Learning and Skills Bill

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Mr. Boswell: I echo the Minister's welcome to you, Mr. Benton, and to your colleague, Mr. Hancock, who will replace you at some of our sittings. We are lucky to have you looking over our deliberations and will do our best to act in the right spirit and not to abuse your trust and good will.

As I am starting with accolades, I should also thank the Minister for his explanation of the Bill, although we still have reservations about it. Nevertheless, I accept his bona fides as regards his wish to have a genuine debate and the Government's interest in the matter before us. We have a common interest in trying to get the Bill as right as we can.

The only thing at which I might cavil slightly—this is not intended to excite the Government Whip's attention—is that the Minister said that we would sit in the afternoons. That will, of course, depend on the motion before us; otherwise, the presumption must be that we will sit in the mornings. I can perhaps help the Minister by saying that I am not minded, unless severely provoked, to advise my hon. Friends to oppose the sittings motion. Nevertheless, we must agree to it if we are to sit in the afternoons.

It is not my wish, not least as the temporary, impressed Opposition Whip—I once had that role in substance, but even that has been taken away from me—to excite or disturb the Government Whip. It is not the purpose of Conservative Members to seek, by some magic trick, to overturn the Government's majority. We might be able to do so by spreading disaffection or concern among Labour Members on a particular issue, but I cannot speak for them in that regard. However, without their support, we shall have difficulty in carrying the day.

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I hope that I shall not fall out with any hon. Member—although I might do with the Minister and his officials—when I say that the Committee's time might be better spent rehearsing issues at a reasonable hour and encouraging the Minister and his officials to go away and think over, at an unreasonable hour, the complications that we raise. We will have much work to do on the detail, and there must be a balance. In the light of my ministerial experience, I always take the view that the most constructive dialogues—this is not to say that the Committee is not a good use of Parliament's time—happen when Ministers go back to their officials and say, ``Blimey, why did he say that?'' or ``Could he be right?'' The Minister is generous minded and will realise that, just occasionally, hon. Members can be right.

I hope that I am not taking the spirit of consensus too far if I give the impression that the evenings will, if necessary, not be a no-go area. The Government Whip will remember that we sat up late discussing several matters relating to the minimum wage, and, if duty calls, we will do so again. However, I shall not necessarily regard that as a badge of honour.

To finish the tour d'horizon of the persons present, I should say that I genuinely join the Minister in welcoming several Labour Members who have considerable expertise in and enthusiasm for the matters before us. I hope that their involvement will be recompensed by at least controlled releases from the leash on occasion so that they can express their opinions. I will try to tailor my remarks to make that possible, because the Committee would benefit. Equally, it is a pleasure to have with us the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). As one of them has shown previously and as the other showed on Second Reading, they have a good deal of expertise and a common commitment in this area. There will, I hope, be much that we can hammer out and improve together.

I should, not least because I am acting as the Whip, turn to those sitting on my own Benches. In that regard, I am deeply blessed in quality, if not quantity. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) is a considerable addition and will take an interest in schools, although he will have a licence to roam wherever he wishes, provided that he remains in order. We look forward to his contributions. He is a man of legal expertise and precision, which will greatly benefit the Committee. He is a veteran of many Bills.

Like me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), has form in this matter: he, too, was an education Minister, with responsibility for higher, not further, education. He spoke magisterially on Second Reading, showing considerable authority and will undoubtedly have some interesting and important things to say. Were the climate more favourable now, we would have further assistance on the Opposition Benches in the shape of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who is indisposed with a complaint that he may have caught from his family, and the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) who is busy with a by-election. He will return in due course, in full form and no doubt with another success behind him.

There is a slight lacuna in respect of Wales on the Opposition Benches, which we shall endeavour to fill. I would not want the Wales Office Minister or his officials to think that we are entirely bereft in that respect; he will remember that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Cities of London and Westminster had a redoubtable Welsh mother who could see off most of the Government Front Bench single handed. I had better not say that my dear wife is equally redoubtable, but she comes from a long line of Welsh teachers. She is not Welsh speaking, unlike some of her cousins who teach in the Principality; the next generation is going forward. There will be things to say about Wales and interesting comparisons to draw.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): No seats, lots of relatives.

Mr. Boswell: They voted Conservative, and will do so again

Mr. Wicks: Do they play rugby?

Mr. Boswell: Not the female members. The Opposition have a good team and some material and important things to say. We have no wish to perpetuate the spirit of factionalism. The Government secured a Second Reading for the Bill and brushed aside our reasoned amendment, which they may live to regret. Nevertheless, we are embarked on course to lick the measure into shape and, as the Minister conceded, it needs careful scrutiny, which we intend to give it.

No one should be under any illusions about the importance of the matter; as the Minister said, a significant number of adults have learning deficiencies and some 6 million to 7 million are deficient in basic skills. In his more reflective moments, the Minister would concede that the problem is not new; it exercised his predecessors in the Conservative Government and there has been much achievement. For example, the full-time participation in education of young persons from 16 to 18 in the years 1988-98 rose from 34.9 per cent. to 55.1 per cent. of the age cohort. The figures for all education and training are 62.4 per cent. to 74.4 per cent.

I do not disagree with the Minister about socially excluded people who, to use shorthand, we agree are those who are not in education, training or full-time employment. They are a social and an educational problem but also a great resource, which should be tapped. In fairness to the Minister, we should probably start with the understanding that, although it would be desirable to have 100 per cent. participation, the curve is likely to slope asymptotically as we reach that figure, however hard we or the Minister try. We will never quite draw everyone in, but we have a common interest in involving as many as we can.

I invite the Minister to reflect on a point raised on Second Reading by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster about the opacity of the overall figures. In broad terms, further education funding comes to nearly £4 billion, with another £1.4 billion from training and enterprise councils. Sixth forms also have to be included. I do not know whether the total figures add up to £5 billion or £6 billion. My right hon. Friend may wish to elucidate, but it is important for the Committee to have a common understanding early in our proceedings.

We are about to consider the Bill in detail. This is the first time in 10 years—and never from the Front Bench—that I have examined a Bill that has already been examined by their Lordships, which often creates a different dynamic. The Committee has to steer a delicate line between two approaches—not taking the slightest notice of anything their Lordships say on democratic grounds, and arguing that everything has been said in another place, so there is no need to say it again. We could imagine the Minister saying that.

Sometimes Opposition Members take a genuine interest in what Ministers tell their Lordships. We shall examine carefully whether the spokesmen for the Government in both Houses say the same thing about our concerns. We shall not, of course, wish to crawl over all the ground that was covered by their Lordships, though we are entitled to do so. On issues of principle, we shall expect the Minister to rehearse his position de novo and we shall wish to raise additional points that arise.

Our first concern on the Opposition Benches is to defend the territory already defended by their Lordships. I refer the Minister specifically to concerns about section 28 issues in clause 117, which deals with the proper form of the delivery of sex education and the regulation of public spending or public activity in relation to it. Their Lordships raised legitimate concerns and, as I said, we shall uphold their views about the Secretary of State's intention to remove legislative cover later.

Balloting for grammar schools is another important issue. We believe that, once the issue has been decided by parents, it is too intrusive to apply pressure by serial ballots. We shall debate that provision. We see a continuing role for grammar schools—as does the Secretary of State in his wiser moments—when they are in tune with the wishes of the local community. Grammar schools have a remarkably strong educational record.

We shall explain, articulate and develop our remaining concerns about the strategy of the Bill. They are real, and the Minister will note that we have tabled an amendment—a military amendment, as it were—to delete clause 1, which would effectively wreck the Bill. We are worried that the Minister's proposals, however well intentioned, would create and stoke up bureaucracy, and shackle and inhibit the delivery of education, rather than facilitate it.

We have a second concern about sixth formers. The Minister spoke warmly about sixth forms and said that they had an important role, but the safeguards in the Bill are not sufficient to deliver that, particularly if circumstances adverse to the sixth form are developed, and particularly when the Government appear to have an agenda that is less friendly to sixth forms. Then there is the issue of inspection. I interrupted the Minister once in his speech because I was nettled about the corner into which he had painted himself about the alleged deficiencies of the present regime, whereby sixth form colleges are inspected by the Further Education Funding Council inspectorate. They have nearly all found that tutelage helpful.

Even if the Minister has produced a different system, he has not produced a totally logical one. Having said that Ofsted should be involved up to the age of 19, he leaves aside the anomaly that workplace training for young persons below that age will be conducted by the adult learning inspectorate. The Minister must show us why the present arrangements, including the Training Standards Council, need overturning. He will not reduce the number of bodies effectively and he may well reduce the coherence of what he is trying to deliver.

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Our fourth concern relates to ConneXions and social inclusion and exclusion. We want to secure, and to be sure that the Bill secures, a continuing right for all young people, irrespective of their degree of social exclusion, to proper careers guidance and support. Local authorities should be able to conduct informal education for all young people without what might loosely be called a morbid concentration on the socially excluded. If the Minister can find the additional resources to do that job as well, that may help, but they are not in the Bill and they have not been signalled yet. We need to see much more detail of how all this is to work. There are some genuine concerns about the role of personal mentors, their relationships with schools, parents and so on. Proper consideration should be given to checking out their bona fides.

Our third main area for debate is to pick up on the external representations that continue to gush forwards as they always do on these occasions from the careers service, national associations such as NIACE—the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education—and others. I am sure that there will also be points from the disability interests. It is important that those are considered collectively by the Committee. We should build in and take on board as many of them as is humanly possible. Those are the main areas that we should debate in this important Committee, and we shall seek to debate them constructively.

Two matters do not receive the attention that they deserve either in Parliament or in the wider debate. Although for the purposes of order they do not exist, it is nice to see people in the Gallery. There is a need to focus on further education. This is an area that has not always received the attention that it might. Perhaps it has had a boost from Conservative legislation, which identified a separate further education sector for the first time with a separate funding body, but there has always been a pressure between the twin millstones of what might loosely be called higher education on the one hand and schools on the other—I use the analogy only to be colourful—with further education somewhere in the middle, without its important role being identified.

Further education is and should be available for all our citizens: for young people leaving school and the compulsory years who want to lay the foundation for their careers, and perhaps want to go on to higher education, which can be a stepping stone for them; and for older people returning or wishing to pick up new skills. When I visit further education establishments, I am always struck by the immense range that they offer, their strong commitment to their staff and their principles, and the strong motivation of many of their students. Some people, whom we fail in school, can react like a button being pushed if they enter further education. The right motivations come together, and they are successful. The sector has a lot going for it. It is important to discuss it in a wider context, as the Minister would rightly say, because that gives a proper focus, and I hope that we can do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere is a real lawyer, whereas I am a barrack-room lawyer who had to teach himself employment law even to be that, but if the Minister feels that we are being pettifogging, picking nits and drawing false distinctions to make problems on the details, I cannot agree. That is proper for legislative scrutiny in Parliament. If I criticised the Government—although Labour Members would never suggest that I should—it would be, more than anything else, for their misunderstanding of the conversion of a press release into a policy.

It is all very well to say that they want to reform the structure of post-16 education in England and Wales. That may be a worthy aim, and the Minister may approach it with the highest motives and high hopes of success, but saying it is not achieving it. Achievement requires dull and detailed negotiations and administrative arrangements. Those issues will have to be debated while we put down the structure and legal framework, and when we consider subsequent implementation. In years to come, the Minister will no doubt be beset by such issues as the apportionment of the publicly owned assets of the training and enterprise councils and the privately owned assets that may be shifted to a residual company that may provide other facilities for the local community and economy. That will be a difficult task.

We will examine the details and worry about the nature of the chairmanship and whether the Minister should make appointments. We worry about plurisie and whether an additional person can serve. I have touched on just some of the issues raised by our amendments. The Minister should not think that those will be the last on the amendment paper. We are not indulging in some parliamentary game. It is extremely important that those matters are discussed and got right.

 
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