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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales went further, saying:

which I and all Welsh Members have received—

That has indeed happened.

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I welcome all that; these are important developments. I am concerned, however, about the pre-legislative scrutiny; we probably missed it in this case. I hope that all Departments will take care to ensure that, when parts of Bills—as opposed to orders—delegate to the National Assembly new law-making powers of a primary nature, this House takes a proper look at those elements in a pre-legislative manner, particularly through the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.

I say that in the context of the completely changed position in regard to devolution. Last week, we saw dramatic changes in Scotland. We have yet to find out what the nature of the Government in Wales will be. There might be a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, or some kind of agreement with Plaid Cymru, or none of those things, resulting in a so-called rainbow coalition—although I am not sure how we can take the red out of a rainbow. Any such coalition should have regard to the party that was granted the most seats and, indeed, the most votes. That, however, is another issue.

The point is that we are in uncertain waters, and what we shall see over the next four years will be very different from the devolution that we have seen in the past. It is therefore incumbent on the Government to ensure that, when we give law-making powers to the National Assembly for Wales, the House of Commons has proper scrutiny of those powers.

5.28 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): This is not a particularly exciting Bill. It has been described by Ministers elsewhere as largely a tidying-up exercise. I do not think that it merits the view expressed by the Secretary of State that 2007-08 is the year of skills. The Secretary of State is no longer in his place; I assume that he has gone off to run his campaign, which is probably a lot more exciting than listening to a speech from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I know my place.

The Government have initiated two major reviews of the further education sector in a relatively short time but, rather bafflingly, they have now produced this short and rather technical Bill that fails to implement most of the recommendations of either review. The Secretary of State referred at the outset of his speech to the Leitch review but, as he acknowledged, the Bill contains nothing that deals with the Leitch recommendations.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) spoke about Foster’s recommendations on regulation. Of course, Foster recommended major changes to simplify the funding of further education, and the further education White Paper promised a technical funding group to consider the issue, but there is nothing in the Bill to implement that. It is a real shame that the Government have failed to use the Bill to simplify the complex and confusing funding arrangements between learning and skills councils and local authorities. If only they had chosen to shift funding for 16-to-19 provision to local authorities, we could have proper joined-up funding. That could herald the beginning of a system in which money could follow students as they move between schools and colleges, enabling them to mix vocational and academic courses. Schools and colleges could thereby
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collaborate on a fair footing, instead of one on which college students find themselves short-changed by as much as £200 each.

Similarly, the Bill does nothing to address the UK’s long-term skills needs, which Leitch’s report outlined, as others have said. It says nothing about the link between skills and welfare to work. Looking forward to 2020, it says nothing about the optimal skills mix to maximise economic growth, productivity and social justice. When will the Government bring forward a meatier Bill to tackle the issues outlined in the Leitch report? Perhaps we will have to wait for the next Prime Minister for that.

This is a short Bill, which says little and does less. I am not convinced, however, that its vacuous nature alone is sufficient reason to oppose it, as the Conservatives appear to be suggesting that they will. For a short and not very exciting Bill, it certainly provoked some controversy in the other place—controversy would be reason to oppose it. The Bill that we are debating, however, has been amended by the other place. While the Liberal Democrats will seek further changes, reassurances and clarifications in Committee, we will not oppose the Bill’s passage at this stage.

I am a little baffled by the Conservatives’ reasoned amendment and sudden opposition to the Bill, which is out of kilter with their stance during its passage in the other place. It appears to be something of a grandstanding gesture, and perhaps a bit of a distraction from the internal row last week. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Havant is so busy talking, he has not even heard me insult him.

Furthermore, the reasoned amendment criticises the Bill for containing something that is no longer there: the most controversial aspect of the Bill—the transfer of powers from the Secretary of State to the Learning and Skills Council to remove college principals—was taken out by Opposition parties in the other place. If, as the Secretary of State suggested, the Government insist on putting that provision back in the Bill, we will vehemently oppose that in Committee and subsequently. That is an issue of principle. As others have pointed out, the Bill appears directly to contradict the Government’s White Paper. FE colleges are independent corporations, and we should also note that Learning and Skills Council funding represents but one share of a college’s funding—others being student and employer contributions. It is not therefore clear why the Learning and Skills Council alone should have that power, especially as it is not even an elected body with accountability.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): The White Paper also says that a college led by its governing body is responsible for determining its own mission, managing its own affairs, meeting its statutory responsibilities and improving its performance. I believe that the Leitch report said that the FE sector was the “neglected middle child” of education, and we are now seeing FE colleges being treated very differently from the higher education sector, which is undermining staff and students within that sector.

Sarah Teather: I agree with my hon. Friend. Legally, the college, not the Learning and Skills Council, is the employer of its own staff. The original proposals were therefore fraught with difficulty and left many questions—
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about employment practice, appeals procedures and who would be responsible for paying compensation if a decision to remove an employee were challenged in the courts—unanswered. Furthermore, the Secretary of State acknowledged that there is a high level of satisfaction with colleges among students and employers. It seems an odd solution to what already appears to be a high level of quality. We will all watch with interest to see what proposals the Government introduce in Committee, but we want to place on the record that we are not happy with the Secretary of State’s tone in the debate.

Another area of controversy is the relationship between local authorities and the new regional councils. From our perspective, the lack of democratic accountability of the Learning and Skills Council makes that problematic, pretty much regardless of how it is organised. Moving 16-to-19 money to local authorities would deal with part of the problem, but 19-plus funding would remain distributed by a body with no accountability to its local area.

We have been able to overcome that problem in London by giving the powers to the Mayor and the assembly, but no analogous elected body exists in other areas. For that reason, the relationship between the regional council and a locally democratically elected body is vital. My colleagues in the other place extracted considerable reassurances from the Minister there, which are on the record, about collaborative working and consultation. Clearly, that is of paramount importance. It is vital that local plans are taken into account when regional strategy is set. Furthermore, local authorities, the regional learning and skills councils and businesses, as well as individual colleges and schools, will have to work together to deliver the 14-to-19 diplomas. Although we accept that the Minister in the other place moved some way to reassure us, we will want to probe some of those points further in Committee.

The final area of controversy surrounds the power of FE colleges to award degrees and to confer degree-awarding powers on other colleges—that is, franchising. The proposal appeared from nowhere, without consulting either the FE or the university sector. Again, colleagues in the other place succeeded in obtaining many improvements to the proposal, but we have concerns, as many hon. Members on both sides of the House do, about progression arrangements in particular. The Committee will need to consider the draft guidance published in support of the Bill carefully to ensure that students’ ability to progress is safeguarded. Collaborative progression arrangements may well be in place when degree-awarding powers are given to a college, but they may break down in the first six years before the Privy Council reviews that ability. That may prevent the college from further awarding degrees, but that will be of no consolation to students who have enrolled on courses in the meantime. The Government have given reassurances on the franchising ability of colleges, but we will also want to probe considerably in Committee the extent to which that will apply to overseas courses in particular, about which we continue to have concerns.

My concern about the debate and row about foundation degrees is that it clouds the real issue. Many
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students begin to study in an FE college because of caring or work responsibilities and they cannot study away from home. They are often likely to be from poorer backgrounds and are much more likely to be from ethnic minority backgrounds. They will want a flexible system that allows them to move flexibly between different types of institutions, often in a non-linear pattern—they may want to study for a while, take a break, and then move on. They will want to have a fair system whereby they are not having to pay all their fees up front.

The Bill does not deal with any of those issues, and that is the real concern for many students who are beginning to study at an FE college. We must rethink those issues. I hope that the Government will consider them carefully when they introduce proposals next time to deal with the matters raised by the Leitch review. I also hope that they will think carefully about progression arrangements all the way through the system for students of all ages who may be studying part-time.

This is a short Bill, so I have made a short speech. We look forward to the Committee stage. As I said, we will continue to probe issues of progression from foundation degrees and collaboration with local authorities in particular. We hope that in the near future the Government will introduce something far more meaty for us to get our teeth into.

5.39 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Bill, which will equip learners with the high-quality skills that they need in order to compete in the global jobs market. As one who has always argued that we must constantly re-train and upskill our people to meet the challenges of a global economy, I am pleased that the Bill ensures that employers will have the same opportunities to gain new skills in order to make their businesses succeed in a competitive world.

In my constituency, almost all post-16 education takes place at a college of further education. A similar situation exists in most of the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who spoke a little earlier. Like him, I well remember the problems that we faced at Gwent college, and the need—in order to save that college from financial ruin—for steps to be taken to change the senior management and remove the principal. Heaven only knows what would have happened otherwise.

Although I welcome the Bill, I am troubled—as was my right hon. Friend—by clause 25, which makes amendments to the Government of Wales Act 2006. If the clause is approved, it will transfer substantial responsibility to legislate for further education and training from Parliament to the National Assembly. Although I do not oppose the idea of using framework legislation to transfer power from Parliament to the Assembly, I think it wrong to do so without full parliamentary scrutiny of such a change to the devolution settlement. Notwithstanding the way in which it is being presented, the Bill contains a substantial constitutional change, and Parliament should have an opportunity to consider whether it is right to transfer those powers to the National Assembly.

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I am all the more concerned because this is the third time Parliament has been asked to transfer power to the National Assembly without proper scrutiny of the reasons for doing so. We have done it twice before, in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and in the NHS Redress Act 2006. I am particularly worried after reading the memorandum prepared by the National Assembly in support of clause 25 and provided for us by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. The memorandum implies that the format set out in clause 25 for giving the National Assembly primary legislative powers will become the norm. My noble Friend Lord Rowlands of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, to whom I spoke earlier today, was a member of the Richard commission, which examined changes in the powers of the Welsh Assembly, and he believes that that contradicts the spirit of the Government of Wales Act.

The memorandum tells us that the provision to enhance the legislative competence of the Assembly reflects the new constitutional law-making provisions introduced by the Government of Wales Act. That is fine as far as it goes, but while the Bill may be the right way in which to deal with the future of further education and training, I think it quite wrong to make changes to the devolution settlement unless Parliament has first had an opportunity to consider the principle of transferring law-making powers to the Assembly. Clause 25 means that the Assembly, not Members of the House of Commons, will scrutinise and finally approve the proposals in the Bill. That has constitutional ramifications that clearly need to be debated separately from the Bill.

Even more worrying is the implication in the memorandum that, unlike in England, the Assembly has not even consulted interested parties on what it should do with the powers if they are given to it. Parliament is not only being given no opportunity to consider the merits of transferring the powers, but being asked to transfer them when the Assembly has no settled view on the use of such powers. The memorandum tells us that until the Assembly consults interested parties, it is not in a position to specify the subordinate legislation that would be required.

Under the Government of Wales Act 1998, secondary legislation is a matter for the National Assembly, but let us consider what that has meant in practice. When the Government have asked Parliament to delegate particular powers to a Minister of the Crown, draft regulations have often been published so that the House can better understand how Ministers will exercise such powers. Since devolution in 1999, when the Government have presented England and Wales Bills and have asked Parliament to delegate similar powers to the National Assembly as are being delegated to Ministers of the Crown, there has been an indication of how those powers will be used. That has been done very successfully, without impinging on the Assembly’s right to make secondary legislation.

One useful method that I employed when I was a Wales Office Minister was to publish an exchange of letters between myself and the relevant Assembly Minister so that Members of this House could, in effect, see something similar to draft regulations. Alas, that cannot happen in this case because the Assembly
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has consulted no one and has no view on what to do with the powers that the Government are asking us to pass on to it.

We are told that only after carrying out a consultation and settling its own views will the Assembly be able to bring forward coherent proposals for legislation relating to its Welsh priorities and time scales for further education and training in Wales. If ever there was a case of putting the cart before the horse, this is it. We are told that the enhanced legislative competence sought by clause 25 will provide the framework for the implementation of key components of the Assembly’s education policy in Wales. The memorandum tells us that that policy will be informed by the proposals of the Independent Review of the Mission and Purpose of Further Education in Wales in the Context of the Learning Country: Vision into Action—the Welsh can always be trusted to use 20 words when one will do.

Mr. Hayes: The right hon. Gentleman is making a significant point. May I invite him to ask the Minister to intervene to clarify what discussions have taken place, because it is inconceivable that the Government have not anticipated some of the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes, and this House needs to know precisely what preparations have been put in place to stop the circumstances he describes from occurring?

Mr. Touhig: The Ministers on the Treasury Bench are very skilled and able, and if they feel the need to intervene on me I am sure that they will do so.

The point I am making is that the outcome of the review is not expected until autumn this year, which could be a full six months away, and the time scale could slip even further given the current situation in the Assembly, which was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen. At present, we are unsure who will run the Assembly.

At a time when further education and training in England will gain from the benefits introduced by the Bill, Wales will have to wait for the Assembly to make up its mind. That is complete nonsense, and we are being made fools of. The Government are, in effect, asking us to write a blank cheque. We are being asked to give new powers over further education and training to a devolved Administration who have consulted no one on the use of such powers—indeed, the Assembly has no settled view on what it would do with the powers, even if it had them.

It has always been my contention that the transfer of any further law-making responsibilities to the Assembly should be the subject of proper pre-legislative scrutiny and debate. I am opposed to transferring primary law-making powers by the back-door method in clause 25. The Government should ask the Welsh Affairs Committee to look at the proposals, take evidence and report to the House before any decision on the transfer of power is made. That could be done without impeding the progress of the Bill, and we could decide on Report whether clause 25 should remain in the Bill, or be deleted or amended.

Education and training in Wales differs somewhat from that in England, and I recognise that legislation needs to reflect that. For example, the Learning and Skills Act 2000 makes different provision for funding
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and inspection of further education in Wales than in England. There must be tailored solutions for Welsh circumstances. I have never been opposed to a “made in Wales” solution to a problem, but I have always been opposed to a “made in Wales” solution to a problem just to make it different.

However, that is not the argument. In this country, Parliament governs in the name of the people. It is not right that Parliament is being asked to transfer powers to a devolved Administration without any form of parliamentary scrutiny or debate on the merits of transferring such powers. I hope that the Government will give us an assurance that Parliament will have the opportunity to consider this transfer of law-making power before we are asked on Report and on Third Reading to pass the Bill and to enact it.

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