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13 May 2008 : Column 1301

Jim Knight: I shall be happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question as soon as he has given me a clear answer as to when Conservative policy would deliver 100 per cent. participation in education and training. When would that be?

Mr. Hayes: I want to press on with our proper scrutiny of this very broad group of amendments, but I will just say that my estimation is that that is most likely to happen when a Conservative Government are returned to power, and when Ministers are prepared to stand up for the interests of young people in a way that engages them, encourages them and stimulates their imagination—

Ed Balls rose—

Mr. Hayes: I am not going to give way to the Secretary of State, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I think that he is trying to encourage me to deviate in a way that you would not be happy with. I would not want to do that.

Ed Balls rose—

Mr. Hayes: Let me move on, but I will give way later. I do not want to be ungenerous—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might like to concentrate on the amendments to which he is speaking.

Mr. Hayes: I knew that you were going to say that, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am not going to be encouraged by the Secretary of State. I am going to abide by your ruling, because that is the right thing to do.

The Bill, as currently drafted, would not allow for the learning support contracts that we recommend in our new clause. We believe that they are an important mechanism for intervening earlier in young people’s lives, and that they would have a particularly valuable impact on the young people who are the hardest to get at, in terms of engagement. They would provide a framework for a local authority to agree with a young person, and their parents or carer, how that young person was to fulfil their duty to participate, and how that arrangement was to be supported. I am sure that the Government will embrace the new clause, because it would improve the Bill. It in no way contradicts the Bill’s proper intent; it simply seeks to make it more palatable, more workable and more effective.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Following that theme, I know that my hon. Friend is cantering through a large number of amendments, but will he comment briefly on my new clause 23, which encourages a more “horses for courses” approach to education whereby people can leave the academic field and opt for a vocational education from the age of 14, provided that they have parental permission, a head teacher’s approval and that they have reached level 5 at key stage 3 in English, maths and science? Does my hon. Friend agree that allowing children to go down a vocational—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Interventions should be brief. The hon. Member maybe lucky enough to catch my eye later in the debate.

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Mr. Hayes: I would be delighted to comment on that over a lovely lunch, perhaps at Wiltons, which I know my hon. Friend would be only too happy to buy me.

Amendment No. 70—

Ed Balls rose—

Mr. Hayes: Perhaps there is another lunch in the offing.

Amendment No. 70 and new clause 13 deal with duties on employers. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, clause 21 places a duty on employers not to employ a person unless they have taken reasonable steps to check that the person has made “appropriate arrangements” to participate in relevant training or education. The explanatory notes state that if an employer does not fulfil his duty under clause 21, clause 22

We had an interesting debate in Committee about the burden these duties will place on employers. Particularly pertinent to that debate was the evidence offered by Professor Alison Wolf of King’s college, London. She told the Committee during an early evidence session that in her estimation,

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The cost of employer checking is much higher in the Institute of Directors’ estimation than the Government assume. The IOD says:

and therefore cost approximately £16.8 million nationally. It continues:

The IOD projects that it will cost more than double the figure suggested by the Government. The top estimate is that it could cost up to £68 million a year. The administrative burden also accounts for what it calculates to be a 32 per cent. hike in the Department’s imposition on business. That is entirely contrary to the Government’s policy, articulated by the Minister, of reducing the administrative burden on businesses by 25 per cent. The consequential unintended impact of the clause could be that employers employ only people who are older than the proposed compulsory age—precisely the argument of Professor Wolf and others.

That problem may be especially profound in small and medium-sized businesses. I suspect that the very large organisations, as so often with bureaucratic and administrative burdens, have the capacity to absorb the extra costs in a way that small businesses simply do not.
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For example, a small training business that employs a 17-year-old to work in numerous different jobs will spend less time on tasks such as marketing and business and more on burdensome administration. It is therefore important to review the impact of the clause after 12 months. We must find out whether the Ministry is right and the Government’s estimates are borne out or whether the IOD and Professor Wolf are more accurate in their estimation of the detrimental effects of the employment of young people on the costs of businesses to checking their new obligations.

We debated these issues in earlier stages of our consideration. In response to these concerns, the Minister for Schools and Learners sought to reassure the Committee by saying that

Our amendment No. 70 would put those assurances on the face of the Bill. Once again, we merely attempt to improve the Bill as a responsible Opposition should, given that we agree with the basic premise that we want as many 16, 17 and 18-year-olds to be involved in education and training as possible. By building those assurances into the Bill, we hope to limit the damage that the legislation might otherwise do to youth employment and to costs faced by businesses, particularly small businesses.

That is also why we tabled new clause 13, which requires the Government to consult the CBI and the IOD as well as the British Chambers of Commerce, and the Federation of Small Businesses in order to assess the effect that duties on employers have had in 12 months’ time and similarly the impact of the provisions on the employment market for 16 and 17-year-olds. It is absolutely right that we take a raincheck by making a judgment about the Bill’s effect over time. That is what a responsible Government would do; it is what a responsible Secretary of State would want; so, once again, I cannot imagine that the Government will not embrace these suggestions—these amendments and new clauses—with relish. In Committee there was some dispute about the length of time it will take for employers to check whether the young people they employ are fulfilling their duties under legislation. In particular, there was a difference between the burden estimated by the Minister and, as I said, the much greater burden estimated by the IOD.

Amendment No. 88—an important amendment, in our estimation—would amend clause 54. My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton spoke about the importance of getting young people the right careers advice when we debated the matter in Committee. You will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is my considered view that it is critical, if we are to engage young people, that they are given appropriate guidance,
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so that they understand the merits of the various training and education options that confront them. I think that that will be best done by an all-age careers service, such as the ones in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government do not currently agree, although I suspect that they might come round to our view over time. Our amendment is designed to clarify the functions of local authorities under clause 54. At the end of the day, the success of efforts to increase participation will be dependent, as Conservative Members have argued repeatedly, on inspiring young people with a new thirst for learning. Well directed advice and guidance will play a vital role in that.

In Committee, the Minister did not, by contrast, inspire any confidence that the current deficiencies of the Connexions service will be corrected as the service is transferred to local authority control. We support the work that Connexions does with troubled young people. It does an excellent job for that minority of young people with particular difficulties, but it is a Jack-of-all-trades. It is expected to do a great deal—to be an expert on sexual health advice and drugs issues, as well as on careers. Surely a dedicated service, sitting alongside Connexions, would do the job better.

Back in 1997, the Dearing report concluded that good careers advice and guidance was essential to expanding participation in higher education. Lord Dearing recommended that careers advice should be integrated to form a single “lifelong guidance service”, but the Government decided to fragment rather than to integrate careers advice, and abolished the careers service for young people and replaced it with Connexions, which has many jobs to do, as I said. That lack of focus has surely been damaging.

In the joint memorandum on the Bill, all the main organisations involved in career guidance, including the National Association of Connexions Partners and the Institute of Career Guidance, expressed the concern that the local authority duty under the Bill are “not specific enough”. It went on to state:

and that there must be clear progression beyond the age of 18

This business of high-quality advice and guidance is surely critical to the success of the Bill. Our amendment would place a clear duty on local authorities to provide such services, and it does so by placing that duty on the face of the Bill.

Incredibly, there is no mention of careers advice in any of the four core functions of Connexions specified by the Minister in a letter to the Committee dated 8 May. Rather, it states that the information, advice and guidance given to young people should help them make

It addresses none of the concerns raised by careers professionals. If the Minister agrees that effective participation is dependent on proper advice and guidance, he should once again take the sound advice
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of careers professionals, listen to the people at the sharp end, and support our amendment.

I could speak at length about some of the other new clauses and amendments in this immense group. I could discuss, for instance, issues relating to the restricting of information and the right of students to own information, information-sharing, and sensitive data not being used to force participation. There are also real concerns about whether the current methods of storing information are fit for purpose—concerns that were raised with us during our evidence sessions by the Association of Colleges, which felt that the current Connexions database was not the best tool and was not adequate to perform the job that we expected of it under the new legislation.

Those matters are important, but as time forbids me to explore them in the depth that the House deserves, I shall restrict myself to dealing with amendment No. 72. The amendment would enable clause 39 to define a “reasonable excuse” for non-participation. It would include

The background to the amendment is a discussion of the meaning of “reasonable excuse” during the Committee’s evidence session on Tuesday 29 January. The Minister undertook to write to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) outlining in more detail what would constitute a reasonable excuse under the Bill. Our amendment reiterates the circumstances outlined by the Minister in his letter of 1 February. We accept that, as the Minister said in his letter, the list is not exhaustive, but given that non-compliance with the Bill could ultimately result in a fine and a criminal record, we do not think it good enough for what is meant by “reasonable excuse” to be specified merely by guidance to local authorities. We think that it should be stated in the Bill, so that there is more clarity and confidence in relation to the enforcement process.

Our desire throughout has been to protect the interests of young people, particularly vulnerable young people. The Minister said in his letter that it would be up to local authorities to interpret the concept of a reasonable excuse. There is a real danger of inconsistency between local authorities, and a consequent danger that the enforcement process will vary according to where people live. That would surely not be in line with the Government’s ambitions and policies.

I will end my speech now, so that the Secretary of State has time to respond. He will know that many of the organisations that have expressed anxieties about the Bill support our new clauses and amendments. Organisations such as Rainer, the Prince’s Trust and Barnardo’s seek to amend the Bill in precisely the way that I have described. In that spirit, I expect the Secretary of State, with alacrity and with some style, to accept the arguments that I have advanced.

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Mr. Laws: We all look forward to hearing the Secretary of State deal with the 110 amendments and new clauses in this group before the knife falls, so I shall keep my comments relatively brief and try to return to some of the issues on Third Reading. I shall single out four or five issues on which I hope the Secretary of State will be able to touch, even in this short time.

As the Secretary of State will have noticed, new clauses 6 and 9 are very similar to each other and also to new clause 1, which I tabled with a number of colleagues in Committee and which I freely admit was inspired by Rainer and Barnardo’s. It appears that they have inspired my party, which has in turn inspired the Conservative party. I am pleased that there is such a degree of inspiration.

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New clause 9 is extremely important to us, as it relates to the basic flexibilities that there will be, particularly to deal with young people who have social or medical problems—they might be precisely the young people who have dropped out of education before the age of 16, and they will probably be part of the significant group who are at present routinely absent from school at the age of 14 or 15. We want the Bill to include undertakings that support will be available for such young people; that the budgets will be in place for that; and, equally importantly, that those young people who would find it difficult to be in a formal education or training setting because of the other problems have the option to be in some kind of supported environment that may be a stepping stone to education or training but may fall far short of the kind of accreditation that the Government envisage in the Bill for either those in employment or those in a formal educational setting.

The Minister for Schools and Learners gave undertakings in Committee that he would aspire to have such flexibility and that he did not want young people with support needs to have to go through the enforcement mechanisms. However, many Members would feel far more reassured about that if it were stated in the Bill. I hope that this issue will be returned to in another place, if it is not dealt with in this House; I hope that the Government will agree to include these undertakings in the Bill, as that is extremely important to us.

Amendment No. 29 addresses a matter that we did not debate in our earlier proceedings: how young people in custody or under the supervision of a youth offending team will be treated in relation to the duties to be in education or training. At present, far too many young people in custody experience little in the way of educational and training support. The pressures in the prison system have led to downward pressure on the number of hours young people in prison spend in education, training or employment, and we want undertakings from Ministers that young people who are in custody or under the supervision of youth offending teams will not also be overlooked by the learning and support proposals that we hope will be in the Bill.

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