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Clause 116

– in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 24th March 2009.

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Directions: funding conditions requiring co-operation

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 364, in clause 116, page 67, line 21, after ‘person’, insert ‘or body’.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 365, in clause 116, page 67, line 32, at end add—

‘(d) a provider network established to deliver education and skills to a geographical area or employment sector.’.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Now we turn to more meaty matters. The clause gives the Secretary of State the power to direct the chief executive to use funding conditions to require a training provider to co-operate with other training providers or specified bodies. The Secretary of State may require the chief executive to make it a condition of funding that the financial resources made available to a specified provider or providers of education or training must be dependent on requirements to co-operate with other specified providers or persons.

Amendment 364 deals with subsection (1)(a)(i) and (ii), which refer to providers co-operating with a

“specified provider or providers, or...specified person”, but notably fail to mention the trade employer sector bodies, which is an important omission. The clause is a technical, but vital, element of the Bill. Therefore the amendment, although also technical, is significant. It places a requirement on the chief executive to ensure that providers work closely with trade employer sector bodies in the utilisation of funding.

Why is it significant? It has been argued time and time again that bodies such as sector skills councils are crucial in delivering training and also that employer representatives, such as the British Chambers of Commerce, CBI and Federation of Small Businesses, are critical to shaping the skills agenda. Yet we heard from employers in the witness sessions that they had doubts about whether significant regard had been given to their role, in the Bill, in doing so. Without a statutory duty to co-operate with those bodies, providers might miss out on the wealth of experience that those bodies can bring. In turn, the members of those bodies might miss out on their chance to be represented in devising and shaping the delivery of training. It is important, therefore, that we return to the issue of employer involvement.

Part of the problem with the current regime is that it is insensitive to employer demand; not entirely insensitive, but certainly too insensitive. For example, many employers report that they have to retrain people because the character of the training they have received—perhaps in technical terms, for example—is not in tune with the needs of dynamic industries. Advanced economies become increasingly dynamic and the skills sets required to drive the economy matches that change. It is critically important that the system is as responsive to employer needs as possible, so that what is taught and tested matches what is happening in the workplace.

Amendment 365 deals with subsection (3), which indicates that providers may work with the YPLA, LEA or specified bodies of the SFA. The amendment is designed to ensure that providers are encouraged to network together in order to deliver education skills to a particular geographical area or sector. Colleagues will recognise that subsection (3) indicates that providers can also potentially be asked to co-operate with the SFA, the YPLA and the LEAs in the delivery of training and education.

However, the clause is, again, an example of a missed opportunity. The Bill has been described as that by more than one commentator: one thinks of both the college sector and National Institute for Adult Continuing Education in that regard. This time the clause has missed the potential for providers to get together to deliver educational skills in a certain part of the country,  or a certain market sector. Surely, a clause that emphasises co-operation should encourage providers to work in networks, in order to share expertise and experience, as well as providing education to large areas and large numbers of companies. I reflect, once again, on the comments made by the hon. Member for Bristol, West—and on my own remarks—that training associations are at the heart of that kind of co-operation. The Government have once again—I hesitate to be too critical, but one must speak frankly—paid lip service to Group Training Associations. I am not yet convinced that they see them as central to the business of enabling small employers, in particular, to make a step change in terms of the quality and quantity of training that they provide.

Amendment 365 makes a case for precisely that duty; the duty to share experience and work across a particular area or sector. Rather than leaving providers to work with LEAs, which have been criticised in Committee sittings as bureaucratic and unresponsive, and criticised in witness sessions for their poor track record of employer engagement, the amendment seeks to encourage providers to come together, to work together. It is one method of creating a truly responsive and flexible skills system and one that works as best it can for employers, learners and providers. I hope that in that spirit the hon. Gentleman will with generosity and alacrity accept the amendments.

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

In the interests of time, I will just say that I find the remarks made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings compelling and persuasive.

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

I do not want to couch my remarks, as the hon. Gentleman did, in terms that adversely criticise the current practitioners, many of whom are doing excellent things through tireless work. Clearly, we would not be embarking on the reforms if we did not believe that some things could be done better than they currently are. When he says that the system is currently insensitive to employers, I think that that is an adverse criticism, the harshness of which I cannot support.

Do we want to make the system more sensitive to employers? Is that a central theme of what we are doing? Certainly it is. We can all share in that aim.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

For the record, my precise words were “not entirely insensitive but certainly too insensitive”.

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

In a sad lapse from his usual generous spirit, the hon. Gentleman accused me of paying lip service to GTAs. We are very keen on developing GTAs and supporting them. We have just announced £7 million for a new development scheme. They are at the heart of what the National Apprenticeship Service will be doing to respond to the downturn. I am glad that he and other Opposition Members share our commitment.

The Interpretation Act 1978 provides a list of words and expressions and sets out how they are to be interpreted in any Act, unless a contrary intention appears. The list includes the word “person” and provides that

‘“person” includes a body of persons corporate or unincorporate”.’

Therefore the word “person” in the subsection will encompass a body already.

Amendment 365 proposes to add “provider networks” to the list of persons in subsection (3) with whom training providers may be required to co-operate, for example with regard to the planning and commissioning of education and training provision within an area.

The list at subsection (3) is not exhaustive and there may be a range of other persons or bodies with whom it would be appropriate for a provider to co-operate. We certainly support provider networks very strongly, and the clause is in part intended to give impetus precisely to such networks. A provider network will comprise a number of individual providers coming together to, for example, address the needs of learners, of employers or of a particular sector. The people and bodies who make up such networks will already fall within the provisions of subsection (1)(a)(i) or subsection (1)(a)(ii), and as such it is unnecessary to include a separate reference to them under subsection (3).

I hope that hon. Members can follow what I am saying. I understand the points that they are trying to make. I support the thrust of their arguments. The amendments are not necessary and I hope that they might be persuaded to withdraw them.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I do not want to labour my argument. The amendments are clear in intention. They reinforce the need for co-operation, just as our earlier amendments reinforced the need for consultation. It seems to me that both of those elements are essential if the purposes of this Bill are to be realised.

Without further ado, it is my intention to press the amendment to a vote, on the grounds that it is important that the Government understand our absolute determination that the Bill should be implemented in as consultative and collaborative a way as possible.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Division number 17 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 116

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 116 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 117 ordered to stand part of the Bill.