Further Education and Training Bill [Lords]

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Clause 20

Consultation by governing bodies of further education institutions
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment No. 32, in clause 20, page 13, line 41, leave out ‘or’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 33, in clause 20, page 13, line 42, at beginning insert ‘local’.
No. 34, in clause 20, page 13, line 42, at end insert ‘and (c) sector skills councils,’.
Mr. Hayes: We have, rightly, had a long debate on clause 17. We now move to a more straightforward but significant part of the Bill. Clause 20 inserts a new section 49A into the 1992 Act, which imposes on the governing bodies of further education institutions a duty to have regard to guidance about consulting with learners or people who would like to become learners, and with employers, in connection with the taking of decisions that will affect them.
Amendment No. 33 would ensure that the consultation with FE colleges would involve local employers rather than just those employers of which the SSCs are representative. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), who is a great champion of small and medium-sized enterprises, being the managing director of at least one business in his locality, made quite a point of that. As a result of his endeavours, we tabled this amendment. He argued that the Bill undervalues the potential role of business managers, especially those from SMEs, particularly with regard to their involvement in the nation’s skills training programme. He wanted business not only to be consulted but to be heavily involved in the process, and he made a strong case to that effect. I shall not go on at great length about it.
We are anxious to ensure that all those with a legitimate role and a voice in these matters are properly consulted and involved in the discussions that affect skills and training in their locality. These three amendments to this important part of the Bill are designed to elicit an assurance to that effect from Ministers. I hope that, because of the probing nature of the amendments, the Minister can, with similar clarity to that which was shown in the debate on clause 17, assure me that SMEs, SSCs and other interested parties will be involved in the way that I have described.
Bill Rammell: I hope that I can give the reassurance that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings seeks. Consultation of both employers and learners is at the heart of the Bill. With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier intervention, I point out that the clause allows for institutions to consult both students and employers where decisions affect them. It also allows institutions to consult learners alone or employers alone where that is appropriate and the institution judges that it is the right way forward.
I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman sufficiently that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment, because it could create a major new requirement on both FE institutions and SSCs, significantly and unnecessarily increasing their work load. The possibility that nearly 400 institutions in England and 25 institutions in Wales might all individually consult 25 SSCs holds out the prospect of a huge burden, particularly on SSCs. There would be enormous duplication of effort, with SSCs responding to many FE institutions on the same issue. It is important for FE institutions to work closely with SSCs, but we cannot support placing a specific requirement on individual colleges to have regard to guidance about consulting SSCs.
It is important to consider, aside from the specific debate about consultation, that SSCs have a role to play in how the college would conduct its business. For example, as we implement demand-led funding in England, we would intend SSCs to have a central role in determining, with the employers, the qualification strategies for their sectors. That will mean that FE colleges need to take account of the information provided by the SSCs to be able to respond to demand. That can be achieved without legislation.
I do not support the proposal to restrict consultation to local employers. Apart from the inherent difficulties in determining what is and is not local, the word implies that individual colleges may not have a consultative relationship with a large national employer. I repeat that individual colleges, their management and governors are best placed to make such decisions; I would not wish to be prescriptive in these matters. However, we will be wary of the potential bureaucratic impact of multiple consultations with the same employer, and the guidance advises colleges to work with the LSC and skills bodies to ensure coherent consultation.
As I said earlier, I would not wish to refer in primary legislation to organisations such as SSCs, which are non-statutory bodies. Such organisations may be renamed or abolished in the longer term—I am clearly not anticipating that, but with the passage of time, circumstances change—and a reference in legislation would be rendered meaningless. Having given those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
6.45 pm
Mr. Hayes: To prove that I do not always speak at length, I am delighted to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21

Qualifications of prinicipals of further education institutions
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment No. 30, in clause 21, page 14, line 12, at end insert—
‘(1A) In subsection (1) after “principal of further education institution” insert “or Chief Executive of the Learning and Skills Council.”’.
This amendment is essentially another probing amendment to ascertain why principals of FE colleges need to have a leadership qualification and why this provision should not apply to others in the sector, particularly those whom the Government think should have the power to dismiss FE principals.
The whole Committee will be aware of the recent story about the LSC’s capability to make managerial mistakes. The BBC reported that some 150 charities say that they are unable to apply for Government money for training schemes because of the problems of the new online computer-based application system. The Minister will not necessarily want to comment on that issue in detail, but essentially the point that I am making is that managerial competence needs to apply across the board; it should not be stipulated for one party and not for another. It seems to me that we want consistency in the Government’s approach. If the Government make these demands of a few principals, they should make them across the board. As I said, this is, by its very nature, a probing assessment.
Bill Rammell: The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who leads for the Opposition, knows that I usually listen intently and respect the points that he puts forward. However, this particular amendment might be described as the cheap shot amendment.
Whichever intermediary body was in place, there would be criticism by providers when they did not get the particular decision that they were looking for. The hon. Gentleman should look at the track record ofthe LSC since its inception, particularly under the stewardship of the current chief executive. I do not think that we would have achieved the improvements in success rates that we have seen without the work and the incredibly assiduous overview provided by the LSC.
I would like to address the hon. Gentleman’s proposals specifically. Although I do not denigrate in any way the skills of those in the FE sector, managing the LSC brings different types of leadership challenges. Leading the LSC, which is a multi-site, multi-product, multi-billion pound organisation, requires skills that, frankly, are more appropriate to a major business. I would agree that, although formal qualifications are important, it is the hands-on experience of delivery in complex and challenging commercial environments that the LSC’s national council seeks when it appoints its chief executive.
Requiring the qualification of FE principals is part of our work to professionalise staff in the FE system. It also helps to address the weaknesses in FE leadership that were identified by Ofsted in its inspections and by Sir Andrew Foster in his independent review of theFE system. Going forward, principals have a crucial role in ensuring that colleges respond effectively to the challenges identified by Sandy Leitch. I think that this new requirement is a significant change and to confuse it with the role of the chief executive of the LSC would be wrong.
Therefore I do not consider that it would be appropriate to expand the scope of section 137 of the Education Act 2002 and the regulations made under it to include the chief executive of the LSC. The LSC, when recruiting its chief executive, ensures that the person has the necessary skills to meet the challenges of the role. Indeed the Learning and Skills Act 2000 provides that the LSC’s national council may appoint its chief executive on such terms as it determines. I think that those provisions offer reassurance.
The hon. Gentleman also said that he needed to be reassured about the accountability framework within which the LSC’s chief executive operates. I must say that, as the chief executive regularly appears in my office and the Secretary of State’s office, there is a robust accountability framework in place for the work that he undertakes. I hope that, with that reassurance, the hon. Gentleman will be able to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Hayes: None of my shots are cheap, but some are of less value than others. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]
Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Seven o’clock till Thursday 14 June at Nine o’clock.
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Prepared 13 June 2007