Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

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Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): My concern about the chairman of the local LSC is not the same as that which the hon. Gentleman has expressed, and relates to whether the existing chief executive of the local training and enterprise council will automatically become the chairman of the new body. In my locality, there is concern that the new LSC approach will not work in that way, and that the existing chief executive will not automatically take over. Does the hon. Gentleman share that concern?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. The question whether the TEC chief executive is more likely to take over if the decision is in the hands of the Secretary of State rather than taken by the central LSC is moot. However, I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that it must be in the interests of local business to be consulted by the Secretary of State before he takes the decision. Business may or may not have confidence in the chief executive of the TEC in question, but at least let us find out whether that is the case. One imagines that the Government would want consultation to occur; the amendment would specify that it should do so. We believe that the views of local businesses should be taken into account when the chairmanship of the local LSC is decided.

Mr. Wicks: The debate gives us a good opportunity to talk about the balances that should be struck in the membership of the local councils.

I turn first to amendment No. 128. Proposed paragraph (2A) would provide that not less than 40 per cent. of the membership of LSCs should be persons with current or recent business or commercial experience. The pros and cons of such amendments were debated at some length several times in another place. I reiterate that it is our firm intention that 40 per cent. of local LSC members will have recent business and commercial experience. We will do everything that we can to ensure high-quality applications from business people are sufficient to make that possible. We shall reflect in the guidance that we issue to selection panels our desired specification for the range and depth of different types of experience that we see as necessary for a local council that is capable of delivering the LSC agenda. However, the inclusion in the Bill of a requirement to that effect might cut across Nolan principles, under which the appointments will be made. We seek individuals who can bring their experience to the local LSCs rather than represent the organisations from which they come.

Paragraph (2B) would specify in the Bill the need to have regard to a particular sectoral interest—in this case, that of small businesses. Apart from causing practical difficulties of definition, such a change would open the door for amendments from other groups to be afforded the same treatment. I can, however, reassure hon. Members that the interests of small businesses will be represented in the new arrangements. It is important that we attract good applications, as, ideally, the different sectors of the economy should be represented. Another balance should be struck between what have been called the old and new economies. We will look to the range of business representation on LSCs to include people with different experiences, not least of small or medium-sized enterprises. We shall ensure that the LSC services meet the needs of small firms.

The Small Business Service, often working with national training organisations, will have a key role in promoting and giving advice on workforce development as part of its seamless service to small firms. Local LSCs will contract with Small Business Service franchises to provide support for SMEs on workforce development, including support for Investors in People and access to foundation or advanced modern apprenticeships and management development. The LSC will, however, remain accountable for meeting the national learning targets for Investors in People.

Paragraph (2C) seeks explicit representation of local authorities on local LSCs. I believe that our post-16 reforms introduce a new era for local authority involvement in post-16 education across the board. For the first time since 1992, local authorities, through their involvement in LSCs, will be fully connected to decisions on further education college provision. We are connecting them to work-based training. Through the new ConneXions service, we are providing for the first time a statutory basis for youth support in which local authorities, together with other agencies, will play a leading part.

Local authorities will, therefore, be at the heart of the work of LSCs. They will not just be deliverers of learning but key partners uniquely placed to provide vision and leadership for local communities and to ensure coherence between compulsory education and post-16 learning. As we will see during consideration of forthcoming clauses, that is why local authorities must be consulted early on the proposals for learning that local LSCs will draw up. It also explains why those LSCs must set out in their plans the adult provision for which LEAs will be responsible and for which the LSC will provide them with funding.

That central role requires effective local authority presence in local LSCs, which is why the Government have repeatedly said that we expect both the national LSC and the local LSCs to have members with current local authority experience. I would be delighted if local authority members were to apply successfully for positions on local LSCs. However, as I have said many times, we will not stipulate a quota for any particular group, and I do want members to act as designates of any particular sector, which is what the amendment would require.

Some months ago, we set out in our prospectus the sort of interests that we would like to see on local LSCs. We mentioned not only people with local authority experience, but those from the voluntary sector and employees involved in trade union representation. In addition, we referred to those concerned with the needs of young people, of people who have special learning needs, difficulties, disabilities or adult learning needs and of those who face discrimination. It would not be helpful in any of those cases—over and above the special case for business, in relation to which we have a stated aim of 40 per cent. representation—to play a numbers game and say that particular interests must have one or two places. That would not make sense.

I turn finally to amendment No. 129. I appreciate the concern of the hon. Member for Hertsmere to ensure that local businesses are represented on LSCs, as I have said they should be. However, I see no merit in stipulating tightly that the Secretary of State should consult local organisations before appointing a local LSC chairman or chairwoman. We have made clear our objective that the majority of chair positions on local LSCs will be filled by people with current or recent business or commercial experience. As I said, 40 per cent. of members of the national and local councils will have a business background.

We will ensure that Nolan principles of open recruitment are adhered to in making those appointments. Selections for the positions will be made purely on merit rather than as nominations for representation on the council. The local chair positions have therefore been advertised widely in order to attract suitable applications from a range of people, including those from business. We have worked closely with the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and other business organisations to encourage employers to become involved. We have held a series of regional conferences to promote awareness of the learning and skills councils. The chairman of Vauxhall Motors, Nick Reilly, has convened a business champions group, to encourage those with business experience to apply for the post of chair and/or membership of the local LSCs. I thank Nick Reilly and his colleagues for their hard work. We have taken extensive action to ensure that the interests of business are fully reflected in the LSCs.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful for the Minister's clarification. As he has mentioned Nick Reilly, who is active in the motor industry, I am prompted to refer to the Rover situation—which is at last coming to an acceptable conclusion. Can he see the lead in such a case being taken by the local learning and skills council rather than the national council in future? As we move on from TECs, it would be useful to know whether or not there will still be a proper local handle on what is clearly a serious local, as well as national, employment issue.

Mr. Wicks: It would be for local learning and skills councils to become involved in such a situation, or one involving a smaller company, alongside other partners, such as the Employment Service, in consultation with the RDA. Their role would be to examine the situation and the skills and training and learning implications arising from it. That is a valuable point.

It would not be right to specify who the Secretary of State should consult before making appointments. The matter should be left to him. Also, it would not be right to specify that he consult one set of interests only, albeit important ones.

Two other issues arose during the debate. In terms of the Secretary of State withholding approval of membership, we expect that to happen rarely, if ever. The Government have given commitments on the balance of local councils and there should be a reserve power to ensure that the balance can be secured in the unlikely event of a local LSC failing to achieve it.

Mr. Clappison: I would be grateful if the Minister could describe more fully the balance he is referring to.

Mr. Wicks: The balance I refer to is between business—and we are aiming, subject to the Nolan principles, at 40 per cent. of the membership—and other sectors, such as local government, those with trade union experience, those in the voluntary sector and those interested in other aspects of education, adult education and community education. We are confident—given our commitments and the guidance we will be issuing—that the balance will be struck, and that the Secretary of State's reserve powers will not be used. However, in the unlikely event that the proposed membership of a learning and skills council did not strike the proper balance, the Secretary of State would require the reserve powers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) raised a fear that has been expressed to her—if I understood her correctly—that a key character in a local TEC would take over the learning and skills council. I assure her that that will not be the case. Our objective is to draw on the good experience and good practice of the TECs, the FE sector and others such as those in adult and community education. That is our objective. Bad practice may have occurred in the past, but we want to be positive about utilising good practice. Although it can be complex, because TECs vary, we are giving as much guidance and reassurance as we can to the staff of existing organisations, not least to TECs. We hope that many of them will be bold and join the new Learning and Skills Council.

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Similarly, we are encouraging board members of TECs to apply; but they will have to apply because of the Nolan principles. I say that to my hon. Friend because, as I go around the country, I hear of misplaced fears that one or the other body will somehow take over the learning and skills councils. Some say that it will be a TEC takeover; some tell me that there will be a FE takeover. It is not like that. They are new bodies with a new policy and new institutions, and we need good men and women and true to come forward as employees or board members to help. There is no takeover.

With those reassurances, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

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