Ninth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 21 March 2001
[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]
Draft Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2001
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2001.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): On a point of order, Mr. Amess. I want to register my concern that I was not formally notified that I had been appointed to serve on the Committee until between 5 pm and 7.15 pm last night. As it happensalthough I do not want to take for granted what the Minister has to sayI suspect that these are not the most controversial of regulations. Had that not been the case, however, it would be a matter for serious concern that the Opposition were unable properly to prepare for the Committee.
The Chairman: The h G is entirely right to raise the point of order. It is an administrative matter, and the Clerk has taken careful note of it. It has nothing to do with the Government. I apologise to members of the Committee for the late notice that was given, and we shall try to ensure that nothing similar happens again.
Mr. Wicks: I take the first opportunity of welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. It is the first time that I have been before you, if that is the appropriate phrase.
The purpose of the debate is to seek the approval of the Committee for the Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) 2001. The regulations are purely technical and make amendments to two existing regulationsregulations 1 and 11 of the Jobseeker's Allowance Regulations 1996. Both amendments are consequential to the Learning and Skills Act 2000.
The core of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 is the establishment of a new non-departmental public body, the Learning and Skills Council for England, which will be responsible for post-16 learning other than higher education. The LSC will assume responsibility from April 2001, and will take over functions that are performed by the Further Education Funding Council in England and the functions that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment currently contracts to training and enterprise councils. The LSC will operate through a network of 47 local councils.
The Act also brings about changes in Wales. It creates a new National Council for Education and Training for Wales with broadly similar functions to the Learning and Skills Council for England, but with some variations to reflect Welsh circumstances. Responsibility for the delivery of training for unemployed people in England will transfer to the Employment Service. Arrangements in Scotland and Northern Ireland relating to the provision of post-16 education and training are devolved. In Northern Ireland, social security matters are also devolved. Therefore, the Act does not affect Scotland and Northern Ireland.
As I said, amendments are required to two jobseeker's allowance regulations. Regulation 1 defines
``full-time course of advanced education''
and ``full-time student''. Both definitions refer to courses funded or part-funded by the FEFC as being subject to the 16-hour study rule. We propose to amend regulation 1 to refer to the LSC, which will assume the functions of the FEFC in England. Reference is also made to the National Council for Education and Training, which will perform a parallel function in Wales. The amendment is technical and does not reflect a change in policy.
The second amendment relates to the definition in regulation 11 of ``training'' which is provided directly or indirectly by a TEC pursuant to its arrangement with the Secretary of State. We propose to amend regulation 11 to reflect the fact that the Learning and Skills Council for England and the National Council for Education and Training for Wales will assume the functions of TECs when the TEC contracts end on 25 March 2001. Once again, the amendment is purely technical and does not alter the policy intent of regulation 11, which is concerned with the treatment of those who study part-time while on jobseeker's allowance.
There are other technical amendments to jobseeker's allowance and income related benefit regulations that result from the Learning and Skills Act 2000, but they are subject to negative resolution and have been laid before the House of Commons as a separate set of regulations. The two amendments that are being presented today are subject to affirmative resolution as determined by section 37 of the Jobseekers Act 1995.
In conclusion, I repeat that these are technical amendments that reflect the assumption of responsibility by the new LSC, and I commend them to the Committee.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): May I add my welcome to you, Mr. Amess, because this is the first time that I have had the privilege of serving under your chairmanship? I hope that this occasion will last longer than I suspect it will.
I should also like to say how pleased I am to see the Minister. My name was not the only one that was added to the Committee at a relatively late stage. Given that both the Minister and I served on the Committee that considered the Learning and Skills Act 2000albeit I was on the Back Benchesit is appropriate that we find ourselves here.
I am also pleased to see that the Minister is a little more composed and less breathless than the last time I had the pleasure of standing opposite him in Committee. However, he knows that I am a thorough sort of a chap who will probe his assertion that the amendments are purely technical.
The references to the timing of the changes are significant. The Minister stated that training and enterprise council training contracts will end on 25 March and that the learning and skills councils will be up and running on 1 April. Will he enlighten the Committee as to what will happen in the short period between those dates? Both Government and Opposition Members will be puzzled by the interregnum between the TEC regime and the LSCs.
Can the Minister assure members of the Committee that the local LSCs will be ready on 1 April? Concerns have been raised in many parts of the country about the status of the LSCs. Will they be prepared to step into the breach in a few days time?
The Minister may want to touch upon the question of the degree of flexibility that is to be allowed to local councils. Some of them are concerned that they may not receive the degree of latitude in their local operations that was originally envisaged when we debated the Learning and Skills Act 2000.
The regulations that are being changed are, as the Minister said, of a purely technical nature. I received the jobseeker's allowance regulations only eight minutes ago because a special copy, which did not arrive from Nine Elms until 3.30 pm, had to be printed. Furthermore, the document followed me round the House of Commons for a while before I was able to read it. However, my cursory reading of the regulation that is being amended leads me to ask the Minister to shed a little light on its definition of a ``course of advanced education'' because it goes beyond the question of which body is responsible for provision.
The Minister may tell me that I am examining the wrong part of the regulation, which may clear matters up. Nevertheless, I am examining the jobseeker's allowance regulations in part 1(3), which I believe to be the right section. The definition of a course of advanced education goes into some detail, referring to
``leading to a postgraduate degree or comparable qualification, a first degree or comparable qualification, a diploma of higher education or a higher national diploma; or . . . any other course which is of a standard above advanced GNVQ or equivalent''.
Perhaps I have misinterpreted the regulations or am referring to the wrong part. If so, I apologise to the Committee and look forward to the Minister's explanation. If not, the change in the regulation seems to be a little more than purely technical. Perhaps no policy change is intended, but it would help the Committee to have a more detailed explanation of why the two paragraphs are being substituted in this way.
I have not had an opportunity to establish whether in the original regulations the second part of the new definitionthat is,
``funded in whole or in part''
simply parallels what went before in the FEFC regime. If so, I accept that assurance from the Minister without question, but it would be helpful to have it.
Regulation 2(d) provides that the course must involve more than 16 guided hours per week. Is that the same definition as was used in the original regulations in 1996?
Mr. Wicks: On that last point, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. Although there seems to be a gap between 25 March and the date that we decided should formally be the beginning of the LSC, I am assured that there is no problem in practice and that there will be a seamless transition. The third commencement order, of 19 February, provides for the Learning and Skills Council to assume training and enterprise council functions on 26 March. Although there may have been a reason in terms of financial years to specify April, in practice the beneficiaries of TECs and LSCs will not immediately notice a difference or gap.
The hon. Gentleman asked some more general questions about the state of readiness of the LSC. I can reassure the Committee on that basis. As he reminded us, we worked together on the Bill, which became law some time ago. Since then we have established the national LSC under the chairmanship of Bryan Sanderson. Local LSCs are in place and have all met on one or more occasions. They have in a sense been shadow bodies. We are grateful for the people who have come forward to serve on those councils, and we are confident that they are ready.
We are also confident that we shall get the balance righta feature of the debate in Committeebetween being strong at the centre, with the national LSC, and being strong locally, with proper discretion. We are dealing not only with discretionary funding for local LSCs, butperhaps more importantly in the long termthe discretion that each LSC can exercise over the national priorities of the national LSC. I am sure that we shall have opportunities in future to return to the important issue of the balance to be struck between a clear national strategy and engaging local people to exercise local discretion on behalf of their communities.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the courses that are covered. I shall reflect on whether I can give him further and more detailed reassurance in writing, but, briefly, the LSC covers training up to but not including higher education. The only change required, therefore, is to existing references to courses provided by the Further Education Funding Council and TECs. When I have reflected on the hon. Gentleman's point, I shall write to him with more detail and reassurance.