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Earlier, I mentioned an overall theme. Many contributions revolved around information provision. I wonder whether the Government are attempting to straitjacket organisations and perceptions of further education, rather then releasing them to be responsive to employers and the market. I shall explain that a little further. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said that he wanted to raise further education’s profile and remove the stigma from it. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South said that he wanted SMEs to play a role in defining courses. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) said that he was interested
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in lifelong learning. He said that we begin our careers in one specific role, but few of us remain in it later in life. He considered the lifelong learning pattern and the way in which further education could enable that.

The Bill is a missed opportunity. We have modern technology, including the internet and websites. If we wanted to ensure that supply and demand were matched, providing information is the way to do that. Nowhere does the Bill enable or empower people who want to take up a course, or SMEs or large businesses that want to consider students, to obtain the information overtly. We have an opportunity to consider creating or enabling—perhaps simply through a website—a method of ascertaining demand throughout the UK for specific skills and qualifications. For example, when students embarked on a course in further education, they could see that there were 500 jobs and only 200 people studying for the relevant qualification. That would be helpful and a good method of matching supply and demand without top-down control or fixing a structure in further education.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is developing an interesting theory. Does he not believe that it contains some aspects of the work force planning that we experienced in the NHS? Is there not a cautionary tale to extract from what has happened with the Medical Training Application Service—MTAS?

Adam Afriyie: That is well spotted and I welcome the intervention because that is exactly what I am not considering. I am talking about showing the demand—the number of jobs throughout the country; we are not considering an especially local issue—that requires a specific further education qualification. Employers—the matter is largely about economics—could also clearly see how many students were studying for specific qualifications that might match their demand. That would enable employers to decide whether there was a skills shortage a year or two in advance. I continue to employ several hundred people and I know when I am looking for a skill in my work force. If one plans a year or two in advance, it would be helpful to know whether the skills were coming through. If they were not, I would do my best—as would other business people—to encourage demand for the courses and get the skills into my business.

Conversely, it would benefit individuals looking to study a course—many people are fairly relaxed about which courses they are studying within a limited field—because they could look into the job market, see that 500 jobs were available with only 200 students studying for a relevant qualification, and decide to opt for that particular course rather than another. The Bill therefore misses an important opportunity to do more on the provision of information in order to empower and enable the work force and SMEs to match supply and demand. The Bill in its current form should not be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with very great force.

9.20 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Let me begin with an acknowledgement, a regret and a plea. First, I acknowledge how the Minister has fully briefed the Opposition on the Bill
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and listened to my arguments and those of my colleagues and other interested parties. This House is at its best when our formulaic partisan exchanges are supplemented by a creative tension that blends our ideas and our skills. Much of that work, by necessity, goes unseen, but we should celebrate the political culture of which it is a part.

Sorry, Bill, but having raised your expectations with my acknowledgement, I am about to blight them with my regret. It is a regret shared— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We have a special way of addressing colleagues in the House, but the way in which the hon. Gentleman has just referred to the Minister is not one of them.

Mr. Hayes: It was intimate, but improper. I am sorry, what I meant is, “Minister, I am about to blight your expectations with my regret”. It is a regret shared by almost all of the very many people I spoke to who were connected with or concerned about skills. They regret, as I do, that the Bill is not fit for purpose. The Government must know that, and I cannot believe that the Minister is not embarrassed by its limited ambitions.

So to my plea—that the Government should take their heads out of the sand and listen to their own advisers. Let us be clear. The Government were so concerned about further education that they commissioned the Foster review. Sir Andrew Foster recommended radical changes for colleges because he recognised that they are stifled by regulation and strangled by red tape. According to Foster, there are 17 bodies with a monitoring or regulatory role in FE, stifling innovation and excellence. Foster recommended “less centralisation” and moves to “greater self-regulation”. There is none of that in the Bill.

Worse, where the Government do not disappoint, they offend. Why on earth do they still think that the Learning and Skills Council should be given sweeping new powers to sack college principals and senior managers. Yet the Government do indeed think that, because we heard it confirmed in earlier exchanges. The Secretary of State can currently do some of that, but the new threat to colleges is more draconian. Indeed, I asked him earlier today how often the existing power had been exercised. He hesitatingly said that it had not, so let me clarify.

In replying to a parliamentary question that I tabled last month, the Minister revealed that the existing powers had “never been used” except where, following the resignation of a governing body, the Secretary of State had been required to appoint new governors. I emphasise again that it has “never been used”—not once. Is it any wonder that the other place voted against this part of the original Bill? The Association of Colleges, Opposition Front Benchers and others have urged the Government to think again, and this evening my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) amplified our appeal.

Now, to be fair, the Government were so concerned about skills that they commissioned the Leitch report. Lord Leitch, like Sir Andrew Foster, recommended radical reform. This Bill contains nothing of Leitch. It
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is bizarre by any standards to ask for a detailed study and simultaneously to introduce a Bill to Parliament that pays no attention whatever to the report of that study. Lord Leitch’s review revealed just how much work still needs to be done. The scale of the challenge is formidable, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) told us in her speech. Even if the Government were to meet their target to improve UK skills by 2020, at least 4 million adults will still not have the literary skills expected of an 11-year-old and 12 million would not have equivalent numeracy skills. Britain would continue to be, in Lord Leitch’s words,

We would continue to have smaller proportions of intermediate and higher level skills than key competitors such as France and America. Skills gaps hinder national progress, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) pointed out, and much is getting worse. There are now 1.25 million young people aged 16 to 24 who are not in education, employment or training—NEETs. That figure is up 15 per cent. since 1997. While we waste a generation’s potential, we add to its number as 45,000 16-year-olds leave school each year functionally illiterate and/or innumerate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) said, it is time to champion the cause of those NEETs. What a tonic it was to hear from him!

That is not the only thing that is getting worse. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who is not in his place at the moment, said that he celebrated the fact that 250,000 over-60-year-olds were engaged in adult education, yet this week the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education reported that 500,000 adult education places have been lost in the past year. The proportion of adults currently learning or having done so in the past three years has fallen to just 41 per cent. That means that fewer adults now have the opportunity to be inspired in the way that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) described with such eloquence.

The Learning and Skills Council has played a significant part in our discussions today. This year, the LSC will receive £11 billion of public money—more than the Royal Navy—yet too much of that funding is consumed by complex bureaucracy. Staff costs rose by 26 per cent. between 2001 and 2006, and there are more than 4,400 people directly employed by the LSC. None of them is democratically accountable to their locality, as the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) reminded us.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hayes: I will happily give way to my right hon. Friend, who is a great expert on these subjects.

Mr. Redwood: Has my hon. Friend noticed that, in the account of the Bill issued by the Government, they proudly tell us that, although they are abolishing all the local learning and skills councils, there will be no manpower savings at all? Is not that bizarre?

Mr. Hayes: It is indeed bizarre. Even more bizarrely, we heard that the reorganisation, which is going to save
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£40 million, will to cost £50 million. That does not sound like very good maths to me. When we consider the costs of the three previous reorganisations, we realise that it will be donkeys’ years before we are back in credit. The conclusion is that we should reorganise less often and save money.

A study for the Economic and Social Research Council has identified nine layers of bureaucracy that a pound of public expenditure must pass through on its way from Whitehall to learners. No wonder one LSC official told a study,

He could have added, “governed by the most confused of all.” As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said, at the root of this confusion is the Government’s lack of a coherent skills strategy.

Soon, the Government will publish their detailed response to the Leitch review. Lord Leitch advocates a demand-led system to meet the nation’s skills needs. He argues that the present supply-driven model, based on Government planning, has a “poor track record”—his words, not mine—yet the Bill will establish regional LSC councils with precisely such planning functions. When I asked the Secretary of State earlier whether that was a paradox or a contradiction, he said that it was not a paradox, so we must assume that it is a contradiction. Lord Leitch proposes a system driven by employers of the kind advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley). Such a system would bring together the needs of employers and the work of trainers. As a result of the Bill, however, the power of employers to drive the system will be stifled in a way that was highlighted by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks). The danger of establishing parallel structures is that it would add further confusion.

Lord Leitch recommended a step change in policy to close the skills gap, yet the Bill will do little to meet the challenges involved. At best, it is a wasted opportunity; at worst, it is a regressive step, tightening the bureaucrats’ suffocating grip on further education. Sir Andrew Foster’s report, published less than two years ago, argued that colleges also play a vital role in improving employability and skills in their locality. He said that they should work effectively with their local LSCs, helping them to develop and implement strategies, yet the Bill will abolish the local LSCs.

So, local LSCs are recommended by Foster, the report is published, and then it is rejected by the Government. Leitch brings out his report proposing a root-and-branch reform of the management and funding of skills, and it is ignored.

When the Minister spoke of the need to ensure a clear vocational pathway, vocational diplomas were at the heart of his thinking. To improve the skills of the nation, it is vital to establish an attractive vocational pathway to match the academic gold standard of GCSEs, A-levels and degrees—a guided pathway leading to employment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) described it. If properly implemented, diplomas provide just such a pathway, and yet the Education and Skills Committee warned in a recent report that,

raising doubts about the timetable for implementation.

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The clarity of purpose that characterises the Bill also characterises the diplomas—in other words the Government’s intention is not clear at all. There is great confusion about what the diplomas are for, and whether they will deliver rigorous instruction in vocational subjects. Lord Adonis referred to the new awards as recently as May last year as “specialised vocational diplomas”, and yet the Minister tells us:

The awarding body, OCR, told the Education and Skills Committee that such confusion had led to a lack of consistency across the five diplomas being introduced first. It argues:

As well as confusion, the constantly changing nature of diplomas has created concerns that they will fall between two stools—neither sufficiently academic nor vocational. The Nuffield review of skills argued that there was a danger that the new emphasis on theoretical learning might push specialised diplomas towards becoming more general, rather than vocational, awards. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority told the Education and Skills Committee:


Others, including the Institution of Engineering and Technology, have argued that there is insufficient time to introduce the diplomas without hazard. Of particular concern is the warning from the Edge Foundation:

In a moment of sincerity, even the Secretary of Sate said that the diplomas could go horribly wrong. Unless we are confident that they will go happily right, we owe it to employers, colleges, schools and, most of all, children, to delay their introduction. To do otherwise would add irresponsibility to doubt, and would tarnish the diploma brand so badly that it would become unattractive to learners and employers.

Like most Governments, this Government do some good things. The decision to extend foundation degree-awarding powers to FE colleges is right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) said, however, it is vital that rigour is maintained, that the relationship between FE and HE is guaranteed, and that the matter is properly reviewed. We should proceed on that basis with enthusiasm. It is not surprising that there is doubt given that the consultation was, to be generous, very limited. It seems as limited as that on clause 25, if we are to believe the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig).

Much of the history of the Labour Government is of horror and disappointment. The Bill is not horrible, but it is deeply disappointing. It is too piecemeal, limited and unambitious to make a significant contribution to tackling Britain’s skills crisis. As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant said, it is not what
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is in the Bill, but what is not in the Bill, that matters. The Bill is not big enough to meet the challenges we face for the good of our people, and the good of our country.

The reasoned amendment directs us to the big picture that the Bill ignores. Britain’s future depends on a skills base that is built on the fulfilled potential of a new generation of craftsmen. That generation’s future is being jeopardised by the obstinate inaction of Ministers who should know better.

Those arguments were put time and again during the course of the Bill’s passage in the other place. As I said, the Minister has been generous and professional in the way he has listened to those arguments and has responded, but I say to him in honesty that he cannot really believe that the Bill is fit for purpose. How can it be when we expect any day now the Government’s response to the Leitch review, which is bound by necessity to look at the fundamental weaknesses with our skills system; which is bound, in my judgment, to require further legislation? Why did the Government press ahead with a further education Bill in full knowledge that Leitch would report? Surely we are not going to have another FE Bill in the next Queen’s Speech—or are the Government so short of ideas that they have to revisit the same subjects time and again? That is not reasonable for the House and it is equally unreasonable as far as FE colleges, teachers, learners, employers and all those involved with skills are concerned. It is simply not good government.

The House should support the Opposition amendment for the sake of apprentices, who deserve to learn by the side of the best in each craft. Make no mistake about it, Mr. Speaker, apprenticeships in this country, though not in crisis, are certainly in difficulties. It is quite unacceptable that, in the words of the adult learning inspectorate, it is possible to complete an apprenticeship without ever having set foot in a workplace. That cannot be right. Declining levels of employer engagement; declining levels of mentoring; and some apprenticeships with very little workplace element are not worthy of the name “apprenticeship”, because they do that brand no good at all.

The House should support the Opposition amendment for the sake of colleges, which need the freedom to innovate and excel. As I travel around the country visiting colleges, as the Minister, the Secretary of State and, I guess, all of us do, I see many professionals doing an immense amount of excellent work. Surely we should have faith in those professionals by entrusting them with the freedom that they could use so favourably in the interests of learners.

Most of all, however, the House should support the Opposition amendment for the sake of the lost generation—the sad, forgotten army of NEETs, which at 1.25 million people is roughly 15 per cent. higher than in 1997. Before I left home for the House this morning, I grasped my six-year-old son to my breast, like every parent does, and I looked at him and thought what he might do in the future, as, again, every father does. Then I thought of all those 16, 17 and 18-year-olds—hopeless and helpless, and only looking forward to a future of unemployment. When I came to
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the House tonight I thought that I would say a word—make a passionate plea—on behalf of that lost generation. We owe it to them to support the amendment. That would be a fitting response to a Bill that is unimaginative and unworthy of the scale of the challenge that we face; that is quite simply, unfit for purpose.

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