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The CBI is thus arguing against aspects of the legislation, so when the Secretary of State prays in aid the CBI he should be careful to do justice to the full breadth of all its arguments.

Ed Balls: I am sure that people on both sides of the House will try to avoid being glib. In response to our Green Paper, the CBI stated:

However, it also said:

So, my argument is that the CBI says that this measure is necessary. Does the hon. Gentleman agree or disagree with the CBI’s consultation?

Michael Gove: We first asked the Secretary of State to come up with his own arguments, but he could not do so and relied on the CBI. He then said that the CBI was wholly in favour, but we now discover from him that only a proportion of people in the CBI are in favour. When I cite the CBI’s arguments showing that it has well-founded and specific concerns about the legislation, the Secretary of State chooses not to answer the point. Perhaps the Minister for Schools and Learners will answer it when the Bill reaches Committee, because the Secretary of State has failed to do so today.

One of the key things is that the Secretary of State has twice failed to make an argument. He failed to make an argument in response to the hon. Member for Yeovil and he failed to explain why he thinks that this suppression of liberty is proportionate and likely to prove effective.

Mr. Flello: I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Will he clarify something for me? He seems to be saying that at the age of 16 or 17—below the age of majority—society deems that a young person is not mature enough to buy alcohol or cigarettes, but is mature enough to decide how they should receive their education, which will affect the whole of their life. I am curious as to why the age of majority is 18, yet a young person should be given the responsibility, as well as the right, in those couple of years to decide how their future might pan out.

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Michael Gove: If the hon. Gentleman takes that view, he should take the matter up with the Leader of the House, who believes that 16 is an appropriate age at which individuals should vote. I hesitate to step into an internal Labour party argument about when individuals should have freedom and autonomy. I merely make the point that when society is increasingly recognising that 16-year-olds should exercise freedom and autonomy, it is ironic—I put it no more strongly than that—that the Government should take a different view.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con) rose—

Michael Gove: I shall give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, and then to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Sheerman: Before we got on to the discussion about the CBI, the Opposition spokesman was making a useful and important point. May I clarify something, because I am most interested in this point in the context of the Select Committee? Was he saying that as far as he and the Conservative party are concerned a child ceases to be a child at 16? I do not agree with that. He should not throw back at me what the Leader of the House says, because I do not agree with her. The question of the age at which a child ceases to be a child is important.

Michael Gove: That is a very important question. My view is that we are increasingly recognising that at age 16 someone is a young adult, and we have to show more respect to individuals at that point. That is not just my argument: it is the argument of a variety of organisations that work with young people. We have to show increasing respect for the autonomy of young people, and 16 is increasingly an age at which we recognise that that autonomy can be exercised. We recognise that we have a sliding scale of freedoms and entitlements at different ages—17 for driving, and 18 for voting and, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) pointed out, for buying alcohol and tobacco.

As I said, the Leader of the House is leading the growing consensus that 16 is the age at which we can confer young adult status on someone. That is recognised in the drafting of the Bill, which places the primary duty on the 16 and 17-year-old, rather than on their parents.

Mr. Binley: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State is clutching at straws when he uses the CBI’s comments as an argument for industry and business in this country generally, because it represents a very small minority of businesses, mostly the very large businesses to which costs are proportionately less important than to small and medium-sized enterprises? The cost of policing will be massive for many SMEs.

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend— [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend has more direct experience of running small businesses than the Secretary of State or the
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Minister of State and should therefore be listened to with respect by them— [ Interruption. ] It is all very well for the Secretary of State to laugh, but my hon. Friend has direct experience of providing employment to all sorts of people. He has had a distinguished career in small business and it would behove the Secretary of the State to treat his interventions with more respect.

Ed Balls: In my speech I read out the comments of both the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce, and I agree with them. Indeed, many hon. Members would agree that the BCC is the best representative of the small and medium-sized business community, alongside the Federation of Small Businesses. The BCC has also said that compulsion until 18 is necessary for the economic future of our country. I am showing no disrespect to that business community.

Michael Gove: The Secretary of State certainly showed disrespect to my hon. Friend, but I shall take that intervention as an apology to him.

More appropriately, I will emphasise that my hon. Friend was making a valid argument. The CBI is a valued voice in the debate on business, but it tends to speak disproportionately for those larger businesses that can more easily absorb the additional costs of the regulation that the Bill contains.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: I wish to make a little more progress now.

I should refer at this stage to one curious consequence of what is proposed. Under this legislation, young people will be considered to be in education only if they are studying for a QCA-recognised qualification. A number of independent schools, and others, are currently dissatisfied with the curriculum and are developing, or have developed, their own qualifications and examinations, such as the iGCSE and the Cambridge pre-U. If a young person were studying for those qualifications, with their parents’ permission and in a respectable school, would that mean that they were breaking the law? Would that mean, for example, that the whole top stream at Winchester were criminals? [ Interruption. ] I know that there are some Labour Members who think the very existence of a top stream at Winchester is inherently criminal, but in drawing attention to that potential anomaly I just wanted to emphasise the potential existence of many flaws and many potential restrictions on liberty in the Bill. What about individuals who want to join and play for sporting teams? What about those who have obtained qualifications and wish to enjoy a gap year travelling or volunteering? We will seek clarification of every area in Committee, and if we receive satisfaction from the Government we will be delighted.

My third test is how effective the Government’s proposals are likely to be in practice. I have expressed my scepticism that compulsion, as the Government are proceeding with it, is quite the best way to secure the greatest level of fruitful participation in education. It is
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said in the Army that a volunteer is worth 10 pressed men. It is an old saw, but we all know that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. More broadly, anyone involved in education will know that an effective precondition for successful teaching is a willingness on the part of the student to learn. The presence of sullen conscripts in a classroom or learning setting, who resent being there, is unlikely to lead to their sudden conversion to the joys of learning, particularly if their previous experience of learning has been unhappy. Indeed, their presence is unlikely to be conducive to creating a calm and purposeful environment for all those who do want to learn. Given the present high levels of truancy pre-16, with the numbers increasing every year from year 8, the task of enforcing attendance post-16 will certainly be a challenge. The priority should be to ensure that we can provide the right incentives and encouragements to persuade young people to participate in education for as long as possible.

The Government have sometimes appeared to believe that any questions about their preferred method of proceeding spring from bad faith or some reactionary desire to limit opportunity, but the range of voices raised in connection with the proposal makes nonsense of any such thought. From the British Youth Council to the Children’s Rights Alliance and from Rainer to the Edge foundation, organisations that exist to champion young people’s rights and to provide a better vocational education for all have concerns. They all point out that unless disaffection is tackled before 16, the Government’s strategy will not succeed, and that an approach based on coercion will be less successful than one that places incentives at its heart.

Such organisations are not alone in raising concerns; a variety of influential educational voices have also issued warnings. One figure has warned that the raising of the school leaving age should be seen only as a “symbol” rather than a punitive measure. Another warned that

That figure was Baroness Morgan of Huyton, formerly an adviser, of course, to Tony Blair.

What about this argument:

That was Conor Ryan, formerly an adviser to Tony Blair. Another quotation states the person’s recognition that the measure

of education provision—

That was said by Lord Adonis, a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families and formerly an adviser to Tony Blair. Then, of course, this point was made:

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That was, of course, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who was a Minister under Tony Blair. We can see a clear Blairite analysis of the legislation—one with which I must say I have some sympathy—that stresses the need to avoid a punitive approach.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I agree that we need to ensure that everything is right before the age of 16 in order to engage young people. However, does the hon. Gentleman think that it is possible to reach 100 per cent. participation without the galvanising effect of compulsion on the professionals who work with young people? If he does not and if he thinks that we could reach, say, 90 per cent., does he agree that that last 10 per cent. are the ones who could benefit most? If so, what would he do to get that last 10 per cent. into education or training to get all the benefits for their outcomes that that would give them?

Michael Gove: Does the Minister believe that with compulsion we will secure 100 per cent. attendance at ages 17 and 18, given that we already have levels of truancy and unauthorised absence that mean that about one in 10 of those aged 16 do not attend? I am happy to work with the Minister and the Secretary of State to maximise attendance and provide incentives.

I believe that the answer is to ensure at the beginning of schooling that every child who can is learning to read, so that they can fruitfully participate in education. I also believe that the answer is to get the vocational and academic offer right, so that we can ensure that the maximum number go down the academic route and that the vocational offer does not, as at the moment, leave far too many individuals dissatisfied. Excellence should not be rationed to academic or vocational routes. Unlike the Secretary of State, I believe that many more people should do A-levels and go to university.

Mr. Sheerman: There are reservations about the sanctions that can be introduced in legislation, but the hon. Gentleman cited someone’s comments about imprisonment. Nothing in the Bill would lead to imprisonment—that should go on the record now. Nothing in the Bill will lead to a student who does not undertake training or education going to prison.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee. I should point out that the individual who raised the matter was the former special adviser to the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, and a former adviser to the Prime Minister on education—not a negligible figure.

The primary method of enforcement is fines. What will the state do in the case of non-payment? I am genuinely curious about what would happen if persistent refuseniks declined absolutely to pay any fine because they were so disaffected with the system and
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unhappy to go into education. In those circumstances, would a custodial sentence be imposed, as often happens with persistent non-payment of fines?

Ed Balls: No.

Michael Gove: That raises the question of whether the system is one of genuinely strong enforcement.

Mr. Ellwood: Can my hon. Friend update the House on how well the Government are meeting their truancy targets?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a good point. As I said earlier, approximately one in 10 of those who should be in education at 16 are absent in an unauthorised fashion.

Mr. Heald: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would require a significant change in the law for a court not to be able to impose imprisonment for failing to pay a fine, which is contempt of court? Perhaps the Secretary of State has some extra information that he would like to give us, but, on the face of it, his assertion is curious.

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend, who has considerable legal and constitutional experience, makes a good point. I am genuinely curious about the Government’s position. Can people who deliberately refuse to pay a fine because they consider it to be unjustified evade sentencing? If so, what effective sanction is there? What deterrent exists to ensure that someone will attend?

Jim Knight: Obviously, we will discuss the matter in Committee. However, to help the House, I point out that the matter would be referred to the youth court and that the new youth default order process, which is also going through Parliament, would come into effect. None of the options available to the youth court under that process includes imprisonment.

Michael Gove: That raises the question of why individuals who are determined not to attend should comply. We will leave it for Committee, but the ultimate sanction is an open question in the minds of many of my hon. Friends and, I suspect, of a few Labour Back Benchers.

The point is important because the Secretary of State gave the example of New Brunswick, which is a relatively novel experiment in education. An academic analysis of what happened in New Brunswick stressed that weak enforcement secured only a marginal increase in participation in education. It is a tough question for the Government. If they have only weak enforcement, the additional number attending will be small, but a system of strong enforcement raises the question of whether vulnerable and damaged young people will be criminalised and potentially face custody.

Ed Balls rose—

Michael Gove: Perhaps we can get enlightenment at last from the Secretary of State.

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