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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Thursday 4 May 2000

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 8

Links between education and training and employment

9 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move amendment No. 93, in, page 5, line 27, after `of, insert

    `appropriate'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 95, in page 5, line 34, at beginning insert

    `Subject to subsection (4A) below'.

No. 94, in page 5, line 37, leave out `l9' and insert

    `25'.

No. 96, in page 5, line 37, at end insert—

    `(4A) For the purposes of subsection (4) above a disabled person or a person who is the subject of an assessment conducted under section 114 is a young person in the period which—

    (a) starts with the beginning of the year in which he attains the age of 15 and

    (b) ends with the end of the year in which he attains the age of 30.'.

Mr. Boswell: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. At this early hour, we are anxious to be brisk, but not perfunctory.

The amendments refer to a subject with which we all have some sympathy—the securing of adequate work experience, or, as it is entitled in the rubric to the clause:

    Links between education and training and employment.

That is a common interest. We are anxious to deal with it in the best possible way, and not unreasonably to fetter the Learning and Skills Council.

I, like the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), have taken a strong personal interest in education business partnerships. They are of great value. As my children went through their teenage years, they derived great benefit from work experience, which has opened up new horizons, and what might loosely be called social work experience, in which people with an academic or relatively privileged background have the opportunity of doing things in or for the community.

I cannot believe that the concept of the clause will cause difficulties. I should tell the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), that the specific reason for amendment No. 93 is that we want to ensure that whatever is offered by way of work experience is appropriate. I can conceive of a number of reasons why that may not happen.

First, not all young people have the same abilities, and certain types of work experience may be more suitable for some than for others. Because of my responsibility for disability issues, I have heard some disturbing stories. For example, young people with disabilities have been left behind because there has been no suitable work experience for them. It may be more difficult to organise for them than for other young people, but that it not an excuse for failing to secure such experience. That sort of discrimination is distasteful.

Secondly, we must ensure that work experience is safe, and that due regard is paid to the previous experience of young people to ensure that they do not put themselves at risk. Ministers will be aware—it has been debated in the House—that some young workers entering employment suffer accidents, even fatal accidents, in the early stages of their time at work, because training has not been offered or because the youngsters are not being worked up sufficiently. That is bound to be distressing, particularly with young people. Related questions are whether activities are suitable for young people, whether the Health and Safety Executive is involved and whether insurance is carried and by whom.

Thirdly, although it is not common, it is sometimes suggested that work experience may be considered as a source of cheap labour, as if employers were being exploitative of young people rather than offering them adequate experience. More realistically, both sides of the Committee will concede that most employers set out to offer reasonable work experience. However, it can be a rather costly and sometimes rather finicky operation to move people between departments or activities.

I flag up another point of general interest about the financing of education business partnerships. We may return to the subject in connection with the activities now carried out by training and enterprise councils and the residual assets that they may sustain. EBPs have always been part not of the private sector but of what might loosely be called the ``off formula'' activities of TECs. They may be more difficult to secure in the new arrangements unless residual private funding is available for them, or unless they can lever such funding in the new local learning and skills councils. We may want to return to the issue, but it may be helpful if the Minister gave a taste of his approach to that issue.

Amendment No. 95 is a paving amendment. Amendment No. 94 deals with the issue that has been discussed before about pushing the age limit up to 25 for young people generically. Amendment No. 96 deals specifically with the question of disabled young people.

The thinking behind the proposal for young people is to deal with situations in which they have been socially excluded or have otherwise undergone a period of difficulty. If one is trying to get them back into work, it is important that they should have a chance to see that the experience will not damage them, deeply upset them or scar them for life. One must show them that they can do it, and that they will be welcome and valuable members of society if they succeed. It is what I would call rehabilitation for them. The method could be valuable and could be a useful start if the Learning and Skills Council is able to provide resources to set up such a system.

Much the same thinking applies to disabled young people. There will be other opportunities to consider the issue of special educational needs, assessment and transition, especially with regard to clause 114. We have difficulties with the approach. Many of us with experience of the area feel that the work done by further education colleges with people—especially young people—with learning difficulties is valuable. However, it is difficult to credit and measure and, as a result, it is difficult to finance. Above all, people with learning difficulties may feel discouraged and apprehensive about entering the adult world of work. Given their difficulties, such people are entitled to a period of handicap, although that is hardly the appropriate word, and to a little consideration with regard to time limits.

I am sure that Ministers will take the same broad approach to this issue of encouraging work experience appropriate to the individual. The purpose of the subsidiary amendments is to enable the LSC at least to help with the work experience to start the relevant people off, even if there is a difficulty in moving to the age of 25 for the statutory entitlement for education and training. The same argument concerning a slightly higher and more flexible age group applies to people with disabilities, especially a learning difficulty, who may have great trouble and concern about going into the adult world and whose transition into that world needs to be handled extremely sensitively.

The amendments are intended to probe the Government's intention and are meant with good will. We are keen, in this sensitive and important area, for the Government and the new council to act as flexibly and as constructively as possible to meet the needs of the individual.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I support most of what the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has said. I support in particular amendment No. 94. There is a common theme, and I echo his comments on special educational needs. Will the Minister give us some indication of the Government's thinking on the new SEN and disabilities Bill? Without seeing that legislation, it is difficult to know how this Bill fits in. For example, specific reference to young people with learning difficulties may have been deliberately omitted because it will feature in other legislation. If that is the case, we are happy to wait for an appropriate announcement.

I welcome this important clause. For many young people, work experience has been dodgy to say the least. In considering the clause and the remit of the Learning and Skills Council, we must bear in mind the need to strive for quality. From personal experience, I know that work experience is often used as an escape route for some young people and as a means of getting them out of the system in the hope that the workplace will somehow answer their particular difficulties. In some cases, it does provide such help; young people who have been exceptionally difficult in schools can suddenly blossom in a workplace, especially if it is supportive.

I am also aware from personal experience of the problems that quality employers—especially small ones—often face with insurance. A small firm, whether a garage run by a one or two man band or a small hairdresser, that employs a young person as part of a work experience package will have to pick up the associated insurance costs. Will the Minister consider that matter and provide some reassurance? The Learning and Skills Council could underwrite the insurance premiums for young people going into the workplace on approved work experience placements.

We must not return to the days of taking young people out of our schools at the age of 15. Rhodes Boyson said the other day that he thought that they should leave at the age of 14 and should be caned, although I am sure that he was not speaking for the Tory Front Bench. We must not return to those days; instead, we should emphasise the need for quality work experience. Will the Minister tell us what powers the Learning and Skills Council will have to approve and to inspect workplaces to ensure that young people receive that quality?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Michael Wills): I add my welcome to you, Mr. Benton.

We have a great deal of sympathy with the remarks that have been made and with Opposition Members' intentions, but we regard the amendments as unnecessary. Amendment No. 93 is identical to an amendment tabled in another place, and it is unnecessary for the reasons set out by Baroness Blackstone. It would be unreasonable for the Learning and Skills Council to secure facilities for the gaining of work experience that is inappropriate. As a general principle, and as we have discussed on a number of occasions and in various contexts, a statutory organisation must, by its own nature, act reasonably.

Amendment No. 94 is also unnecessary. One of several reasons for including work experience in the clause is to involve the Learning and Skills Council in the on-going work experience programme for young people in schools, building on the work done by training and enterprise councils. As school-age children may not work during schools hours, the young people in question would otherwise be restricted from spending time in the workplace. There are no such restrictions on people over the age of 19 and no equivalent programme for work experience. Not only would it be unnecessary to extend the upper age limit, but it would be meaningless in practical terms. One of the reasons why there are no formal work experience programmes for adult learners is that the majority of adult learning provision consists of vocational and prevocational courses, of which some form of work experience is an integral part. That applies across the board whether or not the student has learning difficulties or any other disadvantage.

I am not convinced of the rationale for amendments Nos. 95 and 96 either, partly for the same reason as I have just outlined in respect of amendment No. 94. The majority of adult learning provision—including that for people with learning disabilities or other difficulties—already includes contact with or experience of the world of work. However, we have some sympathy with the intentions behind the amendments. We all agree that work experience can be invaluable in giving young people some insight into the world of work in a variety of ways, some of which have been cogently outlined by the hon. Member for Daventry. It can be particularly valuable for people with learning difficulties or other disabilities, who sometimes encounter difficulties in taking up work experience opportunities, as we have heard.

9.15 am

My noble Friends in another place were able to make an important change to the Bill, which recognises this point. My noble Friend Baroness Blackstone introduced an amendment to clause 13, which requires the Learning and Skills Council to have regard to the particular needs of people with learning difficulties, especially those with assessments made under clause 114. The amendment extends the scope of the clause 13 duty to cover clause 8. Clause 13 now requires the Learning and Skills Council to have regard to the needs of people with learning difficulties and clause 114 assessments not only in discharging its main duties under clauses 2 and 3, but also in exercising its powers to fund work experience and education and business links under clause 8.

The Government amendment was welcomed and accepted in another place. It requires the Learning and Skills Council to ensure that young people with learning difficulties and/or other disabilities have access to appropriate work experience and other facilities. We believe that these changes, together with a recognition that contact with the world of work is an integral part of adult learning, make amendments Nos. 95 and 96 unnecessary.

A number of specific points were raised by Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Daventry asked about the continuation of funding for education and business partnerships. We all recognise their importance and the excellent work they have carried out. The Learning and Skills Council will be responsible for that provision, and therefore funding will be made available to secure their future.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) referred to insurance. We will look to the Learning and Skills Council to make provision for that, and we will expect them to put the appropriate mechanism in place. I recognise his point about the importance for many young people of gaining work experience in smaller companies. Obviously, smaller companies sometimes face problems in providing the infrastructure necessary for work experience placements. We will expect the Learning and Skill Council also to make provision for that.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough also referred to the SEN Bill. As he will be aware, we have set out our approach on this matter, but we are unable to state at the present time when we will introduce the Bill. I think he is aware of the background on that, but I will be happy to keep the hon. Gentleman informed of any progress.

I hope that, following the explanations I have just given, the hon. Member for Daventry will now feel able to withdraw the amendments.

 
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