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Technical and Further Education Bill

Volume 782: debated on Tuesday 4 April 2017

Third Reading


Moved by

My Lords, before the Bill’s Third Reading draws to a close, I take this opportunity to thank all those involved for their interest in and engagement with the Bill over the past few months. There have been important contributions on the Bill from all sides of the House, and we have had very well-informed and thoughtful debates on a number of issues that are critical to ensuring the future health of our country’s technical and further education sectors. In particular, I thank noble Lords for their efforts to strengthen the areas covered by this legislation, which we will take forward when the Bill and its related policies are implemented. I very much hope that discussions continue with noble Lords about technical and further education. There is much work to be done in this area, so the expertise and wisdom of noble Lords is very welcome.

Yesterday, I met the noble Baronesses, Lady Garden and Lady Watkins, to discuss the failure of private providers and, in particular, the support given to learners affected. I thank them for discussing this issue with me. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, who was unable to attend but who has shared her thoughts with my officials. It is clear from our discussions that this is a matter requiring more detailed consideration before we take a view on what action is necessary. We are already taking steps to improve our monitoring of these providers. However, as I said yesterday, we will do further work to explore the scale of the issue and identify a proportionate response to ensure the right support is provided to learners in the rare instances of failure.

I am afraid there is not time to thank everyone who has been involved in the Bill during its passage through this House, but I would like to mention who I can. First, I thank my noble friends on the Government Benches, and in particular my noble friends Lady Vere and Lady Buscombe, who have provided strong support to the Bill. I also thank my noble friend Lord Baker, particularly for his amendment regarding careers advice in schools. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for his in-depth engagement with the Bill, especially with respect to the issues of copyright and intellectual property. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Liverpool, whose thoughtful contributions included the important issue of the soft skills that young people need to thrive in the workplace.

I particularly thank the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Storey, who have provided rigorous scrutiny and opposition alongside their colleagues the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. I thank also the noble Baronesses, Lady Cohen, Lady Donaghy and Lady Morris, and the noble Lords, Lord Young of Norwood Green, Lord Blunkett and Lord Knight, for their thoughtful contributions. While we have disagreed on some issues, I believe we are in broad agreement about the importance of the Bill and all support its ambition to improve technical and further education.

I am grateful also to my friends on the Cross Benches for their thoughtful contributions, including the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, for her support on the Bill and her role in developing its underlying policy.

Finally, I thank policy officials and lawyers from the Department for Education and other government departments for their work on the Bill’s progress in this House.

It has been a privilege to debate this Bill with noble Lords. It will help pave the way for reforms to technical and further education. It will allow us to create a world-class technical education system that provides all young people with the opportunities they deserve, and let them secure sustained, skilled employment that serves the needs of our country, today and in the future. At the same time, the Bill’s further education insolvency regime will ensure that FE colleges are put on a secure financial footing in the long term. I commend the Bill to the House.

My Lords, I want to comment on how the Bill has been handled in this House. When we saw the Bill that came from the Commons, it seemed a very trivial Bill and quite difficult to understand. The words were dry on the page and the opacity was complete: we had no clear idea what the Government were trying to do. However, during the course of the Bill, those with an interest were privileged to have a series of meetings—not just one or two, but several—with officials from the department and with the Ministers themselves, at which we learned a tremendous amount about the Bill and the apprenticeship system that the Government are setting up, which is going to cost £3.5 billion. None of this was obvious when you read the Bill. Those meetings led us to understand how important the Bill was. Therefore, I very much congratulate the department on providing a series of meetings and the Minister on the support he has given us. It is a very good way of handling a Bill in this House and has worked very well.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Government for the series of meetings and echo what the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has said.

I was a little disappointed with the letter sent to us on 30 March. The noble Baroness, Lady Vere of Norbiton, promised on 27 March, at col. 391 of Hansard, to write about the question of signing of contracts, but the letter does not tell us whether or not this is taking place.

We had a significant debate on the question of transition to new technical qualifications but there is no mention of that in the letter. There is in the new guidance issued for the Institute for Apprenticeships, but that merely says:

“We expect the institute to take into account the Department for Education’s development of technical education routes to allow for a smooth transition”.

However, the noble Lord promised that there would be more detailed guidance on the question of transition, so I expected at least a reference to it.

I do not wish to prolong the process but it was disappointing that the House of Commons paper 206 gave apprenticeships a bit of a panning. I do not concur with everything it says but some of the points it makes are valid and worthy of the Minister’s attention, in particular the distribution of the levy and how we will target apprenticeships in areas where there is a drastic skills shortage—in engineering, construction and IT. I would welcome comment from the Minister on that.

Apart from those few caveats, I, too, welcome the way in which the Bill has been handled.

My Lords, from the Liberal Democrat Benches I add our thanks to the Minister, the noble Baronesses, Lady Vere and Lady Buscombe, and the Bill team for their engagement, briefings and meetings in the course of the Bill’s passage.

We were grateful that the Government accepted the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, early on, which promised more movement than we subsequently achieved, but we hope that those amendments agreed by the House will be confirmed by the Commons when the Bill returns to it, particularly that of my noble friend Lord Storey on careers advice in FE colleges. We also welcome the movement on private providers and I thank the Minister for the meeting yesterday on that.

Perhaps as a result of the Bill we might hear more about the EBacc including more creative and technical subjects, to promote practical skills in the school timetable. It is surely in order that skills should be raised as early as possible in the schools programme, to open opportunities at an early stage to young people whose enthusiasms lie that way.

As the Minister is aware, we still have considerable concerns that some of the measures in the Bill will damage the chances for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to be as effective as it needs to be. Among them is the issue of copyright, which will impede the awarding bodies in giving the wholehearted co-operation they might wish to give. I am grateful that we have a meeting with officials and others to discuss this in greater detail and hope that the Government might find a way forward before the Bill becomes law which does not prevent some of the most expert champions of practical, technical education from playing their full part.

There are other issues, such as single awarding bodies, consortia and certification which we would wish to continue to discuss and monitor. There is a deal of complexity in the model that the Government are proposing, and complexity does not help to promote the skills agenda.

In wishing the institute every success in its ambitious aims, we would also wish to check that it has the framework and the resources to raise the profile and standards of technical work-based achievement. We hope that it will continue to consult and take advice from those who have many years of experience in this sector—employers, awarding bodies, trainers and lecturers—who have ensured brilliant achievements by many people in skills areas. We only have to think of the UK’s successes in world skills competitions, for instance, and of some of our great entrepreneurs and leaders who began their careers through a skills-based route to see that we are not starting from scratch.

However, there is a mounting skills gap. In the interests of the country, the community and the individual learners, we have to hope that this Bill and the institute fulfil the high expectations placed upon them.

Once again, I express the thanks of these Benches for the way in which scrutiny has been conducted.

My Lords, I have not written a speech but, if I had, it would have been more or less word for word what the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, has just said. That is probably an embarrassment to her, but there we are.

The Bill is not the heaviest we have dealt with or will deal with, but it has dealt with important matters. We have all recorded our disappointment that so much of it was to do with the insolvency angle, some of which has caused difficulties to further education colleges, bank loans and, potentially, pensions, but they will have to be dealt with down the line.

The fact that the Institute for Apprenticeships was established a few days ago is a welcome sign. I agree with my noble friend Lord Young that it was disappointing that the letter dated 30 March from the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, did not go into enough detail on what we were looking for in our amendment last week on the institute. However, it will develop and will become the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in a year’s time and we look forward to that.

I will say a word to the Minister which reflects the report to which my noble friend Lord Young referred. The business last week of the House of Commons sub-committee on education is worth reading. I do not agree with all of it but it highlighted the point—which was also raised by these Benches and other noble Lords over the past few weeks—that it is essential that the 3 million target does not allow quantity to trump quality. It is the quality of the apprenticeships that are provided in the years to come that will decide whether or not this is a success. We have to keep banging that drum. I know from what he has said that the Minister believes that as well. We will have to make sure that it happens.

I thank all those involved in the Bill. The Public Bill Office, as ever, has been extremely helpful. The Minister and the noble Baronesses, Lady Vere and Lady Buscombe, have been, if not accommodating in Committee, helpful in the briefings that we have had. The Minister’s officials and the meetings they set up have been useful in giving a better understanding of the Bill, its intentions, and how we might work with it or frame amendments to try and change it. I finish by thanking my colleagues, my noble friends Lord Stevenson and Lord Hunt. The Minister has a vast array and army of officials behind him but we have only one person—Dan Stevens, the legislative and political adviser for our team. He has been a tireless worker on what was his first Bill and I can pay him no greater compliment than to say that you would not know it.

Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.