Education and Skills Bill

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Clause 22

Financial penalty for contravention of section 21
Mr. Laws: I beg to move amendment No. 172, in clause 22, page 11, line 30, after ‘has’ insert ‘knowingly’.
Borrowing from the style of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, I start by reminding everybody, from the explanatory notes, that clause 22
“provides for a local education authority to serve a penalty notice on the employer and sets out the circumstances in which the notice can be given. It provides for the amount of the financial penalty to be determined by regulations, and sets out the requirements for what is included in the notice.”
Our amendment No. 172, which is modest but succinct, in case the Minister chuckles too much, would insert “knowingly” at line 30, and require that the imposition of a financial penalty against the employer depend on them knowingly having contravened section 21—in other words, knowingly having taken on a young person aged 16 or 17 without them being in education or training.
Let me refer back to my comments on clause 21. As the Minister has acknowledged, the employer is asking for relatively modest confirmation from an employee of their education and training status. Arguably, in exceptional cases, a young person might forge a letter from an education or training provider to demonstrate that they are compliant with the legislation, and the employer might be completely unaware of that fact, or might not be able to check. The implication of the Minister’s statement is that they will not be required to do so and it will all be terribly easy, with a nod and wink over a cup of coffee and a letter passed across a desk, or some other easily given assurance.
My concern is whether, if a young person forges a letter, gives incorrect information, or is on an education or training course when they first take up their employment, but ends up not being on that—perhaps because it collapses or for some other reason—the employer will be penalised even though they cannot have reasonably or knowingly been aware of that young person’s circumstances. That is the issue on which we seek clarification from the Minister.
Mr. Hayes: Let me give a word of support for the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. It is important that we explore how high the bar is to be set for local authorities to interpret an employer’s culpability in these terms. The hon. Gentleman was right to table the amendment because it allows us to probe the matter.
It will be quite possible for an employer to take on a young person who has deceived them into thinking that he or she is involved in training. It is important that we probe the Minister further because this is a matter of concern for employers. We spoke a few moments ago about the other concerns that employers have, and similarly it is particularly important that we reassure small and medium-sized enterprises in this regard.
Jim Knight: I am delighted to be probed on this particular clause. I am absolutely clear that an employer would not receive a financial penalty if they had checked that the young person had made appropriate arrangements for training or education and were satisfied with the evidence before allowing employment to begin.
Clause 21(1) states that employers should take
“all such steps as are reasonable to ascertain, that the employee has made appropriate arrangements”.
We will make it clear in guidance what those reasonable steps should be. I am clear that there will be no requirement on the employer to verify the evidence. If it is a forgery, the local authority should act on the young person, not the employer, and we will seek to make that clear. I hope that that helps the Committee.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the Government’s intent. He reassured me that if the documents supplied by a young person were falsified in some way, the young person, not the employer, would be held to account. I did not manage to leap in in time to ask the Minister to clarify the other circumstance to which I referred. A young person might have legitimately got into education and training at the beginning of their employment with an employer and then dropped out of the training course three days after, or the training course might have collapsed. That individual might then have decided that there was nothing else on offer that they wanted to take up. Perhaps two or three months later, someone might discover that that young person was not in education or training. Under those circumstances, would there be an employer responsibility?
Jim Knight: There is no employer responsibility in those circumstances.
Mr. Laws: I express my gratitude to the Minister for that reassurance. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Jim Knight: I beg to move amendment No. 54, in clause 22, page 12, line 1, after ‘education’, insert ‘authority’.
We omitted the word “authority” due to typographical error.
Mr. Hayes: It would be quite wrong to skate over this with the speed that the Minister wants. As you know, Mr. Bercow, the amendment was tabled in my name—
Jim Knight: May I record my gratitude to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for tabling the amendment because it reminded us of the housekeeping that we needed to do?
Mr. Hayes: I am delighted that the Minster has acknowledged the first of many amendments that he will accept during the passage of the Bill. He has been slow to accept the first of them, but given the spirit in which he has accepted this suggestion, we hope that he will accept many more of our honourable attempts to improve the Bill.
Amendment agreed to.
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment No. 55, in clause 22, page 12, line 4, leave out from ‘area’ to end of line 6.
Jim Knight: The amendment would limit the circumstances in which a local authority could take action against an employer in its area to those concerning a failure to check that new employees resident within the local authority’s area were in appropriate training. Any failure by the employer to check in respect of new employees resident outside the local authority’s area would not be covered.
If a local authority discovered that an employer had not been making checks, it would not be able to issue a penalty notice unless the employees were resident in the same area as the employer, but it could contact the employees’ local authority and ask it to take action. If there were a large number of employees to whom the failure to check applied, that could be a very bureaucratic and time-consuming task for both the local authority, which might need to contact a number of other authorities, and the employer, who would then have to respond to penalty notices issued by more than one authority.
The amendment would unnecessarily complicate the system, which is designed to ensure that employers play their part in enabling and encouraging young people to participate in education or training. On that basis, I hope that the very reasonable hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will withdraw his reasonable amendment.
Mr. Hayes: I am a reasonable man. The intention behind the amendment is not to limit the power of the local authority, but to extend it in the sense that it would be able to work with other local authorities to do the job that the Minister describes. However, I accept that that might involve additional administrative cost and burden. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 22, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24

Duty to enable participation initial arrangements
Mr. Laws: I beg to move amendment No. 180, in clause 24, page 12, line 32, at end insert
‘during that employee’s normal working hours’.
We would like to have some reassurance about the burdens that will be placed on young people as a consequence of the responsibilities in the Bill, and the understandable desire that there will be among employers not to lose young people at a critical time. The amendment would ensure not only that the employer must permit the employee to stay in training or education, but that that should be during normal working hours. In other words, the employer would not be able to foist unreasonable responsibilities on employees and to require them to take up their training and education options outside the time that they are working, particularly if they are working full time.
Although we understand Ministers’ desire to have young people undertaking a combination of employment and education or training at the same time, we would be concerned if the effect of the Bill were that some young people would have to be doing full-time jobs and all their education and training outside that. Perhaps that is not the Government’s intention, but that is what we are hoping to explore with the amendment and I would be grateful for the Minister’s reassurances or recommendations on that point.
Mr. Hayes: I shall keep my remarks extremely brief. In adding to the conversation about this useful amendment, I invite the Minister to enlighten the Committee as to what study the Government have made of the likely effects on employment of the young people that the hon. Gentleman spoke about. It is inconceivable that the Government have not modelled this; we have had this debate a number of times and it is again coming to a head around this series of clauses. It would be useful if the Committee could have some understanding of what modelling the Government have done, which might well refute the claims made by Professor Wolf and others, but at the very least would inform our discussion.
Jim Knight: Naturally, we have carried out a degree of research and the impact assessment reflects that. For example, of those young people between the ages of 16 and 19 who are working, 66 per cent. work part time, 34 per cent. full time. Of the latter, 1,680 are in jobs without training, working in small and medium-sized enterprises and paid less than the national minimum wage for people above the age of 18. Those are the ones whom we think would be particularly affected by the legislation, but I do not want to rehearse all the arguments that I made on 4 February.
It is important to ensure that young people are not subjected to onerous, unnecessary or antisocial working or training hours. It is perhaps worth noting that the Working Time Regulations 1998 provide protection for young workers regarding their working time, both in terms of the number of hours and when those hours can be undertaken. Nothing in the Bill changes that protection, but the flexibility in the Bill is important and it would be taken away by the amendment. That could damage the youth labour market and be burdensome on employers. In light of that, I hope that the hon. Member for Yeovil will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Laws: I am not sure that the Minister is being entirely fair to me and the amendment, because my reading of the provision at subsection (2) is that it requires the employer to permit the employee to participate. It says,
“permit the employee to participate in training or education”
at a particular time. Nothing in the amendment would prevent an employee who wished to undertake their course in the evening or outside regular working hours from doing so. Is there not a danger that employees who do not wish to do their course in evenings, after a full-time job throughout the week, might end up being obliged to do so? Will the Minister provide any reassurance that that would not be the case? Will he acknowledge that the amendment in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West would not prevent young people from undertaking education and training courses in the evening, if they wish to do so?
Jim Knight: The flexibility in the legislation is there so that employees can do their full-time work and then fulfil their responsibility to undertake 280 hours of education or training a year. The Committee has discussed that flexibility at length. The employer and employee would discuss it on the commencement of employment as governed by clauses 21 to 23. If arrangements change, further discussions would take place.
Mr. Laws: Perhaps I have misunderstood the Government’s intention. Under the Bill, as it stands, could an employer say to a young person, “Fine, do your education or training, but regardless of that nonsense we want you here during the day, so you will have to do it at 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening—take it or leave it!”?
Jim Knight: I am looking for the relevant provision in the Bill. Naturally, the employer must behave reasonably. Clause 24(2) states:
“The employer must permit the employee to participate in training or education in accordance with those appropriate arrangements.”
If the employer is unduly unreasonable in rejecting arrangements as inappropriate, or requiring the young person to do something that they think is unreasonable, they have the option not to take up the job. That might be a bit extreme, but the important thing is that both parties are reasonable. We will discuss later clauses on changing arrangements, but it is important to note now the provisions in clause 25(3) for matters that would be discussed, which include the
“needs of the person in order to fulfil the duty”,
which is significant. They would also include the
“circumstances of the employer’s business”,
which ought to be respected, and the
“effect of the person’s absence from work on the running of that business.”
Such considerations would enter the discussion.
Mr. Laws: I shall not try the Committee’s patience any further, because we are about to turn to another amendment raising similar concerns. I shall not press the Committee to divide on my amendment, therefore, but I hope that at some stage——if not later today, in the course of the next few weeks——we might receive reassurances from Ministers greater than the backstop reassurance that the Minister sought to give when he said that a young person could simply choose to lose their employment opportunity, which does not seem particularly satisfactory. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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