Amendment 27

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 15th July 2021.

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Lord Aberdare:

Moved by Lord Aberdare

27: Clause 1, page 2, line 33, at end insert—“(8) The Secretary of State must publish a response to the local skills improvement plans published by the local designated bodies across England.(9) The response must include—(a) a national skills map based on the skills needs identified in the local skills improvement plans, and(b) an action plan outlining how the Secretary of State will support local areas to address the skills needs in their area.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment aims to ensure that there is not only a feeding in of national policy into local skills improvement plans, but also that local information and information about skills gaps is fed back into national policy making. This is to ensure that government can identify national skills shortages more easily and more quickly, and act accordingly.

Photo of Lord Aberdare Lord Aberdare Crossbench

My Lords, I am pleased to move Amendment 27, originally in the name of my noble friend Lord Patel, who is unable to be here this afternoon. He has kindly shared with me the points that he wished to make and I will make full use of them. I will also speak briefly to Amendment 30.

Amendment 27 aims to ensure that, in addition to national policy feeding into local skills improvement plans, local information about skills gaps and local skills challenges is also fed back into national policy-making. Real-time labour market data, as well as insights into what is happening locally around education and skills options for young people and those wanting to retrain, is vitally important to ensure that the Secretary of State and his department have the insights and evidence needed to make strategic national decisions about education and skills policy.

I hope the Minister can give us some more clarity about how the LSIPs proposed in the Bill will feed into the work of the DfE and BEIS to develop a strategic approach to addressing the skills gaps on a national level. How will information within LSIPs help shape and inform national industrial policy? How will the Government use the reforms in the Bill to identify and respond to regional skills needs important to the overall strategic goals of the UK, such as specialised engineering skills?

Several proposed amendments to this Bill aim to ensure that LSIPs will take account of national strategies and policy—as they should—but what is missing is a feedback loop from the local to the national, which is what this amendment seeks to achieve. Local skills improvement plans have the potential to provide rich insights into what is going on locally around the skills businesses need and the difficulties they may or may not have in accessing them locally. They should, one hopes, provide insights into how local areas will address any skills shortages and how effective these measures prove to be in the long run.

Local skills improvement plans will provide detail and data that should enable the Government to get a much better picture of the skills situation in this country and allow them to map out where there are potential issues. This will foster an understanding of whether particular skills gaps are localised, and therefore need to be addressed locally, or whether there is a pattern across the country that may require national policy interventions in addition to local action.

This amendment is asking the Government to provide a response to the LSIPs as a whole, including a skills map and an action plan. This is surely a reasonable proposal that can only help to further the Government’s ambitions around productivity and joined-up thinking. Ensuring that there is a functioning feedback loop from national to local and from local to national will enable government, both local and national, to identify and address skills shortages more easily and quicker.

Turning to Amendment 30, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, which I also support, I am rather surprised that it should be needed at all and that the publication of LSIPs is not already in the Bill. Every LSIP needs to be available, not only to all interested parties in the education and skills system within the area it covers, as specified in the amendment—particularly providers of careers guidance—but also more widely, both so that others can learn from different approaches being taken and as input to national skills policy-making.

Apart from the essential publication of the LSIPs, as in the amendment, there needs to be a process for regular progress and performance reporting, not least to promote the sharing of experience and good practice, as well as for monitoring and accountability purposes. This is yet another element of the framework that is not clear. It is not clear if that feedback loop is going to be there, what sort of performance monitoring is going to be in place, and what happens if LSIPs do not reach the standard one might hope from them. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

My Lords, I find myself in a difficult situation with these amendments. I listened carefully to the Minister responding to the last group of amendments, and I feel that she was right: a lot of what noble Lords are rightly concerned about ought to appear in the guidance. I do not want the Bill to be overly complicated, with every prescriptive concern, but I do want an assurance from the Minister that the guidance will address some of the valid points made by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and others.

While I have the Floor, I am concerned about the view that, somehow, employers will not be looking ahead. That is not my experience of dealing with employers. They are concerned; they have had to look ahead. Like hanging, the pandemic has concentrated their minds wonderfully, but it was also happening beforehand. Look at all the work in establishing new standards, where employers are involved; they are taking into account their future skills needs and that new green skills will be required.

The Minister was right to remind us about the vitally important work that jobcentre coaches are doing. I would not say that I am absolutely satisfied they have got all of that right, but they are on the right track to ensuring that young people are aware of the skills that they will need in a job market that is changing significantly. We know what some of these are already; we know they need a reasonable standard of maths, English and digital skills—they are absolutely essential. Some of them are fully equipped, certainly on the digital skills front, while others will need some extra assistance and training. The Minister referred to lifelong learning, and we also have traineeships and Kickstart, so there are a number of things the Government are providing. Is everything working absolutely right? No, there are things that I believe—as I have said in a previous debate —need reform, and the apprenticeship levy is one.

I urge the House to be wary of trying to load up the Bill with every single detail. The Minister was right when she said that there is a role for guidance. If there needs to be a reference within the Bill to the fact that some of these points will be covered in the guidance, that is all well and good. I attach a lot of importance to the guidance.

I do not share the pessimism of some that this is a badly framed Bill that will not involve local people as it should. Of course we are going to go through a learning curve, as the participants in creating the local skills improvement plans develop the technique of doing this. What the Government should do on a national level is encourage best practice, looking at examples of where it has been done really well and passing that kind of information on. I suspect I may be in the minority here, but it is no bad thing to have a range of views. I hope that, when the Minister responds, she will take into account the points I have made—she has also made them before—about the balance of what is in guidance and what needs to be in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour

My Lords, we should all take notice of what my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green says on these matters. He has vast experience in this area, as a trade union official and as a Minister in the field in the last Labour Government, so I would not dismiss a word of what he says. However, I think he is being a little overgenerous about this Bill, which seems very vague in some of its key points.

We support—certainly I do, and I think my Front Bench does—the principle of a lifelong learning entitlement and reform to our qualifications structure to allow modules. That is a very important reform. We support a stronger role for employers in determining skills. All of that is fine at the level of high principle. The question is how this is going to work in practice. I still have very severe doubts about that. Here we are talking about the role of the Secretary of State in relation to the plans that are produced locally. Can the Minister tell us precisely what that role is going to be, because it relates to these amendments?

I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say in last week’s Committee, and I think that she said that the role of the Secretary of State was not to comment on the substance but to verify the process. What does that mean? Does it mean that the Secretary of State will not interfere with the judgments that have been made about what skills to prioritise? Is it simply the Secretary of State checking that a proper consultation has been carried out among employers in the area, checking that all the known facts have been gathered and assessed and that a thorough job of work has been done, and then giving it a tick or saying “You need to do your homework a bit better”? What actually is the role of the Secretary of State in relation to these local plans? The amendments that have been proposed try to give that question an answer. I am not sure that they have got it right perfectly, but they try to give that question an answer—but I greatly look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:30 pm, 15th July 2021

My Lords, I support Amendment 27 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Aberdare, and Amendment 30 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie. These amendments stress the need for local and national co-ordination and place a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that local and national skills needs are both involved in national policy planning, which is surely only common sense if the country is to address skills shortages, of which we know there are many, and provide a functioning feedback loop, as the noble Lord said. It is also important that this information should be readily available to all the educational bodies involved in skills training. Like the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, I find it surprising that this is not already in place.

I wholly support the information being available to schools from the age of 11. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, touched on this in an earlier amendment. But, as we know, 11 is really too late to start careers advice, which needs to begin at primary level, where young people, particularly those whose skills are more practical than academic, can begin to see pathways for progression and to have some confidence in their future. I can understand why the provision in this amendment may not extend to primary schools, but we must never overlook the very young in these discussions.

The local skills improvement plans should be given to all those who work with the education and training of the future workforce. They should certainly be on websites, but steps should also be taken to ensure that these providers actually access them and that everyone within their organisation is aware of them. There is little point in assembling all the information if learners are blissfully aware that it exists. So, for the moment, the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, is definitely a step forward.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

Amendment 30 requires that the Secretary of State must publish LSIPs and distribute them to schools and all post-16 education providers. However, there is little point in having a plan if no one is aware of its contents. Yet, despite the requirements for providers to have regard to LSIPs, the Bill is silent on how LSIPs will be published or disseminated. I know that the Minister responded that a model LSIP can be provided, but this amendment seeks a much wider and co-ordinated task. Does the Minister intend, as the amendment suggests, for the DfE to take responsibility for this? Does she agree that publishing all local skills improvement plans will allow for areas to draw on each other’s strategies? That would be particularly helpful for a complementary regional approach and would promote best practice. Or does she envisage that such responsibility will fall to ERBs? If so, can she advise whether they will have the resources and a dedicated budget for such a responsibility?

Perhaps the Government believe that the onus should be on providers themselves to track down where LSIPs have been published. If so, where should they look—to the chamber of commerce, or local authority websites? How does that fit with the lack of role of local authorities and mayoral combined authorities in the process? I hope that she can assure the House that there is indeed a plan for publication and distribution, and I further reiterate my noble friend Lord Liddle’s probing question around the role of the Secretary of State in relation to local plans.

I also speak in support of Amendment 27 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, which requires the Secretary of State to publish a response to each LSIP, including an action plan for how they will support areas to address their skills need. I agree with the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, about where the strategies approach will be developed, using LSIPs to feed into national strategies and creating the feedback loop that is so essential. It is very important, given that LSIPs will need to be responsive to national level strategies, and given the Secretary of State’s powers to intervene if they believe that providers are failing to adhere to LSIPs or not meeting local needs, as seen through the lens of local employers.

I further understand that the notion and definition of “local” has been much discussed during the passage of this Bill already—but I respectfully point out that it continues to be raised by noble Lords because of the still undefined nature of the link between local and national priorities. When I entered local government almost 20 years ago, I was reminded that all politics is local, and I came to recognise that most assuredly throughout my tenure. I would further add that local knowledge and experience is invaluable in feeding into the national strategic overview.

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, I am grateful to be able to speak to this group of amendments relating to publication and response to local skills improvement plans. We expect them to be an important resource to inform decision-making by local providers, stakeholders and national policymakers.

On publication, in Clause 1(7) it is clear that a local skills improvement plan means one that has been

“approved and published by the Secretary of State”.

I presume that that will be on GOV.UK. I cannot prescribe that, but I do not think that we need to go into any further detail in relation to that, or to put such matters in the Bill. I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Young, about what we do and do not put in a Bill and what goes into statutory instruments—and then, of course, what is published in guidance.

Amendment 27 talks about how local skills improvement plans can inform national policy on skills. As outlined previously, we expect the plans to be informed by, and in turn inform, national skills priorities highlighted by the Skills and Productivity Board. This is envisaged to be a two-way relationship. In relation to the collaboration between employer representative bodies and the co-ordination point, which has been quite a theme throughout a number of amendments, the Secretary of State can set terms and conditions for the employer representative body and, should it be necessary, they can be used to mandate in the approval that they collaborate—but, obviously, one would hope that that will not be necessary.

On the point from the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, I hope that the trailblazers will reveal whether his doubts will materialise about whether the appropriate national skills priorities are taken into account.

On the approval process by the Secretary of State, it is not about the Secretary of State second-guessing the priorities and actions agreed by local areas but about ensuring that a robust process has been followed. In Clause 3, there are provisions that enable the Secretary of State to remove the designation if he sees fit: if terms and conditions have been broken, if the body is no longer impartial or reasonably representative or if it does not have regard to the guidance. Of course, when one talks about process, one normally thinks about judicial review—but, if a plan says that we are going to invest in coal mining in an area, for example, there might be a case for such a priority that is way outside. But it is a process that he will be looking at; he will not be second-guessing the choices and priorities decided by the employer representative body.

As I have said, we expect the LSIPs to complement the funding system reforms outlined in the Skills for Jobs White Paper. The consultation that I mentioned was launched today, aiming to give providers more autonomy to use government funding to meet the skills needs of local employers, including those articulated in LSIPs. We expect these plans to be a relevant factor for the Secretary of State to consider when making decisions about funding and support for local areas. Again, implicit in that is a co-ordination point as well.

Turning to Amendment 30, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, concerning the publication and distribution of LSIPs, I have mentioned Clause 1(7). The ERBs will lead the development of the plans, and the Secretary of State will approve and publish them. Obviously, if they are defective, there is the remedy I outlined for the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. They will be published on a website to ensure that relevant bodies across England can easily find and access them, and this will be publicised through appropriate communication channels. The department has good relationships with stakeholders, as I say.

I hope that my remarks in relation to these amendments have provided some reassurance to noble Lords. One noble Lord who requested a meeting—it may have been the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—in relation to these matters. Of course, I am happy to engage with any noble Lord to give further detail outside of Committee. I hope to be able to report to the House on the progress of the trailblazers, but they are not due to conclude until March 2022. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, will feel comfortable in withdrawing his amendment and that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, will not feel the need to move his when it is reached.

Photo of Lord Aberdare Lord Aberdare Crossbench

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken and the Minister for her response. This is a Bill whose aims I strongly support. It is absolutely focused in the right direction, and it has lots of great ideas in it. My occasional frustration is that I do not quite see how it is going to work in various aspects that have been raised by a number of noble Lords. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Young, that it may well make sense to answer a lot of these points in the guidance rather than in the Bill itself, but we do not have the guidance and we do not know what is going to be in it so all we can do is say “We want this to be dealt with somewhere” and keep asking how it is all going to work in practice. Having said all that, I live in considerable hope and expectation, and I am happy to withdraw my noble friend’s amendment.

Amendment 27 withdrawn.

Amendments 28 and 29 not moved.

Clause 1 agreed.

Amendment 30 not moved.

Clause 2: Designation of employer representative bodies

Amendments 31 to 38 not moved.

Clause 2 agreed.

Clauses 3 and 4 agreed.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 39. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate. As I did in the last group, I point out that the noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Baker of Dorking and Lord Liddle, have all withdrawn from this group. I call the noble Lord, Lord Addington.