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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 24 March 2009


[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Clause 57

The Young People’s Learning Agency for England
Amendment moved (this day): 423, in schedule 7, page 172, line 15, at end insert—
‘( ) Where the transfer results in a substantial change of terms and conditions, by the new employer or the previous employer pre-transfer, that are to the material detriment of the transferee, this will be seen as a breach of contract by the employer.’.—(Jeff Ennis.)
4 pm
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): On behalf of the Committee, Mrs. Humble, I would like to welcome you back to the Chair for this afternoon’s interesting sitting.
As members of the Committee will recall, we had just started examining schedule 7, and I was referring to the fact that members of staff who are likely to transfer away from the Learning and Skills Council were a bit anxious about the security of their follow-on employment. I was about to quote from an e-mail that I had received from one of my constituents, which sums up very eloquently the position that the staff find themselves in. I will read out the salient parts of the e-mail:
“Dear Mr. Ennis...As a member of staff currently employed by the LSC, I can expect to transfer to the YPLA, the SFA or a local authority... The bill will not result in a straightforward case of abolishing one organisation and transferring staff to two or three new bodies—some 3,300 LSC staff will be affected, and up to 1,000 may transfer to 150 local authorities. Given the complexity of these arrangements it is imperative that the terms of the transfer and their likely impact upon staff terms and conditions are placed beyond doubt.”
There is no doubt in my mind, Mrs. Humble, that staff, when they are affected by a change and have to move on from one organisation to another, are faced with quite a challenge at a worrying time. That is why I have tabled amendment 423, which seeks reassurance from Ministers that all the staff involved will be treated very sensitively regarding the transfer of undertakings for public employees and so on. I will leave it at that for now.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Good afternoon, Mrs. Humble.
I, too, have received representations from a constituent and at this stage I would just like to make some points on their behalf. I am equally concerned about what is not in schedule 7 and I hope that the Minister will be able to throw some light on matters.
There is obviously deep concern that all TUPE arrangements will remain in place, which is what one would normally expect in situations such as this one. Employees of the Learning and Skills Council, and others who are affected, need some reassurances from this afternoon’s debate. Apart from obvious concerns about continuity of service, pay and conditions, there are additional concerns about pensions and how they will be affected. I support this probing amendment, because what we need are full assurances that what might be expected to be in place, with this very large transfer of staff, truly is in place.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): A very good afternoon to you, Mrs. Humble, and to everybody else.
I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her contribution; she is as assiduous as ever on behalf of her constituents. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) for his contribution. He is famous in this place for the energy and assiduity with which he works on behalf of his constituents; he is their champion. It therefore comes as no surprise that he has taken this opportunity in an otherwise rather mundane afternoon in Committee to bring these matters to our attention.
I sympathise with the intention behind my hon. Friend’s amendment and with the comments by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, and I am grateful to them for raising this issue. I know that it is one that the Public and Commercial Services Union is anxious about. My ministerial colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, and I have had several conversations with the PCS directly about this issue. One of the principles guiding the two Departments in the transfer of responsibilities is the retention of the expertise that the new bodies will require to deliver outcomes for young people and adults. To that end, we have made a commitment in writing that the Cabinet Office statement of practice—COSOP—and a fair deal for pensions will inform and guide our approach to a complex TUPE-like transfer. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to restate that on the record. Nevertheless, the amendment would be technically difficult to implement. Who would judge detriment, for example? What does “substantial” mean? What would happen if it were after the transfer and so on? While I am sure that we could debate those elusive finer points for hours, the best thing to say is to note the strength of feeling shown by Members today and in representations from outside.
Annette Brooke: I think that I heard what the Minister said, but I wish to be doubly sure that the staff transfer orders will fully comply with the Cabinet Office statement of practice on staff transfers. I am not sure whether the Minister said that fully.
Mr. Simon: I did say that, but I had not gone on to make my main point, which is that the strength of representations, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough but also from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and others, has given me cause to think again. Although I will ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment, I intend to return on Report with another view, having taken the advice of our departmental lawyers and counsel. I hope that the hon. Lady is satisfied with my hon. Friend’s successful afternoon, and I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
Jeff Ennis: As ever, I am really pleased with the Minister’s response, and I thank him for his patience and indulgence. I am glad that the issue has been placed on the record and that we will look at it again on Report. Thanks to the Minister’s encouraging remarks, I have pleasure in saying that I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule 7 agreed to.
Clause 122 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 8

Sixth form college sector
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I beg to move amendment 28, in schedule 8, page 175, line 21, leave out from ‘that’ to end of line 24 and insert—
‘(a) it is reasonable to classify the institution as a sixth form college.’
Schedule 8 and clause 122 establish sixth-form colleges as a distinct legal category. The rationale, from the policy set out in the impact assessment, is as follows:
“Ministers want to recognise the strength of SFCs and their contribution to the education of young people by identifying the SFC sector as a distinct legal category.”
That means enabling the sixth-form college sector of 94 colleges to be split off from other further education colleges and be divided up between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. That is all very important and bureaucratic, which is the view of the Association of School and College Leaders:
“We are concerned...that the changes for sixth form colleges will bring about a significant increase in bureaucracy for both colleges and local authorities.”
The Association of Colleges, too, is mildly anxious:
“Sixth Form Colleges will be small in number...within a Department which includes approximately 25,000 schools and nurseries but we hope Ministers and officials in DCSF are able to devote sufficient attention to their work and ensure they flourish.”
Amendment 28 would amend the definition of a sixth-form college. At present, proposed new section 33B of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which would be inserted under schedule 8, defines a sixth-form college as a college where
“at least 80 per cent. of its total enrolment number will be persons over compulsory school age but under 19”.
That means that a college where, for example, 75 per cent. of students are within the age range would no longer qualify, which seems unnecessarily heavy-handed. Our amendment would change the definition to one in which
“it is reasonable to classify the institution as a sixth form college.”
I am sure that the figure of 80 per cent. was just plucked out of the air, so I urge Ministers to consider our more reasonable amendment to define a sixth-form college and how it should be distinguished from a regular further education college.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I am pleased to welcome you back to the Chair this afternoon, Mrs. Humble, on my first opportunity to do so in Committee this week.
In answer to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, the threshold for the designation of new sixth-form colleges is based on the age range of those colleges that currently identify themselves as sixth-form colleges. It certainly has not been plucked out of thin air. Of all the sixth-form colleges, only three have less than 80 per cent. of full-time equivalent students aged over 16 years and under 19. It was in fact a threshold that came out of existing colleges that identify themselves as sixth-form colleges and provide predominantly for young people over 16 but under 19. The majority of those colleges have at least 80 per cent. of their full-time equivalent students within that age range.
In our view, the threshold protects the essential nature of the sixth-form college sector providing mainly for those over 16 and under 19. It also gives a clear steer about eligibility to further education colleges that might consider applying for sixth-form college status in the future. The threshold is generally supported by representatives of the sixth-form college sector as a firm indicator of the main criterion for sixth-form college status. I am worried that, if accepted, the amendment would introduce doubt and confusion into the system.
Colleges in the FE sector have become more diverse since they were first incorporated as FE colleges under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. They admit a wider range of students and serve broader communities than may have been the case in the past. Many colleges would therefore be unclear about when they have grounds for applying to become sixth-form colleges and what might be considered “reasonable”. I am concerned that that uncertainty might destabilise the FE system generally, and that would not be in the interests of all colleges and learners.
For the record, I should point out that the Sixth Form Colleges Forum is broadly supportive of the new arrangements, because it thinks that there is more coherence in having local authorities, which are primarily responsible for the strategic direction of schools, having responsibility for the major direction of sixth-form colleges. On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Gibb: The sixth-form colleges have expressed concern to me through their briefing that, because the mere 94 sixth-form colleges are among 25,000 schools and nurseries, they may not receive the attention that their importance requires. Moreover, the Minister said that three of those 94 sixth-form colleges will not constitute sixth-form colleges according to the definition. Will she therefore say what will happen to the three sixth-form colleges where it is not the case that 80 per cent. of students are over 16 and under 19 years? What would happen if a sixth-form college had applied to be a sixth-form college and had more than 80 per cent. of students in that bracket once it had applied, but then it dipped below the 80 per cent. requirement the following year? Would that lead to its being disqualified? If there is to be a de minimis period during which the colleges can drop below 80 per cent., how long would it be and what would be the consequences if, at the end of that time, the sixth-form college was still at, say, 79 per cent.?
4.15 pm
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