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The Conservatives do not understand Keynes’s paradox of thrift. Keynes said that although thrift is to be encouraged in private individuals, it is a public vice. Being thrifty is not an appropriate step for Governments
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to take in a recession. I am afraid that the Conservative party is isolated in the world in saying that it would cut public spending now. Those cuts would mean that not a single person over the age of 19 would start an apprenticeship next year, compared with the 122,000 who will be supported by Labour.

Even after that drastic step, the Tories would still slash £427 million from the universities, skills and science budget to balance the books. That is the equivalent of 100,000 students at university or a third of a million people on college courses. In an interesting exchange with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, “Well, we’d spend it, but we’d spend it better.” The Conservatives cannot talk about cuts of half a billion pounds having no impact on front-line services. They really lack credibility.

To conclude, there are many more things to welcome in the Bill. I particularly welcome the adult advice and careers service. I have faced a particular difficulty in trying to get people who are out of work to access proper careers guidance and the career development loans that we have made available. There is a dearth of information about that. Creating that new agency will make a real difference in helping people pursue their goals of lifelong learning. Creating a single negotiating body for the school support staff, in order to ensure that pay and conditions keep up with those of equivalent workers and to ensure better career progression and training, will be really good. Indeed, we have increased the number of those new workers by 200,000 over the past 10 years.

Finally, I am particularly pleased that the Bill will encourage pupil attendance partnerships. I do not understand why certain schools take a hard line on truancy and bad behaviour and others allow it to continue. Truancy and disruption impact on the silent majority of good, willing pupils who are there to learn.

As someone who has a young offenders institution in their constituency, I welcome the steps to ensure that education in prison is as good as it can be. I am not sure that I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Daventry about judicial review concerning access to education. The civil and social rights that we enjoy are conditional upon our behaving according to the rules of society. Any judge sitting on a case brought against a young person would say that if someone has committed a violent offence, they lose the right to access, for example, their work-based training.

I would like also to mention West Yorkshire fire and rescue service’s public service programme—this relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck)—which involves taking disaffected 14 and 15-year-olds out of school and working with them. They are put in red uniforms and given all sorts of training in fire safety and health safety. The scheme is fantastic. Young people who are school refusers or just not interested start to carry themselves well and to enjoy being part of a public sector programme. I encourage Ministers to come to Wakefield and see how what the fire service is doing can be applied creatively to other public sector apprenticeship schemes.

As a trustee of Rathbone for seven years, I am also passionate about the role that the voluntary sector can play. For young people who may have failed or had nothing else in their lives, an apprenticeship might be
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the one good thing in their lives. It is important that the Bill should put apprenticeships on an equal footing with other forms of training and education, and that it should give every young person the chance to succeed in life.

7.48 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on her application for a ministerial post. I trust that one will be forthcoming.

One of the interesting points about this debate is that while Front Benchers from all three parties spent a great deal of time talking about the provisions in the Bill dealing with schools, which— [ Interruption. ] Shh! [Interruption.] Sorry, I thought that I was the head teacher. [ Laughter. ] I was just about to send my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) out, but I realise that only you can do that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will speak to him later. While Front Benchers inevitably concentrated a great deal on the schools provisions, Back Benchers, virtually to a man and a woman, have spent most of their time talking about the skills elements. The Government are to be congratulated on having apprenticeships and skills not only in the Bill’s title, but in its content. I say that because I have a number of comments to make—some rather unfortunate— about the Bill as a whole.

I would also like to put on record my appreciation of Lord Dearing—Ron Dearing. He has been paid many tributes today, and rightly so. I remember, as many Members will, what a breakthrough the Education Reform Act 1988 was, in that it set up the national curriculum and all that followed from that. It was also enormously complicated, however, and it required Ron Dearing to come along and make sense of the complication, which was so intense that most schools and most teachers could not understand it. Many teachers will appreciate the work that he did.

I came into contact with Ron Dearing in the House in 1998, when his famous report was virtually ditched at the first go by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who in fact bastardised the issue of tuition fees without looking at the rest of the Bill. Ron Dearing had laid out, in his report, the foundations of what he saw as a 21st-century higher education system that would be fit for purpose, but much of what was in the report was put on a shelf. The only thing that we—myself included—concentrated on was the introduction of fees, which was rather sad. Ron Dearing will be enormously missed. He was a genuine Cross Bencher who did not pay lip service to any master.

This is a massive Bill, and the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) was right to say that it was a portmanteau Bill. It is a substantial Bill that deals with skills and schools, but the reason why it is so substantial is that we now have two Departments dealing with these matters. The Bill patches up some of the problems caused by the machinery of government changes in 2007. We had to have a plethora of new organisations because the machinery of government changes did not take into account that splitting education and training at 19 would drive a coach and horses through the whole agenda. We have had all those different organisations as a result. The Bill has 256 clauses and 16 schedules, and I hope that, when the business managers compile the
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programme motion, they will allow sufficient time to debate all the issues. There is a will on both sides of the House for the Bill to succeed and for it to be improved in Committee, and I genuinely hope that that occurs.

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, which I chair, together with the Children, Schools and Families Committee, had an opportunity to scrutinise the draft Apprenticeships Bill, which we appreciated, even though we were told about it, rather than being asked about it. Pre-legislative scrutiny is an essential element of good legislation, and if the Government want to take it seriously, Select Committees must be given the appropriate time to do it. We also need to be given all the available information.

In respect of the apprenticeships element of the Bill, a lot of the organisation that we have talked about today will be somewhat irrelevant. It is the quality of what happens during an apprenticeship that lies at the heart of the matter. The Select Committee asked for the specification of apprenticeship standards, and that is now to be produced as part of the legislation. However, the standards appeared in draft form only at noon today—the day we returned after a recess, and the day on which the Bill is to be given its Second Reading. That is unacceptable from a Government who want the whole House to take this issue seriously. Despite those problems, however, we welcome the Government’s commitment to apprenticeships. I now want to concentrate on two elements of the apprenticeships agenda: programme-led apprenticeships, and quality.

During our Committee’s deliberations on the draft Bill, we were not overly concerned about programme-led apprenticeships, once the Minister had made it clear that there was a fundamental distinction between employer-led apprenticeships and programme-led apprenticeships that were carried out in colleges as pre-apprenticeship education and training before people moved into a full apprenticeship. However, the reality is that, if the word “apprenticeship” appears in the title, most people do not differentiate between the two. The Committee expressed a real fear—and that fear is growing—that there is a demand to grow the number of apprenticeships while, in the face of a fierce recession, employers are not taking on apprentices. The public sector must rightly take up a significant amount of the slack, but we must not simply use programme-led apprenticeships as a tool for meeting certain targets.

There are some dangers in the provisions of the Bill. An apprenticeship certificate shows that someone has completed their apprenticeship, but clause 2 contains a real cop-out, in that apprenticeship certificates may be awarded for a whole set of reasons that the Government may, at some time, determine. I hope that those right hon. and hon. Members who serve on the Public Bill Committee will ensure that clause 2 is hammered down, so that an apprenticeship certificate can have the appropriate currency and attain the gold standard, because that is the only way that apprenticeships will survive and become a flagship of the training agenda in the 21st century.

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman says that he wants apprenticeship certificates to represent the gold standard. Does he accept that we need also to address the present gender pay disparity in apprenticeships—women are generally paid less than men—as part of the process?

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Mr. Willis: That goes without saying. Sadly, the hon. Lady has put her finger on a problem that the Government have not fully addressed over the past 11 and a bit years—the disparity between men’s and women’s pay. Those Members who are particularly interested in further and higher education will know of graphic examples of that differential, especially in higher education. The point that she has raised is absolutely right, but that is a debate for another day.

John Bercow: If the Bill were not to do what it certainly should do—and what has just been advocated by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck)—would not the Government fall foul of their own forthcoming Equality Bill? I am sure that they would not want to do that.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, in his usual erudite way. These are the kind of issues on which the Public Bill Committee can get assurances from the Minister when it examines the Bill in detail. This is why the Committee needs sufficient time to do that, and I am sure that the Minister will be only too delighted to give such assurances.

I want to turn to the quality of apprenticeships. When the Select Committee was examining the draft Bill, we noticed that no reference had been made to the quality of apprenticeships. We concluded that

Clauses 80 and 92 of the finalised Bill require the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency to have regard to the “quality of the training” in respect of the duties to secure apprenticeship places. That needs a lot of flushing out, at the end of the day. In addition, the annual report from the chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service to Ministers will have to include a report on the overall quality of apprenticeship training. That sounds great, but the Government believe that the

The two things are quite different. Completing a process that fulfils the requirements of a framework does not necessarily mean that the required quality has been achieved. I hope that the question of quality will be addressed.

Who is to inspect all this? We are coming back to the issue of Ofqual, in some ways. Who is to establish the quality of apprenticeship schemes? That is a crucial question. It is fundamental to the whole issue, as I think hon. Members accept. I believe that Ofsted is not the right organisation to do that. We now know that Ofsted’s role, which has changed dramatically since the 1980s and early 1990s, has become more light touch. In many ways, it has been counting and it has been ticking the boxes in our schools and colleges, but that, frankly, is not what is wanted. How can Ofsted, without any track record of working with employers, actually go effectively into exchanges with them when we need investment in apprenticeships and quality assurance delivery? I hope that the Minister will look further into that.

Mr. Graham Stuart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who pretty well makes my point for me about the irony of the Bill. The Bill recognises the need to separate
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curriculum development from quality, yet none the less puts a statutory and mandatory obligation on the new agency to deliver all these apprenticeships while at the same time checking for quality. Those two elements are clearly contradictory to what I believe can be seen elsewhere in the Bill about Ofqual.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. It flies in the face of what the Bill is trying to achieve within schools.

The hon. Member for Daventry made a fine point about complexity—an issue that my Committee looked into in our inquiry, “Re-skilling for recovery: After Leitch, implementing skills and training policies”. In fact, Madam Deputy Speaker— [Interruption.] I am sorry, I mean Mr. Deputy Speaker. That was a very neat change. We had Swedish models earlier and we now seem to have female-male Deputy Speakers.

When we examined the whole training scenario, we looked at all the organisations currently involved in training schemes—for 14-year-olds right through to adult training. We asked the Department to provide an organogram with everything on it. The Department said, “No, we can’t; we don’t have one.” So we asked the National Audit Office and it produced four incredibly complex diagrams for us. In fact, witnesses to our Committee talked about the whole system as

“almost incomprehensible” and so forth. The landscape of this Bill, however, creates yet more complication and yet more structures.

The one structure that the Bill does not set up is that for individual skills accounts, which I thought were a brilliant way of involving adults in training—putting resources into individuals to support them. The previous incarnation of individual learning accounts were unsuccessful for a number of reasons, but the principle was right. The principle to invest in individuals must also be right.

Chris Humphries, the new UK commissioner for employment and skills, told our Committee that something like 67 organisations with skills in their remit wrote to say that it was essential that the commission work with them—and he had not heard of any of them. Chris Humphries is, of course, a real star in this area, having worked so hard to promote the skills agenda. He told us:

He went on to say:

the current system, so how on earth are they going to understand a new system with even more complication? I hope that, as the Bill progresses, we will see a real attempt to make it more light touch and also ensure that we have a more simplified organisational structure.

I raised an issue when the children’s trusts boards were under discussion, and I want to return to it. There is a danger of casualties resulting from the new legislation—in particular the 16 to 19s and the 19 to 24-year-olds who have deep and complex special needs. They have always suffered among post-16-year-olds; it has always been difficult to meet their needs. My greatest
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anxiety—I hope that members of the Public Bill Committee will address it—is how we protect their interests now and hopefully enhance them in the future.

I make no apology for drawing the House’s attention to an organisation in my constituency, Henshaws, a society for blind people. I want to put on record my appreciation for what the Government and, more particularly, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, have done. The right hon. Gentleman has spent a great deal of time supporting the organisation, which works with people from age 16 onwards—mainly with 18 to 24-year-olds—who are not only blind or partially sighted, but have other complex needs. Many of them are also deaf, for example, and some have physical impairments or other special learning difficulties. They are a really complex group of young people and the Government quite rightly recognised that this organisation, as a charity, needed funding for its residential support. The Government contributed and private donations raised millions in addition to provide for what has become one of the best-performing colleges anywhere in the country. That is quite unique.

The new arrangements are coming into force in 2010 and funding will change from the Learning and Skills Council to the new Young People’s Learning Agency. Sadly, Henshaws will be a casualty. In the interim period, the local education authority takes on responsibility, but it is responsible for fulfilling its own provision first. What we really must not do in the changeover is look for what amounts to the cheapest or most convenient provision. Rather, we need to focus on the highest quality that can be offered. Those young people who have intense needs really require our support. They should receive the support of the House and the Government. My plea to the Minister—

John Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?

Mr. Willis: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will just finish my plea. Ministers are acutely aware of the need for high-quality special needs provisions. I am talking to the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), about Henshaws college and the real problems it is having in accessing a level playing field to provide fairly for its people in the future.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman’s important point underlines the danger of an excessive and insistent localism that specifies that in every case it is just up to the local authority to do its best. Sometimes there are people who have complex and overlapping needs, but there is not a sufficient critical mass of them to trigger provision. It is for that reason that we need the protective coating of some elements of central regulation or, indeed, funding to ensure that those people are not overlooked, but get the help that they need.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Indeed, that was precisely the point that I was trying, rather ham-fistedly, to make earlier. Between us, we have probably got there, and I hope that the Minister will respond.

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