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13 May 2008 : Column 1283

13 May 2008 : Column 1284

13 May 2008 : Column 1285

Clause 1

Persons to whom Part 1 applies

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I beg to move amendment No. 149, in page 1, line 7, after ‘England’, insert ‘and Wales’.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 113 to 118.

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Nia Griffith: In proposing the amendment, I very much applaud the excellent work of Jane Hutt, the Assembly Minister for Education, Culture and Young People, and her colleagues in innovatively and imaginatively developing the 14 to 19 curriculum in Wales.

I fully respect the power and responsibility that the Assembly has with regard to education, but my reason for proposing the amendment is quite simply to ensure that if the Welsh Assembly Government see the need to make the entitlement to education or training up until the age of 18 compulsory in future, they have the facility to do so without the need for primary legislation from the UK Government.

Many excellent programmes in Wales to encourage young people to continue their education or training up until the age of 18 are being delivered largely through schools and colleges. The response of the National Training Federation for Wales to “Skills That Work for Wales” states that the Welsh Assembly should include 16 to 19-year-olds at work in the learning entitlement measure and should seriously consider taking reserve powers to introduce, if necessary, an obligation to learn along the lines of the English Bill. It says that such a reserve power could be useful in underpinning entitlement by prompting employers and young employees alike to engage voluntarily in and complete an appropriate qualification process. In the view of the NTFW, that would also encourage the completion of apprenticeships because non-completions have long been identified as a problem within the apprenticeship process.

We all appreciate that, as far as we possibly can, we need to motivate young people to take up education and training opportunities up to the age of 18 of their own volition, but without repeating the many good reasons why the Bill will make that entitlement compulsory, I should like to highlight a couple of issues. First, one of the reasons for making entitlement up to the age of 18 compulsory is that authorities, particularly in difficult times, have to concentrate their resources on statutory provision. If a service is not statutory, it can be in danger of being starved of funding and under-resourced. Secondly, once the measures in the Bill come into force, making entitlement up to the age of 18 compulsory in England, there may be cross-border issues and unintended consequences that make compulsion desirable in Wales. I propose the amendment in order to ensure that that option will be open to the Welsh Assembly Government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): I rise to address amendment No. 149 and the Government amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) raised some important points about education in Wales that will have been heard, and which will be heard after the debate as well. If I may address the crux of the matter in amendment No. 149, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the Welsh Assembly Government should be able to decide to raise the participation age in Wales at some point in the future.

The intention behind the amendment is laudable. It seeks to ensure that young people in England and Wales, who are above compulsory school age, under 18 and without a level 3 qualification, receive the undoubted benefits of education and training. That is a virtuous circle: as the young people receive the benefits of additional
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education and training, their communities, families and wider society also benefit. It is a classic “win-win” scenario. We want those benefits to accrue in England and Wales, to our constituents in Llanelli, Ogmore and elsewhere. Yet I hope that I can explain to my hon. Friend and the House that the amendment, while rightly probing the intentions of the Welsh Assembly Government and Westminster, is unnecessary.

8 pm

It may help if I put the amendment in context. The Welsh Assembly Government are fully committed to ensuring that as many young people as possible stay on in education or training until the age of 18. We have a shared aim of equipping more and more young people in the 14 to 19 range with the skills and abilities that they need to shape a successful future.

The Welsh Assembly Government are putting in place their strategies to achieve that, focused on two key objectives to encourage participation. The first is extending the entitlement of young people to education and training generally, and the second is expanding the range of options available to them, through programmes such as 14 to 19 learning pathways and the Welsh baccalaureate—the Welsh bac.

The Assembly Government have a long-standing endorsement of an approach that increases the obligation on providers of services to expand and improve the offers made to young people, and to make staying in education and training more attractive and worth while. They recently concluded a consultation exercise on a draft learning and skills measure, through which they intend to legislate to provide young people with a statutory entitlement to education and training during that period in their lives.

I know that the Assembly Government are keen to work with us, sharing and learning from our different experiences as they plan their policies for the future. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners set out in Committee, we do not believe that those matters should be reduced to “either/or”. Improving the range and quality of the offer to young people is essential, and raising the participation age can galvanise the system to do that.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 allows the Assembly to acquire enhanced legislative powers through legislative competence orders—LCOs. If, based on the English experience, the Welsh Assembly Government decide to pursue the approach taken in England, they have the option of proposing a legislative competence order to seek powers to enable them to raise the participation age.

In the meantime, we are working with the Assembly Government to ensure that the Bill is drafted in such a way that it enables all aspects of the policy to be capable of application in Wales in future, should they decide to pursue such an approach. However, if the amendment were accepted, it would apply the duty to participate and the rest of the provisions of part 1 in exactly the same form to Wales as to England. It would not allow flexibility to reflect different structures, provisions or qualifications in Wales. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to withdraw it, with the clear commitment of the Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales to continue to work with
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the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that the approach in England could be adopted if required and requested, and in the light of our shared aim of equipping young people with the skills and abilities for a successful future.

I hope that I will not detain us long on Government amendments Nos. 113 to 118. The Bill contains framework powers for the National Assembly for Wales to legislate on regulation and inspection. The amendments would alter those powers so that they more comprehensively cover the regulation of the independent sector. That would avoid the position whereby Westminster regulates some parts of the sector and the Government in Wales regulate others.

Clause 133 enables the National Assembly for Wales to legislate on the arrangements for the registration and regulation of independent schools in the context of educational provision and, more generally, of pupil welfare. The framework provision also confers power on the Assembly to introduce measures on the inspection of maintained schools for children of or below compulsory school age, and other education and training for those aged 16 and under, as well as the inspection of independent schools and education and training provided other than in a school to those of compulsory school age.

The amendments would extend the framework power to enable the National Assembly to regulate independent nursery schools and part-time educational training provided at independent educational institutions, which provide education for one or more pupils of compulsory school age. That will ensure that the power is comprehensive in giving the Assembly the ability to legislate on regulation in the independent sector.

I ask hon. Members to support the Government amendments.

Mr. Hayes: It is indicative of my support for the Union that, although I represent an east of England constituency, I spend a disproportionate amount of time debating Welsh matters. I do so again with great pleasure.

The amendment would extend part 1—the duty to participate until the age of 18—to Wales, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) argued. I take it from the tone of her contribution and the Under-Secretary’s response that it is a probing amendment, which is designed to tease out the Welsh Assembly’s perspective on the subject. Hon. Members will know that some provisions apply to Wales, although the Bill’s main purpose—to raise the age of compulsory participation—does not.

According to a written statement by Jane Hutt, the Assembly Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, to the Assembly, the provisions for inspection of education and training for those aged 16 and under; regulation, registration and inspection of independent schools in Wales; school forums; data sharing; and changes to the remit of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority apply in Wales.

Conservative Members believe that the Assembly should decide whether the age of compulsory participation should be raised in Wales. However, the current legislation, with some provisions applying in Wales and others not, could give rise to a lack of clarity. I guess that is why the hon. Lady tabled the amendment.

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I do not want to embarrass the Government unduly or unnecessarily. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that is not my habit. However, as we found when we debated the Bill that became the Further Education and Training Act 2007 in the previous Session, such lack of clarity can have constitutional implications. As the Under-Secretary will remember, the Act enables the Privy Council to grant powers to award foundation degrees to further education colleges in England, but the measure did not extend to Wales. The Government’s position was that the Welsh Assembly should decide whether the powers should apply in Wales. However, it became clear as the measure was scrutinised in Committee that such powers would not be devolved to the Assembly and that no proper discussion about that had taken place.

I am pleased that the Government appear to have moved on and got it right in the Bill that we are considering. I appreciate that the balance of power between the Assembly and the House is a developing understanding on the part of the Government and the Opposition, but the useful tabling of the amendment gives us a chance to reconsider those matters. It is worth repeating that, for the Welsh Affairs Committee, Conservative Members and, I guess, some Labour Members, the preferred method of dealing with those matters is through Orders in Council rather than through encouraging the inclusion of provisions in primary legislation. After all, that principle lies behind devolution. It would be useful if the Under-Secretary could say something specific about that. He responded to the hon. Lady in the terms that I expected, but it would be useful to have absolute clarity about the different ways in which to legislate for Wales on education and other matters and perhaps an assurance—now is as good a time as any to offer it—that the Government will proceed by the preferred method in future with regard to the Bill and other measures.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman by clarifying that, within the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly Government, we do not see the need to preclude either option. However, as he is aware, for the first time ever, Orders in Council give the ability to bring forward National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Assembly Government-inspired legislation, which is a good way to bring things forward. However, framework powers will still be brought forward on occasion. They will be debated in the House, as they are now. We would not want to rule out either option, but the hon. Gentleman is right that there is a good new method, under the Government of Wales Act 2006, which we fully support.

Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. I presume that the reasoning behind the unwillingness to take an “either/or” route is that on some occasions the Government would deem it appropriate and desirable to have a broader debate about a subject. That was the argument used last time around. However, I am mindful that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs said:

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The other point that the Minister might want to intervene to clarify is that pre-legislative scrutiny will form a key part of future legislation and has formed a key part of this legislation.

Huw Irranca-Davies rose—

Mr. Hayes: The Minister is gagging to intervene once again. I am delighted to give way accordingly.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Again, it is convenient to clarify the position. We indeed see Welsh aspects being subject to pre-legislative scrutiny when framework powers are brought forward under the new Public Bill Committee format, which is to be welcomed.

Mr. Hayes: I am again grateful to the Minister. Mindful that we have many other matters to debate in the short time available and not wishing to test the House’s patience beyond reasonable limits—or, indeed, yours, Madam Deputy Speaker—I draw my remarks to a close by saying merely that the Government have learnt their lesson and are improving, in respect of the application of their measures in the Principality of Wales.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Further to the point that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) made, I, too, will keep my remarks brief. However, there is good reason to consider education and amendment No. 149 in detail.

Education is a devolved matter and has been so for a long time, if to varying degrees. Wales has a long educational tradition that is both radical and different from that in England. I am glad to have this opportunity to mention Griffith Jones Llanddowror and Robert Jones Rhoslan, who in the 18th century ensured that 158,000 Welsh people were literate, long before such a position obtained in England. Then we had the Welsh Intermediate Education Act 1889, which provided that public money should be spent on Welsh intermediate education—that education should be paid for from the rates, again long before that was the case in England.

In recent decades we have seen other specifically Welsh developments, including the continuing success of Welsh medium education, the provisions on language of the Education Reform Act 1988, which the Conservatives introduced, the deletion of burdensome SATs, the Welsh baccalaureate and now the foundation stage for early education. Furthermore, as has been mentioned, field 5 of schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006, on “education and training”, sets out 17 separate matters—more matters than any other field. They range from matter 1, the categories of schools to be maintained, to matter 17, education and training for those with learning and other difficulties. Clearly the Assembly has been judged to be competent in education—all the more reason, therefore, not to pursue the amendment. Whether a further legislative competence order will be required is another matter.

There is, however, more to the situation. Historically, there has been a long series of clashes between the champions of distinct Welsh education provision and London Departments. There was a time when such clashes were between the popular representatives of the
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people—that is, the politicians—and the Administration here in London, with their murkier motives and strategies. The amendment might—or might not—be one further example of that historic clash. Since the advent of formal democratic devolution, however, there is the potential for a further clash, as has been mentioned. That clash is not between the people of Wales and the machine of Government, but between democratically elected representatives of the people of Wales here in London and democratically elected representatives in Wales. I do not know whether this debate is a clash of that sort, but as a Plaid Cymru MP, I know precisely where I stand on the matter, following the legislation to which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings referred. To cut to the argument, I would ask one question: is the amendment really needed? If not, it should be rejected.

8.15 pm

Education is the main plank of the One Wales agreement for government between the Labour party and Plaid Cymru. That agreement sets out principles that the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) would scarcely argue against. For example, section 6, on “Learning for Life”, says:

The agreement continues by saying that

In the section on establishing a right to learn, the One Wales agreement says:

The intention behind the One Wales document of the Government in Cardiff could scarcely be clearer.

The real question is whether the Welsh Assembly Government are to be trusted to implement their own policy. If they want to pursue a policy of compulsion, are they to be trusted to apply for a legislative competence order, should one be needed? Speaking for Plaid Cymru, I am glad to give that assurance. I would not presume to speak for the Labour party or the Government in Cardiff as a whole. However, as I have argued, the weight of our educational history suggests that we will take the radical course in Wales, not least because the provision of education and training up to the age of 18 is part of the binding agreement between the two great radical parties that now form the Government in Wales.

Nia Griffith: I listened carefully to the Minister and was particularly impressed by his assurance that it is possible for the Welsh Assembly Government to bring forth a LCO, should they so desire. I was also impressed by his emphasis on the need to leave them some flexibility as an option. If my amendment was accepted into the main measure that we are debating tonight, it could impinge upon that flexibility. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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New Clause 6

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