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6.54 pm

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to speak in this Second Reading debate. You may be pleased to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I will keep my comments short because, like many other hon. Members, I am used to having to curtail them to a set time, although I notice that today there is no such set time. It is perhaps a shame that Front Benchers did not do the same.

I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill. In the interests of brevity, I will be unable to mention all the parts that I consider important, because there are so many. It is gratifying to see that it is being taken through by two Government Departments working together to achieve the best results for the people whom they serve. The focus on apprenticeships does much to consolidate the Government’s commitment to them for many years to come. I understand that in 1997 barely 15,000 young people completed apprenticeships in a year and that that number has now leapt to well over 100,000. I suppose that that is no surprise when we consider that in 1997, when the Conservatives were in power, the amount of public funding for apprenticeships was precisely zero.

The briefings that I have received on the Bill have had one thing in common—they all welcome it. They do so because they recognise its commitment to building the skills and potential of people, and that this commitment can only enrich the skills and potential of business. I welcome it for that reason, and for many more. I am delighted that it will place the legacy of Sure Start and children’s centres on a sounder legislative footing, meaning that they are not left at the mercy of those who may not value the ongoing contributions to the community made by centres such as those in Felling and Washington in my constituency. Having said that, it sounds as though Conservative Front Benchers may now have made a commitment to support such a secure future for children’s centres and Sure Start. I, too, will read in detail the Opposition spokesman’s comments.

It is good to see greater support for nurseries. I know from my own experience in Gateshead that local authority flexibility can be key in delivering nursery places for local children. There will always be a need for such local flexibility, and I hope that the right balance can be found between that and the Government’s laudable desire to boost support for nurseries.

As hon. Members may know, I am committed to trying to raise awareness in our schools of the extra challenges faced by pupils with special educational needs and medical conditions. The recognition provided for school support staff in the Bill will give professionals
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whose role is not primarily to educate pupils the chance to have a voice that should enable them to build on their skills to make pupils’ needs a priority. There are concerns among trade unions—as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), who is no longer in his place—that the current wording of the Bill may not enable those thousands of staff to secure the upturn in pay and conditions that they deserve. I know that Ministers will be keen to ensure that in granting such a voice to support staff, they do not allow any loopholes in the legislation to remain, so that that voice would fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, the right to request time to train should help, in time, to create a culture of ongoing learning for professionals. I hope that that right will be exercised by all professionals, especially teachers, in order to ensure that no one is asked to do a job for which they feel inadequately prepared. This should not be seen, as it is by some, as a back door route to skiving, but as a chance for employer and employee to seize mutual benefits wherever possible.

There is much more to welcome, but time is pressing on. A barrage of plaudits and praise may sound like music to Ministers’ ears, but I want also to take the chance to provide some feedback. I want to sound a note of caution about two broad issues, based on experience; those affected by some of the proposed changes are only too right to want to see those issues flagged up.

I was contacted last week by the North East chamber of commerce. I have plenty of experience of the north-east and am aware that the North East chamber of commerce is the only chamber of commerce of the region. Its members also employ 30 per cent. of the regional work force, so it was no surprise when its briefing made it to my in-tray and caught my attention. Like me, the North East chamber of commerce is an ardent advocate of the north-east. That is why I am keen to highlight its concern that the Young People’s Learning Agency, tasked with providing education and training to young people, should not lose a clear sense of strategic direction or indeed any expertise when its work is implemented at a local authority level. We need to ensure that an effective sub-national structure reflects regional variations in the circumstances of young people and the requirements of employers. The Learning and Skills Council has done a good job of taking account of both those factors and it is vital that such an understanding is maintained.

The changes set out in the Bill are far-reaching and I have already commented on how far apprenticeships have come thanks to the Government’s ongoing endeavours. I mentioned earlier that North East chamber of commerce members employ 30 per cent. of the regional work force. Given that last year in my local authority areas more than 3,200 apprenticeships were undertaken, it is a fair bet that many of the employers leading such schemes are members of the chamber of commerce. It is therefore wise to listen to their concerns about the potential turbulence that will be experienced during any period of flux while the proposed changes are introduced. The split responsibilities of the Young People’s Learning Agency and the Skills Funding Agency, for commissioning and for funding and resourcing, will need a watchful eye to be kept on them.

I urge Ministers to recognise the way in which the north-east is responding to the current economic difficulties. We recently suffered a bitter blow with the loss of
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1,200 jobs at Nissan but partners across the region have been quick to pull together and to work together. Nissan showed a willingness to invest in its workers, working with Gateshead college to secure training. That desire to develop the work force is reflected in the bid for further funding now before DIUS ministers. There are nearly 20,000 apprentices in the region and there is a willingness to gain the new skills that will unlock new opportunities. Ministers should grasp the chances across the region with both hands.

I asked Ministers at the end of last year whether they were aware of the potential for some apprenticeships, such as the employer-led programmes run by the charity Rathbone, to fall foul of the new legislation. I know that Ministers want to use the definitions of apprenticeships to avoid any unscrupulous exploitation, and that is laudable and right, but it would be good to have further assurances that such valuable charitable projects will not be impeded by the legislative changes. Rathbone places young people with poor behavioural and educational records with employers and we should do all we can to support its efforts.

Another aspect of the Bill affects children and young people with special educational needs. It is great to see that so much attention has been paid to ensuring that the changes in the Bill will benefit all children and young people. It builds on DCSF’s agenda for supporting children with special educational needs and will complement the Aiming High for Disabled Children programme, the children’s plan, the eminent Bercow review, the Lamb inquiry, the Rose review and the forthcoming Ofsted review.

May I also say how encouraged I was to hear the Secretary of State’s remarks about the steps the Government plan to take on autism following the forthcoming Autism Bill? I know that there is a great strength of feeling that we must strive to improve services for children with autism and other special educational needs. It is good to see that that aim is uppermost in Ministers’ minds. I want to reiterate the hope of the autism lobby that local authorities will seek to consider the needs of disabled children at all times when considering their plans for children and young people.

There can be no doubt about the Government’s commitment to children with special educational needs, but none the less I want to raise one or two queries that I believe might need further examination in Committee. Like many other Members, I have received a briefing from the Special Educational Consortium, which is, as ever, thorough and well considered. It states:

We need to know whether local authorities that are taking on extra responsibility for provision will be audited to ensure that they come up to scratch. One of the purposes of my private Member’s Bill, which is now the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008, was to try to ensure a greater spotlight on local authority performance in order to highlight best practice. Identifying and supporting all needs will be integral to the success of the transition of responsibility and I hope that Ministers will find a way of ensuring some means of monitoring performance and outcomes for pupils.

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It is good to see that the Government’s Every Child Matters goals continue to be reflected in the Bill, and the duty on local authorities to promote well-being is to be welcomed. Given the new obligations on local authorities with regard to post-16 education, it would be good to know if the duty to promote well-being will be carried over, as it should be if we are to ensure that the system has an inbuilt commitment to the future of young people.

My final point concerns the welcome reforms in prison education. We know that there is a far higher prevalence of special educational needs among the prison population and that greater demand is therefore placed on those who teach that population. It takes special skills to deal with special needs and that is why statements are issued for those with the most severe needs. We must not give up on those who are in prison, and I hope that Ministers will consider stating explicitly that statements will be recognised in prison education as they are in any other educational provision.

Overall, the Bill represents a Labour Government doing what they do best: working together to improve the opportunities available to all. During the transition from the school corridors to the workplace, young people can easily find themselves getting stuck or facing a few bumps along the way. In the current climate we cannot ensure that things will go smoothly for everyone, but the focus on skills in the Bill should create a lasting legacy for many millions. In a society where a job for life is becoming a thing of the past it is worth remembering that while many of the challenges we face are temporary, skills are permanent.

7.7 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): May I begin with a brief tribute to Lord Dearing, to whom I referred in my intervention? I had some experience of working with him and of his working for me during the 1990s, and I thought that he was an exemplary public servant: calm, rational and clear. He always had an underlying sense of values and decency that was greatly appreciated by all those from every party who came in touch with him. I think that this debate has generally been informed by those values. One or two people have sometimes fallen below that level and have resorted to political rhetoric, but I shall leave the House to draw its conclusions on which Members I have in mind.

I should say that procedurally I deprecate the portmanteau Bills that come along with everything that a Department—or in this case, two Departments—can trawl up. It means that Back Benchers, other Members of Parliament, Select Committees and even Ministers themselves cannot focus on all the powers. I doubt that there is a single person in the Chamber who has read every one of the 214 pages of the Bill and I am quite sure that nobody will have equivalent focus across the different sectors that are referred to.

Secondly, I think that it is an index of the problem of legislative indigestion—perhaps it is the last clutches of a dying Government—that the provisions have all been pushed through two Select Committees in draft and we had only just commented on them and received a Government response before we moved on to the substantive legislation. However, we will make of it the best that we can.

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I have three interests to declare. First, I am a fellow of City and Guilds, which is an examining and awarding body. I am on the Skills Commission and I was— 15 years ago, now—a Higher and Further Education Minister. The amazing thing about that is that we reorganise in one direction and then we rereorganise in another. The issues do not change; it is just the way we are going at the time that seems to be different. I am proud to have shadowed—some eight years ago—the establishment of the Learning and Skills Council by this Government, and even more relieved to be playing my part in laying it to rest.

I am not going to refer to the provisions dealing with those of compulsory age except in two respects. First, I commend the remarkable presentation by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) on concerns about school standards. I absolutely agree that we should not conduct this debate at the level of the saloon bar. Proper, independent evaluation and reassurance are needed. That is important for pupils, who need to know that what they are getting is valuable, for their parents, and—perhaps that was not quite brought out—for employers too. We all need such reassurance.

Secondly, I would like to put in a word for those not in education, employment or training—the NEETs—who may be in short-stay schools, or however those are to be renamed. I had a positive experience in my constituency a few weeks ago when I met a group of NEETs who were taking part in an intensive, well-structured programme led by the voluntary sector. I was surprised by what took place. We sat them down and engaged with them intensely, listening to what they had to say—not always a strength of Members of Parliament, in my experience—and suddenly one could hear a pin drop. They wanted to communicate, and I thought, “What a waste,” and what a sad thing it was that we had to put in all that intense effort to begin to recover their interest and enthusiasm. But I think that we all want to do so.

If I am empanelled to serve on the Committee, I may want to say something about the difficult technical interactions concerning qualifications and the new Ofqual, but I shall leave that to one side today. More generally, I am concerned about the architecture and fit of the provisions for adolescents and adults, now beginning to separate out in turn, alongside those for the compulsory years. That has always been a problem for the ministry—however described—dealing with education. It is difficult to know where to draw the line between compulsory years provision and later provision, which is, in a sense, voluntary or optional, although that demarcation has changed. As far as the providers are concerned, sixth-form colleges, of which there are fewer than 100, will be stranded among a much larger number of schools, while general or specialist FE colleges will be detached because the Skills Funding Agency will be adult-based. All those below the age of 19 will be a matter, more or less, for the local authorities—a reversal of the 1992 changes—along with the young persons authority. In turn, that will tend to diminish further the local authority commitment to community education and lifelong learning, to which I am strongly committed.

I know that Ministers, particularly in these Departments, are bound to be erudite, but I am always amazed by their ability to forget the prescriptions of Occam’s razor, which translate here as, “Do not multiply the number of entities unless it is absolutely necessary.” They have
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performed the amazing trick of creating more agencies than they are replacing. I recommend that Ministers modestly consider the report that our Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee produced post-Leitch, particularly the wiring diagram on the front cover prepared by the National Audit Office—not drawn up by us—on how everything fits together. That shows how complex the situation is, and if it is complex for us as relative specialists, how much more difficult must it be for employers, parents and pupils to understand what is going on?

There is a separate monograph to be written, but not to be delivered tonight, on the importance of the transitional arrangements for the various parts of education provision. As those in the military know, it is at the point of transition that there is a point of weakness. If the baton is not carried on well, provision is not secured. That idea has been behind the specialist representations we have all received on special educational needs and prison education. There may be interesting juridical problems, because one could argue that it would be discriminatory if prison education, to which I am strongly committed, were not provided with the ability for people to carry on with their statements. I suspect that there may well be litigation about that.

There is also a practical problem. There are three penal establishments in my constituency, one of which is at least partially still a young offenders institution, and one a secure training centre. They are located so close to the geographical edge of my constituency that it is impossible to access them without going through another county. In fact, it took five years for me to persuade the Home Office that they were in my constituency, and now they will have to be served by Northamptonshire county council. I do not cavil about that authority; Ministers have grumbled about it recently, but I shall leave that for another occasion. Given the nature of prison education, it is difficult to get the same moral commitment to it that any county would wish to give to its schools.

I shall wrap up my comments on those elements of the Bill with a slightly more strategic view before I come to the aspect I want to focus on. First, not merely from nostalgia—because we enjoyed such a process in the 1990s—I commend the thinking of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench on the need for a light-touch funding agency. Secondly, we must ensure that further education colleges, and other education and training providers, are not subverted by excessive bureaucratic interference, as they were in recent years, or by a skewed funding model that distorts their provision. Thirdly, I do not believe that the Bill puts sufficient emphasis on the self-starting model of education. That includes the importance of skills accounts, and I entirely endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), a fellow member of our Select Committee, about the importance of such provision, and the importance of routes into adult learning. That may be a more diverse view than a purely instrumental one, but it has been my view all the time when considering such matters, and I still assert it.

Mr. Graham Stuart: My hon. Friend serves on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, while I serve on the Children, Schools and Families Committee, which gives us different perspectives. He
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has talked about the plethora of agencies created by the Bill, but does he have any thoughts on the position of FE in relation to the Departments? Through the agencies, FE will be responsible to the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Does he wonder whether that will have various implications that we might struggle to think through?

Mr. Boswell: I strongly endorse that comment. I have never been happy about the split. I know that there are reasons for it, but it has just created another difficulty. It could be argued that the somewhat arbitrary decision to divide the Departments has driven some of the changes in the Bill—changes made in order to mirror those departmental changes.

I now come to my main comments on apprenticeship provisions. We looked at the draft provisions in our respective Select Committees, and believe they can be made reasonably fit for purpose. For the first time in recorded history, the word “apprenticeship” at least comes first, rather than as an add-on to a piece of legislation—or perhaps it is not quite the first time. We should always pause before we legislate, and in this case we should do so to reflect on the fact that the sector was historically heavily regulated. I refer of course to the Statute of Apprentices 1563, which survived in force substantially for 250 years. For most of its last century, from the reign of good Queen Anne onwards, it provided an invaluable source of revenue to the Government through stamp duty on indentures—an early form of stealth tax perhaps. The whole thing was too narrow, too bureaucratic and too inflexible. We must remember such pitfalls when codifying rules for apprenticeships, apprenticeship frameworks and the qualifications, and all the safeguards. I see that the Minister is nodding about the importance of quality and so on. We must not have a negative outcome because things are too complicated, when we could have a positive one with a simple system that is fit for purpose.

In particular, we need to take account of the industrial interests that have made representations to us—the CBI, the Association of Learning Providers and others, some of which the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) mentioned. I shall summarise those representations briefly.

It is really important that the frameworks that are set up have the hand of employers on them and are designed by employers, not invented by academics as though they were in employers’ interests. I endorse the view that was often expressed in evidence to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee that the system also requires trade union involvement, because both sides should be engaged in getting the right framework.

Secondly, there need to be links to employers in real workplaces. We could get ourselves into unnecessary theological distinctions about programme-led apprenticeships, but my view is that a programme provided and delivered in further education or by a specialist charitable provider may be useful and worth while in itself or in preparation for an apprenticeship, but it is not a replacement for a work-based experience.

Mr. Lammy indicated assent.

Mr. Boswell: I notice the Minister nodding; I think that we might have reached a common understanding.

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