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Clause 11

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 12th March 2009.

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English issuing authority

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 21, in clause 11, page 6, leave out line 20.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments 158 and 165.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

We return to our efforts to make this bad Bill better with enthusiasm and vigour—and if the second is rather less than the first this morning, it is because the lobster thermidor, which the Minister specifically recommended to me and on which I dined in the small hours, rested more heavily on me in the slightly larger hours than I would have wished; however, not as heavily as the Bill rests on his shoulders, and we have tabled the amendment in that spirit.

The explanatory notes make it clear that sector skills councils will issue apprenticeship frameworks for England. The Opposition support that. I have said before that we strongly support the role of sector skills councils for reasons that we have set out and for many of the reasons set out by the Minister. Their closeness to employers means that they can articulate their skills needs and ensure that frameworks match those needs.

Subsection (1)(a) allows a body to “issue apprenticeship frameworks generally”, rather than for a specific sector. The risk is that that could lead to generic apprenticeships. As I have argued, we are anxious that apprenticeships be tailored at every level and in all ways to particular needs. The prospect of a ubiquitous apprenticeship does not sit comfortably with our vision. The Government have started to advance amendments by which frameworks will relate specifically to one sector. Indeed, we have heard something of those and will no doubt hear more. I am at a loss to understand why they do not leave this contradiction alone all together and step beyond it.

When taking the evidence of expert witnesses, it was made clear to the Committee that generic apprenticeships—or ubiquitous apprenticeships, as I have described them—are not worth the paper they are written on because they are not respected by employers and so do not add to the employability of apprentices. In the evidence session, the CBI said that the most important thing is that

“the programme is more fit for purpose—delivering the sort of skills that are in demand by businesses.”—[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 6, Q5.]

We must therefore ensure that frameworks are of the highest quality.

I do not know whether you, Mrs. Humble, or other Committee members shared my feelings last week, but I felt that I was beginning to deliver this point with persuasiveness sufficient to change the Minister’s mind. I felt once or twice that I touched his heart. I do not know whether it was due to the intellectual force of my argument or the silky persuasiveness with which it was delivered, but on occasion he looked as if he had the stomach to acknowledge the force of our argument and the weakness of his own. That proves beyond doubt that the way to a man’s stomach is through his heart. He did not, however, go as far as he might have done on the frameworks. The purpose of the amendment is to push him that extra mile.

I think that all Committee members, and certainly the Minister, will agree that quality will come from getting the frameworks right. In the evidence sessions, Keith Marshall of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils made that clear when he said:

“The key to this is the framework. If we get the framework right, it will ensure that the quality is maintained.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 9, Q19.]

If a generic framework is issued, the quality of all apprenticeship frameworks will be undermined. It will also damage the apprenticeship brand, which I am determined we should avoid. As I said, I know that the Minister is gradually and grudgingly coming to the same conclusion.

A tangential issue is the status of sector skills councils. It was clear from the evidence session that Mr. Marshall, the representative of sector skills councils, was not entirely happy about the way their status is diminished in the Bill; they play little part in it. The Minister is right that they play a large part in the explanatory notes, but I am not sure that that satisfies sector skills councils or us. Sector skills councils are particularly important in the development, publication and implementation of frameworks, which is why they are so pertinent to the amendments and to these clauses.

In the evidence sessions, the Minister for Schools and Learners asked the representative of the sector skills councils:

“should we mention that in primary legislation?”, to which Mr. Marshall replied:

“You specifically mentioned other organisations and agencies in other parts of the overall system, but not there.”

The Minister open-mindedly—I thought—went on:

“And you would like us to?”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 21, Q60-61.]

Mr. Marshall unequivocally answered that he would.

So those representatives of business—the Minister spoke fondly of them when we met last—clearly want to be mentioned not just in the explanatory notes, but in detail in the Bill. The Minister surely agrees that the sector skills councils are the bodies to take forward apprenticeship frameworks. If that is the case, why not agree to the amendment?

More significantly, sector skills councils favour tailoring frameworks to one sector. Why, therefore, is there the need to “issue apprenticeship frameworks generally”? The clause should be specific on that, so that educators, employers, learners and potential learners receive the training that they need and so that they know that they will receive it. It is imperative that the amendment is agreed to.

Once again, I see that my case is beginning to resonate here and elsewhere. We debate the Bill in a context in which the representatives of employers have been sceptical, the champions of adult learning have been doubtful, and the colleges, in the Minister’s words, have been surprisingly critical. The Minister seems to stands alone, and I want to assure him by the means and in the detail of today’s amendments that he is not alone. We are on his side in trying to make this bad Bill better.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I start by addressing the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about my stomach. I remind him—this is pertinent—of the words of the great reformer and radical William Cobbett, who memorably said that you cannot agitate a man on a full stomach. I was up very early this morning, as is often my custom, and have therefore had two breakfasts since my rising. I have a full stomach and am afraid that I am not susceptible to agitation in the manner he has described. The hon. Gentleman also wondered whether he had succeeded in inciting my feelings or intellect. He is almost beginning to incite some feelings but my intellect remains absolutely steely against his silken words.

Turning to the substance of the matter, I wish to reassure him that there is no such thing as generic apprenticeships and no intention to create them. The word “generally” in the clause does not in any sense imply “generic”. The clause enables the Secretary of State to designate a person to issue apprenticeship frameworks in England, either generally or for particular sectors. Clause 16 contains a similar measure for Wales. The frameworks are high-level curricula for an apprenticeship in a specified career and it is essential that the right issuing bodies are identified and maintained in order to ensure that high standards of apprenticeships are preserved.

I understand the intention behind the amendment, which would mean that the Secretary of State could not designate the person to issue frameworks generally across a range of sectors.

Last year, in “World-class Apprenticeships: Unlocking talent, building skills for all”, we set out our commitment to streamlining and reducing bureaucracy in the process of developing and approving apprenticeship frameworks. Our intention is to designate sector skills councils as English issuing authorities. Working in partnership with standard setting bodies, SSCs will have a key role in ensuring quality apprenticeship frameworks that comply with the specification of apprenticeship standards for England. We look to SSCs to focus their activities on  working with employers to increase the number of good quality employer-led apprenticeship places and to support employers in bringing forward frameworks tailored to their business needs.

We welcome the work being led by the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils to develop streamlined arrangements for the development and issuing of apprenticeship frameworks, which will prepare the way for an even brighter future. It is important to recognise—this is the crucial point—that we do not have full sector skills coverage for every occupation in which there may, occasionally and exceptionally, be a need to have apprenticeship frameworks. It therefore makes sense to retain the possibility, against such an eventuality, that a pan-sector body such as the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils could issue frameworks if necessary.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

The assumption is that frameworks will be issued by sector skills councils for their particular sectors. I think that I will have a secondary and then a tertiary assumption, which is not something that I have often had before. The secondary assumption is that all efforts will be made to achieve coherence and simplicity, and to fit every framework that can be so fitted into a definable and discernible sector skills council sector.

The third assumption is that in the cases that do not easily fit the preference will be for an existing sector skills council to lean over and extend itself to try to embrace the anomalous case. Our hope is that those three different hierarchies of possibility will encompass every eventuality. We have tabled the clause simply to allow for the possibility, which we hope will not happen, that the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils needs to issue frameworks that do not fit any existing sector.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Because of the stratified, multi-tiered approach, it is extremely unlikely that the Bill would be used in that way.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

My judgment is that it is unlikely. Our hope and our preference is that it does not occur. The power exists in case matters cannot be resolved according to the hierarchy of the three different ways that I listed. It makes sense to keep the possibility that a body such as the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils could issue frameworks if necessary. However, the Bill makes clear that at any time only one person may issue frameworks relating to one particular apprenticeship sector.

I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman and given the members of the Committee the assurances that they require so that they will feel able to withdraw the amendment, the purpose and intention of which, as I have said, I understand and appreciate.

I shall speak to two technical Government amendments, one of which, amendment 158, is required to enable the Secretary of State to amend or revoke the designation of a person to issue apprenticeship frameworks. That is necessary in case of future changes in policy or, for example, in the composition or coverage of a sector skills council. Without it, the Secretary of State could not change the designated authority from time to time, as operational requirements dictate. Amendment 165 gives analogous powers to Welsh Ministers.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

It was good to have William Cobbett at such an early hour. The Minister, with his estimable literary grasp, will know that it was that great Tory, Dr. Johnson, who said that a lack of manual dexterity constitutes a form of ignorance. The Conservative Benches are committed to the apprenticeship system—to transmit manual dexterity or, as I prefer to put it, to elevate the practical—which is why we want the framework to be as tightly constructed as possible.

The Minister gave a well structured argument about how this part of the Bill might come to effect. He said that there were primary, secondary and tertiary levels at which frameworks might be defined. The frailty in what appeared to be a good argument, however, is that the secondary stage of his chronology—he presented it in a chronological fashion—contradicts the tertiary stage. Sector skills councils need to have the flexibility to step outside their existing remit to embrace new challenges. That is entirely right, because the economy is dynamic—increasingly so as it becomes more advanced—as are skills needs. We need to be able to redesign apprenticeship frameworks and to alter the scope of sector skills councils as necessary. If that is what sector skills councils will be able to do, we shall never reach that tertiary stage when the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils has to step in, because in the Minister’s secondary stage we are giving sector skills councils the flexibility necessary to do that job themselves.

The Alliance of Sector Skills Councils thinks the same. It does not perceive an occasion on which it would have to override a sector skills council. It sees itself as an umbrella organisation, of course ensuring a degree of consistency; certainly articulating the case for the role of sector skills council; and, yes, communicating the collective voice of sector skills councils on the Bill and other related matters. I am not sure that the alliance would necessarily want the frameworks to be slackened. Indeed, the evidence from Mr. Marshall suggested the opposite—that it did not want what I describe as generic apprenticeships. However, that is the possibility—faint though it might be—that could result from the well intentioned provision of a well intentioned Minister.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I want to restate that there is no question of the unlikely-to-be-used power that we want to give to a body such as the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils overriding the duty on sector skills councils to produce frameworks—quite the reverse. We are talking about a situation in which a particular framework cannot find a home, the possibility of a framework needing to be picked up. There is no question of overriding; the hierarchy is the other way around.

There is no question of loosening, slackening or generalising, and everything that the hon. Gentleman said about how apprenticeships are by their very nature sector specific is absolutely right and I agree. However, yesterday I was talking to a parliamentary colleague who did an engineering apprenticeship in the 1950s—the golden days of apprenticeships, as the hon. Gentleman would have it, when an apprenticeship was a proper apprenticeship—and I asked him what the difference was. He said that they were a lot more general than they are now. Given that he defines a good apprenticeship as—

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

Order. I must interrupt the Minister. He is making an intervention which is becoming a speech.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

As I said at the outset, Mrs. Humble, you are firm but fair.

The Minister switches seamlessly, but that apparent seamlessness does not fool Opposition Members. He switches from a chronology to a hierarchy. He started by saying that there was a process which will be exhausted until the point that this power will be used. We then moved to a hierarchical argument. I am not sure that this power would ever be used if the flexibility in his secondary stage—we will use his structure for the sake of clarity—were there. I think the sector skills councils should, as he says, expand their scope to take into account dynamic skills needs and a changing remit. That flexibility, if sufficient, would avoid the need for his tertiary level. He said himself that he did not like a three-stage process and that he would have rather have a simpler one. So why not accept this amendment, bolster the power of the sector skills councils to expand their range to respond in the way we both wish they could and introduce a Government amendment to strengthen that part of the Bill?

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Three points. First, I want to make it clear that the hierarchies and chronologies that I have described are in no sense intended to be a formal part of the process. These are constructs that I have recently invented to try to explain the situation to the Committee as I understand it. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman’s dichotomy between a chronology and a hierarchy is entirely false because it is perfectly possible to have a chronological hierarchy. Finally, what does he think we should do if a very valuable framework needs to be made and we cannot find a sector skills council that wants to take ownership of it?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

My goodness, we have a range of sector skills councils which covers an immense number of frameworks and disciplines and a wide range of skills. I would expect those sector skills councils to consult on this and certainly to be in discussion with the Government. Surely they should be able to respond and embrace those additional challenges in the way that he describes. Adding this extra element—be it a hierarchy or not, and I see that he is rushing away from his hierarchical argument, lest anyone feel that they have in these few moments been demoted in some way—is unnecessary. I cannot see why we need all of this complexity. The sector skills councils should be able to do the job. I trust them to do so and I hope that the Minister does too.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I will not keep interrupting the hon. Gentleman to restate the same point in different ways but what he has described is exactly what we envisage will happen. All that he disputes is a power that we have put in the Bill just in case it does not happen. It should, and we think it will, happen as he described. However, he surely must agree that it is conceivable that it may not happen, particularly as the sector skills councils have a strict focus on their own sectors that is so disciplined and sector specific.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Let us move up a gear, up the hierarchy and along the chronology, and explore this a little more fully. The truth is that we should not be passing anything we do not need to in this place. We should not add to  Bills things that are never going to happen or for distant eventualities that are extremely unlikely. The truth is that we are doubtful about the creation of generic apprenticeships and worry that the apprenticeship brand will be diluted. As I have said before, we think that the Government might even, in their less noble moments, be seduced into doing just that.

We do not want this additional power, which we do not think is useful, and we think that the concern is more than dealt with by the existing structure, perhaps with additional flexibility of the kind the Minister and I both advocate. For that reason, we will press the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division number 4 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 11

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 158, in clause 11, page 6, line 29, at end insert—

‘( ) A designation under this section may be amended or revoked by the Secretary of State.’—(Mr. Simon.)

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Government amendments 158 and 165 are minor amendments that ensure that the Secretary of State can amend or revoke the designation of a person to issue an apprenticeship framework. That is intended to make the system work and is justified, as the Minister said in his brief words, as an operational requirement. It is operational requirements that often dictate the revocation or amendment linked to an apprenticeship. The question to be asked is what these operational requirements actually are, but the Minister did not make that clear in his opening remarks. What are the circumstances in which the Government would seek to revoke a designation, and to whom would they consider redesignating it?

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

Order. I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman because we debated that earlier when he moved amendment 21. He should have questioned the Minister when he spoke to Government amendments 158 and 165. At this stage, we are simply formally proposing the amendment.

Amendment 158 agreed to.

Clause 11, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 12 and 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.