Clause 20

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

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills 6:30 pm, 12th June 2007

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.