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Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates
Education and Skills Bill

Education and Skills Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: John Bercow, † Hugh Bayley
Barlow, Ms Celia (Hove) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hayes, Mr. John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
Heald, Mr. Oliver (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
Knight, Jim (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Lammy, Mr. David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op)
Marsden, Mr. Gordon (Blackpool, South) (Lab)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Soulsby, Sir Peter (Leicester, South) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Nick Walker, Tom Goldsmith, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 5 February 2008


[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

Education and Skills Bill

Clause 2

Duty to participate in education or training
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 71, in clause 2, page 1, line 17, leave out from beginning to end of line 8 on page 2 and insert—
‘(c) be in full-time occupation (see section 5).’. —[Mr. Laws.]
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Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the chair, Mr. Bayley. When we concluded the morning session, I had just cited support from the British Chambers of Commerce. I shall now discuss the notion, expressed by the hon. Member for Yeovil, that employers will have to take workers who are unwilling or unable. I do not think that we would have the support of an employers’ organisation if that were the case. Judging by his facial expression, perhaps that is not what the hon. Gentleman meant: he is looking at me very quizzically.
To clarify, employers will not be required to take on any 16 and 17-year-olds. The majority of 16 and 17-year-olds in work also participate in education or training, and they and their employers will be unaffected. We certainly have no intention of compelling anybody to take on a learner—that should, perfectly reasonably, be a choice for employers.
There will be a range of engaging options available to young people who are in full-time work. Some will receive accredited training from their employer, and we are making it easier for employers to get good quality training accredited. Indeed, the hon. Member for Broxbourne reminded the Committee of the announcements last week from McDonald’s, Flybe and National Rail, which are introducing their own accredited qualifications. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton for saying that those qualifications may well be better than a whole raft of qualifications accredited in the past, because they relate to the real world of work. I completely agree, and they are an important step forward for us.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): It was short.
Jim Knight: In the abridged version—he wanted to speak more about this important amendment—the hon. Member for Yeovil discussed the effect on the youth labour market and the works of Alison Wolf. He referred to her pamphlet, “Diminished Returns”, published by Policy Exchange, which I have had a chance to read at my leisure.
I have reminded the Committee of the impact assessment, and the reality of the number of young people in small and medium-sized enterprises who will be displaced. I clarified the fact that, as the impact assessment says, it is not half of all young people in those employment settings who will be replaced. The labour force survey shows that 27 per cent. of the full-time 16 to 17-year-old cohort are in jobs without training, earning below the national minimum wage, and working in SMEs. We estimate that half of that group, which is within the group employed in SMEs, may be displaced in favour of older workers. As ever with impact assessments, that might be a pessimistic interpretation, because we always seek to err on the side of caution. Half of these—not half of all young people in SMEs—may be displaced in favour of older workers; that totals only 1,680 young people.
In her work on the issue, Alison Wolf asked whether we had underestimated the cost impacts on the youth labour market—the hon. Member for Yeovil asked about that, too. Our economists have looked closely at Alison Wolf’s work, and having seen their analysis, I remain confident that the estimates underpinning our impact assessment are sound and considerably more credible than her estimates. First, Alison Wolf assumes that all the 16 and 17-year-olds working in small firms will simply be replaced by older workers, which assumes that no small employer at all will continue to employ 16 and 17-year-olds with day release. As a former director of a small business, I think that that is not a likely scenario at all.
Secondly, she assumes that all the older workers who are employed would otherwise be doing another job, and that there is no way of filling that job. In other words, she assumes that the labour market for 18-year-olds and over is at full employment. Although we know that employment is indeed at record levels, we know we are not quite at the level of full employment. Thirdly, the Department’s analysis compares the costs and benefits of raising the participation age with the previous policy goal of 90 per cent. participation among 17-year-olds. Professor Wolf, in contrast, assumes that overall participation among 16 and 17-year-olds is 80 per cent. in 2016-17. That is significantly lower than the current participation rate for 16 and 17-year-olds of 86 per cent., so we do not think that that figure is credible. Even if she were right about that, she should significantly increase the benefits of raising the participation age so that costs and benefits are calculated on a consistent basis. If that were done, benefits would exceed costs by an even larger margin.
Fourthly, Professor Wolf takes no account of part-time workers. Some 40 per cent. of those in jobs without training are working part-time. Those workers would be able to participate under the legislation without spending less time at work, so there is no need for a foregone productivity cost for that group. Fifthly and finally, Professor Wolf assumes that all 16 and 17-year-olds would be on the national minimum wage for 18-year-olds. The analysis underpinning the costing by the Department for Children, Schools and Families uses data from the labour force survey showing that 27 per cent. of those in full-time jobs without training earn below the national minimum wage for 18-year-olds.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The Minister has given us a very detailed and thorough critique of Alison Wolf’s work. Because it is thorough and detailed, he will no doubt give us his estimate of the proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds in work who are in part-time work. I guess that most part-time workers are not aged between 16 and 18: they work part-time because they have all kinds of other commitments. Can he give us any feel for the proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds in work who are in part-time work?
Jim Knight: I am trying to recall that particular statistic, and if it comes to the forefront of my mind, of course I will impart it to the Committee. In the meantime, for the reasons I have stated, the DCSF assumptions, are by far the most plausible. In my view, the chance of all the worst-case assumptions produced by Alison Wolf being correct is vanishingly small. In any case, the consequence of some of her assumptions being correct is that the overall estimate of the benefit would rise by far more than the overall estimate of the costs. If I need to give any further information in reply to the question from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, I will seek to do so, because I am sure that we will return to the effects on the youth labour market, when we discuss chapter 3 and the duties on employers, even if we have that debate in a disciplined and brief way, following the extensive debate that we have had today. I would therefore argue that it is not in the interests of individuals or the economy for young people to go into dead-end jobs without training at 16, and I therefore ask the hon. Member for Yeovil to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Laws: Mr Bayley, may I welcome you back to the Chair? You must be delighted by our rapid progress this morning, as we have already got halfway through clause 2. We have had an opportunity to give an initial airing to concerns about the Bill’s effects on young people who would otherwise be in employment. In particular, we have been able to address concerns that I expressed earlier about the loss of job opportunities for 16 or 17-year-olds, the type of qualifications that they would be required to undertake, and whether those would be useful and valuable.
I did not make the claim in my speech to which the Minister alluded, that young people would be forced into particular posts. No doubt that comment was prepared before I delivered my speech. We are grateful to the Minister for his response to speeches from Opposition Members. No doubt, Alison Wolf and others will go away and look with great interest at the points made by hon. Members. The Minister’s comments will inform our later debates, when we will have a chance to come back to his claims on the important issue of costings, which will undoubtedly be challenged. I only wish that we could pull Alison Wolf back in for another evidence session and some exchanges with the Minister, but I am not sure that our proceedings would allow for that.
On the two fundamental matters that were raised this morning, I am still concerned that the Minister has not registered our worries. On the issue of whether the qualifications that people will be obliged to take will be valuable, at the beginning of his contribution, the Minister referred to young people who do not go into “good honest jobs”—I cannot remember his exact characterisation. He referred to people who do not end up with large exotic cars, such as BMWs, that they would otherwise be able to drive away after their period in work and training. He is setting a rather high and unrealistic bar for everybody engaged in the labour market. Many young people in employment who do not undertake education and training are doing work that gives them valuable skills, and re-engages them after a period of alienation in formal education: they benefit enormously from that experience. Who knows what they may go on to do later in life? The key issue is whether they would be better off, if they were obliged to take one of the qualifications to which the Minister alluded. It is our contention that they would not, because of the value of some of the qualifications and because the job may not exist, which I will come on to in a minute.
I cannot help feeling that we have not yet bottomed out the issue of what qualifications the Department assumes those young people will take. If the Minister has had a chance to read Alison Wolf’s paper, he will know that Professor Wolf claims that the Government are unduly optimistic about the composition of the qualifications that they will take. On page 27 of her pamphlet, she produces a useful summary of the types of qualification that she thinks many young people will end up taking and she questions whether all of them will have the economic value that the Government claim. She also makes the valuable point that there may be some young people get pushed into using up their level 2 qualification entitlement at an early age, although they may want to take those qualifications later and benefit from them more significantly. I hope that we will be able to look at the Minister’s comments about the compositional issues around those qualifications, and that we will be able to compare the different claims that have been made. That that may strengthen our position when we raise other points about the matter further on in the debate.
The Minister also sought to address issues about the labour market and the number of young people who would lose job opportunities that they would otherwise have. The Government acknowledge that something like 1,680 jobs for 16 or 17-year-olds will not be there as a consequence of the Bill’s introduction. I cited a figure of 5,550, and I apologise if it was inaccurate; I was citing evidence that we took from some of the witnesses. I will not mention, to spare their embarrassment, which particular witness it was, but one of our witnesses referred to 5,500, but I am happy to correct that figure, if it is inaccurate and 1,680 is the right figure.
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I also referred to the group of youngsters particularly affected by the measure as those in smaller businesses, but the Minister clarified that it is a particular type of small business. I am happy to acknowledge—and it is a useful clarification—that we are talking about a more discrete group. I am happy to do so, because it rather makes my point, which is that the Government have been looking at a very narrow segment of the 16 and 17-year-old population in employment as the vulnerable segment. On page 23 of her paper, Alison Wolf sums up which group of 16 and 17-year-olds the Government assume would be adversely affected by the Bill. I am happy for the Minister to correct me if I am wrong, but it appears from what Alison Wolf’s claims—and I think the Minister confirmed this—that the relevant group of businesses
“is taken to be those which are very small (fewer than 50 employees), and where no job related training is reported (using the LFS definitions) and where the employed teenager is currently paid less than the minimum wage for an 18 year old.”
The Government have therefore taken a very modest, specific segment of the labour market, and claimed that for that sector, the Bill will have significant employment consequences: 50 per cent. of the jobs in that very small subgroup will be wiped out. The complementary aspect is that, presumably, no other jobs are going to be lost in other, larger companies or companies with different characteristics in terms of training and the wage levels of the young people working there.
We are still left with the question I asked earlier about whether those assumptions are realistic. The Government have got down to a figure of only 1,680 by defining the at-risk group of youngsters in a very particular way, and Alison Wolf’s analysis claims that there are a number of significant risks, not least if the Government fail to raise the participation rate to 90 per cent. in the first place.
Jim Knight: To help the Committee, I draw hon. Members’ attention to pages 26 and 27 of the impact assessment, paragraphs 5.20 to 5.27, which deal with the costs to employers. The impact assessment states:
“Labour Force Survey (LFS) analysis for 2006 shows around 40% of the 20,750 16-17 year olds in JWT work part-time.”
It then goes on to deal with medium-sized firms, small firms and the sorts of assumption made. I particularly advise looking at paragraph 5.27, which talks about the fact that the new arrangements are not coming in for some time. That allows large businesses in particular to adjust to what is going to happen over the next five years and to respond accordingly.
Mr. Laws: That is helpful, and I recognise that paragraph 5.27 and 5.26 are saying that the Government do not expect young people who are now in employment to lose their jobs as a consequence of the Bill. It is more likely that some 16 and 17-year-olds who would have had jobs will not be taken on. I still think that that is a major concern when we consider that many of those young people may be more likely to engage in employment and to learn valuable skills in that way than if they go down the route being offered in the Bill.
I come back to the point, which I do not think is addressed in the impact assessment, that the Government have defined down the at-risk group in a number of ways, one of which is the assumption that the participation rate will in any case rise from 80 per cent. to 90 per cent. A lot of those youngsters who might be included in the at-risk group have thus been defined out. Secondly, I wonder whether the Government are being realistic about the number of 16 or 17-year-olds who are in the labour market but who are not receiving training in the way specified, because the Government seem to have used quite a broad definition of training. Also, the Government have excluded particular small firms, medium-sized firms and larger employers, as well as the self-employed from the at-risk group.
I put it to the Minister that he may still have underestimated the employment impact of the Bill. It would be useful if Committee members were told before we debate some of the other clauses that will deal with this matter not only more about the qualification assumptions that the Government are making, but more about the rationale for completely excluding some of these groups of young people from the group who may suffer an adverse impact in terms of their employment opportunities.
We continue to be concerned about both those issues, but I am aware that we will have the opportunity to return to them later in our proceedings. The debates on other clauses will give us an opportunity to flush out some of these facts and, perhaps, to table further amendments. I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 5, in clause 2, page 2, line 8, at end add—
‘(3) The Secretary of State shall specify by order arrangements and duties applicable to a person to whom this Part applies who has significant responsibilities for caring for parents, siblings or other close relatives.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 6, in clause 2, page 2, line 8, at end add—
‘(3) The Secretary of State shall specify by order arrangements and duties applicable to a person to whom this Part applies who has significant responsibilities for caring for their own children.’.
Mr. Gibb: Welcome back, Mr. Bayley. We have conducted very thorough scrutiny of the 20 lines of page 1, and it is a pleasure to move the first amendment that relates to page 2 of the Bill.
Amendment No. 5 would ameliorate the position of young carers. Clause 2 is very precise and clear about the duty it imposes on 16 and 17-year-olds who do not have a level 3 qualification. They will either have to be in full-time education or full-time apprenticeship, or they can be in a full-time job with training which leads to an appropriate qualification. In that context, full time means at least 20 hours a week and the amount of training must be at least 280 hours a year, which is about one day a week. That is very precise and prescriptive, which may present severe difficulties for young people who have a range of responsibilities outside the purview and life experience of—I do not mean this disrespectfully—parliamentary draftsmen.
The Princess Royal Trust for Carers, a charity that helps and supports young carers through its 129 carers centres, believes strongly that young carers should not be exempted from the duties that the Bill imposes on other young people. It makes this very clear, saying:
“We do not believe that young carers should routinely be exempted from the requirement to attend education and training. We fail young carers when we give up on their education.”
The thrust of that amendment is therefore not to exempt young carers.
The trust points out that there are 52,000 carers aged between 16 and 17 in England and Wales and of those nearly 4,000 are responsible for care that engages them for more than 50 hours a week. That figure is based on the 2001 census, and the trust believes that it is likely to be an underestimate.
Most of us will have had a pretty conventional upbringing. It is hard to imagine how a 16 or 17-year-old, let alone an even younger child, could cope with the emotional and practical difficulties of caring for a seriously ill parent or sibling. In their joint paper “Making it Work” published in 2002, the Children’s Society and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers quote some young people who are carers. One said:
“It’s not just the caring that affects you. What really gets to you is the worry of it all. Having a parent who is ill and seeing them in such a think about it a lot.”
Another child said:
“I used to run away from school because I always wanted to be with my mum. I used to think that my mum was going to die. I was about eight...they treated me as if I was playing truant.”
Another said:
“It just something I do. It has to be done and there is no one else to do it.”
That, of course, is the human condition. Children, like adults, will adapt and end up responding to their responsibilities, somehow or other. However, doing that will affect their education: young carers often underperform at school, and many are subject to bullying or suffer mental health problems.
The Princess Royal Trust for Carers is concerned that the duty imposed by clause 2
“could result in 16 and 17-year-old young carers being prosecuted for non-attendance, where they do not have anyone else to provide the care for a family member.”
The trust believes that the fact there are so many young carers is testimony to the lack of community care support. However, its concern about the Bill is that:
“As it stands, the Bill offers little to these families, except the threat of prosecution to young people who fail to attend school, regardless of the pressures upon them.”
It believes that
“this Bill should ensure that families are being offered sufficient and reliable alternative forms of support so that young carers aged 16 and 17 are not relied upon for levels of care that prevent them from attending education;”
The Bill should also
“ensure that parents’ needs are assessed by adult services when considering the application of parenting contracts and parenting orders arising from poor attendance;”
and—this is the key point that I wanted to draw to the Committee’s attention, and it is the subject of the amendment—
“offer flexibility on attendance and methods of learning to young carers in exceptional circumstances, such as those caring for a parent in the last stages of terminal illness.”
Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend is making an important case on behalf of young carers. He came to that word “flexibility” and I wonder if he agrees with me that the theme has been emerging today is that the inevitable universality of a legal commitment—a legal obligation—is incompatible with the sort of flexibility and responsiveness we want for those vulnerable groups?
Mr. Gibb: Yes, my hon. Friend has put the point better than I have so far. He is correct: legislation is by its nature inflexible and prescriptive and in the amendment we are trying to introduce an element of flexibility into the Bill, particularly on attendance and methods of learning.
The amendment would introduce into the clause a requirement that the Secretary of State produce regulations that set out a more flexible set of duties to which a person with significant caring responsibilities would be subject. The duty to participate in education or training would remain, but arrangements could be made that were more suitable and adaptable to their circumstances.
Amendment No. 6 is designed to deal with similar problems faced by a young person of 16 or 17 who has a child of his or her own, with all the responsibilities that come with having and raising a baby or young child. The Government’s Green Paper “Raising Expectations: staying in education and training post-16” says at paragraph 5.44 on page 41 that the Government
“want to support teenage parents to engage in learning. This depends on their being able to access childcare and provision that fits their circumstances.”
In the next paragraph, they say
“The Care to Learn scheme supports childcare costs with funding paid directly to the childcare provider. This will continue and we will consider what else needs to be done to ensure teenage parents have real opportunities to participate.”
The purpose of amendment No. 6 is to draw out from the Minister the results of the Government’s consideration and to ask what he has concluded also needs to be done to ensure that teenage parents have real opportunities to participate? With teenage pregnancies continuing to rise, there is clearly a real concern. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of 16 and 17-year-olds becoming pregnant rose from 39,247 to 39,804. When girls aged between 13 and 15 were added, the total rose from 46,655 to 47,277.
The Green Paper says that:
“Of course expectant mothers will need some time off before and after the birth. There would need to be flexibility in this to respond to individual circumstances and we would need to ensure enough local discretion to allow for this.”
That discretion— that flexibility, as my hon. Friend put it—is not yet incorporated into the Bill. That is what the amendment is designed to remedy. The Green Paper goes to say that
“For mothers of compulsory school age, guidance sets out that the normal period of time”—
that is, time off school—
“is maximum 18 weeks, but we know that sometimes where good provision is in place they are able to engage earlier than this. For example, within specialist units the expectation is often six weeks. We will consider what guidance we should set for local authorities about this.”
It would be enormously helpful if the Minister gave us some idea about the guidance that he is considering.
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The Prince’s Trust has expressed its concern about teenage mothers and the effect that the duties imposed by the policy of participation to the age of 18 will have on them. In its written submission in response to the Government’s consultation, the Prince’s Trust says:
“Supporting childcare for young mothers to enable them to continue education or training is critical.”
Referring to the six-week period alluded to in the Green Paper, the trust says:
“Six weeks off to have a baby is clearly not enough time; it should be more in line with maternity leave practices for those in employment, with them re-entering education at a later date.”
It continues:
“School-age fathers also have educational and emotional needs and this should be addressed to instil responsibility.”
The purpose of amendments Nos. 5 and 6 is to incorporate into the legislation a mechanism to enable the Secretary of State to introduce some form of flexibility for young carers and teenage parents. Such provision is not in the Bill as it stands. Clearly, the Government are aware of the matter; the purpose of the debate is simply to draw out from the Minister more details of how they intend to respond to the very real needs of both these groups of 16 and 17-year-olds.
Mr. Laws: The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has clearly set out the purpose of these two useful probing amendments—I think that is what they are intended to be—so I need not repeat everything that he said. However, the amendments are important because they deal with two groups of people who might be considered either vulnerable or at risk from a sledgehammer approach of compulsion and criminalisation, however refined that sledgehammer is, as the Minister has sought to argue.
We are talking about two very different groups in terms of their characteristics and the ways in which they might need to be accommodated. I think that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton indicated that, although there are a large number of carers in the UK who are under the age of 18 and fall into the group covered by the Bill, it is sensible to make sure that the Bill provides them with all the opportunities that we would want them to have and that we do not simply assume that because they have caring responsibilities, they can have an exemption and therefore be forgotten about.
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I have a great deal of sympathy with the importance of focusing on the needs of young carers. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that there are already pilot projects around the country involving young carers—there is one in my constituency sponsored by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers—which examine how the health and education needs of young carers can be identified and dovetailed more closely. That might be a useful way to proceed.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sharing his constituency experience and I am sure that he is right that there is already a lot of good practice around the country. Although we do not agree with the approach of compulsion in the Bill, accepting, for the sake of the argument, that that approach is being taken by the Government, we want to make sure that the approach to carers acknowledges that what many of them will be looking for is not a waiver, but support to allow them to engage with education, training and other services that might be useful to them. I hope that Ministers and others involved will be able to learn from the type of project that the hon. Gentleman refers to.
There will of course, as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned, be a group of carers in special circumstances, such as when a terminal or very serious illness is involved. In those circumstances I imagine that the Minister would want to be flexible, sensible and pragmatic. I believe that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton was trying to tempt the Minister in to giving us a bit more clarity and guidance about how that group of young people will be approached, particularly as that is not a group where there are likely to be problems of abuse of rules if they are too public. This ought to be an area where Ministers can be relatively straightforward about what some of the guidance will be.
Amendment No. 6, however, deals with a group of young people—young parents—whose interest might not simply be to be accommodated within the compulsion under the age of 18; instead, there could legitimately be expectations of their not having to be in education or training but potentially taking up some of those opportunities at a later age. The hon. Gentleman cited some evidence about the number of mothers under the age of 18, of whom there were about 10,000 in England in 2005. He mentioned some of the issues that are relevant to them, such as post-natal depression, which is three times higher in teenage mothers than in older mothers, high child care costs, and so on.
I remember not so long ago being a lone voice in arguing that the existing responsibilities on parents in relation to the benefits systems and their obligation to be in work were too light touch. I said that the present system, where the parents can remain out of the labour market until their children reach the age of 16, was too generous, did not recognise the responsibilities that people have in society and was way out of line with international practice. I seem to remember that the spokesmen on both other Front Benches at that time—this was only a couple of years ago—argued for the existing benefit rules to be maintained. Now, both sides have changed their views and have entered into something of a competition to encourage parents to go back into the labour market as early as possible. However, even I draw the line at forcing people back out—either into the labour market, or into education and training—when they have very young children. That is exactly the type of area where the Government could be doing a gross disservice to a group of young people—and their children—by trying to force them into education, training or employment at too early an age. I therefore hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance today that he will not take an excessively draconian approach.
The evidence in the UNICEF report indicated that one of the multiplicity of reasons why we have a lot of problems with young people’s well-being in this country relates to the very high rates of teenage pregnancy. UNICEF linked that to low educational aspirations and to young people regarding having children at a very early age as reasonable way of proceeding in life. It then made the obvious point that the higher people’s educational and employment aspirations are, the more likely it is that they will delay child bearing to a later age, after they have achieved education and training qualifications and when that may be easier to accommodate in their life.
Becoming a parent at age 16 or 17 is not something that I would strongly recommend, but whether I recommend it or not, there are likely to be 16 or 17-year-old parents and I cannot think that there will not be a lot of cases where they will be far better off at home with their child than if they are pushed into education, training or into the labour market.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Obviously, one would not want to create any perverse incentives. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is a case for having training about parenting or some other regime that fits in with young parents’ circumstances, so that something educational is happening?
Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes two good points. First, he alerts us to the risks of creating incentives we would not want to create, although I think it is unlikely, however draconian the legislation, that people will have children to get around it. They will probably be confident of being able to get around it in many other ways—some local authority representatives told us that by the time they had taken young people through all the hoops, they would probably not be under the age of 18 any longer.
The hon. Gentleman also makes a very sensible point when he comes back to the fourth option that I was talking about the other day of not simply insisting that we will provide people with education and training, but looking at other types of support that ought to be made available to them. My point is that education, training and employment will not always be the right approach for young people who have ended up as parents at a very early age. I hope that we will hear from the Minister about the types of flexibility that he will introduce into the guidance under the Bill. I can see that he is desperate, post-lunch, to get back into the debate, so I will conclude my comments.
I will talk about amendment No. 5, which deals with young carers, and amendment No. 6, which refers to young parents, but first I want to take the opportunity when I am talking of young parents to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). It is not often I can correctly name his constituency—I have often made the mistake of calling it Haringey. Given that this is the first sitting of the Committee that he has attended since he became a father, I think it is appropriate to congratulate him. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
Amendment No. 5 refers to the support available to young carers. We want to ensure that all young carers receive the support they need to participate. Our recent carers review consultations have indicated that young carers share the view that they should have the same opportunities. We are looking at a range of options to ensure that young carers can continue their education and our thinking will take account of the recommendations from the cross-Government carers review, which is under way. The measures that result may involve, for example, targeted youth support, which will provide a dedicated lead professional to help in organising support across a range of services including education, social services and Connexions. There is a range of financial support available, including educational maintenance allowance and carer’s allowance, both of which go directly to young carers.
The Government are committed to continuing to improve the provision of support available to young carers and we will examine what more can be done as we move towards implementation. I make no apologies for extending learning opportunities to that group, and talk of compulsion and penalties is misplaced. The challenge is to deal effectively with the barriers that can get in the way of their participation. We are committed to doing this and our thinking will take account of the carers review.
No-one will enter the enforcement system if there is a good reason why they are not participating. I will talk about the independent attendance panel later, but local authorities and schools will have key responsibilities to deliver the services that young carers need, local authorities will have significant resources through general funding which they can draw on; in addition, over the past nine years, they have been able to make use of the carers special grant, which is not now ring-fenced, because of the freedoms we are giving local authorities, but which from 2008-9 will be paid as part of the area-based grant. That continued funding means that by March 2009, we will have invested more than £1.2 billion to support councils in their work with carers.
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Amendment No. 6 deals with the support available to young parents. The Government have committed to having a Sure Start children’s centre in every community, where teenage parents can access a broad range of support in one place, including child care, education and training, parenting support—I am sure the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will welcome that—and health-related information, advice and treatment. Information, advice and support to help young mothers are also available through Connexions and targeted youth support services. There is a range of financial support available to young parents to help with the costs of accessing education and training, including child tax credits and child benefit, which their parents may be able to claim, and education maintenance allowance, which is means-tested and goes directly to the young person. As has been mentioned, there is also financial help available through the Care to Learn programme, which funds child care to enable young parents to return to education.
It is very important that we help this group. Teenage mothers’ rates of post-16 participation in education, employment and training are low: only about 30 per cent. of that group are in education, employment or training. Some teenage mothers who do want to return to learning are experiencing difficulties finding child care and other support. It is certainly part of our focus in continuing to address teenage pregnancy, but I say to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that there has been steady progress on reducing teenage pregnancy rates since the teenage pregnancy strategy was launched. The under-18 conception rate has fallen by 11.8 per cent. since 1998 to its lowest level for 16 years, and the under-16 rate has fallen by 12.1 per cent.
The Government are committed to continuing to improve provision as we move towards implementation. We will do everything in our power to remove the obstacles and difficulties that prevent young carers and young parents from participating in education and training post-16.
Mr. Laws: If I am leaping in too rapidly, I apologise, but could the Minister clarify what his expectations are going to be, particularly of 16 and 17-year-old mothers? How quickly will they be obliged to go back into the labour market and what potential exemptions will there be?
Jim Knight: I will seek to expand on our thinking—that is the phrase that we have been using—regarding “reasonable excuse”, about which the hon. Member for Yeovil is extremely concerned, very soon for his and the Committee’s benefit. We may need to rename clause 4 “the fourth clause” after the fourth option. Under that clause I will expand on some of the other options available to provide support to this group and others. At the moment, we do not have any plans to do anything different post-16 to pre-16, but 18 weeks is just a maximum in respect of mothers returning to education or training; often, where there is the right provision, they will want to return sooner. We do not believe that it should be like maternity leave, because 16 hours a week of education or training is certainly less onerous than employment. It is vital that those young people have the right support. It would not be appropriate to pursue enforcement action against them in any normal circumstances.
Mr. Laws: I want to ensure that I understand precisely what he is saying. Is he saying that every 16 and 17-year-old parent, including mothers, will be obliged to go back into education, training or employment within 18 weeks of the birth?
Jim Knight: I am saying that if, after 18 weeks, they have not started to re-engage with going back to education, employment or training, their personal advisor, probably through the Connexions service, would discuss with them what their support needs are and what would be required to get them back into education or training, be it in employment or otherwise. I doubt it would be appropriate for them to go into employment as well as education or training, because they would obviously have the significant caring needs of looking after their young child. However, with the Care to Learn programme, which is successfully funding child care to enable young parents to return to education, it is perfectly possible for them actively to work towards returning to 16 hours a week.
Mr. Laws: I am sorry to push the Minister, but obviously there will be people in that situation once the Bill is passed, and we need to be clear about what we are saying. What is the earliest time after birth that we might find some of the powers of compulsion contained in the Bill used against young mothers in that category?
Jim Knight: I shall talk directly about the use of enforcement in those circumstances. If the hon. Gentleman is still unclear once I have done that, perhaps he will want to intervene again. I am sure that he will, as he is of that persuasion.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Before the Minister moves on to compulsion, will he agree with me that one of the most useful things that very young mothers can do in continuing their own education and that of their children is to introduce their children to books at the earliest possible time? If they cannot afford to buy books, they can borrow as many as they could possibly want from the public library, and that would help to break the cycle of illiteracy if the young mothers come from homes where the parents have not achieved in their own schooling and there are no books in the home.
Mr. Hayes: Drawing the debate closer to the Bill, some of that sort of support is provided by family learning groups and family learning centres, such as the one I visit annually at Gedney Dyke in my constituency, where challenged families, sometimes with parents who are themselves learning to read and write for the first time, work closely alongside their youngsters. If that sort of learning did not lead to accredited qualifications, it is entirely possible that that work would not count in terms of the legal obligations of the Bill. That would surely be monstrous. Will the Minister have a look at that and, if he cannot answer now, will he come back to the Committee with certain assurances?
Jim Knight: We certainly want to see that sort of activity continue. I am not sure there is anything in the Bill that would stop it, but I am certainly happy to reflect on the points the hon. Gentleman has made, and if I need to come back to him I certainly will.
Let me move on to the point surrounding enforcement. Clause 39 makes it clear that before commencing any sort of enforcement the local authority must ensure that appropriate support has been made available and that the young person has been given the opportunity to take advantage of services to support participation. Clearly, that would be very significant in the case of young carers and young parents. Clause 42 provides further safeguards to ensure that a young person with unmet needs does not enter the enforcement process inappropriately by establishing attendance panels, which will hear appeals against attendance notices and will be able to confirm or dismiss them and make recommendations to the local authority. We will specify in regulations the make-up of the panel and how it is to carry out its functions, but in general we expect it to consider the specific circumstances of the young person, the support and provision they have been offered, and whether they have any unmet support needs that mean they cannot be expected to participate at that time. I am confident that knowledge of those safeguards, through attendance panels and elsewhere, will deter local authorities from inappropriate enforcement action, particularly where those sorts of vulnerable young people are concerned.
Participating helps young people to move on to successful and fulfilling lives and has wide benefits for both the individual and society. It is critical that young parents and carers have the same opportunity to succeed as other young people. I reject the amendments on the grounds that these groups of young people will be given every kind of support to participate and will be treated the same as all other young people of their age. It cannot be acceptable for any young person to be deemed too hard to engage; we must raise our expectations for and with the young people and raise their expectations of themselves.
In the light of my reasoning and because it is not necessary to legislate here—the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton himself said that legislation is by its very nature inflexible—I urge him to withdraw his amendment and opt for the flexibility of not legislating and instead going for the mechanisms that I have set out.
Mr. Laws: I am sorry to detain the Committee. I know that we have spent a long time on the amendments, but I am still slightly concerned about a number of points relating to the Minister’s response.
First, on amendment No. 6 relating to young parents, the Minister appeared to say that he could contemplate young parents being obliged to go back into education, training or employment 18 weeks after the birth of the child. I encourage him to stop me if I get anything wrong. That seems extraordinarily soon, particularly when contrasted with current expectations for parents to go out into the labour market, education, training or anything else. Until recently—I believe it is still the case—we have allowed parents, or lone parents, to stay at home without a work obligation until their youngest child has reached the age of 16. Even now, parties are talking about reducing that time limit significantly, but to nothing like to the expectation that a parent will return to an education, training or work setting so soon after the birth of their child.
The hon. Member for Upminster made an excellent point. She talked about the importance of parents educating their children, accessing libraries and so forth. It is a point that could more powerfully be made on our side of the argument rather than the Minster’s because it highlights that parents have an important responsibility not only to themselves and their futures but also to the children they bring into the world.
Jim Knight: The way people will judge that depends on where they want to give the benefit of the doubt. Clearly we are on different sides of the divide. My interpretation, if it helps, is that I have talked about the importance of the right support, and the attendance panel will have to be mindful of whether an individual has had the right support to enable them to fulfil their duty to participate. It might be more complicated than simply having a young baby. They might have housing or other issues that affect how their child is progressing. The emphasis should be on the support that young person needs to make their life easier, rather than on enforcement. Enforcement is the last resort, but I understand that for the sake of scrutiny the hon. Gentleman has to assume that it would be one of the things that we would rush to.
Mr. Laws: It is not that I have to assume that the Minister is more draconian than he may be. It is not reasonable of him to suggest that all the decisions about how that flexibility should be exercised should fall to the panels.
Jim Knight: What I am trying to say is not that it all falls to the panels, but that knowledge of how the panels will judge things means that the local authority which is exercising its duties around participation and support will view things from the perspective of how the panel would interpret things if they chose, as a last resort, to go for enforcement.
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Mr. Laws: My concern is that we are still looking to the panels to exercise discretion, and there is a presumption that the right way forward is for parents of very young children to be in education, training or employment. I am suggesting, at this stage in legislating, that that is the wrong presumption, that it is too draconian, and that the hon. Member for Upminster may have been correct—if this is what she was getting at—that it is possible that, in the interests of certain parents and certain children, it may be useful for the parent to be in the home environment for a longer period. I am not sure that that judgment can very easily be made by the panels, since it seems clear to me that the Government’s presumption in the legislation is that all 16 or 17-year-olds ought to be in education, training or employment.
I assume that when the Minister talks about safeguards, he is largely thinking of the mechanisms that would enable the young parent to return to education, training or employment. In other words, he is asking us to believe that there would be flexibility if there is not child care and other provision. I accept that there probably would be in that the panels would be able to consider whether there were child care and other elements of support, but the panels would still be deprived, through legislation, of making the overall judgment about whether the right setting for a parent with a young child in this particular age group is at home with the child or in the setting that the Minister wants. Ministers do not have a monopoly on wisdom with regard to whether it is better for a parent to be in the home environment or in education, training or employment. He is assuming too much for the panels to be able to exercise that element of discretion.
I also still have concerns about the degree to which it will be possible to exercise discretion in respect of carers. I hope that it will be exercised sensibly. I accept that we want to offer the vast majority of carers the support they probably need to be in education, training or employment, but we can all think of examples where it would be very difficult indeed for panels to make judgments. They might make different judgments in different parts of the country. We would all probably agree that it would be easy to decide that the carer of a terminally ill person should be allowed to stay in the home environment and focus on their caring responsibilities, but what about someone who was very seriously ill, had been for some time and was likely to remain so, where there was no certainty about how long that person would have to live?
One could have an environment in which there were two children of the same age, one of whom might decide to go into the armed forces—exercising a freedom they will still have—while the other might wish to remain as a carer rather than going into education, training or employment. I have no idea whether, with the Bill, the guidance and the panels, that option would be open to them. I fear that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how the panels will be handled for those special cases, which comes back to many of our concerns about the compulsion route, because that route means fitting people around legislation and around Government presumptions about what is best for them, rather than allowing people’s lives to be framed and determined by what is in their own best interests.
Mr. Gibb: I was disappointed by the Minister’s response. I agreed when he said that we must have the same expectations for everyone. Young parents and carers should not be treated differently as far as their expectations are concerned. I am absolutely, fully in agreement with him on that. Then he went through the support he hopes to give to young carers. He described a range of options: the outcome of the cross-Government carers review, targeted youth support, education maintenance allowance and so on. Then he said that we were talking not about compulsion and penalties, but about getting rid of barriers and that no one would be subject to enforcement if they had a good reason not to be.
The Minister then cited clause 4. That is about appropriate full-time education or training, which is that
“which is suitable for the person,
having regard—
(a) to the person’s age, ability and aptitude, and
(b) to any learning difficulty”.
However, that does not seem to apply in these circumstances. It goes on to say
“at a school, at a college of further education, at an institution...or otherwise.”
I assume that the “or otherwise” opens up a range of options. I do not feel that this is the clause where “to have a good reason not to” would be invoked. When the Minister responded to amendment No. 6, he referred to clauses 39 and 42, which is where the phrase “without reasonable excuse” comes in. By that stage, the enforcement process has commenced. That is what those clauses are about.
Jim Knight: It is through clause 4 that a range of provision will be developed and needs to be developed. Some has been developed over the past five years and some may include provision appropriate for this group of people. The enforcement duty, in respect of reasonable excuse, will not have started because the local authority will know that there is reasonable excuse and therefore it has no chance of enforcement. That will reinforce its need to provide proper support, rather than to take the enforcement route.
Mr. Gibb: If the Minister has issued guidance—this is really what the amendment is about—to say to local authorities that the circumstance that I and the hon. Member for Yeovil are alluding to will always be and should be regarded as a reasonable excuse then that is fair enough, but that is not where we are. Clause 39 is invoked when the local authority gives written notice to the person who has not been attending. At that point, as the Bill is drafted, the person can tell the local authority that they have a reasonable excuse within clause 39(2)(b) and then the local authority can respond to that reasonable excuse.
The Minister also cited clause 42, which is about the attendance panels, by which time there has been not only the written notice, but the attendance notice. The person has to appeal against that attendance notice. The matter gets referred to the attendance panel, which has to meet. It hears from the person, who has had all these enforcement notices issued against him or her, what the reasonable excuse is. That is why I am disappointed by the Minister’s response.
The amendments are reasonable. Amendment No. 5 simply says:
“The Secretary of State shall specify by order arrangements and duties applicable to a person to whom this Part applies who has significant responsibilities for caring for parents, siblings or other close relatives.”
Amendment No 6 is similarly worded but for
“who has significant responsibilities for caring for their own children.”
That gives the Minister the opportunity to provide the guidance that we are seeking and that he is intimating in his response.
Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The domestic circumstances of new young mothers can vary enormously. One teenage mother may still be living in her family home, getting a lot of support from her parents and her mother may be taking a large amount of responsibility for the baby, which would make it much easier for the mother to return to education. However, that might not be happening. She may be living on her own in council accommodation, for example, and the stresses of coping with the demands of looking after a baby, probably on a small income, would make it extremely difficult for her to access training or education at that point.
Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. In the former circumstances, we would expect the young person to be in education or training, but in the latter that would be an unreasonable demand.
Jim Knight: Perhaps I should be clearer with the hon. Gentleman in respect of clause 39. Yes, we will issue guidance to local authorities about how they interpret it, in particular subsection (5), which says:
“The authority—
(a) must take all reasonable steps to secure that relevant support is offered to the person, and
(b) may not give the notice unless satisfied that the person has been afforded an opportunity to take advantage of the support offered.”
I hope that gives him the necessary reassurance about guidance and the fact that support will come before enforcement.
Mr. Gibb: Not entirely. In response to amendment No. 6, the Minister went through a range of support mechanisms. He talked about the Sure Start centre in every community, child tax credits, child care credits and Care to Learn. All of those are already in place and were in place when the Government’s Green Paper “Raising Expectations” was published. It says that
“we will consider what else needs to be done to ensure that teenage parents have real opportunities to participate.”
In paragraph 5.45, it states that the Government will consider what guidance they should set for local authorities not about new provision, but about the circumstances in which more flexibility should apply. It is for that reason that I am disappointed by the response. He merely reiterates the services that are already in place.
Jim Knight: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the children’s plan sets out our ambitions to develop those services further and to look further not only at the things that lead to teenage pregnancy, but at the obstacles that may prevent teenage mothers, in particular, from accessing opportunities. They may be housing related. We stressed that. More needs to be done when bringing in these duties.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to the Minister for that, but I am concerned about why he is so resistant to the amendments, which would simply clarify the flexibility that local authorities need to take into account in dealing with young people who have significant caring responsibilities. It would clarify matters hugely if he were able, by order—it would be helpful, too, if we could see it in draft—to state in the Bill that flexibility will be incorporated in legislation. I accept everything he says about wanting to provide more services and support, and when that is in place, we will support it.
However, the Bill as drafted is restrictive and prescriptive, and my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster and the hon. Member for Yeovil can both envisage circumstances in which people with a huge array of responsibilities on their shoulders will find themselves coming up against the whole of the enforcement procedure: written notices, appeals panels and attendance notices. We could get away from that by simply adopting the amendments, which would give the Secretary of State the power to set out, by order, a set of circumstances in which a more flexible approach could be taken.
Jim Knight: I shall have one last go at trying to persuade the hon. Gentleman, and then leave it up to the Committee. I oppose the amendments because they are likely to leave less room for discretion. They will specify by order specific duties and arrangements, rather than leaving local flexibility. It is largely the local flexibility delivered by clause 39(5) which specifies support. That is for local interpretation, to provide local flexibility based on the individual circumstances of the vulnerable person and the specific range of services and facilities available in that locality. It is much more flexible than having us, centrally, here in Whitehall, dictate by order what duties and arrangements need to be put in place.
Mr. Gibb: At the moment, the legislation created by Whitehall is very draconian and applies to the person. The amendment would alleviate the duties imposed on the young person. All the Minister has spoken about is issuing guidance to the local authority about the support services that they should provide, which is a different set of issues. He has not persuaded me that there is no case for providing flexibility just on the duty in clause 2. We want to ensure that we do not end up with a very unjust position whereby a 16 or 17-year-old person with a huge range of responsibilities in caring for a sick parent or sibling finds himself suddenly encountering the enforcement procedures. Both the amendments would create a much fairer and more tolerant position as far as those vulnerable young people are concerned.
5.15 pm
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.
Division No. 4 ]
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Laws, Mr. David
Walker, Mr. Charles
Watkinson, Angela
Barlow, Ms Celia
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Griffith, Nia
Knight, Jim
Lammy, Mr. David
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Wilson, Phil
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Gibb: May I propose amendment No. 6 formally, Mr. Bayley?
The Chairman: I am advised that the two amendments are so closely related that there should be only one Division.
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in clause 2, page 2, line 8, at end add—
‘( ) This section may not come into force before the Secretary of State has certified that in his opinion there are sufficient contracts of apprenticeship available to meet in full the level of demand for such contracts by persons to whom this Part applies.’.
The amendment brings us to the point where we can consider once again—some might say yet again, but I know that you, Mr. Bayley, would not—the quality of what is on offer to young people as a part of the argument for the Bill. It is an argument that the Minister has made exhaustively. He has said that the range of options available to young people will be so inspiring—so alluring—that he believes that they will consider lightly the loss of their liberty. To that end, the amendment suggests that until the Secretary of State can make real the claims that have been made by the Minister in the Committee and elsewhere, it would not be reasonable—even if we accept the argument of compulsion—to go ahead with the Bill’s provisions.
How would it be if we said to young people, “You must stay in training but there is no appropriate training for you.”? The Minister would not want that circumstance any more than I would. Therefore, the amendment might be regarded as a way of strengthening the provisions. It would certainly be an improvement and is not a wrecking amendment in any way, shape or form. It would simply oblige the Government to guarantee that what they are offering to young people is right and proper, given that young people will have to accept what they are offered.
According to the explanatory notes, clause 2 creates the central duty—in other words, the duty to participate in education or training. We have heard a lot about that. The clause details the ways in which young people might fulfil that duty, and I spoke about that this morning and listed those ways. One of them, which is why I tabled the amendment, is by
“participating in training in accordance with a contract of apprenticeship”.
However, the Committee, including the Minister and his noble Friend the Under-Secretary—I do not mean “noble”; that may have been a Freudian slip in anticipation of some future event—know that there is a shortage of apprenticeship places owing to a lack of employer engagement. As a result, the Government have consistently missed their target for the number of apprenticeships. In 2003, the Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that apprenticeship numbers would rise to 320,000 by 2006. In fact, as we know, there were only 239,000 apprenticeships in training in 2006-07, and numbers are falling, as was confirmed by the figures that were published just before Christmas. Alarmingly, the numbers were falling not only at level 3—they have been falling steadily since 1999—but now at level 2. I should be more than happy to make graphic evidence of that available to the Committee should any hon. Members wish to see it.
We could debate the reason for that decline at length, but it is not appropriate here to do so, as I am not sure whether it would be in order. However, the Government must go a long way if they are to create enough apprenticeship places to make the duties implicit in the Bill a reality. If they do not provide additional apprenticeship places, how could they possibly oblige young people to sign up to them? That is the simple thrust of the argument behind the amendment.
Once, all apprenticeships were a level 3 qualification. Eager young learners acquired alongside experienced craftsmen vital practical skill that gave them a sense of accomplishment and worth, and well deserved too, and that fulfilled an economic need. Although statistics show an increased level of participation in the apprenticeship system since 1997—the Under-Secretary made that point a number of times—the inclusion of lower qualifications labelled “apprenticeships” has disguised the fact that fewer people are training at level 3. In addition, work-based training has been in decline for about 20 years; in fact, it is about half of what it was 20 years ago. There is a pattern of decline of people training at higher level, a decline in work-based training, and a willingness to include under the badge of apprenticeship qualifications at level 2 that are not always fit for purpose, because they are not well based, not mentored and, sometimes, not employer-engaged at all.
We are training fewer people at level 3, which is why there are doubts in our mind about whether the Bill can be implemented. I have said a number of times that my principal reservation is that I simply do not think that it will do the job for which it is intended. There has been broad agreement about ambitions. Our ambition is for more young people to stay on in education or training after the age of 16, but I am not sure that the Bill in those terms is fit for purpose. One of the critical weaknesses relates to whether enough meaningful training places—apprenticeships are, or at least should be, about meaningful training—can be put in place in time for the statutory duty to have the impact that hon. Members want, which is one of greater participation, particularly among young people who currently do not make it in terms of their educational progress and level of skills.
It would be remiss of me, in proposing the amendment, not to say something about the apprenticeship review published at the beginning of last week. That review is important in these terms because it is clear that the Government know that what I have said about increasing the number of apprenticeships is of real significance. Both Ministers on the Committee have made that point themselves. In fact, they know that, in a sense, my amendment, whether it is accepted or not, is critical to the Bill: if the number of apprenticeship places does not grow, the Government will not meet their own targets and fulfil their own ambitions. However, the apprenticeship review, in my judgment, will in the end be unhelpful, because it sails in the opposite direction to the recommendations made by Lord Leitch, who examined these matters closely for the Government.
Lord Leitch’s key recommendation was that the Government should move from supply-side planning to demand-led skills training. He concluded that
“history tells us supply-side planning of this sort cannot effectively meet the needs of employers, individuals and the economy. The Review recommends a fully demand-led approach, with an end to this supply-side planning of provision.”
He stated that, as a consequence, planning bodies such as the Learning and Skills Council will
“require a further significant streamlining.”
However, the apprenticeship review reinforces supply-side planning by establishing a national apprenticeship service. That service is part of the LSC. The bureaucracy that at the moment is unhelpful to the provision of apprenticeships will be reinforced by the new service.
Mr. Marsden rose—
Mr. Hayes: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is a student of—indeed, an expert on—these matters.
Mr. Marsden: As ever, the hon. Gentleman gilds the lily, but I am deeply appreciative of his comments. He mentions the national apprenticeship service. We have only just had the statement and do not know the details of how that will pan out eventually. Is it not perfectly possible to have a national apprenticeship service that is strategic and focused and is not supply based in the way that he envisages? I do not see the necessity of saying that because we are to have a national apprenticeship service, it will automatically be supply based rather than demand led. It is perfectly possible to have a scheme that strategic that is demand led.
5.30 pm
Mr. Hayes: I describe the hon. Gentleman as expert because he is chairman of the all-party skills group, which does a good job of encouraging debate of such matters in a non-partisan way. He and I have enjoyed many conversations on this matter and others. However, his optimism might be ill-founded, given that the review said that the NAS, part of the Learning and Skills Council, will be responsible for the
“achievement of the targets set by Government. This includes determining and publishing the strategy for expanding places by region, sector and age group consistent with the Government’s published national plans.”
If that is not a supply-driven, centrally-based, target-orientated model, I do not know what is. It does not sound responsive to demand, or dynamic in the way that Lord Leitch hoped that the system might be.
I go further. The NAS will be responsible for determining apprenticeships qualifications. By the way, I believe that sector skills councils should have a bigger role. I recommend to the Committee an excellent paper that I wrote with my adviser Dr. Scott Kelly, who is an even greater expert on the subject than the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, which is entitled “Towards a gold standard for craft: guaranteeing professional apprenticeships”. In it, we reinforce, or perhaps borrow from—having been immodest, I move straight into my modest mode—Lord Leitch’s view. It is clear that sector skills councils, as bodies that are linked closely to employers, are best placed to fulfil precisely the role that is now to be put in the hands of the NAS. In other words, it is about anticipating demand, transmitting that demand to the people who provide skills—the various agencies that train people—and ensuring that the qualifications are best suited to changing skills needs.
I am alarmed that the new review weakens the role of sector skills councils in the process. That will weaken those aspects of the Bill that require a robust apprenticeship system to provide the training necessary, given the compulsion that lies at the heart of the Bill.
The creation of the NAS adds to the confusion. There is already a confusing array of organisations with overlapping responsibilities crowding the skills sector. The NAS will be responsible for a national information and marketing service for apprenticeships. That is in addition to the careers and training advice that is already provided by schools and colleges, local authorities, the Connexions service, the proposed new adult careers and advice service, and skills brokers as part of Train to Gain. A litany of organisations advise young people in which direction to travel in order to fulfil their statutory duty, but I am not sure that the advice received will be consistent or always helpful.
As far back as 2001, the Cassells review recommended that the apprenticeship system should be led by employers, with training providers acting only as apprenticeship agents with a clearly defined role. In 2002, the Learning and Skills Council announced that it accepted that recommendation, but it has never been implemented.
We could debate apprenticeships all day, but I do not want to delay the Committee unduly—except to say, for the avoidance of doubt, that I am a passionate supporter of vocational education and training. I admire the apprenticeship system, which, at its best, produces superb training. It a world-recognised brand, and we must not see it diluted in any way, shape or form. Some of the best apprenticeships, such as those of BT, Rolls-Royce and Honda, are the envy of the world, but unless we underpin the Bill, without sacrificing rigour, by ensuring that sufficient apprenticeship places are available, we will be short-changing potential trainees and British business. Neither of those is acceptable.
I trust that the Under-Secretary, who has hared to his place, has assembled his notes. I have resisted my instinct to abridge my remarks to give him sufficient time to pull his notes together. I hope that he will recognise the amendment as an important safeguard. I think that he knows that if the terms of the amendment are not met, the Bill simply will not work.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): I am grateful to have my first opportunity to speak for the Government on this occasion, and I am pleased to have made it back to the Committee following the birth of my son.
Mr. Hayes: I was out of the room when that was announced earlier. May I congratulate the Minister on that splendid occasion?
The Chairman: I call Mr. Lammy, senior.
Mr. Lammy: The Government share the sentiment behind the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. I think that we all agree that apprenticeships provide a high-quality work-based route to continue learning at 16 through which young people can properly engage with employers. Those young people, with the employer and alongside someone who is dedicated to continuing their learning and training, are getting a degree of mentorship, developing craft and skills, and learning important skills that employers talk about in relation to soft skills such as discipline, routine, dedication and commitment. Apprenticeships that work well also help young people to work alongside people who are much older than them. That is a particular advantage of apprenticeships working at their best.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, since 2007, the Government have sought to double the number of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds from 75,000 to 150,000. I was pleased that he relied heavily on the apprenticeship review and that, notwithstanding his concerns about sector skills councils, to which I shall return, the broad thrust of his comments was in support of the review, which was published on 28 January by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and for Children, Schools and Families. In the review, we restated our intention to put in place an apprenticeship entitlement for every young person who wants one by the time this legislation comes into effect.
In the end, the system must be based on employer demand and on employers coming forward, so we put in place the things that we all want to see further to incentivise employers to come forward so that we can meet that ambition. Today, fewer than one in 15 of 16 to 18-year-olds are in an apprenticeship. Our goal is that within the next 10 years, one in five young people can get an apprenticeship place. That is ambitious, but meeting that ambition is key to our productivity and our country’s success. Galvanising the system and getting employers to come forward to offer apprenticeships is the key to that.
Our apprenticeship trajectories are modelled on an analysis of learner demand that was carried out by the Learning and Skills Council. It projects that there will be another 90,000 apprenticeship places by 2013, which will be a 60 per cent. increase on the number of places that we have now. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will see when he reads the review that we have worked with our sector skills councils precisely to identify the sectors in which there are growth opportunities. For example, the sector skills councils in the creative and culture sector, the media and the creative industries have come forward to suggest that there are growth opportunities in the next period. That is particularly relevant in London, where we have the smallest proportion of apprenticeships available for young people.
Mr. Hayes: There are fewer apprenticeships in central London than there are in Leeds, as the Under-Secretary will know. I agree with him about those new industries, and he is right to emphasise that because, too often, apprenticeships are seen as old-fashioned or to do with older industries, but many are not. The House of Lords Committee on Economic Affairs report on apprenticeships states, “Many young people unfitted to start apprenticeship”. Does the Under-Secretary share my concern about that? The report says:
“some 300,000 16—19 year olds are unable to access training or any worthwhile employment as a result of a lack of basic skills”.
Getting the numbers right is about getting apprenticeships right, but surely it is also about getting the fit between people who are capable of studying for apprenticeships and what they are likely to study.
Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In the evidence sessions, the Committee heard a lot from organisations such as the Prince’s Trust and Barnardo’s that indicated that there was a group of young people who would not be ready to begin an apprenticeship. The hon. Gentleman has also talked about the quality, brand and integrity of apprenticeships. I hope that he will welcome in the review the Government’s intention to define clearly what an apprenticeship is and is not.
We also said in the review that there is a place for those young people who are on that journey towards an apprenticeship for whom a pre-apprenticeship or, indeed, a programme-led apprenticeship, might be appropriate. At some point, they will get to take up an apprenticeship. We also clearly say in the review the minimum qualification that will be required to begin an apprenticeship. I hope that that addresses the point that the hon. Gentleman made, which he has also made in the past.
In galvanising the system to meet that 2030 ambition, which we believe that the legislation will do, it is important that we do not just reach out to new sectors through our sector skills councils, but identify areas and regions for growth. We must also understand that the sort of growth that might occur in the process industries in the north-east, for example, will probably not be replicated in the south-west or in London. In London, we would hope for growth in, for example, public sector apprenticeships, which poses a challenge to us in Parliament. Apprenticeships could be attached to the House of Commons, and certainly more could be provided across Whitehall Departments and non-departmental public bodies. All that is fleshed out in the review. I hope that that reflects the sentiment behind the suggestion from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings.
5.45 pm
Mr. Hayes: The Minister is right that the review is welcome in a number of ways, particularly in providing a statutory definition of apprenticeship, as he described, and in creating a baseline. As he will recall, I called for both measures. However, he must tell the Committee why level 3 numbers have declined steadily year on year, and why level 2 numbers are now tailing off. To meet the targets, we need considerable growth. Rather than growing from a rising trend, we will reverse a downward tend, which will make the job that much harder.
Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman must concentrate on apprenticeship completion rates. The overall completion rate stands at 63 per cent., having gone up from 25 per cent. in 1997, and completion rates for advanced level apprenticeships have also gone up. It is not only about being on an apprenticeship, but about successfully finishing it.
Mr. Marsden: I agree entirely with the Minister’s focus on the road to completion, but does he agree that one of the very encouraging things about the Government’s latest announcement is the fact that they are looking at ways in which those apprenticeships can be flexibly structured to accommodate the complex work-life balance of younger and older people? Does he agree that portability is a key part of achieving increases in completion rates, which is a goal that he, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and I all share?
Mr. Lammy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of portability, which goes to the heart of our discussions on unitisation. We want vocational qualifications, for which individuals can do a unit, then move to different parts of the country, or to different institutions, or—in relation to apprenticeships—between different providers and, sometimes, employers within the same sector. We are moving in that direction and running pilots until summer 2008. That is very much the direction of travel.
On completion rates, it is important to remember that the number of young people completing the full advanced apprenticeship framework has grown from 17,000 in 2001 to about 33,000 in 2006, which represents a significant increase. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings talked about companies such as Rolls-Royce, which represent the gold standard within the apprenticeship family, and he should recognise that those completion rates go to the heart of such things. Something else that is relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s question is the Government’s absolute commitment to quality. This is not just about being on an apprenticeship. Ten years ago, we were in a situation in which there were poor employers, little or no inspection, and training providers who did not take apprenticeships seriously. We have sought to root those bad employers and training providers out of the system. That has resulted in a reduction in their overall number, but I repeat that it is important to concentrate on completion rates, which are going in the right direction. In addition, we have undertaken an apprenticeship review, which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings has broadly welcomed.
Mr. Hayes: I am relying on the Minister’s indulgence, as he is likely to be in an extremely buoyant mood today, given his happy event.
The Minister speaks about completions a great deal. One of the witnesses to the Committee suggested that there was a relationship between completion rates and the dropping of the technical certificate. The Minister will remember that in 2003, the Government insisted on a technical certificate for all apprenticeships, but the Learning and Skills Council subsequently dropped that requirement. Will the Minister explain whether, with regard to the need to maintain rigour and quality, the LSC would require those technical qualifications to be certificated in the way in which they once were?
Mr. Lammy: On the matter of technical certificates, the hon. Gentleman may be running away with himself slightly.
All our apprenticeships are independently assessed, and there is a curriculum framework and a relationship with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. They are all independently and rigorously assessed and inspected. In relation to the technical certificates, it is precisely because we have sought to be responsive to employers that we have allowed flexibility. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the LSC has sought to move away from the technical certificate in only four areas of apprenticeships, including hairdressing. That does not mean that the courses are not still independently assessed by the qualifications agency, but it does mean that we have given it the flexibility that it has sought. I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point, because I looked into it personally after he raised it in the past.
As I have previously explained, part of our rationale for legislating is to galvanise the system to provide appropriate support and opportunities for all our young people by setting a clear expectation in law that all young people must participate until they are 18 years old. We are making it clear that it will no longer be an option to forget the student who sits quietly at the back of the class, watching the clock and waiting until it is time to leave. To link the raising of the participation age to the achievement of our apprenticeship targets in the way proposed by the amendment would remove an important driver for the system, as it gears up to meet the apprenticeship entitlement by 2013. There are further clauses on apprenticeships later in the Bill, and, in light of my reasoning, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Hayes: I am grateful for the way in which the Minister addressed the Committee in conciliatory—I could go as far as to say collaborative—terms. However, three or four points stand proud from our short debate on such a vital subject. There is common ground, first, about the need to increase the number of apprenticeships—without that, the Bill cannot do its job—and, secondly, about the need to do that while retaining rigour. There would be a not inconsiderable risk that, in trying to achieve the first purpose, we might lose sight of the second, and that many young people might be encouraged into training that was less than rigorous. There is probably more common ground on the fact that the test of that rigour is enhanced employability; does the completion of an apprenticeship improve job prospects and performance? I would go even further and say that the Government have moved, hesitatingly and grudgingly, but moved none the less. We should always rejoice when a sinner comes to the Lord.
The Government have moved in our direction, and the statutory definition of apprenticeship is now part of the review for which I called, as the Minister generously acknowledged. That is critically important for employer engagement, mentoring and the degree to which the apprenticeship will include work-based training. There were doubts about programme-led apprenticeships and some level 2 apprenticeships in that regard, which were reflected in the adult learning inspectorate’s final report, which said that it was entirely possible to complete an apprenticeship without setting foot in a workplace. That is not right.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between us—and this is why I am inclined to press the amendment to a Division—and I am not sure that the Government have sped in our direction. They might not even be moving falteringly in that direction. Indeed, evidence from the review suggests that they are plodding in the opposite direction. The difference concerns the question of how apprenticeships are managed and funded. I am convinced that the central tenet of the Leitch analysis is that we must inject dynamism into the apprenticeship system to grow the numbers, with the caveat that we retain rigour, and that we must therefore make it more responsive to employer demands.
Mr. Lammy: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the review points to a new national service for apprenticeships, but with a local field force that can interact locally and with the regions? Does he also recognise that, for the first time in this country, a new group of students will have a matching service similar to that provided for another group of students, who have been able to apply for university admission through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and previously the Universities Central Council on Admissions? It will go some way towards meeting employers’ needs, as it will provide brand integrity, identify local needs and enable young people to connect with employers.
6 pm
The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that he wants us to be responsive to employers, but then ask us to raise the technical certificate and other things that respond precisely to what employers tell us will make the system work better and create greater numbers of apprenticeships. I remind him that there is an apprenticeship clause later in the Bill, and I urge him to reflect further on whether he wants to press the amendment to a vote.
Mr. Hayes: We can therefore debate the matter at even greater length when we discuss that clause. We may consider this to be just a preliminary discussion—early skirmishes between the Minister and myself.
The Minister is right about the matching service. It is a good development, but it is not enough. We need an all-age careers service that pulls together advice and guidance from several disparate sources. When I put that to witnesses in the evidence sessions, they agreed. The record shows that even the chief executive of Connexions was sympathetic to the principle of reinvigorating careers advice and guidance on apprenticeships through a radical change in structure. We have a cluttered landscape on advice and guidance, which is unlikely to provide a clear and coherent focus for advice and so, perhaps, will leave young people wanting.
As I said at the outset, the essence of my amendment is to underpin commitments made by the Minister again today. It is necessary to grow the number of apprenticeships to provide the level of training that is required for the numbers desired. He said that we will debate apprenticeships later. I hope that during further consideration of these matters he will have a chance to think deeply about some of the things that I said today. His contribution has been helpful, as he said that employer involvement in apprenticeships will be a condition of public funding. I believe that he said that—perhaps he will correct me if he did not. That is certainly what I want, and if the statutory definition means anything, it means that.
I want the licensing of apprenticeships to be led by the sector skills councils, as that would be a helpful way of ensuring that the product meets the demand. We certainly need apprenticeships to teach and test real competencies. I wonder why the Minister did not say more about how we will engage small and medium-sized enterprises, and he may wish to intervene on me again to do so. We heard a lot about the new duties of SMEs. To achieve the expansion that he described, it is critical to involve many more SMEs in apprenticeships. One way of doing so is through an expansion of group training associations, and the Minister knows that I have advocated such a measure. The review did not say much about associations, but he may wish to elaborate now.
Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman will know that in the apprenticeship review, we advocated group training associations. However, this goes back to my previous point about how we ensure quality while creating a system that is attractive for employers. We might debate that later, because the hon. Gentleman has tabled amendments about the local contract of employment. He will know that engagement in an apprenticeship is key for certain SMEs—two or three-man businesses in various sectors, from the creative industries to a group of electricians or plumbers—but that they find it difficult to undertake the core business of liaison with the Learning And Skills Council and the bureaucracy necessary to meet the requirements of the legislation. For that reason, we support the training associations. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that there must be flexibility in the system
Mr. Hayes: Yes, the Minister is right. This boils down to who owns the contract. The difference between us is that I want the contract to be owned either by a group of employers through a group training association or by a single employer, whereas he wants the contracts to be owned by the training provider. I think that that is the essential difference between us, although the Minister may not agree.
Mr. Lammy: It is not the case, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that I am prescriptive. I believe that it is for the employer to determine whether the contract should be with the training provider with which he is working or whether it should be with him. Big employers like Rolls-Royce, for example, may want the contract to be with them. Smaller employers, however, would either want a group training association to have that responsibility or they would want the local further education college to be the liaison point with the Learning and Skills Council while the individual is in their employment completing their apprenticeship.
I want to move swiftly to a conclusion, because the final point in the programme for government that I have laid out, in terms of apprenticeships at least, is, as I have said, the creation of an all-age careers service. With the measures that I have briefly outlined, I think that we could rejuvenate the apprenticeship system and increase dramatically the number of people engaged in apprenticeships, providing we get the basic skills and soft-skills issues right, so that we do not have 300,000 young people ill-equipped even to begin an apprenticeship. I agree with the Minister that that is partly about pre-apprenticeship training. However, I cannot see why the Government, even if they do not adopt all these things immediately, should not, given the time frame available to them, accept the amendment and be confident that they can grow the number of training places in the way that we all agree is necessary.
Perhaps the Minister will rise at this late stage, and suggest that he will accept the amendment with the alacrity with which he swapped places with the Minister for Schools and Learners and contributed to this debate. If he does not do so, I will have to test the mood of the Committee by dividing it on this subject.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.
Division No. 5 ]
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Laws, Mr. David
Walker, Mr. Charles
Watkinson, Angela
Barlow, Ms Celia
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Griffith, Nia
Knight, Jim
Lammy, Mr. David
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Wilson, Phil
Question accordingly negatived.
Motion made, and Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 6.
Division No. 6 ]
Barlow, Ms Celia
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Griffith, Nia
Knight, Jim
Lammy, Mr. David
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Wilson, Phil
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Laws, Mr. David
Walker, Mr. Charles
Watkinson, Angela
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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