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The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): I welcome the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) to her new position and, for the avoidance of doubt, I confirm that I continue to be the Minister with lead responsibility for the Learning and Skills Council. The hon. Lady referred to some of the remarks that I made in Committee and referenced them with the position we are in today. I need simply remind her that the role of Ministers is to argue current Government policy with conviction; I did that in Committee and I am more than happy to do it here today.

It is the Government’s intention to provide strong strategic leadership for the reforms to the 14 to 19 curriculum and qualifications and for increasing participation and attainment by young people by the age of 19. That responsibility, announced as part of the recent machinery of government changes, sits with the Department for Children, Schools and Families. We intend that the new Department will have responsibility for overall planning and funding for 14 to 19 learners to achieve that ambition. It will focus on those young people who are not in education, employment or training, who often need personal support services to help them engage. It will take responsibility for raising the education leaving age.

With that responsibility, we intend to transfer funding for 14 to 19 learners—I am pleased that the hon. Member for Brent, East has welcomed that—to the local authorities’ ring-fenced education budgets. Crucially, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—in effect the Department for the knowledge economy—will lead the work to ensure that this country has the skilled work force that it needs to compete in the global economy. At the heart of that task is the development of funding and performance management of further education in England—a vital and continuing role. Included within that role are efforts to make sure that the system is able to deliver the 14 to 19 reforms to which I referred earlier. If ever there was a need for joined-up government, it is in this area.

Both those reforms are logical developments of the Government’s policies, such as Every Child Matters, the 14 to 19 reforms, the challenge set by Sandy Leitch and the further education reform agenda. Those are welcome and both Departments are now working on the practical implications of the announcements. It is clear that the reforms will require legislation. The Prime Minister has indicated that the Bill to raise the education leaving age from 16 to 18 will be one of the measures on the Government’s legislative agenda next year. We will seek to secure on the programme for the
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following year a Bill to deliver the reforms announced in the machinery of government changes. Before then we will, rightly, consult on the details and timing of the funding transfer to ensure no disruption to schools, colleges and training providers. That is the fundamental issue.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): One issue that my hon. Friend has raised, and which I raised on Second Reading, was that of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training. They are not tracked at all and, in my constituency, there is no knowledge of what happens to them after the age of 16. Would it not be simple to instruct local authorities to make a list of people who appear to be missing from education and training as soon as they leave school at 16, and to do that fairly quickly?

Bill Rammell: I respect my hon. Friend’s intentions; he has worked on this matter for a long time. It is not fair or accurate to say that no tracking takes place. The Learning and Skills Council, local authorities and the Connexions service work together to provide advice, guidance and support and to track young people in those circumstances. One issue that we debated in Committee is that the NEET group is changing; it is somewhat simplistic to say that they are all suffering from a lack of opportunities. As a result of that discussion, I committed to write to members of the Committee and I will be happy to forward that correspondence to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Hayes: I thank the Minister for that letter and for exploring the issue in more detail. Why does he think the number of NEETs has grown since 1997? It is not absolutely clear why and he must have a pretty good idea of what strategic changes have brought that about.

Bill Rammell: If one looks at the long term trend, it is not accurate to say that the number has grown. Broadly, the percentage has remained similar. I am not denying that this is a significant challenge for us. Across Government, real effort is going into this area. Some of the reforms we are looking at now will enable us to take that body of work further forward.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Yesterday, I took four young women aged 16 and 17 who were NEETs around the House of Commons and spoke to them for one and half hours. Three of the four said that they fell off the education radar because of bullying. What message can the Minister give to those three young women from my constituency that that issue is being tackled, not only in Wales but in England?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend raises a serious and important point. The new Department takes bullying extraordinarily seriously, as we did in the former Department. We must ensure that there is best practice in every school. We must also ensure that schools are not blind to the problem and do not carry on as if it does not exist. Within every school we need proper procedures to expose the issue, tackle it and give children and young people the confidence that there is security within the classroom and the school.

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We also will ensure that there is no disruption to 14 to 19 reforms, including the introduction of new diplomas, and to the skills reforms, including the move to a system which is more demand-led. We will continue the vital work of employer engagement, which Opposition Members have been particularly interested in. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) asked about further legislation. I reiterate that moving to a demand-led system does not require legislation. We are already moving to a demand-led system; the significant proportion of funding through Train to Gain and skills accounts will, under existing arrangements, move to a demand-led approach. We do not need further legislation to increase the proportions. Other elements will require legislation and I will come on to those.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister has provoked this intervention. Surely he is not telling the House that fundamental changes to the responsibility of the LSC and new powers for the sector skills councils—another element of Leitch that I assumed the Government would take seriously—as well as changes to the funding regime would not require some changes to legislation. There are statutory powers and responsibilities embedded in the system that would have to be changed if we were to adopt the Leitch agenda in its fullest form. I do not understand why the Minister is being so defensive; if there is to be legislation, let us say so and have an open and honest debate about the public policy implications.

Bill Rammell: I am not denying, and I have not denied, that there will be a need for further legislation. However, a move to demand-led funding does not require further legislative change. That is possible and is happening at the moment. The proportions of demand-led funding are increasing significantly as of today. As I said, we are moving to a more demand-led system, which is vital to employer engagement.

All of this will take time, however, and although we will seek to effect early changes that can be made under current legislation—for example, our commitment to close further the funding gap between schools and colleges as resources allow might be enabled by the new system, and lessons from the dedicated schools grant might be used to inform how funding methodology can be developed—I estimate that we will not be able to give effect to the full legislative changes until the academic year 2010-11. In the three full academic years between now and then, the LSC will retain the legal responsibility for securing and funding all forms of post-16 education and training outside higher education. In particular, it will retain the duty to secure the proper facilities for young people aged 16 to 19.

As the LSC will for the time being retain that duty for young people, we must ensure that it can operate effectively. Establishing the performance management and viability of colleges, including their work with young people and adults, will be discharged on behalf of the Government by the LSC until such time as new legislation is introduced. Therefore, now is not the time to make changes to the LSC’s duties in respect of providing proper facilities for young people.

Sarah Teather: I thank the Minister for that answer, but may I return to an earlier point I made? Will the Government give an undertaking now that, when the
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funding changes are introduced, they will amend the legislation so that the performance management assessment of colleges is no longer done by the LSC? I would not feel comfortable passing the Bill if I did not have confidence that the Government would make such changes in a few years, because otherwise we would effectively be giving powers to assess the management of a college to an organisation that would no longer have any relevance to the college.

Bill Rammell: I cannot, and will not, give the specific commitment that the hon. Lady asks for, as if I were to do so it would pre-empt legitimate consultation on the detail of this matter, which should take place. It is certainly the case that we will have to consider changing the overall legislative framework, including changing the proposed legislation in this Bill. However, I think that the hon. Lady is asking me to go further by specifically ruling out that the LSC will be part of that process, and it would not be right to do so.

Sarah Teather: My understanding, especially from the discussion that members of the Education and Skills Committee had with David Bell yesterday, is that the Government have made it clear that it is their intention that the LSC will not be part of the process, but that they are consulting on the means to get there—on how to move the money for the 16 to 19 age group. It is therefore completely illogical for the Government not to say that at some point in the future they will end the LSC’s responsibility for the performance management of colleges which will not be funded by it. That is what I want the Minister to say. We are passing measures that will need to be changed in the future and I do not want to pass them unless the Government are prepared to give us an undertaking that they will come back and look at this issue.

Bill Rammell: We will certainly come back and look at the issue, but we must consult on the detail, and we must make a decision once 14 to 19 funding is transferred to local authorities’ ring-fenced budgets about which is the appropriate body to manage the overall intervention regime. It is right that we consult on the detail of that, which will almost certainly mean that we will need to return to the House. However, it is wrong to ask me to say explicitly now that a reformed LSC will not have a role to play in that.

1.15 pm

One of the amendments is intended to probe our intentions in respect of the transfer of 14 to 19 funding. The machinery of government changes consolidate our policy aim to ensure that there is a coherent offer of education and training to all young people at local level, with overall responsibility residing in one body—the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The changes also help us to achieve our ambition of making a step change in delivering a world-class skills base. The new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will provide a strong voice across Government for effective investment in research, science and skills and put them centre stage in the Government competitiveness strategy. That is one of the most exciting elements of
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the machinery of government changes. There will be shorter-term action that we can take to consolidate our approach, deliver our aims and ease transition to the new arrangements. I understand the spirit of the hon. Lady’s amendments, but now is not the right time to introduce the measures they propose. As I have said, we will consult on the detail and the timing of the changes to ensure that there is no disruption to providers or, more importantly, to students and employers.

The probing amendment is silent on which bodies would gain responsibility for 16 to 19 provision if we were to remove that from the LSC. Our policy intention is clear: the Department for Children, Schools and Families will lead the Government’s overall strategy for children and young people, and specifically for the 14 to 19 phase, where the funding to support learners in that age group will transfer from the LSC to the local authority ring-fenced grant. However, in terms of the detail of the funding transfer we will need to determine the exact allocation of responsibilities and duties, which duties should apply to the Secretary of State and which to local authorities, and whether other bodies will also need to continue to co-operate or be under a duty to support the delivery of the 14 to 19 offer.

Mr. Hayes: This is an important debate about an important issue in the Bill, and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) makes a valid point about competence. If the competence for funding is to move, is it not critical that the other competences move with that? Accountability, inspection and management functions must follow the money. I am unsure about the Minister’s view on that. I appreciate that he is consulting, but he must have a notional view of how he expects that to pan out.

Bill Rammell: If I were standing here now—a week or so after announcing the government machinery changes—setting out a blueprint of exactly how we intend to proceed, I would be criticised for having drawn it up behind closed doors and for not having consulted people or involved them in the process. As we have not done that, I am being criticised for not giving a steer as to the future direction. We are handling this matter correctly. We have made it clear that there is likely to be a period of up to three years under the existing system during which the funding will continue to be routed through the LSC. Given the importance of providing services to those young people, adults and employers who are currently in the system, we must ensure that we manage that transition without disruption, but we will need to reflect, consult and debate on the way forward after that period, and we intend to do so.

On the detail of the funding transfer, we will for example need to be clear about the roles of different bodies in the delivery of apprenticeships and the duty currently residing in the LSC to secure facilities for learning of sufficient quality and quantity. I am sure that Members will agree that it is vital that the transition to the new arrangements does not interrupt our existing reform programme, which is significant and is delivering improvements on the ground. Delivery of courses and training to young people must also be unaffected.

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Many measures are already working well, such as the local partnership teams that have been established which bring together the best from the LSC and the local authorities to create a variety of learning routes and means of progression for young people. That is leading to higher levels of participation and achievement than we have ever had before. We must build on such successes.

We might want to consider making changes that do not require legislation, and the amendments would not allow for that more flexible approach to change, which would be a pity. It is important that there is careful consideration and consultation on the details before legislation is brought before Parliament. Given our policy intention on the 14 to 19 phase, we also need to consider and consult on the best way to deliver our skills ambition on post-19 education and training. That must preserve and build on the progress through the LSC that we have already made to meet the needs of employers and learners. These are significant changes, and we need time to consider all the issues and to get them right.

Before I conclude, let me respond to some of the specific points that were raised. The hon. Member for Brent, East asked whether we will introduce measures to enact such changes. We will undoubtedly have to consider changes to the legislative framework, including those proposed in the Bill. I hope that that gives at least some of the reassurances that she was looking for.

Kelvin Hopkins: The White Paper proposed that common funding principles for schools and colleges be put in place by 2008-09. I presume that that still holds true.

Bill Rammell: It certainly is our intention to have a common set of funding principles for schools and FE. We are already making significant progress in reducing the funding gap between school sixth forms and FE, which is a very important and positive step forward.

The hon. Lady also asked whether we would repeal section 2 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000. That is clearly an option that we will rightly have to consider. She also asked about apprenticeships and where responsibility should lie in that regard. As my Department is the employer-facing Department, it is appropriate for such responsibility to stay with it, given the skills and innovation agenda. However, we need to make sure that all young people have diversity of choice, and there will have to be co-operation across Departments.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings made some kind of insult involving seven-year-old children with chickenpox that I did not fully follow. The Leitch implementation plan will be published very shortly. We have taken—

Mr. Hayes: What I said was that I was told by an authoritative third party that the original version of the response to Leitch could have been written by his seven-year-old son at a time when he had chickenpox. Given that it was so poor, and that it has been reworked several times and the Government’s response has been delayed several times, will he tell us unequivocally now that the Leitch response will be published next week, that Parliament will have a chance to debate it, and that
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it will not be published outside this place? All Members deserve the chance to scrutinise and debate this important matter.

Bill Rammell: I can and will give the commitment that our response will be published very shortly, and there will be opportunities to debate and scrutinise it. My experience is that every White Paper, Government response and piece of legislation that I have seen in five years as a Minister has benefited from a first, second, third and fourth draft—indeed, as many drafts as were necessary to ensure that we got the detail right. That has rightly happened with the Leitch implementation plan, and I hope that, when the hon. Gentleman sees our response, he will feel able to support it. I can make it clear to him that nothing within the strategy that we will put forward is contradicted by any of the Bill’s provisions.

I hope that I have been able to reassure Members about our intentions. As I said, these are significant changes and we need time to consider all the issues and to get them right. Therefore, although I appreciate the opportunity for an early debate on this matter and thank the hon. Member for Brent, East for providing it, I hope that she feels able to withdraw her motion.

Sarah Teather: I thank the Minister for that response; he gave a lot of extra detail on the time frame and the Government’s intentions. I am pleased to see his change of heart on this issue, and that he joins me in welcoming these changes. I was disappointed, however, with the vagueness of his response to the question of amending this legislation in future. As I said at the outset, the new clause and accompanying amendments are probing amendments—I wanted to know more about the Government’s intention. I also tabled them because the Government’s announcement has enormous implications for the Bill before us. I am not wholly reassured that when future legislation is introduced logical changes in respect of performance management and responsibility for opening, closing and merging colleges will take place. I remain disappointed that the Minister has not given more detail on that issue, to which I suspect we will return when we discuss the next string of amendments on clause 17.

I am also disappointed that the Minister continues to argue that apprenticeships should remain within the Department. I am hoping that a change of view and a volte-face similar to that which we have already seen will take place at some point in the next couple of months. There is a danger in leaving apprenticeships within the Department, rather than including them with all other 14 to 19 learning. It could create a rather confusing barrier between the part-time learning that inevitably happens at the start of an apprenticeship, often off-site—perhaps in a college or another classroom-based setting—and the move to on-site, work-based learning. It is not obvious what the division will be, and it would be very disappointing if leaving apprenticeships within the Department created a confusing barrier. It is important that young people know that they have a range of options, including apprenticeships, along with other forms of vocational learning. I hope that the Government change their view on that issue.

However, this is a probing new clause, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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