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23 Feb 2009 : Column 101

A key question is whether the Bill will streamline apprenticeship provision. Far from it. Clause 4 gives responsibility to the chief executive of the new Skills Funding Agency—the SFA—to be the certifying authority for apprenticeships. He in turn will delegate that to the new National Apprenticeship Service—the NAS. Clause 11 says that sector skills councils—SSCs—in partnership with standard setting bodies, or SSBs, will be responsible for apprenticeship frameworks. Local education authorities will be responsible for all 16-to-18 education and training, including apprenticeships, yet the SFA is apparently also responsible for all apprenticeships. No one knows how the relationship between the SFA, its agency the NAS, the Young People’s Learning Agency—the YPLA—and LEAs will work, and who will have ultimate responsibility. LEAs report to the Department for Children, Schools and Families; the YPLA reports to the DCSF; the SFA reports to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills; the NAS reports to both the DCSF and the DIUS. So responsibility for apprenticeships falls between the DCSF and the DIUS. That has the potential to result in a loss of expertise, accountability and oversight, as well as causing waste, bureaucracy and indecision. It is absurd to have two Government Departments overseeing apprenticeships, and equally absurd to have four agencies vying for influence instead of just one.

How important are apprenticeships? They are more important now than they have ever been, so the Government do at least deserve to be congratulated, as other Members have said, on introducing a Bill in which apprenticeships come at the front and are recognised. There are many areas where we will need a skilled work force in the future, not least in health and social care. In the East Riding there is expected to be a 65 per cent. increase in the number of people with dementia between now and the early 2020s. I did a shift at a residential care home in my constituency a couple of Fridays ago, and saw how hard the staff there work under the great pressure—physical, as well as mental—of providing care for people, many of whom had dementia and others who had suffered a stroke or had physical disabilities. To see those people hard at work and to realise how great the demographic time bomb is in that area is to know the importance of having apprenticeships that will lead people into that sector, as well of having funding mechanisms that will provide them with fairer pay levels.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): If apprenticeships are as important to the hon. Gentleman as he has tried to convince us they are, why were there 65,000 apprenticeships after his Government had been in power for 18 years, compared with 250,000 now and hundreds of thousands more to come?

Mr. Stuart: The Minister knows full well that when the Conservatives were in power, apprenticeships were real apprenticeships: they had not been redefined. There had been no sleight of hand in an attempt to redefine them. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) raged against the 1980s YTS schemes, but bringing in programmes of study that are not proper apprenticeships, and styling them as apprenticeships, does not provide the answers that people need. The numbers of those actually in learning in that way have not increased since the Government came to power. That is the problem.
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The statistics are available and we should not be arguing about facts that are a matter of public record and indisputable. The Minister is bigger than that.

Today we should be talking about how best to move forward and make a reality of the vision that lies—as I accept—behind this Bill. The reason for my anger—if that is not the right word, then I shall say my frustration—with the Bill is that, not for the first time under this Government, a picture has been painted that we all want to see delivered, but the mechanics of the legislation cannot be relied on to deliver it. We have to hope that secondary legislation or some activity by others that is not included in the Bill will deliver the change that the country so badly needs.

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned the shortages in the apprenticeship market in particular sectors. Does he agree that one of those is the engineering sector? The growth in the rail industry means that there is a desperate need for well-qualified, highly trained apprentices from a national railway skills academy—a need that I have articulated on behalf of the people of Crewe. Unless we address the needs in the sectors of industry where there is a shortfall—at present, there are only 11,000 apprenticeships in engineering—we will never overcome the problems that have existed for far too long.

Mr. Stuart: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will be aware of the proposals by our party for a transformation in rail policy to deliver high-speed rail from the south to the north, to reduce air travel and CO2 emissions. To deliver that vision—on which the Government, as in so many other areas, are belatedly copying us—we will need many apprenticeships in railway engineering, whoever is in government. My hon. Friend will also be aware that the numbers applying for construction apprenticeships dwarf the number of places that have historically been available, and the number has fallen again this year.

We have had some discussion of standards today, and the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) rehearsed one side of the argument with passion. There is august jousting between the parties on this issue, but we need to move on. We can all agree that Ofqual is a good thing, if it acts independently. It needs to provide us with accurate information so that this false battle about the figures can stop.

Exams now have a different purpose, so we need to recognise that many more people take A-levels than used to do so, and the number going into higher education has increased. An instrument that was designed to measure a small proportion of the population is now being used to measure a much greater proportion and it may need to be retuned in some way. We need a common understanding, not faux battles that help no one, least of all the students who work so hard and deserve praise for what they achieve, rather than having questions asked about the importance of what they have done.

The head of Ofqual is appointed by the Crown, and all the other non-executive members of the board are appointed by the Secretary of State. Personally, I have doubts about whether that is the right form of governance to foster confidence when so many people have lost faith in the system. It will be worth considering whether we can give Ofqual greater constitutional independence
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from the Executive. I know that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, who is no longer in his place, would certainly welcome the opportunity to play a part in that, and that might be one way to restore confidence, whoever is in government.

The Bill transfers all control of 16-to-18 education currently held by learning and skills councils to local education authorities—a form of localism. There has not been much talk of localism today. Instead of simply abolishing the Learning and Skills Council, which is, as has been said, the largest quango set up by a Government who are so fond of them, or providing a light-touch funding council that would allow most decision making to be local, two quangos are to be set up.

Perhaps the Minister can explain in his summing up why we are to have two quangos for the price of one. Can he throw some light on the experience that FE colleges will have? Three excellent FE colleges serve my constituency: Hull college, which is in a neighbouring constituency; East Riding college in Beverley; and Bishop Burton college near Beverley. Trying to work out how many organisations the principals of those colleges will have to deal with under the new settlement is frightening. The Government have rightly said we need a simplified system that is lighter of touch and less bureaucratic. We all share that vision, but we cannot see it realised in the detail of the Bill; instead, we face the possibility that a local college in my area will have to liaise with the local education authority in whose area it sits, neighbouring local education authorities and a sub-regional body of local education authorities that will take on certain provisions not left for individual local authorities to deal with—although they will deal with some things themselves—as well as the YPLA, the SFA and of course the NAS, which members of the Children, Schools and Families Committee may think sounds remarkably like the NAA, a body that had pretensions above its station as a division of the QCA, and helped to lead to the exam delivery fiasco last year. The NAS as a subdivision, with its own chief executive and its own amour propre, could lead to similar problems in that regard.

The proposal is not a simplification. I do not know whether a fundamental change can be made in Committee, but I put it to the Minister that to make local FE colleges and their principals deal with such a huge number of organisations cannot be right. It does not fit with the vision that Ministers have rightly set out.

As the appropriate Minister is on the Treasury Bench, it would ill behove me not to mention the importance for East Riding college of moving from its poor, portakabin-laden, cramped, dangerously accessed current premises on the leafy side of Beverley. The college desperately needs to move to the centre of town, close to the railway station and the new park-and-ride scheme, and close to the Swinemoor estate so that it can be a symbol of learning and hope to people on every side of Beverley. I do not want to abuse your patience too much, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but at a cost of just £23 million, after the sale of the current site, the proposed move will have an enormous impact for the money. The Minister will find that, compared with what can be offered by many other colleges, the move will offer regeneration, tackle disadvantage and give hope to isolated rural communities. I recommend it strongly to him when the time comes.

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We have had some discussion of children’s trusts. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made a powerful speech, in typical fashion, about his belief that making trusts statutory was the right way to go. With respect to him, I struggled to follow the thread of his argument all the way through. He rightly highlighted the fact that the Audit Commission has pointed out that to date children’s trusts have not been delivering as might have been hoped. Perhaps putting hope ahead of experience, my hon. Friend believes that if trusts are driven—I think that was the word he used—by making them statutory and universal and by working up common practice and sharing it, they can somehow be made to work. I fear that they will be great talking shops. If the Minister does not go all the way and force them to have budgets that are used to drive local commissioning—if they continue as they are, and people continue to turn up to meetings because they feel that they ought to, but the organisation does not give them the authority to make decisions or allocate budgets for the delivery of goals on which there has been joint decision—we will continue to have the dysfunction that marks children’s trusts today.

John Bercow: Operating in separate silos produces misunderstandings, causes division and is invariably bewildering and infuriating to parents whose children’s services are delayed or denied as a result. May I at least put it to my hon. Friend that although there is no guarantee of success, if there is a formal structure, a performance framework through local area agreements, and a responsibility to submit to comprehensive area assessments from 2009, we will have a slightly better chance of getting somewhere than if there was an entirely loose and permissive structure with no formal responsibility?

Mr. Stuart: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I remain unconvinced. Children’s trusts need a budget if they are to be accountable as organisations. Parents might think it was the children’s trust that was taking decisions locally, but when they came to question things, they might hear that it was part of the health service, the education service or the probation service that had chosen, for its own reasons, not to deliver something that the parent wanted. I remain unconvinced, but if the proposals go ahead, I hope that something positive will come out of them.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who is no longer here, made excellent points about the importance of careers advice. He began to persuade me that we should provide advice on apprenticeships to every child in every institution, because apprenticeships are not just for those who are not academically able. They are a route that can lead to higher education, but they can capture a person’s imagination, whether that person is passing exams or not. They are a genuine option, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the advice should be provided for in statute, rather than the Bill requiring merely that the interests of the child be considered. Any school that is struggling to maintain its sixth form will find it easy to consider it in the best interests of the child that they carry on into the sixth form, and do not take up an apprenticeship, although that might be a better solution for them. That is another point that I hope the Minister will consider.

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I should like briefly—I am aware that time is passing by—to consider the Government response to a report by the Children, Schools and Family Committee, on which I sit. The report was part of our pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government response says that we questioned

If I recall correctly, our thinking was, “Don’t make a huge, symbolic promise of a choice of two apprenticeship places for everybody if you haven’t got the mechanics to deliver.” The proper thing to do would be to change the system and encourage employers so effectively that we were able to offer that choice to everybody, and then to legislate to keep it that way. Otherwise there is a danger that when the Bill is enacted, we will have created a promise that cannot be delivered. That would not be to the credit of the Government or of any of us in this place.

In our recommendations, we addressed the issue of the automatic right to progress from one qualification to a higher qualification. The Government’s response was:

That is right, but it would be interesting to have more detail on how that will be delivered. Perhaps that issue could be touched on. We also recommended that the Government should not block a young person’s

I congratulate the Government on listening to that representation and on changing the Bill in consequence.

In recommendation 10, the Select Committee said:

The Select Committee—a cross-party, Labour-dominated Committee—was absolutely right to say that. That remains a key reason for my doubts about the efficacy of the Bill. The Government response says:

That will obviously be tremendously important, and I hope that the statement will provide succour to those of us who have doubts about the deliverability of the promise as it stands.

The Select Committee stated:

The Opposition have strongly promoted that idea. Getting SMEs to provide apprenticeships is a great challenge because of the bureaucracy involved. The Government’s response was lukewarm, rather than effusive. They said:

but they did not say how they would take that forward. When the Minister winds up the debate, it will be an opportunity to be more effusive about group training associations and what they can deliver. If the Government are to deliver the promise that they are making, they will have to use group training associations effectively.

We heard from the shadow Secretary of State today, in answer to the Secretary of State, an absolutely
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unequivocal guarantee of support for Sure Start children’s centres by the Opposition, and an absolute guarantee that there will be no cuts in the spending on those centres. We can therefore look forward to the scrapping of so much scaremongering leafleting by Labour. Before today, that may have arisen from a misunderstanding, but after today it would be dishonest.

We differ from the Government in that we recognise that although Sure Start has been a good thing, cutting back on health visitors would be a bad thing. I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) who is on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, speaks regularly about the importance of health visitors. We propose to increase the number of health visitors by 4,200—a 56 per cent. increase on expected numbers in 2010—and to increase health visitor training concomitantly. That gives a flavour of how we will be different. We will certainly not make cuts.

John Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that if support for Sure Start children’s centres was important and beneficial during relatively favourable economic weather, a premium is now placed on the subject whichever party wins the election, because we are going to go through turbulent economic times, and the need for that early intervention in support of some of the most vulnerable people will be greater in the future even than it is at present?

Mr. Stuart: I entirely agree. There are rare occasions of consensus across the House, and I am sure we can all agree on that.

I believe that the Bill, which covers so many topics, does not deliver on vital issues such as how it will make apprenticeships available to everybody, and does not define detailed issues such as what a reasonable travel-to-work area is. Many questions remain and, were I to be selected to sit on the Committee, I would look to work with colleagues from across the House to try to improve what is at present a bit of a mishmash.

8.53 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): It is always interesting to follow the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), but I will curtail my comments, as I hope to be in the Chamber tomorrow night supporting him when he speaks about the Humber bridge, which is in my constituency.

A few weeks ago the nation’s entire media seemed to descend upon my constituency to follow the protests and the wildcat walkouts at Lindsey oil refinery. The situation was caused mainly by a sense of injustice and anger on the part of unemployed construction engineering workers who saw people being brought in from Italy. They felt that they had the skills and the training to do the jobs on that construction project at the refinery, and what was happening seemed unfair to them.

Because of that situation, I want to talk about some aspects of the Bill that relate to apprenticeships and training as they impact on my constituency. I have described the situation of increasing unemployment, of workers being brought in from elsewhere and of a potentially toxic skills gap. If we get the Bill right, it will provide us with an opportunity to stop such protests and strikes escalating in the future.

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