Clause 24

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:45 pm on 19th February 2008.

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Duty to enable participation initial arrangements

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I beg to move amendment No. 180, in clause 24, page 12, line 32, at end insert

‘during that employee’s normal working hours’.

I shall not detain the Committee by reading out the explanatory notes on clauses 24 and 25 because they are rather long, but I refer the Committee to them. We are about to deal with a number of amendments that deal with the degree of flexibility that employees will  have to take up their education and training obligations at times that suit both them and their employers. In some of the evidence that we took earlier, as well as in the Bill, there is an understandable desire for flexibility to ensure that employers are not discouraged from taking on young people. That is particularly the case in clause 25, which seeks to ensure that the education and training option is taken up flexibly.

We would like to have some reassurance about the burdens that will be placed on young people as a consequence of the responsibilities in the Bill, and the understandable desire that there will be among employers not to lose young people at a critical time. The amendment would ensure not only that the employer must permit the employee to stay in training or education, but that that should be during normal working hours. In other words, the employer would not be able to foist unreasonable responsibilities on employees and to require them to take up their training and education options outside the time that they are working, particularly if they are working full time.

Although we understand Ministers’ desire to have young people undertaking a combination of employment and education or training at the same time, we would be concerned if the effect of the Bill were that some young people would have to be doing full-time jobs and all their education and training outside that. Perhaps that is not the Government’s intention, but that is what we are hoping to explore with the amendment and I would be grateful for the Minister’s reassurances or recommendations on that point.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 7:00 pm, 19th February 2008

I shall keep my remarks extremely brief. In adding to the conversation about this useful amendment, I invite the Minister to enlighten the Committee as to what study the Government have made of the likely effects on employment of the young people that the hon. Gentleman spoke about. It is inconceivable that the Government have not modelled this; we have had this debate a number of times and it is again coming to a head around this series of clauses. It would be useful if the Committee could have some understanding of what modelling the Government have done, which might well refute the claims made by Professor Wolf and others, but at the very least would inform our discussion.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Naturally, we have carried out a degree of research and the impact assessment reflects that. For example, of those young people between the ages of 16 and 19 who are working, 66 per cent. work part time, 34 per cent. full time. Of the latter, 1,680 are in jobs without training, working in small and medium-sized enterprises and paid less than the national minimum wage for people above the age of 18. Those are the ones whom we think would be particularly affected by the legislation, but I do not want to rehearse all the arguments that I made on 4 February.

My view is that it should be for the employer, following a discussion with the young person, to decide how the employment contract will enable the young person to participate, rather than for it to be set out in law as the amendment would do. In some cases, a young person might participate in learning during their  normal working time by way of their employer permitting them to take time off, but in many cases, the young person’s course times might simply fall outside their working time, their contract being drawn up so that normal working time does not clash with course times. Of course, it is not our intention to force young people to undertake their learning in the evenings and weekends, but sometimes they might prefer it. For instance, a young person working in retail could be working evenings and weekends, and therefore be in learning on weekdays, or they could be participating through evening or Saturday or even Sunday classes if they are available.

It is important to ensure that young people are not subjected to onerous, unnecessary or antisocial working or training hours. It is perhaps worth noting that the Working Time Regulations 1998 provide protection for young workers regarding their working time, both in terms of the number of hours and when those hours can be undertaken. Nothing in the Bill changes that protection, but the flexibility in the Bill is important and it would be taken away by the amendment. That could damage the youth labour market and be burdensome on employers. In light of that, I hope that the hon. Member for Yeovil will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am not sure that the Minister is being entirely fair to me and the amendment, because my reading of the provision at subsection (2) is that it requires the employer to permit the employee to participate. It says,

“permit the employee to participate in training or education” at a particular time. Nothing in the amendment would prevent an employee who wished to undertake their course in the evening or outside regular working hours from doing so. Is there not a danger that employees who do not wish to do their course in evenings, after a full-time job throughout the week, might end up being obliged to do so? Will the Minister provide any reassurance that that would not be the case? Will he acknowledge that the amendment in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West would not prevent young people from undertaking education and training courses in the evening, if they wish to do so?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The flexibility in the legislation is there so that employees can do their full-time work and then fulfil their responsibility to undertake 280 hours of education or training a year. The Committee has discussed that flexibility at length. The employer and employee would discuss it on the commencement of employment as governed by clauses 21 to 23. If arrangements change, further discussions would take place.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Perhaps I have misunderstood the Government’s intention. Under the Bill, as it stands, could an employer say to a young person, “Fine, do your education or training, but regardless of that nonsense we want you here during the day, so you will have to do it at 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening—take it or leave it!”?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am looking for the relevant provision in the Bill. Naturally, the employer must behave reasonably. Clause 24(2) states:

“The employer must permit the employee to participate in training or education in accordance with those appropriate arrangements.”

If the employer is unduly unreasonable in rejecting arrangements as inappropriate, or requiring the young person to do something that they think is unreasonable, they have the option not to take up the job. That might be a bit extreme, but the important thing is that both parties are reasonable. We will discuss later clauses on changing arrangements, but it is important to note now the provisions in clause 25(3) for matters that would be discussed, which include the

“needs of the person in order to fulfil the duty”,

which is significant. They would also include the

“circumstances of the employer’s business”,

which ought to be respected, and the

“effect of the person’s absence from work on the running of that business.”

Such considerations would enter the discussion.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I shall not try the Committee’s patience any further, because we are about to turn to another amendment raising similar concerns. I shall not press the Committee to divide on my amendment, therefore, but I hope that at some stage——if not later today, in the course of the next few weeks——we might receive reassurances from Ministers greater than the backstop reassurance that the Minister sought to give when he said that a young person could simply choose to lose their employment opportunity, which does not seem particularly satisfactory. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.