Further Education and Training Bill [HL]

– in the House of Lords at 11:51 am on 18 October 2007.

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Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The page and line references are to Bill 75 as first printed for the Lords.]

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) (Intellectual Property and Quality)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 8B, 8C, 8D, 8E, 8F and 8G in lieu of Commons Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8 to which this House has disagreed.

The House last considered the Bill on 25 July. By a very narrow margin, the House disagreed with the provision on intervention in unsatisfactory further education institutions that had been agreed in another place. The other place has considered our disagreement and the amendments which are before us today include significant new provisions. I believe that we have now got the right clauses for this part of the Bill.

Before I come on to the detail of what is now proposed, I thank those on the Benches opposite, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for their help and advice as we considered the outcome of your Lordships' objections on 25 July and, more generally, throughout the passage of the Bill. I also thank the noble Lords, Lord Dearing and Lord Sutherland, and others on the Cross Benches as well as noble Lords on the Government Benches and others who have worked very hard on various aspects of the Bill. Their help to get the right provisions and detailed wording into the Bill itself, and in documents setting out supporting arrangements, has been invaluable. At each stage in which colleagues on this side of the House and on other benches have been involved, they have identified matters which needed to be investigated and resolved. They have made constructive suggestions for improvement, which would leave them and the further education system more confident about the new arrangements. It is my belief that every one of those issues has now been addressed or, at the very least, that sensible and workable compromises have been achieved as a result of the process that I have described.

We have a Bill that meets the aspirations to carry further education forward, to enable it more fully to fulfil the roles demanded of it in a modern society. The amendments that are now being proposed make provision for the Learning and Skills Council in England and Welsh Ministers in Wales to intervene in unsatisfactory further education provision. I do not think any of us in the House has a quarrel with the principle that there should be such intervention. The issue is ensuring that the system is operated properly and that those who make the interventions are fully accountable. On 25 July, your Lordships expressed particular concern about the arrangements for England.

Let me set out what those arrangements would be. The Learning and Skills Council would, in addition to the powers of intervention it currently has, be able to exercise, with modifications, powers that currently reside with the Secretary of State. The LSC would not have any powers to intervene in ways that the Secretary of State cannot currently do. The LSC would be required by the Bill to prepare a statement of how it proposed to use its statutory intervention powers. An illustrative draft of what this statement might contain has been made available to the House. On 25 July I set out details of specific triggers for intervention that will be included in a later consultative draft. I also described to the House how consultation on that draft will be conducted, including specific bodies to be consulted.

The Bill also requires the LSC to consider representations on its draft statement. It must submit the statement to the Secretary of State who will, if he approves it, lay a copy before each House of Parliament. The LSC must publish the statement that has been approved by the Secretary of State and act in accordance with the most recently published statement. There is provision in the Bill for similar arrangements in relation to a statement by Welsh Ministers. Following consultation on the draft statement, the Welsh Ministers are required to lay it before the National Assembly for Wales. They must publish the statement and act in accordance with it. It will be clear how the powers will be operated. The statement by the LSC or by Welsh Ministers will set out arrangements for notifying a governing body about issues of concern and, if it becomes appropriate, the possibility of intervention.

The amendments before us today also include a significant extra provision, which is that the Secretary of State must be notified beforehand by the LSC of any intended statutory intervention. Specifically, the LSC would be required, before it exercised any of the statutory intervention powers, to give the Secretary of a State a notice setting out the grounds for intervention and the reasons that the LSC considered that they applied, what the LSC proposed to do and the reasons why it proposed to do those particular things.

In another place, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education has clarified that on receipt of such a notice, the Secretary of State would be able to take action if he considered that what the LSC was proposing to do was inappropriate. He could use his powers under either proposed Section 56C of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992; or, where he was satisfied that the LSC was proposing to act or was acting unreasonably or had failed to discharge a statutory duty, his powers under Section 25 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000.

The Minister also gave two important commitments in the other place. On receipt of such a notice, the Secretary of State will write to local MPs to ensure that they are aware, on a personal basis, of the possibility of intervention. He also said that Ministers intend to use the Secretary of State's power under Section 28(2) of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 to direct the LSC to include in its published annual report a statement summarising how it has used its statutory intervention powers. In the debate in the other place, there was widespread support for the arrangements on intervention in unsatisfactory further education provision that Ministers are now proposing. John Hayes, the MP for South Holland and The Deepings said that,

"the amendments and the further written assurance of the Minister represent a significant change of direction ... my colleagues in this place welcome the amendments and the tone that the Minister has adopted in introducing them".—[Hansard, Commons, 11/10/07; col. 515.]

Sarah Teather, for the Lib Dems, said that,

"we now have an amendment that is a considerable improvement ... we have moved a long way since the first draft of the provision, and that has met most of my concerns ... as the Minister has moved so far, I shall certainly not oppose it today".—[Hansard, Commons, 11/10/07; col. 517.]

In the past couple of days, I have given careful consideration to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, who queried the reference in proposed Section 56A(2)(a) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to mismanagement of the institution's affairs by the governing body. His point that it is not for the governing body to manage the day-to-day affairs of the institution is well taken. "Mismanagement" here is not about the college's day-to-day activities, which are properly the responsibility of the principal in his or her role as chief executive. In the context of this clause, mismanagement relates to the conduct of the governing body in discharging its responsibilities as set out in the instrument and articles of government. The instrument and articles make it clear that the governing body has strategic responsibility for the college and the principal has responsibility for its day-to-day running. For example, the instrument and articles state that the governing body is responsible for approving the annual estimates of income and expenditure, while the principal is responsible for preparing the estimates for its consideration and approval.

I assure the noble Lord and the House that nothing in this provision implies that Ministers are seeking to change the respective roles of the governing body and the principal as set out in the instrument and articles. Indeed, the provision in this part of the Bill mirrors existing provision in Section 57 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, as I have been for his constructive and important interventions throughout the passage of this Bill, for raising that point and giving me the opportunity for clarifying it. I thank him. He has been assiduous in ensuring that the meanings of any particular provision are clear. We have benefited hugely from that. I hope on this occasion that noble Lords' comments and suggestions for improvement have been reflected in what I have said to the House. The Government have made significant changes to the Bill in supporting arrangements and I am sure that other documents that are necessary as a backup, which will describe these matters further, will reflect the points I made today. I shall ensure that all such documents are deposited in the Library of the House.

As a Government, we have reflected on these points and on the changes to the Bill—to the supporting arrangements, including those in relation to this provision. I hope that the House will agree that it now addresses the outstanding concerns expressed by noble Lords and that we have reached a point of agreement on the Bill. I hope that is reflected in what I have had to say and I can conclude only by once again thanking everyone who has made it possible to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion on a Bill that will be of great value to further education in this country. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 8B, 8C, 8D, 8E, 8F and 8G in lieu of Commons Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8 to which this House has disagreed.—(Lord Triesman.)

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families 12:00, 18 October 2007

My Lords, I thank the Minister for listening to the genuine concern which this House expressed in July regarding the proposed transfer of reserve powers from the Secretary of State to the Learning and Skills Council.

During the summer months there has been a great deal of negotiation and I am enormously grateful to my honourable friend John Hayes and to the Minister, Bill Rammell, for their determination in seeking a solution. I thank also the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for her unwavering support and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, for his useful clarification. This is government working at their best.

We have the highest regard for our colleges and for the dedicated staff who work in them. They are ready, willing and able to step up to the plate to play their part in delivering the skills that we desperately need to prosper in this highly competitive century. We wish to see them thrive, and I join my honourable friend John Hayes in saying that we believe passionately in the independence of colleges and we would not wish to see any more interference or meddling in their affairs than is absolutely necessary.

In an ideal world, we would not have transferred any further powers to the Learning and Skills Council, but by ensuring that it will be unable to intervene without the approval of the Secretary of State, the Government have recognised the need for accountability, should these draconian powers be used. This amendment will go some way in reassuring colleges and addressing their legitimate concerns. For that I am most grateful.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Innovation, Universities and Skills

My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, and say how pleased we are that, as a result of a series of negotiations during the Recess and recently, these amendments have come forward. They meet many of our concerns about the sweeping powers of intervention originally proposed in the Bill and the Government have come a very long way. We indicated that we were not fully happy with the initial proposals that they put to us in July. We felt that there was need for further assurances on the accountability issue. On that front, we are now as fully satisfied as we can be with these amendments moved by the Government.

The LSC must now give notice to the Secretary of State before it exercises its power of intervention. It is somewhat unfortunate that it is at the moment unclear which Secretary of State is appropriate, but that is one of the results of the division of responsibilities for further education between the new Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which the Minister represents. Be that as it may, we have the assurance that, before the LSC exercises its power, it will consult the Secretary of State and, if the Secretary of State feels that it is acting inappropriately in its intervention, he may intervene and direct the LSC that the action is inappropriate.

We are extremely glad that the LSC will say in its annual report how it has used its powers of intervention, if it has done so, and that the annual report will be laid before both Houses of Parliament so that scrutiny can take place. The Secretary of State has given a written assurance that, if he receives notice from the LSC that it proposes to intervene, he will personally write to local Members of Parliament, which means that there is also accountability through the local MPs.

The Minister was slightly economical with his quotation from Mr John Hayes, who indeed said in the other place:

"Taken together, the amendments and the further written assurance of the Minister represent a significant change of direction".

However, the Minister jumped what he went on to say:

"They mean, in effect, that the LSC will be unable to intervene without the approval of the Secretary of State".—[Hansard, Commons, 11/10/07; col. 515.]

We started by saying that we could see little reason why the powers needed to be handed over to the Learning and Skills Council, as the Secretary of State's residual power of intervention was already in the Act. We have, after considerable consideration, ended up with a situation that is de facto very much the same. We are pleased about that, although whether it was necessary to go round the houses in this way is a little uncertain.

I pay tribute to the way in which these compromises have been reached. Again, I quote what Mr John Hayes said in the other place:

"The House is at its best when Bills are improved by careful scrutiny and when the Opposition are listened to".—[Hansard, Commons, 11/10/07; col. 514.]

Perhaps he overestimates the role of the other place, as it seems to me that it was in this House that much of the effective scrutiny took place. Certainly, the changes that were made derived from the power of this House, when it considers government proposals to be unwise, to make the Government think again.

I pay tribute to Members on all Benches for their achievements in improving the Bill and making it a much more sensible and viable measure. I am thinking not just of the role played by the two opposition Benches, although I particularly welcome the spirit of co-operation in which we have worked with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton; I should also mention, as the Minister did, the important role played by the Cross-Benchers, in particular the noble Lords, Lord Dearing and Lord Sutherland, in achieving the compromises that have been agreed.

I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lady Walmsley, who is not here with us today, as she is speaking in distant Wales on behalf of the Lord Speaker. She took the Bill with me through Committee and took it alone through Report and Third Reading while I was away on an extended trip.

Finally, I pay tribute to the two Ministers with whom we have dealt, the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Triesman. Both are listening Ministers who are prepared to respond when they recognise that the issues raised have substance. I am very grateful to them. I think that we have a better Bill as a result.

Photo of Lord Dearing Lord Dearing Crossbench

My Lords, I congratulate all three Front Benches on finding a resolution to the problem in Clause 56. It is very reassuring when we have a consensus on an education matter of such difficulty. I thank the Minister for his clarification of the word "management". I accept that and, fully reassured, I wish the Bill well.

On Question, Motion agreed to.