Clause 2 - Designation of employer representative bodies

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 30th November 2021.

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Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education) 3:15 pm, 30th November 2021

I beg to move amendment 35, in clause 2, page 3, line 22, after “the” and before “employers” insert “public and private sector”.

This amendment would specify that employers operating within specified areas for the purposes of section 2(1)(a) can be both public and private sector.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 45, in clause 2, page 3, line 22, leave out “reasonably”.

This is a probing amendment to test how the Secretary of State will determine what mix of employers is considered “reasonably representative”.

Amendment 36, in clause 2, page 3, line 22, after “employers” insert

“, local Further Education colleges, independent training providers, local authority (including Mayoral combined authorities) and Local enterprise partnerships”.

This amendment would add local Further Education college, independent raining providers, local authority (including Mayoral combined authorities) and Local enterprise partnerships to those of which employer representative bodies much be representative, in order to be designated as a representative body by the Secretary of State.

Amendment 46, in clause 2, page 3, line 23, after “area,” insert

“including the interests of small and medium sized enterprises, the self-employed and public and voluntary sector employers,”.

This amendment seeks to ensure that employer representative boards include a wider range of local employer interests including small and medium sized enterprises, the self-employed, and public and third sector employers.

Amendment 37, in clause 2, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“(iii) in the event that there is no body in the local area that is representative of the organisations listed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) the Secretary of State will instruct the Local Enterprise Partnership or Metro mayor to bring together a board which is representative of all the organisations outlined in subsection (1)(a)(ii), who will take on responsibility for drawing up the local skills improvement plan.”.

This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State, in the event that the Secretary of State is not satisfied that an eligible body is not reasonably representative of the employers operating within the specified area.

Amendment 42, in clause 2, page 3, line 25, at end insert—

“(c) the Secretary of State has received in writing the consent of the relevant local authority or Mayoral Combined Authority.”.

This amendment provides for local authorities to give consent in the designation of employer representative bodies.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

We appear to have raced on to clause 2. Amendment 35 is important, because so much of the Government’s narrative makes it clear that when they talk about employers, they really mean private sector employers. There are huge skills shortages within the public sector. The public sector is an important employer, and it is of particular importance in some of the most deprived communities. Labour’s approach to the Bill will be about asking the Government to place employers and those responsible for education at the heart of a skills strategy.

It is essential that employers in the public sector, including those in health and social care, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington mentioned, be consulted in the formation of local skills improvement plans. Employer representative bodies must ensure that LSIPs fully reflect both private and public sector employers.

Amendment 45 is a probing amendment designed to test how the Secretary of State will determine what mix of employers is considered “reasonably representative”. The Bill refers to the Secretary of State being

“satisfied that…the body is reasonably representative”.

I think it would be interesting to define what exactly is a reasonably representative mix of employers on LSIPs. It is highly likely that chambers of commerce will be the employer representative body by default in most LSIP areas. We have had representations from organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, which has concerns about the powers to be handed to those chambers.

The Minister has said that ERBs that are not performing could be sacked and potentially replaced, but there are not numerous organisations that have the capacity to undertake that kind of work. Indeed, there is some question over whether many chambers of commerce will immediately have that capacity, but they will have the responsibility either way. As has been said, some areas have an active and vibrant chamber of commerce, and our proposals should not be viewed as being hostile to them. There are many excellent professionals in chambers of commerce and many really excellent chambers that make an incredibly important contribution to our local economies and to skills. However, it is important to recognise that membership and attendance can vary greatly within localities. The priorities of some chambers can be dominated by a small number of particularly loud voices. It is important that there are safeguards to ensure that any ERB is representative. I look forward to the Minister’s assurance that that will be the case and that ERBs will consult widely in the formation of the LSIP.

What mechanisms are in place should the Secretary of State consider that an ERB is not representative? What mechanisms are in place to deal with complaints from others, such as further education colleges, which may consider that an ERB is not representative?

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Much as I hate to return to the boundary issue, our local chamber of commerce is the Humber-based chamber, which may not end up being the geographical area represented by the skills body. To return to small and medium-sized enterprises, and the concerns of the Federation of Small Businesses to which my hon. Friend referred, in areas where most employment comes from SMEs or the public sector, how can we ensure that they are heard when the skills plan is developed?

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

That is a really important point. In some cases, chambers of commerce and branches of the Federation of Small Businesses have constructive relationships; in other areas the relationship is less constructive. To place the role of one above the other in respect of an ERB is potentially exclusive.

Amendment 36 would add local further education colleges, independent training providers, local authorities, including mayoral combined authorities, and local enterprise partnerships to those of which employer representative bodies must be representative to be designated as a representative body by the Secretary of State. We are seeking to ensure that colleges, independent training providers, local authorities and LEPs are not shut out of LSIPs and that all form part of the consultation when LSIPs are drafted by ERBs.

Amendment 46 seeks to ensure that ERBs include a wider range of local employer interests, including SMEs, the self-employed, sole trader businesses, and public and third sector employers. In some sectors such as construction, a huge number of those responsible for ensuring that a new generation of people come into the sector are self-employed or sole traders. Historically, they would just have taken on a young apprentice to work with them; they will now potentially be excluded from doing that. We have seen the danger in the way the apprenticeship levy was introduced. Big business was very much in mind when it was introduced, and the way it was designed has massively reduced the number of small businesses offering apprenticeships.

There is a danger of SMEs being excluded from the measures in the clause, particularly in smaller town communities where there are not the major employers that there are in larger cities. We are really concerned that SMEs, alongside charities, community organisations and others, will be excluded from the decision-making process in the formation of LSIPs. Amendment 46 would ensure a role for them, alongside the self-employed, in the drafting of LSIPs.

Amendment 37 moves towards the heart of what a Labour local skills improvement plan would look like. The other amendments attempt to ensure that there is proper consultation by the employer representative body. Given that the Bill gives wide-ranging, undetermined powers to the Secretary of State, we want to ensure that local enterprise partnerships and metro Mayors have their role in local decision making enshrined in the Bill. Amendment 37 therefore proposes that, if no suitable employer representative body is found that can represent all aspects, the Secretary of State be required to set up a board in that area, which would have wider representation from organisations like FE colleges, metro Mayors and local authorities.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

I recall the Minister saying that the Secretary of State will have the power to take control from chambers of commerce if they are seen not to be working properly. I wonder whether the Minister would seriously consider our amendment as a model they could use. If there is only one chamber in the area, and that chamber loses control or oversight, who are we going to use instead? Does the Minister anticipate that there will be some form of inspection to check the competency of chambers? Will there be key performance indicators, or some way of flagging whether the chamber is successful or deemed to be failing?

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Those are all important questions. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are significant warnings to employer representative bodies in the Bill about failing to satisfy the Secretary of State. In the event that they are dismissed, as the Bill makes clear may happen, who is responsible for the local skills improvement plan after that? Many Members have said that some chambers are really strong, others have different strengths and others are not so strong. Putting all our eggs in one basket, which the Bill pretty much does in the vast majority of geographies, is a cause for concern.

Amendment 42 would place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult and seek consent from local authorities and combined authorities on the formation of employer representative bodies. Given that ERBs will be responsible for the formation of LSIPs, which will have budgetary commitments, it is vital that they have the confidence of local authorities and combined authorities, and that organisations are working in collaboration rather than in opposition, as we have said time and again would be the Labour approach.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Labour, Denton and Reddish

I rise briefly to support the amendments. The nub of what my hon. Friend has set out to the Committee could easily have been resolved in our earlier deliberations, when the Minister promised genuine collaboration between the local chamber of commerce and a whole range of public and private sector bodies in developing the plans. The list in the Bill of those public and private sector bodies has been struck out by the defeat of the Lords amendments, so it is right that we have another go here.

First, it is important to recognise, as my hon. Friend the shadow Minister did, the important role the public sector plays in many of our local economies. That is not to say that we should not be trying to boost and drive the involvement of the private sector—we should. We should be expanding the use and involvement of the private sector in the development of new jobs and new investment in all our constituencies. However, it is a fact of life that there is also a public sector in our constituencies. Whether it is the local council or, even after substantial reductions in the workforce over the past 10 years, significant employers such as the police, the fire service and the NHS, which is probably the biggest employer in our constituencies, they have skills and training needs too. We need to ensure that their views are fully integrated as part and parcel of the skills strategies, and the best way to do that is to involve them in the development of the plans. I therefore fully support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend.

It is also important to future-proof the strategies. If the Secretary of State sees the local chamber of commerce as failing in its duty with regard to the strategy, there must be a plan B. Who takes over responsibility for the strategy? It makes perfect sense for that to be the metro Mayor or local government.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle 3:30 pm, 30th November 2021

I hope that when the Minister responds, he defines whether there is going to be a transparent judgment or transparent criteria. Will the criteria be judged and evaluated? Who will do that judgment and evaluation to determine whether a chamber has failed? It surely cannot be at the whim of the current Secretary of State, whoever that may be, to decide whether a chamber is seen as successful or failing.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Labour, Denton and Reddish

My hon. Friend is right. There has to be a fair arbitration process as well, because it may well be that the chamber of commerce does not agree that it is failing, in which case we will have a problem in trying to resolve the matter. I do not want to focus on possible failure, but we have to legislate for it, just in case. I want each and every one of these bodies to be a success but if, for whatever reason, one is not, we must know what the mechanisms are to ensure that the skills strategy for a given geographical area is carried on and made successful. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield’s amendment seeks to get that information from Ministers on what happens if, for whatever reason, things go wrong.

Lastly, I come back to the issue of how boundaries matter. If, for whatever reason, the boundaries for the skills strategy are different from those of whoever takes over that responsibility in the event of the chamber of commerce failing, we need to make sure that it is clear that the replacement covers the same area as what went before it.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Efford. I rise to support amendments 35, 45, 36 and 46, which were well presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield. It is particularly important to reflect the points well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish about public and private employers. Much has been said about the potential for formulating the employer representative body from the chamber of commerce. The clue is in the name: it is about commerce and business, as much as employers.

That leads me on to the bit in between: our strong and vibrant voluntary sector. Recently, we have seen the greater rise of commissioning over many years by many public sector organisations. They have had 10 years of cuts, to be frank, so they have thought of innovative ways to deliver what I believe to be public services still. They have commissioned the voluntary sector, and it is vital for the voluntary sector—as suggested by amendment 46 —to have a seat on that employer representative body, whether as a collective in an overarching grouping or as key individual employers in the designated area, whatever it might be. Equally, we must ensure an interrelationship with other significant public sector bodies—put well by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish. Not being explicit is not recognising what the employment market looks like.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

When the Government design the LSIP areas, I wonder whether it would be helpful to produce some data on the respective public-private employer difference in each area. Each area will look different, so I imagine that the employer representatives would be reflective of that particular labour market.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Exactly that—this is an employer representative body. The Bill must be open and explicit about ensuring that the public and voluntary sectors, and others—small businesses, the self-employed—have a seat at the table, through whatever mechanism. It is for them to outline how they wish to do that, but perhaps through something like the Federation of Small Businesses. I think that is vital, because otherwise it just gets lost in the grain. If the measure is to be a success in pushing forward on the skills agenda, we need to be explicit about who is at the table, who is shaping the plans and which areas. I hope that the Minister addresses my comments in his response.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Briefly, the amendments seek to reflect the reality on the ground, as we have heard. Let us think about HS2 and what has been happening. We have had years—decades—of plans for HS2, but we have seen skills sucked out of the regions so that we cannot get normal construction projects completed. That is because there has not been the co-ordination that there should have been. How was that allowed to happen? The result has been a huge impact on our regional economies.

Amendment 35 looks at the inclusion of public and private sectors as employers on the ERB. How can we not include the national health service, for example, and yet are able to include Virgin Care or Circle and others? It is bizarre that the public sector is not included.

On linking to the public sector, amendment 46 also seeks to include other employers, such as SMEs, the self-employed—as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said—and public and third-sector employers. Right2Learn, in a written submission, stated:

“We believe it is critical that local skills and training strategies need to look far more widely at including third sector organisations, as well as HE and FE providers. There must be far more opportunities for the direct involvement of SME clusters and organisations and the so-called gig economy which the Taylor Commission highlighted, including co-operatives and self-employed.”

I have said before, we must include charity-heavy provision and I gave the example of the Workers’ Educational Association.

Amendment 46 states that we need to include the third sector and the local health boards. As I said, we have seen how good that can be through the pandemic. Local primary care networks and public health in our localities really stepped up and showed that what they do is what they know, which is their regions, their populations and their geographies, to deliver good services. The same would apply to the provision of skills across our regions.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I rise to speak to amendments 35 to 37, 42, 45 and 46. Amendment 36 would require designated employer representative bodies to be reasonably representative of a broad range of local stakeholders. We have already been clear that we want local skills improvement plans to be employer led, which means led by genuine employer representative bodies, but we have also been very clear that designated employer representative bodies should work closely with key local stakeholders to gather intelligence and consider their views and priorities when developing local skills improvement plans.

That includes local post-16 technical education and training providers and mayoral combined authorities, which, through our Government amendment, are already specified in the Bill as playing a key role. It also includes local authorities and local enterprise partnerships, among others. This will be covered in more detail in the statutory guidance.

Amendment 45 seeks to test how the Secretary of State will determine what mix of employers is considered “reasonably representative”. When making a judgment on whether an ERB is reasonably representative, the Secretary of State will take into consideration the characteristics of its membership compared with the overall population of employers in the area. That speaks to the point that a number of Opposition Members have made.

We certainly expect designated employer representative bodies to draw on the views of a wide range of local employers of all sizes, reaching beyond their existing membership and covering both private and public employers. They will also need to draw on other evidence, such as other representative and sector bodies, to summarise the skills, capabilities or expertise required in a specified area. That type of engagement is already happening, and happening brilliantly, in our trailblazer areas.

Amendment 35 seeks to ensure that designated employer representative bodies are reasonably representative of both public and private sector employers. The Bill already ensures that that is the case. Clause 4 gives a definition of “employer” for the purposes of interpreting clauses 1 to 3 that covers public authorities and charitable institutions—to the point made by the hon. Member for Luton South—as well as private sector employers.

Amendment 46 seeks to ensure that designated bodies represent the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises, the self-employed, and public and voluntary sector employers. Public and voluntary sector employers are also already covered under the definition of employer in the Bill. Designated employer representative bodies must of course represent the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises in order to be reasonably representative.

Many existing employer representative bodies already do this effectively. For example, SMEs comprise the vast majority of the membership of local chambers of commerce. In drawing on other evidence, designated ERBs may also need to consider the key skills needs of the self-employed in order to effectively summarise the current and future skills required in the area, and that will be referenced in statutory guidance.

Amendment 37 concerns a scenario where the Secretary of State is not satisfied that there is an eligible body within a specified area that is reasonably representative of local employers. We have thought about that, but we really do not think it is likely to happen. Although the “Skills for Jobs” White Paper mentioned accredited chambers of commerce, there are other employer representative bodies with either a national or local presence. We saw evidence of that from the expressions of interest process we ran to select the local skills improvement plan trailblazers, for which we received 40 applications despite only looking for six to eight trailblazers. Many hon. Members today have spoken about chambers of commerce, but the Government are entirely open to representatives from the Federation of Small Businesses and other geographically based organisations that could also be eligible.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

To clarify, how many of the trailblazer organisations were not chambers of commerce?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

All eight trailblazers were chambers of commerce. However, I believe there were expressions of interest and applications from others. For the record, we are not saying that this is solely the preserve of chambers of commerce. We are supporting the trailblazers with £4 million of funding this financial year, and we will continue to support ERBs as they are designated, so that they can develop credible and robust local skills improvement plans.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

I appreciate the Minister’s response. I remain of the view that public and private sector employers should feature in the Bill, so I will press amendment 37, which spells out Labour’s much more collaborative approach to this matter, to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 37, in clause 2, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“(iii) in the event that there is no body in the local area that is representative of the organisations listed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) the Secretary of State will instruct the Local Enterprise Partnership or Metro mayor to bring together a board which is representative of all the organisations outlined in subsection (1)(a)(ii), who will take on responsibility for drawing up the local skills improvement plan.”—(Mr Perkins.)

This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State, in the event that the Secretary of State is not satisfied that an eligible body is not reasonably representative of the employers operating within the specified area.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 7 Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] — Clause 2 - Designation of employer representative bodies

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.— (Michael Tomlinson.)

Adjourned till Thursday 2 December at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

SPEB01 Central YMCA

SPEB02 The WEA

SPEB03 London Institutes for Adult Learning

SPEB04 Association of Colleges

SPEB05 The Open University

SPEB06 EngineeringUK

SPEB07 Local Government Association

SPEB08 Birkbeck, University of London

SPEB09 Right to Learn

SPEB10 University of Salford