Clause 99

– in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 24th March 2009.

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Performance assessments

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 136, in clause 99, page 60, line 20, at end add—

‘(3) The Chief Executive must consult with the following when adopting or developing schemes as set out in subsection (1)—

(a) The YPLA,

(b) a local education authority,

(c) Ofsted, and

(d) the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.’.

The amendment would ensure that, when the CEO of the Skills Funding Agency is adopting or developing a performance assessment scheme, he does so in conjunction with the YPLA, an LEA, Ofsted and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. As we discussed earlier, the CEO of the Skills Funding Agency is in charge of a large centralised and relatively unaccountable body. I share the 157 Group’s fears about that. It suggests strongly in what it describes as its supplementary evidence to the Committee that the status of the newly created Skills Funding Agency be formally clarified under the Bill and, as I have argued, that it should have the same status as the YPLA rather than being the close-to-Ministers body the Minister described, which simultaneously is supposed to be decentralised, responsive and light touch. I am not sure that those things can be reconciled, given the past experience of how Governments have managed their affairs.

The 157 Group was at pains to point out that too much power is being placed in the hands of Ministers and officials, which is out of line with the experience at HEFCE and with the proposed status of the YPLA. The amendment is designed to ensure that even if the SFA must remain within the Department, it consults closely with other key agencies in the development and adoption of performance methods and schemes. The performance schemes are vital when deciding where funding should go and, as such, are vital to the continuing existence and success of many education providers.

We should ensure that every effort is made to see that the performance schemes are developed with the closest co-operation of the providers, namely LEAs and the YPLA. It is critical for the vitality of the sector and to progressing to the light-touch mode that the Government claim they want to see characterising the new system for the funding and management of skills.

As the 157 Group commented:

“You have to remember that the SFA does not actually deliver anything. The delivery has to be done through the provider network with employers and so on, which is where you want to put the most resources to ensure that you can do the maximum to help the nation.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 31, Q85.]

It argued for more power and action at local level with local authorities, providers and employers. That is central to the Bill and to our disagreement with the Government. A theme emerges from the analysis and recommendations of the Leitch report on how the system needs to change—with much of which we agree—the comments of witnesses in the evidence sessions of the Committee and other statements from experts in the field. There is a need to decentralise, to move to a lighter-touch regime, to be more responsive to demand and to involve employers at every stage of devising and delivering skills training. However, time and again, those who have commented on the Bill have concluded that the Government are at best paying lip service to that approach, while simultaneously establishing a byzantine bureaucracy that is frankly unlikely to deliver what they want or the nation needs. At the very least, the Government should accept the amendment to ensure that the SFA is consultative, if they must have an SFA in the proposed form at all.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills) 11:45 am, 24th March 2009

I rise briefly to support the amendment. It is common sense that consultation should take place with the YPLA and local education authorities as they are co-funders under the new arrangements for the provision offered by colleges and other training providers. It is good practice to consult with other bodies that are already concerned with quality assurance in higher education, such as Ofsted and the QAA. The only point that I would add to the amendment is consultation with representatives who offer a learner’s perspective on how the quality of the provision offered by colleges and other providers should be assessed. The National Union of Students or some other mechanism could be used to ascertain the opinions of learners of the training courses that are delivered to them. I support the amendment, but I would add that point.

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

I do not know whether to deal first with the amendment or with the concerns of hon. Members, which do not seem to be exactly the same.

Amendment 136 would place a duty on the chief executive to consult specified organisations when adopting or developing schemes for the performance assessment of training or education providers that fall within his remit. It is similar to amendment 135 in respect of the YPLA, which we debated last Tuesday.

We share two of the concerns. First, we must ensure that the interests of certain bodies are considered when adopting or developing performance assessment schemes. That is essential in ensuring that learning providers are treated fairly and encouraged to take responsibility for self-assessment and improvement. Secondly, we must encourage the YPLA, the SFA and others to work together to develop a co-ordinated approach to performance assessment that keeps the burdens on colleges and other providers to a minimum. All of that is already happening, as is joint working.

In the “Raising ExpectationsWhite Paper, we committed to a single tool for the assessment of all post-16 providers.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

If it is already happening, why not accept the amendment?

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

We will not accept the amendment because it would stop it happening or prevent it from happening as well as it does. If the hon. Gentleman will give me a moment, I will explain that.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Children, Schools and Families are already leading discussions on the arrangements for performance assessment schemes in the FE sector after 2010, in consultation with key sector partners. The initial consultation involved stakeholders including Ofsted, the Association of Colleges, the Local Government Association and all the main representative organisations. All that is already going on without a statutory requirement, and it is neither right nor necessary to put that level of detail into the Bill. The need for consultation will inevitably vary. As was the case with the framework for excellence, we anticipate that the chief executive will need to consult more widely than just with the organisations listed. Colleges, other providers and learners are obvious omissions from the list, underlining why it is considerably more sensible to let the chief executive decide which bodies to consult, according to the circumstances.

Having dealt with the amendment, I will now respond to some of the more general points that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings has made. He insists on describing the new structure as unaccountable, even though the chief executive will sit on the DIUS board, be responsible to the permanent secretary and through him to Ministers, and be a statutory accounting officer himself, with statutory responsibilities that are set out in the Bill. The chief executive of Skills Funding will be very accountable indeed. The hon. Gentleman tells us that the chief executive is unaccountable and at the same time that he is too close to Ministers and should be in a non-departmental public body. He cannot have it both ways. There are pros and cons at both ends of the argument, and we have found a good balance.

The hon. Gentleman also tells us that we need to decentralise, but a regional tier is fundamental to the new structure, and the ethos of the new organisation  will involve routing funds and delivery down to local level as quickly and efficiently as possible. He tells us that we need to adopt a light touch, but that is exactly what we are trying to do, and he keeps telling us about the byzantine bureaucracy that we are creating. He does not give any details of that bureaucracy, because there are none. I have listed more than once the various ways in which, through a single account manager, single accreditation and single data collection, we are genuinely slimming down the system and making it less bureaucratic.

I will answer the similar point made by the hon. Member for Bristol, West—he made it twice as I did not fully respond to it the first time. I do not want to make pronouncements now about future spending priority decisions, but if he is asking whether we anticipate that a key driver of the development of the National Apprenticeship Service will be to make apprenticeships less bureaucratic, easier to access, and easier for employers and learners, I can say that yes, that is very much part of what we are trying to do. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment and that we can move on.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

An extraordinary picture is emerging. The Minister says that it is impossible to desire accountability and at the same time criticise the closeness of the body to Ministers, as if accountability to Ministers is the only kind that counts. The 157 Group talks about public accountability—transparency, in its terms. It is an extraordinary argument that one cannot say that the body is too centrally directed and at the same time say that it is unaccountable. We worry not whether the body is accountable to the Minister and his hon. Friends in the Ministry, but whether it is accountable to those who will be affected by its decisions and the powers vested in it. We know what happened with the LSC and further education colleges. They are in crisis because Ministers and the people who run the LSC have made a complete mess of the capital funding system. So, it was not terribly reassuring when the Minister said that this body will be tightly controlled and answerable to Ministers.

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

On hon. Gentleman’s second point, he cannot have it both ways. He says that the LSC made a complete mess and that it is all the fault of the Ministers, but the LSC is a non-departmental public body, which is considerably further removed. Just a minute ago, he was telling us that that was what we were doing wrong with the new structure.

On the matter of accountability, the hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me for having assumed that he might have some sense of democratic and parliamentary accountability and that he might put some value on those concepts. If not, I stand corrected.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I place tremendous value on democratic and parliamentary accountability, but we are not confident that this structure will deliver accountability of that kind. Using the FE funding crisis as a defence and a way of legitimising the Government position is, quite frankly, extremely dodgy, given the mess that the Government, the Ministers responsible, and the LSC are in at the moment.

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

I can only repeat that the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. The record will show clearly that it is not me who has been trying to use the FE  capital difficulties to make political points this morning—I have simply been replying to those that he has been making.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I was not accusing the Minister of making political points about them; I was accusing him of using the relationship between Ministers and the LSC as a way of legitimising the argument that he made about the relationship between the SFA and Ministers.

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

To repeat, it was the hon. Gentleman who used the example of the current situation with the LSC to try to demonstrate that the situation, as we plan it, will not work. I simply responded by saying that he could not have it both ways. It was he who raised it, not me.

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

Order. I must point out that we are moving away not only from the amendment, but from the clause that is before us. Can we perhaps return to both?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I do not want to cause the Minister any more unnecessary pain about a circumstance that he has described publicly, in the media, in pretty lurid terms, so I shall return to the amendment.

Given the tone and content of the hon. Gentleman’s response, I think that we should press the amendment to a vote. That is not because it would, if passed, make the clause or the Bill ideal, but because it would to some degree mitigate the weaknesses inherent in the structure that the Government are proposing by obliging the kind of consultation that the Minister says is taking place anyway. The Minister repeatedly tells us that things do not need to be in the Bill because they are ipso facto and that things do not need to be in guidance because no sensible Government would not do them. However, we know that that is not the history of Governments, and of this Government in particular.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a specific example of that was the award of foundation degree-awarding powers to FE colleges? In the end, we were both supportive of that, but none the less had worries about the fact that the Government had not consulted higher education before making that fundamental transfer of power.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

There have been countless examples, of which that is one, of the Government proceeding with significant changes without consulting either Parliament or the sector affected. Assurances about good will have to be supported by absolute guarantees that that good will will be reinforced, whoever the Minister happens to be and whoever is in Government. It might be hard for the Minister to come to terms with this, but at some stage, someone altogether less agreeable, less civilised and less generous than he, might occupy his office. On the other hand, it might be that someone of the opposite persuasion who is as generous, civilised, tolerant and open-minded, or more, occupies his office—as I hope to do. However, given that the first eventuality is at least a possibility, we must ensure that the Bill is as tightly worded as possible and for that reason, I intend to press the amendment standing in my name and that of my hon. Friends to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Division number 16 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 99

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 99 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 100 ordered to stand part of the Bill.