Previous Section Index Home Page

Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman asks whether there are colleges in Wales that would like these award-making powers. I can confirm that there are,
12 July 2007 : Column 1657
including, in my constituency, Rhyl college, which is part of the Llandrillo college network. I believe that there are others.

Mr. Hayes: That confirms what I thought. As I say, I took a keen interest in this once it became clear that it was a more significant issue than most people had recognised. My Welsh colleagues, and Welsh Labour Members, identified this early on, as one would expect, but as soon as it was drawn to my attention I realised that it was a much more significant part of the Bill than most observers would have gathered at that early stage. I, too, have learned that there are colleges that would like to pursue this opportunity.

In Committee, the then Minister said

Yet in a letter to the Minister of State on 6 July, Fforwm stated:

It goes on:

The Opposition understood throughout consideration of the Bill that only a small number of colleges, at least at the beginning, will take advantage of this opportunity. It is absolutely right that colleges should have the capability and the capacity to do this properly. That is important from the perspective of learners and from the perspective of the degree brand. We are advocates of rigour and excellence. However, it may well be that colleges in Wales can meet those high standards, and it would be wrong to establish two systems—a Welsh system and an English system, the former without the opportunity to grow in the way that I have described and the latter able to do so. Colleges in Wales, and their representative organisation, clearly wish clause 19 to apply to both England and Wales. Fforwm says:

The insertion of ‘and Wales’ in clause 19 after ‘in England’ would suffice for that purpose.

Colleges in Wales feel that they have fallen between two constitutional stools—the law-making powers of Westminster and the devolved legal powers of the National Assembly for Wales. It is unfortunate that we have reached that point. I do not claim for a moment that it is the result of any ill will or malice, but it is important, even at this late stage, that Ministers recognise that this is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. I therefore hope that the Minister will, with a similar kind of alacrity and enthusiasm to that which I suggested was prevalent among Welsh educationists, adopt my amendment and so get himself out of a rather deep hole.

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said. In fact, I think that I agree with all of it. I hope that the Under-
12 July 2007 : Column 1658
Secretary of State for Wales, in what I guess is his first speaking role from the Front Bench, will address some of the comments made.

2.30 pm

Briefly, I want to touch on two points, the first of which is a point of process. The hon. Gentleman said that this is a matter for the Privy Council. Indeed, it is. When I was Secretary of State for Wales, I was regarded, as is the present holder of that post, as being the Privy Councillor for Wales, and it seems to me that the present Secretary of State for Wales should have been involved much more closely with this matter than he has been.

There is no doubt that this has been a pretty messy development. We shall refer later, when discussing amendments Nos. 8 and 9, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), to the constitutional aspects of the Bill. However, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was right to point to the procedure that was put in place after the enactment of the Government of Wales Act 2006, which ensures that there should be a proper legislative Order in Council to deal with these matters. Why? Because all of the detail we have just heard from the hon. Gentleman would have been discussed at much greater length. There would have been much greater co-ordination between the National Assembly for Wales and our Government, and that would have been done, if I may say so, in a particularly Welsh way. We could have discussed why it is that further education colleges in Wales will not be given the same opportunities as those in England.

My second point concerns precisely that. I spent 17 years of my life teaching in further education in Wales, and since that time there have been enormous developments in the sector. All of us who represent Welsh constituencies can point to tremendous co-ordination and co-operation between higher and further education in Wales, which is to be commended. However, this legislation goes beyond that. I cannot understand why it is that the National Assembly for Wales—one assumes—and the Welsh Assembly Government are opposed in principle to giving the power to further education colleges to award degrees when in England such colleges have exactly such powers, particularly given that the body representing further education in Wales has clearly said that the principle of colleges having such powers should be accepted. Perhaps it is an example of seeing a chance to be different for the sake of being different. If that is the case, that is wrong. I look forward to hearing the Under-Secretary say that that is not the case and that there is good reason why the Government’s proposals for England are not good enough for the people of Wales.

Sarah Teather: I also raised that point in Committee and I thought it odd that we were neither giving the power to Welsh colleges to award degrees nor giving the permissive power to the Welsh Assembly to confer such powers on colleges. When I raised that point with the then Minister, the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), he said that FE colleges were not demanding degree-awarding powers. It is now clear that that appears not to be the
12 July 2007 : Column 1659
case. The briefing I have from Fforwm says that it believes that the door should not be shut so formally on the opportunity for colleges in Wales to award their own foundation degrees. The former Minister said that when Fforwm does its review of FE and HE in Wales it can bring forward proposals, and if there is a clear recommendation that Welsh colleges should be given that power, there will be an option to bring forward an Order in Council, which would be a time-consuming solution to the problem.

It is frustrating to realise that part of the reason why there appears not to have been a clamour from Welsh colleges, or even representatives, is the confusion about what powers the Bill confers on the Welsh Assembly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) said a few moments ago, when the matter was discussed in the National Assembly’s Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee, the Minister there said that while she felt there was little need or demand for the provision, the Assembly had carte blanche under clause 27 to introduce provision for the awarding of foundation degrees at a later date. Initial legal advice taken during the Committee seemed to confirm that view. However, following the meeting, written advice suggested that clause 27 did not allow the Assembly to confer those functions on the Privy Council. That certainly seemed to be the understanding of the former Minister when we discussed the matter in Committee.

We have an odd situation in that the Bill confers almost all the provisions for England on Wales, except the only interesting bit—the only bit that has got anyone excited. It is remiss that poor legislative scrutiny has led to Welsh colleges missing out on something that the Government believe to be very important for English colleges.

Chris Ruane: There has been a lack of consultation, especially with Welsh Back-Bench Labour Members of Parliament, by higher education and further education in Wales and by the National Assembly. I look to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for reassurance that, even at this late stage, we will have some input as legislators into the final outcome of the Bill.

I welcome the measures that have been announced. I am pleased that FE colleges in England can issue foundation degrees. I hope that that will shortly happen in Wales, too. It is an important stepping stone towards achieving the Labour Government’s goal of ensuring that 50 per cent. of our young people have degrees. It is welcome, and I give credit to the previous Conservative Government, who allowed the polytechnics to become universities and award degrees. That, too, was an important step.

Further education colleges play an important role in education, especially in working class areas. I look to my constituency of the Vale of Clwyd and my home town of Rhyl, which has a college for the first time in its history. Denbigh, too, has a college for the first time. That is genuine progress. I can recall my days at university, but coming from a large council estate of 3,000 people, I could probably count those who went to university on the fingers of one hand. Degrees are becoming more accessible.

12 July 2007 : Column 1660

I am concerned about all of Wales, but especially north-east Wales and, specifically, Wrexham, Flintshire and Denbighshire—scouse Wales, as I prefer to call it. We need to consider the way in which the provisions will affect those communities. Let me cite some statistics, which I have already given to the Under-Secretary, on educational achievement in those areas and the number of people going into higher education.

There are 22 local authorities in Wales. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s league table, in which 22 is best and 1 is worst, Wrexham is sixth for key stage 2 achievement, fifth for those achieving five or more GCSEs and seventh for numbers going to university. Neighbouring Flintshire does well for primary and secondary education, achieving 12th and 20th positions respectively, but falls way down to eighth on numbers going to university. My county of Denbighshire is eighth for achievement at the age of 11, seventh for achievement at the age of 16 and 11th for numbers going to university. We need better access to degrees in north-east Wales and the Bill could help to achieve that.

I urge my hon. Friend to convey the results of the soundings that he has taken from all parties to the National Assembly and the HE institutions in Wales, to ensure that access continues—especially in north-east Wales—at a pace that is at least equivalent to the Welsh average and, indeed, the national average. If not, we will be left behind.

Mr. Hayes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Ruane: I will because the hon. Gentleman gave way to me three times.

Mr. Hayes: As a council house boy and the first in my family to go to university, I appreciate many of the hon. Gentleman’s observations and share his determination to ensure that we widen participation by improving access. Does he realise that, unless the amendment is accepted, we may end up with colleges in Wales that cannot offer the same sort of courses as English colleges, and that that would result in an exodus of students from Wales to England to take advantage of the access that he describes?

Chris Ruane: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a chance of that, but I hope that the messages that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary takes back to Cardiff will avert it. I look to him for reassurances on the amendment at the end of the debate.

There is a political dimension to the statistics that I cited—I would not like to leave out politics. Denbighshire is Tory and Independent controlled and Wrexham is Liberal and Tory controlled. The same investment has not occurred in those two counties as has happened in Labour-controlled Flintshire. That is why the statistics show that Flintshire does well educationally for 11-year-olds and 16-year-olds. However, it fails for 18-year-olds. Hon. Members cited the letter from Fforwm—an establishment in Wales that has displayed a high-handed attitude. We have a term in Wales for the establishment and the great and good that often control institutions such as the BBC, other cultural institutions and the legal profession. It is “the crachach”. It would disturb me greatly if the
12 July 2007 : Column 1661
crachach in the HE sector held back and issued instructions to politicians to hold back because they wanted to preserve what they perceive as excellence in Welsh higher education.

We have excellence in the HE sector in Wales. I went to Aberystwyth university, which is an excellent institution, while Cardiff university has the eighth best research department in the country. We have excellent institutions and it is not my aim to lessen that excellence. We also have excellence in FE institutions in Wales. I referred earlier to Llandrillo college, which is the largest educational institution in north Wales and one of the largest in the whole of Wales, with 23,000 students. It also has outreach colleges in Abergele, Rhyl, Denbigh and other locations, quite often in the poorest communities in the whole of Wales, including one located 100 yd away from the council estate where I grew up.

We have excellence in our colleges. Llandrillo college received a grade 1 for each of the seven things on which it was inspected, the first college in the whole of Wales to achieve that. It is high-handed of HE in Wales to look down its nose at colleges such as Llandrillo. Indeed, if it looked at how that college is run, it could learn a lot. I do not accept the argument from the National Assembly or HE in Wales that excellence will be lessened. We have to knock that one on the head.

The second argument from Fforwm to which Opposition Members have referred was that there was an insufficient groundswell of opinion in the FE sector. Fforwm represents each and every FE institution in Wales and it has spoken, although too late as far as I am concerned—it should have told us what the issues were months ago. Fforwm speaks on behalf of the FE sector in the whole of Wales and it deserves to be listened to. I gave the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings the example of Llandrillo college, which has expressed an interest. I was on the phone this morning to the principal of that college, Huw Evans OBE, who was given his OBE because of his contribution to FE education. He definitely wants the award-making powers, and I believe that Coleg Menai in north Wales would like them, too.

Two arguments have been put forward—the first about lessening excellence and the second that there is no groundswell of opinion—but I do not accept either of them. We have excellent colleges such as Llandrillo and Coleg Menai, as well as Deeside college, Northop horticultural college, Llysfasi agricultural college, Yale college, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), and others. Every one of them should be allowed the opportunity. The process is not easy—they have to go through screening to ensure that they have the quality to make such awards—but I support the stance of those institutions to get those powers.

In conclusion, what reassurances can my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary give me that our voices will be listened to in Cardiff? He should take back the point that the process needs to be speeded up. If we leave it until September we might miss the boat for this year, and I would certainly like those award-making powers to be given to FE colleges in Wales within the next year to 18 months.

Ian Lucas: I rise briefly to support much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said and to add two further points from the
12 July 2007 : Column 1662
perspective of someone who represents an ambitious further and higher education town, Wrexham, where Yale college is making great progress and the North-East Wales institute is making progress towards university status. The further and higher education environment in Wrexham—and, indeed, in west Cheshire—is very competitive. I am reluctant to support measures that would make Welsh colleges less competitive in relation to English colleges, and I hope that that point will be relayed back to the National Assembly for Wales.

2.45 pm

The process of securing degree-awarding powers is long and arduous. It is not something that can happen overnight in further education colleges. I speak from experience, having seen the long process that the North East Wales institute has gone through to secure such powers. It was an arduous process. The Opposition made a suggestion, which was in some respects appealing, that there would be an immediate disadvantage to Welsh colleges if the amendment were not accepted. That is not the case, however. A process of consultation is going on in the Assembly, and this debate will inform that process. I hope that it does and that it highlights the concern in areas such as north-east Wales about educational attainment and progress through to university. We need more avenues to degree status through foundation degrees, and I am reluctant to rule out the further education route that is being offered in the Bill. I have concerns about the present form of the Bill, but that can be remedied. I hope, however, that in future we will be listened to earlier in the process.

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): As my former role as a Minister has been referred to by at least two Members in this short debate, I thought that I had better say a few words.

The debate has highlighted that we are on new ground when dealing with these matters. The Assembly wants to assume new powers, and Parliament is rightly insisting that there should be proper scrutiny of the role and responsibilities that the Assembly wants to take on. This particular case is a model example of how not to do it. I was involved as a Minister, but I did not realise until I was no longer a Minister how great the difference was between the briefings that I was receiving and the strong views that were being represented by Fforwm. That is not a criticism of any individual or of the civil service. However, when I saw the briefing that was sent to all Members of Parliament at the end of June from Fforwm, I immediately phoned John Graystone to find out what had happened. Clearly, that information had not been available on Second Reading or to members of the Committee, and it did not appear to have been made available to Members in another place when they were debating this Bill.

Mr. Graystone went through all the contacts that he had made, as chief executive of Fforwm, with the Welsh Assembly Government and outlined the various representations that had been made to officials, to the Minister and to members of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee, which I attended on 1 February to give evidence. I told the Committee that
12 July 2007 : Column 1663
I was likely to be involved in taking the Bill through the House of Commons. I was therefore surprised, having received the briefing from Fforwm, that I was not asked a single question about the awarding of foundation degrees, bearing in mind that the Assembly’s position was then—and still is, as I understand it—that it wanted to await the outcome of Sir Adrian Webb’s review. That is likely to be published in the autumn. If it recommends the granting of degree-awarding powers to further education colleges in Wales, the Assembly will seek an Order in Council.

The fact is that we could have addressed this matter much earlier. If Fforwm had understood the way in which our scrutiny works in this place, rather than just—quite rightly—writing to officials and the Minister, it could have circulated its concerns to Members of Parliament at an early stage. I, as Minister, could have responded on the key issues even before we got into the scrutiny process. That would have been a much better way of doing things, but we are where we are.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) raised an issue that I hope the Minister will be able to clarify. He implied that, even if there was the will in the Assembly to get an Order in Council promulgated to take the matter through this place, if we do not carry this out now it will be extremely difficult in the future. He argued that it would be difficult to ensure that the Privy Council would, through the Order in Council, allow degree-awarding powers to FE colleges in Wales. I understand that to be the hon. Gentleman’s main point. However, the assurances that I received as Minister showed that there was no doubt that an Order in Council could, if the Assembly wished it, achieve that object relatively quickly. We could and can have the pre-legislative scrutiny and debate that hon. Members want. That is my understanding of the position and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would confirm it.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman spoke in Committee and speaks again today with great integrity, and I take his point about the advice that he was given and the position that he was in. I was drawing attention specifically to the debate in the other place, where the noble Lord Adonis, when questioned on exactly the point raised by Baroness Morris, said:

Next Section Index Home Page