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Lord Rix: My Lords, being a Cross Bencher and a believer in compromise, I wish to speak to both Amendments Nos. 1 and 6, as they are grouped together. I hope that that is in order.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, has moved an eminently reasonable formula, simply bestowing on the Secretary of State an enabling power allowing for extension beyond the age of 19 where learners might otherwise miss out on their first opportunity on the ladder of lifelong learning. I realise that the Government may not be inclined to make further changes to the Bill at this late stage, but I would hope that, if the amendment is not pushed to a Division, the Government will be minded to enhance the Bill with this amendment in another place.

Turning now to Amendment No. 6, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the word "compromise" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as,

In the case of this amendment, I genuinely believe that the House has reached a compromise. Protagonists of disability rights, myself included, have argued for an extension of entitlement up to the age of 25 for people with learning difficulties or disabilities--not as a blanket entitlement, but simply as an enabling power to allow learning and skills councils to provide continuity in education; levelling out the proverbial playing field.

To her credit, the Minister has reflected on this view and has proposed this new amendment, Amendment No. 6, to assess the needs of students with learning difficulties up to the age of 25, confident that providers will then make a serious attempt to meet those needs. At best, the Minister's confidence will be upheld, smoothing the passage through further education for young people with disabilities, and at worst we shall at least have a more accurate picture of unmet needs. I should like to thank the Minister for her considerable co-operation and I look forward to observing LSCs and providers working within the spirit, and perhaps beyond the letter, of the law.

3.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, in replying to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, I should like to speak also to the government amendment grouped with it, Amendment No. 6.

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The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, concerns the balance between Clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill. We have debated this many times, and it is right that we should do so. They are very important clauses that determine the main duties of the LSC. We have focused our debate on the policy and the issues and I believe that we have had useful exchanges of views and clarification of our positions. I shall have more to say on that in a moment. However, perhaps I may begin by drawing the attention of noble Lords to some difficulties with the amendment as it is drafted.

The amendment would allow the Secretary of State to rewrite a core duty of the LSC--and I should emphasise the fundamental nature of this duty. It would allow him to do so without any form of parliamentary scrutiny whatever. He could extend the duty under Clause 2 to adults and in doing so he could specify any conditions that he thought fit. If this amendment became part of the Bill, Parliament would be saying, "Here are the duties set out in Clauses 2 and 3, but don't pay too much attention to them because they can be changed at any time and for any reason, without even informing Parliament".

The amendment would permit a fundamental alteration to primary legislation by administrative fiat without any consultation or proper parliamentary control. If the Government had tabled this amendment, I am in no doubt that we would have been severely criticised. The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee did not raise any concerns about the delegated powers contained in the Bill. Indeed, it was very complimentary. However, it would have had a field day if the Government had sought a power such as this.

However, turning to the substantive points made by the noble Baroness, I doubt that there is much between us in terms of the fundamental priorities for the LSC. The noble Baroness has said before that she agrees with our priority for 16 to 19 year-olds; the issue is whether that priority can be extended to adults who meet specific criteria.

In an earlier debate the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked whether we intended to implement the recommendations made in the Kennedy report and in the third report of the National Skills Task Force. Indeed, she made reference to both those reports in her speech today. She is correct; those reports are relevant to the groups she mentioned.

I should like to acknowledge the work done by my noble friend Lady Kennedy in producing the report, and also the key role that it played in informing the direction upon which we are now embarking. In our response to the report on widening participation, we acknowledged the urgency of improving the nation's qualification base, in particular the then 7 million adults with no formal qualifications. That is particularly important given that the number of jobs requiring low skills is declining steeply.

To widen participation, we made clear that we must concentrate on those with few if any qualifications. Noble Lords will be aware that we are making considerable investment in further education. Some of

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the extra money will be used to tackle the problems that I have just mentioned. By using greater attainment at level two as a stepping stone, we will encourage more people to attain level three. It was no coincidence that we published our response on the same day in February 1998 as we published The Learning Age, our consultation paper on lifelong learning, which in turn informed the proposals contained in our White Paper.

We welcome also the contribution which the skills task force made to the debate on both developing the skills of our young people post-16, and on improving the skills of lower-skilled members of the adult workforce. In the second and third reports, the task force made important contributions to both the analysis of the current situation and in proposing constructive measures to address them. We are sympathetic to the needs of both the groups covered by the task force's entitlement recommendations. There is clearly common ground between both the task force and the Kennedy report in moving not just towards a level two entitlement, but also to a level three entitlement.

It is clearly necessary to have in place a system of incentives and provision which delivers a flow of skilled new entrants to the labour force, and which allows those already in the labour force effective opportunities to improve their skills in addition to what we might term the "academic" route to higher education and beyond. We are looking carefully at the task force's proposals. But given the related public spending implications of an entitlement approach, it is only right that we should consider the proposals alongside other key spending priorities and consider the most cost-effective methods of tackling those issues.

The entitlement issue is a serious one. Placing such duties on the LSC is not a matter of expressing aspirations or long-term aims; it gives legal rights to everyone to whom the duty extends, enforceable in the courts. As I have said on several occasions before, we have no difficulty whatever with the sentiment which gave rise to the amendment, but an entitlement not backed up by significant resources would be meaningless. We expect to make good headway in tackling under-achievement and low attainment and in giving everyone the best opportunities in life that we can.

The noble Baroness indicated that the strength of her amendment is that entitlement could be extended as resources permit. But although agreeing with much of what has been said today, there are other, more acceptable ways, of addressing those concerns. In particular, Clause 27 allows the Secretary of State to attach conditions to the public funds he makes available to the LSC, and that includes the specific provision permitting the Secretary of State to attach conditions in respect of specific groups of people. We have already indicated that we would be willing to use that power in respect of such groups as the unemployed. In principle, as resources become available, there is no reason why the Secretary of State

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could not indicate a priority for allocation of financial resources towards those without a level two qualification, for example.

In considering the deployment of resources as they become available, the use of provisions related to funding would seem more appropriate, relevant and flexible. What is important is that, as resources permit, we are able to ensure that they reach those who need them. I hope and believe that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, recognises that that applies equally to students with learning difficulties or disabilities as to any other group of students. In substance, I believe that there is little between us. The debate is about means rather than ends. In view of that, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

I turn now to Amendment No. 6. Let me say at the outset that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for what he said and for his spirit of compromise. Amendment No. 6 has relevance to Amendment No. 1. It fulfils the commitment that I gave on Report to bring 19 to 25 year-olds with learning difficulties into the scope of Clause 114(3). At present, that subsection gives the Secretary of State power to arrange assessments of 16 to 19 year-olds other than those with statements who leave school at 16 and who are covered by the duty under Clause 114(1) and (2).

The effect of the amendment is to extend the power so that it applies up to the age of 25. It brings this broader age-group within scope of eligibility for an assessment of their education and training needs and hence the provision which is required to meet those needs under Clause 3. Let me expand on what I said on Report, and in so doing I come back to one or two points made by noble Lords during our last debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker--he is not in his place--spoke eloquently about people who, by the age of 19, have not benefited fully from education or training, not through any fault of not trying, but as a result of their learning difficulties. He said that they should not be thrust out of colleges and told that their education has come to an end. My noble friend Lady David made the same point. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, drew attention to the waste when students with learning disabilities do not complete their education and training and was supported in that by the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth.

I agree with those sentiments. My amendment goes a long way towards addressing them. Let me give three examples of people who would be eligible to be considered for an assessment under Clause 114(3) if it is accepted: first, young people with learning difficulties who start an FE or training course at 16 but are unable to complete it as other students and do not do so by the age of 19; secondly, young people whose learning difficulties delay the start of their further education or training until the age of 17 or perhaps even 18, and who could not be expected to finish until after the age of 19; thirdly, people whose entry into FE and training is delayed beyond the age of 19 because of their learning difficulties. I believe that picks up the specific point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, on Report.

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There is another group of young people whose interests we must serve. During our discussions on Report I said that I was sympathetic to what the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, had said about local education authorities cutting the funding for young people with SEN statements who are still studying at school when they reach their 19th birthday. I am grateful to the noble Lord for writing to me just this week with an example of a recent case where an LEA chose to end the funding of a young person aged 19 before the end of the academic year. Even if only a minority of authorities are taking such action where it is inappropriate, I am determined that that state of affairs should not be allowed to continue. I am pleased to be able to confirm that we will be taking action to stop it happening in future.

Clause 7(2) of the Bill allows the LSC to impose conditions on the way that LEAs use the funds that are allocated to them for their school sixth forms. We intend to use this provision to require LEAs to ensure that funding for pupils with SEN statements in mainstream school sixth forms, or in special schools, will not simply end on their 19th birthday but will continue until the end of their course. We have other powers in Clause 6 that require FE colleges to act in the same way.

I return to the assessment process. In responding to an amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, I made clear on Report that we shall want to offer guidance on how we expect the assessment process to work. I also said that we shall need help from the post-16 disability consortium, and others, in drawing up that guidance. The guidance will, of course, embrace the full age range covered by Clause 114(3). It will also cover eligibility for an assessment, as well as process.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, spoke of the need for some simplicity. I could not agree more. Where there is good practice now, we have to build on it. But where practice is not good, we must do everything we can to ensure that it changes. I accept very much the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Pearson of Rannoch and Lord Addington, about the burdens on parents of students with learning difficulties, and on the students themselves. The last thing we want is for such burdens to be made worse by insensitive bureaucracy. Therefore, our guidance will certainly cover that point.

In view of the profound reservations that I have expressed about the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and bearing in mind the assurances I have been able to give to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and others, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment. I should point out that I shall be moving the government amendment at the appropriate time.

4 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. I am disappointed that she is not prepared to take our amendment into account and add it to Clause 2. In so far as the drafting is flawed,

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that could have been tidied up during the Bill's passage through another place. The amendment was drafted specifically to give the Minister concerned flexibility and to allow for the fact that resources are not available at present.

However, I am heartened by the reassurances that the noble Baroness has given that the Secretary of State will use the flexibility that he has under other clauses of the Bill--in particular, Clause 27--to extend entitlement, especially to those who are unemployed. In the light of those reassurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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