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Now we have the Government acknowledging the strength of the argument that we advanced in the Commons, but one or two questions remain. The Minister will want to make these matters perfectly clear, and we want his concession to be laid before us in the fullest detail.

The first point concerns the scale of fines. The Minister has been helpful today, and the explanatory notes state in this respect that fines will be defined around the standard scale for summary offences at level 1. It would be helpful to have some feel for what that is. For the record, it would be useful to take this opportunity, in the House, to put some numbers to it.

Secondly, the Minister will know that in Lords amendments Nos. 27 to 31, 173, 178 to 180, and 211, we deal with fine enforcement. It is clear that

will lead to further action. Again, it would be helpful if he defined “reasonable excuse”. It may be a standard legal definition or particular to this area of law, but it would be helpful to put the matter on the record.

On the agreements that are to form part of the relationship between Connexions and young people dealt with in amendment No. 40, it would be helpful if we knew more in relation to young people with particular needs. I have in mind young people with special educational needs who may have a statement. Needs are defined in the Bill, as I understand it, but what about SEN and what about young people who may be particularly disadvantaged in making such agreements, and in so doing enabling themselves to comply with the law? Will the Minister say a word about that?

I leave the Minister with those few words and questions. It is good news that the Government are gradually coming around—they certainly are not kicking and screaming; as we saw today, there was far more elegance in the Minister’s performance than that—to our point of view.

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Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I know that the Minister will be disappointed if I do not speak to this group of amendments, especially when doing so gives me an opportunity to praise my colleagues in the other place. I believe that they were the moving force behind Lords amendments Nos. 40 and 32. I shall not detain the House too long, as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has already done a comprehensive job in speaking to this group. I am sure that the Prince of Wales will be moved by the hon. Gentleman’s tribute to him, just as we are all moved by the hon. Gentleman’s modesty. Most of us here thought that the hon. Gentleman was the greatest living Briton, so it was remarkably generous for him to give the accolade to someone else.

5.15 pm

Let me deal first with Lords amendment No. 40, which introduces what the Government now call learning and support agreements. Those agreements sound remarkably similar to the learning and support contracts that my party sought to include in the Bill, and which I believe have Conservative support. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what was convincing about the learning and support agreements that was not similarly convincing in respect of the learning and support contracts.

The Minister will recall from earlier discussions on this issue, to which we returned on a number of occasions, that one of our concerns was that there should be an alternative to being in education and training for young people who really needed support for a period, perhaps on account of mental or general health issues, family issues and so forth. The Minister included some of those issues in a letter to me, which helped me to anticipate the Government’s thinking.

Will the Minister clarify precisely when and how the learning and support agreements will be used? Our hope all along was that they could be used in place of education and training in circumstances where it was difficult, because of other problems, to get a young person to engage in education and training. I am still somewhat unclear from Lords amendment No. 40 about the precise circumstances in which the learning and support agreements could be used. Subsection (4) of the new clause set out in the amendment states:

Does that mean, as I fear it may, that the learning and support agreements are to be used only to support a young person who must be in education and training at the same time as engaging in the agreement, or does the Minister envisage the possibility of a young person, with the agreement of the local authority, being in a learning and support agreement that provided the sort of support necessary for going into education and training, but before formally engaging in the education and training that were previously a condition and requirement of the Bill? Clarification on that point would be helpful.

We also welcome the Government’s attempts to avoid the custodial option for young people against whom enforcement action is being taken under the Bill. That obviously goes nowhere near as far as we would like, because of our fundamental concerns about the Bill. We continue to worry about the effect of taking this
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enforcement action against young people who may not be complying—in some cases, for perfectly good reasons—with the measures in the Bill. Removing the custodial option is very welcome indeed.

Ministers made a further concession to my excellent colleagues in the other place regarding Lords amendment No. 32, which promises a review in 2016. That might seem a somewhat modest achievement, but we hold out the hope that the review may cause the Government at least to rethink if serious problems come to light in the policy of applying criminal standards to young people for failing to comply with education and training requirements. The explanatory notes suggest that, as the Minister indicated earlier, the report is to be made in 2016, but I may have missed some detail that clarifies that that is a certainty.

I note, however, that the proposed subsection (2) set out in Lords amendment No. 32 states:

Have the Government already determined that “a reasonable period” means that the review will take place in 2016? Given the description in the explanatory notes of the type of review that the Government envisage, will the Minister put it on record that there is nothing to prevent the review’s conclusions from leading to a fundamental rethink by the Government about the policy of applying a criminal standard to young people who fail to comply with education and training requirements?

The amendments fall a long way short of what we would really like to see in the Bill, but they are welcome concessions none the less, and we hope that after the Minister has spoken we shall be able to welcome them even more warmly.

Bob Spink: This is indeed a controversial set of amendments. Of course we all want to improve the life chances of 16 and 17-year-olds, but it is best to do that by means of inspiration and the creation of opportunities for them, rather than by means of compulsion. There are enough ways in which youngsters in that age group can get into trouble without our creating yet another. That smacks of unnecessary interference in people’s lives, bigger government and the nanny state. I am surprised at the attitude of Opposition Front Benchers to the amendments, and also at the lack of interest in them; very few Members are present to debate them.

I have not yet heard how many administrators and other additional staff will be needed to police the new system, what the cost will be, and how we will stop local authorities and others from doing what they do in this country—gold-plating the regulations, and taking them rather further than the House expects them to be taken. We have heard little about how we will prevent the youth courts from becoming bottled up if that happens. The Minister said that very few cases would end up in the youth courts, but we have heard such undertakings in this place before, and quite the contrary turns out to be the case when the laws are rolled out. We have not been told how, in the last resort, the payment of fines will be enforced. Unless a sanction is enforceable, it will be meaningless. As was stated by both Front-Bench spokesmen, there will be micky-takers in the system.

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We do not need this nanny-state measure. What we do need is the provision of real opportunity and inspiration for young people. We must provide ladders, so that when they reach an age at which they decide that they want to acquire skills and education they are able to do so, rather than enacting measures to criminalise them.

My constituency contains six secondary schools that will need to increase their capacity considerably because of the additional participation of people aged between 16 and 18. Four of them are oversubscribed. There are waiting lists, and people are turned away. People write to me every week asking how they can get their kids into those four schools. However, Essex county council is closing one of them, and is allowing the borough council to sell the school playing field so that hundreds more houses can be built. What will the Minister do to ensure that resources are available to enable children in that age group to take advantage of further education?

Some of those questions really do need to be addressed. I strongly believe that the Minister should think again before criminalising young people.

Mr. Graham Stuart: I agree with the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that the Bill’s provisions are one more attack on liberty by this new Labour Government. We are now in the 12th year of this Labour Government, and one would hope and expect a Labour Government to put resources and effort into raising opportunities for those with least, but instead there are now more than 1 million young people in the 16-to-24 age group who are not in employment, education or training; that means that more than 1 million young people are missing out on either work or training. On Government figures, that is a 15 per cent. increase in the number of people in that predicament since 1997. [Interruption.] I do not know what the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), is muttering about; he is free to intervene on me, if he wants to correct me.

The Government’s policy has failed young people. It has failed them in terms of vocational educational opportunities, for instance. This year’s big new measure is to do with diplomas, but just 0.5 per cent. of the cohort have taken advantage of it, and there is a real risk that it will fail. Apprentices are the other key area of opportunity for people who have not succeeded as they might have wished in academic pursuits. The Government claim that the number of apprenticeships has increased from 75,000 in 1997 to 250,000 in 2007. The Minister for Schools and Learners is nodding, and that statistic would suggest excellent Government progress, but the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee reported in June 2007 that

In other words, they are not real apprenticeships.

In this 12th year of failure by this Labour Government to provide the inspiration—a word used by the hon. Member for Castle Point—for young people to engage with learning, the Government have now come up with the heavy-handed response of bringing in compulsion, and of setting up the bureaucratic nightmare, which was apparent from what the Minister for Schools and Learners said, of local authority committees and groups pursuing young people who have been let down by the
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education system. Instead of pressure being put on the education system and local authorities to deliver in a way that captures the imagination of these young people, the young people who have been let down are to be pursued so that they face a bureaucratic nightmare that can lead to fines, criminalisation and stigma. This is not the right way to respond to the difficulties the Government have had in reaching such young people.

On the issue of compulsion, I seek reassurance from the Minister as to what steps he is planning to take to ensure that young people in further education colleges or schools who want to learn do not find that that is disrupted by those who have been dragged into classrooms by the bureaucratic process the Minister described. Can he also put me right on one other point I am concerned about? As a result of this measure, if there is an outstanding young student who at, for example, the age of 17 completes their school education and wins a scholarship to one of our top universities, but who wants to take a year off, will they be able to do so, or will they be compelled to be engaged in education for that year? [Interruption] The Under-Secretary says that, according to my figures, they would be NEETs. The truth is those figures are provided by Government, and the Under-Secretary is quite free to get to his feet rather than—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. If we are to have interventions from either side of the House, that must be done in the normal way, and not from a sedentary position.

Mr. Stuart: Thank you very much for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am aware of your role as protector of Back-Bench Members, and we should be able to challenge Ministers, and they should not intervene from a sedentary position. If the Under-Secretary wants to correct the figures, he is free to do so from the Dispatch Box, but he does not do so.

Bob Spink: Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am about the reasonable excuses that youngsters who decide not to participate can put forward? Does he think that that will be a bureaucratic nightmare? Can he think of any reasonable excuses? Does he know how far they will go, or how we will get consistency of interpretation of such reasonable excuses across the country, from Dorset to Yorkshire to Northumberland? Has he asked any of these questions?

Mr. Stuart: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) posed just such a question to the Minister, and I hope that he will be able to clear it up. The fear is that there will be inconsistency, that different areas will apply this provision in different ways, that the guidance is poor and that this legislation has not been properly thought through.

A central tenet of this Bill was to criminalise and ultimately to jail young people. That has been rightly dropped, but the fact that it was in the Bill until such a late stage suggests that it, like so many of the new Labour initiatives of the past 12 years, has not been properly thought through. Yet again, those with least in our society will be let down by a failing Labour Government.

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5.30 pm

Jim Knight: What an interesting debate—it reminded me of the Second Reading debate of all those months ago. I am not going to get distracted by the new Tory party policy on who the greatest living Briton is, but I certainly join the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) in wishing His Royal Highness a happy 60th birthday.

The hon. Gentleman raised questions associated with absence and what he would call truancy rates. I remind him that, by the end of spring 2007, the absence rate stood at 6.44 per cent., on track for a rate for the year as a whole of 6.5 per cent.—the lowest on record. In secondary schools, overall absence fell to 7.76 per cent. in the first two terms of 2006-07, compared with 8.16 per cent. for the comparable period in the year before and 9.07 per cent. in the whole of 1996-97. We certainly take no lessons from the Conservative party in respect of truancy.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned people who are not in education, employment or training—NEETs—and I shall deal with that point in a short while. He also discussed the views of stakeholders on compulsion and enforcement. I do not argue with his version of events in respect of the witnesses who came before the Public Bill Committee, because there were certainly those who disagreed with compulsion, but I remind him that some agreed with it.

The chief executive of Barnardo’s, Martin Narey, told us that

this is an important point—

He went on to say all sorts of wise and helpful things.

Even the National Union of Teachers said:

In addition, the Prince’s Trust, the very organisation to which the hon. Gentleman referred, stated:

This policy seeks to create that shift on the ground.

We agree with the Association of School and College Leaders that we are after persuasion rather than coercion, but we do not rule out coercion, at the end of the road, as a way of galvanising the whole system around children and, in particular, the journey that the current year 7s are going through as the first cohort to which this will apply. The fact that they know that they will not drop out and will stay on, and that everyone who works with them knows that that will be the case, will have a hugely galvanising effect on the whole system—it is certainly having a galvanising effect on my Department. Of course, enforcement is the last resort—it must always be the last resort. I set out all the stages of enforcement showing
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that enforcement and, in turn, any form of criminalisation, is very much the last resort. As I have said, I hope that that is never needed.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister knows that he has claimed, on the record, that the majority of young people who do not stay on post-16 will be encouraged to do so by the quality of the offer that the Government make to them and, furthermore, that, whatever we do, a small number will truant. Precisely what proportion of young people is he suggesting coercion will affect?

Jim Knight: We have a compulsory school leaving age, and it is compulsory for people under the age of 16 to go to school. That does not mean that some do not truant or that we do not enforce against parents to ensure that they comply with the requirement to ensure that their children receive a proper education, be it at home or at school. It is not necessarily helpful to speculate on how that translates into numbers.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary told me that earlier today she met the Education Minister for the Netherlands, which brought in these measures two years ago. The experience there so far is that there is little need for enforcement. As we have said, the introduction of compulsion has changed the system. People are not asked whether they will stay on after 16, but what they will do in terms of their learning and education after that age. That is exactly the transformation that we seek to achieve.

I hope that, like his colleagues in the other place, the hon. Gentleman will support the changes that we have made. I was very grateful to Baroness Morris of Bolton for thanking not only me, but

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