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

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

Thursday 12 March 2009


[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Clause 10

Apprenticeship frameworks: interpretation
9 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): I beg to move amendment 157, in clause 10, page 6, line 14, leave out from ‘sector’ to end of line 16 and insert ‘stated in it.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments 163, 171, 173 to 178, 186 and 187.
Mr. Simon: Good morning, Mrs. Humble. We are about to discuss technical, drafting amendments. Subsection (2)(b) of clause 10 requires that the apprenticeship sector concerned must be stated in the framework. Amendment 157 is intended to make it clear that only one apprenticeship sector will be stated in each apprenticeship framework. The original drafting on that point was ambiguous.
Clause 15 enables the Secretary of State to make an order providing certain transitional provisions for an apprenticeship framework. The technical, drafting amendment to clause 15 has a mirror amendment to clause 20 on Wales. Amendments 163 and 171 put it beyond doubt that the sector to which the clauses refer is an apprenticeship sector as defined under clause 38.
Clause 23 provides the Secretary of State with the power to direct the chief executive of Skills Funding to prepare modifications to the specification of apprenticeship standards for England and submit them to the Secretary of State. Clause 23(4) makes it clear that the Secretary of State may not make an order bringing modifications into effect unless he is satisfied that the modified specification complies with the requirements of the content of the specification under clause 25. Amendment 173 is a technical, drafting amendment merely intended to achieve consistency with clause 22(2), which deals with the same point when an order is made bringing a specification of standards into effect for the first time. Amendment 174 is a mirror amendment in respect of Wales.
I draw attention to several drafting amendments to clause 30, which sets out the meaning of “apprenticeship agreement” in England and Wales. The agreement will be a contract entered into between the apprentice and the employer. It will contain terms that will be set out in a prescribed form. It is intended that the agreement will include, among other things, on-the-job training and learning away from the work station. Amendment 175 reflects the fact that clause 30(4) is making provision about circumstances in which an agreement will be treated as meeting one of the criteria for being an apprenticeship agreement under subjection (2). Removing “apprenticeship” from the first line of page 14 of the Bill avoids circularity in the provision.
Amendment 176 ensures that the three-year period specified under clause 30(5) is instead specified under subsection (4)(a), the subsection to which it relates. Amendments 177 and 178 are consequent on that amendment, and amendment 186 corrects a cross-reference under clause 79. Finally, amendment 187 is a technical, drafting amendment to make it clear that the statutory instrument containing regulations made under clauses 5 or 9 is subject to an annulment by resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The amendments are technical and require no further comment from me on the basis of incomprehension and the need to press on.
Amendment agreed to.
Clause 10, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

English issuing authority
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment 21, in clause 11, page 6, leave out line 20.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments 158 and 165.
Mr. Hayes: We return to our efforts to make this bad Bill better with enthusiasm and vigour—and if the second is rather less than the first this morning, it is because the lobster thermidor, which the Minister specifically recommended to me and on which I dined in the small hours, rested more heavily on me in the slightly larger hours than I would have wished; however, not as heavily as the Bill rests on his shoulders, and we have tabled the amendment in that spirit.
The explanatory notes make it clear that sector skills councils will issue apprenticeship frameworks for England. The Opposition support that. I have said before that we strongly support the role of sector skills councils for reasons that we have set out and for many of the reasons set out by the Minister. Their closeness to employers means that they can articulate their skills needs and ensure that frameworks match those needs.
Subsection (1)(a) allows a body to “issue apprenticeship frameworks generally”, rather than for a specific sector. The risk is that that could lead to generic apprenticeships. As I have argued, we are anxious that apprenticeships be tailored at every level and in all ways to particular needs. The prospect of a ubiquitous apprenticeship does not sit comfortably with our vision. The Government have started to advance amendments by which frameworks will relate specifically to one sector. Indeed, we have heard something of those and will no doubt hear more. I am at a loss to understand why they do not leave this contradiction alone all together and step beyond it.
When taking the evidence of expert witnesses, it was made clear to the Committee that generic apprenticeships—or ubiquitous apprenticeships, as I have described them—are not worth the paper they are written on because they are not respected by employers and so do not add to the employability of apprentices. In the evidence session, the CBI said that the most important thing is that
“the programme is more fit for purpose—delivering the sort of skills that are in demand by businesses.”—[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 6, Q5.]
We must therefore ensure that frameworks are of the highest quality.
I do not know whether you, Mrs. Humble, or other Committee members shared my feelings last week, but I felt that I was beginning to deliver this point with persuasiveness sufficient to change the Minister’s mind. I felt once or twice that I touched his heart. I do not know whether it was due to the intellectual force of my argument or the silky persuasiveness with which it was delivered, but on occasion he looked as if he had the stomach to acknowledge the force of our argument and the weakness of his own. That proves beyond doubt that the way to a man’s stomach is through his heart. He did not, however, go as far as he might have done on the frameworks. The purpose of the amendment is to push him that extra mile.
I think that all Committee members, and certainly the Minister, will agree that quality will come from getting the frameworks right. In the evidence sessions, Keith Marshall of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils made that clear when he said:
“The key to this is the framework. If we get the framework right, it will ensure that the quality is maintained.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 9, Q19.]
If a generic framework is issued, the quality of all apprenticeship frameworks will be undermined. It will also damage the apprenticeship brand, which I am determined we should avoid. As I said, I know that the Minister is gradually and grudgingly coming to the same conclusion.
A tangential issue is the status of sector skills councils. It was clear from the evidence session that Mr. Marshall, the representative of sector skills councils, was not entirely happy about the way their status is diminished in the Bill; they play little part in it. The Minister is right that they play a large part in the explanatory notes, but I am not sure that that satisfies sector skills councils or us. Sector skills councils are particularly important in the development, publication and implementation of frameworks, which is why they are so pertinent to the amendments and to these clauses.
In the evidence sessions, the Minister for Schools and Learners asked the representative of the sector skills councils:
“should we mention that in primary legislation?”,
to which Mr. Marshall replied:
“You specifically mentioned other organisations and agencies in other parts of the overall system, but not there.”
The Minister open-mindedly—I thought—went on:
“And you would like us to?”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 21, Q60-61.]
Mr. Marshall unequivocally answered that he would.
So those representatives of business—the Minister spoke fondly of them when we met last—clearly want to be mentioned not just in the explanatory notes, but in detail in the Bill. The Minister surely agrees that the sector skills councils are the bodies to take forward apprenticeship frameworks. If that is the case, why not agree to the amendment?
More significantly, sector skills councils favour tailoring frameworks to one sector. Why, therefore, is there the need to “issue apprenticeship frameworks generally”? The clause should be specific on that, so that educators, employers, learners and potential learners receive the training that they need and so that they know that they will receive it. It is imperative that the amendment is agreed to.
Once again, I see that my case is beginning to resonate here and elsewhere. We debate the Bill in a context in which the representatives of employers have been sceptical, the champions of adult learning have been doubtful, and the colleges, in the Minister’s words, have been surprisingly critical. The Minister seems to stands alone, and I want to assure him by the means and in the detail of today’s amendments that he is not alone. We are on his side in trying to make this bad Bill better.
Mr. Simon: I start by addressing the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about my stomach. I remind him—this is pertinent—of the words of the great reformer and radical William Cobbett, who memorably said that you cannot agitate a man on a full stomach. I was up very early this morning, as is often my custom, and have therefore had two breakfasts since my rising. I have a full stomach and am afraid that I am not susceptible to agitation in the manner he has described. The hon. Gentleman also wondered whether he had succeeded in inciting my feelings or intellect. He is almost beginning to incite some feelings but my intellect remains absolutely steely against his silken words.
Turning to the substance of the matter, I wish to reassure him that there is no such thing as generic apprenticeships and no intention to create them. The word “generally” in the clause does not in any sense imply “generic”. The clause enables the Secretary of State to designate a person to issue apprenticeship frameworks in England, either generally or for particular sectors. Clause 16 contains a similar measure for Wales. The frameworks are high-level curricula for an apprenticeship in a specified career and it is essential that the right issuing bodies are identified and maintained in order to ensure that high standards of apprenticeships are preserved.
9.15 am
I understand the intention behind the amendment, which would mean that the Secretary of State could not designate the person to issue frameworks generally across a range of sectors.
Last year, in “World-class Apprenticeships: Unlocking talent, building skills for all”, we set out our commitment to streamlining and reducing bureaucracy in the process of developing and approving apprenticeship frameworks. Our intention is to designate sector skills councils as English issuing authorities. Working in partnership with standard setting bodies, SSCs will have a key role in ensuring quality apprenticeship frameworks that comply with the specification of apprenticeship standards for England. We look to SSCs to focus their activities on working with employers to increase the number of good quality employer-led apprenticeship places and to support employers in bringing forward frameworks tailored to their business needs.
We welcome the work being led by the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils to develop streamlined arrangements for the development and issuing of apprenticeship frameworks, which will prepare the way for an even brighter future. It is important to recognise—this is the crucial point—that we do not have full sector skills coverage for every occupation in which there may, occasionally and exceptionally, be a need to have apprenticeship frameworks. It therefore makes sense to retain the possibility, against such an eventuality, that a pan-sector body such as the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils could issue frameworks if necessary.
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Prepared 13 March 2009