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Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 2 May 2000


[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 4

Encouragement of education and training

Amendment proposed [20 April]: No. 57, in page 3, leave out line 29.-[Mr. Boswell.]

10.30 am

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking amendment No. 77, in page 3, line 29, at end insert ``appropriate to their needs''.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Michael Wills): Before we adjourned for the Easter recess, we were treated by the Opposition to an extraordinary cornucopia of references from Quintilian, Solon and P.G. Wodehouse. When I looked back through Hansard, the title of one of that unsurpassed humorist's most famous books struck me. That title was ``Heavy Weather'', and I thought that the Opposition made a meal of one of the simplest clauses in the Bill.

The provision is precisely what it seems. It is a straightforward, positive, statutory duty for the Learning and Skills Council to encourage individuals to participate in learning. It is the first time that a public body has been given such a statutory duty. I had hoped that Opposition Members would welcome such a simple, straightforward and clear clause, and would recognise that such encouragement is vital to meeting the challenges that lie ahead. I think that everybody in the Committee would agree that there are challenges and that such encouragement is necessary. We need to raise demand for learning, to build a new culture of lifelong learning and to ensure that each individual has the opportunity to develop his or her potential. I think that there is common ground between members of the Committee on those issues. I hope that we can welcome the clause and move on, when I have addressed the concerns that the Opposition raised before the recess.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) asked whether the LSC would actively or passively encourage people to undergo education or training. The LSC must take active steps, but it is for that body to decide what those steps should be. The LSC prospectus gives an outline of the broad range of activities that it will undertake. For example, there will be advertising and marketing activities, research into the benefits of learning and dissemination of the results of that research. The LSC will be responsible for the planning and funding of information, advice and guidance and other services to adults in connection with learning opportunities, and will promote individual learning accounts. It will encourage people to return to learning by improving the supply and accessibility of education and training opportunities with the close co-operation of institutions such as the university for industry.

The hon. Gentleman also questioned whether it was right that all individuals should undergo education and training, and his right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) said that

    it would be a mistake if that process became too rigorous

and served to ``dilute entrepreneurial spirit''. If I had time, I would counterpoise several examples to those he gave of entrepreneurs who left school early. For example, Dr. David Potter, a distinguished academic who is now spearheading the thrust of Psion plc into the new world of e-commerce and mobile technology, is an entrepreneur who benefited from extensive higher education.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): I concur with the Minister's view of Dr. Potter. However, the contribution that higher education made to Dr. Potter's career was of a technological nature and not to do with starting and running a business.

Mr. Wills: I think that we should move on, rather than debate the particular merits of Dr. Potter. We agree that he has made a huge contribution to the economy, as have many other entrepreneurs, but perhaps we can continue the debate about their enjoyment of higher and further education some other time.

We want the Learning and Skills Council to cater for the learning needs of all individuals, and we need to find ways to show the benefits of learning for the learner as well as for the wider economy and community. We are right to talk of lifelong learning and continuous updating of skills as the key to promoting personal and community well-being and bridging the skills gaps. I hope that that is common ground in Committee and among all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. We must never forget that many people have lost the learning habit, or may never have had it. The most learner-friendly provision, such as recreational learning that is fulfilling in itself, can offer opportunities for individuals to re-connect with learning in time to move on to courses that they may never have dreamt of taking. We want the LSC to promote that ladder of opportunity.

The LSC will have to balance the interests of work force development and personal fulfilment through learning; I do not accept that the two interests will necessarily always be in conflict. That is why we want to encourage a broad spectrum of interests in the national and local councils and in the committees on adult and young people's learning.

The hon. Member for Daventry asked whether the reference to post-16 education and training meant that there was no longer an adequate anchor to define the further education section as provided by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. I shall reassure him. If he consults schedule 10, he will find that much of the 1992 Act remains untouched. A further education section will continue to be defined by section 91(3) of the 1992 Act, which will remain in force.

Amendment No. 77 is identical to an amendment debated at length in another place. We agree wholeheartedly with its sentiment, which is that the LSC should promote participation in learning that is appropriate to the needs of individuals. However, as Lord Bach said in another place, the amendment is unnecessary. Post-16 education and training has a specific meaning in the Bill. Clause 3(5) and (6) give the definition for part I of the Bill, by reference to the main LSC's duties, as a provision that is

    ``suitable to the requirements of persons''.

The duty of the council in clause 4 is to encourage individuals to undergo education and training suitable to their requirements, so to add ``appropriate'' would be tautologous and unnecessary.

Practically, the LSC can succeed in its duty only if it promotes educational training that individuals understand as being appropriate to their needs and aspirations. People will reject learning if it is remote from their interests, circumstances and wishes.

The hon. Member for Daventry made it clear that he had no intention of implying that individuals should not be encouraged to undergo post-16 education and training. Given my explanation and reassurances, I therefore hope that he will feel able to support the provision and to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry); I welcome the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), whom I think is recovering from illness. I hope that no dreadful plague has struck the Liberal Democrats.

The Chairman: It is called Romseyitis.

Mr. Boswell: I cannot comment on that, except to say that it may be necessary to produce a home-to-Committee agreement with them to see a Liberal Democrat presentation.

The Minister has an excellent bedside manner, which he has well exhibited today. Anyone who begins his speech with a relevant quotation from P. G. Wodehouse rapidly raises my expectations, and I accept his implied approval of our proposal. He understands two matters: first that it is the duty of the Opposition to unpick the provisions to gain an understanding of them and, secondly, that it is the duty of the Government, particularly when producing general aspirations in legislation, to be aware that the Bill is not simply an aspiration, but that such high words and excellent sentiments may be tested in the courts. We live in an increasingly litigious society in which individuals-to use the word that we want to delete-like to test their rights.

I do not dissent from the Minister's wish that the Learning and Skills Council must grip post-16 education and encourage individuals to participate in it. I certainly do not want the Committee to gain the impression that anyone should be deemed a hopeless case. I am not suggesting that categories of people should be marked as ``DNE''-do not educate-as is happening under the current health debate-and that applies particularly to persons with special educational needs and learning difficulties.

However, when setting out such a general aspiration, we must pause for a moment. If we go back far enough in legislative history, we will find that general duties clauses are not unprecedented, but they seem to have grown in the past 30 years in parallel with the growth in judicial review. I can imagine a disaffected individual, on receipt of a nasty letter from a minor official in the Learning and Skills Council, saying, ``This has discouraged me from education. You are not helping me and I shall take you to court.'' Some advocacy interests will be only too pleased to do that. We must test what the Minister is about. With the exception of his reference to individual learning accounts, he is setting forth a programme for the Learning and Skills Council to provide general encouragement to groups of people to be educated rather than specific encouragement to individuals, as a result of which there will be a danger that someone may seize that as an opportunity to fight his individual case.

I recognise that the Minister's definition of post-16 education and training is keyed in with other definitions under the Bill. We shall discuss that later, but it has been right for us to rehearse such matters and to receive the hon. Gentleman's assurances about them, for which I am grateful. We have a lot of work to do today, so I shall not pursue the matter further. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


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