having been chosen as one of the pioneering locations for the new approach. The message that came back from students was that T-levels were a really positive decision for them. As well as hearing from students who were studying digital production, design and development, and education, we also heard from the managing director of a digital marketing company based in Stockton Heath called Alcimi. It was one of the first companies to offer a placement to the students. What came across clearly was that the business had genuinely benefited from having young students as part of its team for a short period. On top of that, the community benefited because the company had set the students a community-orientated project, and the students had really benefited, because they had been into the workplace and had seen how a digital business worked today and the sort of things that they could expect in future. There is a huge benefit to come from T-levels.
I would like to touch on new clauses 14 and 15, which Clive Lewis spoke to. I understand some of the points that he is making with the new clauses. I am very pleased to see the north-west getting support from Government to press ahead with the game-changing HyNet project—dealing with hydrogen carbon capture and storage—creating probably about 5,000 jobs. We will need to improve skills in that area and develop a future workforce. Filling those roles is a huge challenge, but the Government’s approach through local skills improvement plans is the route to solving that problem, rather than necessarily forcing this to relate to previous areas of employment, as new clauses 14 and 15 would.
I say to the Minister, and I raised this in Committee, that areas such as Warrington, which sit mid-way between two very large mayoralties—Greater Manchester and Merseyside—have people who grow up and study in one area and will then want to work in the other. It is important to make sure that employers in the wider skills area—perhaps in the mayoralties—that are looking to recruit from somewhere such as Warrington take account of the needs of those areas, too.
Finally, I will briefly mention new clause 1. The Chair of the Education Committee has come to visit Thorn Cross Prison, where a tremendous amount of work is going into retraining prisoners as they come to the end of their time inside. Many of the prisoners there are very keen to engage in their future development with apprenticeships, so I am keen for the Minister to continue to look at that.
I very much welcome the Government’s approach. They are tailoring skills and the workforce to the local area, and it is being led by business. I look forward to supporting them this evening.
According to the National Literacy Trust, more than 7 million adults in England have very poor literacy skills. That is 16.4% of the adult population. Someone who struggles to read and write, or who cannot read or write at all, experiences disadvantage daily. It is a form of deprivation that can lead to isolation and poverty and cause deep personal frustration, as was clear in Jay Blades’s programme “Learning to Read at 51”, which I highly recommend to hon. Members and Ministers.
My new clause 16
“would require the Secretary of State to, every two years, review levels of adult literacy in England, publish the findings of that review and set out a strategy to improve levels of adult literacy in England.”
We cannot afford to leave people to fend for themselves, barely able to read and write. Of course, it makes no economic sense either.
I also believe that it is important that there is a rich and varied educational offer in all parts of the country, as well as strong skills provision. Education is not just about finding a job, hugely important though that is, but about personal development, engaging with the world, pursuing interests and developing critical thinking. I am concerned that the Bill may lead to a reduced educational offer and a narrowing of educational opportunity because of its focus on employer representative bodies leading the development of local skills improvement plans.
A person living in an area where most available work is in agriculture may want to pursue a completely different career path. How can their local employer representative body cater for them? The Minister will be aware that Billy Elliot lived in a mining community but did not want to go down the mine. His local employer representative body would doubtless have said, “There’s no call for ballet dancers round here,” so his talent and passion would have gone to waste. Surely it cannot be right that people’s ambitions should be constrained by the needs of local employers.
We ignore the value of our cultural sector at our peril. My new clause 17 would require the Secretary of State
“to review the availability of humanities, social sciences, arts and languages courses at Entry level to Level 4 in areas to which an LSIP applies. It would also require the Secretary of State to take steps to remedy inadequate availability of the courses.”
From my own experience as an adult education tutor, working in an area of deprivation, I know the importance of offering courses that people can enjoy. I know, too, how transformational adult education can be, and that one of the best ways to support people to access the labour market is to build confidence, expand horizons and offer educational opportunity.
My amendment 18
“would require the Secretary of State to draw on responses to a public consultation run by the relevant local authority, when publishing a local skills improvement plan for a given area.”
There is immense expertise and insight in every community, so it makes sense to draw on them. Such a consultation would be open to local providers, educationists and trade unions, as well as the general public. It could prove to be an important local conversation about the potential that is there to be developed.
If adult education is to expand and flourish, it is important that barriers to learning are removed. If someone is in receipt of universal credit, they should not be disincentivised from engaging in training or education, so I support new clause 5, which stands in the name of Peter Aldous. I also support amendment 12, in the name of my hon. Friend Mr Perkins, which
“would require…a review of the operation of the apprenticeship levy, and…to pay particular regard to ensuring that sufficient apprenticeships at level 3 and below are available”,
and new clause 1, in the name of Robert Halfon, which would enable prisoners to participate in apprenticeships.
I urge the Government to take action to address the very high levels of poor literacy among adults, to ensure the provision of a broad curriculum in adult education that includes the arts, social sciences and humanities as well as vocational training, and to give local people, providers and trade unions the opportunity to have a say in the post-16 education and training made available in their communities.
I welcome the Bill because it provides the means to address problems that have hung over the UK for far too long and to meet future challenges. It has been closely scrutinised, both in this Chamber and in the other place. Some amendments have been made that the Government have accepted, but there is still room for improvement.
I urge the Minister to take on board new clauses 2 and 3, which are in the name of my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, and new clause 4, which is in the name of my right hon. Friend Chris Skidmore. I would also be grateful if the Minister gave full consideration to new clause 5 and amendment 2, which are in my name. New clause 5 would enable people who are trapped in low-paid, insecure roles with limited progression opportunities to acquire the skills to progress into well-paid, secure and rewarding jobs, thereby delivering levelling up and eliminating the productivity gap that has been part of the UK economy for far too long.
The Bill points in very much the right direction, but if it is to deliver, it must address five issues. First, as the Local Government Association and the CBI both highlight, it must adopt a place-based approach. Secondly, we need inclusivity. While local skills improvement plans will be employer-driven, they must involve all local partners. My amendment 2 provides for LSIPs to be developed in partnership with local further education providers. That approach is supported by EngineeringUK. Other partners, such as local government, local enterprise partnerships and universities, must also be included.
Thirdly, we need co-ordination. EngineeringUK highlights the need for the Government to set out how the steps that they have taken in the Bill will be co-ordinated with the levelling-up and net zero agendas. That leads on to the fourth issue: the need to urgently step up training for low-carbon jobs. The Green Alliance emphasises the need for an integrated skills programme to be developed with individuals, institutions and industry. That can be achieved if the Government accept new clause 4, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood. Finally, the Bill’s potential will not be realised without proper investment. The funding announced in the comprehensive spending review in the autumn was welcome, but it should be viewed as only a start.
My new clause 5, which is supported by the Local Government Association, requests that the Government carry out a review of universal credit conditionality
“to ensure greater flexibility for potential students in receipt of universal credit to take up appropriate training that will better equip them for employment.”
I am grateful to the Minister and to his ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Mims Davies, for corresponding with me and meeting me to discuss the matter.
With the welcome reduction in the universal credit taper rate, announced in the autumn Budget, and with the more recent Way to Work initiative, the Government have placed much emphasis on the importance of making work pay and on the current high level of job vacancies. I support those measures, but unfortunately many people are at some distance from the workplace and are not able to take advantage of those opportunities. However, many of them will be able to do so if the universal credit conditions are reformed so that they can more readily access education and training.
The barriers to education and training that need to be addressed are numerous. There are excessive and inconsistent restrictions on study hours. The current approach is too short-term. The skills bootcamps initiative is welcome but only temporary, and creates instability and complexity in a system that can be challenging for learners and colleges to navigate.
A review is needed. Too many people who are unemployed are not being directed to advice and training that could get them into a good job, because there is a disconnected system and there are conflicting incentives across education and welfare. More needs to be done to understand the impact of the current welfare system on unemployed people’s access to education and training. The cost of taking no action is fewer people in stable and meaningful jobs, slower economic growth and, ultimately, bigger tax burdens.
I can perhaps understand the Government’s reluctance to accept a large raft of amendments, but I am not asking for the earth. What new clause 5 seeks is a review of a system that is not working at present. The end result, currently, is that the UK economy suffers and many people are denied the opportunity to better their lives. We owe it to them to remove these barriers.
It is always a genuine pleasure to follow Peter Aldous, who spoke passionately and articulately of his desire to support, through new clause 5, the people who need that support the most. It was an excellent speech with which I wholeheartedly agreed.
I will not detain the House for too long in speaking about my amendment 17, which is intended to provide additional support for people with special educational needs and disabled people. The Bill proposes that there should be an employer representative body in each area to create local skills improvement plans, to which colleges would have regard. The implication is that colleges would train their students in the skills that they need, thereby improving the labour supply—that is the theory—but the Bill, in its current form, is silent on how that will work for students with special educational needs or disabilities. One of the aims of the national disability strategy is to reduce the disability employment gap, but we see no evidence of that in the Bill as it stands. I tried to raise those points in Committee, although unfortunately I missed some of the sittings because of covid.
I would like the Minister to go away and have a look at a few issues. First, LSIPs should explicitly include actions to tackle the disability employment gap. Although there have been positive moves to narrow it in recent years, the gap remains significant. That is one of the points I raised with the Minister in Committee. Figures show that the employment rate of disabled people is 28.4 percentage points lower than that of people who are not disabled.
Secondly, LSIPs should be informed by consultation with organisations representing the needs of disabled people. We know that, all too often, disabled people feel that their voices are not being heard in those forums. I think it will be a missed opportunity if we do not use the Bill, and the new process of local skills planning that it offers, to help ensure that people with disabilities are asked to contribute to their local economy, and that their voices are heard in the discussion about what that future local economy looks like. An amendment to this effect was voted down in Committee but has been incorporated in the Department’s statutory guidance. I hope that reviewing the extent to which employer representative bodies acted upon this element of the guidance, and what impact it had, will form part of the evaluation of the LSIP trailblazers.
Finally—this is the issue that amendment 17 seeks to address—the Bill should contain measures to ensure that ERBs are composed of employers who demonstrate reputable practice in relation to equality and diversity in employment, in respect of matters including disability. We do not want a board of employers planning and determining skills policy if they have no record of being inclusive and decent, because without inclusive and decent employers on the board, there will not be an inclusive and decent LSIP. That is why my amendment states:
“Representative bodies which are employers, and employer organisations which are members of employer representative bodies, must sign up to the Disability Confident employer scheme within six months of being designated, or becoming a member of, the employer representative body.”
It is a small amendment that simply seeks to ensure that there is the best possible LSIP. If that is to happen, we need the best possible employers. We want employers with a record of treating disabled employees well.
There is another point that I raised with the Minister, and I hope he has had a chance to consider it again. The definition of “local”, and the difficulties of defining a geographical region, arose in Committee, and I have not yet seen any proposals explaining how that will be dealt with. To many Members, the definition must seem fairly obvious—why is it contentious that we do not know what constitutes a local region?—but, as I pointed out to the Minister, the local enterprise partnership in Hull is different from the local authority because it covers more than one region. It is different from some of the big employers such as the Humberside police and fire and rescue services, which are different from the chamber of commerce, which is different from the Ofsted regional body, which is different from the regional skills commissioner area, which is different from the new organisation proposed in the Government’s White Paper—a board to look across the Humber at large businesses and zero carbon, which has not even been created yet. All those bodies have slightly different geographies, so I am keen for the Minister to explain the definition of “local” in his local skills improvement plans.
I largely welcome the aims of this Bill to improve the quality and funding of post-16 education, but it will do little to tackle the major skills shortages in key sectors including health and social care, manufacturing and engineering. It introduces local skills improvement plans, which would be created by employer representative bodies to assess local skills needs and help shape the courses that further education providers should offer to fill those needs.
In principle, these measures are good, but the Bill is significantly weaker in its current form than it was on Second Reading, after it had been thoroughly improved by amendments voted for by the Lords. I was deeply disappointed that during Committee stage in the Commons, Conservative Members voted to reverse these changes, which would have hugely benefited students from all backgrounds. I urge the House to take this opportunity to support Labour’s amendments, especially amendments 15 and 16.
Previously, the Bill would have retained funding for BTECs for at least four more years, ensured that no student would be deprived of the right to take two BTECs, and allowed students to keep their universal credit entitlement while studying. It would also have required LSIPs to be developed in partnership with local authorities and further education providers, rather than just by the employer representative bodies. Now all those sensible and valuable improvements to the Bill have been scrapped, and I urge the Minister to reconsider.
I am particularly outraged by the Government’s plan to scrap funding for BTECs. BTECs make up the majority of level 3 qualifications in this country, with nearly a quarter of a million young people taking at least one last year. For many young people, they are the most effective pathway to higher education or skilled employment. My hon. Friend Mr Perkins has made the important point that last year 230,000 students took a level 3 BTEC. It is the Government’s goal that in four years’ time only 100,000 students will be taking T-levels, which are the proposed replacement. Even if they achieve this, that could leave a gap of 130,000 students who will not be working towards an equivalent qualification if BTECs are no longer funded.
Who will be most affected by these changes? The Government’s impact assessment acknowledges that students with special educational needs and students from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately represented on courses that risk losing funding. Some might be unable to achieve a level 3 qualification if these plans go ahead, so again I urge the Minister to reconsider. Research published by the Social Market Foundation in 2018 showed that students accepted to university from working-class and minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to hold a BTEC qualification than their peers. Is this retrograde step really what the Government would consider to be levelling up?
I was proud to work with Natspec in tabling a series of amendments that would have strengthened the provision of LSIPs for students with special educational needs and disabilities. Some 21% of all students in general further education colleges have a learning difficulty or disability, and the figure rises to 26% among 16 to 18-year-olds. There is no mechanism in the Bill to encourage or require employers to use local skills improvement plans to help address the disability employment gap, which stands at nearly 30%.
My amendments would have required the LSIPs to include positive actions to improve the employment prospects of disabled people, and required members of employment representative bodies to demonstrate a commitment to equality and diversity, so that they can create an inclusive plan for all, especially disabled people. These amendments were debated in Committee, and though I regret that the Government did not agree to put these conditions in the Bill, I am pleased that the Minister gave assurances that these key requirements would be in statutory guidance. I thank the Minister for that, and I ask him to confirm his commitment to working with organisations such as Natspec and the Association of Colleges on the guidance to make it as effective as possible.
Disability employment and the needs of young people with SEND should not be thought of separately, or as an issue that will relate only to forthcoming SEND Green Paper. They must be integral to the Government’s plan for further education, and to addressing the nation’s skills needs.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It was a pleasure to serve as a member of the Bill Committee on this important piece of legislation. I support all the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Perkins, but I want to focus my comments on amendments 14 and 15. However, I think it is also right to mention new clause 13, tabled by my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms and my hon. Friend Kate Green, relating to sharia-compliant lifelong learning loans—something that is very important for many of my constituents.
A local skills improvement plan that brings together public and private sector employers, further education colleges, independent training providers and those with democratic accountability, such as councils, would create a solid foundation for a skills strategy that covers all the relevant bases. In recognising the strength of such a holistic approach, I believe amendment 14 is incredibly necessary. Under the proposed legislation, employer representative bodies are empowered to lead on the development of local skills improvement plans, but local authorities, mayoral combined authorities and local colleges would be excluded.
Amendment 14 would ensure that local authorities consented to the designation of an ERB by the Secretary of State, a check that would ensure that ERBs were truly representative of the areas they covered, as well as reflecting local authorities’ responsibility to promote and improve economic, social and environmental wellbeing. In my patch, Luton Council has a close working relationship with local employers, helping to shape the skills agenda. A purely centralised approach in which the Secretary of State designates an eligible body as the ERB will undermine its relationship with local authorities, employers and residents, so I urge the Minister to support this important amendment.
We should consider the overarching direction of local skills plans, and qualifications must meet the ambitions of young people and the needs of employers. Four in 10 young people leave education without the level 3—A-level or BTEC—qualifications that are essential to the modern economy. That is a shocking indictment of this Government’s record. To tackle the skills shortage, we need to protect students’ access to a choice of qualifications that reflect their aspirations and preferred methods of learning and assessment. Young people in England can choose between three types of level 3 qualifications: academic routes such as A-levels; technical qualifications that may lead to a specific occupation; and applied general qualifications such as BTECs that combine the development of practical skills with academic learning.
Amendment 15 aims to prevent the Government from withdrawing support for established level 3 courses, including BTECs, for four years. Replacing the three-route model with a twin-track system of A-levels and T-levels will further weaken attempts to tackle the skills shortage. T-levels are largely untried and untested. They have been operational for only a year, and they are currently studied by only about 1,500 students. T-levels offer a narrow range of qualifications. By September 2023, school leavers will be able to take T-levels in 25 subjects, whereas there are more than 2,000 BTEC qualifications across 16 diverse sectors.
A-levels, T-levels and BTECs can co-exist. This does not need to be a zero-sum decision. They offer different methods of learning and different types of qualifications. The Protect Student Choice campaign is a coalition of 15 organisations representing staff and students in schools, colleges and universities. It has expressed concern that more than 250,000 students would be affected by this decision. The Department’s own equalities impact assessment has stated that
“those from SEND backgrounds, Asian ethnic groups, disadvantaged backgrounds and males” are
“disproportionately likely to be affected”.
It is crystal clear that the Government’s reforms will level down the opportunities afforded to our young people. Withdrawing support demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what young people need from their education to fulfil their career ambitions.
As a governor of Luton Sixth Form College, I have seen at first hand how BTECs change the lives of young people by offering them an avenue to a good university or employment. On a recent visit, I was thoroughly impressed by the young people studying on a BTEC course who were running a live broadcast studio. Someone was the host; there were guests; and there was a floor manager, a sound technician and a producer. That provides real practical skills that will feed into a future career in media or production in the creative sector, which contributes over £100 million to our economy annually and which is a key export to the world, contributing to our global influence. We cannot allow the Government to narrow opportunities and undermine social mobility in towns such as Luton.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point about the vocational nature of BTECs. I recently went to Derby College, and I saw five times more students doing BTECs than the equivalent T-level courses. It would be great if, ultimately, T-levels proved themselves and students moved towards choosing them, but does she agree that, while such small numbers are doing T-levels, it would be a huge mistake to shut the path to BTECs in favour of something that is largely unproven?
My hon. Friend makes an important point with which I thoroughly agree.
Our creative sector is a key export to the world and is part of our global influence. Why should young people in Luton not have the ability to train in these areas? They will not necessarily be able to follow a T-level in this subject area, so I totally agree with my hon. Friend.
Further education should be about creating a workforce that meets the needs of our national and local economies. It should be about lifelong learning that gives everyone the power to follow the path that best suits them. It should especially be at the front and centre of our covid recovery and, last but not least, it should help us with the transition to net zero.
There was plenty of room to improve this Bill when it was introduced, and there still is. I regret that, so far, the Government seem to be missing this opportunity, but it is never too late. I favour new clause 4, which would require the Secretary of State to introduce a green skills strategy for higher, further and technical education. There is a key opportunity for further education in our effort to reach net zero, but less than 1% of college students are on a course with broad coverage of climate education. I commend the work of the excellent Bath College, which is already making strides to embed climate education in its curriculum, but the Government should step up, too.
We all know how important it is to manage the transition to net zero, which brings me to new clauses 14 and 15 and amendment 11 tabled by Caroline Lucas. The offshore training regime is a barrier to offshore oil and gas workers transitioning their skills into the renewables sector. A new offshore training scheme is needed to facilitate cross-sector recognition of core skills and training in the offshore energy sector and to provide a retraining guarantee for oil and gas workers who wish to transition to careers in the green energy sector. What a missed opportunity it would be if we did not help people working in such industries, which will soon no longer be in place, to transition to a career in industries such as the renewables sector.
The Government say this Bill will transform opportunities for all, so why have they reversed changes that could significantly improve the accessibility and flexibility of qualifications—we have heard some powerful contributions on this—especially those aimed at learners with special educational needs and disabilities? Over a quarter of all 16 to 18-year-olds in further education have a learning difficulty or a disability, and I pay tribute to Project SEARCH, a partnership run by Bath and North East Somerset Council, Bath College and Virgin Care.
Nationally, too, many disabled people face huge difficulties in accessing employment after leaving school. Our disability employment gap stands at 30%.I therefore add my support to amendment 16, which would require local skills improvement plans to list specific strategies to help into employment those learners who have or have had an education, health and care plan. Again, this seems to be another missed opportunity to help those in society who face the biggest disadvantages to access employment, which is what they want. Whenever we talk to disability groups, what they want is employment; helping these groups into employment should be at the core of this Bill.
Although I will support the Bill on Third Reading, I am disappointed that the opportunity to transform further education has been so entirely missed.
With the leave of the House, I will speak to some of the amendments that have been discussed this evening. It has been a real pleasure to have been involved with this Bill on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report this evening. I feel the strength of feeling across the House for the skills agenda. This is an extraordinarily exciting time for skills, as my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon made clear. Never in my lifetime has there been such a hunger for skills in the economy, and that is a hunger that this Government will feed, because we are building a system in which qualifications, co-designed with employers, will give students the skills the economy needs. We will see good opportunities, allowing everyone to take a step forward in their life and career, and qualifications, backed by employers, that feed the needs of the economy.
In the time I have, I want to get through as many of the amendments as I can. First, I will address new clause 1, which stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, the Chair of the Education Committee. I pay tribute to his fight for the cause of apprenticeships for prisoners; I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor made an announcement to this effect on
I turn to new clause 2, also tabled my right hon. Friend, and to new clause 7, tabled by my right hon. Friend Chris Skidmore, who did sterling work when he was on the Front Bench. Those provisions both seek to place a level 3 entitlement on a statutory footing. The Government are delighted by the enthusiasm of Members on both sides of the House and in both Chambers for our free courses for jobs offer and the lifetime skills guarantee that the Prime Minister announced last April. As the House will know, it gives adults who do not have a level 3 qualification the opportunity to get a qualification in high-value subjects for free, regardless of age. That major step forward will transform life chances. We do not think it is right to put this offer into legislation; that would constrain the Government in how they allocate resources and make it more difficult to adapt the policy to changing circumstances, including for adults most in need. For example, only last November, the Secretary of State announced that from this April, the offer will expand to include any adult in England who is unemployed or earns below the national living wage annually, regardless of their prior qualification level.
New clause 2 also includes a provision requiring any employer who receives apprenticeship funding to spend at least two thirds of that funding on people who begin apprenticeships at level 2 and 3 before the age of 25. We fully respect what the new clause is trying to do, but we point to the great progress we are already making on this score. In the first quarter of last year—the most recent one for which we have figures—62% of apprenticeship starts were for people under the age of 25, and level 2 and 3 apprenticeships accounted for 71% of all starts. That is wonderful stuff. Also, during the recent National Apprenticeship Week, I met a huge number of young and not-so-young people studying level 6 apprenticeships, which are making an enormous difference to their life, giving them huge opportunities in a way that is a greatly respected by employers. I do not wish to see arbitrary levels fixed in legislation.
Amendment 12, tabled by Mr Perkins, seeks to require a review of the operation of the apprenticeship levy, particularly at level 3 and below. We discussed this issue at some length in Committee. I reiterate that the Government have already radically reformed apprenticeships to put employers at their heart, increasing investment and improving quality. As I just said, we are starting to see major improvements at levels 2 and 3.
Rather than review the levy, I want to focus on improvements that will make apprenticeships more relevant to employers in more sectors and more responsive to new and changing occupations. The Government have introduced the levy transfer and some companies are now transferring large sums of money—seven-figure sums—to small and medium-sized enterprises in their supply chains, to SMEs with which they may want to work in future and to SMEs with values they share. It is a wonderful opportunity.
Similarly, the Government have introduced flexi-job apprenticeships, which are more suitable for certain sectors, and front-loaded apprenticeships, which mean that students can spend their time in college at the start of their apprenticeships before spending the rest of their time in work.
I am afraid I simply do not recognise the remarks of those who say the apprenticeship levy has failed. The figures often quoted on the Opposition Benches in respect of the drop in apprenticeships do not take account of the radical reforms that we made to apprenticeships a few years ago. We now have apprenticeships of higher quality and starts are improving year on year.[This section has been corrected on
On the amendments relating to careers information, advice and guidance, we have long been determined to improve the quality of advice on non-academic options in schools so that young people can learn about the exciting progression opportunities that a technical education or apprenticeship can offer. That is why, through the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, the Government introduced a new requirement for schools to provide opportunities for the providers of technical education and apprenticeships to visit schools to talk to all pupils in years 8 to 13. We are going further by putting into statute a minimum number in respect of those opportunities and setting parameters around their content. I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow that we are very much setting the floor of our ambitions, not the ceiling: we want to see schools go further.
If that is the push, I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the pull in which I am personally very interested. We recently announced, in the levelling-up White Paper, the creation of the unit for future skills, which we hope will present, over time, better data for students, providers, employers, the Government and those who draw up local skills improvement plans. We will be able to see where different choices lead people. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, I know the data will show that there are wonderful opportunities for school leavers in apprenticeships and vocational qualifications at different levels. As the data shows that, we will expect schools to pay heed to the findings and encourage students to take up the opportunities. We do appreciate the push for which my hon. Friend is pushing and I am happy to talk to him further about that, but I want to see a pull over time and would like to discuss that with him, too.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood tabled amendments 8 and 7. Amendment 8 would require responsible authorities to ensure that the independent careers guidance provided to pupils in years 8 to 13 is provided by a person who is registered with the Career Development Institute who holds a level 4 qualification. I reassure my hon. Friend that the DFE statutory guidance to which schools must have regard already recommends that schools consult the UK Register of Career Development Professionals when they buy in a careers professional. Careers professionals on that register are required to be qualified to level 6—above the level 4 specified in the amendment.
Amendment 7 would require local authorities to have oversight of the independent careers guidance delivered in schools. The improvement of access to high-quality careers guidance is already driven locally by our network of careers hubs throughout the country. As members of the hubs, local authorities work in partnership with schools, colleges, employers and local enterprise partnerships to support, challenge and share good practice. We think that is the right role for local authorities to have.
Amendment 13, tabled by the hon. Member for Chesterfield, would require every local school to provide face-to-face careers guidance for every pupil and two weeks’ worth of compulsory work experience for every registered pupil. I am proud to say that the 2019 employer skills survey estimated that in the 12 months before the survey—this is before covid—employers provided 782,000 placements for students in schools, more than half a million placements for students at college, and more than 400,000 placements for students at university. The careers statutory guidance makes it clear that schools and colleges should follow the Gatsby benchmarks and offer personal guidance and experiences of work as part of their careers strategy for all pupils. Every young person should have the opportunity to receive personal guidance from a careers professional whenever significant study or career choices are being made. The Gatsby benchmarks require a personal guidance interview by the age of 16 and a further such interview at the age of 18. Personal guidance is the strongest performing benchmark. Some 80% of secondary schools report providing most students with an interview with a qualified careers adviser by the end of Year 11.
We want schools and colleges to follow the Gatsby benchmarks on careers guidance. These have been independently developed by experts based on the very best international practice. We want schools and colleges to have confidence in following the Gatsby benchmarks and that is what we will stick to.
On amendments relating to green skills and energy, new clause 4 from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood seeks to introduce a requirement to develop a green skills strategy. I can reassure him that we are taking significant steps in this space already. Last year, the Department for Education established the sustainability and climate change unit to co-ordinate activity across the Department and the education sector.
Furthermore, at COP26, the Secretary of State launched the Department’s draft sustainability and climate change strategy for the education and children’s services systems. Action area 2 in that strategy specifically focuses on green skills and careers, as part of implementing the Government’s net zero strategy. I would warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s contributions to the proposals in that strategy.
New clauses 14 and 15 and amendment 11 from Caroline Lucas seek to introduce an energy skills strategy, and specifically a retraining guarantee for oil and gas workers looking to move into renewables. The Government are already taking steps in this space to support the labour market transition to net zero.
In March 2021, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy successfully negotiated and published the North sea transition deal. This places commitments on both the Government and the offshore oil and gas industry. I was particularly interested in the contribution of Clive Lewis. I can assure him that one of the commitments made in the North sea transition deal was to develop an integrated people and skills plan, led by OPITO, which is expected to be published shortly. It will assess the industry’s future skills, training and standards requirements, and will set out how the industry will support and enable the transition of the workforce. The deal also places commitments on industry to ensure that the workforce’s skills and competencies are mutually recognised across energy sectors to enable smoother job transferability.
New clause 5 from my hon. Friend Peter Aldous seeks to require the Secretary of State to review universal credit conditionality, with a view to ensuring that claimants can retain their entitlement while undertaking education or training. As my hon. Friend knows from our conversations, an important principle of universal credit is that it does not duplicate the support provided by the student support system. However, there are significant exceptions to this already. First, this condition only applies to full-time training. Indeed, universal credit claimants are able to take on part-time training for any level of course as long as it meets their work-related requirements and their work coach is satisfied that it will help their employment chances.
Turning to full time training, DWP Train and Progress is an initiative aimed at increasing access to training opportunities for claimants. I was pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney referenced the flexibilities that already exist for access to our highly popular and successful bootcamps programme. This shows that the system is capable of flexibility. If, on his travels, which are many, he comes across any courses that he thinks the Government should be introducing flexibilities for, I am very happy to discuss them with him and then go and discuss them with my colleagues at DWP. However, in the very many conversations I have had with colleagues on both sides of the House about this, on no occasion has anyone presented me with a course for which they would like to see that additional flexibility. That is a challenge for all sides.
I turn now to new clauses 6, 8 and 10, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood. I congratulate him on the publication of the Lifelong Education Commission report, which I read with interest. I believe his new clauses seek to introduce some of the recommendations in that report.
New clause 6 proposes that the Secretary of State publish an annual report on overall skills levels. We agree wholeheartedly with the need for data and analysis to inform our decision making. That is why in the “Levelling Up” White Paper we announced the creation of the Unit for Future Skills, which I mentioned earlier.
New clause 8 rightly points to the need to look at how we can better integrate academic and vocational education. The Government are already taking steps to do so through introducing a lifelong loan entitlement that will enable individuals to access funding for both further and higher education at levels 4 to 6.
New clause 10 raises the importance of re-skilling while in work and retraining for the jobs of the future. We know that that matters, which is why, through last year’s spending review, the Government are delivering the biggest long-term settlement for post-16 education and skills in England since 2015, with an additional £3.8 billion over this Parliament by 2024-25.
It has been a great pleasure to take this Bill through Report and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 12 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.