House of Commons
|Session 2008 - 09|
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General Committee Debates
Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chris Shaw, James Davies, Committee Clerks
attended the Committee
Jim Knight, Minister for Schools and Learners, Department for Children, Schools and Families
Sarah McCarthy-Fry, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Department for Children, Schools and Families
Mr. Siôn Simon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 10 March 2009(Morning)
[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]
Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill
The Chairman: I welcome the Ministers and members of the Committee to our final evidence session. There is much detail to be discussed and many questions that hon. Members might wish to put to Ministers. For my convenience, and that of those who will read the report, it might be useful to adopt a thematic approach so that Members can come in on those, rather than trying to hop, skip and jump around the Bills many provisions. I am, of course, in the hands of Members.
Q 340340Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble, and we look forward to your firm but fair leadershipthat mix of sagacity and benevolence for which you are famous.
In contrast, I will now turn to the Ministers. The Bill was described in one of our evidence sessions last week as a bureaucratic muddle and a mixed bag by employer representatives, and I am sure that those words are still ringing in the ears of Ministers. Professor Alan Tuckett from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education described it as a missed opportunity. At a time when employers and education providers must be deregulated in order to respond effectively to the economic crisis, does not the Bill simply tie their hands? When people are coming out with such robust and clear criticisms, do Ministers ignore them or take stock of them and respond? Does replacing the Learning and Skills Council with three bodies really improve the capacity of employers and employees to survive the economic downturn?
Jim Knight: I would like to take the opportunity to welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble, and look forward to serving under your chairmanship over the next few weeks.
In response to Johns question, what is ringing in my ears is the endorsement of the vast majority of witnesses for the measures we are taking in the Bill. It is possible to pick out one or two isolated quotes about specific elements of the Bill that people might not agree with, but that would be an unfair reflection of the substance of what witnesses told us last week about this set of measures, and there are many of them.
On the question of whether we should be doing this at this point in the economic cycle and with the recession, I am sure that Siôn will want to comment on the aspects relating to skills. As far as the 14-to-19 phase is concerned, we passed the Education and Skills Act 2008 in order to raise the participation age, and if we are to make that a reality for 17-year-olds by 2013, as the legislation sets
With regard to the timetable for doing this, the Committee will know that there are currently shadow arrangements between local authorities and learning and skills council staff, that the academic year starting this September is a transition year and that in April 2010 the legal responsibility will go over to local authorities. They will then be able to commission the services at the same time as running Connexions, which will be transferred by the Bill, as John knows. They will then have the tools at their disposal to commission the sort of learning that will engage every young person in their area so that that policy is a success. Having moved from the break in education from 16 to 19, it makes sense to have an infrastructure that reflects that. You need something that brokers the arrangements for local authorities so that further education colleges in particular are not having multiple conversations because the vast majority of them are commissioned from several local authority areas. That is why the Young Peoples Learning Agency is necessary, as well as for the transfer of academy functions. In order to drive the growth in apprenticeship places forward, and to have a discrete agency focusing on adult skills, there is great merit in setting up the Skills Funding Agency.
Mr. Simon: It is a great pleasure it is to serve under you, Mrs Humble; I echo the comments about your sagacity and all your other qualities.
Is now the right time to move towards a more flexible, responsive and employer-responsive skill system? The answer is yes, obviously. A lot of what we and the Learning and Skills Council have managed to do in the last six months or so in response to the recession is precisely the kind of thing that the Skills Funding Agency will do more and more of, and be better and better at. It will be slimmer, more streamlined, faster and more responsive to things such as introducing £350 million-worth of flexibilities into Train to Gain, the integration of employment and skills, and the discrete work that we have been doing with, for example, car manufacturers in the north-east.
Far from being against the grain of the reforms, all of those are entirely in line with the direction of travel of the SFA. The Learning and Skills Council has done an outstandingly good job, but a different job is needed next. The job of the LSC was to drive up participation and success in a skills system which was sadly lacking. It has achieved that with a great increase in success rates and at levels 2 and 3 in respect of the skills system.
What we need to do next is to make the skills system more specifically and directly responsive to employers and learners. The SFA will do that through its customer-facing outward-looking gateways: Train to Gain, the National Apprenticeship Service, the adult advancement and careers service, skills accounts and the National Employer Service. It is about making the system respond more directly and quickly to the needs of individual learners and businesses. I commend it to everybody.
Q 341Mr. Hayes: I want to be helpful to Ministers, because that is the right thing to do. Perhaps I can give them a bit of guidance on why people feel that this is a
It is not surprising that in the Committee evidence sessions, the transition from the LSC was described as being likely to be messy and complicated. While I acknowledge that Ministers have had discussions with countless employers, I wonder whether they appreciate that the CBI was, at best, lukewarm and the British Chambers of Commerce was hostile. Does that not cause immense concerns? What about those relationships and lines of accountability? They are all over the place and so immensely unclear. We can barely understand them; what chance has anybody else got?
Mr. Simon: To start with the relationship between the SFA and the NAS, it may be the case that it has not yet been widely understood. It was only relatively recently promulgated in any detail, and that is perhaps one of the reasons for that, but it is not complicated or ambiguous.
Let me explain. The chief executive of Skills Funding is the accounting officer and is, in statutory terms, responsible for apprenticeships and the NAS. In practice, the chief executive of Skills Funding will delegate all practical functions relating to apprentices to the chief executive of the NAS, who will have a statutory accounting reporting responsibility to the chief executive of Skills Funding, but will also have management reporting responsibilities to the two Secretaries of State of the two Departments. I do not think that that is terribly complicated or at all ambiguous.
What was the next thing that you asked?
Q 342Mr. Hayes: I talked about a series of bureaucratic elements, but let us deal with the one that you raise, Siôn. Perhaps I can ask my third question on sector skills councils on the back of that, because you make much mention of them in the Bills explanatory notes.
The real issue is that by, in your words, having a line of accountability to two Departments, there is an implicit lack of clarity. What if the Departments have different perspectives or take different policy positions? That is immensely confused, is it not? I find it very hard to be tough on the Minister as he is such a charming chap, but Keith Marshall from the Alliance of Sector Skills Councilsthe Minister was here and heard his evidence just as clearly as I didcomplained that there is not enough detail in the Bill on the role of sector skills councils in statutory terms. There is very little legislative mention of their role. Indeed, Keith Marshall argued that the involvement of LEAs actually weakens the role of sector skills councilsthe voice of employersin the system. It seems to me that, contrary to the Governments intentions, which I am prepared to accept are noble and virtuous, the Bill will result in confusion, lack of clarity, potentially conflicting reporting lines and a diminished role for sector skills councils.
Mr. Simon: If I can just respond to those two points, and I think that Jim would then like to answer some of Johns points in his opening question. I do not think that the dual reporting of the NAS chief executive to the two Secretaries of State is inherently impossible or dreadfully convoluted. The apprenticeship system comprises two components, one of which falls under the remit of, and is funded by, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, while the other component falls under the remit of, and is funded by, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. The components are obviously split by age and have separate concerns, which is why they are covered by separate Departments. Apprenticeships are extremely important and form a central plank of what both Departments are trying to achieve. As such, we think the dual reporting function to be right and perfectly coherent.
On sector skills councils, it is true that they are not writ large on the face of the Bill, but that should not leave anybody in any doubt that they remain at the heart of the system. Part of the Bill refers to the specification of apprenticeship standards for England, to which sector skills councils are central. The councils will be responsible for producing apprenticeship frameworks. That is not in any doubt. It is, and will remain, the case. As I say, they may not be writ large on the face of the Bill, because we did not feel that they needed to be, but nobody should be in any doubt that they are central to the system.
Jim Knight: To follow on from that last point, I refer the Committee to paragraphs 48 and 49 of the explanatory notes, which explain how the frameworks will work. The Bill sets out the frameworks and, in describing how they will operate, paragraph 48 says:
These clauses set out the procedures for the issue of apprenticeship frameworks, which will be developed by employers, Standard Setting Bodies and Sector Skills Councils according to the specification of apprenticeship standards in England and Wales.
Paragraph 49 says:
Subsection (2) provides that there is to be only one person authorised to issue frameworks for a particular apprenticeship sector. The intention is that, in England, frameworks will be issued by Sector Skills Councils working in partnership with Standard Setting Bodies.
We could not be any clearer about the pivotal role that sector skills councils will play in England without unnecessarily fettering them with legislation. I do not think that they would welcome it hugely if we started to legislate about how they should be.
I will make two other points. On there being lines of reporting to two Secretaries of State, that is simply a function of the 16-to-19 apprenticeships and the adult apprenticeships. The slight majority of the NAS budget will come from the DCSF. It is right that the chief executive of the NAS should report to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in exchange for that money.
Finally, the reason why it is right for the NAS to be nested inside the Skills Funding Agency is that they are both employer-facing bodies. It is critical that they develop relationships with employers across that function. They must be able to broker apprenticeship places with employers at national, regional and local levels. They must also respond to the skills needs of employers.
It is entirely coherent to me that there should be an employer-focused body in the form of the SFA, working under DIUS, that responds to skills needs and the
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