Clause 20

Further Education and Training Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:30 pm on 12th June 2007.

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Consultation by governing bodies of further education institutions

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

I beg to move amendment No. 32, in clause 20, page 13, line 41, leave out ‘or’.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 33, in clause 20, page 13, line 42, at beginning insert ‘local’.

No. 34, in clause 20, page 13, line 42, at end insert ‘and (c) sector skills councils,’.

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

We have, rightly, had a long debate on clause 17. We now move to a more straightforward but significant part of the Bill. Clause 20 inserts a new section 49A into the 1992 Act, which imposes on the governing bodies of further education institutions a duty to have regard to guidance about consulting with learners or people who would like to become learners, and with employers, in connection with the taking of decisions that will affect them.

Amendment No. 32 would remove the word “or”. It is a probing amendment to ascertain why FE colleges cannot consult students and employers, rather than students or employers. Why not consult them jointly?  Amendment No. 34 inserts “sector skills councils” in the consultation. You will know by now, Mr. Atkinson, for we have made the point—some might say, laboriously, I would say persuasively—that we on this side of the Committee take SSCs very seriously. We want to see them fully involved in the process, and would argue that, as representatives of business, they should be included in the consultation.

Amendment No. 33 would ensure that the consultation with FE colleges would involve local employers rather than just those employers of which the SSCs are representative. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), who is a great champion of small and medium-sized enterprises, being the managing director of at least one business in his locality, made quite a point of that. As a result of his endeavours, we tabled this amendment. He argued that the Bill undervalues the potential role of business managers, especially those from SMEs, particularly with regard to their involvement in the nation’s skills training programme. He wanted business not only to be consulted but to be heavily involved in the process, and he made a strong case to that effect. I shall not go on at great length about it.

We are anxious to ensure that all those with a legitimate role and a voice in these matters are properly consulted and involved in the discussions that affect skills and training in their locality. These three amendments to this important part of the Bill are designed to elicit an assurance to that effect from Ministers. I hope that, because of the probing nature of the amendments, the Minister can, with similar clarity to that which was shown in the debate on clause 17, assure me that SMEs, SSCs and other interested parties will be involved in the way that I have described.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills

I hope that I can give the reassurance that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings seeks. Consultation of both employers and learners is at the heart of the Bill. With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier intervention, I point out that the clause allows for institutions to consult both students and employers where decisions affect them. It also allows institutions to consult learners alone or employers alone where that is appropriate and the institution judges that it is the right way forward.

I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman sufficiently that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment, because it could create a major new requirement on both FE institutions and SSCs, significantly and unnecessarily increasing their work load. The possibility that nearly 400 institutions in England and 25 institutions in Wales might all individually consult 25 SSCs holds out the prospect of a huge burden, particularly on SSCs. There would be enormous duplication of effort, with SSCs responding to many FE institutions on the same issue. It is important for FE institutions to work closely with SSCs, but we cannot support placing a specific requirement on individual colleges to have regard to guidance about consulting SSCs.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to consult employers and, where appropriate, individual SSCs. However, individual institutions are best placed to decide, based on their own circumstances, how they  should consult employers and appropriate skills bodies. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the illustrative guidance from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in accordance with this clause, to which colleges in England would be required to have regard, he will see that it refers, in paragraphs 2.17 and 4.8, to working with the Learning and Skills Council and consultation with the appropriate regional skills partnerships. The guidance recognises, in paragraph 2.17, that individual colleges in England may consider it appropriate to work with an individual SSC where, for example, the college is delivering provision that makes such consultation of value.

It is important to consider, aside from the specific debate about consultation, that SSCs have a role to play in how the college would conduct its business. For example, as we implement demand-led funding in England, we would intend SSCs to have a central role in determining, with the employers, the qualification strategies for their sectors. That will mean that FE colleges need to take account of the information provided by the SSCs to be able to respond to demand. That can be achieved without legislation.

I do not support the proposal to restrict consultation to local employers. Apart from the inherent difficulties in determining what is and is not local, the word implies that individual colleges may not have a consultative relationship with a large national employer. I repeat that individual colleges, their management and governors are best placed to make such decisions; I would not wish to be prescriptive in these matters. However, we will be wary of the potential bureaucratic impact of multiple consultations with the same employer, and the guidance advises colleges to work with the LSC and skills bodies to ensure coherent consultation.

As I said earlier, I would not wish to refer in primary legislation to organisations such as SSCs, which are non-statutory bodies. Such organisations may be renamed or abolished in the longer term—I am clearly not anticipating that, but with the passage of time, circumstances change—and a reference in legislation would be rendered meaningless. Having given those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 6:45 pm, 12th June 2007

To prove that I do not always speak at length, I am delighted to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.