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14 Jan 2008 : Column 681

Ed Balls: I am happy to give clarification, though the subject is for Committee.

Under the court’s normal powers, a range of measures is available. They include an attachment of earnings order, which will stay with the young person. Under the new youth default order, measures could be an unpaid work requirement, a curfew or an attendance centre requirement for any young person who fails to pay a fine. Custody for under-18s is the one measure that will not be open to the courts as a means of fine enforcement. However, short of custody, a range of options is on offer. They will be a last resort for young people who deliberately flout attendance orders and have no good reason for doing that. Clearly, tough sanctions are available to the courts.

Michael Gove: Clearly, the Secretary of State has still not answered the question. We look forward to a proper answer in Committee. However, I believe that an individual who is determined not to be in education or pay fines will also be determined to flout the orders. At what point will the state use coercive power to ensure that the individual is punished by restraining their liberty and placing them in custody? If that cannot happen, there is no effective deterrent. That is a hole in the measure’s heart. Weak enforcement does not secure greater participation and strong enforcement risks making criminals of those individuals.

Mr. Frank Field: That part of the Bill is immensely important, and the hon. Gentleman might know that I also have doubts about the compulsory aspect. He is making a powerful case, as did the Secretary of State, about how we fail some of the poorest children in our communities. Although he challenges the Secretary of State for not replying, we have not learned a great deal from the hon. Gentleman about how a Conservative Government would change things for the poorest children in our society. This may not be the right time, but I make this plea—that he bid for an Opposition day debate on the subject.

Michael Gove: I should be absolutely delighted to have such a debate, whether in Opposition or Government time. I always enjoy dialogue with the right hon. Gentleman. We have proposed differential funding, as have the Liberal Democrats, to favour children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and we are anxious in particular that the testing regime should be changed to ensure that every child who can is reading by the age of six, in order to deal with the epidemic of illiteracy.

Mr. Field: The debate must go beyond concentrating more resources on the poorest children. If they do not go to school after the age of 12, as many poorer children do not, there is little point talking about concentrating extra resources on them, as schools will just spend the money on somebody else.

Michael Gove: That is an interesting point. I suspect that it is part of another debate, which I shall enjoy having with the right hon. Gentleman whenever the opportunity arises.

I am conscious that I have taken a great deal of time and trespassed on the House’s patience. I have done so in order to take as many interventions as possible—I do not believe that I have refused a single one—but I
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recognise that many Back Benchers wish to take part in the debate, so with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall bring down the guillotine on interventions. I apologise to those who still wish to intervene. Perhaps there will be another opportunity for them to speak.

On ensuring that participation is maximised, I have pointed out the weaknesses so far in the case being made for the Government’s strategy. There are others as well. We know that the Government are committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships. We also know, however, that apprenticeships offered by private sector organisations such as BT are massively oversubscribed, whereas apprenticeships sponsored by the Government, sadly, do not have the same completion levels. Unless the Government can improve their vocational offerings—unless they can make apprenticeships more attractive, increase the workplace element and ensure that they become a better route to work for those who take them—there will still be insufficient incentive for many young people to pursue what could, in the right hands, be a very attractive course.

Perhaps this is a matter for Committee, but we are anxious to ensure that increased participation is the goal. We recognise that international comparisons can teach us much, but in the economy most similar to ours, Australia—in both Western Australia and Queensland—people can satisfy the terms of the legislation by continuing to work full-time without training. It would be interesting to hear the Government’s arguments why an individual in fruitful employment who might wish to postpone training until after 18 should be criminalised. I am sure that the Government have an answer; I look forward to hearing it. One of our key concerns is that the Bill may price 16 and 17-year-olds out of the marketplace as a result of the costs of compliance, because every firm that hires them will have to monitor where they are when they go to college and find a replacement for them during the 20 per cent. of the working week when they are not there. The additional costs will be considerable. As I pointed out earlier, the CBI argues that firms offering valuable work opportunities will be discouraged from offering jobs by the duties to police participation.

Ed Balls indicated dissent.

Michael Gove: The Secretary of State cannot shake his head—that is what the CBI argues. It is specifically concerned that the new duties may deter employers from employing young people, and it argues that the jobs may go to older individuals or people from other countries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) pointed out, the CBI represents larger firms. They may be able to absorb the costs, but 80 per cent. of 16 and 17-year-olds work in smaller firms, where it will be more difficult to do so. We must therefore ensure that any regulation of small business is as light-touch as possible. We will table amendments in Committee to ensure that the concerns of the CBI and others are met.

Our approach to legislation is guided by our desire to look beyond the hype and publicity, and to get to the nub of the proposals. We are committed to doing what we can to encourage the maximum level of fruitful
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participation in education, helping as many people as possible to acquire skills and enhance their qualifications. Our principal concern is that the Government have not concentrated sufficiently on incentives, and are over-reliant on a particular path of compulsion. We want to ensure in Committee that there is appropriate time for scrutiny so that the Government can clear up ambiguities, resolve tensions and perhaps even accept amendments that secure the better operation of our education system. I look forward to hearing more from Ministers as the Bill makes its hopefully—unimpeded, I hope—way towards Committee.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): May I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 15-minute time limit on Back Benchers’ contributions?

5 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Given the time constraints on Back Benchers, although the time allowed is longer than usual, I shall plunge in and say that this debate will be regarded as an historic occasion. Historians will, I hope, look at it and suggest that something rather important happened. As long as we have a successful vote at the end of the debate, it will be regarded as a step in the march—a slow one, I suspect—towards the Bill becoming an Act.

I have a strong personal involvement in the Bill, and I pressed the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) on the age at which someone ceases to be a child and becomes an adult, because it is an important point. I have always believed—Opposition Members, including Front Benchers, who have served on the Select Committees that I have chaired know that I passionately believe in this—that a child is still a child until 18. Every child matters, and the outcomes of Every Child Matters should apply to every young person until they are 18. There is a great danger in society of our diminishing the number of years during which a child is considered to be a child. There is a serious challenge, and I agree with some of the voices that suggest that childhood is shrinking: we want children to develop earlier, to go to school and formal lessons earlier; indeed, we want to make them adults before they have the experience and judgment to become adults. I, for one, would not vote to reduce the age of suffrage to 16.

There has been a long campaign on Leitch. Lord Leitch’s review of skills is an important document, and running through it are two strands that we all consider important. First, an individual’s potential should be fully exploited, and we should be able to extend the period of time in which they find what they are good at, and discover what qualities they have and apply them. They cannot do so without extremely good help and advice, and the more inquiries the Children, Schools and Families Committee and its predecessor carried out, the more I realised that the quality of teaching and advice that young people receive during their development is important. To be fair, individual potential and its fulfilment are what brought most of us into the House. In my generation, I saw the waste of many people with whom I went to school—and I
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suspect that you did, too, Madam Deputy Speaker— who did not have my opportunities. The vast majority did not have the opportunity to exploit their potential.

A secondary aspect of Leitch is the fact that we want a more effective and prosperous economy and society. The more educated people are, the less prone they are to criminal and antisocial behaviour; the more they tend to volunteer; and the more they become multidimensional members of society, which is what we want. To develop Marcuse’s concept, it is not one-dimensional man, but multidimensional men and women whom we should seek to produce.

My personal involvement goes back to May when, supported by some Members who are in the House this afternoon, I introduced a private Member's Bill; one of the hon. Members who supported that Bill is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench today. We tried in a different way, because it was a private Member's Bill, to change what happens to young people at 16 and to introduce a system of proper assessment running through to 16. Under that Bill, there would have been a proper assessment at 16 of the abilities and potential of young people. Even today there is still the possibility of people just fading away from education. They may have some exam results, but what is needed is a full evaluation of what they have contributed not just academically but to the life of the school and to their own development. That still does not exist. This Bill may move us in that direction.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will remember that this is a Bill to promote the idea of young people staying in education, training or work-based learning until 18. It is not forcing young people to stay on in school until they are 18. That is not the purpose of the Bill. I would not be supporting it if it were.

If we take the long view, the interesting and refreshing thing about the Bill is that, unlike most Bills, which come through to make a law that will affect our constituents’ lives in a few months, so that we start running the country in a different way, it will have a long run-in—to 2013 and 2015. There is plenty of scope. There are some real problems around that; we would be daft if we did not accept that. Some have been articulated already, but the fact of the matter is that we have time to get it right. We have time to do more research, and to do pilots.

I suggested to the Secretary of State outside this place recently that we could set up a commission to look at the ways in which we can make the value of what young people do post-16—

Ms Butler: Does my hon. Friend agree that this Bill, along with the children's plan and the Every Child Matters programme, is helping us to undo the destruction of the Tory years in this country?

Mr. Sheerman: I hear what my hon. Friend, who is a member of our Committee, says. I understand where she is coming from, but I am trying today to get away from that and from saying, “They did that so we are doing this.” If she will forgive me, therefore, I will not follow her down that path. I want to make the broader point that we have time to get this important change in our lives and fundamental change in our society right. As I said to the Secretary of State, we could have a
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commission of talented employers and people in public life—all sorts of people—to explore some of the things that we could do to keep young people involved in education and training. Young people do not seem to be accepting that at the moment. I suggested that, in parallel, we should have a shadow commission of young people planning what would work for them. That will be important.

The next point I want to make is a serious one. I want this fundamental change in legislation affecting young people to change the culture. That is what it is about. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who spoke for the Opposition, made quite a good speech but I thought that he missed the fact that we have a chance today to change the culture of our society and the parameters of how we start—what we think is a civilised thing for people up to 18 to do.

Most of the people with whom many people in the House mix will have had the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations until 18. For goodness’ sake, some of us have children who have not gone into paid employment until 26, which is the case with my youngest daughter. There is nothing wrong with that. I celebrate the fact that my children, like those of many Members, will be able to carry on having a valuable learning experience that makes them highly relevant to our society and enables them to enjoy a good life, but I want that for the poorest people in my constituency, too. I want everyone in the country to have that opportunity, and unless there is a change in the law it will not happen for a high proportion of people—about a third.

Mr. Flello: Does my hon. Friend agree that one way to make sure that young people from more challenged family backgrounds have those opportunities is to have good counselling services in schools and educational establishments to help them through some of the problems that stop them developing their talents?

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend tempts me down a path that I will take. One of my few reservations about the Bill relates to the provisions on information, guidance and advice. My private Member’s Bill dealt with the quality of such information. I co-chair the Skills Commission, which is looking into information, guidance and advice, because those services are not too good at present. There is some good advice, and there are some good Connexions services, but there is a big black hole in the middle.

A revolutionary change is going on. Many young people, and older people, now find information, guidance and advice on the internet from sites such as Hotcourses and Monster. There are many innovative sources of advice on careers and personal development. There has been a revolution in positive psychology and life coaching. When the Prime Minister was still Chancellor of the Exchequer, I once told him that I wanted a life coach and a personal trainer for every young person in the country. He looked at me a little oddly, but that may have been because he had just sat next to a life coach at a long, boring dinner.

We need high-quality information, guidance and advice. The last time local authorities had
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responsibility for those services they did not do very well, so we must make sure that they do well this time. I hear that many local authorities are not even putting services out to tender, so I want to look carefully at the quality of information, guidance and advice under the Bill. It must be of the very best, because all barriers can be transcended if people are switched on to the internet and have access to positive psychology experts and life coaches. That is what I want for all young people. Developing world skills is a serious challenge and I want to change the culture in which we operate.

Leitch said that by 2020 the number of unskilled jobs—3.4 million at present—will be down to 600,000, and there will be fewer and fewer such jobs.

Mr. Frank Field: I accept my hon. Friend’s goal that people should expand their horizons and fulfil their best self. He tells us that there will be a dramatic drop in the number of unskilled jobs, yet there has been a massive increase in the economy since 2004 and most of the new jobs—most of which are unskilled—are going to newcomers, so if his prediction is fulfilled something will be going wrong with British industry. Does he agree?

Mr. Sheerman: I shall have to look more closely at the research because it is contradictory, but I believe—as the Government are supposed to do—in evidence-based policy, so my right hon. Friend leads me nicely to my next point.

Professor Alison Wolf is a leading critic of the Bill. I have worked with her over the years on a number of issues and have much respect for her, but she and I disagree fundamentally about the Bill. However, that does not mean that we should not take her qualifications seriously. I wish she had not published her recent paper for Policy Exchange, which is well known for leaning to the right of British politics. Her report would have had more credibility if it had been published elsewhere. However, that does not gainsay the fact that she is a highly respected academic and we should take her worries and concerns seriously. But hers is not the only research; I would like it to have been published in a more academic context because an academic paper is published after peer review and gives a much more thoughtful look at the relevant issue.

We have time to look at and meet Alison Wolf’s concerns in the coming period. One of the things that she harks on about a little that particularly worries me is the sort of analysis that we had when we introduced the minimum wage. People said that it would restrict employers, and I heard echoes of that from Conservative Front Benchers today. As my hon. Friends will remember, when we discussed the minimum wage, before the hon. Member for Surrey Heath came to the House, there were voices saying that it would be such a regulatory change that we were going to force people out of business and that small businesses would suffer, although big businesses would cope. That counsel of despair has not turned out to be true. It is also a counsel of despair to say that small businesses do not benefit from highly trained and skilled workers; we all do. The challenge is that we have moved to a much more highly skilled and competitive local and international economy. People expect higher standards all the time in everything—in health,
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education and retailing. There have to be higher standards in every possible area of life, and that means people trained to a higher level. In one sense, we must ignore the Alison Wolf arguments and go along with the view that what I have mentioned must happen to make the change.

Wolf and others whom I have heard in recent days and weeks ignore the fact that there has been an increasingly rapid and fundamental change in what is happening in 14-to-19 education. There are a large number of students between the ages of 14 and 16 at further education colleges today. More and more such young people are partly in work experience, partly at FE college and perhaps only based at school. That has been a real change. Education for 14 to 19-year-olds is also changing rapidly. Apprenticeships are vital and we must expand them. Work-based learning is also so important. What is wrong with society when someone with a day a week of training is not employed?

In the last seconds of my contribution I want to make two quick points. First, I have worries about sanctions. Perhaps they have to be there, although I hope that they are never used. I hope that in the coming years we look carefully at opportunities to have a society in which the courses, opportunities and options are of so high a quality that we never have to touch a sanction.

Finally, I want to mention in passing special educational needs. SEN provision for 16-plus and 18-plus is a disgrace. The Bill will wake us up to giving real opportunity and choice for SEN students post-16 and post-18.

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