Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

5.37 pm

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I must apologise for skittering in like a cartoon character a few seconds after the Minister had started his speech. I hope that I did not miss anything of huge import.

I want to focus on a narrow part of the Bill, the arrangements for London, and in particular the institutional or, possibly, constitutional arrangements. I should declare an interest as a member of the London Assembly, part of the Greater London Authority. Some years ago, at the time the learning and skills councils were established, I remember being critical that five of them in London had boundaries that were not coterminous with any other sub-regional grouping. The Learning and Skills Act 2000 was, in fact, going through at the same time as the Greater London Authority Act. There appeared then to be little joining up of the two sets of proposals, as I was reminded this morning by my noble friend Lord Tope. Our concerns then were justified.

I cannot speak with anything like the same authority as other noble Lords about the importance of training and education. Indeed, I do not believe it

13 Dec 2006 : Column 1560

is necessary to make the case for skills. The argument is normally based on economics, but it is important too at a personal level. The frustrations at not being able to do something—and, conversely, the satisfaction in achievement—are often considerable. In London, there are often great contrasts. The highly skilled and highly paid are cheek-by-jowl with those who are struggling.

For myself, I admit to a lack of facility with languages. I once bought an ice-cream in Switzerland. I asked for it in French and the reply from the street vendor was in English. I do not think that we can offer that sort of tourism provision in this country. I heard recently of an Englishman buying a coat from a street market in China. The stallholder went to look for the right size, leaving his young assistant, who had been speaking Mandarin to her colleague. She talked to the purchaser in English, then Russian and French, but her Spanish left him stumped. In some ways, that still-developing economy is way ahead of Britain.

London is a powerhouse of the UK economy, so it is particularly important that we get it right here. In the Thames Gateway, 19 per cent of the working-age population have no qualifications and only 15 per cent, as against 25 per cent nationally, have a degree-level qualification. I am told that 60 per cent of the new sectors of the economy require level 3 education and 40 per cent require degree level. In the London part of the Thames Gateway, 50 per cent of children live in workless households.

The Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly are as one, which we are not always, in identifying the importance of upskilling—a dreadful word—as a high priority. London’s unemployment rate at 7.5 per cent is the highest in the country and its employment rate is five percentage points below the national average. We are also as one in supporting the devolution of skills powers in London to the mayor and so, I understand, were about 75 per cent of the respondents to the review by the ODPM, as it then was, on the powers of the GLA. We have devolved government and the capital has its own strategic level of government. It is not a model that I or my colleagues on these Benches would choose, but we have it. The GLA ought to be able to join up, integrate even, the facilities which support skills, economic development and many other matters; for example, transport.

The Bill gives a legislative framework, but only a framework. That little word “may” rather than “shall” is used in new Section 24B, which states:

discharging functions in London. In due course, an amendment will be tabled to allow discussion of the provision and the Minister will no doubt give an assurance that that is what is intended, which I will welcome so far as it goes. The DfES press notice in July made it clear that, as part of the new package of powers, the mayor will be given a statutory duty to promote adult skills in London. The Minister will, I hope, be able to say when the draft regulations will be published. It is important for the Learning and Skills Board—the “body” of new Section 24B—and its

13 Dec 2006 : Column 1561

strategy to be established on a permanent and devolved basis to ensure the highest level of long-term engagement. There is a fear—I suppose one could say this of any legislation—that it might be disbanded by a future Secretary of State.

The model of government that we have for London is a single-person executive with a scrutiny body. It is also important to consider accountability and transparency. The scrutiny arm of the Greater London Authority should be able to bring the board’s statutory strategy within the assembly’s powers to scrutinise and be able to question the mayor, not just qua mayor but also in his position as chair of the board, and to question other members. The scrutiny arm should also be able to bring it into line with its powers with regard to other strategies, which will be strengthened somewhat by the GLA Bill, which has just received its Second Reading in the Commons. It is not clear whether the mayor will have any power of direction over the new body. I suspect not because it is not that sort of body, but if it is the assembly should have a corresponding check and balance over it.

I will end on a less happy note. The membership of the new board was announced last week, following some negotiation between the mayor's office and the department. It is a board of 23 in which small or even small and medium-sized enterprises seem hardly to feature—there may be one person who works in the small-business sector. Many people in London work in small businesses. It may not be the majority, but more than 26 per cent of business employment is in businesses employing 10 or fewer people. Local authorities are not represented on the new board at all. They are big authorities which are not, by definition, all based in central London. Of course, their areas of responsibility are not unconnected. In these days of partnership that is short-sighted.

The board met for the first time last week in private—the press and public were excluded. That is not a good start to arrangements which I wish the best of luck.

5.46 pm

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, there are, as we have heard, several potentially controversial aspects of this Bill, to put it mildly, but I will focus mainly on an important lacuna. We in the Church of England and the other Christian churches are excited about this Bill and its prospect of wise and creative developments in the world of further education. We welcome the Bill’s raising of the status of FE colleges and giving them a certain freedom to respond to local demand. The skills agenda will be important in doubling the number of apprentices. We in the north-east of England have a long tradition of apprenticeship, but people often now complain that it has been eroded. I hope that this Bill will not only increase employer training, but insist on it.

I also hope that the Bill will be strengthened in relation to the encouragement of people with learning difficulties. That affects me personally through a close family member, who battles with epilepsy-related difficulties and who is right now holding on gamely to

13 Dec 2006 : Column 1562

the rung on the ladder somewhere between FE and HE, and doing so splendidly. I hope that the proposed radical structural changes will not get in the way of implementing the LSC's report, Through Inclusion to Excellence. I endorse the hope expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Low, just now that the Government will, in due course, publish the relevant disability equality impact assessment and make it clear that those with learning difficulties, for whom FE is a lifeline, will not be disadvantaged by the effects of this Bill. A similar urgent point must be made concerning English language courses for asylum seekers and their children, of whom we in Durham have a fair share. I refer to the Children's Society’s work in that area.

Looking wider and coming towards my main point, I want to highlight the church's own experience in fostering education, not least among young adults. In my own diocese, that is well known. Bishops Cosin in the 17th century and Barrington in the 18th century were great educationalists and school builders. Van Mildert, the last of the Prince Bishops, used his townhouse, the castle in Durham, as the beginning of Durham University. I declare an interest as the visitor of that university.

Likewise, the first FE college, the Working Men's College in Camden, which is still going strong, was founded in 1854 by two great churchmen—FD Maurice and Charles Kingsley. Several creative educational partnerships between church and wider society were formed in that period and you do not make a tree more fruitful by cutting off its roots.

With this experience and memory, we in the church have sought to work with the FE sector in a whole raft of ways. Noble Lords may have seen our report, Pushing Further, which was debated in General Synod last February and the joint Anglican-Methodist publication on approaches to spiritual and moral development in further education. There are several other exciting current initiatives such as the DfES-funded review of spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues—SMSC—in colleges, and we are enthusiastic about the new project, All Faiths and None, funded jointly by the church and the LSC, which will develop pilot materials over the next two years for spiritual and moral development within colleges in partnership with humanist colleagues as well as other religious bodies.

In the light of this history and current work, I note that several people working today in FE are aware of a gap that needs to be filled. In last year’s LSC publication, Faiths and Further Education, the chair of the working group, Ruth Silver, notes in the preface that those working in FE know that they are doing,

They have a wider and deeper duty,

as the foundation of the personal and emotional resilience they need for work and life in general.

This whole aspect of education is hard to define and easy to miss out when you are listing elements of classroom curriculum. When I was a school governor in a previous job, the inspectors one year said, in effect, “Great school, pity there’s no spirituality”.

13 Dec 2006 : Column 1563

That precipitated a lively discussion between those of us who strongly agreed and those, including the head teacher, who claimed not to know what was being talked about. That is a symptom of a malaise. Our local LSC in the north-east admitted that there seemed to be a gap in its understanding of the link between faith and education and it has agreed to contribute more than £40,000 to research the whole area of spiritual and moral education among young people in the north-east. That will be approached on a fully interfaith basis, but the Church of England is perceived locally as a good lead partner because of our distinctive but inclusive approach to involvement in schools.

Many people today, not least young people, are a bit fed up with one-dimensional secularism and eager to explore the multiple dimensions of justice, spirituality, relationships and beauty—the SMSC agenda, in fact. We in the north-east—I was interested to hear what my neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, said about work in that same region—have seen young people enthusiastically embracing this larger agenda in local projects such as last summer's splendid NE1 initiative. The notion of holistic well-being, with its irreducible religious dimension, was recently highlighted in the important report from the Theos institute, entitled Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Square—a reference to something that was said in Downing Street a while ago. Although that document ranges far more widely than education, it is very pertinent to our concerns here today.

In that context we are concerned to strengthen this Bill. As our local north-east FE providers have agreed, more needs to be done to understand what different faith groups require in relation to prayer, diet and so on. Dealing with these on a needs-led basis does not get to the heart of the problem. We would be delighted to think that this Bill might go some way towards bringing colleges into line with schools in this respect and, if necessary, with some additional resources. One of our local principals said that he supported the whole faith and SMSC agenda, but that it would need fresh funding. Fair enough. But that is only the beginning.

Specific vocational skills are not the only ones that young people need to help them to take their full place in the workforce and society and engage in public life. This is particularly relevant today when, to most people's surprise, questions of religious belief, lifestyle and even dress style have been high on the public agenda. You cannot banish religious questions to the sidelines as though they were fit only for consenting adults in private. To face tomorrow's world, today's young people need a well-rounded wisdom which answers, not to the flatland fantasies of the secularist, but to the deep, multi-layered quest for an integration of proper and scientific study and skills with a supple spirituality which will infuse and permeate the whole. When people are not encouraged to explore these aspects of life in healthy and creative forms, they go looking for them in ridiculous and unhealthy places; hence the massive popularity of The Da Vinci Code. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, these are conversations that we need to have,

13 Dec 2006 : Column 1564

as it were, “above ground”, rather than pretending they do not exist or do not matter and thereby handing a victory to the extremists with their campaigns and propaganda. Neither secularism nor fundamentalism, in other words, will help. We urgently need, today more than ever, to educate people into an informed understanding of religions and how they work, rather than avoiding the issue and colluding with a split-level world and the horrors that come in to fill the vacuum.

We in the churches in the north-east have increasingly realised that our involvement in FE does not just mean the provision of chaplaincy in the traditional senses, but the infusion of faith and SMSC issues into the curriculum at several levels, as indeed seems to be envisaged by the recent White Paper. There should be a duty to provide this. As I suspect that it was basically an historical accident that this element has been omitted, I very much hope that the Government will be happy to rectify matters.

The Bill offers an unparalleled opportunity for partnership not only in vocational education provision but also in the pastoral and citizenship areas. Faith communities, alongside representatives of all other points of view, are important potential partners in the equipping of young people to take a wise and informed place in public life. We in the churches look forward to bringing our history, experience, existing strategies and lively contacts into partnership both with the Government as they work on the current proposals and with local authorities as they implement them in due course.

5.56 pm

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I declare an interest as the vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, which has nine partner FE colleges. Like my noble friend Lord Sawyer, I shall focus on the new power for FE colleges to award their own degrees. But before doing so, I should like to speak briefly about the main proposed changes to the Learning and Skills Council.

I detected a small difference of view between the Conservative Front Bench and the noble Lord, Lord Baker—

Lord Baker of Dorking: There is still some difference.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Lord may be able to persuade the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton. She seemed to be implying that 47 local councils was far too many and terribly bureaucratic, while the noble Lord, Lord Baker, suggested that many local interests need to be represented when it comes to delivering training.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, there is no dissension whatever. We are very much on the side of the local and against regionalism. I apologise to your Lordships' House if I did not make that clear.

13 Dec 2006 : Column 1565

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am thinking of the noble Baroness’s reference to the comments of Baroness Blatch when the Bill creating the Learning and Skills Councils was introduced. She certainly did oppose the involvement of 47 local councils.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, is not the point of Parliament for people to have different views and for everybody not to sing from the same hymn sheet? The point of Parliament is to debate things. If the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has a different view from that of my noble friend on the Front Bench, is that not a good and healthy thing? A few fewer automata on the Benches of certain other parties in this House would be a jolly good thing.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, is absolutely right. But it is also perfectly appropriate for somebody on the other side of the House to note that there are differences on the Conservative Benches. That is all that I was doing.

I have some sympathy with what both speakers on the opposition Benches said, because I am a little concerned about another reorganisation, and I see the case for ensuring that local interests are taken into account. However, I think on balance that it is the right time to move towards a regional structure. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House what savings will be made by moving down this route. I presume that there will be considerable staff and other savings. The new regional councils will have to work hard to ensure that they consider the range of interests from different localities in the areas that they cover.

My one reservation concerning the LSC is the proposal for a power to establish strategy-making bodies. Does the Minister believe that there is any likelihood of strategy-making bodies existing outside London? Have any discussions taken place in any other regions?

How confident is the Minister that there will not be constant friction in London between the strategy body chaired by the Mayor and the London regional Learning and Skills Council? Pages 5 and 6 of the Explanatory Notes read a little like a desperate attempt to anticipate possible areas of conflict. Can the Minister put his hand on his heart and say whether he or any other rational person with strong convictions about vocational education would want to chair an important regional committee without the power to determine its own strategy? It looks like a rather messy political compromise. It would have been sensible either to go a little further in handing over powers to the Mayor, or to leave the system in London the same as it will be in other parts of the country.

I turn now to my main concern: the new power in Clause 19 for FE colleges to award their own foundation degrees. My opposition to the proposal has absolutely nothing to do with a dismissive view of the FE sector. I believe passionately in further education colleges and their importance to our economy and education system. In the four years I spent as a Minister with responsibility for FE, the Government tried to raise its profile, strengthen its

13 Dec 2006 : Column 1566

operations and obtain extra resources for it. That, incidentally, included an important new role for FE in teaching foundation degrees.

What the Minister said indicates that we are currently asking a great deal of our FE colleges, including vocational courses for 14 to 16 year-olds released from school; academic provision for 16 to 19 year-olds of GCSEs and A-levels; full-time and part- time vocational skills programmes for 16 to 19s; adults programmes of many different kinds; basic skills for both young people and adults with poor literacy and numeracy; engagement with work-based learning at many levels, as well as working with universitiesto provide foundation degrees and other HE qualifications. The Minister kindly referred to the fact that I was responsible for introducing foundation degrees. I never anticipated yet further widening the role of FE colleges so that they acquired from the Privy Council degree-awarding powers. Such expansion risks mission overstretch.

A university is, moreover, defined by its degree-awarding powers. FE colleges are not universities, nor should they aspire to take on the role of universities. They already have, as I indicated, many other vital roles. We must try to avoid muddle and confusion about their roles and those of universities. To imply that not many FE colleges may make use of the power and they must be high performing—however that is defined; I am uncertain what the Minister will say about it—simply will not wash. There is a very important issue of principle here.

What puzzles me most about the insertion of Clause 19 is what it seeks to remedy. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten the House further on that. What is wrong with the present system of partnership between universities and FE colleges whereby they work together to develop degrees, with universities validating them and offering progression to honours degrees? Can he give the House examples of colleges failing to find a university to work with them and to validate their foundation degrees? I would be amazed if there were any such cases other than where there were serious problems with standards. In a small number of cases universities have withdrawn validation because of poor quality; but as high standards are vital in the establishment of foundation degrees, that is exactly what should happen. After all, the DfES’ “Foundation Degrees” website states that foundations degrees are,

That is quite so. They are HE qualifications and were always envisaged as such. If there are instances in which current arrangements do not work as well as they should, surely it is better to find ways to make sure they improve, rather than change the whole system and undermine the many cases where they work well.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page