Given that we had a slight problem with the last pair of Government amendments, of which one was not put to the Committee, I want to be absolutely clear that I would like all eight Government amendments in the group to be put to the Committee and agreed to, so that we do not have to return to them on Report.
An effective Connexions service is critical to raising participation—a point that hon. Members have made on several occasions in this Committee and that has just been made at some length by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings. We are committed to devolving responsibility for the delivery of the Connexions service to local education authorities. The Bill will achieve that, but it is important that the Government retain the means to ensure that the essential core functions of Connexions are delivered consistently across authority boundaries.
The Connexions service is currently delivered directly by the Department, and consistency can therefore be managed directly. It is critical to the work that the Connexions service does to reduce the number of young people not in education, employment and training, which will become ever more important under our proposals for raising the participation age, that there is national co-ordination and consistency, for the sake of service users. Clause 55 as drafted therefore proposed a broad power to give directions to a local education authority on the exercise of its Connexions functions set out in clause 54—the delivery of Connexions services. Subsections of clause 55 set out what the directions may cover.
On further consideration, I have decided that it would be better if that direction-making power were more tightly defined, and I imagine that members of the Committee will agree that that is desirable. That deals with a concern expressed to me on behalf of local government. The agreement between local and central Government following the local government White Paper allows local government a wide range of freedom and flexibility in how it delivers agreed outcomes. A broad power to direct might be taken to signal that central Government were not committed to that agreement, however clear and tightly focused our intention.
I shall outline the effect of each amendment as briefly as I can. Amendments Nos. 190 and 191 will narrow the power to direct by limiting its operation to the areas set out in the subsections that follow. Amendment No. 192 will remove from the scope of the directions two areas of operation: setting out how Connexions services are to be made available and specifying standards that are to be met. As I have just explained, I accept that those could be considered incompatible with the new local performance framework and the agreed national indicator set. Amendment No. 193 will replace the areas for direction removed by amendment No. 192 and therefore sets out what directions may cover. The first paragraph of amendment No. 192 allows directions that specify the descriptions of individuals who may be involved in delivering Connexions. We propose to use that to specify minimum qualifications for Connexions personal advisers.
Now is a good point to discuss amendment No. 95, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and is grouped with the Government amendments. I hope that it is a probing amendment, designed to clarify our expectations of the qualifications held by Connexions personal advisers. Quite apart from the provisions in clause 55, the quality standards for information, advice and guidance, which we discussed earlier, deal with the qualifications and experience of staff. We will ensure that local authorities must have regard to those standards. Section 10 of the standards is the relevant section. As I made clear, we will use the direction-making power provided by the first paragraph of the amendment to specify the minimum level of qualifications that we expect Connexions personal advisers to hold, in keeping with what is in the standard. On that basis, I hope that the amendment is not pressed.
The second paragraph of amendment No. 193 allows directions that require the authority to ensure that the authority or any Connexions provider delivering services on its behalf co-operates with the national Connexions Direct service. Connexions Direct is an award-winning national helpline and website service for young people. It complements face-to-face services provided by local Connexions services and is highly regarded by young people. The website regularly has over 100,000 visits per week. The service has received extremely positive feedback from young people. The website holds information on local Connexions provision—for example address and phone numbers, local website links and details of major activities or campaigns—which adds to the site’s value. It also supports local Connexions services. It will only work, however, if local authorities keep it up to date. The paragraph also allows directions requiring co-operation with Jobcentre Plus and any other agencies that help young people find suitable employment, education or training. I can envisage the national apprenticeship service being included here.
The third paragraph of amendment No. 193 allows directions to deal with the use of the Connexions brand. That is the direction-making power to which I referred when speaking to amendment No. 94. Since Connexions was established, the brand has acquired well established recognition among young people. We want the brand to continue to be prominent after local authorities take responsibility for the services under clause 54. That way, young people know the core services that are on offer and what they can expect.
Amendment No. 194 allows us to direct authorities to adhere to the national specifications for the Connexions client information system. That is very important if we are to have easy and rapid updating of information on individual young people. It is also important for ensuring that we have data security to high national standards.
The Minister is giving a comprehensive account of these important amendments. To what extent does he anticipate local authorities will need to interact in this regard? We have not discussed that much. He mentioned the need to have systems that are interoperable. I am not sure we have sufficiently considered how much interaction there will be, not merely between agencies but between areas, for supporting young people.
There is considerable interaction between different areas of Connexions. Services in those different areas will be delivered by local authorities and will be the responsibility of local authorities. The sorts of interaction generally relate to young people who live in one place and access education and training or work in another. There are also young people who travel from one place to another and who might turn up in a different place and access Connexions. A decision has to be made on whether they are temporarily in a place and it is best to continue with the previous personal adviser, or whether it is best to transfer the advice into the local area. Similarly if a Connexions service run by a local authority in one area where a young person lives started the advice, it is likely that they would carry on that advice even if a young person accessed education and training in a different authority. A decision might, however, be made between authorities, in consultation with the young person and the educational institution they are attending, on whether or not it is appropriate to move the service from one local authority to another. I hope that that satisfactorily answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Beneath that sort of real interaction, which is designed to offer a joined-up, seamless service for young people, data transfers are required within the Connexions client information system. The hon. Gentleman used the word interoperable, which may not be entirely the right word, but if the services are all to be delivered to the same standard, the various data systems do need to be interoperable. The relationship with Connexions Direct and the Connexions client information system is a different one. The national Connexions service does not hold data on individuals; the data that are passed up are anonymised and are used for statistical purposes.
The hon. Gentleman can make his long and passionate speech about our difficulties with NEETs, but while we are on the subject, it is worth saying that the rise in the number of NEETs is due partly to the rise in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds, but we certainly do not shy away from the problems. However, participation rates have increased in recent years: the proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds in education or training was 77.3 per cent. at the end of 2006, an increase from 76.8 per cent. the previous year. We are seeing some good trends, but that does not mean that we do not take the problem very seriously. The whole reason for trying to pass the Bill is that we want to be able to tackle this problem.
I do not want to go down the NEETs road, Mr. Bayley, not because it is not vital, but because I suspect you would not let me. Back on this issue of interoperability, which is critical to this group of amendments, we heard disturbing evidence from the Association of Colleges that, in its opinion, the Connexions database, which lies at the heart of the Bill’s work, was “not fit for purpose”. I speak without knowledge of that beyond what we were offered, and certainly with no dogma, but that analysis was disturbing. That view was later countered by other witnesses, but given what the Minister was just saying about that database being the heart of the information that is going to be shared across agencies and areas, on what basis does he think that claim was made and is there any substance in it?
Obviously I heard what the Association of Colleges had to say in response to the question and what was said by the witness from Connexions who disagreed with that assessment. I have looked at other assessments of the CCIS by the Prime Minister’s delivery unit, among others. There is a good degree of confidence in the system. That does not mean to say that in the period between now and when we raise the participation age, there is not further refinement to be done to the system, but we remain extremely confident that is a robust system, which has been working reasonably well for Connexions in its present operations.
Amendment No. 194 will also allow us to issue directions on another important subject. Young people, especially in our cities, often go to a school, college or training provider outside their home area. If for any reason they drop out of learning, it is most important that that information gets swiftly to the Connexions provider for that school or college, and that the provider passes on the information without delay so that it reaches the authority in the person’s home area. If the young person has dropped out of learning, it is the home authority that has the duty to follow them up and to take every possible step to get them back into education, training or employment.
Amendment No. 195, makes it clear that matters in subsections (3) and (4) are those about which directions can be given. Finally, amendments Nos. 196 and 197 are important clarificatory amendments. Amendment No. 196 deals with the effective delivery of a range of important services to improve opportunities for young people. It makes it clear that directions can require a local education authority to ensure that whoever carries out Connexions functions under clause 54, whether it is the local authority or a Connexions provider, also provides other services specified in the direction. Those services need not relate to education, but may relate to social security. For example, it is intended that, if necessary, the power could be used to ensure that local education authorities and others providing Connexions services are also responsible for conducting work-focused interviews with young persons, using powers in social security legislation. That ensures that a range of activity aimed at helping young persons into education, training or employment can be brought together in one place. Amendment No. 197 makes it clear that different directions, as provided for in this clause, can be given, depending on the Connexions service in question.
Having set out the case for amendments Nos. 190, 191, 192, 193, 194, 195, 196 and 197, I ask the Opposition not to press amendment No. 95.
The Minister said that he felt we would be pleased with the amendments, because they clarify and specify various aspects of how, why and where advice and guidance will be given to young people in respect of the new provisions in the Bill. He is right: I do welcome those clarifications. The Bill was insufficiently clear as drafted. For some of the reasons that I advanced during the debate on the previous set of amendments, we think that that is unacceptable and seek greater clarity of the kind the Minister is hoping to provide through the Government amendments. That is why we tabled amendment No. 95, which would specify the minimum qualifications and experience required of providers of services, although I note that the Government’s panoply of amendments also deals with the nature of providers and their qualifications.
The important aspect of this debate, which we will no doubt repeat when we discuss amendment No. 96, is that we need to be absolutely clear about how, where and by what method advice is to be given. I intervened on the Minister in respect of interaction between agencies, and I think that he recognises that that is an important point. I am not sure, however, that interaction is assisted by the enormous number of organisations that are now to have a hand in giving advice or managing the system. For example, there is to be a new apprenticeships advisory body—the national apprenticeships service—as a result of the apprenticeships review. It is not terribly clear how that will co-ordinate its work with all the others that have a role in these matters.
I could go on about some of the other risks of lack of clarity and consistency in the way young people are guided and supported, but the Minister is right to say that the Government amendments are helpful. They do provide some of the answers to questions we have posed, and they are certainly a step in the right direction. It would therefore be churlish of us not to give them a welcome, if only a lukewarm welcome, or to divide the Committee on any of them. Neither, on that basis, would we want to press amendment No. 95.
Amendments made: No. 191, in clause 55, page 29, line 41, at end insert
‘in the exercise of the authority’s functions under section 54(1);’.
No. 192, in clause 55, page 30, line 1, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).
No. 193, in clause 55, page 30, line 3, at end insert—
‘( ) specifying the descriptions of individual who may be involved, in ways specified in the direction, in the provision of such services;
( ) requiring the authority to secure that any person by whom such services are provided (whether the authority or any other person) co-operates with—
(i) any person providing services under section 59;
(ii) any person exercising functions, or providing services, which relate to social security or are connected with finding suitable employment, education or training for young persons or relevant young adults;
( ) as to the names and symbols to be used, in ways specified in the direction, in connection with services provided in pursuance of section 54(1);’.
No. 194, in clause 55, page 30, line 4, leave out from beginning to ‘in’ in line 5 and insert—
‘( ) imposing requirements as to—
(i) the keeping of records, or
(ii) the provision of information to local education authorities and persons providing services in pursuance of section 54(1),’.
No. 195, in clause 55, page 30, line 6, leave out from ‘(3)’ to ‘a local’ and insert
‘The Secretary of State may direct’.
No. 196, in clause 55, page 30, line 8, after first ‘services’ insert
‘(whether the local education authority or any other person)’.—[Jim Knight.]
‘(a) may be functions or services relating to social security,
(b) may specify co-ordination of careers information and guidance with learn Direct and Job Centre Plus, and
(c) may specify the provision of functions and services matching young people with employers offering apprenticeships.’.
After that uncontentious run through a series of procedurally complex amendments, we move to the altogether more straightforward matter of amendment No. 96. As we have been discussing, the clause gives the Secretary of State the power to give directions to a local authority relating to the exercise of its duty to provide support for effective participation. There are concerns that the clause will not ensure that basic standards will be met. I have made the argument this morning that we need to be explicit in our demands on those who are missioned to provide support to young people. Amendment No. 95, which I did not press, was designed to ensure that professional standards were adequate, and the Government amendments add some of the greater clarity that I have argued for.
The amendment may be fairly technical, but it reflects concerns that through our discussions and in the Bill we should support high-quality careers advice and a highly professional careers service. In their memorandum on the Bill, all the professional bodies involved in careers advice said that the clause needs to be strengthened. It currently provides a power to the Secretary of State, but they argue that it should be a duty. The professional bodies urge that
“at the appropriate time in the passage of the Bill, an amendment to this effect be tabled.”
They feel that it is
“unacceptable to leave this to ‘chance’; the Secretary of State should ensure that, in every locality, quality is assured to national specification and standards.”
There is a great danger that the system of careers advice that is developing is fragmented because it consists of too many agencies with overlapping responsibilities. The amendment is designed to address that risk. I alluded to that point a few moments ago when I mentioned the doubts about whether the apprenticeship review would add yet more complexity to the system, obscuring it still further. There is the new adult careers service that the Government are piloting, consisting of Learn Direct and Next Step; skills brokers, who offer advice in respect of Train to Gain; the new apprenticeship service that I have mentioned; Connexions, for young people, which I described earlier as a jack of all trades; and additional advice that will be offered, as it is now, through schools and colleges, often completely independently of Connexions.
It will be hard enough to draw the new young people whom we will be dealing with into the system, as many of them face all kinds of challenges. I suspect that the best way of advising and guiding them will be through a system that is transparent, accessible and straightforward. It is not certain that the panoply of organisations in the domain will provide that degree of clarity. Our doubts relate primarily to quality, which must be assured. That concern has been a theme of our debate thus far this morning. Secondly, they relate to consistency: what is done must work across organisations and areas. Thirdly, they relate to clarity and transparency, and thus the need for a dedicated service.
There is a strong case that the adult service should be joined up, with advice given to young people through an all-age careers service. If we really want to imbue a culture of learning as Lord Leitch advocates, we need a respected and universally recognised source of advice that everyone can access. That sort of recognition requires a universal service. I do not want to become tiresome in my advocacy of that approach, but we have an important opportunity to explore the quality and nature of the advice that we offer young people. On that basis, I wait to hear whether the Minister can offer us further assurances on those three areas of doubt that I have identified.
We have agreed to all but one of the Government amendments to clause 55, which make more specific the direction-giving power that we feel is needed. The amendment largely applies to subsection (4), which is about joining up services rather than establishing new services. The amendment concerns Connexions providers co-ordinating careers information and guidance with Learn Direct and Jobcentre Plus. It also enables directions to specify Connexions to carry out functions in services matching young people with employers offering apprenticeships. As the clause is drafted, even in the amended form, we have all the powers necessary to do that, as well as the intention to do that.
It is important that Connexions providers liaise with all the local services that are helping young people to get the skills, training and jobs that they need. As we have discussed, the directions allowed by the clause will provide the power to direct those providing Connexions services to co-operate with those exercising functions or providing services relating to social security, such as Jobcentre Plus. They could also be used to require co-operation with other agencies that help young people to find employment, education or training. Connexions services have a good track record of working with Jobcentre Plus and other agencies, and we do not want to disturb that. However, if we feel that we have to direct authorities on the issue, we will do so. We will consult on the detailed content of the directions on the passage of the Bill.
On the subject of matching young people with employers offering apprenticeships, the Committee may know that the apprenticeship review announced plans for a new national apprenticeships service. I do not want to say too much about that now as I imagine that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills may want to touch on it when we discuss clause 67. However, I will say that we expect the national apprenticeships service to work closely with Connexions, perhaps even being based, in some cases, in Connexions’ high street outlets. The national apprenticeships service will also help careers guidance staff in schools and colleges to offer well informed and balanced advice about the apprenticeship programme to all their students. The field force could be invited by schools and colleges to participate in careers guidance evenings, to give students direct information.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings has concerns about quality assurance. We have already discussed that, and I have mentioned many times that the quality standard will have statutory force. Clearly there is some overlap with other agents, but we want the wide remit for Connexions personal advisers to continue, and to be developed and deepened and the quality raised, so that the advisers can hold the ring for young people and are able to broker access to the range of other agencies that might be able to provide specific and discrete advice. I hope that that satisfies the Committee and that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the amendment is not necessary and will therefore withdraw it.
We have had a good run on this matter this morning and I think that the Minister has got the message that we are absolutely determined that the advice and guidance given to young people should be appropriate, and that we have greater doubts than he has about the capacity of the existing system to deliver that appropriate service.
The Government’s thinking on that might be iterative, in that the piloting of an adult service could lead to a different perspective on how careers advice is given to adults and young people alike. Indeed, I predict that, over time, we will rethink the relationship between Connexions and careers advice and guidance. The purpose of the amendment was to explore those issues, and it has done its job. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
“may provide, secure the provision of or participate in the provision of services”.
Does that open the door for local authorities not just to provide services themselves but to procure those services from the voluntary sector?
During our evidence-taking sessions we heard from two organisations that are particularly successful in working with young people who have perhaps become disengaged from education—the Prince’s Trust and Fairbridge. Both organisations have extremely good track records of working with people who are not in education, employment or training.
During the recess, I attended City of Bristol college at a time when a group of young people who had been through a Prince’s Trust course were completing their assignments and giving their end-of-course presentations. The transformation of those young people from the start of the course to the giving of their presentations to the audience was quite incredible, particularly given their growth in self-confidence while under the care of the Prince’s Trust. I have seen similar journeys by people who have taken Fairbridge access to learning courses.
I would like an assurance from the Minister that the clause opens the way for local education authorities to engage with the third sector—after all, we do have a Minister with responsibility for the third sector. Such organisations should have a recognised role in providing information, advice and guidance, or access to learning and training courses, which will perhaps lead to formal qualifications. I would like an assurance that the clause opens that possibility.
The clause principally relates to the responsibility of local authorities to deliver Connexions services in line with current practice. It will allow local authorities the maximum possible flexibility. The clause proposes that local authorities should have the power to deliver Connexions services on behalf of another local authority where such arrangements are already made. The clause can be used by local education authorities to procure services from others, including the voluntary sector.
Subsection (1)(a) and (b) refer to clause 54, which states in subsection (3):
“For the purposes of this section and section 55, a local education authority makes services available if it ... makes arrangements with another local education authority or another person for their provision.”
That provision allows local education authorities to use some of the niche capability to which the hon. Gentleman rightly referred, and which can be extremely effectively delivered by voluntary sector organisations. I hope that he agrees, along with the rest of the Committee, that the clause should stand part of the Bill.