Clause 14

Further Education and Training Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 12th June 2007.

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Incorporation of further education institutions

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 28, in clause 15, page 10, line 40, leave out ‘Learning and Skills Council for England’ and insert ‘Secretary of State’.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

We are making progress and storming through our consideration of the Bill with the alacrity that one would expect.

Clause 14 concerns the power to incorporate further education colleges. In Wales, the power is being transferred to Welsh Ministers, yet in England, the powers are being transferred from the Secretary of State to the Learning and Skills Council. Why should the powers be held by accountable Ministers in Wales, but by the somewhat less accountable—I choose my words carefully—Learning and Skills Council in England?

These are probing amendments to discover from Ministers why the Learning and Skills Council is being given this role. I said earlier that the problem is not what the Bill contains, but what it does not contain, but at this juncture I want to point out an exception to that general rule. In some ways the Bill reinforces, or embeds, the Learning and Skills Council in a process of managing and funding skills that is not entirely consistent with where the Leitch review and its likely repercussions will take us. I suspect that in the coming months and years we might seek to remove powers from the LSC, rather than adding to its already extensive competence.

This small aspect of the Bill is an example of where it seems to me that we are embedding the authority of the LSC. When we come to consider the LSC’s relationship with further education colleges in respect of college principals, governors and managers, we will see another example. I thus qualify my earlier remark just to say, in that respect, that what the Bill does might not be helpful or in tune with current thinking. This probing amendment is designed to establish exactly what Ministers feel about that issue. I look forward to hearing the Under-Secretary’s response before deciding whether to test the mood of the Committee on this small but important matter.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

The amendment moved by the hon. Gentleman would, in effect, maintain the current arrangements. We set out our ambition in our White Paper on FE reform entitled “Further Education: Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances”. Our ambition is a simplified and more flexible FE system, and we have the aim of improving performance, increasing choice and improving participation. It is by transferring the powers of the Secretary of State to establish or dissolve a FE corporation to the LSC that we are underpinning the reforms that we set out in that White Paper.

Under the current arrangements, the Secretary of State’s decision to establish or dissolve FE institutions is based on information and a recommendation provided by the LSC. By transferring those powers to the LSC, we are making the current practice simpler, quicker and less bureaucratic—I must say that I think that it will also be more transparent.

Having listened to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings debating issues of bureaucracy in many other parts of the House, I am sure that he would welcome the fact that the clause will not only improve the pace at which decisions can be made and the transparency of those decisions, but reduce the bureaucracy involved. As the LSC is the body responsible for planning and funding high-quality education and training, both for young people and adults, we believe that it is best placed to ensure that the most appropriate delivery arrangements are in place for learners in any particular area.

I want to make the important point that we will retain the current requirement that the LSC must publish proposals to establish and dissolve FE corporations, with some appropriate modifications. That requirement is set out in regulation—S.I. 2001, No. 782. In particular, there is a requirement to consult local partners and consider their views before any proposals are finalised. I hope that that gives the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings the assurance that after making this technical change, there will be no diminution in the extent of consultation or engagement with the local community.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

One can imagine the circumstances that the Minister describes being fairly dramatic ones. The power that we are discussing would be unusual and would not be exercised in the usual course of events. What right of appeal would there be? What procedure would take place in respect of an appeal? Also, at what point and in what circumstances would the Secretary of State take the power? Answers to those questions might be beneficial to the Committee as we try to decide whether we need to vote on this issue.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

The regulations spell out the conditions under which the LSC must publish its proposals. Clause 16 goes into more detail and clause 10, which we have already considered, gives further clarification on the directions that a Secretary of State might need to give if the LSC was to make a decision that could be described as unreasonable or flawed in some way. The Secretary of State will still have the ability to intervene if he judges that a decision falls into one of those categories. We have considered already clauses that will  give the Secretary of State the opportunity to intervene when those rare circumstances occur.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I am seeking clarification because I am beginning to regret the fact that we sped through clause 10—it sounds like we should have had an immensely detailed debate on it. However, will the Under-Secretary be absolutely clear? He said that if the Learning and Skills Council was to act in an unreasonable or perverse way, the Secretary of State would have the power to intervene. Could that be stimulated by an appeal? Would there be an opportunity for those affected to make a case to the Secretary of State? Are there circumstances in which his scrutiny would be required?

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

Clause 16 clarifies the process under which the LSC must publish, consult on and carry forward its proposals. A complete process is in place whereby local partners and others affected by its decisions can be consulted formally on the proposals and see the LSC’s decision-making process. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he requires.

If the Secretary of State feels that the LSC has failed to discharge its duty to publish proposals or to carry out that consultation process, or that it is proposing to act unreasonably, he can issue directions. I hope that we have processes in place to ensure that there are opportunities for individuals to influence the LSC’s decisions through the publication of, and consultation on, its proposals, and a fall-back position if the LSC is deemed to have acted unreasonably or failed to discharge its duty.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

The Under-Secretary is being immensely generous in giving way and clarifying his position. Will he deal with my initial point about the apparent inconsistency between Wales and England? I made the point that one set of circumstances will apply on one side of the border, but that a different one will apply on the other. It would be helpful if he made clear his views on that.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

I regret not responding to that point before. The power to establish FE corporations in Wales was transferred to the National Assembly for Wales in 1999. By virtue of the Government of Wales Act 2006, that power thus transferred to Welsh Ministers when the new First Minister was appointed. The clause thus makes no substantive change to the situation in Wales, unlike the decisions that affect England. On that basis, I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

We are making such good progress that I think that it would be unreasonable to press the amendment to a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.