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Clause 81

– in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Arrangements and co-operation with local education authorities

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 204, in clause 81, page 50, line 11, leave out ‘local education authorities’ and insert ‘employers and providers of training’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this we may discuss amendment 205, in clause 81, page 50, line 14, leave out subsection (2).

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

We are making such rapid progress and moving ahead with such alacrity that we come to clause 81 and amendments 204 and 205, which stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends.

The explanatory notes set out that the responsibility for a range of apprenticeships is delegated to the chief executive officer of the NAS, who then organises matters with local education authorities. We want to make it absolutely clear that we are stout defenders of local government. I served for many years on Nottinghamshire county council; for most of that time, I was the shadow chairman of education. Once again, I pay tribute to the councillors across the country of all political parties who give such sterling service to their localities, through their work in local government.

However, we are simply not convinced that local authorities have a significant role to play in the way that is envisaged by the Bill. I have previously argued that incorporation of FE colleges gave them a new lease of life. They look ahead to the days when they come under the influence—indeed, one might say within the power—of local government with some scepticism, and that is an understatement, given what some college principals have said to me.

Amendment 204 is a simple one. It would replace “local education authorities” with “employers” and education providers. There is a real gap in the Bill on the role of employers, which has been established through our consideration of it. Employers are not given the weight that we need to give them to make the ambitions that lie at the heart of this Bill a reality. The amendment is straightforward.

Amendments 204 and 205 reflect the remarks of Richard Wainer of the CBI, who said in his evidence to the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee on the draft Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill:

“The priority for a government apprenticeship policy has to be ensuring that more employers are getting involved.”

John Lucas of the British Chambers of Commerce said:

“In terms of funding and its distribution, I do not think that local authorities have a track record of employer engagement”.——  [Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 6, Q3.]

Indeed, the BCC brief on the draft Bill said that

“apprenticeships should be employer led, offer real progression routes for apprentices, whether that be onto development in the workplace, or further and higher education”.

Amendment 204 attempts to alleviate those concerns by ensuring that the NAS works with employers, whereas amendment 205 would remove any reference to LEAs, cutting away the dead hand of local authority control and the excessive bureaucracy and red tape that would become synonymous with the proposed system.

These moves are clearly supported by the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee recommendations and by the Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which argued that apprenticeships:

“should be...a unique public-private partnership. Three actors contribute—employer, apprentice and government—and all stand to benefit from a successful partnership.”

To say more would be superfluous. The case is made. I fully expect the Minister to embrace these amendments if, as I do, he truly believes that the success of his ambitions will depend on effective employer engagement.

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

I will be incredibly brief, as even the hon. Gentleman spoke briefly to his own amendment.

I am heavily sceptical about the amendments, which seem to delete entirely the role of local authorities when it comes to people who are under the age of 19. I think the hon. Gentleman referred to the dead hand of local authority control. As a former county councillor, albeit in the post-college incorporation period—I was elected in 1993—I do not think that local authorities are a dead-hand part of our government structure. Good local authorities can be enabling authorities, which will work in concert with employers. I think that that is the better way forward, rather than deleting their role entirely.

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)

While the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings described himself as a stout defender, and was working on his stoutness over lunch, I was at the Local Government Association at a meeting with councillors, to whose work I pay tribute.

I understand the sentiment behind the amendments. It is, of course, essential that the chief executive of the SFA, through the NAS, consults employers and training providers, both about the volume of apprenticeship places that they are able to offer and about how to stimulate demand for apprenticeships among young people—indeed, in clause 82, there is some mention of the work that the SFA will carry out with employers.

The NAS will also work closely with employers and providers to increase the number of apprenticeships on offer. I can provide a categorical assurance to the Committee that that will happen. Relationships with employers and training providers are critical if we are to ensure that the apprenticeship scheme is implemented effectively. However, the amendment would undermine the relationship between the NAS, which will be acting on behalf of the chief executive of the SFA, and local authorities. That relationship is central to the successful operation of the apprenticeship scheme. Removing that duty to co-operate would mean that there is no link between local authorities’ role in the provision of 16-to-19 learning places and the NAS’s role in securing a sufficient supply of apprenticeship  places to meet demand. Without that linkage, the apprenticeship scheme cannot be implemented effectively. I think that the hon. Gentleman believes that we cannot have a good relationship between the NAS and local authorities, between the NAS and employers, and between local authorities and employers, but I believe that that circle can be squared.

The key principle underpinning the 16-to-19 planning process is that local authorities will plan and commission provision across the full range of post-16 options available to young people, and that funding should follow learner choices. Planning by local authorities must therefore reflect, as closely as possible, the choices that young people are likely to make, and the trends in their choices about what, where and when they want to learn. We are committed to ensuring that apprenticeships are rooted as a high-quality, mainstream education and training route for young people, fully integrated in the common application process and the 14-to-19 prospectus. The relationship between local authorities and the NAS is critical to ensuring that that situation comes about. It is for that reason that I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

The problem with the response of the hon. Member for Bristol, West is that it is dependent on an assumption that local authorities should be involved in these matters in the way that he articulates and is embodied in the Bill. We acknowledge that local authorities have a critical role in economic development—indeed, they have a statutory role. As he will know, unitary and county authorities and districts have a statutory economic development function. So of course it is appropriate that they are a stakeholder—a player—and that they are involved in all kinds of discussions, consultations and negotiations with the other agencies responsible for economic development, either directly or indirectly.

However, giving local authorities a funding and management role—a direct role in the creation and delivery of the training regime that the Government have set out in the Bill—seems to be yet another example of making something that should be straightforward complex. If the Government faced up to the prospect of a deregulated system, with all its virtues—a system of free-standing, self-managed further education colleges, funded and managed by a slim funding agency, which would obviously, in the end, be directly under Ministers, with, of course, appropriate checks and balances to ensure the quality of education and probity—we would not need such a complicated piece of legislation, with all the features that the Bill contains. Local authority involvement is another part in that immensely complex machine.

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)

In a vain attempt to persuade the hon. Gentleman of my case, I remind him of what the much-quoted CBI representative, Richard Wainer, said in a reply to him in evidence:

“Our members are primarily concerned about ensuring that they get a good-quality apprenticeship programme, so as long as local authorities adequately consult and work with local employers in ensuring that they are putting on the sort of apprenticeship programmes that are in demand, I think that our members will be generally happy.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 6, Q4.]

That is a positive endorsement.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

The comments that the Minister quoted were made by someone who will be obliged to work with the system and who will make the best of what the Government provide. Employers, by their nature, will work with the prevailing system. Mr. Wainer, the CBI spokesman, made that clear. Whether employers would choose such a system is an entirely different matter. The employers, FE college principals and others in the sector to whom I speak seek a simpler system, in which we have none of the opacity of the funding regime that the Minister is proposing, none of the obtuse organisational structure and none of the obscure systems for reporting and accountability.

I said earlier that if the proposals were represented pictorially, we would have a mixture of Pollock and Heath Robinson. I am inclined to think that there would be a bit of Warhol in there as well. At least Heath Robinson’s drawings have a certain symmetry; I suspect that the Bill lacks that. Although I understand that local authorities have an important role to play because of the statutory responsibilities that I described—of course, if the system was working properly, we would want to draw on their expertise—I do not think that Connexions should be based in them, that they should have a funding and management role in FE colleges, or that they should play a key statutory or management role in apprenticeships. It is as simple as that. If that directly contradicts the Minister’s view, so be it.

On that basis, I intend to press amendment 204 to a Division. This is an important matter that shows a sharp difference among what is otherwise an immensely agreeable Committee.

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Division number 15 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 81

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 81 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 82 ordered to stand part of the Bill.