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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 6

Financial resources: conditions

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 78, in page 4, line 25, leave out from `require' to end of line 28 and insert

    `any person receiving financial resources from the Council to provide the Council with such documents as requested by the Council as relate to their application for that financial resource;'.—[Mr. Clappison.]

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 104, in page 4, line 25, after `person', insert

    `(being either an individual or an institution)'.

No. 105, in page 4, line 31, at end insert—

    `(c) require the Council, in applying these conditions, to respect the confidentiality of the information supplied by the person providing the post-16 education or training'.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I hope that, with the benefit of reflection, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), will appreciate that the amendments are not a result of an ideological frenzy, but represent a moderate and helpful approach to the clause. I draw some assurance from what he said about amendment No. 104. I hope he accepts that our questions on the designation of persons were reasonable.

I am a little more troubled by the Under-Secretary's response to amendment No. 105. I understand what he said about the circumstances in which information from providers will not remain confidential after it comes into the hands of the Learning and Skills Council or the person designated by it. However, the powers are wide. He gave examples of cases in which information will not remain confidential. I am sure he would agree that providers will not want information that they supply to the Learning and Skills Council or to the designated person, or which the Learning and Skills Council and the designated person have uncovered, to become widely available for all the world to know, especially if it does not relate directly to funding.

I would be more satisfied with his response and less inclined to push the amendment to a vote if he undertook to write to me, setting out the circumstances in which information would not remain confidential and assuring me that information would be confidential except in such cases.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Michael Wills): I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be delighted to write to him.

Mr. Clappison: I shall not take that point further.

We got into the general territory of clause 6 and discussed whether the conditions could be imposed on school sixth forms. The Under-Secretary told us that the clause makes it possible for the Learning and Skills Council to impose conditions on local education authorities, but not on schools themselves. He is not dissenting from that view. However, I was slightly surprised to hear that response to questions from my colleagues and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), who came straight to the point. I have a letter dated 21 March from the noble Baroness Blackstone to my noble Friend, Lady Blatch. It arose from the debates in another place, of which we are both aware. It said:

    You asked which of the conditions in Clause 6 would be pertinent to the funding of sixth forms. Clause 7 is needed to ensure that the LSC can apply proper conditions in relation to LEA funding of school sixth forms. It cannot use Clause 6 because part of that is formulated in terms of conditions on providers, and LEAs are not providers.

There is some difference between what the noble Lady and the Under-Secretary have said. He specifically said that the Learning and Skills Council could use clause 6 to impose conditions on LEAs, but Baroness Blackstone is clearly under the impression that it cannot be used in such a way. Clause 7 relates to the funding of school sixth forms, so I shall not pursue the matter. However, it is safe to comment in this debate that there has been some degree of inconsistency and misunderstanding between the Government's representatives here and in another place. My right hon. and hon. Friends were right to raise the issue, and we shall reach it in good time. Having received the Minister's reassurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 41, in page 4, line 29, leave out

    `providing post-16 education or training'

and insert

    `to whom financial resources are provided'.

No. 42, in page 4, line 32, leave out

    `post-16'

and insert

    `or proposing to provide'.—[Mr. Betts.]

Mr. Clappison: I beg to move amendment No. 89, in page 4, leave out lines 43 and 44 and insert—

    `(3ZA) Where provision has been specified in a report of an assessment conducted under section 114 the Council must impose a condition on a person providing post-16 education or training (the provider) to make such provision for the person who is the subject of the assessment.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 90, in page 5, line 1, leave out `at specified intervals statements' and insert

    `an annual statement'.

Mr. Clappison: I hope that there is not much ground between the Opposition and the Government on the amendment, and that we are seeking to achieve common objectives. Before I ask leave to withdraw it, however, I should point out that our proposals deal with an important issue. I say that now because I hope that the Minister does not think that I am erecting ideological barricades. Far from it; I am trying to tear them down and to be of assistance.

The amendments deal with an important point and an important group of people. Amendment No. 89 relates to clause 6(3), which enables the Learning and Skills Council to impose on a person providing post-16 education and training conditions requiring that person to make arrangements set out in paragraphs (a) to (f) of subsection (3). For example, paragraph (a) requires the provider

    to charge fees by reference to specified criteria.

Amendment No. 89 relates to subsection (3)(f), which requires the provider

    to make provision specified in a report of an assessment conducted under section 114.

Clause 114 applies to persons with statements of special educational needs. It requires an assessment of such people to be conducted in their last year of compulsory schooling, although such an assessment may also be undertaken between the time when the person in question leaves school and attains the age of 25.

We believe that it is highly desirable that special educational training should include provision recommended in such a report. If a report says that something is needed, then it is good common sense for a person to receive it. Persons with special educational needs in particular should obtain the education and training that meet their need. Amendment No. 89 is designed to strengthen the link between what is specified in the assessment and education and training that are delivered. It seeks to do so by placing a duty on the Learning and Skills Council to impose a condition on the provider to give the education and training specified in the assessment. It would therefore strengthen the Bill as currently drafted, and we believe that it is important for people with special educational needs in that respect.

Amendment No. 90 relates to conditions imposed by the council on those whom it funds to provide training and education for disabled people. Subsection (4)(b) enables the council to impose a condition on providers to require them to publish statements containing information about the training and education that they provide. The subsection enables the council to require such statements at specified intervals. We wonder whether it is possible to be a little more precise and to require such a statement every year, not least to ensure that the information is as up to date and as helpful as possible. That is a straightforward point, to which I hope the Minister will be able to respond.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): I assure the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) that he has presented his case in a non-ideological and moderate way. Indeed, should he apply for asylum to a new political home—

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Labour would keep the hon. Gentleman waiting for years.

Mr. Wicks: We are full up at the moment—the Liberal Democrats always have spaces—but we will certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's application. Indeed, I have sometimes felt during the past two weeks that, with one or two exceptions, we are dealing with a one nation Opposition, which is of some historical interest. We have heard a few quotations, but I hope that there will be yet more from Disraeli and Macmillan—``The Middle Way'' is always a useful text.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising in the amendment the issue of assessments of people with learning difficulties because it enables the Committee to consider this important new provision for the first time, which we would not have otherwise addressed until we considered clause 114. Despite making good progress this morning, we are a little adrift from clause 114.

This is a new initiative by the Government, which I believe is warmly welcomed. We are determined to improve the support that is available for young people with learning difficulties as they make the transition from school to post-16 education or training. Indeed, it is a current theme of social policy that the transitions for those with learning difficulties, whether from primary to secondary school or from secondary school to post-16 provision and into employment— sometimes supported employment—are considered to be of great importance. We are determined to improve the support available to such people, and the Bill relates to those over the age of l6.

For many young people, there has been uncertainty and confusion as they move out of the regulated schools sector and the specific arrangements for statements of special educational needs. There has been a perceived disincentive to leave school and undertake perhaps more appropriate post-16 education outside because of the limits of SEN statements. At worst, there has been a danger that people's learning difficulties may go unaddressed when they move into the post-16 world. Our proposed new arrangements for assessments are designed to help young people and their parents feel confident that they have a range of options to consider and that a decision on their post-16 education can be based on how the individual's needs will best be met.

In considering what arrangements to put in place for post-16 assessments, we were anxious to reflect the diverse and less regulated nature of post compulsory learning. That meant that it was appropriate to introduce completely new arrangements rather than to extend the existing arrangements in schools for pupils with special educational needs.

Collaboration and co-operation between the key parties in the assessment process over a prolonged period are central to the new arrangements. Those parties are likely to include the young person and their parents, the relevant school and LEA and, in some cases, social services. The local LSC is also a key feature, as are the new personal advisers under the ConneXions strategy. That collaboration is vital if assessments are to produce an outcome that both meets the needs of an individual young person and is supported by, and appropriate for, the provider identified to deliver the learning opportunity. A range of options may be considered before a final outcome is agreed. The central objective is to provide the best learning opportunity possible for an individual young person with learning difficulties.

Guidance on the detailed arrangements for assessments, including the LSC's expectations of providers to make their best endeavours in delivering the content of an assessment, will be crucial. It will be subject to consultation with interested groups, such as the Post 16 Disability Consortium, and providers. As with any new initiative, guidance and expertise will continue to develop over time. We want that to happen as the new arrangements become embedded.

As I implied earlier, I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman's good intentions but I am concerned that amendment No. 89 would take us a step too far. It would require the council to impose as a condition of funding that a provider must specify the provision in the report. The blanket arrangement, which would have to happen in every case, does not take into account that provision might be collaborative. A weakness of current arrangements is that funding systems and the infrastructure deter the development and delivery of integrated packages of learning for people with different learning difficulties. We must avoid building similar disincentives into our new arrangements. The amendment does not take into account the possibility that a provider might be better able to meet in other ways the needs identified.

4.45 pm

For example, the results of a disability assessment might set out a route of education and training that requires an extended collaborative approach. A young person might need specialist provision in a residential college, more general provision through a work-based training provider once their skills had been developed and finally, perhaps, direct work experience funded by the LSC. No one provider would be best placed to do all that. The LSC must be able to use its funding powers to put such a package together. It would be unreasonable to require a single provider to deliver the whole package.

Having as tight a compulsory regime as the hon. Gentleman's amendment proposes might have detrimental effects. In particular, it might make it more difficult to work with employers as providers of work-based opportunities—they might consider such requirements to be heavy handed or overly bureaucratic. We heard such concerns earlier with regard to another issue. We would not be serving that vulnerable group of learners well if we introduced blanket requirements that might limit the opportunities available to them.

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must ensure that the LSC can meet in the round the needs of the young person with learning difficulties and that it has the mechanisms to ensure that its providers deliver the provision to meet those needs. The powers already in the Bill give the LSC all that it needs. There will be major back-up from the new ConneXions service, with a personal adviser responsible for ensuring that young people's needs in that respect are met. As I have said, we are consulting closely with disability organisations on the most effective mechanisms for delivering the new service.

I shall deal more briefly with amendment No. 90. I am again sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's amendment but I hope that I will be able to reassure him that it is unnecessary. The Bill has been drafted to enable the current requirements in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 on further education institutions' provision of disability statements to be carried forward. We have followed the approach of not specifying in the Bill the intervals at which statements are required; instead, we have allowed flexibility for the specification of the intervals. Regulations have been used to specify precise times, suitable for the sector concerned, for the production of the statements. I continue to believe it sensible not to be specific on the face of the Bill so that we can retain that flexibility.

I must also say to the hon. Gentleman that his amendment is open to different interpretations. Even simple terms such as ``annually'' are never so simple when one considers them properly. Under the amendment, a college or local education authority might, for example, be able to provide a statement in June in one calendar year and November in the following calendar year, thus completely missing out one academic year. Such confusion helps me to make the case for an ability to stipulate when disability statements should be produced more specifically. I expect the LSC to require statements at annual intervals just as the current regulations specify. That requirement is not in doubt.

I hope that, with those reassurances and my earlier points about disability assessments, the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

 
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