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Finally, it is important to note that further education is now properly recognised as a major component of our education and training, perhaps in a way that was not the case before. FE institutions are now more highly valued, and our Government value colleges more than ever in the past. They will make a major contribution to the training and education of our
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young people for the future. Millions of young people will go through further education colleges, particularly if we raise the school-leaving age to 18, and it is right to give them additional support, encouragement and financial sustenance to do their job. I have probably already said more than enough, but I want to commend the Bill and support my Front-Bench colleagues.

5.34 pm

Sarah Teather: Rather curiously, a Labour Whip has been going around asking everyone to speak for as long as possible. I assume that another Department is attempting to table some amendments in the Table Office at the moment. At this point, however, I am probably allowed to be brief.

This is a small Bill, as the Minister said, and I am afraid that it is not a particularly inspiring Bill either. Curiously, it was published between the Foster and the Leitch reviews without directly referring to either. Even more curiously, much of the Bill has been superseded by Government announcements on moving 16-to-19 funding to local authorities. We are left with a Bill that contains a number of new powers that will effectively be made irrelevant by the Government’s proposals to move funding to local authorities. Disappointingly, the Minister was unwilling to acknowledge that during the earlier stages of debate, which makes it difficult for us to appreciate the full implications of the Bill a couple of years down the line.

Unfortunately, the Bill still contains intervention powers for the Learning and Skills Council. Given that those have never been used by the Secretary of State, that seems largely pointless. By sleight of hand, the LSC will still be allowed to instruct colleges to dismiss senior staff. That is even more bizarre, given that the Government intend to transfer funding powers for many colleges away from the LSC altogether.

Nevertheless, with those provisos, I wish to acknowledge how far the Government have moved since the Bill was first published in the other place. The Bill is much better than when it was first discussed. One of the sections of the Bill that has been improved considerably is that which relates to foundation degrees. The Government accepted Opposition criticism about progression routes, and made them much clearer. Similarly, in response to concerns that I raised in Committee, the Minister has agreed to amend the guidance on franchising such that it is no longer automatic on completion of a probation period. The Bill is therefore much improved, albeit that many of the new powers will be made irrelevant, unfortunately, in no time at all.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches—I say “we”, but I appear to be left on my own at this point—will support the Bill. I hope, however, that the other place will continue to press the Government on intervention powers. I hope that it will extract further reassurances on the Government’s intentions with regard to moving 16-to-19 money to local authorities. Given a little time, I suspect that the Government’s thinking might have advanced, and that they might be able to give reassurances in the other place that they could not give to me today.

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During the progress of the Bill, we spent a great deal of time discussing foundation degrees. As I have said to the Minister during those proceedings, and on other occasions outside the Chamber, the danger is that the controversy over foundation degrees will obscure the real challenge, which is to provide better, more flexible routes to move between further and higher education. When the Government have thought through the implications of moving 16-to-19 money away from the LSC, I hope that one of the reforms that they will consider next will be to make it much easier for students to move between further and higher education.

We know that further education transforms lives, and if we had a more flexible system that allowed young and older people, depending on their caring and other responsibilities, to move from an institution close to their home to somewhere else, as their responsibilities and choices changed during their course of study, we might have an exciting opportunity to transform lives in the future.

I thank the Minister for being willing to make changes during the Bill’s progress, and I hope that further reassurances will be extracted in the other place.

5.38 pm

Mr. Touhig: I welcome the Bill, as it will equip learners with the high-quality skills that they need to compete in the global economy and job market. I have always argued that we need to upskill and retrain our people. When my father went underground at the age of 14, he needed muscles in the arms; now we must develop the muscles between the ears. That means investment in training and upskilling all the time.

In the United States, 80 per cent. of people in work have been in a learning situation since they left school. In Germany and Japan, the figure is about 56 per cent. In the United Kingdom, it is still about 30 per cent. That shows how far we still have to travel if we are to give our people the skills that they do not have now, which will enable them to do the jobs we need them to have to maintain our strong economy and to build our future.

In my constituency, all post-16 education takes place at a tertiary college. I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins): such colleges make an important contribution to our whole education system. When I came into the House more than 12 years ago, I was a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee—now chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis)—which carried out an inquiry into post-16 education in Wales. We certainly saw the huge benefits of tertiary education in offering a range of skills that are not offered in 11-to-18 schools.

When I was a councillor representing part of the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the local comprehensive school in my area—an 11-to-16 school—held a debate on whether it should have a sixth form. This is the basis on which I made my decision. I examined the cohort of youngsters who had progressed from the comprehensive school to the local tertiary college over the previous two years. I found that only two of the
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40-odd children would have been able to study the subjects that they eventually studied if the school had had a sixth form. In other words, they had a much greater opportunity in the tertiary college than they would have had otherwise. I therefore think it important for us to continue to strengthen and invest in further education and training.

During the 20 years for which I was a councillor, further education was often the Cinderella. Primary and secondary education were considered very important—people were saying “Let us reorganise our schools”, “Let us end the 11-plus” and so forth—but further education was largely ignored. My experience of it was not as enjoyable as that of my oldest friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, who taught at a further education college for 17 years. I was a student at a further education college; my education came to an end when I had a dispute with the principal and was asked to leave, but that is another story. I have seen how my children have benefited from the opportunity to opt into a course at a college after abandoning a course at school.

On Second Reading and on Report, I expressed concern about the way in which parts of the Bill had been handled, particularly clause 27. I have no doubt that if the Bill had received proper pre-legislative scrutiny in the context of Wales, today’s debate on foundation degrees would not have taken place. I am convinced that we would have found a way of resolving the issue beforehand.

I strongly support the initiative and the thinking behind the Bill. I thought that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) was a little dismissive. As she said, this is a small Bill, but it is making a very big and important contribution to the ongoing education and training of our young people. In this new century, it is important for us to recognise that if we do not invest in upskilling and retraining there is no way in which our economy will be able to compete, given all the global pressures that we face.

I commend the Minister for the way in which the Bill has been handled, and I commend those who served on the Committee. We have had good debates on Second Reading and on Report. As I said on Report, I hope that in future we may be able to deal rather better with the Welsh context. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen pointed out, we are in a different position now vis- -vis the devolution settlement in Wales. The spotlight will be on this place, showing how we handle legislation that has an impact on Wales. Welsh Members of Parliament have a responsibility in that regard. The 29 Welsh Labour Members received 600,000 votes at the last general election, more than those in the Assembly and in local government put together. We have a voice and a mandate to represent our people, and it is important for our voice to be heard here. If legislation affects the Welsh people and the Welsh economy, we must ensure that we get the very best from it.

I will not take up any more time, because I am sure that others wish to speak. I congratulate the Government on the Bill. A small Bill it may be, but it has had a major impact. I look forward to the enactment of the important measures that it contains: we will soon see the benefits derived by our young people and our economy.

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5.44 pm

Mr. Boswell: The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) expressed the mood of the whole House, and the support of all Members present for further education and its unique and central role in empowering people and increasing the country’s skills base. I only wish that some of those outside took it as seriously as we do.

By way of contentiousness, I want to make three slight criticisms of the Government and the Bill. The first point is that the Government’s ambition has shrunk. The Minister has just told the House that this is a small Bill; as I recall, in Committee he said that it was the first major FE bill for a generation. He has now scaled the Bill down to its appropriate size; I thought it might have been called the Further Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. However, that does not mean that it is not worthwhile and I shall support it tonight.

The second point concerns what is almost the default feature of Government practice: to seek to intervene when intervention is not always necessary and certainly not precedented. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) talked about the powers being devolved to the Learning and Skills Council to intervene in the governance of FE colleges, which I do not think is appropriate.

The third factor that tells against the Government to a small extent is a certain insouciance in relation to the details of legislation. The right hon. Member for Islwyn has mentioned devolution to the Welsh Assembly; this could have all been thought out more and we would have had a better Bill with a lot less trouble if it had been.

Having said that, there are some positive features. One on which I have not spoken, because of my absence from the Committee when it was raised, is the industrial training levies, which are sensible. Having started with scepticism, I am also now a supporter of the new arrangements for foundation degree-awarding powers. It is a very bad thing for someone who has been a Minister never to think that anything is added to the sum of things afterwards. The foundation degree programme has been a thoroughly worthwhile innovation and has proved itself as a very important part of the further education scene.

With a slight detachment from direct involvement in the management of these affairs, one sees some items coming round again. I remember the Learning and Skills Council being launched with a fanfare in 2000; now it is effectively being restructured and sidelined, an interesting and complex arrangement. The Government have not told us, so I do not know, what final structure they will come up with but it is clear that the role of the LSC will not be as great as it has been. There will be some important areas of policy from Foster but, more particularly, through Leitch that will need further debate and legislation in this place, including the financing package.

I put down a slight marker of concern. Having seen the tremendous liberation of further education colleges when they were transferred from local authority control in 1993, I am concerned that there will be some resumption of the dead hand of local authorities. I very much hope not.

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Kelvin Hopkins: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the early indications are that although funding will be channelled through local authorities, institutions will retain their relatively high degree of independence within that arrangement?

Mr. Boswell: That is both my anticipation and my profound wish. It ought to be possible for consenting adults to find a way of doing this without destroying the important lead that FE can take.

As regards the funding model, we will have to debate that later. I am attracted by the industrial demand-led model to a large extent, but it needs to be matched with a personally driven model and a resource model in terms of individual learning accounts. We know that their history has been unfortunate but the concept is entirely right and we need to balance the two. We must remember that further education is a service not only to industry and competitiveness, but to the individual as well. In learning and participating, one is also making a national contribution.

There is a huge degree of goodwill for further education and, by that token, support for the Bill. There is a lot of work to be done, but that is not an excuse for subverting what has been done, improved and explored in Committee and we should put through the Bill tonight.

5.49 pm

Dr. Francis: I, too, welcome the Bill, which I hope will be of benefit to learners in England and Wales. The Welsh Affairs Committee has been mentioned several times this afternoon and I thank hon. Members for all their contributions, which have, for the most part, been very benign. We have already taken seriously the points raised today. Our “Legislative Competence Orders in Council” report has been mentioned on several occasions. I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who emphasised our report’s recommendations in respect of the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny. I also welcome the observations of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams): he asked whether the Committee is preparing for the volume of work that will come before us. We certainly are—that is why we produced the report. Further, we have held meetings with key Assembly Members and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales in order to ensure that we are ready when the Orders in Council come before us. We will scrutinise them with our Assembly colleagues in Sub-Committees of our Select Committee. Having said that, I reassure the House that we take on board all the points made today about the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny, and that we will respond to the strong views that have been expressed in all parts of the House.

I welcome the undertakings given by my hon. Friend, but I felt that his statement was introspective in that he did not fully appreciate cross-border issues. The North East Wales Institute of Higher Education and nearby FE colleges are concerned about the impact on them of foundation degrees and other advances in England. I should also say that NEWI is a progressive
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and forward-thinking institution, and that I share the hope of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) that it will become a university very soon.

Finally, let me state that the Committee which I chair is totally committed to securing and sustaining the role of this House in pre-legislative scrutiny of all measures relating to Wales, regardless of whether they emanate from the Assembly or this House.

5.53 pm

Bill Rammell: Our discussion on Third Reading has been an important one. I should start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes): he was doing a service in delivering his insightful and lengthy contribution, as today is his 10th wedding anniversary and he needs to leave the House. He has demonstrated great commitment.

I welcome the support that the hon. Gentleman has given to foundation degree awarding powers. Members in all parts of the House—I include Liberal Democrat Members—have engaged constructively; we have witnessed this House operating at its best, in that we took on an initial proposition and then worked at it and scrutinised the proposals as they have progressed. We have ended up with what I genuinely believe is the most significant element of the Bill.

We must ensure that there is as much innovation and creativity as possible to help us face up to the skills challenge at the higher levels. Highly performing FE colleges have a significant contribution to make, and enabling them to award their own foundation degrees is a positive step forward. We have also been able to ensure that there is progression from foundation degrees on to further study courses, where that is appropriate and the student concerned wishes it. We have made it abundantly clear that there is a strong, robust and coherent quality framework within which these qualifications will exist. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about higher education in that regard, universities have nothing to fear from these proposals. The market is expanding significantly. Today, there are some 61,000 foundation degrees; by the end of the decade, we will be moving toward 100,000 and beyond. So there is certainly enough business for universities and FE colleges, and in my view, many of them will continue to work productively in collaboration.

The hon. Gentleman also expressed concern about what is happening to adult learner numbers. We need to be clear that there has never been as much money going into the system as there is today. Overall, FE funding during the last decade has increased by 50 per cent. in real terms. I do not wish to make a crude party political point, but I will. That compares very favourably with the 14 per cent. real-terms cut in the five years to 1997. Here, we should consider not just revenue, but capital expenditure. When this Government came to power in 1997, there was not one penny in the mainstream capital budget for FE. Today, the budget is £500 million a year, and we can see the evidence of that in virtually every FE college throughout the country.

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