May I begin, Mr. Atkinson, by welcoming you to the Chair? We have engaged on a number of important Bills in the past, and I hope that you will indulge me as I make what might be termed a substantive speech on this issue, which will preclude my doing so in a clause stand part debate or possibly at a later stage of the proceedings.
Before I go on, may I welcome the ministerial team, one of whom, the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, I have already had discussions with on other matters this morning? I am also delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Corby, back in the team. I recognise the genuine contribution that they both make. May I also say, proleptically to later clauses, that I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire? Although it would be apparent to anyone who has even the most limited knowledge of accents that I am not Welsh, I have a Welsh wife and certain Welsh educational interests. If nobody else raises Welsh matters, I may feel the need to do so later on.
Regarding the specific issue of regional councils, there is only one point in the Minister’s opening remarks this morning about which I have some reservations. It is a characteristic—a sad characteristic—of the present Labour Government that they tend to suggest that no social advance took place before 1997 and that everything good has taken place since.
I hope that we do not have that kind of discussion; indeed, knowing the Minister, we will not. I readily and happily concede that Ministers have made efforts in recent years, in some cases successfully, to improve what I hope is a common objective—to recognise, celebrate and develop our further education.
The Minister made a point about further education that I thought was somewhat inaccurate. Not only is he beginning to rewrite the history of the past—of the pre-Labour Government period—but he is beginning to elide the history of the present Government. He might have a bone to pick with the Minister for Science and Innovation, who was Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment when the House considered the Learning and Skills Act 2000. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the 2000 Act, will recall that it passed through the House at some length, with more than 30 sittings in Committee, and I had the privilege of leading on the matter. The 2000 Act was rather important for further education, even if it was not confined to that subject.
I promise the Committee that there will be no further instances—if there are, I invite hon. Members to put me down—of my speaking as a former shadow Minister and saying, “We told you so at the time.” However, I start with one instance. The Minister will, of course, be aware of the 2000 Act, but it would be a self-indulgent to assume that he and his officials have read in full the transcript of that Standing Committee. However, I am sure that he will know about the amendment that I moved at 10.30 am on 9 May 2000, seven years ago, to clause 19. I invited the then Minister to accept this amendment:
“The Secretary of State may, by an order subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses of Parliament, after consultation with such persons as may seem to him to have an interest, (a) amalgamate, (b) divide, or (c) vary the area of operations of one or more of such local learning and skills councils.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 9 May 2000; c. 309.]
I am afraid we went down to a resounding defeat on that occasion—it was three votes to 11—but had that provision been embodied in the 2000 Act, we would not have needed half of the present Bill, because Ministers could have moved the pieces around the chessboard. I say that in passing, but if the Minister cares to read that debate—I had not reread it until a few moments ago—he will see some interesting exchanges about the balance between central and local, and those exchanges will continue whatever form is used.
Without prejudice to the future of the Learning and Skills Council—I do not want to engage in that debate now—it is at least arguable or defensible to move to a regional structure, and the Minister will seek to justify that in Committee. However, I have reservations—some precise ones that I shall deal with in a moment and some general structural ones. It is not the first time that the LSC has been reorganised, but every time it happens—in this case it is being done formally by moving to a regional structure—there are other changes. We tend to be promised less bureaucracy, fewer committees and a general reduction in cost to the taxpayer.
The Minister will know that the reorganisation of the LCS is already under way internally, and, in a sense, that does not depend on and is not confined to the regionalisation agenda. Other changes are being made to the way in which the LSC operates, and they probably need to be made, if only to reduce costs, although that is not without difficulty, including for constituents of mine who work for it. However, the Minister needs to say clearly how much money will be saved by the move to regionalisation, by how much bureaucracy will be reduced in the interface with users of the LSC’s services and whether the arrangement can be sustained. I say that because, whatever aspirations Ministers may have had over the seven years since 2000, things have been subject to revision and change. That is my main point. I therefore invite the Minister to say that the present changes will be substantive, helpful and money-saving changes that will deliver a better and more flexible service.
I want the Minister to consider three specific points in relation to that. First, if he looks up that transcript, he will find some exchanges about function, and we persuaded Ministers of the day to change their minds slightly on the matter. There is the question of what might be termed home authorities for particular businesses. For a national employer—let us say Sainsbury for the sake of argument—it is clearly very important to have a relationship with the learning and skills council that will handle its needs and activities. The LSC will have an idea of the employer’s training needs, and it will want to discuss them with someone and to see that they are delivered—of course, the train to gain initiative will kick in to some extent. In future, will that be conducted at a national level by a designated officer within the LSC, or will it be done regionally to meet the needs of employers at that level? It is extremely important that that should happen, and Ministers need to comment on it.
There have sometimes been uneasy tensions, and one of the paradoxes about having a bigger regional structure, rather than a structure of 47 local councils, is that it will be less unequivocal about where to start. A company will have one head office and that is fairly easy to pin down in one local LSC area, but it may operate in each of the regions—for example, it may have its head office in one region but more of its activities in another. I would like the Minister to tell the Committee a little about how such arrangements with national level employers would work.
Conversely, the second area concerns small and medium-sized enterprises. Whatever else one says, we have had some good support in Northamptonshire built on the experience of the old training and enterprise councils structure, where we had an integrated chamber of commerce structure—we will not reopen that argument. At least if we had local employment needs, there was somebody available locally to talk to and—if one can use the phrase—broker with. Individual local employers have been able to make approaches at a local level.
I frequently become paranoid about not the concept of regional government, but its delivery and practice as it affects my constituency. Not only do I have the most south-westerly constituency in the east midlands—it is not far away from that of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Corby—but it is a substantial distance away from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who is also an east midlander. Conversely, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth is just over the border from me, and some of my people go to his schools, for example. However, that is a different region. When one is looking at SMEs, in particular, one is looking at dispersed rural areas—it is 100 miles to Nottingham, which is a long way to go to get a service. The Minister needs to give assurance, not least in terms of relations between the regional LSC structure and the local county structures, for example.