Clause 111

– in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 24th March 2009.

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Persons aged 19 or over with learning difficulties

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

We are racing through the Bill, contrary to the Minister’s gloomy predictions at the beginning of our deliberations. However, I take the opportunity again to raise the matter drawn to the attention of the Committee by the further education college sector. I refer to the letter from the 157 Group, which it describes as supplementary evidence to the Committee. I shall quote from it without addition and unabridged:

“We believe there is a potential unintentional gap within the proposed legislation in guaranteeing funding for adult learners with disabilities up to the age of 25 where the disability has not been diagnosed previously while in compulsory education. Further education colleges recruit a significant number of individuals who have re-entered education after a diagnosis has been made. We therefore urge you to revisit this section to ensure that funding and support is available for these individuals.”

Will the Minister comment on that?

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

I did not make any gloomy predictions about the progress that we might make today, and I have every confidence in the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings sharing my desire to make steady, appropriate but smart progress. I simply noted that his optimistic summary of where we had reached to date was not one I could quite share, although it pained me to diverge from him.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I do not want to be unkind and I certainly do not want to delay the Committee. I think the hon. Gentleman is a decent chap who takes advice, so he  should take heed of remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. When he does his next Bill—this Bill is his first as Minister—it is important that he should not table quite so many Government amendments at such a late stage. I know that Government thinking moves on, but it is important that they get their act together before the Bill arrives in Committee. I say that generously.

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

I am glad of the opportunity once again to thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity. It has moved me today as it has on other occasions and no doubt will do so in future. On this occasion, sadly, I have to remind him that of the 20 hours of debate hitherto, only 53 minutes have been spent on Government amendments. I do not propose to detain the Committee any longer on this question.

If I may go straight to the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s question about adult learners up to the age of 25 whose learning needs have not been diagnosed, those are not matters that I should go into in detail here. Efforts to meet the needs of those groups are central to the aims of all the bodies involved from 16 to adulthood. We have talked at some length on previous occasions about the various duties in the Bill.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman, particularly as he has described me as generous and sagacious, or whatever the phrase was. What is the 157 Group getting at? Does the Minister understand? If he does, what is his response?

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

The chief executive of Skills Funding and the Skills Funding Agency are best placed to meet the needs of those aged 19 and over with learning difficulties who are not subject to a learning difficulty assessment under sections 139A and 140 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000. Clause 111 states that the chief executive of Skills Funding must, in performing the functions of the office, have regard to the needs of persons aged 19 or over who have learning difficulties, as defined in subsection 3, with the exception of persons aged under 25 who are subject to learning difficulty assessment. It is significant that we have imposed a specific duty on the chief executive in relation to those aged 19 or over with learning difficulties. That continues our policy intent, as expressed in the annual “Priorities for Success” document from the Learning and Skills Council, which sets out our expectation that learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities are made a priority and that that should be reflected in the provision and support made available to them.

By imposing a specific duty on the chief executive, we have signalled our intention to ensure that the improvement in participation and progression of that group of learners will continue to be a priority. We have virtually doubled the number of learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities in the FE system since 2001-02, and in the past two years, we have spent about £50 million improving local disability provision, which demonstrates that we are making learners with all forms of disabilities a priority in the FE system. I therefore suggest that the concerns of the 157 Group are unfounded.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 111 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 112 and 113 ordered to stand part of the Bill.