Clause 39

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 21st February 2008.

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Failure to fulfil duty under section 2: initial steps

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

I beg to move amendment No. 67, in clause 39, page 20, line 40, at end insert ‘, and

(c) must make an assessment of the person’s ability to benefit from the support offered.’.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 68, in clause 39, page 20, line 40, at end insert ‘, and

(c) may grant a waiver from this obligation where this seems in the best interests of the person.’.

No. 69, in clause 40, page 21, line 35, at end insert—

‘(2A) This further notice must not be issued before the authority has made an assessment of the person’s ability to comply with the initial notice, and whether this meets their needs.’.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil assured me that, given the glacial pace at which the Committee had cantered—or, rather, not cantered—through previous clauses, there was absolutely no chance that we would reach this stage before 10 o’clock, when he is scheduled to join us. For the past few minutes, I have therefore been somewhat panic-stricken and I have been reading through the amendments that my hon. Friend drafted and tabled. I will have to make my best attempt—[ Interruption. ] Well, it demonstrates palpable honesty in front of fellow Committee members. I will try my best to interpret what my hon. Friend would have said had he been here or had we been able to travel forward 20 minutes in time to when he was here.

The amendments suggest that if the local authority is to offer support to the young person to ensure that they can fulfil their obligations under the Bill to attend compulsory education or training, some assessment should be made of whether that support is appropriate. During our evidence sessions a few weeks ago, we heard some interesting evidence from various bodies, particularly the Prince’s Trust and Fairbridge, which suggested that some of the people at whom the Bill is aimed in the broadest sense—those not in education, employment or training—lead quite dysfunctional lives. They might have an addiction to drugs or alcohol or might have been in and out of the criminal justice system. The support offered to them by the local authority might not, therefore, necessarily address the fundamental needs that they have in their daily lives, and that might be one of the underlying reasons why they are unable to fulfil the obligation in the Bill to attend college.

Obviously, if someone has an addiction to heroin, or some other part of their life is dysfunctional, attending college or workplace training will not be at the forefront of their minds, and their attendance might not be welcomed by the institution or employer anyway. The compulsion introduced by the Bill will clearly not have the desired effect of ensuring that that group of people have a measurable level of educational attainments by the time that they are 18.

It will be clear from our earlier discussions and the questions that we asked during our evidence sessions that my hon. Friend and I would prefer these young people with dysfunctional lives to be given more access to the support services that would make a tangible differences to their circumstances, such as more drug rehabilitation and treatment and more investment in mental health, if such problems are the reason why they cannot fulfil their duty to participate. The purpose of the amendments is to put in place a requirement to assess whether young people’s health needs—I see drug addiction as a health problem—or mental health needs have been properly dealt with before further duties are placed on them. Our aim is to ensure that the relevant support is there so that the local authority can take an holistic approach. I have done the best that I can in the circumstances.

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)

It is a pleasure to move to chapter 5, which is headed “Attendance Notices”. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Bristol, West would like to issue an attendance notice on the hon. Member for Yeovil so that he can speak to his own amendments.

The amendments return us to discussions that we had at some length earlier in the Committee process about the support that should be offered to young people found to be not participating. Its intention is one that I share, as I have already set out: no young person should enter the enforcement system if they have unmet support needs.

Amendment No. 67 would mean that, before a local authority could give an initial notice, in addition to what the clause already requires, they would need to assess the person’s ability to benefit from the support offered. I believe that the intention of this amendment is already reflected in subsections (5)(a) and (b) and (6)(b). For the benefit of the Committee, I will briefly run through those provisions. Subsection (5)(a) states that the local authority

“must take all reasonable steps to secure that relevant support is offered”.

We have discussed that at considerable length, including what it means in respect of particular groups of young people. Subsection (5)(b) states that the local authority

“may not give the notice unless satisfied that the person has been afforded an opportunity to take advantage of the support offered.”

That, in my view, requires precisely the sort of assessment the amendment would insert into the clause. A local authority could not be satisfied that the young person has had the opportunity to benefit from the support offered if it considered that the young person in question did not have the ability to benefit from the support offered.

Subsection (6) then states that the local authority can begin enforcement action only if the young person is failing to fulfil the duty without reasonable excuse. I have, at the request of the absent hon. Member for Yeovil, written to the Committee about my thinking on “reasonable excuse”. I am sure that he will have a reasonable excuse for the hon. Member for Bristol, West. I hope that he will understand that as we are five years away from implementing the provisions of the Bill, I wish to use that time to consult fully with organisations such as those from which we heard during our evidence sessions and which the hon. Member for Bristol, West, speaking with alacrity on his feet, mentioned. My thinking will undoubtedly develop as a result of that consultation.

The relevant support referred to in subsection (5)(a) would be provided by Connexions, which is based on its personal advisers developing a sufficient understanding of a young person’s needs in order to assess what support might be most appropriate to meet those needs. Subsections (5) and (6) would mean that a local authority will not begin enforcement unless they have provided the right support.

Amendment No. 68 returns us to the question of a waiver certificate, which we debated at length in relation to clause 1, many moons ago. I believe there was an eclipse of the moon last night and it almost feels as though we were discussing clause 1 at the time of the previous eclipse. As I made clear to the Committee then, we do not support issuing any type of waiver to  specific groups of young people to exempt them from the duty. The hon. Member for Yeovil withdrew his amendment that first introduced the concept of a waiver certificate in relation to clause 1, and I hope that this colleague the hon. Member for Bristol, West will do the same here. I know that he does not mean to suggest that young people should be denied the opportunities offered by participation in education and training.

As I understand it, amendment No. 69 would require local authorities to conduct an assessment of a young person’s ability to comply with an attendance notice before any such notice is issued. I do not believe that that would add anything to the caveats relating to attendance notices in clauses 41 and 42. The provisions in the Bill will ensure that before issuing an attendance notice, a local authority must satisfy itself that the named provision meets the young person’s needs. It will also have the knowledge of the matters that an attendance panel would take into account in considering any appeal by a young person against an attendance notice. The attendance panel provides an important independent check on the local authority’s actions, which I am sure that we will discuss fairly shortly. I look forward to that and hope, in the light of my reassurances, that the hon. Member for Bristol, West will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills) 9:45 am, 21st February 2008

I shall keep my remarks brief. Having heard the Minister’s assurances, I have only one option: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

Clause 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.