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Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Christopher Chope, †Mrs. Joan Humble
Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Hayes, Mr. John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Knight, Jim (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Simon, Mr. Siôn (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
Chris Shaw, James Davies, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 10 March 2009


[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House
AS 13 GMB, Unison and Unite
AS 14 Children’s Rights Alliance for England
AS 15 Participation
4 pm
The Chairman: Before we continue consideration of the Bill I have a few preliminary remarks. Members may if they wish remove their jackets during Committee meetings. Please would all Members ensure that mobile phones, pagers and so on are turned off or are switched to silent mode? We now proceed with clause by clause scrutiny of the Bill.

Clause 1

Duty to issue apprenticeship certificates: England
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I beg to move amendment 15, in clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 1 and 2.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments 151 to 156, 181, 182, 185 and 188.
Mr. Hayes: I anticipate your chairmanship with glee, Mrs. Humble. I welcomed you once in the witness stage but I will not miss this opportunity to welcome you a second time as we begin our consideration of these important matters. I also welcome the Minister who will be looking forward with enthusiasm to his first encounters as he attempts to take this entirely imperfect legislation through the House and, as a result, suffers the slings and arrows of discontent, which I wield only in the interests of learners, teachers and the wider British public. My only function in this Committee is to articulate their needs and to champion their interests. I hope I might be forgiven if I make a few opening words in those terms about the Bill. I am sure that the Minister will want to do the same. With your indulgence, Mrs. Humble, as well as—
The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have reached the stage of clause by clause, line by line consideration and I expect him to begin speaking to the amendment as soon as possible.
Mr. Hayes: Let me do that, Mrs. Humble. Clause 1(1)(b)(ii) would enable the body issuing an apprenticeship certificate to charge a fee for so doing. This is essentially a probing amendment to determine the reasons and circumstances under which a fee would be charged.
Having heard what witnesses have said about apprenticeships and other matters—the Bill has been variously described as a missed opportunity and a bureaucratic muddle—we hope that the Minister, in the context of his assumed rejection of our amendment, will say why he feels that the many people who have criticised the Bill are wrong and he is right.
As we begin our albeit imperfect efforts to make this Bill better, I am encouraged by the fact that I have alongside me as ever my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. Man and boy, for more than 30 years, we have toiled in the name of righteousness. Over that time I, like Dorian Gray, am largely unchanged. He is more like the picture in the attic. Nonetheless, we are united in our efforts to make the Bill better and, with particular regard to this amendment, to ensure that apprenticeships are worthy of their name. I am concerned that the Government, in meeting their ambitious targets to make entitlement a reality—a key part of the Bill—will water down apprenticeships and so may damage the quality of that brand. The Minister will no doubt want to take the opportunity to reassure me that is not the case but there are real fears. There are risks associated with radically increasing the number of apprenticeships without putting into place the necessary infrastructural changes to ensure that those apprenticeships teach and test real competencies and make the individuals who engage in them genuinely more employable. That was, and should be, the test of the apprenticeship system, which is why this side of the Committee supports it.
We also hope that the Minister will say something about the nature of the reorganisation, which is pertinent to this part of the Bill and the amendment. It is difficult to understand how the proposed changes will make the system more responsive to employers’ needs, less bureaucratic and more cost-effective. Indeed, I contend that it will achieve the opposite of all those things; the system will be more cumbersome, bureaucratic and expensive. Nothing I heard from the Ministers this morning reassures me; there seemed to be confusion as to whether the changes will cost more, the same or less, as well about the true motives behind the legislation.
This is a David and Goliath battle; the Minister has all the might of the establishment at his disposal, whereas we are merely armed with the slingshot of truth and the spirit of virtue. On that basis, I hope that the Minister will deal with the contextual matters, because they are highly pertinent to the amendment and vital to a proper understanding of the Bill and our attempts to improve it.
The structure that is put in place must not be inappropriate or, indeed, incapable of delivering a demand-led, highly responsive and slimmed-down system of funding and management of skills. We will go some way to fulfilling our purpose if we implement the very structure advocated by the Leitch report, to which the Government at least pay lip service. We regard such a system as essential to delivering the right kind of skills for our businesses and economy. If we receive more unsatisfactory answers, obfuscation and doubts, our profound reservations about the legislation will, frankly, be set in stone. In anticipation of longer and more interesting speeches to come, I look forward to what the Minister and others have to say about the amendment and its context.
Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I formally welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble, and I also welcome all members of the Committee. Having previously served with the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, I am sure that we will hear about bed-time reading, delivered in a phonic style no doubt, in the many hours ahead of us. I will lead for the Liberal Democrats on the clauses emanating from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, while my hon. Friends the Members for Yeovil and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will focus on the clauses emanating from the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
I do not have any comments on the amendment under consideration, except to say that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings made some general remarks on this important and wide-ranging Bill, and I look forward to the Committee’s discussions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): As this is my first opportunity to address the Committee at this stage of our deliberations, may I formally say what a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble? May I also add how grateful I am to all members of the Committee, particularly the Opposition Front Benchers, for their enthusiasm for the task in hand that they showed during the oral evidence sessions? The sessions were a very measured and intelligent contribution, and I look forward to continuing to work together constructively during our scrutiny of the Bill.
We have heard how much time Opposition Front Benchers have spent with each other doing these kinds of things. It is my first time on the Front Bench in Committee. I have spent plenty of time as a Back Bencher in Bill Committees, mainly in the corridor. I am conscious that this will be a learning process for me and that one learns from one’s mistakes. I ask colleagues to be tolerant of my mistakes as I learn through making them. [Interruption.] As one of my hon. Friends says, be gentle with me.
In advance of today’s sitting I have sent letters to members of the Committee explaining the amendments that I propose to move to part 1 of the Bill and to let them have sight of draft regulations relating to the use of delegated powers proposed in the Bill. Where draft regulations are not available, I have sought to explain what we expect the regulations or orders concerned will cover. I hope that these letters will assist hon. Members in their consideration of the Bill today and as we move forward.
Last year we signalled our intention to put in place more rigorous and robust arrangements to raise the quality of apprenticeships in England and to underpin those by putting apprenticeships on a statutory basis. Part 1 of the Bill is intended to deliver on that commitment. I do not intend at this point to accept the invitation from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and to try your patience, Mrs. Humble, with a declamatory re-run of the debate on Second Reading or our oral evidence session this morning. We have both put our cases fairly clearly. He thinks that this is not a good Bill and it is a muddle and a missed opportunity. We clearly think that it is a good Bill, it is important to put these matters on a statutory footing, we have achieved a lot and this will help us to achieve a lot more.
Over the next few weeks, rather than trading these declamatory statements, I want us to put the Bill to the test line by line. I am sure it will be imperfect and we will learn together in exactly what ways, but this is a fundamentally good piece of legislation that does some good things. As we go it through it line by line, I sincerely believe that that is the picture that will emerge. I hope that we will be able to convince Opposition Members to soften their opposition to these measures.
Clause 1 sets out the conditions which must be met for a person to be entitled to an apprenticeship completion certificate. It places an obligation on the English certifying authority to issue a certificate where the conditions in the clause are satisfied. In essence, for the majority of people who are working under an apprenticeship agreement, those conditions are that they must have entered into an English apprenticeship agreement in connection with a recognised English framework. They must have completed the requisite training, attained the required qualifications and met the requirements of the framework. Amendment 15 would remove the requirement for them to pay any fee charged by the authority for the issue of the certificate.
I understand the concerns behind what the hon. Gentleman described as a probing amendment. I am happy to confirm that it is not our intention to charge apprentices for the issuing of an apprenticeship certificate. In developing the underpinning statutory framework for our apprenticeship programme, we have understandably given careful consideration to the appropriateness of charging fees for issuing an apprenticeship certificate.
We expect that the programme budget which the Government will make available to the National Apprenticeship Service will cover the associated costs. Nevertheless, we want to ensure that the National Apprenticeship Service has an explicit power to make a charge, if so authorised by the Secretary of State, to offset the administrative costs, especially where it is issuing duplicate or copies of apprenticeship certificates which have, for example, been lost. We can therefore be confident that other apprentices will not be subject to unreasonable financial burdens.
Currently, sector skills councils charge for apprenticeship certificates. In the Bill, we will have a power to retain the legislative status quo of the ability to charge for certificates, but there is no intention to charge in the future, although a charge is levied now. I hope that, having given that explanation, Opposition Members may be prepared to withdraw their amendment.
4.15 pm
At the same time, I want to speak to a number of technical Government amendments. Amendment 151 is consequential on a substantive amendment to amendment 152 to clause 4. Amendment 152 makes it clear that the English certifying authority for apprenticeship certificates will be the chief executive of Skills Funding. That reflects our original policy intention and it is a simpler and more transparent formulation than that originally envisaged in the Bill. The chief executive will have the power to sub-delegate the function under clause 79. That will ensure that the necessary flexibility is built into the Bill. There are also consequential changes to clauses 35, 38 and 79(5)(a).
Amendments 153, 154 and 155 are consequential on a substantive amendment, amendment 156, which itself is a technical amendment that gives the Welsh Ministers an order-making power to designate the certifying authority in Wales to issue apprenticeship certificates. Designation by order will enable Welsh Ministers to revoke an amended designation, so that they can replace one certifying authority with a new certifying authority. It will also enable arrangements to be made for the transition from one certifying authority to another. For example, it will be important that the outgoing authority transfers to the incoming authority information about people to whom apprenticeship certificates have been issued. That is necessary in case apprentices need to request duplicate certificates from a new authority at any stage in the future.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I had not intended to intervene at this stage, but I am surprised that amendment 152 is deleting essentially the whole of clause 4 and replacing it with two or three lines. The Minister said that the amendment will bring in the intention as set out in the explanatory notes. However, the explanatory notes say that it is envisaged that the Secretary of State will ask the chief executive of Skills Funding to be the authority that
“will delegate this responsibility to the Chief Executive of the National Apprenticeship Service”.
Will the Minister confirm whether it is the chief executive of the NAS who will be this authority or the chief executive of Skills Funding?
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Prepared 11 March 2009