Clause 35 - Abolition of office of Chief Executive of Skills Funding

Deregulation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 13th March 2014.

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

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Moving on to a different subject, as is inevitable with this deregulatory Bill—which is not a hotch-potch, but a perfectly formed Bill, containing important proposals from a wide range of Government Departments—[Interruption . ]

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. I am sure I heard a conversation from the Government Back Benches. I should not be hearing such conversations.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Thank you for calling the Committee to order, Mr Hood. I think those interventions and comments were simply additional adjectives that I could have used to reinforce the purposefulness of this Bill, but I will bring my remarks back to the subject of clause 35.

The clause removes the statutory post of chief executive of Skills Funding and transfers the relevant statutory powers and duties to the Secretary of State, with suitable modification. This includes the transfer of the chief executive’s obligation to secure education and training for people aged 19 or over and apprenticeship training for people aged 16 and over. This follows a review of the status of the chief executive and the Skills Funding Agency, which concluded that the Skills Funding Agency should move to a conventional Executive agency. This change is consistent with our commitment to improve the transparency and accountability of all public services.

The reform will clarify the legal framework by moving from the current position of two separate legal entities, each with their own powers and duties relating to the provision of vocational education and skills. Having all the powers and duties under a single legal entity in the Secretary of State will overcome the existing ambiguity about respective roles, making it clear where legal responsibility sits and strengthening the associated accountability arrangements.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 12:15 pm, 13th March 2014

I shall luxuriate in the slightly more liberal opportunity to articulate my views.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I like the “liberal” part, but not the length.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

There appears to be quite a bit of enthusiasm for that, which I appreciate. This clause is not something that we oppose. I know it seems—

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

If the clause is not something the hon. Gentleman opposes, is it in fact something he supports?

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

The right hon. Gentleman should allow me to develop my argument a little and then he can be the judge of that himself.

This is by no means the first time that members of the Committee have had the opportunity to consider the rapacious appetite of the Secretary of State for Education to take further powers to himself. Members might reasonably think that that would send a chill down many a spine, but I take the view that the more opportunity the Secretary of State for Education has to take over the powers in this clause, at least he has a little less time to demoralise the teaching profession. In that regard at least, it might be useful if the Secretary of State spent his time on this issue.

The Association of Colleges voiced support for this measure, calling it

“a useful simplification of the current system”.

We agree with that. The promotion of adult skills is vital to Labour’s vision of a one nation economy, which we have spoken about already in our debates on the Deregulation Bill. With his agenda 2030 programme, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) has laid out a raft of measures that will give Labour an opportunity to set out a broader skills programme to ensure a skills base that provides the country with a significant foundation to be competitive in the race to the top in future.

The Skills Funding Agency funds adult further education and skills training in England and forms part of a network of organisations in England that commission, manage and promote training for adults. It is obviously important that this body maintains its independence and flexibility to deliver.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman said earlier that he hoped the clause would ensure that the Secretary of State for Education spent less time attacking the teaching profession. First, I do not agree that that is what he does, but I also need to point out to the hon. Gentleman that this area is a responsibility of the Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, not the Department for Education.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that important clarification. The clause gives the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills less time to demoralise business, but let us leave that on one side. It is vital that the body maintains its independence and flexibility to deliver. It is also important to understand exactly how that would happen, and that its independence will continue to exist. As it always has done, Labour favours lean and efficient government, so removing an unnecessary quango cost is certainly something that we would welcome. We are also encouraged that the AOC was so supportive of it.

I would be keen for the Minister to clarify that the operational independence of the agency would continue, and to hear what role he will play in leading the agency on a day-to-day basis. I wish to clarify the democratic oversight of the structure. Will the Secretary of State be accountable to the House for the agency’s actions, and will he ensure clarity? If the Minister can provide satisfactory answers to those questions, I will happily support the measure.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Let me start by saying that I have nothing but praise for the overwhelming majority of teachers, who are very professional. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman and I have differing views about the teachers’ unions, but that is another matter. I should declare an interest, because both my parents were teachers.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he is interested in lean and efficient government. That is news to me. I am pleased that three and a half years after leaving government, he and his party have discovered the advantages of lean and efficient government, which the Government has been delivering for the past three and a half years, and will continue to deliver.

The hon. Gentleman raised several concerns about the clause, in particular about the Secretary of State’s responsibilities and whether the agency will be independent. The measure is not about increasing Government control over the agency, but about simplifying the legal framework so that the Department and the agency operate through the same set of powers. It will clarify the responsibility and the line of accountability. Ministers will continue to set the strategic direction and the agency will continue to be responsible for individual funding decisions. It will operate impartially and objectively.

The measure will simply alter the legal status of the chief executive. The post holder will continue to perform many of the same functions as now, except that they will operate through the powers of the Secretary of State rather than their own powers. The Skills Funding Agency will remain an executive agency, which means that it will operate like the conventional models. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 35 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.