As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
New Clause 5
Functions of Learning and Skills Council for England in relation to education and training for persons aged 16 to 19
‘(1) LSA 2000 is amended as follows.
(2) Omit section 2 (education and training for persons aged 16 to 19).
(3) In section 3D(1) for “sections 2 and 3” substitute “section 3”.
(4) In section 13(1) omit “2,”.’.—[Sarah Teather.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 26, in clause 6, page 6, line 31, leave out subsection (1).
No. 27, page 6, line 37, leave out ‘that Act’ and insert ‘LSA 2000’.
No. 28, schedule 2, page 28, line 2, column 2 , at beginning insert ‘Section 2.’.
New clause 5 and consequential amendments Nos. 26 to 28 are essential probing amendments designed to tease out the Government’s intentions with regard to 16-to-19 funding, following the announcement of a new departmental structure. The effect of those amending provisions, taken together, is to remove the statutory duty on the Learning and Skills Council to provide education, training and leisure activities to 16 to 19-year-olds.
The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education may recall our previous debates on the subject. For example, he said:
“Lord Leitch made it clear—as the Government have made clear—that the role of the LSC can and should continue to evolve and change, but Lord Leitch also made it clear that instinctively he was not in favour of ripping up structures and starting again simply for the hell of it, but that we had to reform the process overall.”
He also said:
“The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) made a criticism of 16 to 19 funding, and she advocated that it be transferred to local authorities. I am not convinced by her argument, and it is usually the case in these issues that the Liberal Democrats support the view of providers. In my experience of talking to college principals up and down the country, there would not be support for her proposition. .”—[Official Report, 21 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 171-74.]
That is interesting, as just two weeks ago the Prime Minister announced that that money would be transferred to local authorities.
First, I warmly welcome that announcement and that change and I invite the Minister to do likewise. I believe that if it is done well, this could offer an exciting shift in policy. It could finally allow us to join up 14-to-19 education in a genuinely coherent way. It could provide an opportunity finally to end the invidious gap between students in the sixth form and those at further education colleges. It could herald the opportunity mentioned in the White Paper for funding to follow the student, so that people in the 14-to-19 range could move between institutions if required in the light of the Government’s reforms of diplomas. I view this as genuinely exciting and I hope that the Minister has reflected on the change over the past two weeks and will feel as excited as I am and willing to embrace it.
In order to generate the necessary change, we need legislation. I am trying to be helpful by tabling amending provisions to repeal part of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, which would be required for enactment. It will also be necessary to amend the Education and Inspections Act 2006 to place a new statutory duty on local authorities for 16 to 19-year-olds. That is not in order for this Bill, so I cannot do that, but I have done what I can to help. I hope that the Minister will receive it in the helpful spirit in which it is intended.
I assume that the Minister will respond in a few moments and say that he does not wish to enact these provisions now, but to go away, consult and consider them very carefully. If so, will he tell me when he wishes these changes to be brought forward and whether it is his intention to repeal the relevant section of the Learning and Skills Act? If not, why not? Does he intend to continue to use the Learning and Skills Council as a conduit for money for 16 to 19-year-olds? If so, does he not think that it could be an extra barrier of bureaucracy? If he thinks that the LSC should continue to play a role in 16-to-19 education, is it mainly in respect of apprenticeships?
There seems to be a bit of turf war going on at the moment between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I hope that the result of that turf war will be that, eventually, many apprenticeships will be transferred to the DSCF and not continue to remain with DIUS. Only in that way will we get genuinely joined-up treatment of all 14-to-19 provision. It would be unfortunate if that were to generate weird barriers between part-time and on-the-job learning.
The important thing is how the transfer of 16-to-19 money is done: the transfer alone will not generate what we want if the money continues to be ring-fenced, and if the 0-to-16 funding continues to be ring-fenced in a separate grant. If there must be ring-fencing—which, on the whole, I am not in favour of—it would be much better to ring-fence 14-to-19 funding, and then to have 0 to 13, or at least 0 to 10 and 11 to 13, in separate grants.
The announcement has enormous implications for the Bill. Indeed, it renders some aspects of the Bill redundant. Does the Minister intend to bring forward legislation at a later stage to amend the Bill in the light of the announcement? We are being asked to pass a Bill that contains a number of powers that will be irrelevant if the Government move the 16-to19 money—in particular, clause 17, which we will debate at some length on the next group of amendments, which gives intervention powers to the Learning and Skills Council. Were the money for 16 to 19-year-olds moved, however, many colleges would no longer have the LSC as their funding partner. That would seem to bring the proposal into question. Similarly, with regard to clauses 14 to 16, which refer to the merger, dissolution and publication of proposals for new colleges, the Learning and Skills Council may not fund such colleges at all, and would certainly never be the major funder. Of the £9 billion now provided by the LSC, the Government propose to move £6 billion to local authorities.
I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he intends to amend the Bill in the future. I do not feel comfortable passing a Bill now that gives powers to the LSC that will clearly become irrelevant in a relatively short period. It will be unhelpful if the Minister cannot assure me on the record that the Bill will be amended when the new proposals come forward, with respect not only to the duties on local authorities, but to other clauses that relate to LSC powers over colleges.
Lastly, what will remain with the LSC and what might its role be? In Committee, the Minister said:
“Even under the demand-led approach that we are moving towards—we envisage most of the funding going through the demand-led process—there would still be a relationship with the Learning and Skills Council. Funding would still come from the council. If it will not have the ultimate power of intervention, and if we want to protect the public purse and the public interest, who will take on the responsibility?”––[Official Report, Further Education and Training Public Bill Committee, 14 June 2007; c. 110.]
In the light of the recent announcement, does the Minister still believe that to be the case? Does he still see a role for the LSC? Many rumours abound about the Government’s intention to move that money for 19-plus adult skills to regional development agencies or to sector skills councils. I was hoping that the Treasury sub-national review might have been published by now to give us at least some hint of the direction of the Government’s travel. Although ministerial appointments have been published, those proposals have not.
At the moment, we are simply consulting on what should be done with the money. An internal party working group is in the process of taking evidence, and I would be happy to discuss such proposals at a later stage. I am interested to know the Government’s intentions and whether they have a view on the matter. A move from a £9 billion organisation to a £3 billion organisation would seem to undermine the future of the LSC.
The hon. Lady raises an entirely proper point. Does she agree that for those of us who have sometimes been critical—perhaps not always fairly critical—of the administrative costs of the LSC, it is self-evident that if the volume of traffic or turnover through the council is reduced, the ratio of overheads to final expenditure is commensurately increased?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to criticise the announcement, as we have been calling for it for a long time, as the Minister knows. I am extremely pleased that the Government have announced their intention to move 16-to-19 money to local authorities. My question is: what happens next? Certainly, the announcement has enormous implications for the LSC. I have been similarly critical of some of the LSC’s overheads, although I have not used the same language as the hon. Gentleman. I am aware that the LSC has been through several restructuring processes and that staff face quite a lot of uncertainty. It would be helpful if the Government were to put on the record their intentions for the organisation, at least to indicate to staff employed by that organisation the future direction of Government travel.
It is good to welcome the Minister back to his job, albeit in a new Department, and I look forward to exchanging various comments and ideas with him over the coming weeks and months, in the happy spirit that has pervaded our previous exchanges.
I digress from that sentiment in no way by saying that the new clause and amendments seem to highlight a fundamental flaw in the Government’s thinking. In a sense, the amendments prise open a gap between the Bill and the Government’s strategy. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) was measured in her comments; she could have been altogether more direct. She might have asked why we were debating a Bill in isolation from the Government’s approach to the Leitch review of skills. We still await the Government’s response to that fundamental review, which, we think, will come out next week—it has been delayed three times already. We understand that one of the reasons for the delay was that the first draft was simply not up to scratch: one agency told me that it could have been written by a seven-year-old child with chickenpox.
Given the paucity of the Government’s approach and the delays suffered, it is unsurprising that we are debating in isolation a Bill that might contradict some of the Government’s response to Leitch, and which certainly contradicts much of Leitch’s analysis. The new clause and amendments relate to the departmental reorganisation and its implications for the LSC. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), asked the hon. Member for Brent, East what she thought about the LSC, and in doing so prompted the question of what the Government think about it. Leitch does not mention the LSC until about page 75 of his report, and then talks about further rationalisation in that body. We are not clear whether the Government see a long-term future and a central role for the LSC. We certainly do not know whether the Government’s response will merely be to bolt on a new structure to the existing one. I suspect that we might end up with that, and that would be thoroughly unsatisfactory.
As the hon. Lady said, the decision to create two new Departments to cover education and skills has significant implications for FE colleges because of the plan to route funding for 16-to-19 education via local authorities. That is what the new clause and amendments address.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the last thing that the sector needs is more bodies, or a further proliferation of bodies? I am already uneasy about splitting the Department. What the sector needs is a simple line of funding and communication so that it can get on with its job.
My hon. Friend, in his typically learned and well-informed way, makes two points. First, he makes the point that the split into two Departments creates a problem of clarity—it is difficult to know where responsibilities will lie for different aspects of the previous Department’s work. He then made a second and even more profound point about the bureaucracy, over-regulation and micro-management that has typified the Government’s approach to further education and to skills more generally.
Because I have high hopes of the Minister—rejuvenated by his reappointment—I hope that he will take the opportunity of the response to Leitch to clear away some of that bureaucracy and lift some of the burden on our excellent further education colleges, so that we can meet the skills targets that he wants to be met and on which we share a view. I do not take a negative view—I am not pessimistic—but unless the Minister rises to the challenge identified by my hon. Friend, I am afraid that my hopes will be dashed and the whole House, indeed the whole country, will be disappointed.
According to the Times Educational Supplement,
“Billions of pounds in funding for colleges is due to be taken from the Learning and Skills Council and put under the control of local authorities. The handover of about £7 billion of the LSC’s £11bn-a-year budget will be the culmination of Gordon Brown’s reorganisation of education.”
The reform will require yet more legislation, presumably as part of the proposed Bill to raise the school leaving age to 18. We had a taste of it in what could be described as the early Queen’s Speech—the pre-Queen’s Speech Queen’s Speech—which hinted that there might be further legislation to do just that.
I agree. It is not as though we did not tell the Government—we said that this Bill was not fit for purpose because it had come to the House irrespective of the Government’s response to Leitch. We may well see, in the autumn, a further Bill dealing with skills and further education and making structural changes to the way in which skills are funded and managed, although this Bill will have only just hit the statute book. It strikes me as bizarre to publish the Leitch report and the Bill simultaneously, given that the one bears very little relation to the other.
Would it not be very much in the interests of the Learning and Skills Council for the Government to clarify their thinking on its future? The Bill talks of moving from a local to a regional structure. The LSC will inevitably need to do some work on that, which may come to nothing if the Government change their mind later.
The Government’s approach has a touch of rearranging the deckchairs and changing the sheet music for the dance band on the Titanic as we face our journey to the lifeboats. One wonders whether, expecting some massive change, the Learning and Skills Council is desperately trying to reorganise itself before it is reorganised in a way not of its own choosing. We need the Government to be straightforward, and the hon. Lady’s new clause and amendments give them an opportunity to be so. Do they envisage a long-term future for the LSC in its current form, in the context of the new clause and amendments? Do they expect it to continue much as it is now, or do they anticipate fundamental reform of the funding and management of skills of the kind that is hinted at, indeed identified, by Leitch, and which Members in all parts of the House consider now to be necessary?
As I have said, there is mention of further legislation, presumably as part of the proposed Bill to raise the school leaving age to 18. Conservative Members have concerns about the proposal to return college funding to local authority control. We are proud of what many further education colleges achieve. I make no apology for repeating what I have said before—that the House should celebrate their work, congratulate the professionals in them, and applaud the achievements of the many students who pass through them. Conservative Members trace those achievements back to the crucial Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which gave further education colleges their freedom from local authority control and set them on a path to the success that they now enjoy.
I shall be delighted to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The Association of Colleges is concerned about the plan to route funding for 16 to 19-year-olds via local authorities, which is precisely what is dealt with in the new clause and amendments. The proposed changes are creating considerable uncertainty in the sector, as I was told by the principal of a further education college that I visited earlier this week. The colleges are not certain what the change means, and they are not confident about their future. They are not even confident that the Government see a long-term future for further education at all. I do not share the Armageddon view of the Government’s position, but I do think that a lack of certainty and clarity is causing a problem with morale in the sector, particularly in relation to the issues dealt with in the new clause and amendments.
Many young people cross boundaries to attend colleges in other local authority areas, but changing funding responsibilities may make it more difficult for them to exercise that choice. I ask the Minister to comment on that problem in particular. The Bill also creates confusion by extending the role of the LSC in training for 16 to 19-year-olds. Clause 6 would give it a new duty in relation to education and training provision for that group
“with a view to encouraging diversity in the education and training available to individuals”.
It seems to be critical for those individuals to be able to exercise maximum choice, but the fact that the new powers will soon be obsolete again raises the question of the Bill’s purpose. On Second Reading I argued that it was not fit for purpose and that further legislation might well be required. We now learn that the Learning and Skills Council is likely to be stripped of many of its current functions, but we have yet to hear the Government’s detailed response to Leitch.
In the past, the Minister has been dismissive of the inquiries made by the hon. Lady and me, and mentioned by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, about the possibility of new legislation. Will he tell us whether he anticipates further legislation, and whether it will deal specifically with the points raised by the hon. Lady and amplified by me? If he says that he does, it will contradict what he said in Committee, namely:
“To move the system in a more demand-led direction one does not need to legislate”. ––[Official Report, Further Education and Training Public Bill Committee, 12 June 2007; c. 19.]
I was doubtful about that at the time, and I remain doubtful. It appears to me that the Government have changed their position and are now suggesting that they may well need to legislate. The former Leader of the House said that the Government were “planning legislation” on Leitch when he was questioned on the matter as early as 21 June. Can the Minister confirm that, and can he tell us what reason the Government would have to legislate on Leitch if not to introduce the demand-led system that Leitch advocates?
Conservative Members are in favour of reducing the mountain of bureaucracy that stifles the delivery of training and prevents the establishment of a system tailored to the needs of business and learners alike. The Government have been complacent. Debating these very matters in Committee, the Minister said that concern expressed by my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright), about the £1 billion of public money spent by the LSC for purposes other than training was “erroneous”. City and Guilds takes a rather different view. Under the heading “The Cost of Bureaucracy”, it suggests that the regulatory impact and overall burden on providers warrants “serious and sustained attention”. Will the Minister deal with the concerns of third parties such as City and Guilds?
In essence, and in conclusion, the hon. Member for Brent, East has done the House a service by proposing the new clause because there is a gaping hole in the Government’s position. It is not clear where responsibility will lie in the medium term, nor is it clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, whether contradiction and confusion will be a permanent feature of the Government’s strategy or whether it is merely that the Bill and the Government’s other plans are not consistent. It is not clear whether the Government will have to legislate further. It is not clear whether the Minister will be responsible for these things for very much longer, or whether they will pass to another agency or Government Department. That lack of clarity is doing the sector no favours and the House no service. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that he is rather clearer than he has given the impression of being thus far.
I welcome the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) to her new position and, for the avoidance of doubt, I confirm that I continue to be the Minister with lead responsibility for the Learning and Skills Council. The hon. Lady referred to some of the remarks that I made in Committee and referenced them with the position we are in today. I need simply remind her that the role of Ministers is to argue current Government policy with conviction; I did that in Committee and I am more than happy to do it here today.
It is the Government’s intention to provide strong strategic leadership for the reforms to the 14 to 19 curriculum and qualifications and for increasing participation and attainment by young people by the age of 19. That responsibility, announced as part of the recent machinery of government changes, sits with the Department for Children, Schools and Families. We intend that the new Department will have responsibility for overall planning and funding for 14 to 19 learners to achieve that ambition. It will focus on those young people who are not in education, employment or training, who often need personal support services to help them engage. It will take responsibility for raising the education leaving age.
With that responsibility, we intend to transfer funding for 14 to 19 learners—I am pleased that the hon. Member for Brent, East has welcomed that—to the local authorities’ ring-fenced education budgets. Crucially, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—in effect the Department for the knowledge economy—will lead the work to ensure that this country has the skilled work force that it needs to compete in the global economy. At the heart of that task is the development of funding and performance management of further education in England—a vital and continuing role. Included within that role are efforts to make sure that the system is able to deliver the 14 to 19 reforms to which I referred earlier. If ever there was a need for joined-up government, it is in this area.
Both those reforms are logical developments of the Government’s policies, such as Every Child Matters, the 14 to 19 reforms, the challenge set by Sandy Leitch and the further education reform agenda. Those are welcome and both Departments are now working on the practical implications of the announcements. It is clear that the reforms will require legislation. The Prime Minister has indicated that the Bill to raise the education leaving age from 16 to 18 will be one of the measures on the Government’s legislative agenda next year. We will seek to secure on the programme for the following year a Bill to deliver the reforms announced in the machinery of government changes. Before then we will, rightly, consult on the details and timing of the funding transfer to ensure no disruption to schools, colleges and training providers. That is the fundamental issue.
One issue that my hon. Friend has raised, and which I raised on Second Reading, was that of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training. They are not tracked at all and, in my constituency, there is no knowledge of what happens to them after the age of 16. Would it not be simple to instruct local authorities to make a list of people who appear to be missing from education and training as soon as they leave school at 16, and to do that fairly quickly?
I respect my hon. Friend’s intentions; he has worked on this matter for a long time. It is not fair or accurate to say that no tracking takes place. The Learning and Skills Council, local authorities and the Connexions service work together to provide advice, guidance and support and to track young people in those circumstances. One issue that we debated in Committee is that the NEET group is changing; it is somewhat simplistic to say that they are all suffering from a lack of opportunities. As a result of that discussion, I committed to write to members of the Committee and I will be happy to forward that correspondence to my hon. Friend.
I thank the Minister for that letter and for exploring the issue in more detail. Why does he think the number of NEETs has grown since 1997? It is not absolutely clear why and he must have a pretty good idea of what strategic changes have brought that about.
If one looks at the long term trend, it is not accurate to say that the number has grown. Broadly, the percentage has remained similar. I am not denying that this is a significant challenge for us. Across Government, real effort is going into this area. Some of the reforms we are looking at now will enable us to take that body of work further forward.
Yesterday, I took four young women aged 16 and 17 who were NEETs around the House of Commons and spoke to them for one and half hours. Three of the four said that they fell off the education radar because of bullying. What message can the Minister give to those three young women from my constituency that that issue is being tackled, not only in Wales but in England?
My hon. Friend raises a serious and important point. The new Department takes bullying extraordinarily seriously, as we did in the former Department. We must ensure that there is best practice in every school. We must also ensure that schools are not blind to the problem and do not carry on as if it does not exist. Within every school we need proper procedures to expose the issue, tackle it and give children and young people the confidence that there is security within the classroom and the school.
We also will ensure that there is no disruption to 14 to 19 reforms, including the introduction of new diplomas, and to the skills reforms, including the move to a system which is more demand-led. We will continue the vital work of employer engagement, which Opposition Members have been particularly interested in. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) asked about further legislation. I reiterate that moving to a demand-led system does not require legislation. We are already moving to a demand-led system; the significant proportion of funding through Train to Gain and skills accounts will, under existing arrangements, move to a demand-led approach. We do not need further legislation to increase the proportions. Other elements will require legislation and I will come on to those.
The Minister has provoked this intervention. Surely he is not telling the House that fundamental changes to the responsibility of the LSC and new powers for the sector skills councils—another element of Leitch that I assumed the Government would take seriously—as well as changes to the funding regime would not require some changes to legislation. There are statutory powers and responsibilities embedded in the system that would have to be changed if we were to adopt the Leitch agenda in its fullest form. I do not understand why the Minister is being so defensive; if there is to be legislation, let us say so and have an open and honest debate about the public policy implications.
I am not denying, and I have not denied, that there will be a need for further legislation. However, a move to demand-led funding does not require further legislative change. That is possible and is happening at the moment. The proportions of demand-led funding are increasing significantly as of today. As I said, we are moving to a more demand-led system, which is vital to employer engagement.
All of this will take time, however, and although we will seek to effect early changes that can be made under current legislation—for example, our commitment to close further the funding gap between schools and colleges as resources allow might be enabled by the new system, and lessons from the dedicated schools grant might be used to inform how funding methodology can be developed—I estimate that we will not be able to give effect to the full legislative changes until the academic year 2010-11. In the three full academic years between now and then, the LSC will retain the legal responsibility for securing and funding all forms of post-16 education and training outside higher education. In particular, it will retain the duty to secure the proper facilities for young people aged 16 to 19.
As the LSC will for the time being retain that duty for young people, we must ensure that it can operate effectively. Establishing the performance management and viability of colleges, including their work with young people and adults, will be discharged on behalf of the Government by the LSC until such time as new legislation is introduced. Therefore, now is not the time to make changes to the LSC’s duties in respect of providing proper facilities for young people.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but may I return to an earlier point I made? Will the Government give an undertaking now that, when the funding changes are introduced, they will amend the legislation so that the performance management assessment of colleges is no longer done by the LSC? I would not feel comfortable passing the Bill if I did not have confidence that the Government would make such changes in a few years, because otherwise we would effectively be giving powers to assess the management of a college to an organisation that would no longer have any relevance to the college.
I cannot, and will not, give the specific commitment that the hon. Lady asks for, as if I were to do so it would pre-empt legitimate consultation on the detail of this matter, which should take place. It is certainly the case that we will have to consider changing the overall legislative framework, including changing the proposed legislation in this Bill. However, I think that the hon. Lady is asking me to go further by specifically ruling out that the LSC will be part of that process, and it would not be right to do so.
My understanding, especially from the discussion that members of the Education and Skills Committee had with David Bell yesterday, is that the Government have made it clear that it is their intention that the LSC will not be part of the process, but that they are consulting on the means to get there—on how to move the money for the 16 to 19 age group. It is therefore completely illogical for the Government not to say that at some point in the future they will end the LSC’s responsibility for the performance management of colleges which will not be funded by it. That is what I want the Minister to say. We are passing measures that will need to be changed in the future and I do not want to pass them unless the Government are prepared to give us an undertaking that they will come back and look at this issue.
We will certainly come back and look at the issue, but we must consult on the detail, and we must make a decision once 14 to 19 funding is transferred to local authorities’ ring-fenced budgets about which is the appropriate body to manage the overall intervention regime. It is right that we consult on the detail of that, which will almost certainly mean that we will need to return to the House. However, it is wrong to ask me to say explicitly now that a reformed LSC will not have a role to play in that.
One of the amendments is intended to probe our intentions in respect of the transfer of 14 to 19 funding. The machinery of government changes consolidate our policy aim to ensure that there is a coherent offer of education and training to all young people at local level, with overall responsibility residing in one body—the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The changes also help us to achieve our ambition of making a step change in delivering a world-class skills base. The new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will provide a strong voice across Government for effective investment in research, science and skills and put them centre stage in the Government competitiveness strategy. That is one of the most exciting elements of the machinery of government changes. There will be shorter-term action that we can take to consolidate our approach, deliver our aims and ease transition to the new arrangements. I understand the spirit of the hon. Lady’s amendments, but now is not the right time to introduce the measures they propose. As I have said, we will consult on the detail and the timing of the changes to ensure that there is no disruption to providers or, more importantly, to students and employers.
The probing amendment is silent on which bodies would gain responsibility for 16 to 19 provision if we were to remove that from the LSC. Our policy intention is clear: the Department for Children, Schools and Families will lead the Government’s overall strategy for children and young people, and specifically for the 14 to 19 phase, where the funding to support learners in that age group will transfer from the LSC to the local authority ring-fenced grant. However, in terms of the detail of the funding transfer we will need to determine the exact allocation of responsibilities and duties, which duties should apply to the Secretary of State and which to local authorities, and whether other bodies will also need to continue to co-operate or be under a duty to support the delivery of the 14 to 19 offer.
This is an important debate about an important issue in the Bill, and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) makes a valid point about competence. If the competence for funding is to move, is it not critical that the other competences move with that? Accountability, inspection and management functions must follow the money. I am unsure about the Minister’s view on that. I appreciate that he is consulting, but he must have a notional view of how he expects that to pan out.
If I were standing here now—a week or so after announcing the government machinery changes—setting out a blueprint of exactly how we intend to proceed, I would be criticised for having drawn it up behind closed doors and for not having consulted people or involved them in the process. As we have not done that, I am being criticised for not giving a steer as to the future direction. We are handling this matter correctly. We have made it clear that there is likely to be a period of up to three years under the existing system during which the funding will continue to be routed through the LSC. Given the importance of providing services to those young people, adults and employers who are currently in the system, we must ensure that we manage that transition without disruption, but we will need to reflect, consult and debate on the way forward after that period, and we intend to do so.
On the detail of the funding transfer, we will for example need to be clear about the roles of different bodies in the delivery of apprenticeships and the duty currently residing in the LSC to secure facilities for learning of sufficient quality and quantity. I am sure that Members will agree that it is vital that the transition to the new arrangements does not interrupt our existing reform programme, which is significant and is delivering improvements on the ground. Delivery of courses and training to young people must also be unaffected.
Many measures are already working well, such as the local partnership teams that have been established which bring together the best from the LSC and the local authorities to create a variety of learning routes and means of progression for young people. That is leading to higher levels of participation and achievement than we have ever had before. We must build on such successes.
We might want to consider making changes that do not require legislation, and the amendments would not allow for that more flexible approach to change, which would be a pity. It is important that there is careful consideration and consultation on the details before legislation is brought before Parliament. Given our policy intention on the 14 to 19 phase, we also need to consider and consult on the best way to deliver our skills ambition on post-19 education and training. That must preserve and build on the progress through the LSC that we have already made to meet the needs of employers and learners. These are significant changes, and we need time to consider all the issues and to get them right.
Before I conclude, let me respond to some of the specific points that were raised. The hon. Member for Brent, East asked whether we will introduce measures to enact such changes. We will undoubtedly have to consider changes to the legislative framework, including those proposed in the Bill. I hope that that gives at least some of the reassurances that she was looking for.
It certainly is our intention to have a common set of funding principles for schools and FE. We are already making significant progress in reducing the funding gap between school sixth forms and FE, which is a very important and positive step forward.
The hon. Lady also asked whether we would repeal section 2 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000. That is clearly an option that we will rightly have to consider. She also asked about apprenticeships and where responsibility should lie in that regard. As my Department is the employer-facing Department, it is appropriate for such responsibility to stay with it, given the skills and innovation agenda. However, we need to make sure that all young people have diversity of choice, and there will have to be co-operation across Departments.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings made some kind of insult involving seven-year-old children with chickenpox that I did not fully follow. The Leitch implementation plan will be published very shortly. We have taken—
What I said was that I was told by an authoritative third party that the original version of the response to Leitch could have been written by his seven-year-old son at a time when he had chickenpox. Given that it was so poor, and that it has been reworked several times and the Government’s response has been delayed several times, will he tell us unequivocally now that the Leitch response will be published next week, that Parliament will have a chance to debate it, and that it will not be published outside this place? All Members deserve the chance to scrutinise and debate this important matter.
I can and will give the commitment that our response will be published very shortly, and there will be opportunities to debate and scrutinise it. My experience is that every White Paper, Government response and piece of legislation that I have seen in five years as a Minister has benefited from a first, second, third and fourth draft—indeed, as many drafts as were necessary to ensure that we got the detail right. That has rightly happened with the Leitch implementation plan, and I hope that, when the hon. Gentleman sees our response, he will feel able to support it. I can make it clear to him that nothing within the strategy that we will put forward is contradicted by any of the Bill’s provisions.
I hope that I have been able to reassure Members about our intentions. As I said, these are significant changes and we need time to consider all the issues and to get them right. Therefore, although I appreciate the opportunity for an early debate on this matter and thank the hon. Member for Brent, East for providing it, I hope that she feels able to withdraw her motion.
I thank the Minister for that response; he gave a lot of extra detail on the time frame and the Government’s intentions. I am pleased to see his change of heart on this issue, and that he joins me in welcoming these changes. I was disappointed, however, with the vagueness of his response to the question of amending this legislation in future. As I said at the outset, the new clause and accompanying amendments are probing amendments—I wanted to know more about the Government’s intention. I also tabled them because the Government’s announcement has enormous implications for the Bill before us. I am not wholly reassured that when future legislation is introduced logical changes in respect of performance management and responsibility for opening, closing and merging colleges will take place. I remain disappointed that the Minister has not given more detail on that issue, to which I suspect we will return when we discuss the next string of amendments on clause 17.
I am also disappointed that the Minister continues to argue that apprenticeships should remain within the Department. I am hoping that a change of view and a volte-face similar to that which we have already seen will take place at some point in the next couple of months. There is a danger in leaving apprenticeships within the Department, rather than including them with all other 14 to 19 learning. It could create a rather confusing barrier between the part-time learning that inevitably happens at the start of an apprenticeship, often off-site—perhaps in a college or another classroom-based setting—and the move to on-site, work-based learning. It is not obvious what the division will be, and it would be very disappointing if leaving apprenticeships within the Department created a confusing barrier. It is important that young people know that they have a range of options, including apprenticeships, along with other forms of vocational learning. I hope that the Government change their view on that issue.
However, this is a probing new clause, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Clauses 17 and 18 transfer and extend the power to intervene in FE colleges. Clause 17 transfers such power to the Learning and Skills Council, and clause 18 transfers it to Welsh Ministers. I have said today and previously that I celebrate the work of FE colleges, and it is not just me who takes this view. FE colleges do particularly well in Ofsted inspections: Ofsted deems 90 per cent. of such colleges to be satisfactory or better. Students report high levels of satisfaction—67 per cent. are either “very” or “extremely” satisfied with their experience of college life. We take pride in what those colleges have achieved in the years since they were incorporated.
The Bill is a missed opportunity, however, to advance the agenda recommended by Sir Andrew Foster in his report. He argued that there should be less centralisation and a move towards greater self-regulation. Clauses 17 and 18 move in the opposite direction, however, to that recommended by Sir Andrew, whom the Government commissioned to consider these matters. We are disappointed that they feel that must extend the LSC’s power to interfere in the life of colleges. Such micro-management is unhelpful and further diminishes the morale of those missioned to run and manage our colleges.
Underperformance in the sector is rare, by Ofsted’s and the Minister’s own admission. Indeed, I challenged him on this point in Committee, and he agreed that FE colleges are doing a good job, for the most part. There is no evidence of growing problems, and no evidence that Ministers have had to use their existing powers to intervene in respect of college principals to deal with underperformance. Indeed, and as the Minister knows, when I asked him how often the Government had used those existing powers since they emerged in statute to sack college principals, he revealed that not once have they ever been used. The Government have never had to use them to interfere in the lives of colleges as a result of underperformance, yet they are seeking to extend them and to transfer them to the LSC. As I said, performance is deemed to be satisfactory or better in the overwhelming majority of colleges. Where it is not, we have been offered no evidence to suggest that that is due to inadequate leadership, or that the powers that the Government are seeking to create would be likely to solve the problem.
We have reached the point where a sensible Minister—one who has listened and made concessions in respect of concerns expressed by Opposition politicians and third parties—is, frankly, dancing on the head of a pin. The powers are now so qualified as a result of his listening and responding that they are barely worth introducing at all. Ministers already have powers and if they choose to use them, they can do so. There is no need for the detailed powers proposed. Of course, there must be accountability where public money is spent, and of course a long-stop power is needed, because the public interest is involved and we all want to ensure both rigour in respect of standards and probity in our colleges. The Minister is right to say that the standards are in learners’ interests but, given that the existing powers have not been used, the concerns expressed in colleges about their extension and the lack of evidence that they would improve standards, I really do not understand why he insists on maintaining that part of the Bill and why he will not give way and accept the amendments.
There is a particular issue about the powers being vested in the LSC. All the evidence is that there is too much regulation and too much micro-management in the lives of colleges. This is yet another statutory power over colleges, which sends out an important signal about how the Government see the future. We see the future in the shape of self-regulation, but the Government clearly do not, despite the fact that the Minister tells me he has a working party looking at just that subject. A working party is looking at how colleges can self-regulate, yet the Bill says they need to be regulated by a third party—they need a third party to decide not only whether their principal is up to the mark but whether their governors, senior managers and members of staff are up to the mark. Surely, in a mature organisation that is being well managed and led, those judgments are best made by people close to the action on the front line who understand the circumstances of their colleges and the needs of learners—the community of interests. I really do not see why the LSC, which when all is said and done is a quango, not a democratically elected body, and certainly not vested in the local community, should take those powers.
I have one or two further questions—as if my previous words were not enough to damn the clause. First, the regulatory impact assessment states that there will be an additional burden on the LSC in terms of administering the new intervention strategy. The Minister is a diligent man and will have the figures to hand, so will he estimate the cost of that additional burden and tell us whether new staff will be involved to implement the strategy, whether existing staff will handle it, and how often he anticipates using it? He will have modelled those figures because that is the sort of man he is; he is a Minister who has done his work so he will have the answers for the House. What impact will the strategy have on existing staff, how much time will it take and what will it cost?
Moreover, the Minister must have a notional view of how many colleges are in such a state that he expects the powers to be implemented. Does he expect the powers to be used regularly? What kind of colleges does he expect will be subject to the powers? He will have the details to hand—the number, and probably the names and addresses, of the colleges he expects to be first in the firing line of the new, draconian powers.
Furthermore, what are the proposed savings in the Department for Education and Skills—although I should have called the Department by its new name—of transferring the intervention strategy to the LSC? There must be a concomitant saving and I am sure the Minister has those figures at his fingertips, too. How can we judge the effectiveness of powers that have never been used? Why do powers that have never been used need to be extended to college managers? I ask that question specifically because the provisions apply not just to principals but to other managers in colleges, too.
Finally and definitively, once again I ask the Minister, as I have both privately and publicly, whether he expects the powers to be used more often once they have been transferred to the LSC. If he does not—he shakes his head—and as the existing powers have never been used, why should we waste any more time debating the clause? It should simply be struck out of the Bill. I commend the amendment to the House.
We debated clause 17 extensively in Committee, and subsequently I held some helpful meetings with the Minister’s officials, for which I am grateful as they clarified some of my concerns. Nevertheless, I continue to be concerned about the clause, which is why I added my name to the amendment tabled by the Conservatives and why I tabled amendment No. 25.
My objections in Committee, which continue, are, first, that I do not understand the point of the clause, particularly as the Secretary of State has never used the existing powers. Secondly, I am extremely uncomfortable about transferring such directive powers to an organisation that is in no way democratically accountable. Thirdly, although I appreciate the changes the Government have made to the clause and that it will not apply to teaching staff but only to staff at the most senior level of an organisation, I am extremely uncomfortable about giving the LSC powers to begin dismissal proceedings. I am not sure that that is anything more than sleight of hand in terms of the powers the Government proposed originally.
I now have a new objection to the clause, to which I referred earlier. We touched on the point in Committee when I reminded the Minister that for many colleges the LSC is not the sole funding partner at present. At some point in the future when the Government initiate the changes—presumably in two or three years’ time—the LSC will no longer be a funding partner at all for many colleges. I remain disappointed that the Government are not willing to state on the record that they intend to change the clause when they bring in the changes to 16-to-19 funding. I understand the Minister’s point; he wants to consult and he does not want to be hemmed into a corner. He will obviously need to consult on the detail of the proposal, but it seems blatantly illogical for him to continue to argue that the Government might ever want to retain the clause if they intend to transfer funding powers to local authorities. For that reason, I remain concerned about the clause, and hope that the Minister will give me some reassurance about a point that I have already raised several times today.
Two of the best colleges in the country are in my constituency, so it is difficult to talk about what happens when colleges go wrong because I do not have much experience of that. The colleges constantly achieve grade 1 in their inspections; they both have beacon status and perform excellently. They do a wonderful job.
None the less, the Government or someone—the local authority, the LSC or even an institution with more direct Government links—must have some intervention powers. I know of other colleges that have been allowed to run their own show for a long time without much regulation at all. They have performed badly, their staff are demoralised, they have sold off land and property willy-nilly and not behaved well. There must be some degree of intervention to make sure that colleges measure up and do the right thing.
The most valuable thing is cross-pollination between good and poor colleges. In colleges such as the sixth-form college of which I have been a governor for the past 14 years there is an immense amount of skill, wisdom and understanding of how to run a good college, which should be spread to other colleges. The Government ought to facilitate as much of that learning—cross-pollination from good colleges to weaker ones—as can possibly be managed, because there are good ways to do things and there are poor ways to do things.
Of course, some colleges have inherent disadvantages, and they should not be treated unfairly. Just because a college has perhaps not performed well in terms of academic results, its principal should not simply be sacked or whatever. Sometimes a college has a pool of students who are more difficult than others. If the college, especially if it is an FE college, is in a deprived area, with very alienated students, problems can arise that are not directly the principal’s fault.
Cambridge sixth-form college has every advantage. It is surrounded by highly academic, intelligent, qualified people, whose children are naturally very positive about education and do extremely well. One must be understanding about each college’s pool of students, but some ability to intervene must be retained. The inspection process must go on, and we must facilitate as much as possible the cross-pollination from good colleges to weaker ones to ensure that they can learn best practice.
I, too, want to speak briefly in support of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). There are four reasons why they are sensible. First, clause 17 is in many ways oddly placed in the Bill. Elsewhere in the Bill,, the Government are quite properly attempting to give more freedoms to FE institutions. In many cases, they are giving them the freedom to award foundation degrees, and in other places they are giving FE colleges more authority over what they do. Yet we now see a further restriction of that authority and further intervention by the LSC in the day-to-day management of the colleges. Of course, I entirely agree that it is not right that there should be no possibility to intervene when colleges are clearly going wrong, but that is a wholly different thing from the micro-management of the institution and the ability of the LSC to intervene in the way that is proposed.
The second reason, to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings also referred, is that I remain unconvinced that the Government have worked out what all these changes will cost, not only for the reasons that he has given but because there could be legal costs if the LSC is responsible for deciding to remove members of the governing body. Again, we discussed that in Committee, but we still do not have a clear sense of what the Government believe these changes might cost the learning and skills councils. All that we know heretofore is that the Government expect an additional cost to fall on the LSC, but no one knows what that additional cost might be. That seems profoundly unsatisfactory.
The third reason why these amendments are right is that what the Government are doing in the clause is setting up the LSC to do something different from what they and, indeed, we in the Opposition would like the LSC to do. We all want the LSC to be very much learner-focused and to encourage learners to find their own way through further education and to do the courses and acquire the skills that are most suited to them. Surely we do not want the LSC to become bogged down in the kind of management decisions in FE colleges that the clause gives it the opportunity and, indeed, encourages it, to do. The clause will create an LSC that none of us wants, doing things that none of us wants it to do.
The fourth reason has become apparent only during the later stages of the proceedings on the Bill and as a result of the machinery of government changes that the Government have talked about in the past few days. As there is now undoubtedly a question mark over the future of the LSC in general, it seems crazy to start to discuss changes that will give it more power, more authority and more responsibility in specific areas, when we do not yet know what form the LSC, or any successor body, will have in the future. For all those reasons, my hon. Friend’s amendments are entirely right and deserve the support of the House.
I welcome the constructive debates that we have had on clauses 17 and 18, but I am somewhat disappointed that we appear not yet to have reached a consensus, especially as the organisation that rightly represents and lobbies on behalf of colleges—the Association of Colleges—clearly believes we have achieved the right approach to eliminate poor provision on behalf of learners and employers. I strongly believe that clause 17 is an essential component of our reforms of the FE system in England. It is vital if we are to be able to deliver our promises to eliminate inadequate provision by 2008. Similarly, clause 18 is fundamental to enable Welsh Ministers to achieve their aims.
We have acknowledged that in England there is less underperforming and/or failing provision in the system than we have had previously, and I am personally committed to accelerating that trend. We have made real progress. Nevertheless, where there is real and fundamental failure, it is right that we retain these powers of intervention.
There has been considerable debate about the accountability of the LSCs and the autonomy of governing bodies. I agree that they are important matters of principle, but I make no apology for putting the interest of learners first. As hon. Members eloquently said in Committee, further education can transform an individual’s life chances. That is why we are determined to do everything necessary to ensure that poor, failing and underperforming provision is effectively tackled, and why there needs to be a clear and robust process for identifying and managing underperformance and failure in the FE system.
Nevertheless, I have listened very carefully to all the points made on these issues, and the Government amendments that I tabled in Committee address the issues concerning greater transparency, parliamentary accountability and the autonomy of governing bodies. I am disappointed that there remains opposition in the House to our proposals for intervention in failing colleges, particularly as I have indicated that the Association of Colleges and Fforwm in Wales are satisfied that we have addressed their concerns in the revised iterations of clauses 17 and 18 respectively.
The AOC has also said that it considers that this approach is consistent with our plans to move towards a more self-regulatory system. It believes that it will help to drive a culture of responsibility and a pursuit of high standards and raising performance across the system.
I have taken the opportunity to put on the record the fact that the hon. Gentleman has been a listening Minister. He has taken representations from the Opposition and others, and the Bill has been affected by that. He is right to say that he has listened to our representations on this and other clauses, but the AOC, like us, is dealing with a moving target. He has changed Departments; the Government have changed the structure of Government; the 14-to-19 curriculum is all over the place; and the response to the Leitch review is still awaited. The AOC is responding to a changing situation, and to quote it without taking account of those changes is a little unfair, frankly. I think the Minister knows that the clause does not stand up, and even at this late stage he should agree to the amendment and withdraw the comments that he has just made.
I have not discussed these proposals with the AOC since the machinery of government changes. However, I have worked long enough and hard enough with the AOC to know that, in the two weeks since these announcements were made, if it had a fundamental problem, it would have beaten a path to my door to ensure that I was aware of that message, and it has not done so. I am confident that we have responded; we have listened; we have moved; and we have addressed the concerns that Opposition Members and colleges have put forward.
This is about getting the balance right. These powers of intervention will be very rarely used. We want governing bodies to take responsibility for their own circumstances and to deal with underperformance of their own volition, but it must be right that, in extremis, when all else has failed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, there should remain a power of intervention. There have been a number of instances over the years, particularly during the 1990s, when there have been real cases of failure in the system. I am sure that, if that occurred in Opposition Members’ constituencies and they were told that the LSC, the Government or anyone else had no power of intervention, they would be the first to complain.
I think that I might be helpful. I have today received a briefing from the AOC saying that the clause addressed its original concern, which was specifically related to the rights and responsibilities of colleges and governing bodies and the possible conflict with existing employment law. It is satisfied with the clause, and I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Minister.
I thank my hon. Friend. I am having to get used to the fact that he is intervening to help me, which has not always been the case—he knows that I make that comment with the best regard. He is absolutely right: the AOC has been satisfied. I turn now to some of the specific points that have been made. In terms of the additional burden, the LSC will deal with it from existing resources. We are not talking about major additional expenditure. Indeed, the proportions may well come down.
May I take the Minister back to the issue of intervention powers? He is right to say that we all wish there to be intervention powers available in extreme situations, but surely some of those powers already exist and are held by the Secretary of State. We on this side of the House do not understand why it is necessary to transfer the powers to the LSC, given that, as he said, they are so rarely used.
It is right that those powers reside in a body that is close to the interface with colleges and that is aware of all the detailed circumstances that relate to a particular provider. There is still an accountability framework for the Secretary of State to oversee the provisions, which will assure accountability to the House for the actions that the LSC takes. It is right that, in extremis, those powers exist. As I said, there is not a concern in terms of an additional burden. Neither is there a contradiction between having the powers in extremis and at the same time strongly advocating a move towards a system of greater self-regulation on the part of FE colleges.
That is dancing on the head of a pin—and it is not even elegant. It is not even a foxtrot; it is some vile, contorted dance. The Minister is telling us that it is consistent with self-regulation to have additional regulation from someone else. He is giving extra powers to the LSC at the same time as saying that he wants to move towards colleges regulating themselves. He says that the powers are necessary, but powers already exist in statute for the Secretary of State to intervene, in extremis, to ensure quality and probity, and they have never been used. Even now, will the Minister give way on this matter and accept the amendments? That would be in the spirit that has pervaded during the course of the considerations. I am disappointed in him. Let us stop this rather hideous dance.
I can lay claim to many skills, but dancing is not among them. What I said about wanting greater self-regulation is not at all inconsistent. I urge the hon. Gentleman to talk to the self-regulation group, which is made up of FE college providers who are enthusiastic and committed to the process. At the same time, those providers recognise that, in extremis, when all else fails, there has to be a back-stop power of intervention. That is what the provisions are about. We have listened, responded and moved significantly, but we have to retain the powers. In that context, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
As I have said, the Minister is a responsible man. He has listened to the measured case that has been put by the Opposition, who have adopted a constructive approach throughout the consideration of the Bill. That is what good opposition is all about. However, frankly, the response to this debate has not been worthy of the Minister or others on the Treasury Bench. The opinion of the House needs to be tested on this matter. Colleges do a good job. They are deemed to do so by their students and by Ofsted. The powers that the Secretary of State has to intervene to deal with failure on the part of principals, governors and others have never been used, but, despite that, those powers are being extended and vested in the LSC.
Finally, the Minister tells us that that is consistent with a move to self-regulation. We trust college governors, principals and managers to mind their affairs properly. It is clear from what we have heard today that the Minister is not prepared to invest the same level of trust in them. We believe in our FE colleges. We do not believe that they are likely to fail and if they do, we think that they will sort those matters out properly themselves. Of course there need to be long-line powers, but they exist. This aspect of the Bill is unnecessary. I am convinced that the clause should be removed from the Bill and I therefore urge the House to support the Opposition amendment—I am delighted to say that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) has supported it eloquently—which would improve the Bill.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
power to award foundation degrees
I beg to move amendment No. 23, page 15, line 22, after ‘England’, insert ‘or Wales’.
We move to one of the parts of the Bill that deals with the Principality of Wales. I see the new Under-Secretary of State for Wales on the Treasury Bench. I am sad to say that I saw off the last one, the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), following the grilling that I gave him in Committee, but I am pleased to see that he is present and we look forward to hearing from him later, perhaps. He made a positive contribution, but despite that, now joins us in a Back-Bench capacity.
The shadow Welsh Ministers have been in almost constant contact with me on the matter. I have taken their sagacious advice on almost every word that I am about to utter. Their interest in it has been extraordinary, as I will no doubt illustrate in my remarks to the House.
In a letter of 27 June 2007 to John Graystone, chief executive of Fforwm, the Welsh equivalent of the AOC, on the opportunities for FE colleges in Wales to apply for powers to award foundation degrees, the Minister of State wrote that these matters are
“for the Welsh Assembly Government Ministers to consider since education is a devolved issue.”
However, the clause in question relates to the power of the Privy Council. The Welsh Assembly Government has not been devolved any powers with regard to the Privy Council. In other words, there is real doubt about whether the Welsh Assembly has the competence to allow Welsh colleges to award foundation degrees, even if the colleges were able to do so, and even if the Assembly wanted them to do so.
The issue was clarified by Lord Adonis on Report in the House of Lords on 27 February 2007, when my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton asked him to clarify what the Association of Colleges’ sister organisation in Wales had said. She said that there was some confusion in the Welsh Assembly as to whether clause 26 was sufficient to allow the Welsh Assembly to enact similar legislation to enable Welsh colleges to award their own degrees.
The noble Lord Adonis said:
“The only other point on which I think I should respond now is that of Wales; having not been able to give an answer in respect of Wales earlier, I certainly do not feel that I can let it pass a second time. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked whether Clause 26 would be wide enough to allow the National Assembly for Wales to pass measures similar to Clause 19. The answer is no. She is correct that Westminster would need to legislate for that to be possible, unless an Order in Council were made to give the National Assembly the measure-making power.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 February 2007; Vol. 689, c. 1559.]
It seems from what Lord Adonis said that the Bill is insufficient to enable Welsh colleges, even if the Assembly wished to do so, to award foundation degrees. There is clearly an important constitutional point here. I will not—because you would not allow me to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker—wax lyrical about the wider issue relating to the way in which the Bill has been dealt with in respect of Wales, although Members in all parts of the House have profound concerns about that. However, in dealing with the amendments it is important to be clear that Welsh colleges should have at least the potential power to award foundation degrees in the same way as English colleges will enjoy after the passage of the Bill.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I was contacted on 26 or 27 June by Fforwm, almost at the end of the legislative process. These are important matters that we are discussing. Has he any concern that HE in Wales and FE in Wales did not contact us at the beginning of the process, but have left it to the very end?
There is a good case, made by Labour Members on Second Reading and subsequently, for the Bill to have been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. There should have been much more discussion at a very early stage with all parties concerned about the way in which the Bill applies in Wales.
I have an admission. I like to make admissions from the Dispatch Box because politicians are often too arrogant, are they not? We all have a lot to learn, and it was not until Second Reading that I picked up on the significance of the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I did so because of the contributions from Labour Members representing Welsh constituencies, who knew much more about it than I did. Once I became convinced that it was an issue because of their eloquence, I looked at it closely and raised it in some detail, following discussions with my hon. Friends who represent Welsh constituencies and speak for the Opposition on Welsh matters.
In Committee the then Minister dealt with the matter in an extremely diligent and measured way, and we had a good exchange, but I have yet to be satisfied that the matter has been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that there should have been much more discussion at an earlier stage with colleges, Members of the Welsh Assembly and all those affected in Wales and elsewhere.
My office has been in touch with the Conservative Members in the Assembly, and they share some of the concerns that I have described. They feel that there would have been a more satisfactory outcome, had the matter been debated in more detail at an earlier stage. I do not for a moment suggest that I know which colleges are capable, prepared or enthusiastic to award foundation degrees, but I am sure that to build an inconsistency into the system, which means that Welsh colleges will not be able to do so whereas English colleges can, does not seem like good government. I am not sure that we would have reached that destination if the matter had been handled rather more diligently at the outset.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to someone who represents a Welsh constituency. Although I do not disagree with the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) about the delay, I point out that there were early discussions. There were discussions in the National Assembly’s Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee on 1 February. The confusion at that meeting has partly contributed to the delay, as the then Minister in the National Assembly stated at that meeting that there was very little demand for the provision. That seemed to be backed up by legal advice at the time, then the legal advice changed. That leads us to the amendment, which we on the Liberal Democrat Benches will support. The confusion has been there for a long time, although I appreciate what the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said about the delay.
I have nothing useful to add, except to say that we now have an opportunity, with a new and enthusiastic Minister, to put matters right. I make no criticism of the previous Minister, as I said. He dealt with the issue diligently, but I wondered whether he was “landed in it” by the circumstances in which he found himself. I am not sure that this is not part of a bigger issue about the way in which the House operates in relation to Welsh affairs. The point was made on Second Reading by Members representing Welsh constituencies. This is not the first time, but the second or third, that the process has occurred.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a lesson to be learned from this? He may remember that on Second Reading it was revealed that the Assembly is consulting on this matter, but its report will not be completed until the autumn. Here we are, enacting legislation on an issue where we do not have a settled view. We must avoid such mishaps in future.
I made exactly that point in Committee. We have not reached a settled position on how we deal with this kind of legislative imperative. It would be extremely questionable if we were regularly to adopt the kind of process that meant that matters were transferred in a way that at least gave rise to a doubt about whether they had been scrutinised and debated as fully as required. I will not put it more strongly than that, because to do so would be an overstatement, but there are doubts about whether this is the right way to proceed, and they have not been answered satisfactorily by Ministers.
As I said, this goes beyond the Bill to wider constitutional points. We will have the opportunity to debate those points in relation to amendments in a later group. However, we need convincing answers from the Minister about whether Welsh colleges will have any power in the short term to award foundation degrees. In correspondence with Jane Davidson, previously Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills at the Welsh Assembly, Fforwm was given other arguments as to why colleges in Wales should not be given that power, including reservations about the proposal expressed by the European unit of Universities UK,
“on the grounds that there is a risk to the credibility of UK qualifications at the European level.”
That is a pretty thin argument, given that those reservations could apply equally to colleges in England. Another argument put forward by the former Minister in Committee was that there is no demand from colleges in Wales. I was surprised by that but was not qualified to challenge it at that point. Subsequently I have had representations from institutions in Wales saying that that is not so, and that there may well be institutions in Wales that would like to investigate whether they should go down this road. I personally have concerns about the cross-border implications, because there is no doubt that colleges that gain this status will, over time, gather a particular esteem and appeal. Given that colleges naturally attract students from across the border, I wonder what the implications for colleges on both sides of the border are if some are unable or forbidden to gain this status and their competitors are moving ahead with alacrity and skill.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether there are colleges in Wales that would like these award-making powers. I can confirm that there are, including, in my constituency, Rhyl college, which is part of the Llandrillo college network. I believe that there are others.
That confirms what I thought. As I say, I took a keen interest in this once it became clear that it was a more significant issue than most people had recognised. My Welsh colleagues, and Welsh Labour Members, identified this early on, as one would expect, but as soon as it was drawn to my attention I realised that it was a much more significant part of the Bill than most observers would have gathered at that early stage. I, too, have learned that there are colleges that would like to pursue this opportunity.
In Committee, the then Minister said
“FE colleges in Wales are not demanding degree-awarding powers.”––[Official Report, Further Education and Training Public Bill Committee, 14 June 2007; c. 140.]
Yet in a letter to the Minister of State on 6 July, Fforwm stated:
“This is patently not the case.”
It goes on:
“Fforwm is strongly supportive of the principle that FE colleges in Wales with high numbers of HE learners which reach the rigorous quality procedures necessary for the validation of degrees and have a critical mass of students should have the power to award foundation degrees. This is the same position as in England, where most colleges will not wish to validate foundation degrees.”
The Opposition understood throughout consideration of the Bill that only a small number of colleges, at least at the beginning, will take advantage of this opportunity. It is absolutely right that colleges should have the capability and the capacity to do this properly. That is important from the perspective of learners and from the perspective of the degree brand. We are advocates of rigour and excellence. However, it may well be that colleges in Wales can meet those high standards, and it would be wrong to establish two systems—a Welsh system and an English system, the former without the opportunity to grow in the way that I have described and the latter able to do so. Colleges in Wales, and their representative organisation, clearly wish clause 19 to apply to both England and Wales. Fforwm says:
“We do not consider it sensible to treat the two countries differently in this matter.”
The insertion of ‘and Wales’ in clause 19 after ‘in England’ would suffice for that purpose.
Colleges in Wales feel that they have fallen between two constitutional stools—the law-making powers of Westminster and the devolved legal powers of the National Assembly for Wales. It is unfortunate that we have reached that point. I do not claim for a moment that it is the result of any ill will or malice, but it is important, even at this late stage, that Ministers recognise that this is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. I therefore hope that the Minister will, with a similar kind of alacrity and enthusiasm to that which I suggested was prevalent among Welsh educationists, adopt my amendment and so get himself out of a rather deep hole.
I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said. In fact, I think that I agree with all of it. I hope that the Under- Secretary of State for Wales, in what I guess is his first speaking role from the Front Bench, will address some of the comments made.
Briefly, I want to touch on two points, the first of which is a point of process. The hon. Gentleman said that this is a matter for the Privy Council. Indeed, it is. When I was Secretary of State for Wales, I was regarded, as is the present holder of that post, as being the Privy Councillor for Wales, and it seems to me that the present Secretary of State for Wales should have been involved much more closely with this matter than he has been.
There is no doubt that this has been a pretty messy development. We shall refer later, when discussing amendments Nos. 8 and 9, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), to the constitutional aspects of the Bill. However, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was right to point to the procedure that was put in place after the enactment of the Government of Wales Act 2006, which ensures that there should be a proper legislative Order in Council to deal with these matters. Why? Because all of the detail we have just heard from the hon. Gentleman would have been discussed at much greater length. There would have been much greater co-ordination between the National Assembly for Wales and our Government, and that would have been done, if I may say so, in a particularly Welsh way. We could have discussed why it is that further education colleges in Wales will not be given the same opportunities as those in England.
My second point concerns precisely that. I spent 17 years of my life teaching in further education in Wales, and since that time there have been enormous developments in the sector. All of us who represent Welsh constituencies can point to tremendous co-ordination and co-operation between higher and further education in Wales, which is to be commended. However, this legislation goes beyond that. I cannot understand why it is that the National Assembly for Wales—one assumes—and the Welsh Assembly Government are opposed in principle to giving the power to further education colleges to award degrees when in England such colleges have exactly such powers, particularly given that the body representing further education in Wales has clearly said that the principle of colleges having such powers should be accepted. Perhaps it is an example of seeing a chance to be different for the sake of being different. If that is the case, that is wrong. I look forward to hearing the Under-Secretary say that that is not the case and that there is good reason why the Government’s proposals for England are not good enough for the people of Wales.
I also raised that point in Committee and I thought it odd that we were neither giving the power to Welsh colleges to award degrees nor giving the permissive power to the Welsh Assembly to confer such powers on colleges. When I raised that point with the then Minister, the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), he said that FE colleges were not demanding degree-awarding powers. It is now clear that that appears not to be the case. The briefing I have from Fforwm says that it believes that the door should not be shut so formally on the opportunity for colleges in Wales to award their own foundation degrees. The former Minister said that when Fforwm does its review of FE and HE in Wales it can bring forward proposals, and if there is a clear recommendation that Welsh colleges should be given that power, there will be an option to bring forward an Order in Council, which would be a time-consuming solution to the problem.
It is frustrating to realise that part of the reason why there appears not to have been a clamour from Welsh colleges, or even representatives, is the confusion about what powers the Bill confers on the Welsh Assembly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) said a few moments ago, when the matter was discussed in the National Assembly’s Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee, the Minister there said that while she felt there was little need or demand for the provision, the Assembly had carte blanche under clause 27 to introduce provision for the awarding of foundation degrees at a later date. Initial legal advice taken during the Committee seemed to confirm that view. However, following the meeting, written advice suggested that clause 27 did not allow the Assembly to confer those functions on the Privy Council. That certainly seemed to be the understanding of the former Minister when we discussed the matter in Committee.
We have an odd situation in that the Bill confers almost all the provisions for England on Wales, except the only interesting bit—the only bit that has got anyone excited. It is remiss that poor legislative scrutiny has led to Welsh colleges missing out on something that the Government believe to be very important for English colleges.
There has been a lack of consultation, especially with Welsh Back-Bench Labour Members of Parliament, by higher education and further education in Wales and by the National Assembly. I look to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for reassurance that, even at this late stage, we will have some input as legislators into the final outcome of the Bill.
I welcome the measures that have been announced. I am pleased that FE colleges in England can issue foundation degrees. I hope that that will shortly happen in Wales, too. It is an important stepping stone towards achieving the Labour Government’s goal of ensuring that 50 per cent. of our young people have degrees. It is welcome, and I give credit to the previous Conservative Government, who allowed the polytechnics to become universities and award degrees. That, too, was an important step.
Further education colleges play an important role in education, especially in working class areas. I look to my constituency of the Vale of Clwyd and my home town of Rhyl, which has a college for the first time in its history. Denbigh, too, has a college for the first time. That is genuine progress. I can recall my days at university, but coming from a large council estate of 3,000 people, I could probably count those who went to university on the fingers of one hand. Degrees are becoming more accessible.
I am concerned about all of Wales, but especially north-east Wales and, specifically, Wrexham, Flintshire and Denbighshire—scouse Wales, as I prefer to call it. We need to consider the way in which the provisions will affect those communities. Let me cite some statistics, which I have already given to the Under-Secretary, on educational achievement in those areas and the number of people going into higher education.
There are 22 local authorities in Wales. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s league table, in which 22 is best and 1 is worst, Wrexham is sixth for key stage 2 achievement, fifth for those achieving five or more GCSEs and seventh for numbers going to university. Neighbouring Flintshire does well for primary and secondary education, achieving 12th and 20th positions respectively, but falls way down to eighth on numbers going to university. My county of Denbighshire is eighth for achievement at the age of 11, seventh for achievement at the age of 16 and 11th for numbers going to university. We need better access to degrees in north-east Wales and the Bill could help to achieve that.
I urge my hon. Friend to convey the results of the soundings that he has taken from all parties to the National Assembly and the HE institutions in Wales, to ensure that access continues—especially in north-east Wales—at a pace that is at least equivalent to the Welsh average and, indeed, the national average. If not, we will be left behind.
As a council house boy and the first in my family to go to university, I appreciate many of the hon. Gentleman’s observations and share his determination to ensure that we widen participation by improving access. Does he realise that, unless the amendment is accepted, we may end up with colleges in Wales that cannot offer the same sort of courses as English colleges, and that that would result in an exodus of students from Wales to England to take advantage of the access that he describes?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a chance of that, but I hope that the messages that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary takes back to Cardiff will avert it. I look to him for reassurances on the amendment at the end of the debate.
There is a political dimension to the statistics that I cited—I would not like to leave out politics. Denbighshire is Tory and Independent controlled and Wrexham is Liberal and Tory controlled. The same investment has not occurred in those two counties as has happened in Labour-controlled Flintshire. That is why the statistics show that Flintshire does well educationally for 11-year-olds and 16-year-olds. However, it fails for 18-year-olds. Hon. Members cited the letter from Fforwm—an establishment in Wales that has displayed a high-handed attitude. We have a term in Wales for the establishment and the great and good that often control institutions such as the BBC, other cultural institutions and the legal profession. It is “the crachach”. It would disturb me greatly if the crachach in the HE sector held back and issued instructions to politicians to hold back because they wanted to preserve what they perceive as excellence in Welsh higher education.
We have excellence in the HE sector in Wales. I went to Aberystwyth university, which is an excellent institution, while Cardiff university has the eighth best research department in the country. We have excellent institutions and it is not my aim to lessen that excellence. We also have excellence in FE institutions in Wales. I referred earlier to Llandrillo college, which is the largest educational institution in north Wales and one of the largest in the whole of Wales, with 23,000 students. It also has outreach colleges in Abergele, Rhyl, Denbigh and other locations, quite often in the poorest communities in the whole of Wales, including one located 100 yd away from the council estate where I grew up.
We have excellence in our colleges. Llandrillo college received a grade 1 for each of the seven things on which it was inspected, the first college in the whole of Wales to achieve that. It is high-handed of HE in Wales to look down its nose at colleges such as Llandrillo. Indeed, if it looked at how that college is run, it could learn a lot. I do not accept the argument from the National Assembly or HE in Wales that excellence will be lessened. We have to knock that one on the head.
The second argument from Fforwm to which Opposition Members have referred was that there was an insufficient groundswell of opinion in the FE sector. Fforwm represents each and every FE institution in Wales and it has spoken, although too late as far as I am concerned—it should have told us what the issues were months ago. Fforwm speaks on behalf of the FE sector in the whole of Wales and it deserves to be listened to. I gave the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings the example of Llandrillo college, which has expressed an interest. I was on the phone this morning to the principal of that college, Huw Evans OBE, who was given his OBE because of his contribution to FE education. He definitely wants the award-making powers, and I believe that Coleg Menai in north Wales would like them, too.
Two arguments have been put forward—the first about lessening excellence and the second that there is no groundswell of opinion—but I do not accept either of them. We have excellent colleges such as Llandrillo and Coleg Menai, as well as Deeside college, Northop horticultural college, Llysfasi agricultural college, Yale college, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), and others. Every one of them should be allowed the opportunity. The process is not easy—they have to go through screening to ensure that they have the quality to make such awards—but I support the stance of those institutions to get those powers.
In conclusion, what reassurances can my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary give me that our voices will be listened to in Cardiff? He should take back the point that the process needs to be speeded up. If we leave it until September we might miss the boat for this year, and I would certainly like those award-making powers to be given to FE colleges in Wales within the next year to 18 months.
I rise briefly to support much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said and to add two further points from the perspective of someone who represents an ambitious further and higher education town, Wrexham, where Yale college is making great progress and the North-East Wales institute is making progress towards university status. The further and higher education environment in Wrexham—and, indeed, in west Cheshire—is very competitive. I am reluctant to support measures that would make Welsh colleges less competitive in relation to English colleges, and I hope that that point will be relayed back to the National Assembly for Wales.
The process of securing degree-awarding powers is long and arduous. It is not something that can happen overnight in further education colleges. I speak from experience, having seen the long process that the North East Wales institute has gone through to secure such powers. It was an arduous process. The Opposition made a suggestion, which was in some respects appealing, that there would be an immediate disadvantage to Welsh colleges if the amendment were not accepted. That is not the case, however. A process of consultation is going on in the Assembly, and this debate will inform that process. I hope that it does and that it highlights the concern in areas such as north-east Wales about educational attainment and progress through to university. We need more avenues to degree status through foundation degrees, and I am reluctant to rule out the further education route that is being offered in the Bill. I have concerns about the present form of the Bill, but that can be remedied. I hope, however, that in future we will be listened to earlier in the process.
As my former role as a Minister has been referred to by at least two Members in this short debate, I thought that I had better say a few words.
The debate has highlighted that we are on new ground when dealing with these matters. The Assembly wants to assume new powers, and Parliament is rightly insisting that there should be proper scrutiny of the role and responsibilities that the Assembly wants to take on. This particular case is a model example of how not to do it. I was involved as a Minister, but I did not realise until I was no longer a Minister how great the difference was between the briefings that I was receiving and the strong views that were being represented by Fforwm. That is not a criticism of any individual or of the civil service. However, when I saw the briefing that was sent to all Members of Parliament at the end of June from Fforwm, I immediately phoned John Graystone to find out what had happened. Clearly, that information had not been available on Second Reading or to members of the Committee, and it did not appear to have been made available to Members in another place when they were debating this Bill.
Mr. Graystone went through all the contacts that he had made, as chief executive of Fforwm, with the Welsh Assembly Government and outlined the various representations that had been made to officials, to the Minister and to members of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee, which I attended on 1 February to give evidence. I told the Committee that I was likely to be involved in taking the Bill through the House of Commons. I was therefore surprised, having received the briefing from Fforwm, that I was not asked a single question about the awarding of foundation degrees, bearing in mind that the Assembly’s position was then—and still is, as I understand it—that it wanted to await the outcome of Sir Adrian Webb’s review. That is likely to be published in the autumn. If it recommends the granting of degree-awarding powers to further education colleges in Wales, the Assembly will seek an Order in Council.
The fact is that we could have addressed this matter much earlier. If Fforwm had understood the way in which our scrutiny works in this place, rather than just—quite rightly—writing to officials and the Minister, it could have circulated its concerns to Members of Parliament at an early stage. I, as Minister, could have responded on the key issues even before we got into the scrutiny process. That would have been a much better way of doing things, but we are where we are.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) raised an issue that I hope the Minister will be able to clarify. He implied that, even if there was the will in the Assembly to get an Order in Council promulgated to take the matter through this place, if we do not carry this out now it will be extremely difficult in the future. He argued that it would be difficult to ensure that the Privy Council would, through the Order in Council, allow degree-awarding powers to FE colleges in Wales. I understand that to be the hon. Gentleman’s main point. However, the assurances that I received as Minister showed that there was no doubt that an Order in Council could, if the Assembly wished it, achieve that object relatively quickly. We could and can have the pre-legislative scrutiny and debate that hon. Members want. That is my understanding of the position and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would confirm it.
The hon. Gentleman spoke in Committee and speaks again today with great integrity, and I take his point about the advice that he was given and the position that he was in. I was drawing attention specifically to the debate in the other place, where the noble Lord Adonis, when questioned on exactly the point raised by Baroness Morris, said:
“The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked whether Clause 26 would be wide enough to allow the National Assembly for Wales to pass measures similar to Clause 19. The answer is no.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 February 2007; Vol. 689, c. 1559.]
Either Lord Adonis was wrong then and the Minister is going to tell us so, or we have a real problem.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right, which is why I am seeking an assurance that the Order in Council process can actually deliver degree-awarding powers to FE colleges in Wales. It is a very important point and, as I say, I really hope that the Under-Secretary will come up with the same assurances that I sought to give to the Committee last month.
I conclude by saying that we need to recognise that we are to some extent feeling our way in these matters when dealing with the new powers requested by the Assembly. What we should learn from the experience is that we need to participate actively in the scrutiny. I was the only Welsh member of the Committee, but I am sure that it would have been different if, before the Committee stage, Members had been aware of the concerns that they have expressed today. The message needs to go back to Wales and to organisations that represent Welsh interests that this place is still a very important part of law-making that directly affects Wales. They need to engage with us in the same way that they engage with Members of the Assembly.
There is a wide consensus in the House that the idea of foundation degrees in further education is an important and progressive step. It does what the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said, helping to create better, wider and stronger progression routes through further and on to higher education. It is particularly important among many of our most disadvantaged communities, where participation rates in further and higher education are nowhere near as high as they should be. The idea of creating intermediate steps to engage people more fully in further and higher education will be warmly welcomed by all of us.
As the Minister said yesterday in a different context, the settlement for Wales is very complicated. Sometimes even Members of Parliament find it difficult to get our heads around the process with which we must engage. As many Members have said, the process by which we have arrived at this afternoon’s discussion has been far from ideal. I am sure that those lessons will be taken back for consideration.
Will the Minister tell us a little about the specific issue in relation to the Privy Council? While it is right and proper that elected Members of Parliament should debate here all matters that are of interest and importance to our constituents, the proper place for a decision on the shape, structure and future of further education policy in Wales lies in Wales. It is perfectly proper to hold the web review to which the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) referred, and for a decision to be made in that context, but we should enable the Assembly to decide whether foundation degrees are the way forward. My party believes that there is a strong case for their introduction, but that is ultimately a decision for the National Assembly.
Is the constitutional hurdle that the National Assembly in no circumstances has the power to confer functions, issue instructions or whatever the polite terminology is with regard to the Privy Council? Is that the case for the Scottish Parliament too? Alternatively, could we provide the enabling power to them through an amendment to the Bill? I hope that the new Welsh Assembly Government will allow that minority of colleges in Wales that currently wish to proceed with foundation degrees to do so. It should be possible for us to enable the Welsh Assembly Government to make that decision. The last thing that Plaid Cymru Members would want is to prevent the Welsh Assembly Government from conferring that power on further education colleges in Wales that wish to go down that route.
Many Members who have contributed to the debate speak about Welsh affairs with more knowledge than I do. It seems to me, however, that the issue is the methodology or process. Is it appropriate to use primary legislation to extend the powers of the Welsh Assembly when a parallel process is in place to do that? The Welsh Affairs Committee considered that in some detail, and expressed considerable doubt. We might want Welsh colleges to have the same powers—I do, because I moved the amendment—but we need to address the issue of the process, because a big constitutional point is at stake.
Obviously, as a Plaid Cymru Member, I take a maximalist position in relation to conferring powers on the Welsh Assembly Government. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are parallel procedures—the Order in Council process. Depending on the Minister’s discussions, that might be the most appropriate mechanism now for conferring an enabling power on the Welsh Assembly Government so that it can confer the power to award such degrees in turn on further education colleges in Wales. In that regard, it appears that a settled view has not yet been reached, to which the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) referred.
The general mood is that, because of the nature of the devolution settlement, an important role for the House remains. Welsh representative bodies in all sectors need to be mindful of that. We should not have this debate in this way at the tail-end of a process; we should have a better, more fully informed process, involving all sections of the appropriate interest groups in Wales.
As I rise to address the House for the first time outside Wales questions, I recall a slogan used by the Welsh Assembly Government—“The Learning Country”. We are experiencing a learning process now. Certainly I am learning, but we are also learning how this system works. I hope that I shall be able to reassure Opposition Members and my colleagues about the way in which we expect it to work, and also to convey the view of the Welsh Assembly Government.
I welcome this opportunity, and will attempt to live up to the reputation for “alacrity and enthusiasm” bestowed on me by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), who not only brought this Bill to its current stage but dealt with the Government of Wales Act 1998. He is due great credit for the role that he played over many months and years. I also note the interest in these matters shown by a number of Welsh Members. The Chamber is quite crowded today, particularly with Welsh and Labour Members.
As has been said, amendment No. 23 would confer on the Privy Council power to specify further education institutions in Wales as competent to grant foundation degrees. Let me try to explain the rationale behind post-16 education in Wales, and explain why it is considered appropriate at this time. As the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will know, “Reaching Higher” is the Welsh Assembly Government’s strategy for higher education, which recognises that Wales has a disproportionately larger number of small higher education institutions than England. The most effective way in which to meet learning need, achieve critical mass sufficient to reduce overhead costs and increase access for low-participation groups—mentioned by a number of Members—was for Wales to develop integrated networks and clusters of colleges, including both higher education and further education institutions with shared missions to deliver higher education.
That focus on networked planning and collaborative delivery is far more than mere partnership delivery. “Reaching Higher” emphasised the importance of establishing geographical or function-based clusters of colleges with shared missions. That approach is intended to open up a wider range of opportunities for learners through the sharing of resources such as staff, equipment and infrastructure. As “Reaching Higher” pointed out, Wales is too small a country for any institution to work purely in isolation.
In 2003 a KPMG report on relations between higher and further education institutions, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, drew attention to the significant costs that would be faced by further education colleges in Wales that sought independently to set up the infrastructure associated with the provision of higher education on a directly funded basis. England has a large mixed economy of further education colleges; Wales, at this moment, does not. The KPMG report concluded:
“Any expansion of higher education in further education provision in Wales should be undertaken through the franchising route.”
Such an approach offered cost-effectiveness and economies of scale in areas such as curriculum development. Its success in meeting the needs of Wales has been highlighted by the findings of a further recent independent study of the delivery of foundation degrees in Wales. In a report produced in March this year, the independent consultants SQW pointed out that there was limited support from Welsh higher education and further education institutions for the possibility of granting FE colleges power to award their own foundation degrees.
The representation of Fforwm is relevant here. I will deal with some of the comments about that later, but I will say now that we are aware of certainly two, perhaps three, further education colleges in Wales that are keen on such a possibility. We are not sure of the exact number—it may be one, two or three—but the vast majority are not clamouring for it. I appreciate the role that Fforwm plays in representing the views of the FE sector, but there is not an overwhelming clamour from FE colleges to provide such a power.
There is no overall clamour from colleges in England either. No one expects there to be a plethora of colleges in the first wave that grant foundation degrees and, just as in England, it is likely that a small number of colleges in Wales would be willing and able to do so. The Minister uses the terms HE and FE as if they were interchangeable when he describes the enthusiasm to pursue this opportunity. I suspect that the views of the sectors might be rather different.
The hon. Gentleman might find that he is not correct in terms of HE and FE sectors in Wales because of the networking and collaborative approach that I have mentioned. I say this as a former lecturer at Swansea college, an FE institution, and at Swansea institute, an HE institution with its own degree-awarding powers under the University of Wales. There is extremely good collaboration, which is the pattern across most of Wales and the strategy that the Welsh Assembly Government have pursued. The hon. Gentleman pre-empts some of my later comments on what we do from here and on the independent inquiry. Fforwm has stated:
“Most colleges in Wales would not wish to award foundation degrees as they are content with the excellent partnerships they currently have with HEIs.”
I have referred to the unique needs of Welsh institutions detailed in “Reaching Higher”. In response to the issue of the disproportionately large number of small higher education institutions in Wales, the SQW report emphasised the need for a dynamic and fluid system of interaction between providers, with shared missions and shared planning. Importantly, HE strategy in Wales has not yet focused strongly on foundation degree growth but has targeted under-represented groups through the “Reaching Wider” programme. “Reaching Wider” aims to increase higher education participation from groups and communities in Wales by raising aspirations and by creating new study opportunities and learning pathways to higher education. All higher and further education institutions in Wales are members of the “Reaching Wider” consortiums, along with local authorities, schools and the voluntary sector. Mention was made of the Welsh way, and this is certainly the Welsh way. Wales has been at the forefront in the UK in increasing participation from under-represented groups.
No one would disagree with anything that my hon. Friend is saying; the co-operation between higher and further education is superb and ought to continue. In most cases in Wales, that co-operation will provide the sort of higher education that we need. Why on earth would the denial of the principle of the right to foundation degrees in any way cut across what he has said?
I hope to be able to assuage some of my right hon. Friend’s concerns as I respond to a detailed debate in which good points have been made.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, among others, referred to Privy Council powers and whether the Welsh Assembly Government had the power, in essence, to award foundation degrees. Fforwm queried whether foundation degree-awarding powers were a matter for Welsh Ministers, as the Welsh Assembly Government have not been devolved any powers with regard to the Privy Council. Yet clause 19 amends section 76 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which makes provision for degree-awarding powers for institutions in England and Wales.
There has not been a formal transfer of functions of section 76 to the Welsh Assembly Government, but the First Minister will advise the Privy Council on the exercise of its functions under that section. The First Minister advises the Privy Council by virtue of his role as a Privy Councillor and of the fact that HE and FE in Wales are devolved matters. Therefore, this is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government, but the First Minister has a direct role as a Privy Councillor.
Let me illustrate how that would work in practice. If a higher education institution wished to secure degree-awarding powers, it would ask the Privy Council, which would ask the First Minister—a Privy Councillor himself—for advice. Taking advice from the First Minister, the Privy Council would then decide whether to grant the HEI degree-awarding powers. There is a direct link, and a mechanism does exist.
In the light of the hon. Gentleman’s most recent remarks, will he deal with the point made by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) about the involvement so far in these matters of the Secretary of State in his Privy Council capacity? I ask that because it seems to me that if that involvement had been profound we might not have had some of our recent difficulties.
My hon. Friend is now saying that, in terms of the matters under discussion, the Privy Councillor for Wales is now the First Minister for Wales. I have no objection to that, but I simply ask whether the situation has changed, because in my time the Secretary of State for Wales was the Privy Councillor for Wales.
I ask my right hon. Friend to give me some latitude by allowing me to return to that query later. I do not wish to make excuses, but I have only recently taken up my present post so my knowledge of the detailed chronology of these matters is limited. I hope that I might be touched by some inspiration and return to that point before I conclude my remarks.
I understand the Minister’s point about the Privy Council, but what about the process? If, following Sir Adrian Webb’s report, the Assembly decides that it wishes in principle to allow FE colleges to award foundation degrees, will the process be that an Order in Council will be requested from this place to give the power to the Assembly to do that, and that the power that the First Minister has as a Privy Councillor will also be used?
My hon. Friend is correct. We should not assume that the matter under discussion would preclude an Order in Council being brought forward at some point—and the mechanism involving the Privy Council, which we have mentioned, would then come into play in that process. It would be possible—with proper scrutiny from this place, I should add—for an Order in Council to be brought forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), who chairs the Welsh Affairs Committee, has been closely involved in setting the procedure by which Orders in Council come forward, and I am sure that he will make sure that the scrutiny will be adequate at that stage.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman is new to his post, but he is not answering the question that was asked. What the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) wanted to know is not whether the matter under discussion could preclude an Order in Council, but whether an Order in Council would be a necessary prerequisite of the Assembly’s exercising its competence in respect of granting degree-awarding powers. We need to know that, because if we do not know it the Minister’s description of the process is of less value than it might be—I will not say that it is valueless.
I will seek to provide clarification on that point later.
However, I can now offer further clarification on the matter raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). The Secretary of State for Wales retains their position as Privy Councillor on non-devolved issues—it is vital to put that on record—but the First Minister is Privy Councillor on devolved issues. Although not many people will have paid attention to the procedures in schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006—it was discussed yesterday in Committee—that delineate those roles, it is very important to understand the two different Privy Councillor roles.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for drawing attention to the role of the Welsh Affairs Committee in this matter. In the light of this afternoon’s debate, will he assure us that he will convey directly, through the Secretary of State, obviously, to the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning the nature of this debate and the strength of opinion throughout the House—the progressive consensus that was referred to earlier—in order to ensure that, if an Order in Council is forthcoming, it comes sooner, rather than later?
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way. I cannot quite get my head around this. Is he saying that if Sir Adrian Webb’s report finally recommends that FE colleges should have the power to award degrees, an Order in Council will be forthcoming to allow that? What is the difference between doing that and the Government agreeing to this amendment?
Yes, an Order in Council would indeed be necessary. Section 76 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 needs to be amended, and it would be amended by a National Assembly for Wales measure, followed by an Order in Council, which would be fully scrutinised here. My right hon. Friend asks what the difference is between that and accepting the amendment. In my concluding remarks, I will draw attention to the consultation that is taking place, and how this debate and Members can feed into that directly. If he will bear with me, I hope to deal with his question as I proceed, along with many of the other concerns that were raised.
On the cross-border implications of the current provision and the question raised by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, I can confirm that Welsh colleges will still be able to offer foundation degrees through current collaborative work with HE. He also asked when English colleges are likely to be given foundation degree-awarding powers. We understand that it might be a couple of years before they are given such powers. Importantly, that gives the Assembly time to consider the review and to make legislative changes, if necessary.
As I said in my opening remarks, there is a clear and overt policy in “Reaching Higher” on degree-awarding powers, which was reiterated in “The Learning Country” in 2006. That policy makes it clear that Welsh FE colleges should not currently have degree-awarding powers, but should instead work in collaboration. The policy has been evaluated by independent research, and the SQW study to which I referred has shown how well it is working. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings also asked what our plans are for foundation degrees in Wales over the next year. The independent review of FE reviewed their role in a wide context, including in the delivery of HE.
Numerous other issues were raised. On the demand for degree-awarding powers, we anticipate that between one and three colleges will want such powers—but who knows? As the hon. Gentleman said, more might want such powers in time to come; however, they can work through the collaborative process. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) asked about the discussion of foundation degrees with external stakeholders. Welsh Assembly Government Ministers have, and always have had, regular meetings with Fforwm and Higher Education Wales. Additionally, Welsh Assembly Government officers meet regularly to brief Fforwm, Higher Education Wales and others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), drew attention to the importance of the FE sector but to the disadvantages to Wrexham, Denbighshire, Flintshire and other parts of Wales—what he referred to as scouse Wales. He was absolutely right. He also drew attention to the excellence of the FE sector in Wales—quite right—which gives us a good basis for moving forward. Before the debate, he was kind enough to provide me with the statistics to which he referred. They show how much ground we have to cover, but, as he will acknowledge, they also show just how far we have travelled in meeting our aspirations for higher and further education in places such as Vale of Glamorgan, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire, Conwy and Gwynedd.
Questions were asked about consultation with Welsh MPs. In terms of the overall outcomes sought in the debate—widening participation, excellence and economic input—Welsh policy goals are closely aligned with those of the UK. However, due to the currently fragmented institutional structure of HE in Wales, the focus of implementation has been on collaboration between institutions, including HE and FE consortiums. That allows further and higher education colleges to exploit economies of scope and scale to deliver those benefits.
Members have expressed concern about the possible future use of degree-awarding powers and about particular geographic areas in Wales. One of the terms of reference of the independent review of further education in Wales is the role of the FE sector in the delivery of HE. The review will consult widely on that topic. The reference group includes strong FE representation to ensure that the sector can gather evidence to inform and direct the review, and the principals of Coleg Menai and Coleg Llandrillo sit on the group. Additionally, Fforwm has already formally met the review panel, carried out research and produced a large number of papers.
How can our debate inform the review? Point 11 of the terms of reference of the review relates to the role of the sector in the delivery of higher education, including the establishment of schools, FE and HE consortiums. I can assure all my colleagues and Opposition Members who have contributed to the debate that following a discussion this morning with Sir Adrian Webb, who is leading the independent review, I will undertake to make sure that MPs can directly feed into the review so that the outcomes in the autumn are informed not only by consultation in Wales but by the input of Members in this place. I give that undertaking to Members on both sides of the House.
I congratulate the Welsh Assembly on its full and thorough approach to policy development. The independent review is a good example of how it is engaging stakeholders. On that basis, and the offer I have made to Members to feed into the consultation, I urge the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings to withdraw the amendment.
I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you, like me, have travelled to a destination that you have not previously visited, without a map, and have desperately tried to find the right route. I have wound down the window of my car and sought advice from a local, but having received it I was more lost than when I began. So it has been with the Minister. He was like the man giving advice.
We are no clearer than we were 10 minutes ago about precisely how things are likely to proceed. We are no clearer about whether the Welsh Assembly requires an Order in Council in this place to grant the degree-awarding powers that many Welsh colleges want.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has clarified the issues. He was asked by one of his hon. Friends—no less a personage than a former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy)—whether an Order in Council was necessary, and he said that the measure would not preclude an Order in Council. We learn later in his remarks that an Order in Council is indeed a prerequisite of the National Assembly for Wales granting degree-awarding powers. We heard from the Minister in Committee that colleges in Wales did not seek the capacity to award foundation degrees, yet we heard from various Members who contributed to the debate not only that they do indeed seek that power, but that they warrant it and deserve it.
We heard from the former Secretary of State and other Welsh Members, including the Minister’s immediate predecessor, that this matter has not been handled well. Indeed, I would go further and say that it has not been handled properly. We heard the former Minister—the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger)—say that he was now somewhat embarrassed with what he was obliged to say in Committee, because he was not aware of the views of Welsh colleges or their representative organisations when he gave that advice. He has behaved with great honesty in revealing that to the House today. Yet the Minister stands by his argument that we should not accept these amendments.
As the hon. Gentleman said, much the easiest way to deal with this matter simply and straightforwardly would be for the Government to accept these amendments. However, they remain dogged and stubborn in their determination to stand on ground that is looking increasingly shaky. The Minister has given extremely poor advice to those who seek a destination that, as I have said, Welsh colleges warrant, want and deserve: equivalent status to English colleges and the capacity to award foundation degrees if they wish to do so and can meet strict criteria. It is quite wrong that we should treat Welsh colleges in such a way. It is quite wrong that we should set up two standards—one for Wales and one for England—and it is quite wrong that we should leave teachers and learners disadvantaged. Therefore I will seek to press the amendment to a Division to test the House’s opinion, to find out whether the House agrees with those Welsh colleges and those hon. Members who have spoken bravely, honourably and persuasively on their behalf.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
I beg to move amendment No. 24, page 15, line 37, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 16 and insert—
‘(a) the institution—
(i) gives the Privy Council a statement setting out the arrangements for partnership working between relevant institutions,
(ii) arranges for progression to one or more courses of more advanced study which have been confirmed in writing by at least one institution mentioned in subsection (1)(a) or one body awarding advanced professional qualifications, and
(iii) places a duty on parties to the agreement to advertise courses and qualifications detailed therein;
(b) the institution as a condition of that order continues to secure guaranteed arrangements for progression to one or more courses of advanced study which have been confirmed in writing by at least one institution mentioned in subsection (1)(a) or body awarding advanced professional qualifications;
(c) the Privy Council considers that the arrangements are satisfactory and are likely to be carried out.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 6, page 16, leave out lines 18 to 22 and insert—
‘“(5A) Any institution specified as competent to grant only the kind of award mentioned in subsection (2A) shall not have conferred upon it the power mentioned in subsection (5)(a).”’.
No. 7, page 16, leave out lines 26 to 31 and insert—
‘“(6A) Any institution specified as competent to grant only the kind of award mentioned in subsection (2A) shall not grant such an award to a person unless he was enrolled at the institution at the time he completed the course of study for which the award is granted.”’.
I am pleased to address the House from the Front Bench for the first time. Having come to the Front Bench in the past few days and to the amendment in the past few hours, I look forward to your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will try to behave myself under your watchful eye.
In principle, we fully support further education institutions being given the power to award degrees. Having read through the Hansard reports of the proceedings in the Lords and in Committee, it seems to me that this is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the Bill. Amendment No. 24 seeks to clarify the award-making criteria and secure progression from foundation degrees to advanced professional qualifications. In addition, it seeks to embed the advertising of courses and qualification progress in the new arrangements.
There is no doubt that colleges throughout the country do good work for students and for the economy. The dedication of principals, heads, senior managers and teachers is to be commended and should be recognised. With foundation degrees and through further education institutions, a door has been opened to educational and career achievement which was once firmly closed. Our amendment seeks to build on those opportunities by securing partnerships with the higher education institutions, securing the quality of progression, and ensuring that the information is available to students and to businesses to enable them to make clear choices about the courses in which they invest.
Let us be clear. Further education is important to widen access, to broaden the choices available to students, and to deepen the level of vocational skills in the economy and available to employers. The 20-year history of further education is a proud one. With potentially 60,000 certificated graduates this year, we must not jeopardise foundation degree status by failing to define clearly the requirements for further education institutions to achieve award-granting powers, especially if we wish to increase the number of students graduating to 100,000 or more in the next few years, which is the aim of Ministers.
There are about 300 providers of foundation degree courses delivering about 1,600 courses. They are each unique, distinctive and have a well established character and culture of their own. That is good. Variety of provision gives choice to students and a wide range of specific qualifications and skills for employers to draw upon. I hope that the vocational aspects of further education and foundation degrees will be cherished and valued as highly as academic degrees.
However, if the progression from further education degree courses is not secure, and if the awareness of course connections or qualification progression is not clear, that goal may not be achieved—hence our tabling of amendment No. 24. We want a further education sector that is dynamic and flexible and responds to employers’ needs. Foundation degrees are both a staging post for more advanced qualifications—not necessarily just university degrees but other professional qualifications—and a final destination in their own right for people entering vocational careers. In a way, that is the beauty of the foundation degree and of this sector—a beauty that requires maintenance in the form of our amendment.
Clause 19 amends section 76 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. It enables the Privy Council to give foundation degree-awarding powers to further education institutions. At present, it merely requires the Privy Council to see a statement of intent from a further education institution in order to grant the power to award degrees. That is perhaps a missed opportunity to secure the confidence of students and employers in these newly granted foundation degrees. We are not sure why the opportunity has been missed to make the criteria more stringent, more overt and clearer. As many concessions have been made in the Lords, and as Ministers have listened carefully to the arguments and changed the Bill accordingly, we are not sure why they are not listening as regards tightening the criteria for award-granting powers.
I am sure that the last thing any hon. Member wants to do is unnecessarily to risk the confidence that people have in the status of foundation degrees. Yet surprisingly, on this most important and controversial clause, there appears to have been a lack of consultation. The proposal did not appear in the White Paper or in the Leitch report, nor did it appear with any clarity in Foster. It seemed to spring up at the last minute as if by magic. That is why it needs amendment. Course progression may be jeopardised through a failure to consult and to shift, if only marginally, the Government’s position.
Today’s further education colleges provide their graduates with foundation degrees from well recognised universities and other institutions. If there is a shift to further education institutions awarding foundation degrees, there is a risk that the status of the award, as perceived by students and employers, may go down. Foundation degrees have pulling power with employers, certainly with Rover, KLM, the Department of Health and one or two others. They are almost foundational, as it were, to their recruitment process and to people’s career progression. Nevertheless, it appears from what I have read in the Hansard reports of Committee and other debates that the Government are unwilling to bend or concede at all on this particular point.
Although I and all hon. Members know that it is not the intention that the quality of the foundation degree should be undermined in any way, I fear that without a little more attention to this point, that may well be the case. In the same vein, paragraph (a)(iii), which our amendment would add to proposed new subsection 2B, would place a duty on institutions to “advertise courses and qualifications”. It does not prescribe exactly how it should be done; it merely places a duty on them to do so. That would be good all round because it would increase the awareness of the benefit of foundation degrees.
The relative value of qualifications is already difficult to assess and we must not make it ever more difficult by having a plethora of different awarding bodies, creating uncertainty about the robustness of the award being made. We want to create an environment in which students and employers have a clear understanding of the relative value of qualifications. The Minister may say in response to our amendment that some of its provisions will be incorporated in the articulation agreements. It may be said that it does not need to be included in the Bill because it is implicit that in the advertising of courses the quality of the awarding body would be upheld. I have neither heard from the Minister, nor read in the transcripts of the previous debates, a clear case from the Government as to why it is not necessary to ensure the advertising of career progression through qualifications, and the Government do not appear to have made it clear why it is necessary to avoid placing a responsibility on institutions to secure in writing details of career progression from the foundation degree that they offer.
Amendments Nos. 24, 6 and 7 deal with two things we discussed extensively in Committee: progression arrangements from foundation degrees and franchising. I acknowledge that the Government have moved considerably on both those points, through changes made in the other place, amendments introduced by the Government in Committee and reassurances we got from the Minister during that process. Amendment No. 24 appears to be a helpful addition, and I would be interested to hear the Government’s response to it. They moved considerably on this point, recognising the concerns that were shared by hon. Members throughout the House that foundation degrees ought to provide enough flexibility for students to progress to higher education or professional qualifications, and enough flexibility to ensure that they are not boxed in and forced to do one or the other—it can be a stand-alone qualification. The amendment would appear to include a number of things that the Government seem willing to concede, according to guidance and comments on the record. If the Minister wishes to reject it, I shall be interested to know why.
It is helpful to have something written from institutions to state that they have ongoing progression routes between FE and whatever professional bodies or, according to the course, HE institutions they are working with. One of the things we debated at some length in Committee was the tendency for those arrangements to be quite fluid, and for them to break down. The concern for a student going through the foundation degree stage is that they do not want to end up in a situation where those arrangements have broken down, and the safeguards do not come into play for a year or two. After that, students will certainly have left that institution. The safeguards are there for a particular individual and not the system as a whole. I await the Minister’s response on that before deciding how we shall respond.
The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) has tabled two amendments on franchising. Again, we debated that at length in Committee. The power to award foundation degrees is substantially different from that to franchise. In Committee, I asked why the Government wanted colleges to be allowed to franchise, and I was never entirely satisfied with the answer. I understand all the arguments about awarding foundation degrees but I never felt confident about the Government’s response to the question of why we needed to allow colleges to franchise. The Minister said that it was because he did not want a two-tier system but we already have a multiple-tier system. Higher education institutions franchise the power to award foundation degrees. Further education institutions can now award such powers. We will end up with a system of three or four tiers if we include the proposed new power.
However, in Committee, the Minister reassured me that he would change the guidance on foundation degrees so that, after the probation period, the decision about whether colleges will be allowed to confer foundation degrees will be separated from the decision about whether they can franchise other colleges to use the same power. I was greatly reassured by that, especially when the Minister then wrote to all members of the Committee to repeat the assurance. I look forward to reading the revised guidance because that assurance dealt with most of my concerns. He never quite answered the question about why he wanted franchising in the first place. I hope that will be clear when he replies to the hon. Member for City of Durham. However, the decision to separate franchising from that to award foundation degrees assuaged most of my concerns.
I tabled amendments Nos. 6 and 7 to obtain clarification of two specific matters. I appreciate that we had a detailed discussion on the subject in Committee and I do not want to detain the House unduly. First, I simply wish to check whether the process involved in a specific FE college being able to award foundation degrees is separate from the process for franchising.
Secondly, I want to consider the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education review of transnational programmes because it should include foundation degrees and it may have implications for franchising. I wondered how the Department would take that on board and apply it to new franchising arrangements.
I understand that the amendments as they are currently drafted would prevent FE colleges from franchising foundation degrees. That would thus significantly strengthen the amendment that was passed in the other place. However, I tabled the amendments because the higher education sector remains concerned that, unless the Government adopt a cautious approach and are rigorous about the circumstances in which FE colleges can franchise courses, some—probably only a few—FE colleges could franchise and take on the role that the whole higher education institution sector currently fulfils, thus taking HE out of foundation degrees. I am not sure whether that was the Government’s intention or whether it is assumed that a few colleges will be allowed to franchise in limited areas, leaving a significant role for higher education institutions in foundation degree programming and delivery.
I emphasise that it is one thing to validate one’s own programmes for delivery and quite another to validate programmes for franchising. The QAA acknowledges that in its guidance when it states that franchising is much more complex. It has different rules and procedures for franchising arrangements. External examining and drawing up programmes for external examiners is new to the FE sector. I recognise that there is a six-year rule in place, but the Government will have to be careful to ensure that FE colleges have those procedures in place when they eventually get to franchising and that they have shown, through the experience of operationalising their own foundation degrees, that they are able to check what is available in other colleges that are delivering the programmes for them.
I should like the Government to reassure me that they will adopt a rigorous approach. I accept that they demonstrated that in Committee, but I return to the general question that has perhaps not been answered: why are we flagging up the potential to franchise now, before we have even had FE colleges validating their own programmes and delivering them? Perhaps that should be kept under review as we have the experience of FE colleges validating their own programmes in practice, which would obviously mean that the six-year rule would also be kept under review.
I begin by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on his maiden appearance at the Dispatch Box. It would be fair to say on that form that he has undoubtedly already acquired a foundation degree, and we look forward to progression to even greater things.
I make that point, flippantly but I hope graciously, to underline the serious point behind amendment No. 24, which I warmly endorse to the House. That point is that a foundation degree has two purposes. It needs to be a valid freestanding qualification in itself. If a foundation degree involves the active participation and enthusiasm of the vocational student and has been properly specified through the business framework, its fitness for purpose and the involvement of employers, it is likely to be successful. At the same time, a foundation degree is not simply a useful qualification, but a platform and springboard to progression. That is understood by everyone who has participated in these debates. The question is how we secure that outcome and the precise degree of specification that we require.
When I read the amendment, I saw that it was fairly prescriptive, but it is of course no more a departure of principle than the Government have already conceded in the Bill as drafted. The amendment is simply a refinement and intensification of those tests. That is right in the circumstances, because the exceptional factor about degree-awarding powers is that once awarded they are, for all practical purposes, broadly non-recoverable. It is very difficult to recall them by removing them. One can mediate them—indeed, one must mediate them—through the review period, which we have now agreed, and through the continuing attention of the quality assurance mechanism, which is also important. However, it is reasonable to say that we have to get over a high hurdle and then reach assurances.
One important aspect of that is that people should be able to move on, as well as to benefit in employment from the qualifications that they have received. Those two tests must be met continuously in relation to foundation degrees. My hon. Friend is therefore right on his general principle and I like the wording that he has come up with to offer assurances.
Then there is the admittedly separate issue of franchising. There is no doubt that in the past the concept has covered a multitude of sins—they might have been peccadilloes and in certain cases they might have been more than that. Franchising has always been a little bit less certain for a higher education degree-awarding institution than direct provision has, whether it is conducted in another country or through the medium of a further education college, for example. The process is less certain. If we are serious about quality assurance, we need to ensure that the process is just as certain, whether it is secured through franchising or through direct provision.
As somebody who is not averse in principle to outsourcing, I have no conceptual objection to the process being carried out through a variety of partnership arrangements, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do. Understandably, there has been some confusion between doubts about the quality assurance, which we must get right, and some kind of prescription of the level at which franchising should be exercised. That is perhaps behind the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods). I am not happy with the amendment in its present form, although I appreciate the hon. Lady’s motives. We should give the Minister an opportunity to reply to the House on these serious concerns about delivery, which we are all worried about.
If a college—an FE college or an HE college, it matters not—has met the qualifications, as improved by the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) in terms of progression, and if it is prepared to operate to the required quality standards, it should make no difference whether that is secured through a franchise. If there were doubt about whether the quality standards were being met because of the existence of a franchise, that would logically be a separate issue, but it would be unacceptable. It is right to expose this issue and to look to the Minister for an answer.
We have edged through a series of Government concessions, and had some rather good debates on this matter. Conceptually, I had some scepticism about the issue when I first came to it, because the idea was rather bounced on us. However, I have come to an understanding that it is right and proper, in certain defined circumstances and with the right assurances, to offer the opportunity for further education colleges to have the ability to award foundation degrees. I think that we have almost reached consensus on that. We now need to receive assurances from the Minister that we have really got this right, because the worst possible outcome would be to do this on the basis of misplaced generosity or of some slogan, without being able to deliver something that was genuinely fit for purpose and that met the needs and aspirations of our students and their future employers.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), with whom I substantially agree. I join him in welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) to his new responsibilities.
I want to pick up where my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry left off, with a point about the assurances that I hope the Minister will be able to give us. I agree with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) that what commends amendment No. 24 is its ability to deliver substantial reassurance to students who wish to take foundation degrees at institutions that have newly been given the power to award them. I accept that not every student taking a foundation degree will wish to go on and complete a further course of study, but a great many will. If this experiment—for that is what it is—is to work, it is vital that every student who receives a foundation degree from one of these institutions and wishes to go on to further study should have the maximum reassurance that they will be able to do so when the time comes.
I hope that the Minister will accept that there is a world of difference between an institution setting out what it proposes to do to arrange for the continuation of study, and actually making those arrangements. Those are two very different things, and they would have a very different effect on the reassurances that could be made available to students. Amendment No. 24 seeks to ensure that those arrangements will be made. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) is proposing to strengthen the Government’s noble intentions in order to ensure that foundation degrees newly awarded by further education institutions will be successful and command the support and confidence of the students who take them. For that reason, I fully support what he has said.
I welcome the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) to the Front Bench and congratulate him on the measured and articulate way in which he advanced his arguments. Having said that, however, I fear that I shall not be able to agree with them quite as much as he might hope.
I should like to deal first with amendments Nos. 6 and 7, which, when taken together, seek to prevent the practice commonly known as franchising. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) raised this issue in Committee and she has acknowledged that I gave her a number of assurances during that debate. I reiterate today that the Government are certainly being cautious—and will be cautious—and that the process of quality accreditation is extremely rigorous. It is every bit as rigorous as the process for higher education institutions that award their own foundation degrees. I would also say that I bow to no one in my regard for the quality of universities and higher education institutions in this country. However, the higher education interest is not always synonymous with the overall education and public interest. That is at the heart of some of our debates.
As I said in Committee, we want to strike a balance between rightly wanting to encourage innovation, flexibility and responsiveness in the delivery of foundation degrees and ensuring that the highest quality standards are maintained. The proposed powers are enabling and it would be counter-productive to place permanent and inflexible restrictions on how they could be exercised. When my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham spoke on Second Reading, she pointed out the importance of avoiding a two-tier system in the awarding of foundation degrees. Placing permanent restrictions on the exercise of foundation degree-awarding powers would, in my view, create precisely that hierarchy, which is why we are right to avoid it. The implication of placing only limited trust in FE institutions that are granted these new powers would unquestionably lead to the branding of the qualifications that they award as second class. I hope that we all agree that that would be regrettable.
I still do not really understand the Minister’s point about the degrees being second class, particularly if we get rid of franchising. We discussed the issue in Committee, where I tried to explain that there were already a number of different classes of foundation degree. For example, there are foundation degrees that are validated by and delivered in HE institutions; foundation degrees that are validated by higher education institutions but delivered in further education institutions; and we now have further education validated courses delivered by FE institutions. Why, then, do we need further education validated courses delivered by another institution? It is not a matter of being second class: we already have three classes, so why do we need a fourth?
There are two responses to that. First, we genuinely want as much innovation and flexibility as possible in order to respond to the needs of students. Saying as an article of faith that it would be wrong in all circumstances for a very high-quality performing FE institution to allow franchising at whatever stage might restrict the dispersal of quality foundation degrees. That would be one cause for concern. Secondly, students might well perceive a diminution in the long-term credibility of their FE institutions if they were told that all the other institutions in all the other sets of circumstances were able to award their own degrees and to franchise, but that that did not apply to theirs. That would create a two-tier structure, which would not be to anyone’s benefit.
Subsections (5A) and (6A) were added by the Government amendment in response to the debate in the other place in order to allow the Privy Council to restrict franchising. It is expected that when an FE institution is granted powers for the first time, the Privy Council will make an order that specifies two restrictions, preventing the FE institution from authorising other institutions to grant awards on its own behalf and preventing the institution from granting a foundation degree to any student who was not enrolled at the institution at the time of completing the course of study for which the award is made. That represents a significant departure from precedent in respect of degree-awarding powers, but it is appropriate to offer such a safeguard. Those restrictions will be particularly appropriate when foundation degree-awarding powers are first granted. As I said earlier, however, I do not agree that it is either appropriate or necessary to impose such restrictions automatically and for all time.
The independent report of foundation degree-awarding powers will also be published within four years and it will also look into the issue of franchising. It is also the case that any FE institution granted foundation degree-awarding powers will be subject to regular monitoring under the Quality Assurance Agency’s ongoing quality assurance cycle. Failure by an FE institution to guarantee quality standards for its foundation degrees, irrespective of where the provision is delivered, could lead to intervention by the QAA, which is a serious sanction.
With these proposals, we are not saying that the ability of an FE institution to franchise its foundation degrees should definitely be ruled in at any particular stage; equally, however, the power to franchise should not, in my view, be ruled out for ever. That is the key point at issue here. We have struck the right balance between flexibility and quality control in our proposals. On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend will not press her amendment.
Amendment No. 24, tabled by the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), addresses the issues around progression from a foundation degree to a course of more advanced study. Although I rightly welcomed the hon. Member for Windsor to the Front Bench, I recognise that he has come to these deliberations late. If he looks at the Committee Hansard, he will see that the criteria have been made clear and explicit. He cannot credibly claim that progression is put at risk by the safeguards that have been put in place, and he certainly cannot claim that the Government have been reluctant or are dragging their feet. He asked why, if progression was so important, it was not on the face of the Bill. I must inform him that a provision was inserted in Committee, at clause 19(5)(2B)(a), which gives significant reassurance on the issues that he raises.
Amendment No. 24, as crafted, is similar to the Government amendment made to the clause in Committee, except that it seeks to place certain additional requirements on institutions entering into progression agreements. In that respect, it is too prescriptive. In Committee, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and I argued that colleges that are performing well should be given the freedom to fulfil their potential free from the constraints of over-regulation and excessive bureaucracy. I am confident that the amendment already made to address the issue of progression, working together with the non-statutory guidance and criteria, achieves the balance that all Members want. Under the Government amendment made in Committee, in order to grant foundation degree-awarding powers to an FE institution, the Privy Council must first have received a statement from that institution setting out how it proposes to secure opportunities for progression to at least one course of more advanced study for any person awarded one of its foundation degrees. The Privy Council will also need to consider that the proposals are satisfactory and likely to be carried out before it can grant foundation degree-awarding powers.
I shall address that in respect of the quality assurance intervention powers that are in place, which should give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.
The non-statutory guidance and criteria for foundation degree-awarding powers also make clear and emphatic statements about the establishment and maintenance of suitable progression routes for foundation degree students. The guidance and criteria have been developed in close dialogue with the QAA, which will assess all applications for foundation degree-awarding powers. It will be helpful if I say a few words about what the guidance and criteria document covers.
To determine whether an applicant institution’s statement of its proposals about progression arrangements are satisfactory, the Privy Council could consider such factors as whether the institution’s academic management is sufficiently robust to ensure that progression routes are and will be established, both now and in the future, and whether the institution can be relied on to renew progression arrangements or seek new ones if the old ones lapse, with the help of a third-party organisation, such as Foundation Degree Forward, if necessary. To be satisfied that the proposals are likely to be carried out, one of the matters that the Privy Council could consider is the action already taken by an institution with regard to making arrangements for progression from foundation degree courses that are in preparation. The ability of the QAA to intervene not only at the start of the process but once the course is under way, to ensure that progression arrangements are still in place, should give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.
Clearly, it is in institutions’ interests to market the programmes and progression routes that they are offering, to attract and retain students. However, I do not agree that we need to legislate for that. The Government are committed to freeing up front-line providers from unnecessarily prescriptive directions on how exactly they should do their jobs—something that the Conservative party constantly urges on us—especially when they are already doing those jobs well. Placing a duty on institutions—that would implicitly require a contractual relationship—to continue the good practice that they are already demonstrating, seems unnecessarily interventionist, and could be counter-productive.
I understand the Minister’s point about the duty and contractual arrangements. I can see that that might be perceived as over-regulation. However, I am sure the Minister agrees that it is very much in the Government’s interests to ensure that students progress, and know what arrangements are available for them to move from foundation degrees to professional qualifications or higher education. Including that information in guidance might deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie).
When it comes to contractual relations—what exactly they are, and with whom—I think the Minister and I must defer to the lawyers, but does the Minister envisage the contract being merely between the Department and the Privy Council and the Quality Assurance Agency? Would there not also be a contractual arrangement with the student? If it is implied that progression is available via certain routes, and if—as the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) suggested—there is a possibility that it will be withdrawn, the student may well wish to sue the institution because the implied contractual arrangement has broken down. There is a whole complex of extremely important undertakings here, affecting a great many people.
There is, but if the hon. Gentleman looks at the history of the development of higher education he will see that there has been no such undertaking thus far on an explicitly contractual basis. We can debate the extent to which that should happen, but I think that to embark on a different path now in respect of foundation degrees in further education colleges would set a precedent. If we want to move in that direction, let us debate the issue across the board rather than singling out further education institutions. In any event, I am not convinced that it is the right direction in which to move.
The amendment made by the Government in Committee is robust, and addresses the issue of progression in the most appropriate way. In addition, the draft guidance and criteria—including the QAA’s foundation degree qualification benchmark—are transparent, published documents. I will look at them again to ensure that they contain the clarity sought by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), but I hope that following those reassurances, the hon. Member for Windsor will withdraw the amendment.
There is no doubt that during the Bill’s passage the Minister and other members of the Government have listened, have been reasonable, have conceded several points, and have promoted amendments that have improved the Bill. There is no ideological difference between the two sides of the House. There is no difference between the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and the Government; there is no difference between the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright). This is a noble Bill which heads in the right direction, and we strongly support its overall aim.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s explanation of why he had not addressed this issue earlier. It seems that, to a certain degree, he and the Government were dragged kicking and screaming into changing the level of scrutiny given to bodies being granted foundation degree-awarding status by the Privy Council. I thank the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) for encouraging the Minister to take this route, but it strikes me as rather bizarre that all of a sudden, at the eleventh hour, the Minister is going to take a look at the guidance. I do not find that reassuring. There have been plenty of opportunities before now to guarantee progression from foundation courses to further qualifications.
It was remiss of me not to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. I apologise for that.
I have the impression that the hon. Gentleman intends to press the amendment to a vote. On this occasion, I am reassured by what the Minister has said. There is only one difference between the hon. Gentleman’s amendment and the Government amendment, which involves marketing. I should prefer that to be dealt with in guidance, but if the Minister gives me an undertaking—on the record—to look at the guidance again, we will not support the Conservatives if they press the amendment to a vote, although I am very sympathetic to the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.
I thank the hon. Lady for making her position clear, if not entirely acceptable to the Conservative party.
The Minister will now, at the last moment, take a look at the guidance but this really is the last moment. I wish to mention two other points within the amendment, one of which is very simple: to have written confirmation from a further education college offering a foundation degree that there is another professional body or higher education institution that would accept the person from that course on to further study on qualification. That seems to be a very small change to make. It does not place any onerous duties upon the further education institution and I am surprised that the Government have not taken the opportunity earlier to address that point.
The second point is that we would seek to enable foundation degrees to become access routes to other forms of professional qualification and not just to university degree courses. That important point has not been picked up. Clause 19 has turned up at the last moment and is a helpful addition; some of the changes made are perfectly acceptable, but they do not go far enough to secure the opportunities for students that we would like to see. On that basis, I wish to divide the House and put the matter to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
Powers of National Assembly for Wales
I beg to move amendment No. 8, page 21, line 33, leave out clause 27.
During Second Reading on 21 May, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and I raised concerns about the pre-legislative scrutiny of what is now clause 27. The clause not only transfers responsibility to legislate on further education and training from Parliament to the National Assembly, but makes changes to the devolution settlement in Wales.
As I said on Second Reading, I do not oppose the idea of using framework legislation to transfer power from Parliament to the National Assembly; however, clause 27 is a constitutional change—a change, I hasten to add, that has moved ahead without the full rigour of parliamentary scrutiny and debate. Indeed, the crux of the matter is that we are being asked to give new powers over further education and training to the National Assembly, even though it has not yet completed its consultation about how it would use such powers and has no settled view about what it would do with the powers if it had them.
Also during Second Reading, I asked my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education for an assurance that Parliament would have an opportunity to consider that transfer of law-making power before we were asked on Report and Third Reading to pass the Bill. My hon. Friend replied:
“My right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen and for Islwyn raised important issues concerning the scrutiny of the legislation and the enabling powers of the Welsh Assembly. I should make it clear that in Committee every line of the Bill will be scrutinised. Any proposed measure by the National Assembly for Wales must be fully debated by the Assembly, and we will ensure that there is adequate and proper scrutiny of the proposals.”—[Official Report, 21 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 1074.]
Having read the report of the Committee proceedings, I am disappointed because it seems that line-by-line scrutiny of clause 27 did not take place.
In effect, there has been no consideration in detail by Parliament of the merits of transferring a primary law-making power to the National Assembly. I stress that I am not opposed to using framework legislation to transfer responsibility for such matters from Parliament to the National Assembly, but I am wholly opposed to doing it by such a backdoor method.
As I said on Second Reading, this is the third occasion on which the Government have used primary legislation to pass powers to the National Assembly without scrutiny of the issues. It happened with the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and with the NHS Redress Act 2006. The very fact that Parliament has not been able to consider the transfer of powers to the Assembly prompted the amendment.
Tucking the clause into the Bill meant that it was overlooked and was not subject to the rigorous debate and scrutiny that Parliament deserves. The Welsh Affairs Committee, chaired and led so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), shares the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and me. The Committee expressed exactly the same fear in its second report of 9 May. Paragraph 47, which refers to adding matters by primary legislation, states:
“In a supplementary note on the use of framework powers, the Secretary of State stated that Parliament will be able to scrutinise framework powers in Bills by bringing forward amendments.”
My hon. Friend’s Committee doubted whether that would happen. In fact, it went on to say:
“The reality may prove to be disappointing in this respect. Such clauses, which typically appear in the latter parts of Bill, tend to receive less attention than substantive policy clauses.”
Having studied the Committee stage and the progress of clause 27, I am inclined to agree with the conclusions of my hon. Friend’s Committee.
At paragraph 46 of the report, the Committee said:
“We are concerned that continuing use of primary legislation to extend the powers of the National Assembly…will mean that Matters introduced in this way will escape the detailed arrangements for pre-legislative scrutiny put in place”.
Indeed, at paragraph 49 of the report, the Committee said:
“We are concerned that to continue to add Matters by primary legislation could therefore be a device for a general, rather than a specific, extension of Assembly powers, which at the same time negates the opportunity for specific and detailed pre-legislative scrutiny, either by a Committee of the National Assembly or by the Welsh Affairs Committee.”
I have always felt that when framework powers are included in any Bill, they should be closely examined under the spotlight of separate parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies he will respond to that point. That is the whole reason for the amendment.
I seek an assurance from the Government that this will be the last occasion when they slip a clause into a Bill to transfer primary powers from Parliament to the Assembly, without separate and proper scrutiny by Parliament of the merits of that proposed transfer. If that practice, which I abhor, is to continue, we run the risk that all such future primary legislation will be passed to Cardiff without the benefit of pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament. The Government have a duty to ensure that Parliament is not bypassed in that way.
I rise briefly to speak in support of the amendment moved by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). He has spoken eloquently to it, and I seek the leave of the House for a moment or two to explain why I support it. I do so with some trepidation, or apprehension, because I should not like it to be thought either that I was expert in the constitution of Wales or that I was in any sense seeking to subvert the devolution settlement or to make difficulties for the Welsh Assembly Government—I speak not for that purpose. The nature of the Bill’s consideration has been broadly constructive and consensual, but it is necessary to put down a constitutional marker on the clause.
If I have interests in relation to the Principality, they are certainly in education. As I mentioned in Committee, I am about to become involved with the Higher Education Corporation in Wales, and one of the reasons for doing so is that many members of my wife’s family, who emanate from the Principality, have been, as one would expect, teachers, one of whom had the great privilege of teaching the new Under-Secretary of State for Wales, whom I warmly welcome to his position—he has certainly lost nothing of her loquacity judging by his performance this afternoon.
To come to the substance of the matter, we in this place should be very careful about enabling legislation, which has a very bad history—modestly in relation to the United Kingdom and certainly in respect of other legislatures. The purpose of Parliament is to scrutinise legislation and to ensure that it is properly considered, and it is not helpful to those for whom it is written and who are intended to benefit to let all this go on the nod, particularly when it relates to constitutional matters and, indeed, education matters. Two areas are particularly sensitive: first, the general interests of the United Kingdom Parliament in relation to education. For example, there is a broadly common qualifications framework, and such issues cannot be discussed in Wales in complete isolation from those in England or the rest of the United Kingdom.
Secondly, there will be cross-border issues, which have been discussed in other contexts but have not been brought out in this discussion. It is quite wrong just to transfer the powers, without a proper discussion, to a body that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, has not yet even expressed its firm intentions about how to handle them. I have little doubt that when we do make the transfer—I am sure that we will, through acquiescence—the powers will be well and responsibly handled. That is not the issue. The issue is whether we should have taken a little longer to look at the powers in more detail before signing them off to somebody else, before proper process. That is a weakness in our constitutional arrangements and I strongly agree that we should not allow that process to be repeated.
I fully support the amendment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). When the Government of Wales Bill was being considered in the Chamber—it involved major constitutional change to our country and to Wales—the question of the scrutiny of how we devolve primary powers to the Assembly in Cardiff was a matter of great debate. Behind that lay the desire for proper scrutiny of such legislation. Normally, it would be done by legislative Orders in Council. That would involve pre-legislative scrutiny by the Welsh Affairs Committee, which is chaired my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), together with a Committee in the Assembly. Letting these things go through in primary legislation avoids that proper scrutiny.
We have a new dispensation in Wales. We are told that we are in a new dawn of politics. That means that the spotlight on Welsh Members and on the business of Welsh legislation in this place is much stronger than it used to be. There is also the problem that if what we might call English Whitehall Departments are charged with legislation that involves scrutiny of the devolution of primary powers, they do not take too much notice of that because they see it simply as being something Welsh. Unhappily, that can also be the case among Members of the House. We have to beware of how we scrutinise our legislation.
When my hon. Friend the Minister winds up, will he assure me that the Wales Office will take particular care to ensure that when dealing with the National Assembly, and particularly with other Departments, there is proper scrutiny and that we avoid the mess that we have got into over devolving this issue? We had a debate earlier about the awarding of foundation degrees at further education colleges in Wales. That would have been resolved had there been a proper system in this place to deal with these matters.
The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) is right to emphasise that there will be more than one method by which primary legislative powers are passed to the Assembly. During the scrutiny of the Government of Wales Act 2006 I tried to emphasise that point, but it did not receive sufficient consideration. As a matter of principle, all Members of Parliament should be given the fullest possible opportunity to scrutinise legislation that passes primary powers to the Assembly. This is a topical discussion because only this week the Prime Minister outlined 23 new Bills, many of which were on health, education and housing and will contain similar powers.
The suggestion is that the Welsh Affairs Committee should scrutinise this type of legislation as well. I would add a word of caution—already two requests have been made for the Committee to consider legislative competence orders. If the Committee is to carry out that work, and the work of scrutinising the Wales Office and other issues of importance to Wales, it will have a very full programme. An ad-hoc Committee should be set up, along the lines of the Statutory Instrument Committee that I believe sat on Wednesday to consider part of the Government of Wales Act. That would be the best way forward, rather than overburdening the Welsh Affairs Committee, which does valuable work under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis).
I will be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Plaid Cymru Members support clause 27. It is a substantial change, but leaving it out would be a substantial change, too. Of course, there will be new arrangements that might allow us to avoid some of the problems to which hon. Members have alluded. Education is rightly a devolved matter, and the new freedoms given to the Assembly under the clause are proper, reasonable and coherent. Proper scrutiny will be given to any Assembly measures by the Assembly itself.
I shall quickly respond to some of the comments made, so as to allow my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) time to make his observations. Clause 27 was scrutinised in the Commons in Committee. In policy terms, the measures in the clause were drawn up to enable the Welsh Assembly Government to develop and present to the National Assembly for Wales coherent and detailed policy proposals, built on identified needs and established Welsh policy objectives. If I had time, I would have liked to have elaborated on the subject and to have read into the record a range of points that have not yet been made, including on matters 5.13, 5.14, 5.15, 5.11, 5.12, and 5.16. I assure the House that in future my aim will be to ensure that there is adequate information to enable meaningful scrutiny to take place earlier in the public Bill process.
Clause 27 ensures that the National Assembly for Wales has the powers that it needs, when it needs them, to debate and determine the appropriateness of proposals put forward by the Welsh Assembly Government for the development of further education in Wales. That will enable the Welsh Assembly Government to propose Assembly measures that are appropriate to Welsh circumstances. In a wider context, that delivers on the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the Assembly has the tools to deliver change in the areas for which it has responsibility, and to rebalance legislative authority, without affecting the overall constitutional supremacy of Parliament as regards Wales in the United Kingdom. Parliament has a pivotal role when it comes to scrutiny. It must work in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government and work in the best interests of the people of Wales. The clause is therefore important, and I hope that the House will support it.
However, I acknowledge the constructive and valid contributions made by Members, including my right hon. Friends the Members for Islwyn, and for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), and I recognise their genuine concerns. It should be acknowledged that the collaboration between the Welsh Assembly and the Wales Office on how we take forward the devolved settlement is an evolving and learning process, so I am more than happy to meet with hon. Members to gain their views, so that we can further improve the process and ensure that the valuable contribution of hon. Members and the pivotal role played by the House is taken into account. On that basis, I urge my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn to withdraw the amendment.
I listened to my hon. Friend’s points, and it is important that we find a mechanism for better scrutiny of such issues. We should not in any way seek to prevent powers being passed over, if that is the view of Government and Parliament. I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) about the pressures of work on the Welsh Affairs Committee, but in view of the Minister’s offer to hold a meeting—with, I am sure, colleagues of all parties—in which we can explore ways of scrutinising legislation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Order for Third Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
This is a small, relatively uncontroversial Bill. We have had a robust debate that has been consensual, on the whole, and I appreciate the constructive contributions made. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will agree that the Government have listened carefully, and have responded, where possible, to make the Bill better.
One subject that has benefited from being debated is foundation degrees. When we look back at the legislation with the benefit of hindsight, we will be certain that enabling colleges to apply for powers to award their own foundation degrees was the right thing to do and was truly groundbreaking. The foundation degree has established itself as an important part of the higher education qualifications landscape; it is valued by learners and employers alike, and it helps us to go forward and face up to the skills challenges that the country faces. I have made it clear that the new powers that the Privy Council can grant under clause 19 will be appropriate only to certain providers, but the provision nevertheless speaks volumes about the status of further education, which is finally getting the recognition that it deserves.
For an uncontroversial Bill, the legislation has certainly had its moments. The importance of robust policy, underpinned by legislation, to eradicate poor performance and performance that is not improving, is widely accepted. There has been progress in further education, but where there are lingering, serious problems, it is right that we retain the power, through the Learning and Skills Council, to intervene in extreme cases. The Bill will also help more colleges to gain greater freedoms, but within the structure of a robust intervention strategy that is clear and unequivocal.
The Bill is small, but it is important. Machinery of government changes mean that we will need to consider the detailed funding arrangements for young people, adults and employers to learn, engage and progress, but the Bill remains crucial to our wider goals of further education reform.
The tremendous amount of good will, confidence and support for the further education system that has been expressed in all parts of the House during the debate is testimony to our FE system, which is benefiting from the unprecedented increase in funding over the past decade. That is bearing fruit, with achievement rates up by 20 per cent., more than 1.7 million adults helped with their basic skills, more than a million more adults qualified to level 2, and a tripling of the number of people engaged in apprenticeships. I pay tribute to all those who have made that investment count.
We must continue to enhance the capacity of the FE system through measures that include the foundation degree-awarding powers for colleges, improving the leadership in further education through a new power to regulate the qualifications of principals, and better consultation with employers and learners. Modernising the law on industrial training levies is a key consideration for the construction and electrical engineering sectors, and the devolution to Wales of education and training matters will underpin the review of FE in Wales.
In conclusion, further education is a vital public service, which has more power, perhaps, to transform lives than any other part of the education system. In a small but significant way the Bill has helped to give FE the status and recognition that it deserves. I am pleased to commend the Bill for its Third Reading in the House.
Like the Minister, I am pleased that we are coming to the end of our journey. It has been a long journey, but not an altogether uncomfortable one. It has been characterised by a broad measure of agreement and co-operation in trying to make the best of the Bill. I acknowledge, as I have previously, that the Minister has listened to argument put by both the Opposition parties and by others in an attempt to improve the Bill. I hope that he acknowledges that the Opposition have played a constructive part in that process, although there is sometimes need for drama and colour in our considerations, and we have tried to provide those as well.
This is not a bad Bill, but it is not good enough. Its worst facet is what it ignores. I said in debate earlier that it was extraordinary that the Bill was passing through the House at the same time as the Government were considering their response to the Leitch review of skills. The Leitch report has been in the public domain for a considerable time. The Government have yet to respond to it, but the Bill could well have included proper consideration of the kind of matters that Lord Leitch examined. It is curious that the Government, who are about to respond to a major piece of work that they commissioned, should introduce a Bill dealing with further education and training in the full knowledge of the fact that that review might necessitate further legislation in the short term.
When I tested the Minister on that in Committee, he was in denial. I appreciate that, as he suggested earlier, Ministers can deal only with the material that they have at the time that they have to deal with it, but it is now clear that there will be further legislation in some form later this year in the Queen’s Speech, to address some of the issues on which Lord Leitch reported and with which we anticipate the Government will deal in the short term. We hope that even next week we might know more about the details of that.
The Bill acknowledges, as did Lord Leitch, that skills matter, not only for our economic competitiveness but for the individual well-being of millions of our countrymen. The debate on skills is often conducted in a rather utilitarian way. We are actually speaking of the life chances of millions of Britons who pass through FE colleges and benefit from the quality of teaching and learning that takes place there. The Bill has a direct relationship with those experiences. When I champion skills, I do so not for some dull, utilitarian reason, but because I want those people to have the best possible opportunities and for their life chances, economic opportunities and sense of worth to be enhanced by the skills they acquire. That is why I am a robust, vigorous and determined advocate for our further education colleges and those who govern, lead and teach in them, and have been so throughout the passage of the Bill.
I acknowledge that the Minister, too, has spoken for FE in a way that politicians on both sides of the House have done too infrequently in the past. The exception to that, of course, is my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who has made a typically intelligent, thoughtful and measured contribution to the passage of the Bill. What a privilege it is to be a Member of the House alongside him, and what a loss he will be to this place when he enters retirement—prematurely, in my judgment—as he says he will at the end of this Parliament. He showed again today why he was such an excellent Minister and why he is such a very good friend to those of us who without his skill and expertise struggle with these matters.
Further education is vital in enhancing the nation’s skills, but there are other things to be said about it. There is also immense educational, cultural and social capital in FE, and we must not see FE colleges merely as a vehicle to deliver skills, for other aspects of what they do count too. I believe in education for democratic citizenship, to use the words of Rab Butler, through adult and continuing education. I am sorry that we have lost nearly 1 million adult and continuing education places on the Minister’s watch.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the unmerited personal tribute that he just paid me. Before it fades, may I ask him whether he shares my view of the educational merits of vocational education? Many young people who have failed at school in the conventional academic system go to college or go through training at their workplace and find themselves confronted for the first time with the world of work, where they also need general educational skills, and they enthusiastically acquire them because they then see the point of doing so—but that requires the vocational context.
I would make two points in response to my hon. Friend’s typically incisive intervention. First, his reputation will never fade in the hearts and homes of South Holland and the Deepings for all the time that I am the representative of that place in this place. Secondly, he is right to focus on the difference that further education can make to people who have not always had the most successful experience at school. Many people return to education through FE or adult and community learning—continuing learning of the kind that I described. It is vitally important that we see further education not merely as a vehicle for delivering skills to the existing work force, although it is vital, given the demography, that we upskill and reskill our work force in order to meet the skills target; and not merely as a vehicle for equipping a new generation of young people with essential vocational skills—I shall speak more of that in what will be a lengthy peroration in a few moments—but as an opportunity for people to acquire all kinds of other competencies that add to their sense of worth, for the acquisition of practical skills can achieve that just as much as the acquisition of academic qualifications. For too long in this country, we have undervalued those practical competencies and elevated academic learning as the only means of delivering the sense of value to which my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry alludes.
In speaking about what the Bill says, rather than what it does not, I would like to talk about its unhelpful aspects. I do so with hesitation because I do not want to be unkind to the Minister, having praised him earlier. I do not want to injure him in any way—he is a sensitive soul—but it is important to point out that the Bill may be unhelpful both in respect of the intervention powers we debated at some length in Committee, which he and I have discussed privately a number of times, and of the lack of clarity about the ongoing role of the Learning and Skills Council.
I shall explore those two matters for a moment or two. We had a lengthy debate about the first point earlier, so I will just say the following. In the end, it seems unconvincing for the Government to argue that they are in favour of Andrew Foster’s recommendation that FE colleges move to greater self-regulation, while simultaneously arguing that the LSC should have new powers to dismiss college governors, principals and senior managers. Of course, it is right that long-line powers are vested in Government when public money is being spent, to ensure that in cases of an absence of quality or probity an intervention takes place. In the interests of learners, as the Minister said earlier, we all want to protect people against such circumstances.
However, I am not convinced that those powers, which have never been used—I repeat, they have never been used—although already in the hands of the Secretary of State, should be extended and transferred to the Learning and Skills Council. I simply do not buy that that is not paradoxical, and nothing that the Minister has said today, previously or in Committee has persuaded me one iota of the strength of his case. It may be that the Association of Colleges has come to a different view about that—I respect it, and I have had many dealings with it, as has the Minister—but I am not yet convinced. We need to test the matter further, and I look forward to seeing what the other place has to say about it when it considers the Bill following our consideration.
The second unhelpful aspect of the Bill is the embedding of the role of the Learning and Skills Council at a time when we are not sure of the Government’s position on the future of the LSC. If they respond to Lord Leitch’s review in the way that they might, which is to say that sector skills councils should be the principal conduit for the management and funding of skills, and they respond to his recommendation that we move to a more demand-led system with employers in the driving seat, that at the very least means a different role for the LSC, and it may mean a diminished role. However, the Bill, by developing and enshrining in law a regional structure, effectively embeds the Learning and Skills Council in the management and funding of skills. I am not sure whether that it is sensible. Again, it arises from the extraordinary position whereby we are debating a further education and training measure against the background of a review of skills to which the Government have yet to respond. That is not good government and I do not believe that the Minister, in his heart, thinks it is either. Hon. Members of all parties who have spoken to me about the matter expressed reservations about the Government’s conduct.
Those reservations were expressed loudly and with Celtic lyricism when it came to the matter of Wales. Given the contributions from some of the House’s distinguished Members, we can conclude only that, as far as Wales is concerned, the matter has not been handled as it could and should have been. The argument that pre-legislative scrutiny would have been beneficial to clarify the position on degree-awarding powers and Welsh colleges was clear and unequivocal. It is an unanswerable case and so the answer that we got was as unconvincing as could be.
The Bill therefore has unhelpful aspects, but let me consider the more promising elements, about which there has been broad agreement. Perhaps the most significant aspect is the extension to FE colleges of the power to award foundation degrees. That lies at the heart of the measure. Conservative Members passionately believe that FE colleges provide an important element of widening participation, not only in further education but in higher education. It is understated that further education institutions teach a great deal of higher education. They teach many degree courses, and approximately 12 per cent. of higher education already takes place in further education colleges. Foundation degrees provide an opportunity to widen and deepen participation in a new and exciting way.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many people are unable to study away from home for various reasons, including domestic responsibilities, but are at a stage in their lives when they could take advantage of a higher education course? Being able to do that at their local FE college means that they can study the subject that they want without having to leave home to do it.
With her usual care and insight, my hon. Friend has anticipated some of my comments. She is right that FE colleges are local, community based, highly responsive and flexible about modes of study. They are therefore successful at recruiting learners of a type that HE—with notable, honourable exceptions—is not so successful at recruiting. The facts speak clearly. Further education has a greater proportion of ethnic minority learners, mature learners and learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, who study both FE and HE courses. That is partly because, as my hon. Friend said, they are more flexible, local, accessible and responsive than their counterparts in the university sector. That is not to say that universities do not do excellent work—many do. However, FE can play a critical role in widening participation. The Bill is therefore right to extend the power to FE colleges to award foundation degrees.
There are important caveats. We have argued throughout the Bill’s passage that the degree brand must not be diminished by the change and that it is important to maintain rigorous quality; that the progression from foundation degrees to other professional qualifications and, indeed, full degrees must be assured; and that partnership between universities should be maintained where it is already strong and grown where it does not exist. There are important qualifications to our support in principle for those provisions. We have listened to the representations from Universities UK, which has made a measured and strong case to us about such issues. That is why we have both argued publicly and lobbied Ministers privately to try to persuade them to amend the Bill, as they have indeed amended it, to take account of some of those concerns.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the great thing about further education institutions, as opposed to higher education institutions, is that the wider public perceive it as less elitist, because further education institutions take in those who might be from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who never had a chance to progress their education at all? We have a great opportunity to support further education, for that very reason.
My hon. Friend makes a good case, but there is a danger in overstating it. I am familiar with the Institute of Continuing Education, based at Cambridge university, and with other organisations in the HE sector that do immensely valuable work in ensuring that people from all kinds of backgrounds, in all kinds of localities and studying all kinds of courses can have an interface with the very best institutions, resources and teachers. Many universities are doing good work on that, but my hon. Friend is right in essence that FE is more appealing to many learners because of its localness and accessibility, and its style and character.
On a more functional level, the issue is also about modes of learning. Modular courses, distance learning and part-time learning are critical for certain kinds of learners, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) pointed out. FE is particularly good at those things. The Bill is right to build on that principle and right to give further education the enormous fillip that it will get from the granting of foundation degrees.
The process will be measured and gradual, because the criteria will set the standards high, so there is no suggestion that the measure will weaken the quality of what is offered. I hope that it will also facilitate good relationships between HE and FE, owing to the changes that have taken place during the passage of the Bill. There was a risk that that would not be so when the Bill was first published, but things have moved on. The Minister has listened to and learned from the representations that have been made. We can achieve the ambition of widening participation without damaging the degree brand or damaging those good relationships. My judgment, therefore, is that the proposals at the heart of the Bill regarding foundation degrees are worthy of the support that we have offered them.
However, there are ongoing concerns about how the Bill fits into the Government’s overall strategy for FE and HE. The landscape has changed while we have been debating and considering the Bill. There has been a seismic change in the structure of government. We have a new Department, a new team and a new Prime Minister with his own agenda. It is not yet absolutely clear where the Government are heading in respect of further education and higher education.
I make no apologies for amplifying the points that I made earlier, when we were discussing amendments. FE colleges are feeling quite insecure. I visit a number of further education colleges every week and I meet representatives of the sector equally frequently. I can tell the House that FE is most worried about whether the Government are really committed to its long-term future. FE colleges are worried that the change in the structure of government and the anticipated response to the Leitch report, or indeed the passage of the Bill alone, irrespective of the first two things, will mean that their future is less secure than they would want it to be.
I have enjoyed my exchanges with the Minister immensely. He now needs to give a clear signal in his final words on the Bill that the Government are indeed committed to further education colleges, and that they want them to move to a greater degree of independence, as Sir Andrew Foster has recommended, and to self-regulation of the kind that I have passionately advocated during the Bill’s progress. He also needs to give a clear indication that, in the Government’s response to the Leitch review, which we eagerly anticipate, there will be a bold series of steps that will enliven skills, allow the Government to meet their targets and enable a new generation of learners to achieve the status and worth that I described when I was advocating the glories of practical accomplishment earlier.
If we can have those assurances from the Government, we can end where we began on the Bill, with a determination to ensure that it will be good for FE and for learners, and that it will be a credit to the House and worthy of the support that it has received on all sides. I hope that the Minister will offer us those assurances today. If he does, I am sure that we can move together with a degree of unanimity, and certainly with a degree of consensus if we cannot agree on absolutely everything. On that basis, I offer the Opposition’s support for the Bill’s Third Reading. We look forward to its passage into law.
I am pleased to support the Bill through its final stages. I also commend my hon. Friends on the Front Bench for their work on improving it during its progress through the House. It is now much better than it was when we debated it on Second Reading. I also spoke in that debate.
I have a passionate interest in further education, having been an FE lecturer many years ago. I was also chair of the governors of Luton college of higher education, which is now the university of Bedfordshire. I am now vice-chair of the governors of Luton sixth-form college. As I have said many times, my constituency has the best further education college in the country, although others might argue about that. It was the first further education college to achieve beacon status, which speaks volumes for the quality of our college.
Early on, I was quite concerned about powers being given to further education colleges to grant foundation degrees, not because it was not a good thing to do but because I could see that conflicts might arise, particularly with the modern universities. Indeed, I was lobbied by the modern universities, one of which is, of course, the university of Bedfordshire. On the other side, I was lobbied by the Association of Colleges, which was very keen on the idea and wanted it to go ahead. Since then, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), has given me private assurances that the power will be used sensibly, and I hope that that will be the case. One of the main purposes of my speaking in this debate is to ask Ministers to exercise the powers carefully and sensibly, and not to cause difficulties for other colleges or, particularly, the universities.
The university of Bedfordshire awards foundation degrees and caters for lots of local students. Our large, excellent further education college might wish to award foundation degrees itself, and the two institutions might end up seeking students from the same local pool. That could have an impact on funding and on the viability of the university. These matters are significant for me locally, and for the rest of the country as well. Fortunately, both institutions have very good, sensible leaders. The principal of Barnfield college, the further education college, and the vice-chancellor of the university of Bedfordshire are both good friends, and I know that they have spoken together about this. I am sure that they will co-operate and work together sensibly, whatever they decide to do. However, it is important that these potential conflicts should be recognised. In many areas, there will be further education colleges without a local university offering foundation degrees. It may be a good idea to promote foundation degrees at those colleges in order to give local students greater opportunities for the future. One wants to encourage that.
There are more higher education courses delivered in further education colleges today than there used to be degree students when I was one in the 1960s. That reflects the quite astonishing growth of higher education in general, and of higher education within further education colleges. FE colleges are enormously varied organisations that put on a variety of courses—from simple leisure-based courses to courses for people with learning difficulties and those having a second chance, as well as for those studying for higher degrees.
The Bill has been somewhat overshadowed by announcements of constitutional change in the near future, as well as by a new Prime Minister and effectively a new Government. Significant changes are taking place that will have a major effect on further education and, in particular, on sixth-form colleges. I welcome that prospect and when the legislation is passed, I will doubtless speak to many interested parties there. I have been a passionate advocate of sixth-form colleges, as the Minister and other Members may know, because I really believe that they are the jewels in our educational crown. They work very well, they provide good value for money and they offer the best possible opportunities for students. They make a wide range of courses available, provide unusual combinations of subjects, have several teachers in the same subject who can reinforce and support each other, and do a wonderful job.
My constituency includes many people who do not come from traditional academic backgrounds. Some family members have never been past the school leaving age and many come from overseas where those opportunities were not available, yet they now have the opportunity to progress their education beyond A-levels and into university. Our sixth-form college does a wonderful job—about 60 per cent. of its students come from the full range of ethnic minorities.
One of the advantages likely to result from the constitutional changes is that local authorities may be more inclined to create sixth-form colleges than they were before; they are not going to close down their school sixth forms and hand them over to another sector. That will not happen. At a recent conference I attended, a sixth-form college principal suggested that if those colleges had remained within local authorities, there would have been 100 more of them. I shall say no more about that for now.
Finally, it is important to note that further education is now properly recognised as a major component of our education and training, perhaps in a way that was not the case before. FE institutions are now more highly valued, and our Government value colleges more than ever in the past. They will make a major contribution to the training and education of our young people for the future. Millions of young people will go through further education colleges, particularly if we raise the school-leaving age to 18, and it is right to give them additional support, encouragement and financial sustenance to do their job. I have probably already said more than enough, but I want to commend the Bill and support my Front-Bench colleagues.
Rather curiously, a Labour Whip has been going around asking everyone to speak for as long as possible. I assume that another Department is attempting to table some amendments in the Table Office at the moment. At this point, however, I am probably allowed to be brief.
This is a small Bill, as the Minister said, and I am afraid that it is not a particularly inspiring Bill either. Curiously, it was published between the Foster and the Leitch reviews without directly referring to either. Even more curiously, much of the Bill has been superseded by Government announcements on moving 16-to-19 funding to local authorities. We are left with a Bill that contains a number of new powers that will effectively be made irrelevant by the Government’s proposals to move funding to local authorities. Disappointingly, the Minister was unwilling to acknowledge that during the earlier stages of debate, which makes it difficult for us to appreciate the full implications of the Bill a couple of years down the line.
Unfortunately, the Bill still contains intervention powers for the Learning and Skills Council. Given that those have never been used by the Secretary of State, that seems largely pointless. By sleight of hand, the LSC will still be allowed to instruct colleges to dismiss senior staff. That is even more bizarre, given that the Government intend to transfer funding powers for many colleges away from the LSC altogether.
Nevertheless, with those provisos, I wish to acknowledge how far the Government have moved since the Bill was first published in the other place. The Bill is much better than when it was first discussed. One of the sections of the Bill that has been improved considerably is that which relates to foundation degrees. The Government accepted Opposition criticism about progression routes, and made them much clearer. Similarly, in response to concerns that I raised in Committee, the Minister has agreed to amend the guidance on franchising such that it is no longer automatic on completion of a probation period. The Bill is therefore much improved, albeit that many of the new powers will be made irrelevant, unfortunately, in no time at all.
We on the Liberal Democrat Benches—I say “we”, but I appear to be left on my own at this point—will support the Bill. I hope, however, that the other place will continue to press the Government on intervention powers. I hope that it will extract further reassurances on the Government’s intentions with regard to moving 16-to-19 money to local authorities. Given a little time, I suspect that the Government’s thinking might have advanced, and that they might be able to give reassurances in the other place that they could not give to me today.
During the progress of the Bill, we spent a great deal of time discussing foundation degrees. As I have said to the Minister during those proceedings, and on other occasions outside the Chamber, the danger is that the controversy over foundation degrees will obscure the real challenge, which is to provide better, more flexible routes to move between further and higher education. When the Government have thought through the implications of moving 16-to-19 money away from the LSC, I hope that one of the reforms that they will consider next will be to make it much easier for students to move between further and higher education.
We know that further education transforms lives, and if we had a more flexible system that allowed young and older people, depending on their caring and other responsibilities, to move from an institution close to their home to somewhere else, as their responsibilities and choices changed during their course of study, we might have an exciting opportunity to transform lives in the future.
I thank the Minister for being willing to make changes during the Bill’s progress, and I hope that further reassurances will be extracted in the other place.
I welcome the Bill, as it will equip learners with the high-quality skills that they need to compete in the global economy and job market. I have always argued that we need to upskill and retrain our people. When my father went underground at the age of 14, he needed muscles in the arms; now we must develop the muscles between the ears. That means investment in training and upskilling all the time.
In the United States, 80 per cent. of people in work have been in a learning situation since they left school. In Germany and Japan, the figure is about 56 per cent. In the United Kingdom, it is still about 30 per cent. That shows how far we still have to travel if we are to give our people the skills that they do not have now, which will enable them to do the jobs we need them to have to maintain our strong economy and to build our future.
In my constituency, all post-16 education takes place at a tertiary college. I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins): such colleges make an important contribution to our whole education system. When I came into the House more than 12 years ago, I was a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee—now chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis)—which carried out an inquiry into post-16 education in Wales. We certainly saw the huge benefits of tertiary education in offering a range of skills that are not offered in 11-to-18 schools.
When I was a councillor representing part of the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the local comprehensive school in my area—an 11-to-16 school—held a debate on whether it should have a sixth form. This is the basis on which I made my decision. I examined the cohort of youngsters who had progressed from the comprehensive school to the local tertiary college over the previous two years. I found that only two of the 40-odd children would have been able to study the subjects that they eventually studied if the school had had a sixth form. In other words, they had a much greater opportunity in the tertiary college than they would have had otherwise. I therefore think it important for us to continue to strengthen and invest in further education and training.
During the 20 years for which I was a councillor, further education was often the Cinderella. Primary and secondary education were considered very important—people were saying “Let us reorganise our schools”, “Let us end the 11-plus” and so forth—but further education was largely ignored. My experience of it was not as enjoyable as that of my oldest friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, who taught at a further education college for 17 years. I was a student at a further education college; my education came to an end when I had a dispute with the principal and was asked to leave, but that is another story. I have seen how my children have benefited from the opportunity to opt into a course at a college after abandoning a course at school.
On Second Reading and on Report, I expressed concern about the way in which parts of the Bill had been handled, particularly clause 27. I have no doubt that if the Bill had received proper pre-legislative scrutiny in the context of Wales, today’s debate on foundation degrees would not have taken place. I am convinced that we would have found a way of resolving the issue beforehand.
I strongly support the initiative and the thinking behind the Bill. I thought that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) was a little dismissive. As she said, this is a small Bill, but it is making a very big and important contribution to the ongoing education and training of our young people. In this new century, it is important for us to recognise that if we do not invest in upskilling and retraining there is no way in which our economy will be able to compete, given all the global pressures that we face.
I commend the Minister for the way in which the Bill has been handled, and I commend those who served on the Committee. We have had good debates on Second Reading and on Report. As I said on Report, I hope that in future we may be able to deal rather better with the Welsh context. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen pointed out, we are in a different position now vis-à-vis the devolution settlement in Wales. The spotlight will be on this place, showing how we handle legislation that has an impact on Wales. Welsh Members of Parliament have a responsibility in that regard. The 29 Welsh Labour Members received 600,000 votes at the last general election, more than those in the Assembly and in local government put together. We have a voice and a mandate to represent our people, and it is important for our voice to be heard here. If legislation affects the Welsh people and the Welsh economy, we must ensure that we get the very best from it.
I will not take up any more time, because I am sure that others wish to speak. I congratulate the Government on the Bill. A small Bill it may be, but it has had a major impact. I look forward to the enactment of the important measures that it contains: we will soon see the benefits derived by our young people and our economy.
The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) expressed the mood of the whole House, and the support of all Members present for further education and its unique and central role in empowering people and increasing the country’s skills base. I only wish that some of those outside took it as seriously as we do.
By way of contentiousness, I want to make three slight criticisms of the Government and the Bill. The first point is that the Government’s ambition has shrunk. The Minister has just told the House that this is a small Bill; as I recall, in Committee he said that it was the first major FE bill for a generation. He has now scaled the Bill down to its appropriate size; I thought it might have been called the Further Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. However, that does not mean that it is not worthwhile and I shall support it tonight.
The second point concerns what is almost the default feature of Government practice: to seek to intervene when intervention is not always necessary and certainly not precedented. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) talked about the powers being devolved to the Learning and Skills Council to intervene in the governance of FE colleges, which I do not think is appropriate.
The third factor that tells against the Government to a small extent is a certain insouciance in relation to the details of legislation. The right hon. Member for Islwyn has mentioned devolution to the Welsh Assembly; this could have all been thought out more and we would have had a better Bill with a lot less trouble if it had been.
Having said that, there are some positive features. One on which I have not spoken, because of my absence from the Committee when it was raised, is the industrial training levies, which are sensible. Having started with scepticism, I am also now a supporter of the new arrangements for foundation degree-awarding powers. It is a very bad thing for someone who has been a Minister never to think that anything is added to the sum of things afterwards. The foundation degree programme has been a thoroughly worthwhile innovation and has proved itself as a very important part of the further education scene.
With a slight detachment from direct involvement in the management of these affairs, one sees some items coming round again. I remember the Learning and Skills Council being launched with a fanfare in 2000; now it is effectively being restructured and sidelined, an interesting and complex arrangement. The Government have not told us, so I do not know, what final structure they will come up with but it is clear that the role of the LSC will not be as great as it has been. There will be some important areas of policy from Foster but, more particularly, through Leitch that will need further debate and legislation in this place, including the financing package.
I put down a slight marker of concern. Having seen the tremendous liberation of further education colleges when they were transferred from local authority control in 1993, I am concerned that there will be some resumption of the dead hand of local authorities. I very much hope not.
That is both my anticipation and my profound wish. It ought to be possible for consenting adults to find a way of doing this without destroying the important lead that FE can take.
As regards the funding model, we will have to debate that later. I am attracted by the industrial demand-led model to a large extent, but it needs to be matched with a personally driven model and a resource model in terms of individual learning accounts. We know that their history has been unfortunate but the concept is entirely right and we need to balance the two. We must remember that further education is a service not only to industry and competitiveness, but to the individual as well. In learning and participating, one is also making a national contribution.
There is a huge degree of goodwill for further education and, by that token, support for the Bill. There is a lot of work to be done, but that is not an excuse for subverting what has been done, improved and explored in Committee and we should put through the Bill tonight.
I, too, welcome the Bill, which I hope will be of benefit to learners in England and Wales. The Welsh Affairs Committee has been mentioned several times this afternoon and I thank hon. Members for all their contributions, which have, for the most part, been very benign. We have already taken seriously the points raised today. Our “Legislative Competence Orders in Council” report has been mentioned on several occasions. I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who emphasised our report’s recommendations in respect of the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny. I also welcome the observations of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams): he asked whether the Committee is preparing for the volume of work that will come before us. We certainly are—that is why we produced the report. Further, we have held meetings with key Assembly Members and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales in order to ensure that we are ready when the Orders in Council come before us. We will scrutinise them with our Assembly colleagues in Sub-Committees of our Select Committee. Having said that, I reassure the House that we take on board all the points made today about the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny, and that we will respond to the strong views that have been expressed in all parts of the House.
I welcome the undertakings given by my hon. Friend, but I felt that his statement was introspective in that he did not fully appreciate cross-border issues. The North East Wales Institute of Higher Education and nearby FE colleges are concerned about the impact on them of foundation degrees and other advances in England. I should also say that NEWI is a progressive and forward-thinking institution, and that I share the hope of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) that it will become a university very soon.
Finally, let me state that the Committee which I chair is totally committed to securing and sustaining the role of this House in pre-legislative scrutiny of all measures relating to Wales, regardless of whether they emanate from the Assembly or this House.
Our discussion on Third Reading has been an important one. I should start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes): he was doing a service in delivering his insightful and lengthy contribution, as today is his 10th wedding anniversary and he needs to leave the House. He has demonstrated great commitment.
I welcome the support that the hon. Gentleman has given to foundation degree awarding powers. Members in all parts of the House—I include Liberal Democrat Members—have engaged constructively; we have witnessed this House operating at its best, in that we took on an initial proposition and then worked at it and scrutinised the proposals as they have progressed. We have ended up with what I genuinely believe is the most significant element of the Bill.
We must ensure that there is as much innovation and creativity as possible to help us face up to the skills challenge at the higher levels. Highly performing FE colleges have a significant contribution to make, and enabling them to award their own foundation degrees is a positive step forward. We have also been able to ensure that there is progression from foundation degrees on to further study courses, where that is appropriate and the student concerned wishes it. We have made it abundantly clear that there is a strong, robust and coherent quality framework within which these qualifications will exist. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about higher education in that regard, universities have nothing to fear from these proposals. The market is expanding significantly. Today, there are some 61,000 foundation degrees; by the end of the decade, we will be moving toward 100,000 and beyond. So there is certainly enough business for universities and FE colleges, and in my view, many of them will continue to work productively in collaboration.
The hon. Gentleman also expressed concern about what is happening to adult learner numbers. We need to be clear that there has never been as much money going into the system as there is today. Overall, FE funding during the last decade has increased by 50 per cent. in real terms. I do not wish to make a crude party political point, but I will. That compares very favourably with the 14 per cent. real-terms cut in the five years to 1997. Here, we should consider not just revenue, but capital expenditure. When this Government came to power in 1997, there was not one penny in the mainstream capital budget for FE. Today, the budget is £500 million a year, and we can see the evidence of that in virtually every FE college throughout the country.
So more money is certainly going into the system, but we do have to make real choices about priorities. We are not cutting adult education funding, but we are re-prioritising, saying that adult basic skills and work-based training—such as the train-to-gain initiative—has to be the priority. We are putting extra resources into those areas, but we are not saying that non-vocational adult education is not valuable. However, we are saying that we expect the individual to make a slightly greater contribution. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings nods, and there is indeed a consensus on this issue. We need to bring about a cultural change that ensures that individuals contribute more to their learning, and that employers do so as well. I am very pleased to say that this week we launched the basic skills campaign, using major TV, radio and other forms of advertising to get across to people the message about the importance of skills, and the investment and commitment that they make as individuals.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Leitch implementation plan—the Government’s response to Sandy Leitch’s important and ground-breaking report. I made it clear earlier and I reiterate that we will produce our response to Sandy Leitch’s proposals very shortly. I repeat: nothing in this Bill contradicts the strategy that we are putting forward. Many times today and in Committee, the hon. Gentleman has tried to make great play of that issue, but when we launch the implementation plan, he will see that it is absolutely coherent and consistent with the measures in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman also questioned me about the powers of intervention—an issue on which we have had a major debate this afternoon. He wanted me to make it clear that the Government are committed to FE colleges, and we certainly are. Indeed, we are committed to the FE sector in a way that no previous Government ever were. He also asked me to make it clear that we want greater independence and self-regulation for colleges, and we certainly do, which is why we are introducing the proposals on self-regulation. He also wanted me to commit ourselves, following the Leitch proposals, to a further series of bold measures and steps, which we certainly will.
We are therefore responding to the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, and we want to move much further in the direction of self-regulation. However, and as I said earlier, at the same time, in extremis, when all else has failed, it is absolutely right that we retain, through the Learning and Skills Council, powers of intervention. As I said earlier, if Opposition Members discovered that a college in their constituency was fundamentally failing and were told that there was no power of intervention in those circumstances, they would not be happy with that. That is why the proposals in the Bill are so important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) made an important contribution. I genuinely pay tribute to the work he has done as joint chair of the all-party further education and lifelong learning group. He has been an absolute champion—
It being Six o’clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [21 May].
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.
With the leave of the House, I shall put motions 2 to 7 together.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
Betting, Gaming and Lotteries
That the draft Gambling Act 2005 (Horserace Betting Levy) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 13th June, be approved.
That the draft Gambling Act 2005 (Horserace Totalisator Board) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 13th June, be approved.
That the draft Gambling Act 2005 (Amendment of Schedule 6) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 13th June, be approved.
Rehabilitation of Offenders
That the draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 13th June, be approved.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Macedonia) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
That the draft International Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 19th June, be approved.—[Mark Tami.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
That the draft Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 21st June, be approved.—[Mark Tami.]
Division deferred till Wednesday 18 July, pursuant to Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions).
NORTHERN IRELAND GRAND COMMITTEE
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 116 (Northern Ireland Grand Committees (sittings)),
(1) the matter of policing reform in Northern Ireland (progress to date) be referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee;
(2) the Committee shall meet at Westminster on Tuesday 24th July at half-past four o’clock; and
(3) at that sitting
(a) the Committee shall take questions under Standing Order No. 110 (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (questions for oral answer)), and shall then consider the matter referred to it under paragraph (1) above;
(b) the Chairman shall interrupt proceedings not later than two and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the matter referred to the Committee; and
(c) at the conclusion of those proceedings, a motion for the adjournment of the Committee may be made by a Minister of the Crown, pursuant to paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 116 (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (sittings)).—[Mark Tami.]
Question agreed to.