Amendment 8

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 12 October 2021.

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe:

Moved by Baroness Neville-Rolfe

8: Clause 1, page 2, line 20, at end insert—“(5A) In producing a local skills improvement plan, employer representative bodies must consider skills deficiencies in the local area in the following fields—(a) digital,(b) innovation,(c) engineering,(d) the built environment, including climate related challenges, and(e) any other fields the Secretary of State deems relevant.”

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, for his help in crafting this amendment, and the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his support. I also welcome my noble friend Lady Barran to her new role as Minister in the education department. Her consummate courtesy and forensic attention to detail were manifested at a meeting she arranged involving her, the Bill team and me yesterday. I am hopeful that she will have a long and successful stint at the department at a time when improving skills is a top priority. I declare my interests as a non-executive at a number of businesses which will benefit from improved skills.

My amendment is intended to ensure that local skills improvement plans take proper account of deficiencies in certain fields of vital importance to our country. Let me explain the rationale for the various proposals in the amendment. First, I am concerned that our lack of digital skills is acknowledged but not built consistently into either the school or the FE system—unlike, say, literacy and maths.

Next, innovation is essential to future growth and competitiveness and is well supported by our universities. What is less recognised is that innovation is also important in technical and vocational areas. I know this from my time at Tesco, when part of our success was down to thousands of people finding new ways of doing things that were quite often minor in themselves, but—and this is the vital bit—were able to be replicated very many times. I remember advances in packaging, for example, both to make it safer and to reduce its environmental footprint. I remember improvements in building design that reduced costs as we built more stores. The classic example, of course, is the UK Olympic cycling team, with its many small improvements, all of which helped us to win many gold medals over decades. We need to focus on that kind of thinking.

I have added engineering partly because the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, is an engineer, and I very much look forward to hearing from him. We lag behind some other nations, such as Germany, and in engineering —ever more important in the digital world—we do not have a vocational route to the top from age 16, as it does. The industry associations decry this but have not found a way through so far, and we have a national shortage which is becoming ever more urgent.

Moving on, I should declare an interest as chair of this House’s Built Environment Committee. Our first inquiry into housing is already revealing a serious problem in relation to skills—construction skills needed on building sites, project management and building control. We heard this morning in the committee that we need people with design skills, architects and planners to build the kind of homes and places that we all want to live in. Skills to tackle climate-related challenges are also referred to in my amendment. That includes the dire shortage of heat pump installers and energy efficiency and retrofitting specialists. They are in short supply.

The new local skills improvement plans need to tackle these needs relating to the built environment. I should acknowledge the good practice already being pioneered by Crossrail and at Hinkley and elsewhere, but this kind of endeavour in vocational training should become part of the system. I was heartened by seeing on Sky News yesterday a trainee bricklayer at an FE college confidently planning his future and expecting to establish his own business as a bricklayer in a few years’ time. We need more like him, and they need to be paid properly.

The Minister has tabled—and we have already agreed—an amendment to the effect that skills relating to climate change and other environmental goals are to be considered in the development of local skills improvement plans. That is fine and dandy, but it does not meet my needs. I do not think—and I do not believe that most others, including our young people, will think—that environmental objectives should take precedence over all economic ones and, by implication, over jobs and skills in all non-environmental areas.

Of course, things change. For example, energy resilience has suddenly become a priority, as I predicted, Cassandra-like, when I was the Energy Minister a few years ago—I may add, to the surprise of some of the relevant officials at the time. To cater for the unexpected, my amendment also refers to

“any other fields the Secretary of State deems relevant”,

allowing him or her to add other categories to the plans in future.

Before I sit down, I have two related questions of which I have given notice. First, can we have a better idea of the geographical areas that the skills improvement plans will cover? I favour larger areas, such as the metro mayor areas, where top industrial and business players and small business interests can come together and help local colleges provide the right training in the right places. I worry that vested interests may lead to a less than effective patchwork of mini, unco-ordinated plans. It is somewhat unsatisfactory that we are agreeing new powers in this Bill without knowing how and at what level they will be applied, as we discussed in Committee.

Secondly, how can we ensure that the plans deliver results? We need incentives—carrots or sticks—so that they are implemented. Government, in my experience, is often good at vision and virtue signalling, but less good than business at implementation, as I have discovered from moving between one and the other. We need to monitor what happens; we do not want a repeat of the problems on apprenticeships, where, for a considerable period, the numbers went backwards despite many of us in business telling successive Secretaries of State of the problems. We need to learn from this sort of experience.

I very much look forward to hearing my noble friend’s comments and any reassurance she can provide and, of course, to hearing from other speakers on related subjects. I beg to move.