Committee (3rd Day)
Relevant document: 16th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Welcome, my Lords, to the third day of Grand Committee on the Technical and Further Education Bill. I should announce at the start that in the very likely event of there being a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
Clauses 7 to 12 agreed.
Clause 13: Overview of Chapter
Amendment 36A not moved.
Clause 13 agreed.
Clause 14: Objective of education administration
37: Clause 14, page 7, line 38, at end insert—
“( ) minimise the risk to a local community of a long-term loss of technical and further education provision.”
My Lords, it is a pleasure to appear in the Committee. I have been present on various occasions during the first two sittings, but I have not been able to find an issue on which I wanted to speak; therefore I come with my powder dry.
We have no argument of substance on this part of the Bill, because we understand what is happening. It is essentially a good housekeeping measure, rather than a threat to any existing or future institutions. It arises from two sources. First, there is a proper and appropriate sense of wanting to ensure that in any default situation, such as liquidation or insolvency, a process is in place and all the major players know what happens and how. It also comes from a wider consideration of how public services are procured and delivered.
In the good old days, as some might say—I say it in heavy quotes—public provision of such services as further education, but including utilities more generally, would always have the underlying assumption that the Government of the day would carry any debts incurred. Of course, that does not happen under privatisation—there is no particular reason why it should—but the responsibility for continuing work that is in the public interest still has to be resolved. That is why, over the past 25 to 30 years, there has been a growth in special regimes for insolvency. They are not unusual. They are broadly all of the same pattern. That is unsurprising as they come from one cutting shop: the Insolvency Service. They carry a common approach: they are instituted to ensure that, where it is appropriate and necessary, it is possible to intervene in the ordinary processes of insolvency or voluntary liquidation to the extent to which it is thought proper that the purposes for which the service exists are maintained, to ensure that those who are relying on it or have made it part of their lives in good faith are not let down by any cost-cutting arrangement.
Having said all that, we have tabled some probing amendments, to which I hope that we will get good responses on the record. Nothing will be unexpected—much of it came up in the other place—but we have learned a bit more about how the system operates, so there may be a slightly sharper focus.
I move Amendment 37 and speak to Amendments 38 and 39. This first group focuses on the education administrator, who is the person to be appointed by the court—the courts can act only on the request of the Secretary of State in England or Wales, depending on which territory they are in—and, if appointed, has responsibilities which will be set out both in the Bill and the broader range of insolvency legislation alluded to in the primary legislation; I expect that regulations to follow will fill in any gaps. We are not at variance with the Government in proposing that the system applies, although there will be things that we want to probe later.
The purpose of these three amendments, taken together, is on the question of whether we have got the right person to do this work. We have not seen many colleges go into liquidation or insolvency, which is a good thing. We were reassured in another place—so we do not expect it—that nothing in the Bill should be read as taken to imply that the Government have in mind a raft of closures. On the other hand it is fair to ask the Minister, when he comes to respond, to help us a little about what the context is for this.
The figures provided by the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills in the other place were slightly obscure. He said that,
“80% of colleges are either good or outstanding”,
and that some,
“59% of institutions are in good financial health and 52% are operating with a surplus”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/11/16; col. 80.]
One can of course read that the other way round: you could say that 48% are not operating with a surplus and that a situation may therefore arise which we are not fully apprised of. The Minister might wish to comment on that. I do not necessarily see that as an issue and, if he wishes to take time to write to us, we would be happy with that.
The context is also a little more complex, in the sense that we are well aware that there is a more general decline in further education. The ongoing work of the area reviews may or may not lead to closure as a result of mergers. Mergers cannot be imposed on the system but if the system wanted to do that and if a particular college was weaker, we may find this issue in front of us in a relatively short time. The procedures therefore obviously need to be right but, if the Minister could say a little more in that context about his perception from the centre of whether a number of closures will arise from the area reviews, that would obviously be interesting. We do not know of any and are aware that work is going on but some sense of that, if not the actual detailed numbers, would be helpful.
In the other place, the Minister was pressed a little about the context of what I have been saying. He came out with a nice rubric when he said that Part 2 of the Bill was,
“about protection, insurance, prudence and caution”.—[Official Report, Commons, Technical and Further Education Bill Committee, 29/11/16; col. 166.]
He was not picked up about that list of words. It does not quite have the ring of an aphorism about it but it is an interesting list. Would the Minister like to reflect on whether that is his reading of the situation? I take it slightly differently: I think this is a prudent, sensible and cautionary approach, as I do not see any red lights arising from it and gleaming in the dark that would cause us to have difficulty, and that the issues are appropriate. Those are the general questions.
On the questions raised by the amendments, Amendment 37 questions whether we are right in assuming that, at present, the Bill tends to focus the attention in relation to colleges and their continuation on a systemic approach. That was slightly picked up by the area reviews as well, in looking at the holistic approach to an area, although from the bottom up—in other words, from the locality—FE colleges are often seen as important bulwarks of local community activity. Particularly in rural areas and areas of lower density, they can provide a centre not just of education and training but for other activities, so there is a wider context for this. Amendment 37 asks that the education administration system, particularly the education administrator, should, in addition to the list in the Bill, take in the need to,
“minimise the risk to a local community of a long-term loss of technical and further education provision”.
That will be an important issue for many areas and I will be interested to see the response.
Amendment 38 would give more detail than is currently in the Bill about the consultations, discussions and debates that must take place before the education administrator takes forward the proposals that may come to it. We will obviously come to a wider view about this in the next group. This would include the “quality of education provided”, the capacity of other bodies or institutions and,
“the infrastructure of the local area”—
again, the reference is to local rather than national issues. An issue that came up strongly in discussions in the other place was of how students, many of whom will be relatively young, will function if they have to add a significant transport arrangement to their other education requirements. How exactly does that fit in with some of the overarching issues we will come on to, in relation to the balance between maintaining a provision in a place and the need to provide local services and community support in that area, as opposed to the needs of the students in terms of the qualifications they are trying to obtain, which might be better dealt with in another college, perhaps a couple of hours’ travel away? One can see the impact that would have in terms of community, and on the individual. A slightly more detailed list, as in Amendment 38, may be overprescriptive but the intention is to make sure that wider consideration than a simple binary question—open or shut—should face the education administrator.
Thirdly, on Amendment 39, the question is of who should be consulted. There is obviously an expectation, and comforting words were given in the other place when this issue was discussed. However, we have tabled an amendment that specifies that the students in particular—they are often omitted in these considerations —should be consulted, and that staff and recognised unions at the body concerned should also be included.
Given that insolvency is a major part of the Bill, many of us were concerned that there might be something hidden that we did not appreciate or understand, which is perhaps unusual. I thank the civil servants. I hate that term. They are civil; they should not be servants. My noble friend Lady Garden and I met them yesterday to talk about insolvency, and I came away very reassured. Actually, I almost did an about-turn and felt that further education was protected in many respects.
The amendments are right. I do not foresee FE colleges becoming insolvent, because the new measures protect them in a more robust way than currently. During the area reviews, there has been a safety blanket. When they are finished and the new regime comes into place, it will be a much better landscape for FE to operate in. Having said that, in the 0.001% where something happens, it is right to point out that students need to be considered, as do the community and the staff. That is particularly so in rural areas. If a college goes in a rural area, the loss of it and its courses can be devastating to its students.
I will go along with it but I am never quite sure about “consultation”. Of course one can consult. If in the new landscape a college is on the road to insolvency, presumably we would pick that up pretty early on. It would not be a case of its suddenly being insolvent—“By the way, we’re closing down and we’d better consult students and staff”. We would see the process happening gradually. Any well-managed system would of course consult those bodies. When I see “consultation”, I always ask how we will consult. Is it a tick-box exercise, or a letter to everybody? When we have done the consultation what do we do with that information, or is it just, “It looks good so we’ll say it”? I understand the thought behind the amendment, however.
These amendments are okay. I am just beginning to understand the Government’s desire—I am pleased about it—that, under the new combined authorities regime, combined authorities will be involved in the adult education part of further education. I do not yet understand how that happens in practice as well as principle. I have been involved in a couple of emails about that, but I would like to understand it before Report. Having said that, I am happy with the amendments and I guess we will support them.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, for these three amendments, to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his remarks supporting them and to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his comments.
These amendments relate to assessing the impact of the proposed insolvency regime on further education colleges. Before I deal with individual amendments, I shall respond to some of the general points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and if I do not cover them all I will certainly write to him. Following the area reviews, all colleges should be on a sound financial footing for the longer term. That is part of the reason behind the area reviews. These measures will not come into force until after the recommendations of the area reviews have been implemented. There will be no closures as a result of the reviews. Colleges are working together to remove overcapacity in their area and to better align their offer to local employers’ needs. Some colleges may merge as a result, but there will be no insolvencies as a direct result of the reviews.
I believe that Amendment 37 is intended to ensure that the special objective offers protection not only to existing students of an insolvent college but to those of the future. In that regard, noble Lords and I share common ground. Indeed, that is the purpose of our programme of area reviews. We are working with colleges, local authorities and other local stakeholders to ensure that FE bodies are put on a strong and resilient footing. This is the best way to safeguard the interests of all students. Delivering strong, sustainable colleges that can provide young people now and in the future with the opportunity to pursue courses right for them will offer them the opportunity to achieve their full potential.
In the unlikely event that an FE body were to become insolvent, our first priority would, rightly, be to the existing students, whose studies are likely to be directly affected. That is the purpose of the special objective. While we cannot know how the education administrator will propose to achieve the special objective in every insolvency, as that will clearly depend on the circumstances of each case, it seems likely that the preferred solution would be to find an alternative provider to take over provision at the insolvent body’s campus. That would almost certainly prove least disruptive for the students involved. However, that may not be possible or the right outcome. It might ultimately be better for existing and future students to attend other colleges where they may have access to a greater choice of course, better facilities and the like.
I recognise noble Lords’ concern that moving to a different provider might mean travelling greater distances, with a consequent increase in travel costs. While many students would be willing to travel to access the right provision—a point the FE commissioner made when he gave evidence to the Committee in the other place—there will be those for whom this would be a challenge. Colleges are already able to provide financial support to help eligible students with their travel costs, and this will extend to students transferring in from an insolvent college. In addition, the education administrator may be able to make provision for such costs where it is for the purpose of pursuing the special objective.
There is the possibility that a college that is the only FE provider in the wider area may become insolvent; for example, in a rural area such as Devon or Cornwall. Were that to happen, I assure noble Lords that the Government could not and would not ignore their wider responsibility to students in the area. No Government would leave an area without any FE provision. However, this is a matter for the Government of the day to consider, not the education administrator.
I shall now respond to Amendment 38. Clause 14 sets out the fundamental principle underpinning the special administration regime we are introducing in the Bill. In the unlikely—I must emphasise “unlikely”—event that an FE body becomes insolvent, we are acting to ensure that disruption to students’ studies is avoided or minimised as far as possible. That is the purpose of the special objective set out in subsection (1). Pursuit of that objective will govern all the actions of the education administrator. It will be for the education administrator to decide how the special objective can best be achieved. Whether it is one of the solutions suggested in subsection (2), a combination of them or something different will depend on the special circumstances of the college or FE body. Only by considering these issues will the education administrator be in a position to come to a view on the most appropriate approach. As we all know, something that might be right in one situation will not necessarily be right in another, so, in a way, I agree with Amendment 38. Noble Lords are right that there are a number of assessments that the education administrator should carry out before taking any action to achieve the special objective, including assessments of the capacity of other bodies or institutions to undertake any additional functions or provide education to additional students.
Noble Lords are right, too, that there should be discussion with those most directly affected by the decisions to be taken—the students, the staff and their unions. Where I think we differ is that I do not believe such assessments or discussions need to be prescribed in legislation. As my colleague the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills said when this matter was debated in the other place:
“It is inconceivable that they,”
by which he meant the education administrator,
“would draw up proposals for achieving the special objective without having had discussions with a wide range of stakeholders, such as the Further Education Commissioner, student bodies and others, and without considering a wide range of pertinent issues”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/1/17; col. 113.]
I wholeheartedly share this view. As the Minister made clear in the other place—and I do here today—it is our clear expectation that the education administrator will engage fully with those who have the knowledge and experience to aid them in developing their proposals: the commissioner, staff and students, local authorities and other providers.
When we refer to avoiding or minimising disruption to student studies, this is not just about keeping students’ timetables unchanged or ensuring that they remain at the same campus—although, in reality, this might well be the case. It is also about ensuring that where it is necessary to transfer students, factors such as those identified by noble Lords are taken into consideration. In developing their proposals, the education administrator will be expected to consider the quality of the alternative provision, as well as the impact of travel distances if students need to complete their studies at another location.
Of course, some trade-off or compromise between the different factors might be necessary, but this will be for the education administrator to address in the particular circumstances. If students find themselves having to travel to another location, I recognise that they may incur additional travel costs. Where this is the case they may be eligible, as I have said, for the 16-to-19 bursary fund, or the education administrator may consider setting up a specific scheme for them paid for by from any funding provided by the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers.
I turn now to Amendment 39. In developing the special administration regime we have been concerned to ensure that the process should take no longer than necessary. Concerns have previously been expressed, including during debate in the other place, about the time a special administration might take. I share these concerns. However speedily the special administration is concluded, it will be too long for those involved. Staff, students and creditors will want certainty about what will happen to them at the earliest opportunity. Amendment 39, which seeks to require the education administrator to consult students, staff and the trade unions of the FE body before making any decisions on how to achieve the special objective, would inevitably lengthen the process but would be unlikely in reality to have any real benefit to the education administrator. Indeed, it may fetter his or her discretion to find the best way of achieving the special objective to the disadvantage of all concerned.
We are not disputing that the issues raised by noble Lords are important. They are. But, as I hope I have made clear, they cannot help but constitute a major element of the education administrator’s considerations in developing his or her proposals and there is therefore no need to legislate in this case. I hope the noble Lord will feel reassured enough by my explanations to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his support for these amendments and his comments about what we are trying to achieve with them. I think that those were picked up by the Minister, and I thank him too for taking the time to go through some of the issues and recognise that they had a bearing on this, should insolvency happen. The fact that these words are now on the record is a very good thing.
We particularly recognise that where provision has to be provided at a distance under special measures, travel will become a material issue. Confirmation again that costs could be considered within that is very important. We accept that it would be wrong to tie the hands of the education administrator if, by having a list in the Bill, damage was done to how he or she approaches his or her work. I do not think that that was the intention, but I recognise the danger. The issues were engaged with by the Minister and were recorded in Hansard, which will be sufficient to ensure that these points are not ignored at the appropriate time.
We might want to come back to the question of how and on what basis the comparison between the provision made in one institution that might have to close and another will be done in practice, but that comes under the next group of amendments. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 37 withdrawn.
Amendments 38 and 39 not moved.
Clause 14 agreed.
Clause 15: Education administration order
40: Clause 15, page 8, line 11, at end insert “, and has relevant experience and knowledge of the further education sector.”
My Lords, the amendments in this group are rather unfortunately grouped together, as there are two issues. I will take them in a slightly odd order to bring out the points. I hope that will make it easier to engage when the debate starts.
Amendment 40 is again about the education administrator. The point that we ended the last group on is the question of whether that person would have sufficient relevance, experience and knowledge of the further education sector. Those persons who have responsibility for doing insolvencies and wind-ups are usually accountants, who are the butt of staple jokes about vision, intelligence and depth of understanding. Of course, I am an accountant, so I can say all these things. On the other hand, it is fair to say that the judgments that the person responsible for a special education administration system are going to have to make will rather stretch that stereotyped approach, because effectively that person will take over the responsibilities of running an FE college with thousands of students and making decisions that will affect thousands of lives on a longer-term basis.
There are some big issues here. Given the fact that I know one or two insolvency practitioners, it would be a stretch to expect that group to be expanded in a short enough time to include people with experience. In the unlikely event that we have a rash of these insolvencies, experience will surely be increased and the problem will solve itself. But there is a gap here: No particular solutions come to mind, but the question will continue through our discussions today about how the expertise necessary to make some of those judgments will be gained.
Other amendments in this group, particularly Amendment 44, suggest that it may be necessary to make sure, in regulations if not in the Bill, that the person appointed as the education administrator has access without bar or hindrance—certainly no barrier should be put in place—to receiving the sort of advice that will be required to make the decisions that they will need to make in running an FE college. The proposal in Amendment 44 that the,
“education administrator may, in performing … functions … request information, advice or guidance from practitioners with an understanding of education”,
is meant in a permissive and encouraging way, rather than as a statutory duty. Nevertheless, the point is well made, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister says.
The meat of this group is in Amendments 42, 43 and 46A. That last amendment is a late addition, because I realised in preparing for the Committee that we could not get to the point without an additional amendment. I apologise for the late tabling of it. The scheme that we are talking about can come into existence only when the Secretary of State decides that it will do so, and only with the permission of the court, so there are already two steps in the process for a college that is going into insolvency, for which there will be checks, balances, discussions and debates, and some context will be provided. I am sure that that is an appropriate and effective way of going forward. But with the appointment of the education administrator comes the next stage in the process; that person will take over the responsibilities previously held by the owners of the operation and will have to deal day to day with the problems of running the college as they go forward.
I would be interested to know whether any work has been done for the Government on roughly what proportion of the insolvencies or liquidations it is expected will go into special administration as opposed to the normal routes, because the law already provides for companies that operate many activities, one of which would be education, to go insolvent or become bankrupt. There is a process under which that operates. We would not expect it to operate in many cases because it is a fairly brutal process.
We, in your Lordships’ House, have discussed insolvency on a number of occasions in recent years. I think there have been three Bills in which the law has been moved forward. There are also three striking things. The UK is way apart from many other territories in which the primacy of the creditor stands against any other purposes. In other words, there is an underlying thinking behind any insolvency or bankruptcy. I am sorry if I sound as if I am lecturing; I should not be lecturing to a group as astute as your Lordships. It is interesting that there is an assumption behind the way in which we process an insolvency that the creditors will be paid back 100% of what they have lent. Of course, creditors come in all shapes and sizes. They range from those in bank lending through to those who have provided goods on credit and are waiting to get paid.
The working assumption is that creditors should always be repaid. I find this strange because, in a practical sense, in any insolvency or bankruptcy arrangement—whether personal or corporate—the creditors’ immediate assumption is that they are not going to get 100%. Yet, the law sets out to try to provide that 100%. The deal is usually brokered between 100% on one side and about 10%, which is usually the working estimate, certainly after taking away the substantial fees that are paid to insolvency practitioners. I will not make further comment about that. The amounts of money are relatively trivial.
I am not saying that this would necessarily be applied here but if we go down the routes of traditional corporate insolvency, voluntary arrangement or the other ways in which this can happen, we will find the question of creditors looming large whether or not the body concerned is charitable. The rights and responsibilities of the person appointed to be the administrator of an ordinary commercial or personal bankruptcy or liquidation are, of course, charged with the responsibilities of a creditor.
Our Amendment 46A draws attention to this. I should be interested to hear further from the Minister on this point. Clearly, in a special administration, the idea is to restrain the creditors. That seems a good idea but credit comes with strings. If you restrict the ability of an institution to receive credit because the perception is that it may not be able to be pursued if it goes bankrupt, the flow of credit may well dry up. Will this not affect the way in which suppliers, the banks and others operate in relation to FE colleges? Even the smallest college will have a small amount of credit at any one time. The larger ones will almost certainly be raising funds openly on the market to do good things, approved by their governing bodies. However, it will depress their ability to raise funding—and possibly even make it difficult to get supplies—if this scheme becomes better known or happens more often, and if word gets out to people that should you supply goods or credit to an FE college, it would be dodgy if it goes down. There is an issue here.
The wider question is: how on earth are people to operate in a situation where the first steps taken towards bankruptcy will signal widely to all concerned that an institution is to be placed behind a wall? This may be for good public purposes and for the benefits which we have talked about, and with which we absolutely agree. But during the time that the educational administrator is operating under special measures, there will be no payment made to creditors. I am not against this. It is the right thing to do but I worry that the pressure will be on the person appointed as the educational administrator. This person will instinctively, and by training, have much more concern for creditors than others with more experience of FE who may take on this job, but who will be under great difficulty.
It must be right to make sure that the special measures which are to be part of the operation are documented in a way which gives them the best support and the greatest amount of encouragement. This amendment is to ensure that the special scheme has the teeth it needs to fight off the creditors, that the students at the FE college and the local community which benefits from it are not frightened off and that decisions are not reached in the wrong way. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support these amendments. It probably is important that any education administrator should be familiar with further education because it is a very distinct type of education. I have a question that I would like the Minister to clarify. Clause 22(4), which it is now proposed to delete, indicates that the administrator must,
“carry out his or her functions in a way that achieves the best result for … the company’s creditors as a whole”,
yet Clause 14 says that the primary,
“objective of an education administration is to … avoid or minimise disruption to the studies of the … students”.
There seems to be a slight contradiction here regarding whether the education administrator is going to put students or creditors first. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, that perhaps the problem is with creditors: if they feel they are going to be last in line to get paid back, that might make more problems for colleges in getting funding. Can the Minister perhaps clarify the apparent contradiction between those two clauses?
I generally support the amendments. I started from a very particular consideration: I wondered whether I would be prepared to be an education administration person, because I think I am qualified to be so. The first thing I would want to know is where my financial backing was. The first thing I would ask for would be a guarantee that I would not end up personally liable, as under normal insolvency law I would be. I would need a back-up. The problem here, as with all public sector bodies—I have been through this before when we were thinking about what to do about a failing nationalised industry—is that if the Government are the guarantor or provider of last resort, the creditors will be perfectly happy but I am not quite certain how the education administrator gets out of it. I do not think I would be prepared to be an education administrator without an underwriting behind me. Mere appointment by a court would not do it for me. Have the Government thought about this bit?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have put their names to this group of amendments. I shall begin with Amendments 40 and 44. I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, also referenced Amendment 46A, regarding creditors. I will get to that but if he and other noble Lords could bear with me, it would be rather easier if I could do this sequentially.
On Amendments 40 and 44, then, as is the case with other special administration regimes, Clause 15 provides that the person to be appointed as the education administrator must be someone who is qualified to act as an insolvency practitioner in relation to the FE body. This is the only criterion that must be satisfied for appointment as an education administrator.
Amendment 40, however, would require the person appointed as the education administrator to have relevant experience and knowledge of the further education sector, as noble Lords have said, in addition to being qualified to act as an insolvency practitioner. Saving the blushes of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, he is a very good example of accountants who have a breadth of perspective—indeed, I should declare an interest as I am married to an accountant who has a fantastic breadth of perspective—so we should not underestimate their ability to address different sectors with the same amount of expertise.
While such experience may be desirable, it is certainly not essential. Noble Lords familiar with the company insolvency regime will know that insolvency practitioners are often appointed to administer companies in sectors where they have little or no experience. That does not prevent them carrying out their duties successfully; it is their ability to understand and apply the different options available to them in the insolvency toolkit that is of most importance, not a detailed knowledge of the sector or the company. It is no different in an education administration.
In his evidence to the Committee in another place Mr Stephen Harris, an experienced insolvency practitioner with Ernst & Young, said that:
“From an insolvency practitioner’s perspective, it is worth standing back and recognising that insolvency practitioners are not train drivers, or people who spend their life in the railway or the London Underground, when it comes to a special administration regime, nor are they specialist property developers. They come to each situation afresh. One comforting thing that insolvency practitioners bring is recognising when they need to keep in place the existing management structure in a corporate sense, or the workforce in a pastoral sense, recognising that those people have skills and qualifications that they as an office holder do not necessarily have, and also”—
this is key—in bringing,
“outside specialist help to continuing the duties of education administrator should the need arise. That is … part and parcel of any trading insolvency regime”.—[Official Report, Commons, Technical and Further Education Bill Committee, 22/11/16; col. 46.]
What has just been said is true and I understand exactly where the Minister is coming from but, in a sense, she is talking about traditional creditor-led insolvency. That is not what we are talking about. As I am an accountant with a broad vision, I can extend to make the point that we are talking about replacing a board of governors, with expertise from all around the table, a senior management team, heads of departments, lecturers, a whole panoply of technical and support workers and everything else with one person, and that person is not doing the day job. The day job is getting the creditors into a room and banging their heads together until they settle for 10% or about that level, and then going away. This is about running an institution, perhaps for a long period and on a very complicated basis. It is not quite the same.
I accept the point, but I re-emphasise therefore the importance of that person bringing in outside expertise to support them in the process. I also ought to make the practical point that we would be hard pressed to find many insolvency practitioners who had this expertise as a matter of course. Maybe there are one or two, but I do not know how many.
Mr Harris rightly made the point that the education administrator is similar to all the other special administrator roles, and I share his view. It is not necessary for the education administrator to have direct experience and knowledge of the education sector, but I expect—indeed, I am sure that we all expect—the education administrator to avail themselves of the advice and guidance of those around them. I am being a little repetitive, but this is an important point. I mean not only the management team and staff of the insolvent college but the governors, the further education commissioner, the local authorities and others. Indeed, I cannot conceive of a situation where an education administrator would act in isolation, developing their proposals for meeting the special objective and protecting students without first discussing them with a wide range of stakeholders.
Amendment 44 provides that the education administrator should be able to request information, advice and guidance from those with an understanding of education in performing their functions for the purposes of achieving the special objective. I wholly agree with the purpose of this amendment. Of course it will be important for the education administrator to take advice from experts in the sector in carrying out their functions. As I said, this is precisely how we expect the education administrator to operate. The leadership team in the further education body will be in place to provide support on the day-to-day running of the college and to provide information to assist the education administrator in their task of achieving the special objective, if possible. So too will the further education and sixth-form commissioners and their teams, as well as the officials in the Minister’s department. The education administrator will of course be free to seek advice from any other source that they may consider. We therefore believe that there is no need to provide in the Bill for something which the education administrator is free—and encouraged—to do.
I would make the point, as I often do in situations like this, that we want to be careful not to be too prescriptive in primary legislation, particularly when the Bill, as I said on Monday, really sets out a framework for how these processes should be managed. We do not want to be too prescriptive up front. I want to respond to a number of issues but I shall leave them until I have finished replying to this group of amendments, to be clear that I can cover everything that noble Lords have asked of me.
In order to consider Amendments 42 and 43, we must look not only at Clause 22 but back to Clause 14. These clauses together create the special administration regime for the further education sector. As I hope I have made clear in all that I have said so far about this part of the Bill, our absolute priority in introducing the special administration regime is to ensure, as far as possible, the protection of students’ studies in the unlikely event that their institution becomes insolvent. That is clearly the purpose of Clause 14. I say straightaway in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, who asked whether the students or the creditors have priority, that the students have priority.
Clause 22 makes it equally clear that the education administrator must carry out their functions for the purposes of achieving the special objective, if possible. All other considerations in Clause 22—for example, in relation to creditors—are subject to pursuing that primary purpose, whereby the students take priority. There is no confusion or conflict here about the order of priority. I am afraid we say that Amendment 42 would add nothing to what is already enshrined in the Bill and would therefore serve no practical purpose. There is no need to qualify the statement made in the clause when it is the purpose. The education administrator must carry out their functions for the purpose of achieving the objective of the education administration, as set out clearly in Clause 14.
On Amendment 43, we are clear about what we are asking the education administrator to do: to carry out their functions so as to achieve the objective of avoiding or minimising disruption to the studies of the body’s students. However, the special objective is exactly that: an objective, which does not and cannot guarantee a particular outcome. We are not providing a guarantee to every student on an individual basis. That would not be in the interests of either taxpayers or creditors. It is important to recognise that there may be some circumstances in which the objective cannot be achieved because of the particular circumstances of a college. The term “if possible” recognises that there can be no guarantee that the special objective can be achieved and that it is not a guarantee for every student.
The structure of having a statutory objective for a special administration is common to all special administration regimes, which operate on the same basis. The statutory objective is not a guarantee of continued service provision but provides an overarching aim that takes priority over creditors’ interests, which are themselves protected by having an orderly process in the event of the insolvency of a public service provider. Without that protection, it is unlikely that any insolvency practitioner would accept the appointment as education administrator. No administrator would personally accept the risk that it might prove impossible in a particular case to achieve the special objective. Without an insolvency practitioner there can be no special administration regime and, ultimately, no mechanism to protect the students’ studies. The key to all this is protecting the students’ studies.
I hope the Committee is persuaded that the Bill as drafted ensures that the protection of students is the primary purpose in accordance with which the education administrator must carry out their functions, and that the noble Baroness will therefore agree to withdraw this amendment.
I am still slightly confused about how what the Minister says is squared with Clause 22(5) which says that the education administrator must,
“carry out his or her functions in a way that achieves the best result for—
(a) the company’s creditors as a whole”,
That does not seem consistent with what she is saying about the emphasis on the students.
I did actually reference this while the noble Baroness was talking to a colleague. There is no contradiction. As I said about five minutes ago, the creditors’ objective is secondary and subject to the special objective of protecting students’ studies. Only when it is consistent with the special objective does the education administrator have regard to creditors’ needs. This reflects normal insolvency procedure. It is right that the education administrator has regard to creditors’ needs. I hope this is helpful.
May I have another go at this point? In the days when I was a civil servant, a bust company would arrive on the doorstep of the Minister. Since it was in the Industry Act that we had the power, and indeed a duty, to preserve jobs, the administrator would usually ask us, “How far do you want to go? I can keep this company going for another five weeks, while we look for a buyer, but I want an underwrite. My client, the bank, is not interested. It is going to close this company”. There is the same problem here. Who authorises the administrator to go on putting the students’ interests first and to what end? The legislation is clear: the administrator puts the students’ interests first and tries to get a satisfactory answer. After two months, it becomes clear that nobody wants these students, nor this institution. I would not start out as the administrator without having a pretty clear view of what I had to do, when I was asked to stop and to whom I should go back and say, “This one is not going to work. May I now go back and satisfy the creditors?”. The process is worrying me. The words are all right, but I do not understand the process. I am sure we would all prefer not to have the process tested in practice, as it were, and have it come unglued there.
I am clutching a response to the noble Baroness’s earlier question which is on point. Clauses 26 and 28 allow the Secretary of State to provide the education administrator with indemnities or guarantees where that is necessary or appropriate. The education administrator will be able to apply to be discharged from office when they believe that they have achieved the special objective.
It may also help if I move on to Amendment 46A which specifically references creditors. Although we share common ground in our commitment to ensuring that if a further education body were to become insolvent, students would be placed at the heart of the subsequent administration process through the special objective, we do not share common ground here.
Clause 5 applies existing company insolvency law to further education colleges. The long-standing insolvency regime ensures that the interests of creditors are protected when a company becomes insolvent. Without such protection, lenders would rightly change their lending behaviours, such as by imposing higher interest rates and lending lower amounts. Other businesses would also become more cautious in trading with companies they perceived to be at risk of failing. This would ultimately paralyse growth. The same is true of the further education sector. So, while we are all agreed that there is a need to protect students’ studies—and that is the purpose of the special administration regime—there is also a need to have regard to the interests of creditors.
Through the special administration regime, we are rightly placing the protection of students’ studies ahead of the interests of creditors. However, as I said, this does not mean that the interests of creditors can, or should, be ignored. That would undoubtedly damage the further education sector, and I am sure that colleges themselves would be opposed to such action.
Subsections (4) and (5) make clear, therefore, that where the education administrator has a choice between courses of action that equally meet the special objective and protect students, they must follow the approach which achieves the best result for creditors and, where the college is run by a company, the company’s members. This delivers both protection for student studies and the reassurance that creditors, particularly lenders, need to ensure that the further education sector continues to be able to grow and improve to meet the needs of young people.
I want to respond to questions about the banks. Gareth Jones of Santander said:
“Overall, from our perspective, we are still very supportive of the sector—still looking to grow our exposure to the sector and grow our lending book. On the Bill and the proposed insolvency regime, we are actually supportive of the clarity that they provide”—[Official Report, Commons, Technical and Further Education Bill Committee, 22/11/16; col. 38.]
I was asked whether we are afraid that commercial debt will dry up for colleges as banks reassess their risk profiles, which is a critical point. The answer is no. Banks make lending decisions based on many considerations, and of course we expect them to reassess the risk profile of the sector now that exceptional financial support will no longer be available, but we expect them to continue to lend, particularly in light of the good work being done through the area review to build financially stable and resilient colleges. If this means a careful assessment of an individual college, its business plan and management, that is a good thing.
I hope that I have been able to answer all noble Lords’ questions on this group of amendments. If not, I will be happy to write to noble Lords but, on the basis of what I have been able to say this afternoon, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I thank those who have spoken in the debate for their questions, which are at the heart of the issues we raised. As I said at the beginning, this is a group in two parts. The questions about the individual appointed were well answered by the Minister; I am happy on that. There is a big task here. While it is true that the Bill says that the education administrator would be appointed only if they have the capacity to do the work, experience may well be lacking. We may be in difficulty there. On the other hand, I also made the point that we are talking about a specialist area in which there may be some growth in expertise that will allow us to get through that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and my noble friend Lady Cohen made points about how we balance the issues in the special administration system between the ongoing requirements of the students, the priority given them in the Bill and the rather odd words that appear in Clause 22. They which relate to a subset, not all of the groups in FE—I take that point—but they nevertheless imply, on a casual reading, that creditors will not be significantly disadvantaged in the long run because the function of the administration is to be carried out in a way that achieves the best results for the company’s creditors as a whole and, subject to that, the company’s members: its shareholders or shareholder equivalents.
I do not think there is an answer to this across the table. It might be sensible to have a meeting. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, said that he had a good briefing from officials; I did not have that chance. Perhaps if I could have a relatively short meeting on some of the technical issues here. That might be helpful in trying to tease this out. I do not think we are far apart on this. It is difficult. A bit of reassurance is required and, if the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, is anything to go by, that might be helpful. In the interim, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 40 withdrawn.
Clause 15 agreed.
Clauses 16 and 17 agreed.
Clause 18: Powers of the court on hearing an application
41: Clause 18, page 9, line 15, at end insert—
“( ) suspend the Office for Students' protection action for students.”
This should be relatively quick. Clause 18 contains a list of measures to be taken under the power of the court on hearing an initial application—presumably for the purposes of clearing the ground so that the individual who is appointed educational administrator has a narrower process. The list under subsection (2) includes restricting the power of the education body and clarifies that where the education body has a different corporate form, it can also be intervened on to make the work required of the special administrator easier. We thought that the list in Clause 18 (2) was a bit narrow. This probing amendment is to explore that, and I look forward to hearing the Minister on this point.
Other issues may counterpose on the activities of those who are in further education colleges. It is not impossible that the Office for Students, which is soon to be established, may have made an order in relation to, for instance, access and protection in relation to a course that a student is taking. Would that be part of the order? I look forward to hearing from the Minister on that point. I beg to move.
My Lords, we have seen from our recent scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Bill that it includes provisions to ensure that those undertaking higher education courses are able to continue their learning and are protected if their provider is unable to deliver their course—perhaps, but not solely as a result of it exiting the market; the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to that. Under these proposals the Office for Students will have the flexibility to require any provider on the register to have a student protection plan in place through conditions attached to its registration. We expect that the OfS will require all approved fee-capped providers, including FE colleges, if they are higher education providers, to have plans in place. In those FE colleges with students studying HE courses, the FE students will have the benefit of being protected by the special objective in the event of the college becoming insolvent and the body being placed in education administration. Measures within the provider’s student protection plan may also be relevant and could be brought into play.
I understand that noble Lords are concerned that FE colleges offering such provision will be subject to both regimes and that this will add to the cost of running HE provision. Whether to require FE bodies to have student protection plans in place will be a matter for the Office for Students to decide. However, I agree that where an FE body is insolvent and in special administration, it would make little sense for the education administrator to be required to implement the SPP at the same time as implementing the proposals to achieve the special objective, if possible, as those proposals will extend to the very students covered by the student protection plan.
Where the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers have decided to place an FE college in special administration, the special objective should take precedence over SPPs. In seeking to achieve the special objective, the education administrator must avoid or minimise disruption to the studies of students of the FE body as a whole, regardless of the course they are studying. There may be circumstances in which the education administrator may find it helpful to refer to the measures within the plan to inform the proposals for a particular student or groups of students, but a student protection plan might impede the education administrator’s discretion about the best way to achieve the special objective. Where this is the case, the provisions of the Bill already allow the court to make an interim order that would suspend existing student protection plans where it considers that necessary or appropriate. I hope that I have been able to reassure the noble Lord that the proposed amendment is unnecessary and that he will withdraw it.
I thank the Minister for his response. I am glad we agree on this. I thought for a moment he was going to give me a concession, which would have been unexpected for a very broad probing amendment. He did not, but he did say that there is a power in Bill. I have been unable to find it, so if he could write to me about that, I would be grateful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 41 withdrawn.
Clause 18 agreed.
Clauses 19 to 21 agreed.
Clause 22: General functions of education administrator
Amendments 42 to 46A not moved.
Clause 22 agreed.
Clause 23 agreed.
Schedule 2: Education administration: transfer schemes
47: Schedule 2, page 30, line 39, at end insert—
“3A The education administrator may not transfer assets of any further education body to a for-profit private company where he or she considers that more than half of the funding of the acquisition of the asset came from public funds.”
My Lords, I was hoping to have a short breather while we discussed other important matters, but unfortunately that has not happened. We move on to Amendment 47, which refers back to some of the issues that we have been dealing with regarding process, particularly what happens to assets. Clearly much of the work of the special administration scheme will be the ability to bring forward and, if necessary, sell—in other words, dispose of—assets that would otherwise not be there that could be used to repay the creditors, and I suppose might in part be used to maintain the operation of the college that is under liquidation.
To stand back a little from the issue, the interesting thing is that much of what we are trying to achieve in this special educational administration is more akin to the Chapter 11 processes in American bankruptcy law than to those here. We have the same basic elements: a court-driven procedure, the protection measure in place in order to make sure that the institution is kept as a going concern, and a commitment that is well expressed in terms of the special purposes of the education administrator to take it through. The question is whether or not that follows through all the way.
The amendment is probing, but it builds on one or two issues regarding which we want to get responses from the Minister on the record. In the first place, it would be helpful if we clarified that, as has been explained by the Ministers in their responses, this is unlikely to be a regular occurrence and will not be precipitated by the Bill, but it might happen and therefore we should walk through it and understand it. If we have a situation where a college is going insolvent, either the system can then operate on existing measures or the Secretary of State can apply for and obtain an order to establish the special administration, and then we are into the process that we have talked about at length and do not need to go back to.
However, it may arise that funds coming into the college to maintain it as a going concern are difficult to sustain. There may be changes in government policy or other changes in external funding that mean that it will not remain a going concern. So we are talking about maintaining the services and facilities for the students for as long as possible but in the certain knowledge that the institution is going to close down. At that point, I am sure it will be in the mind of the special administrator that some assets could be sold so that money could be obtained. Depending on the rules laid down for them, it would probably be rather difficult for that person not to engage with that possibility. However much we may wish to have the assets and the buildings maintained in case there is an uplift and the funds come back, the cruel reality of the situation will probably kick in and mean that the assets will be sold.
If the institution were a charity, as many of these bodies are, the question would not arise because, under charity law, charitable bodies holding assets are not allowed to dispose of them to third parties—in fact there is a prohibition that they must dispose of them to charities of similar nature and purpose so that the charitable purpose under which they were originally established may be maintained. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is the Government’s understanding of the issue. Where special systems or incorporation arrangements are in place, I assume that that will also apply, but charitable status is the main area here, so we are talking about a relatively small group of places where the natural process would be perhaps to squeeze the college down to a smaller area and get rid of buildings, equipment and so on.
The problem then arises that funding was almost certainly originally provided from local authorities but, since then, certainly from central government, so there is an investment issue about whether the funding that has been provided should not be better retained in the sector, even if it cannot be retained within the existing body as a going concern. So the amendment poses this question: in the relatively unlikely event of this happening where the college is not a charity, what happens to freeheld assets that could be disposed of where those assets were originally funded from the public purse? Is there not at least a moral obligation to ensure that they are retained within the sector? I beg to move.
I have always been concerned when public money has been used to purchase a facility—let us say that it has been used to purchase an FE college and that FE college then sells off land, for example a playing field. That playing field may often have a dual use: perhaps the local community uses it for activities, for example, which is good for the FE college and for the local community. So when it sells it off, public money is being lost to that community.
As we said under the first group of amendments, the likelihood of insolvency is remote. With this amendment, I get the point that public money bought the facilities but, presumably, you could have local authorities—I have seen it quite often—saying, “We’ll have the facilities”, but then selling them off to the private sector to get that money in for other things for the community. Is that the point that the noble Lord is making?
No, it is not actually—although that is a scary prospect. In my scenario, we are in a liquidation situation in which decisions have been reached that the college is going to decline, because it cannot be made secure. It has been superseded by the court order now in the hands of the special administrator, and a decision has to be made about what happens to the residue. That may take time, but at the end of the day there will be a blank wall and the car will hit it. At that point, what happens to those assets? It is not that they could not be sold for benefit—the noble Lord’s point about land is absolutely right. I think it is pretty unlikely, but there could be land associated with FE colleges that, if sold, could realise development potential which could pay off all the creditors, and that could be seen to be a good thing. But if that money was originally provided for the education—not for a charity, because that is protected—what is the right way to go forward?
In that case, there is merit in considering the amendment.
I support what I think the amendment is about. There is a worrying set of complications, in my mind. Someone has provided the money to keep the FE college going while the special administrator decides that actually it cannot be kept going. Where does the person who provided the money rank among the creditors? We are talking about selling assets at the end of this. For a start, the bank might have a charge on those assets, in which case I guess that is the answer, but somebody has put money in to keep the business going. I have done this on behalf of the Department of Industry—we took back the money that we had put in to keep it going. What is the order of batting in relation to the local authority, or whoever it is, who put the money in to keep the institution going, and the rest of the creditors?
My Lords, I start by saying that I recognise that the amendment is driven by noble Lords’ good intentions. They are concerned that assets that have been paid for largely by money from the taxpayer should not then find their way into the private sector at an undervalue, when they can then be sold and used to make a profit at the taxpayer’s expense. I recognise and share those concerns. FE colleges are statutory corporations with significant freedoms to deal with their own assets, but the key check on those freedoms is that any such dealing must be in the interests of the colleges’ charitable education—as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, the basis on which they have their charitable status.
There are, of course, no restrictions on who solvent colleges can transfer property to unless the property has a covenant on it or a specified interest. Any transfer would need to achieve full value for the college. For example, where the governors of a college sold a building to a private for-profit company, they would have to consider their duties to the college as a charity, which are to achieve fair and full value. The sale proceeds would then, like all assets of the college, have to be used for the education purpose for which the college is established. I remind noble Lords that we are talking only about a situation where a college has failed financially and is insolvent—I hope this is an extreme case—and the Secretary of State has decided that there should be a special administration regime to protect students and provide an orderly process for creditors.
The special administration regime demands that the education administrator must seek to achieve the special objective of avoiding or minimising disruption to the studies of existing students of that college and, as far as it is consistent with the special objective, the best result for creditors, as we have already discussed. If the best way to achieve that and maximise the proceeds of sale for the furtherance of the special objective involves a sale of the college’s assets to a private for-profit company then that should not be ruled out. Indeed, it is likely that in a college insolvency, a buyer might well be from the private sector, and to rule them out of the equation might well result in a lower price being achieved for the asset and consequently less money to further the special objective. It might even mean the difference between some students completing or not completing their courses. For creditors of the college, it might mean that the outcome for them is worse than it needs to be. As I said, obviously the duty will be to achieve full and fair value, not sell at an undervalue.
I spoke—albeit briefly—at Second Reading about the safeguards we are putting in place in the event that the education administrator considers it appropriate to make a scheme to transfer property rights and liabilities of an insolvent body, and I spoke about the quadruple lock. I will expand on the detail of those safeguards. First, unlike solvent operational colleges which may wish to transfer property, if the education administrator decides to make a transfer, he or she is restricted in who they can transfer the assets to. These bodies are prescribed in secondary legislation made under Sections 27B(1) and 33B(1) of the Further and Higher Education Act. They are public sector bodies with educational functions, such as local authorities, colleges and similar public-funded education bodies. In addition, transfers can be made to private companies but, if that is the case, the company must be established for purposes that include the provision of education facilities or services of any description.
Secondly, just as with any other action of the education administrator, any transfer scheme must be for the purposes of achieving a special objective. There must therefore be an educational purpose to the transfer scheme. Thirdly, creditors have a general right of challenge should they consider that the education administrator is not working to fulfil the subsidiary objective of achieving the best result for creditors as a whole, so far as it is consistent with the special objective. Creditors would rightly complain if assets were needlessly transferred on the cheap and, of course, any sale proceeds will be used directly or indirectly for educational purposes. The proceeds may be used to pay for continuing teaching of students so as to achieve the special objective, or to pay other costs of achieving the special objective as well, subject to the objective to pay creditors. Finally, the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers must approve the proposed transfer scheme. That approval will necessarily include consideration of whether the transfer is for the purpose of achieving the special objective.
To answer the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Cohen of Pimlico, if the Secretary of State has put funding in, she can decide on a case-by-case basis whether to make funding available for an education administration on the basis of a grant or a loan, and whether any loan should be prioritised in repayment over other creditors or subordinated to be repaid when other creditors, secured and unsecured, have been paid, if remaining funds allow.
I hope that these protections make clear to noble Lords that this is not about the transfer of publicly funded assets to the private sector on the cheap or by way of windfall. It is rightly about putting in place an orderly process for dealing with the assets of an insolvent FE body so as to achieve the special objective of protecting students and the secondary objective of protecting creditors in the event of insolvency.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful comments. I suspect that the most assured protection would be for the body concerned to be a charitable body. This would give total protection to the resources in the institution because it is not possible to make such a transfer under charitable law. That is not the situation if there are special measures. It is sufficiently clear that the primary purposes trump others—in so far as it is possible that the assets should be kept and used for further education. In these circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 47 withdrawn.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Clause 24 agreed.
Schedule 3: Conduct of education administration: statutory corporations
48: Schedule 3, page 34, line 34, after “authority,” insert—
“( ) to the director of children’s services at the local authority or combined authority in whose area the relevant institution is based, and to any other director of children’s services that the education administrator thinks appropriate,”
My Lords, I want to explain Amendments 48 to 55, which we have tabled to Schedules 3 and 4. These reflect the commitment that my colleague, the Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, gave in the other place to ensure that the needs of care leavers are provided for in the event that the FE body they attend enters educational administration. We agree that students who are care leavers and have already experienced uncertainty and disruption in their lives may well need additional support to help and reassure them during what may feel like uncertain times. Of course, it is entirely possible that, in the event of insolvency, the insolvent college will be taken over by another provider and students will be able to remain on the same campus, studying many of the same subjects. If this is not possible and students need to be transferred to other providers and possibly other courses, we want to ensure that care leavers can get the advice and guidance that they need, particularly if this encourages them to remain in further education. Having got care leavers into education—which is sometimes not easy—it is important to make sure that we retain them there.
There was debate in the other place as to whether there should be a requirement placed on the education administrator to take particular account of the needs of care leavers in much the same way as Clause 22(3) requires them to take account of the needs of students with special educational needs. As the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills explained, the needs of care leavers are more pastoral and would, therefore, be better met by the personal advisor appointed by the local authority to support them. He committed the Government to ensuring that guidance to local authorities on their corporate parenting responsibilities would include advice to personal advisers in the event of a college insolvency affecting a young person for whom they were responsible. This amendment supports the delivery of this commitment. It ensures that support and advice is available to those who need it, by adding the director of children’s services in local authorities—or in combined authorities where relevant—to the list of those to whom the education administrator is required to send a copy of the proposals for dealing with the insolvent college. In this way, the local authority will receive formal notification of what is happening and can trigger the necessary action by personal advisers. I hope that noble Lords will agree to accept these amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, I warmly welcome these amendments. I am sure that if the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, were in his place, he would be particularly pleased to see that these were included. It is reassuring to find the director of children’s services being included in the Bill.
Amendment 48 agreed.
Amendments 49 to 51
49: Schedule 3, page 34, line 44, at end insert—
“( ) to any director of children’s services to whom the statement of proposals was sent under paragraph 49,”
50: Schedule 3, page 39, line 38, at end insert—
“““combined authority” means an authority established under section 103(1) of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009;”,““director of children’s services” means—(a) in respect of a local authority, a person appointed under section 18 of the Children Act 2004;(b) in respect of a combined authority, a person appointed to discharge functions corresponding to those of a person appointed under section 18 of the Children Act 2004;”,”
51: Schedule 3, page 40, line 12, at end insert—
“““local authority” has the meaning given in section 65 of the Children Act 2004;”,”
Amendments 49 to 51 agreed.
Schedule 3, as amended, agreed.
Schedule 4: Conduct of education administration: companies
Amendments 52 to 55
52: Schedule 4, page 42, line 28, after “authority,” insert—
“( ) to the director of children’s services at the local authority or combined authority in whose area the relevant institution is based, and to any other director of children’s services that the education administrator thinks appropriate,”
53: Schedule 4, page 42, line 38, at end insert—
“( ) to any director of children’s services to whom the statement of proposals was sent under paragraph 49,”
54: Schedule 4, page 47, line 33, at end insert—
“““combined authority” means an authority established under section 103(1) of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009;”,““director of children’s services” means—(a) in respect of a local authority, a person appointed under section 18 of the Children Act 2004;(b) in respect of a combined authority, a person appointed to discharge functions corresponding to those of a person appointed under section 18 of the Children Act 2004;”,”
55: Schedule 4, page 47, line 45, at end insert—
“““local authority” has the meaning given in section 65 of the Children Act 2004;”,”
Amendments 52 to 55 agreed.
Schedule 4, as amended, agreed.
Clauses 25 to 27 agreed.
Clause 28: Guarantees where education administration order is made
56: Clause 28, page 13, line 2, at end insert—
“( ) Sums guaranteed under subsection (1) shall include statutory pension obligations payable to staff employed by a further education body subject to an education administration order.”
My Lords, Amendment 56 would ensure that staff employed by an FE college continued to accrue statutory teachers’ pension scheme and local government pension scheme pension obligations during an education administration. The first of those is self-explanatory, and FE colleges are legally obliged to offer either that or LGPS membership to their staff. The latter is the scheme for the large number of so-called support staff, from learning support assistants, caretakers and catering staff to administrators, cleaners and IT technicians. It would be completely unacceptable if, as a result of an insolvency, staff pension rights or their potential pension rights were to be adversely affected.
When this amendment was considered on Report in another place, the Minister, Mr Halfon, said:
“As with any administration, once the administrator has adopted the employment contracts of the staff they decide to keep on, they are personally liable for the costs of those ?individuals, such as their salary and their pension contributions. They would take on the appointment only if they were confident that sufficient funds were available to meet the costs. Some pension contributions will continue to be made and benefits accrue”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/1/17; col. 115.]
Although that sounds like a firm commitment, it has not assuaged those with staff directly involved in colleges—namely, the Association of Colleges and the University and College Union. If that is what the Government understand the position to be, I suggest they can have no objection to placing it in the Bill. The Minister in the other place did not provide a reason why that could not be undertaken, and I hope the Minister today will state the case one way or the other.
There are wider issues regarding pensions relating to the Bill. There is concern within the FE sector that the insolvency regime outlined in the Bill is already discouraging partnership and investment by making banks hesitant to lend to colleges. Some colleges are facing issues with proposed mergers arising from area reviews because of difficulties with bank lending linked to local government pension scheme liabilities, which now have to be shown on colleges’ balance sheets.
The area reviews under way are aimed at rationalising the FE sector. That process has been more problematic than it might have been, but at least no colleges have been closed thus far. A number have been merged and often that has worked well, with both partners approaching the future with greater confidence. However, that has not always been the case. For various reasons some projected mergers have not been completed, and one such example is currently the subject of some controversy. Other than to say that they are based in the same city, I will not identify the colleges because that might serve to exacerbate an already difficult situation, but the major stumbling block in that case is the pension scheme, more so at one college than the other. The local LGPS has changed the colleges’ deficit repayment terms from a 22-year plan with no interest to a 10-year plan with an interest rate of 4.3%. As a result, banks are refusing to advance the necessary funds to allow the mergers to go ahead. Essentially the increasing potential for colleges to become insolvent and the proposals within the Bill mean that colleges are now being viewed as high-risk employers, making both pension schemes and banks look on them less favourably and undermining area review outcomes where these have otherwise been agreed.
I have already mentioned the two schemes that apply. When incorporation began some 25 years ago and colleges were removed from local authority control, part of the deal was that by regulation they were obliged to offer one of the schemes as appropriate to existing staff. For new staff, colleges have often held contracts of employment with a wholly owned subsidiary company that may or may not be part of either the teachers’ pay pension scheme or the local government pension scheme—more often, for obvious reasons, it has been “may not”. So, provided that a college keeps paying for current staff, pension costs in respect of new staff will slowly be reduced as they are put on significantly worse pension schemes.
The college area review process has caused problems because often the local fund of the local government pension scheme requires the scheme’s debts to be met by the new entity. This becomes more complicated where mergers cross local authority borders, involving different strands of the LGPS. Differing LGPS regions have significantly different policies on past service deficits, and impose differing contribution rates. They might even insist upon any deficits being paid off in full.
An example of this has been brought to my attention by Sandwell College in West Bromwich. The West Midlands local government pension fund has notified all colleges in its region that, because of its interpretation of the Bill, it intends to increase the risk banding of all colleges. Sandwell College has been rated financially outstanding by both the DfE and the SFA and, in the area review, the further education commissioner decided that it should remain a viable independent institution. Despite all that, the West Midlands pension fund still believes that, because of the insolvency regime that forms the bulk of the Bill, Sandwell College is now at high risk, when it is palpably is not.
The impact of this illogical decision is that the college’s deficit reduction pension contributions will rise from the current annual level of £430,000 to £1 million next year and £1.3 million the following year. Another West Midlands institution, the City of Wolverhampton College, also has a major issue with its pension costs, but that is far from the only region of England where such problems are arising.
All too often when noble Lords propose amendments to Bills, the Minister responsible will knock them down citing unintended consequences. The Minister will surely not claim that the scenario that I have just outlined is an intended consequence of the Bill, so I ask what he intends to do about it. How bizarre it would be for an insolvency regime designed to act as a safety net for situations which the Minister has told us he envisages arising extremely rarely to itself increase colleges’ costs and perhaps, in extreme cases, help to push them towards insolvency.
I appreciate that the Minister cannot give a detailed response to these issues today—I do not expect that—but I trust that he will acknowledge that the problem exists and that the Bill is impacting in advance of Royal Assent. I invite him to write to me with his understanding of the issues, setting out what, if anything, he feels able to do to assist colleges caught up in them through no fault of their own. On the basis of what he says, we shall consider whether to revisit this topic at Report. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this important amendment. As we said at the beginning and keep underlining, the insolvency regime is highly unlikely to happen, but that does not mean that we cannot give comfort to staff working in further education, particularly at a time when all the changes, area reviews and, indeed, the Bill have created uncertainty when they need certainty. As we have heard, often through no fault of their own, they could be in a poorer financial place. When we have just heard that BHS staff are to get their full pension entitlements, would it not be nice if the Minister would agree the amendment?
I raise another worry that has come to me, which is the reverse. If a public or private company is in danger of takeover, one very good way to prevent that is to introduce a poison pill. The quick way to do it is usually through a very generous pension scheme, or a pay-off scheme for your senior staff. If I were a threatened institution, I might be tempted to consider either of those. It is a hard life, but do we have any means of dealing with threatened institutions which introduce financial measures which will make it much more difficult if they need to be closed or otherwise dealt with?
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this important debate and will do my very best to reply and, I hope, reassure—notwithstanding that I think that noble Lords accept that some of the important issues raised go beyond the scope of the amendment.
I recognise the well-intentioned purpose of the amendment, which is to ensure that those staff employed by a further education body in education administration continue to accrue their pension entitlements. I hope to reassure the Committee that pension rights will be protected in the unlikely event that the further education body becomes insolvent and is placed in education administration.
In developing the special administration regime, the Committee will see that we have sought to mirror many of the provisions that exist in the ordinary administration regime that applies in the event of a company insolvency. As noble Lords will know, in an ordinary company administration, the administrator has 14 days to decide whether to adopt staff contracts. Those who continue to be employed by the company will continue to be paid in accordance with the contract, including payment by the company of any pension contributions that fall due. These payments are an expense of the administration and continue until the staff are transferred to a new employer, if the business is sold to a new owner, as is often the case, or until their contract is terminated. We propose to adopt similar provisions for an education administration.
We have been clear that, for the education administration to be successful—for the special objective to be achieved—it will be necessary for the Government to provide funding to achieve the special objective: for example, to allow the college to continue to operate while the education administrator prepares his proposals for the college’s future. The Bill provides at Clause 25 powers for the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers to provide that funding, where necessary, whether through loans or grants. In addition, the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers may choose, where they consider it appropriate, to give indemnities under Clause 26, or guarantees under Clause 28, during the education administration.
Any funding provided under Clause 25 can be used to meet the cost of the education administration, including ongoing staff salaries and associated contributions, such as employer pension contributions. For as long as pension contributions are being made in accordance with staff contracts, pension entitlements will continue to accrue. The education administration changes nothing in this regard. However, once contributions cease, so too will the accrual of benefits. This would happen where staff were made redundant during the education administration. As with any employer pension scheme, once an individual’s employment ends they can no longer continue to pay into that scheme, but that does not mean that the benefits individuals have accrued in the scheme at that point are lost. Although they can no longer be added to, the benefits accrued will remain in the scheme and increase, as provided for by the terms of the scheme. Individuals will be able to access these benefits as and when the terms permit.
I believe that the way in which the regime will operate in practice means that the amendment is unnecessary. The Secretary of State may not provide a guarantee during an education administration, whereas it is almost inevitable that the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers will provide funding through a loan or grant during an education administration. This funding will enable the continued operation of the further education body, and this in turn will mean that pension contributions continue to be made for all staff, whether teachers, caretakers, cleaners or support staff. I hope that that gives some reassurance.
I turn to some of the wider issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cohen. Further education colleges report that they are seeing a marked increase in the risks attached to their LGPS pension deficits. The question is: what are we going to do to counteract that? Further education bodies underwent the triennial revaluation of their LGPS pension deficit positions last year, and are still in the process of receiving and reviewing their results. We are aware of the outcome of a few, but not the majority, of the positions of colleges across England. The picture we have is mixed, with some coming out with results better than anticipated, and a minority even seeing their deficit repayment cost reduced for the forthcoming period. Others are seeing their costs increased. In some cases, that may be because they did not increase substantially in the previous revaluation period. There is residual adjustment being made in this period.
The assessment of repayment obligations is a function of many factors, including fund performance, the size of the deficit and fund managers’ overall analysis of the financial position of the relevant college. Reports from colleges received so far suggest that in only a few cases has a pension fund’s assessment of the risk of further education insolvency specifically contributed to revaluations with significantly increased repayment costs. Further education bodies have freedoms and flexibilities in law to be financially and operationally independent of government and are therefore classified by the ONS as private sector. Pension revaluations are a matter for negotiation between individual FE colleges and their pension fund, and final revaluations are normally based on a variety of factors as assessed by actuaries.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned Sandwell, and I shall reference that and West Midlands. Only two of the 91 LGPS pension funds expressed in response to our consultation that the special objective in the insolvency regime was inappropriately formulated, one—which was actually West Midlands—suggesting that creditor protection should be placed on a par with learner protection and the other suggesting that creditor protection should be prioritised over learners. The others that responded to the consultation supported the premise of learner protection or were silent on the point.
As was set out in our response to the consultation, it is right that learner protection is prioritised and that approach is widely supported, even by other creditors. That is the point of the special objective. A few pension funds also questioned not limiting the length of the time for a SAR. We are clear that this is so as to not constrain the education administrator. In reality, an education administration may well last a similar length of time to an ordinary administration. Ordinary company administrations often last at least 12 months and then are often extended for a further 12 months or so, so an education administration lasting this length of time would not be unusual for insolvency proceedings. Several pension funds, as well as other creditors, sought greater certainty on how a SAR would be funded, and the Government responded by providing additional flexibility in the funding power set out in the Bill, removing the requirement that loans from government be made on a basis of priority to other creditors. So the Government can choose, in each individual case, to pay for the costs of the SAR up front by a loan and to not require that loan to be repaid unless any funds remained after other creditors had been paid out, meaning that the assets normally available to creditors remain available to creditors in the usual priority. This will be a matter to be decided case by case, but it does not appear that all pension funds have taken this change from the stricter position in normal insolvency into account in their assessment of the risk.
With regard to the wider issues, which go beyond the scope of the amendment, I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords. If there are issues outstanding, I shall write to noble Lords and place a copy in the Library for the benefit of all. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.
I thank the noble Baroness for that comprehensive response. On the first part of the response relating to the amendment, to a significant extent she repeated the words of Mr Halfon in another place but, equally, she repeated his failure to give a reason why this should not be in the Bill. She said that the Government propose to adopt similar provisions—
I may not be able to reassure the noble Lord, but we simply do not feel that it is necessary to have this in the Bill.
Yes, but that is not giving a reason. The proposal is very important, and it fits in with the provisions in Clauses 25 to 28. No harm can be done in having it in the Bill; if it gives reassurance to those working within the sector, I would suggest that, in the absence of any reason not to do it, that should be sufficient reason for it to be included.
I accept that the other points that I raised were beyond the scope of the amendment, and I thank the Minister for indulging me in her response. I praise the perspicacity of the officials sitting behind her, who obviously had an answer pretty much prepared, without knowing that I was going to raise these issues. Maybe it just came off the top of their heads—but either way it was impressive and very detailed.
I will want to take some time to consider what the Minister said. There may well be a case for seeking a report from the Government Actuary on funds that have acted strangely because, if I heard her correctly, she said that two out of 91 funds have suggested that they foresee problems as a result of the provisions of the Bill. I had not realised that it was that narrow. There is still the potential for other funds to adopt a similar position. Perhaps they are holding fire until the Bill becomes law. Can the matter be referred to the Government Actuary for a report on the potential outcome as well as the actual outcomes? At the moment, it seems that problems are being created for some colleges. If they are mainly in the West Midlands, so be it, but the point is that it could happen elsewhere. Will she look at that possibility? On the basis of what she has said to me, we will decide whether to revisit this issue. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 56 withdrawn.
Clause 28 agreed.
Clauses 29 to 36 agreed.
Clause 37: Disqualification of officers
57: Clause 37, page 18, line 14, at end insert—
“( ) The Secretary of State must ensure that the list of disqualified officers is made publicly available.”
I shall, rather sensibly, be brief because I am trying to amend a clause that I think will be deleted in the next group, so there is not much point in me trying to argue persuasively the merit of my case, although I certainly could. Since the point arises again in relation to the new Clause 37, if it is approved by the Committee, we may as well just cover it.
I do not think we are far apart on this. The question is more one of being clear about what is asked for and how it will be made available. The issue raised by the amendment is that where people are disqualified from holding office in the further education sector, there is a risk if their names are not made available because they could pop up in other colleges and might be subject to the same concerns. A list, which is quite common in other areas of insolvency, should be made available. It is not mentioned in the Bill or the new clause. When the Minister speaks, I may be advised that this will be dealt with in regulations. If so, I would be very happy at that stage to concede that this point is not required. I beg to move.
I intend to go into the detail, which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to, of the application of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 to FE bodies when I speak to the amendment that I have tabled to amend Clause 37 by replacing it with a revised version. As we continue to refer to that Act, in this and the subsequent amendment, I propose that we use its acronym, the CDDA.
For consideration now is Amendment 57, which was tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, which specifically provides that the Secretary of State must ensure that the list of disqualified officers is made publicly available. This amendment refers explicitly to disqualified officers, which we take to mean members—that is, governors—of an FE body who have been disqualified by the court having been found liable of wrongful or fraudulent trading under the Insolvency Act 1986, as applied to FE bodies that are statutory corporations by Clause 5, or of similar offences. Under Clause 5, the provisions in the Insolvency Act 1986 relating to wrongful and fraudulent trading will apply to governors and other individuals who run FE bodies in the same way as those provisions apply to directors of, and others involved in the running of, companies.
I understand noble Lords’ concerns and recognise the intent behind this amendment that a publicly searchable list of disqualified individuals should be maintained, so that it is apparent who should not be appointed as a governor of other FE bodies. However, there is already provision in the CDDA for a register of disqualification orders, which is to be open to inspection, to be kept by the Secretary of State. Therefore Clause 37, both as currently drafted and as we intend to amend it, already provides for the well-intended purpose that noble Lords are seeking to achieve. On this basis, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his comments, which I fully accept. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 57 withdrawn.
58: Clause 37, leave out Clause 37 and insert the following new Clause—“Disqualification of officersIn the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, after section 22F insert—“22G Application of Act to further education bodies(1) This Act applies to further education bodies as it applies to companies.(2) Accordingly, in this Act—(a) references to a company are to be read as including references to a further education body;(b) references to a director or an officer of a company are to be read as including references to a member of a further education body;(c) any reference to the Insolvency Act 1986 is to be read as including a reference to that Act as it applies to further education bodies.(3) As they apply in relation to further education bodies, the provisions of this Act have effect with the following modifications—(a) in section 2(1), the reference to striking off is to be read as including a reference to dissolution;(b) sections 9A to 9E are to be disregarded;(c) references to any of sections 9A to 9E are to be disregarded.(4) In this section—“further education body” means—(a) a further education corporation, or(b) a sixth form college corporation;“further education corporation” means a body corporate that—(a) is established under section 15 or 16 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, or(b) has become a further education corporation by virtue of section 33D or 47 of that Act;“sixth form college corporation” means a body corporate—(a) designated as a sixth form college corporation under section 33A or 33B of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, or(b) established under section 33C of that Act.”
My Lords, the amendments we have tabled are to replace the original Clause 37 with a new version, with the intention of fully applying, rather than replicating, the CDDA to FE bodies in England and Wales. Amendment 65 to Clause 43 adds an additional clause—Clause 5, in so far as it relates to Section 426 of the Insolvency Act—to the parts of the Bill which extend to all parts of the UK.
The amendment to Clause 37 removes the delegated power to replicate the CDDA and instead applies that Act in full to FE bodies in England and Wales. This allows the court to disqualify any governors whom it finds liable to wrongdoing, not only from being governors but also from being company directors. In so doing, it fully prevents them from being able to repeat, in a different way, the mistakes they have made potentially at the expense of another FE body. This was not possible with the original drafting of the clause, which allowed us to replicate the CDDA but not fully apply it. The amendment closes a potential loophole in the legislation and more fully protects learners at FE bodies from the actions of any governor who chose to act recklessly.
Wrongful and fraudulent trading are important elements of the corporate insolvency regime, which protects creditors against wrongful conduct by directors. We are looking to achieve the same protection in our own regime for creditors of FE bodies. The responsibilities we propose for those bodies’ governors are very similar to their existing responsibilities as charity trustees. Part of that protection is the deterrent effect enshrined in and created by the CDDA regime, which goes hand in hand with the corporate insolvency regime and has done so for the past 30 years. The Charity Commission is wholly supportive of the approach we are taking and sees it as in line with the approach taken for the trustees of charitable companies and charitable incorporated organisations.
The amendment to Clause 43 provides that the provisions of the Bill which extend in their application to all the different parts of the UK include Clause 5, in so far as it relates to Section 426 of the Insolvency Act. Let me be clear: this does not mean that the FE insolvency regime would apply to FE bodies incorporated in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It would apply, as set out in Clauses 5 and 6 when read together with the definitions in Clause 3, only to those FE bodies in England and Wales established under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.
The amendment would provide that Section 426 of the Insolvency Act extends to the whole of the UK, which would ensure co-operation between the courts of the different parts of the UK. This means that courts in different jurisdictions might be asked to co-operate on a particular case, for example over the enforcement of a charge where assets are located in a different part of the UK to the location of the insolvent FE body; or, in the case of governor disqualification, preventing a governor disqualified in England or Wales becoming a governor in another part of the UK. In view of what I have said, I hope noble Lords will agree to accept the amendments to Clauses 37 and 43.
Amendment 58 agreed.
Clause 37, as amended, agreed.
Clause 38: Information for Secretary of State about further education
59: Clause 38, page 19, line 4, at end insert— “(2A) Information given under subsections (1) and (2) may include, but is not limited to, information related to—(a) the quality of further education courses provided;(b) the diversity of persons entering further education with regard to gender and ethnicity; and(c) the geographical location of the home of persons relative to the further education body that they attend.”
My Lords, Clause 38 is about information reported to the Secretary of State about further education. We are proposing to add these additional lines because of concerns that any changes to the further education sector should be monitored. This is to ensure that the changes are not having an adverse impact either on the quality of courses provided or on people accessing further education. We need to ensure that no groups are particularly adversely impacted.
In 2015, the Independent reported on concerns that a,
“crisis in education funding could see the closure of as many as four in ten sixth-form and further education colleges, according to a new financial analysis”.
In 2014, Sixth Form Colleges Association research showed that the quality of courses was clearly under threat. Its key findings were that over two-thirds of colleges have had to drop courses this year as a result of budget cuts, 15% more than the previous year, and over one-third have dropped sought-after modern language courses. Modern languages will be even more important if we are to continue to communicate with our near neighbours post-Brexit, as well as keeping up trade and good relationships with countries further afield.
More than one-fifth of colleges have apparently lost courses in science, technology, engineering and maths. We are all aware of the shortage of STEM skills. What folly it would be to lose any provision in these subjects. Almost all the colleges in the research, 95%, say they have had to reduce staffing levels; more than two-thirds are teaching students in larger classes; and almost three-quarters say they have had to reduce or remove extracurricular activities such as sport and music. This situation is not healthy for the country, nor for individuals. The amendment would ensure that we were not walking blindly into an irretrievable position, with the loss of valuable educational provision.
I have also added my name to Amendment 62, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, who spoke on this point at Second Reading. There is so much in the Bill about insolvency that we are in danger of losing sight of the institute. Amendment 62 suggests that the institute should promote soft skills. Particularly for disadvantaged young people but actually for any number of other young people, soft skills are important in getting access to jobs and future opportunities. Surely this could profitably be part of the institute’s role. I beg to move Amendment 59.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for referring to my amendment and adding her name to it. She is quite right that I referred to this point at Second Reading. I also referred to the House of Lords report entitled Youth Unemployment in the EU: A Scarred Generation?, prepared by the EU Committee’s Sub-Committee B. My noble friend Lady Buscombe recently reminded me that for a time, we both served on that committee. As I believe she will respond to this group of amendments on behalf of the Government, I very much look forward to hearing what she has to say.
I make no apology for going back to that sub-committee report because I want to pray in aid paragraph 91 on page 41, which makes the case for my amendment. I should like to read the relevant paragraph, headed “Skills”, into the record:
“Employers suggested that one of the key issues in the area of unemployment was that young people did not have the basic skills to take the available jobs. Marks and Spencer said, ‘we are seeing … school leavers lacking basic employability skills, such as communication, self-esteem, confidence’. It said that this created a vicious circle where young people were unable to get jobs due to their lack of skills, which then further damaged their confidence. WORKing for YOUth said that ‘employers tell us in no uncertain terms that it is the soft skills—the communicative skills, the social skills—that they find most lacking by the time people leave school to come to them’”.
I am sure I am not alone in finding that many of my friends in commerce and industry fully endorse this point.
I do not wish to criticise the youth of today, who in some respects are better qualified than ever before, but it is this area of soft skills—or a lack of them—which can let them down when attending job interviews. It is not their fault; since the advent of smart phones, tablets, Facebook and many other apps and games, the young have become almost addicted to looking at their screens and not interacting with others face to face. Indeed, I read an article in a national newspaper at the weekend saying that young people spend an average of five hours a day looking at their screens, so it is little wonder that some communicative and interpersonal skills are to be found wanting.
Surely, the main purpose of this legislation is to seek to provide the youth of today and tomorrow with the broadest set of skills possible to prepare them for full-time employment. This is a golden opportunity to write this amendment or something similar into the Bill. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister and other noble Lords have to say.
My Lords, we have an amendment in this group. I support the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool. They make a very good case for additional words in the Bill to reflect what is surely implied in much of what we have been discussing: the ability of this sector to turn out people with not only technical and apprenticeship skills but wider abilities in the pursuit of jobs and the support of UK plc.
Our amendment is based on an assumption that if all this information is going to be collected then it must be used for something and not simply stay in files in the department. It should be used to support the technical and FE sectors and make sure that people are aware of what work is being done there. The quality being provided and assured by this Bill will make a difference to what people might do and which careers they are going to have. One of the great complaints we hear is that so little is done to try to encourage people towards this sector where good and rewarding courses are on offer, out of which good and rewarding careers can be built. If that is not known, people will not apply, and we will perpetuate the problems we have had in the past. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about these issues. We support the other two amendments in this group.
Amendment 59 is proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey. It is important that we have a comprehensive analysis of how the further education system is operating in England, including which learners are studying which courses. I agree with noble Lords that analysis of the quality—that is a word I do not think we have used this evening but which we used a lot in Monday in Committee on this Bill—of further education provision and information about learners, including diversity and their geographic circumstances, are important.
However, we believe that this amendment is not necessary. The clause already enables the Secretary of State to require such information if she chooses to do so. The clause rightly gives discretion to the Secretary of State about what information to require from provider organisations. That is the approach in the current legislation we are amending through this clause that underpins a national data system that is working well. The way we gather information is not broken and we are not trying to fix it. We already have the ability to require the information specified in this amendment and already do so. The purpose of this clause is simply to ensure that we can continue to perform a robust and comprehensive analysis of the operation of the further education system in England after responsibility for some aspects of it are transferred to certain combined authorities as part of the wider devolution deals the Government have agreed.
On Amendment 60, I entirely agree with the sentiments of the new clause that would require the Government to have regard to four important aspects of technical and further education. However, I do not believe that the amendment is necessary because they are all things already provided for in the legislation. The duty to,
“promote and support the technical and further education sectors”,
is at the very heart of the recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, in his review. In the skills plan we announced that we would streamline the technical education system by introducing a common framework of routes underpinned by occupational maps. New qualifications will be introduced that are driven by the needs of particular occupations and based on standards designed by employers and other relevant stakeholders. Many of the reforms will be taken forward by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education under amendments made in the Enterprise Act 2016 after Royal Assent which will come into effect from April this year. The reformed technical education system will be reliant on a strong network of colleges and other providers.
The Government’s area review process has supported a restructuring of the post-16 education and training sector and helped to create more financial stable and efficient providers as well as improved collaboration across the different types of institution. We have announced £170 million of capital funding for the institutes of technology to make sure that we have sufficient provision targeted at delivering high-quality technical education at higher skills levels that is tailored around the needs of local employers.
With regard to the duty to ensure high-quality apprenticeship programmes, the duty in paragraph (b) of the proposed clause is not necessary. The Government have already made a public commitment to ensure high-quality apprenticeship programmes. We will discharge this duty in a number of ways. The Government have accepted the recommendations of the Richard and Sainsbury reviews that will help ensure that the apprenticeships offered are of a high standard. As noble Lords are aware, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education—on course to be launched in April—will be an independent body, led by employers and others, which will assure the quality of apprenticeship standards and plans in England. Our apprenticeship reforms have introduced a higher bar through the end-point assessment. The holistic assessment of apprentices will give employers confidence that their apprentices are job-ready by requiring them to demonstrate full competence in their occupation in order to pass their end-point assessment.
The Government’s responsibility to ensure high-quality apprenticeships also extends to training. We are working closely with Ofsted, which has a statutory responsibility to inspect the apprenticeships that we fund. We have also created a new register of apprenticeship training providers, with an emphasis on quality. Those with an inadequate Ofsted rating are not eligible to apply. The Skills Funding Agency also ensures the quality of apprenticeship training through its minimum standards and intervention regime.
In paragraph 10 of our draft strategic guidance for the institute, we have made it clear that,
“we would expect the Institute to support employers to develop ambitious plans for good quality standards, not least in sectors where we have evidence of skills gaps and that are priorities for the industrial strategy”.
We have also made it clear that:
“Supporting greater social mobility is also a clear Government priority. Apprenticeships can play a key role in helping to deliver this, through ensuring that people from all backgrounds are able to progress”.
The next duty is to support the financial stability and good governance of further education bodies. Strong financial management and effective governing bodies are important priorities recognised across the college sector. Many governing bodies have made significant progress in ensuring that they have the relevant finance skills and expertise. A survey of governing bodies, carried out by the Association of Colleges in 2015, found that among independent governors, 17% had a professional background in finance, which was second only to those with a background in education. We know that some colleges still find it difficult to recruit governors with a financial background. This is why the Government are funding the newly launched inspiring governance service to help colleges, as well as schools, find people with the right skills to join their governing bodies. The Government are also supporting the Education and Training Foundation in developing a training programme for governors with an existing finance role.
Where colleges fail in their financial management through poor financial performance or control there is an intervention system in place which can include referral to the further education commissioner. The commissioner will assess the college and make specific recommendations for strengthening the governing body. The further education commissioner has set out lessons for strengthening governance in colleges through his termly letters to the sector.
Finally, the duty to support good-quality careers advice is contained in the proposed new clause. The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has the appropriate advice and guidance to climb the ladder of opportunity and make the most of their talents. That is why we confirmed in the Building our Industrial Strategy Green Paper our intention to publish a comprehensive careers strategy for all ages later this year. The strategy will set out our plans to expand the quality and quantity of careers advice. We will make it easier for people to access the support they need to find a fulfilling route that is right for them, whether that is an academic or technical route or an apprenticeship.
I hope we can all agree that we share the same objectives and that I have provided sufficient reassurance about the steps that the Government are already taking to support these objectives. I therefore hope that noble Lords will not feel inclined to move Amendment 60.
I move to Amendment 62 in the name of my noble friend Lord Liverpool and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. As set out in the Post-16 Skills Plan, the Government’s ambition is to ensure that we have young people and adults with the skills, knowledge and behaviours that better equip them for employment in the 21st century. The effect of this amendment will be to prescribe that those skills, knowledge and behaviours include soft skills. I fully understand why my noble friend has put forward this amendment, and I agree that these skills are of paramount importance. The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has the appropriate advice to climb the ladder of opportunity and make the most of their talents, but that will not happen without these soft skills. I fully understand why my noble friend has put forward these skills, but I am not convinced that placing an express duty on the institute is the most effective way to address them.
One of the fundamental principles of the new technical education reforms will be that employers, supported by education experts, will set the standards required for specific occupations to allow them to shape the content to give students the skills, knowledge and behaviours that employers require. It will be up to employers and relevant stakeholders to determine which soft skills are required for each occupation. That said, I recognise that soft skills will be important to ensure that individuals gain the key employability and occupational skills to get them ready for the workplace, and we are already putting in place measures to encourage this. For example, the Government continue to support schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum.
We expect all schools to offer their pupils a rigorous curriculum that is supported by activities to develop the soft skills that prepare them for success in modern Britain. For example, extracurricular activities offered by many schools help pupils develop various soft skills such as resilience, leadership, teamwork, and social and emotional skills before they leave school at the age of 16. In 2015-16, the Government invested £5 million in character education to fund grants to organisations and schools to test new approaches and to expand existing programmes, new activity to build the evidence base and the first round of character awards to celebrate those schools and organisations leading the way in developing soft skills in young people. In addition, these core employability skills could be developed through a high-quality, substantial work placement which every 16 to 19 year-old student will undertake as part of the new technical education courses.
I take on board what my noble friend has said in referring to the report, which he and I contributed to, by that EU Sub-Committee which talked about the real importance of those basic skills. One of the key words that my noble friend used was “confidence”. Confidence, communication and self-esteem are absolutely fundamental. You can have all the skills in the world, whether they are academic, technical, or whatever, but if you do not have the ability to communicate and present and accept that as an employee you will often be the first contact with that company—your employer—then it is very difficult for you to climb that ladder of opportunity.
In view of this, we will reflect on current approaches and determine what more we can do to support schools and colleges in this area. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel reassured enough to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for her detailed reply and the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for their contributions to this debate. I think it will be important when the institute gets under way to ensure that we monitor the effect it is having on further education. Indeed, I also support the aims of Amendment 60.
We really look forward to the long-awaited careers strategy and hope that it is closely followed by careers advice, because a strategy on its own is not a lot of use unless there is something coming hard behind it. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, that we will just have to keep trying to find ways to encourage soft skills. I noted the Minister’s words about how important they are and that the Government have them in mind. With that, I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 59 withdrawn.
Clause 38 agreed.
Amendments 60 to 62 not moved.
63: After Clause 38, insert the following new Clause—
“Refund of VAT to further education bodies
(1) This section applies where—(a) VAT is chargeable on—(i) the supply of goods or services to a further education body, (ii) the acquisition of any goods from another member State by a further education body, or(iii) the importation of any goods from a place outside the member States by a further education body, and(b) the supply, acquisition or importation is not for the purposes of any business carried on by the further education body.(2) The Commissioners shall, on a claim made by a further education body at such time and in such form and manner as the Commissioners may determine, refund to that body the amount of VAT so chargeable.(3) Subject to subsection (4), the claim must be made before the end of the period of 4 years beginning with the day on which the supply is made or the acquisition or importation takes place.(4) If the Commissioners so determine, the claim period is such shorter period beginning with that day as the Commissioners may determine.(5) Subsection (6) applies where goods or services supplied to, or acquired or imported by, a further education body cannot be conveniently distinguished from goods or services supplied to, or acquired or imported by, it for the purpose of a business carried on by that body.(6) The amount to be refunded under this section is the amount that remains after deducting from the whole of the VAT chargeable on any supply to, or acquisition or importation by, the further education body such proportion of that VAT as appears to the Commissioners to be attributable to the carrying on of the business.(7) References in this section to VAT do not include any VAT which, by virtue of an order under section 25(7), is excluded from credit under section 25.(8) In this section—(a) references to the further education body are to the further education body acting in that capacity, and(b) “Further education body” has the same meaning as in the Technical and Further Education Act 2017 (see section 3 of that Act).””
My Lords, this is a probing amendment because I am well aware that issues of VAT are somewhat outside the scope of the Department for Education. However, it is an issue that keeps recurring and it does no harm to raise it again occasionally. The purpose is to equalise the arrangement for VAT refunds between schools and colleges. Currently, colleges, schools and academies are all required to pay VAT on their purchases but schools are subsequently reimbursed for these costs. The Sixth Form Colleges Association argues that:
“The Government’s historic defence for the absence of a VAT refund scheme for … Colleges has been that the VAT costs of … Colleges are taken into account as part of their up-front funding allocation. But with the introduction of the new 16-19 funding formula, all 16-19 providers (including school and academy sixth forms, free schools and … Colleges) are now funded in the same way, using the same methodology. We welcome the steps that have been taken to equalise the funding arrangements … Yet schools, academies and free schools continue to benefit from a mechanism to recover their VAT costs, while …Colleges do not”.
A recent survey indicated that the average college pays some £300,000 a year in VAT. This is obviously a significant amount being taken away from the front-line education of students in a way that is not comparable in schools and academies. Apparently, it would cost around £31 million each year to refund the VAT costs of colleges—but perhaps I should not have mentioned that.
The parliamentary Library briefing on the funding of 16-19 education indicates some key points. In 2010, the Government made a commitment to “fairer post-16 funding”—closing the funding gap between 16-19 education in schools and that in colleges. This was set out in a White Paper called The Importance of Teaching. However, the Government do not seem to have followed this up. There was a ray of hope in an Answer given by David Cameron when he was Prime Minister to a Question from Ian Swales who was then the Liberal Democrat MP for Redcar—those happy days. He asked why colleges had to pay VAT while schools and academies did not. The Prime Minister replied that he would look carefully at what had been raised, particularly in respect of free school meals for sixth form colleges and for secondary schools. He added that it was very welcome that children in infant schools would not have to pay for school meals. He then said:
“I will look carefully at his point about VAT”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/10/13; col. 158.]
However, looking carefully did not seem to mean that much happened afterwards.
This seems to be an anomaly which could and should be rectified. It would bring considerable benefit to the education of young people and adults in further education bodies, be they sixth form colleges or further education colleges. I raise it again just to see whether there is a more positive response from the Minister. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment; it is a probing amendment in a complex area. Of course the matter is not in the hands of the Minister who is due to respond to it, because it is a matter that is jealously guarded by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who after all is responsible for tax receipts. In my experience, the issue is very complicated, not least because of history and practice. There may be a strand of European ideology built into this as well, which may reach a conclusion in a couple of years’ time—or not, as the case may be.
The basic principles of the VAT system are very straightforward: a trading operation has to trade with the full weight of VAT on it, and expenditure on it is recouped against subsequent users and from those who purchase the goods and services provided. Those things that are not deemed to be trading do not attract VAT, but equally they cannot be redeemed against the VAT that has been incurred in the purchase and preparation of them.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, those bodies exposed to the full weight of VAT on their non-trading activities suffer a 20% penalty for the work that they are doing, and that is money that could be properly reinvested. That is a sound case and I am sure it has exercised Ministers before. I look forward to hearing the response.
I thank noble Lords for this amendment, which calls for a change in tax policy. It seeks to allow FE colleges to claim refunds of VAT incurred on their non-business expenditure. As noble Lords have acknowledged, tax policy is a matter for the Chancellor and the Treasury. Any tax changes are considered by the Chancellor in the normal way and announced in the context of his Budget judgment, as he will be doing next week.
I understand this call for additional funds from the Treasury for FE, but there are clear implications when thinking about such a change. It is estimated that it would cost the Exchequer about £145 million per year. That cost would have to be covered somewhere in the economy—for example, reducing public expenditure on other government priorities. In addition, the VAT treatment of FE colleges is no different from many other public bodies.
However, in view of all that the noble Baroness said about the previous Prime Minister’s comments about looking carefully at the matter, I will go back to see what further I can say by way of explanation for the status quo. I hope that in view of my comments, she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for his careful looking and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his support for the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 63 withdrawn.
64: Before Clause 39, insert the following new Clause—
“Constitution of further education corporations
(1) Section 20 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 is amended as follows.(2) After subsection (4) insert—“(5) An instrument must provide for the role of the Clerk to include providing advice to the corporation with regard to matters including—(a) the operation of its powers,(b) the conduct of its business,(c) matters of governance practice, and(d) general procedural matters.””
My Lords, I remind the House of my interest in that my wife is a consultant at the Education and Training Foundation.
The very fact that we have been debating insolvency measures in the Bill underpins the responsibility of the boards of FE institutions. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, referred to the issue of financial competence and the initiatives being taken on governance, which are welcome. We should certainly pay tribute to the public-spirited citizens who undertake these roles, which have become ever more onerous in the past few years.
The noble Lord, Lord Nash, will know that my main experience is in the National Health Service. Between 2011 and 2014, I chaired the board of an NHS foundation trust. In many ways, the way that FE colleges and NHS foundation trusts have developed is similar. They are very similar institutions: they both provide a public service and are almost entirely dependent on public funding, although the routes by which it reaches the institutions are a little different, but increasingly they have to stand on their own two feet and, if you like, the buck stops with the board. That is very different from the way that FE used to be, with institutions that were owned by the local authority. It is the same for NHS foundation trusts.
However, there is a difference in governance. In the NHS there is essentially a two-tier structure. As chairman of the board of directors, I was appointed by the governing body, which was elected by the members of the foundation trust—in my case, 100,000 of them—who were essentially patients, members of the community and staff. As chairman of the board of directors, I had regularly to account to the governors in public meetings every other month and meet them individually as well, as did the chief executive—whose appointment had to be ratified by the governing body—the executive directors and the other non-executive directors. I and the non-executive directors had a term of office that was subject to reappointment, but only at the pleasure of the governing body.
We also had a senior independent director, a non-executive director to whom any member of the board could go if they were concerned about anything to do with the running of the board, the performance of the chairman or indeed the performance of the chief executive. When outside regulators came to review the performance of the organisation, they would be able to talk directly to the senior independent director. In addition, we had a highly qualified and experienced company secretary who was charged with ensuring that the trust acted within the law and exercised good governance, and acted as an adviser to the chairman on difficult issues, including the performance of the chief executive and the executive directors. This was not an issue in my case but if, for instance, I as chairman had decided along with my non-executive colleagues that we wished to remove the chief executive, it is to the company secretary that we would have gone, and he would have advised us on the way to do it. He would have done so without informing the chief executive, except where due process would at some point be required.
Looking at governance in further education, I just do not get the sense that there is that robustness. In too many colleges, the members of the governing body tend to be self-perpetuating—it was interesting to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, about financial literacy among those governors—the principals often play too much of a role in deciding who the members of the governing body will be, and the board’s members are of course accountable to no one but themselves and do not meet in public. So there is very little transparency about the performance of the boards of FE institutions, and there has to be some suspicion that, at least at some colleges, they do not exercise challenge and scrutiny as much as they should.
This therefore makes the role of the clerk to the governing body very important. However, there is a problem, to which I referred at Second Reading. The Minister will know that one of the reasons we are having these insolvency provisions is that some institutions have got themselves into trouble financially. We also know that in some cases that is because principals have decided to undertake ventures that, if they were subject to proper scrutiny, I do not think they would have been allowed to. There is an instance in Birmingham where basically a principal was going on foreign adventures—there was a fashion in FE for colleges to try to open up and do deals abroad—without the kind of expertise and scrutiny that we are talking about, and almost all those adventures ended up in trouble. There is evidence that the college’s board of governors did not exercise due scrutiny and diligence when it came to those issues.
There was a paper by the former Learning and Skills Improvement Service identifying a number of issues with governance. It stated that in FE there can be too much polite consensus to avoid conflict, with insufficient challenge, a business focus at the expense of core educational performance, a taking on of big risks but not managing them, with the clerk being undervalued in being able to stimulate and facilitate good governance. This is where I come to the role of the clerk. These days, I do not think the word “clerk” aptly describes what needs to be done. Unfortunately, some principals seem to have mistaken the role of clerk for that of secretary, and that is a big problem. At national level, I have no argument at all with the Minister’s department, the FE commissioner or Ofsted, all of which have on a number of occasions given their support to professionally qualified clerks at a high level.
On the ground, there is a suspicion that that has not always been reflected. There is some evidence that, when clerks leave, it is not unusual to see the role offered at a lesser salary with lesser hours and for it to be offered internally, to an administrator. Unbelievably, there have been reports of examples of the principal’s secretary being asked to undertake that role. That is completely unacceptable, and I am surprised that the national regulators have not ruled on that. It reflects the fact that governing bodies are poor and simply do not challenge principals when they make decisions that are totally unacceptable, such as that one.
At the end of the day, clerks have to be able professionally to advise the board on difficult issues, and they have to have the strength to stand their ground when the going gets tough and ensure that boards act within the law. There can be occasions when principals want to do something which clerks know that the board ought not to do—but the clerks have to feel that if they stand their ground the system will come and support them. All too often, the evidence is that clerks who stand their ground in the end lose their job, because essentially the principal is able to restructure them out or get rid of them.
I know that this is very much down to the governance rules that are set, the way in which regulators review governance and the lead that the department can give. There is some legislation already, but it might help the position of clerks if we put something in the Bill that would get home to the governing bodies that they need to have clerks who are qualified, who can give them impartial advice and whose position is protected, if they need to act when they believe that the principal is taking the college down the wrong route.
Of course, this is a way in which to discuss governance. The Minister made sympathetic comments on initiatives that are being taken. It particularly relates back to ensuring that good quality governors are appointed, and I applaud the Government’s efforts in this. But somehow a stronger governance structure has to be built to make sure that these institutions are well governed in what has become a very difficult climate. None of us should underestimate the difficult climate in which FE colleges have to operate. I want to make sure that they have the strongest possible governance. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has spoken wise words. In local government, the quality of officers advising elected members is hugely important—the independence of those officers and their ability to challenge and scrutinise with neither fear nor favour. In further education, we are talking about multimillion pound budgets. You have only to flick through the pages of the further education press to see some of the horrendous accounts of what has gone on in the past. I do not want to go into those lurid details; I shall leave it to people to have a look at them if they so desire.
What that suggests to me is that the governing body of those institutes has to be of the best possible calibre; it cannot be a friend of a friend, not wanting to offend the principal. It is often difficult to attract calibre governors, so the role of the clerk cannot be some sort of part-time lesser role; they have to be people who are confident in themselves. Those three words—“scrutiny, challenge, transparency”—are really important. This is the tail-end of Committee, but to get the Bill right is important. The points that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has made are also important. I hope that between now and Report we can look at this in a little more detail, because it is crucial.
I support the amendment. I am new to the business of voluntary governorship in state-funded institutions. I have been fortunate for most of my working life to have been in organisations that had admirable company secretaries, who had the equally difficult task of standing up to chairmen and chief executives—but these were well-trained, qualified and well-paid people. The problem in all education is, of course, that anything that is not a teacher reads like an unmerited overhead.
I am not quite certain what I should propose as a remedy, but this point is key. Many of the messes that schools and further education institutions get into have to do with governance, and that has to do with a clerk who is not actually qualified and probably not properly paid.
I hesitate to speak because I can see that a Division is pending and it would be nice for us to be able to finish at just the right point, but I realised when my noble friend was speaking that I was that clerk. In an earlier career, I was the clerk of an FE college. The spectre of the buccaneering principals who were around in FE at that time came crowding back, and I felt I ought to share that with the Committee. The problem was that these institutions were very often the creatures of the local authority that owned and fronted them, and there were pressures at play. The principal wanted to be the person who was the main conduit to the local authority and would not brook any interference. Absent the principal, the company secretary, who was indeed a demon of great skill and ability to maintain her position in the structure, took over and ran the place very adequately. But with the growth of corporate structures and, now, the whole question of how that must be used to mature and operate organisations of some scale and scope, I would have thought there must be a way of ensuring that, when corporate structures such as companies are established, there has to be a company secretary, and that company secretary must fulfil at least the minimum standards required of those who operate in the private sector. So there may be a way forward.
I agree entirely with what my noble friend said: the pressure to keep those who are academics—and who should be academics—away from trying to do things that they are patently unable to do, just because they happen to occupy the position of principal or vice-principal, has been an enduring theme with those who have worked in the education sector at FE and HE level. It is only recently that appropriately qualified and suitably remunerated members of that profession have been operating in the way that they should. I support the amendment.
My Lords, I recognise the very important role played by clerks as expert advisers to governing bodies of further education institutions, and I pay tribute to the contribution by clerks and governing bodies up and down the country. As the responsibilities of those bodies increase, we must also support the development of the capability and professionalism among clerks. As the Minister responsible for governors in schools, I can completely see the importance of this matter. That is why we support the Education and Training Foundation in the delivery of a new professional development programme for clerks to be rolled out this year. Sector representative bodies also deliver a range of activities to support clerks, including a very active clerks’ network and best-practice materials. The ETF is also supporting the increased professionalism of clerks through the improving clerk to company secretary programme to take account in changing college structures and clerks’ responsibilities, whereby clerks can attain company secretary qualifications. We are supporting chairs of boards of governors through the national leaders of governance programme, where experienced chairs mentor others who need support.
There is a well-established statutory requirement for the instrument of an FE institution to make provision for there to be a clerk, and for provision for the responsibilities of that role to be set out in the instrument. That is set out in Schedule 4 to the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. This means that the importance of the clerk’s role, which I know is recognised by members of this House, is also reflected in law.
While further statutory prescription in relation to duties and responsibilities of the clerk may appear attractive, I do not believe that it is the right approach in this case. I will elaborate. The amendment proposes a few high-level matters relating to advice that clerks should provide and, as proposed, overlooks certain features that would reasonably be expected to be an important part of any clerk’s role. These include, for example, independence from the senior management team at the institution and a duty to take appropriate action if the board, the chair or one of the committees appears to be at risk of acting outside their powers or to be proposing actions that may be unlawful.
The 1992 Act sets up high-level requirements for the instrument and articles, including a requirement for there to be a clerk and for the clerk’s responsibilities to be set out in the instrument. Since 2011, colleges have not required the consent of the Secretary of State to amend their instruments. The detailed content of the instrument, including the details of the responsibilities of the clerk, now largely rests with the governing body of the FE corporation rather than with Ministers.
In my view, the existing balance between the requirements set out in legislation and the responsibilities of the governing body is the right one. We should be very careful about removing from colleges the necessary flexibility that enables governing bodies to adapt and tailor their governance arrangements to fit the circumstances of their institution. That is particularly important in a sector as varied as further education. It is obviously important to guard against the possibility that greater prescription has the unintended effect of undermining the responsibility and thus the accountability of governing bodies. The careful balance set out in the current legislation in relation to matters of governance, including in respect of the role of the clerk, remains important going forward.
Principals do not appoint board members. Governors are appointed to the board by the board itself. A good principal will have a strong interest in having a capable body. When there is a material pre-existing relationship between the principal and a member of the board, it should be declared as part of the appointment process. The Association of Colleges’ model job description states that the clerk should be independent of the senior management team and should provide unbiased advice.
We do not think this amendment would add materially to the conduct of clerking or to governing bodies of FE colleges. We believe clerking is generally working well, and the quality of clerking has undoubtedly improved significantly in recent years. However, as I have spent part of the last four years attempting, I think with some success, to raise the importance and effectiveness of governance in schools, and in view of what noble Lords have said, I will go back and investigate their concerns and see what more we might be able to do in this regard, because it is important. Legislation may be a very blunt instrument, but I will go back to look at it further.
I am very grateful to the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 64 withdrawn.
Clauses 39 to 42 agreed.
Clause 43: Extent
65: Clause 43, page 20, line 4, leave out “extends” and insert “and section 5 so far as it relates to section 426 of the Insolvency Act 1986 extend”
Amendment 65 agreed.
Clause 43, as amended, agreed.
Clauses 44 and 45 agreed.
Committee adjourned at 6.28 pm.