House of Lords
Tuesday 15 June 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leeds.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now commence. Some Members are here in the Chamber and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing and wear face coverings while in the Chamber except when speaking. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them to no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Children with Genetic Conditions: Specialist Support
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to ensure that children with (1) 22q11 deletion syndrome, and (2) other genetic conditions, receive specialist support to address and prevent any loss of (a) learning, or (b) social skills, due to the disruption of their education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
My Lords, we are committed to help all children, including those with genetic disorders, to recover from the impact of lost learning during the pandemic. Following the most recent announcement on education recovery on 2 June, we have now allocated over £3 billion to children and young people. We are targeting those resources to support those in greatest need; for example, special and alternative provision schools will receive additional funding to ensure one-on-one tutoring for their pupils.
I commend the Government on their growing support for family hubs. The original Breakthrough Britain report recommended these, high- lighting their role as a one-stop shop for families with disabled children, which would greatly help those with often very debilitating genetic conditions. Can my noble friend the Minister advise the House of what plans there are to expand the remit of family hubs to include this?
My Lords, a number of family hubs are already in operation but the department has just finished procurement for a national centre for family hubs as part of the £14 million allocated to this. Part of that role will be to ensure that best practice is spread across England. The noble Baroness is correct that these centres should be a hub of voluntary, statutory and other services for families, including those with special educational needs and disabilities.
My Lords, the head of Ofsted has highlighted that children with special educational needs and disabilities have incurred some of the biggest learning losses from schools closing, noting:
“Many have genuinely gone backwards in basic skills, language, numbers”.
This is because too many seriously ill children did not receive—and in some cases are still not receiving—adequate support for their disability or medical condition through health services or school, despite having education, health and care plans. What consideration have the Government given to the need for a therapies catch-up plan for children who have regressed or plateaued in their speech, communication, physical development or social skills due to the pandemic, as called for by the Disabled Children’s Partnership?
My Lords, it is indeed correct that some of the learning lost has been greatest for those with special educational needs and disabilities. That was one of the reasons why, during both of the lockdowns when schools were closed, places were still available for many of those young people. They should now be accessing all the therapies and additional support that the plan says they should receive. The recovery package has the flexibility that some of the money is per-pupil and, therefore, schools can buy in the additional specialist support that the noble Lord outlines.
My Lords, the absence of a diagnosis or late diagnosis of 22q11 deletion syndrome means an inevitable impact on children’s educational support and outcomes during their school years. Can my noble friend the Minister shed some light on work that she may be doing with the Department of Health on the Government’s plans to increase the number of conditions included in newborn screening for specialist support, in line with other countries, and what consideration has been given to the inclusion of 22q11?
My Lords, as I understand it, this is the second most prevalent genetic disorder after Down’s syndrome. I will take back to colleagues at the Department of Health the request as to whether it is included in screening. This disorder apparently has a wide spectrum of effects, so some of those children are never identified during their school career, but the education, health and care plan should support them if they do exhibit a need for extra support. Diagnosis is not a precursor to having an EHCP; many are diagnosed, some within mainstream provision in schools and some in specialist provision.
My Lords, will the Minister hold a meeting to listen to representatives from the National Society for Phenylketonuria and young people with the genetic condition PKU so that the Government can learn more about the impact this has on children, their health and education, and consider what more the Government could do to help them? Would she be good enough to invite her counterpart from the Department of Health to join such a meeting as well?
My Lords, noble Lords are wanting to put me in touch with my colleagues at the Department of Health today. I will take back that request, but I repeat that one of the key visions behind the 2014 reforms was that when a child exhibits a need for support they do not wait for diagnosis or any of that: schools or the family can get an EHCP and get the support in place that the child or young person needs.
Over the last year, children with genetic conditions that give them severe physical and/or learning disabilities and who are extremely vulnerable to Covid have often had no school, no carers coming into their homes and no short breaks or respite. Education, health and care plans are designed for the whole child, so does the Minister agree that short breaks and respite are vital for children in order to address high levels of family exhaustion? Has the department made an assessment of whether local authorities and CCGs are able to sustainably fund them?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct that during the periods of lockdown the pressure on these families was immense. Parliament has passed legislation—in 2011, I believe—putting a statutory requirement on local authorities to look at the provision of short breaks for children with those needs and their families. We have given support during this period, particularly to families of those with special educational needs, and through Family Fund for those families on low incomes, amounting to around £27 million. Obviously, part of recovery and catch-up for schools is helping precisely the children the local Baroness outlines.
My Lords, catching up with lost learning will require the support of not just professionals but volunteer organisations and families. Will the Minister therefore make sure, together with her colleagues at the Department of Health, that organisations such as Max Appeal, which care particularly for children with 22q11, get the support that is tailored to their very specific needs?
My Lords, the department funds a range of voluntary organisations through the £42 million that helps, for example, to deliver whole-school SEND, as well as providing support through the Family Fund, but I will ensure that the noble Baroness’s request is taken back to the department to ensure that we are aware of the full range of voluntary organisations. Of course, during this time local authorities have also had £6 billion of unring-fenced money to support the kind of organisations that the noble Baroness outlines.
My Lords, I would like to add to the list that the Minister is going to take to the Department of Health and Social Care. This is about CAMH services. Clearly, the last 12 months have been very difficult in terms of providing CAMH services, but there is evidence that for some of the children involved this has now become a very urgent need. I wonder if she could discuss that matter with her colleagues.
My Lords, we work closely with them because of the nature of the work involved in EHCPs, and we cannot underestimate the effects of this period. During Mental Health Awareness Week, we announced £17 million that should allow 7,800 schools to have a lead mental health practitioner within the school to provide the kind of support needed. By making school places available during lockdown, we allowed school leaders to identify vulnerable children who needed to come into school for all kinds of reasons, including mental health issues.
My Lords, I draw attention to my registered links with Mencap. The Disabled Children’s Partnership, which has been mentioned, has estimated that almost half of disabled children have lost confidence in communicating because of a disruption or delay to speech and language therapy during Covid, a factor not adequately addressed in the Government’s education recovery plan. Will the Government, as a matter of urgency, please adjust the plan to meet the complex needs of such children and their families?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that early years and language development were greatly affected during the lockdowns. That is one reason why early-years settings were kept open—because of the nature of that education provision. We have allocated £18 million to early-years language development, including £8 million to the Nuffield Early Language Intervention, and I believe that the majority of primary schools have signed up for that. We are funding the initiatives that we help believe can help those children to catch up.
Private Landlords: Tenants with Pets
I draw attention to my residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register. The Government want to improve life for tenants and recognise the importance of pets in people’s lives. Earlier this year we published the revised national model tenancy agreement, the Government’s suggested contract for assured shorthold tenancy in the private rented sector. We revised it to encourage landlords to allow responsible tenants to keep well-behaved pets in their home.
My Lords, during the difficult and often lonely days of lockdown, pets have been a vital source of companionship, well-being and love for many people across the UK, especially the vulnerable. However, is my noble friend aware that, according to Cats Protection, 1 million households that would like to have a cat cannot do so because they live in a rental property? I welcome the changes made to the Government’s model tenancy agreement, which my noble friend mentioned, meaning that consent for pets will be the default position for any landlord using it, but not all landlords use the agreement as it is voluntary. What action will the Government take to encourage landlords to use the model tenancy agreement to allow all those who want to have a pet in their rented property the chance to do so?
My Lords, I am aware of the issue that my noble friend raises. The model tenancy agreement is the Government’s suggested contract with which to agree a tenancy and is freely available online. We will continue to work with landlords and other stakeholders to ensure its wider adoption for use in the private rented sector.
My Lords, I understand from the excellent briefing from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home that tenants’ housing problems resulting from people moving to a property that does not allow pets are the second most common reason why dogs are given to Battersea for rehoming. Battersea helped to develop the model tenancy agreement but key areas, such as defining what constitutes a reasonable excuse for landlords to turn down a pet request or how any appeals process might work, are still to be addressed. How do the Government plan to take these issues forward?
My Lords, it is fair to say that Battersea Dogs & Cats Home has been involved in the development of this agreement. Indeed Peter Laurie, the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home interim chief executive, welcomed the announcement that demonstrated the clear continued commitment to improving access to pet ownership for renters as well as helping to support and promote responsible pet ownership. The purpose of the agreement is to ensure that there is no blanket ban on pets and to consider each pet on a case-by-case basis, and to accept a pet where they are satisfied that the tenant is a responsible owner and the pet suitable for the premises.
Does my noble friend recall the importance that Winston Churchill attached to his pets, which included budgerigars that flew around his bedroom, to the discomfort of visiting Ministers? Would not the great man have been distressed that so many landlords are denying their tenants the affection and companionship that loving pets provide? Perhaps my noble friend can hear a famous voice muttering those words, “Action this day”, to get those new tenancy agreements widely applied, so important in this context, and to bear down on the landlords who are not using them at the moment.
I am grateful to my noble friend for pointing out the views of the great man. We recognise that domestic pets bring joy, happiness and comfort to people’s lives. We have seen that particularly in the pandemic. We also recognise that the model tenancy agreement is a step forward. We need to see its wider adoption, which is why we will work hard to ensure that landlords adopt it as often as possible.
My Lords, I endorse the purpose of this Question. I declare my interests as set out in the register, which inform these comments that I hope are constructive. Is the Minister aware that it is possible to have conditions such as that if pets become a problem, the offer is rescinded—and also that it is possible to put in a clause stating that money must be charged for cleaning, especially where hairs become a problem. So there are ways that could help landlords give permission if they were encouraged to do so.
I draw Members’ attention to my interests as set out in the register. The Government recognised the importance of pets and made changes to the model tenancy agreement. However, not all landlords use that model agreement and it is voluntary, so some landlords can still say no to pets. Animal welfare charities, including Cats Protection, have helped tenants find lots of properties and use a cat’s CV—a template that outlines details about pets and shows responsibility of ownership. Will the Government encourage wider use of pet CVs to allow more responsible pet owners to keep their pets in rented accommodation?
My Lords, we have set out a model tenancy agreement that encourages wider pet ownership. It also ensures that the landlord must give a clear reason why they will not accept a pet. This agreement strikes a balance between making it easier for responsible tenants to keep pets and ensuring that landlords are not forced to accept them.
My Lords, last week the Public Services Committee took evidence from a rough sleeper in Birmingham who was full of praise for the Everyone In campaign, which helped him and other rough sleepers into safe accommodation last year. However, he told us that rough sleepers with dogs were now at risk because hostels would not accept them. Is my noble friend aware of this problem and does he have a solution?
I am aware of the issue that my noble friend raises. We know how important pets are to many people, particularly rough sleepers. That is why we have supported a number of local schemes enabling people to find accommodation that will also accept pets. Housing authorities need to be sensitive to the importance of pets to some applicants, particularly rough sleepers, and I thank my noble friend for raising this.
My Lords, depression and loneliness have an adverse impact on health and cost the country millions. Having someone or a pet to look after takes us out of ourselves, and pets have undoubtedly helped mitigate the enforced isolation of the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that a more collaborative approach between landlords and tenants in keeping tenants happy and keeping property in good condition would benefit both?
My Lords, I much agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, and the noble Lord, Lord Singh. It is very important, particularly for single older people, to be able to have a pet. Some ideas to perhaps consider are that, if landlords could render a modest additional rental for pets, it might be more attractive to them, and it might be worthwhile requiring insurance policies to be taken out by tenants. It might also be an idea to have a system of interviewing tenants and choosing tenants who seem to be responsible with regard to pets.
My Lords, pets have done much to help those recovering from medical incidents. This cannot be overestimated. Following the updating of the Government’s model agreement for shorthold assured tenancies in January, to encourage landlords to allow pets, what will the Government do to help allay landlords’ concerns over the inadequacy of a five-week deposit to address any pet damage at the end of the tenancy? Are there plans to allow for a larger deposit to be taken at the outset or, alternatively, a monthly sum to be added to the rent to pay for damage that is refundable at the end of the tenancy to the extent that it is not required? I declare my interest in rental property as in the register, but I have no tenants who have asked to have a pet—although some have them quietly without mentioning it.
My noble friend is right to point out the impact of the Tenant Fees Act 2019. The Government recommend that the rental deposit of five weeks is a maximum rather than a default. Charging a deposit of four weeks’ rent would provide leeway to expand it to five weeks for such things as pet ownership and also to take up some of the suggestions that we have heard today around insurance or potentially looking at rent levels to accommodate wider pet ownership.
Armed Forces: Transition to Civilian Life
My Lords, the vast majority of veterans are able to make a successful transition to life outside the Armed Forces; 84% of veterans are employed within six months of discharge, and these rates compare very favourably with the wider population, where 76% are in employment. The DWP provides support to veterans in a number of ways, including through the early voluntary entry to the work and health programme, and support from its network of Armed Forces champions.
My Lords, in 2019 the Government committed up to £6 million to fund more than 100 Armed Forces champions. They are there to provide personnel, veterans and families with specialist support to find work and transition to civilian life, and they are a key part of the Government’s commitment to the Armed Forces covenant. The Minister has now told me in a Written Answer that they now aim to hire only 50 champions and have a record low of just 34 in post. So why have the Government abandoned this commitment to our Armed Forces, and how much of that £6 million has actually been spent?
The department’s top priority during the pandemic has been to focus on processing claims and paying people quickly. As a result, the planned recruitment for the Armed Forces champion in April 2020 was paused. During that period, there was a lot of liaison with stakeholders and various interested parties and a new model was devised and got real support from all stakeholders. We now have, for the first time, middle-management lead roles and direct customer support for the 50 Armed Forces champions, and this combined support is well supported. In addition to these people, of course the veterans got the full service of all the work coaches in the DWP network.
My Lords, in the UK it is estimated that former Armed Forces personnel are eight times more likely to develop gambling problems than civilians. They suffer from higher rates of mental health issues and alcohol problems, factors which may feed into the higher rate of problem gambling. Will Her Majesty’s Government commit to surveying the gambling habits of serving personnel so that we can better provide for our military as they transition to civilian life?
My Lords, I will not disguise my anger and frustration at the recent refusal of the Government to restore war widows’ pensions to those few ladies who lost it on remarriage. Can my noble friend use her considerable powers of persuasion to find a way forward other than by using the name “pension”, which I understand frightens the life out of the Treasury? Could the widows not receive some form of compensation, hardship payment or the like?
To be asked not to frighten the Treasury is quite a challenge—I will think about that one for now. Of course, the Government recognise the unique commitment that service families make to our country and remain sympathetic to the circumstances of those who remarried and cohabited before 1 April. I understand my noble friend’s points, and I will do my best.
An important point is that when people leave the Armed Forces, they have really good skills that are very attractive to employers in both the public and private sectors, and work is done to make sure that all opportunities are made available to those leaving the service.
Can the noble Baroness say what specific support is provided for families—particularly children—of members of our Armed Forces to enable their transition, given that many of them will have spent time in different schools and different locations and may find it difficult to transition after their families leave the services?
The effect on children living in different parts of the country and the world, and the number of schools they have attended, is well known. It is for the MoD to carry out this activity in its resettlement programme. I will ask my friends in the Ministry of Defence to write to the noble Baroness with more detail.
My Lords, it was an enormous honour to serve as the Minister for Veterans, probably the most rewarding job in government. While that is the only ministerial job to have the word “veterans” in its title, it is important to remember that all Ministers have responsibility for veterans. One of the challenges they face is access to information, which is why we created the Veterans’ Gateway. Can my noble friend simply reassure me that her department engages with that portal?
I am happy to confirm to my noble friend that the department engages with the portal. We put veterans and their families in touch with the organisations best placed to help them, and the portal, through the national provision tool, is an absolutely vital part of the service.
My Lords, I recognise the many challenges faced by the members of the Armed Forces in the transition to civilian life, whether it be need for housing or professional care because of physical or mental incapacity through conflict. Can the Minister assure me that all former members of the Armed Forces are equally provided for across the United Kingdom, including those in Northern Ireland?
I am pleased to be able to respond to the noble Lord to say that the Armed Forces covenant legislation is specifically designed to cover equality of service. It covers health, education and housing, and the MoD has worked with closely with the devolved authorities in implementing that.
My Lords, the Government have a duty of care to look after those who have served and a moral responsibility to pick up the tab. That said, will the Minister say what combat-related trauma support is available to women veterans who are actively seeking employment?
I would need to write to the noble Baroness about trauma support because I will need to get the information from the MoD. However, I can give comfort to her and to the whole House: women do very well when it comes to employment after their service. They have good specialist skills such as transport, logistics and medicine, and the support that the DWP gives takes account of individual circumstances and is individually tailored.
My Lords, Dr Hugh Milroy, the CEO of the exemplary military charity Veterans Aid, tells me that the current resettlement system is out of touch with the cost of living today and that he has seen this cause genuine hardship for people with otherwise good prospects. I was surprised to find that the individual resettlement training costs grant available to all leavers with six or more years’ service and all medical discharges is set at £534. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is time to modernise the system by providing access to an innovative financial empowerment model, perhaps like the student loan system?
I am happy to tell my noble friend that while the grant is set at just over £500, the training that it can purchase can be worth thousands of pounds. The Career Transition Partnership contract-funded courses are prepaid by the MoD and it offers other courses as well. Other financial support schemes, such as the enhanced learning credits scheme, can provide up to £3,000. Further financial support of up to £175 per year can be made available through the standard learning credit scheme and the publicly funded further education/higher education scheme provides service leavers with all sorts of support for up to 10 years to a value of up to £9,000. If we need to repackage that, I will be happy to take it back to the department.
My Lords, the integrated review envisages cuts to the regular forces of around 10,000. What work has the DWP done, alongside the MoD, to assess the possible implications for service personnel and their families who will be leaving the forces perhaps rather more unexpectedly than envisaged?
The services offered by the DWP through the plan for jobs and other activities with the Department for Education on skills are wide-ranging, and I know that the Ministry of Defence and the DWP will work in partnership to provide the most relevant services to the people who the noble Baroness rightly says will need help.
BA and Ryanair: Customer Refunds
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with representatives of the international travel industry about the impact of the action being taken by the Competition and Markets Authority against BA and Ryanair regarding refunds for customers.
My Lords, the investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority into British Airways and Ryanair is ongoing. It would be inappropriate for the Government to comment on an ongoing investigation by an independent regulator, but we have been clear that the rights of consumers and the obligations of businesses remain unchanged. It should not be unduly difficult for customers to receive a refund when they are entitled to it.
One struggles to think of another product where customers pay such a high price so far in advance of receiving a service. Yet some airlines have, as the Minister has indicated, avoided making refunds when they could not deliver that service. This has left not only passengers out of pocket but has had a disastrous impact on travel agents who often have to refund their customers without receiving the fare money back from the airlines. Have the Government investigated any of the proposals from Which? that passengers who have paid in advance for their flights should have their payments held safely in trust and disbursed to airlines at the time of the flight? Does the Minister agree that a resolution to this problem is long overdue and that the actions of a small number of airlines are damaging the industry as a whole?
The Government are taking a keen interest in this issue, but it should be noted that refund issues between airlines and travel agents are a contractual matter between those two businesses. The Civil Aviation Authority does not have a role in enforcing such contracts. On the action we are taking on behalf of consumers, the CAA has reviewed airlines’ compliance on refunds. The authority did this last summer and it has since worked collaboratively with airlines to improve their performance. I am pleased to say that most airlines are now paying refunds within seven days.
My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who is owed money by both British Airways and Ryanair. I ask the Minister whether this system could be changed because there is a legal liability which is clearly not being followed. Indeed, these companies are using every trick in the book not to pay customers back. Will the Minister at least agree that this will be borne in mind when they queue up for loans and money from the Government?
I cannot comment on my noble friend’s circumstances, but the regulations already set out that if a consumer’s flight or holiday has been cancelled by an operator, that customer is entitled to a refund within a reasonable timescale. We are also asking businesses to make sure that they interact with their customers on a fair and responsible basis because that is important for the future of the travel industry. I hope that my noble friend will get his refunds, if they are due, as soon as possible.
My Lords, this issue of refunds applies to holiday lets as well as airlines and other travel providers. Does the Minister agree that if members of the public book a service in good faith and the Government subsequently change the law so that using the service becomes illegal, surely the Government should compensate those who are out of pocket—or is it only for those who have shouted loudest?
I think we can all agree that the travel industry has been fundamentally changed by the Covid pandemic. There is no doubt that travelling now is very different from what it was a year ago. We are encouraging all consumers to be as flexible as possible. They must read the terms and conditions because in certain circumstances, guidance from the Government may change and a refund may not be due. However, as I said previously, if something is cancelled, a refund should be given.
My Lords, the aviation sector has spent the past year trying to second-guess government policy, with route cancellations being announced at the drop of a hat causing mayhem, as outlined by my right honourable friend Theresa May last week. As a key architect of Regulation 261/2004 on passenger rights, I would normally take a hard line, but not today. Will my noble friend remind those in BEIS and the DfT that force majeure includes a pandemic, and that perhaps the Competition and Markets Authority might better focus its attention on reminding Ministers and civil servants of their responsibilities across departments before resorting to possible legal action?
As noble Lords will know, the Government are not taking this legal action themselves. The CMA is a non-ministerial department. It believes it has found some evidence that businesses are failing to comply with the law and it is taking reasonable steps to take appropriate enforcement action. It could be that this does not go to court and that the CMA reaches an appropriate agreement with British Airways and Ryanair, if there has been any wrongdoing. But I agree with my noble friend that we have to do everything that we can to get the travel industry back on its feet. That is our focus: we want British consumers to be able to travel once again and with certainty.
My Lords, following the Minister’s last response, while this is important, clearly it is only the tip of the iceberg for the aviation industry and its customers, as she acknowledges. Does she accept that a lengthy continuation of the green/amber/red system will have a devastating impact on the industry and its customers? Will she confirm that, when restrictions are fully lifted, barriers to flights will be removed, thereby removing this issue? Will she also confirm that it is not the Government’s policy, as some fear, to stop people travelling abroad, so as to boost the UK economy?
I point out to the noble Lord that the Government are taking a cautious approach to international travel. We realise that circumstances will change in different countries, at different times. The traffic light system in place works as well as it can, in the circumstances; it looks at case rates, positivity, genomic surveillance and the risk from variants of concern. I also make the noble Lord aware that lifting restrictions domestically does not necessarily mean changes to international travel.
It was not clear from the Minister’s response whether the Government were supportive of the suggestion put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, which came from Which?, about payments for fares being held in a trust. Perhaps we could have a direct response to that. On this whole issue of refunds, the rights of the consumer seem to be protected somewhat tardily. I am not clear, but are the Government satisfied with the speed at which consumer rights to refunded fares during lockdown were fully addressed and, where applicable, enforced? Surely all are equal under the law and all are bound by the law, whether a financially strong airline not offering a refund or a financially stretched passenger in need of a refund.
As I have said numerous times, consumers are getting their refunds back and this is happening more quickly than it was earlier in the pandemic, as policies and practices have been put in place at the behest of the CAA and the work that it has done with UK airlines. I did not respond to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, because we are considering it among many other suggestions about how to get our international travel industry back on its feet. The Government also have ongoing work on airline insolvency following the Thomas Cook insolvency in the year before last.
I welcome the action taken by the CAA. I completely understand the difficulties set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and others; airlines and airports are suffering at the moment. But surely it is in the interests of airlines to ensure that they give passengers the best care and attention that they can. Like my noble friend Lord Balfe, I am due a voucher from Ryanair. Could the Minister address the issue of vouchers, which seem to disappear into the ether? Is there not a policy to remind passengers that they have a voucher and that it has to be used before its expiry date?
The same policy applies to vouchers as to cash payments if a flight is cancelled, but of course I cannot go into the detail of my noble friend’s circumstances. It is worth pointing out that, on 17 May, the Government published the Passenger COVID-19 Charter. It sets out what customers can expect, and what their rights and responsibilities are, when booking and travelling internationally. On the other side, we set out the reasonable expectations on the industry to be flexible. We did this to give both customers and the industry a firm footing, as we try to reopen international travel.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, I would like to make a short statement about a change to our business tomorrow. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that there is to be a four-week pause at step 3 of the Covid road map, new health protection regulations have been made and laid before Parliament today. To give the House the opportunity to debate these new regulations before they come into force, and following discussions through the usual channels, we will take that debate as our last business tomorrow, after the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. A speakers’ list is open now and noble Lords will have until 6 pm this evening to add their names. We will also arrange for a copy of this information to be sent to Peers by email.
Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill [HL]
A Bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Dholakia, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Modern Slavery (Amendment) Bill [HL]
A Bill to prohibit the falsification of slavery and human trafficking statements; to establish minimum standards of transparency in supply chains in relation to modern slavery and human trafficking; to prohibit companies using supply chains which fail to demonstrate minimum standards of transparency; and for connected purposes.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Alton of Liverpool, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 14 June.
“I congratulate my honourable friend on securing this Urgent Question, and I thank him for his work not only on Ethiopia but on Zambia and Angola, where he serves as a trade envoy, and for the excellent work he does on the Business Council for Africa.
The Government are deeply concerned about the situation in Ethiopia. Our greatest concern is the rapidly growing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Tigray. We are now more than seven months into the conflict in Tigray, and there is no sight of an end. It has taken a terrible toll on the people of Tigray. More than 350,000 people are assessed to be in famine-like conditions in total—more than anywhere else in the world—and, sadly, this is expected to rise. A region-wide famine in Tigray is now likely if conflict intensifies and impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid continue. This crisis has been caused by insecurity, an ongoing lack of humanitarian access and the deliberate destruction of agricultural equipment and medical facilities. It is a manmade crisis.
Officials from our embassy in Addis Ababa have visited Tigray five times to assess the situation and guide our humanitarian response. The UK’s special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, Nick Dyer, visited Tigray last month. Our ambassador is due to visit this week. During these visits, we have heard many harrowing reports of atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict. This includes extrajudicial killings, and widespread sexual and gender-based violence. It is simply unacceptable, it must stop and the perpetrators must be held to account.
The head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, has said the humanitarian disaster is in part due to the presence of the Eritrean troops in Tigray. He says they are using hunger as a weapon of war, and we therefore need to see the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray and Ethiopian soil now. The Government of Ethiopia have said this will happen, but it has not yet happened. I am particularly shocked about reports that Eritreans are dressing up in Ethiopian uniforms and committing atrocities.
The concern of the G7 nations about the situation was set out in yesterday’s communiqué, following the leaders’ summit this weekend. The G7 leaders called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and unimpeded humanitarian access to the area. I am pleased that all G7 nations in the EU, along with a growing number of other nations, including Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Belgium and Poland, have joined the UK’s call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. His Holiness the Pope expressed his concerns and also called for an end to fighting this weekend. It is vital that that happens to allow life-saving aid to reach the hundreds of thousands in need.
The international community response to this crisis needs to be scaled up urgently. That will involve co-ordination to ensure aid gets in.”
My Lords, the new data from the World Food Programme has shown that a total of 350,000 people are suffering from catastrophic levels of hunger in Tigray. WFP is mounting emergency food assistance, but some areas are difficult to reach. What steps are the Government taking to support humanitarian access? On the peace process itself, last week the US representative to the UN called for the Security Council to meet publicly to discuss the crisis. What steps is the UK taking within the Security Council to help bring the conflict to an end?
My Lords, first I welcome my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, the Senior Deputy Speaker, to the Woolsack. It is testimony to his punctuality that today we saw him arrive a tad early. It is great to see him on the Woolsack—it is certainly the first occasion on which I have done so—and we all wish him well.
I will come on to the substance of the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins. On the second point he raised, about the UN Security Council, we have certainly been among a few countries calling for an open debate. I am sure that he acknowledges that we made a specific statement on this during our presidency. We have made sure that we keep tabling the issue under any other business, to keep the focus of the Security Council. On his earlier question, we are working with UN agencies on the ground, including supporting additional funding to ensure that the likes of OCHA have access. We are also working with key organisations such as UNICEF on the ground.
My Lords, Ethiopia has made huge strides as a developing nation, in which relationships with the UK have played a significant part. Today I am wearing the tie presented to me when at the African Union in Addis Ababa by the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr Dlamini-Zuma. We are all shocked to see the images of starving people, and reports of civilians being murdered or displaced—reminiscent of the appalling war and famine in the 1980s. We have donated £16.7 million in response to this crisis, but how does this relate to the huge cuts in UK aid? Will Ethiopia’s elections next week offer a solution? They will not be held in Tigray, the EU has withdrawn its observation mission, and the team of American senators has called for elections to be postponed. What is the Government’s view?
On the noble Lord’s first question about support from the UK, we have actually given £47.7 million since the start of the crisis. My honourable friend the Minister for Africa announced an additional £16.7 million yesterday. On the political crisis, the noble Lord is right of course—there is an election due. The challenge remains that many parties from within the region impacted are not participating. We continue to use all diplomatic levers to ensure access for full-party participation during the elections. I think there will be little movement on the political settlement until the election has been held.
My Lords, I last visited the beautiful country of Ethiopia about 18 months ago, just before the pandemic. Now we find a third of a million people at risk of famine. Billions have been given in aid by the UK taxpayer, including some money via the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. How much influence has our huge aid programme had in encouraging peace and stability in the region? Did our aid allow any money from the Ethiopian Government to be diverted into armaments from health and education?
My Lords, on my noble friend’s second point, of course there are stringent measures in place to ensure that development aid support is for the purposes intended. I believe it has had an impact on the ground, as 1.2 million children have gained a quality education. Of course we continue to have a positive impact; we support aid programmes in-country but, equally, the political situation is dire and we need to reassess what level of support we can give over the longer term to ensure opportunities for the people of Ethiopia.
My Lords, this is clearly a manmade crisis that can be solved only by political negotiation and compromise, rather than a military solution. What is the African Union doing to foster a rapprochement between the TPLF and the Ethiopian Federal Government?
My Lords, we are working with all key partners, including key players in Africa. The Minister for Africa has discussed the situation in Tigray with the AU’s peace and security commissioner. The Foreign Secretary has also discussed the situation with President Kenyatta of Kenya and PM Hamdok of Sudan, and will continue to work with African partners as well as others to bring about a resolution of this conflict peacefully.
My Lords, we know the effect that malnutrition has on babies and children—from a baby’s gestation right through to the child turning three. It affects their lungs and it affects their life for the future, and it will affect the livelihood of that country. What are we doing to ensure that the food on the ground is the correct food, particularly for babies, toddlers and pregnant mothers?
My Lords, I see from the UN report that the special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea has been unable to get into the country. What are the Government doing to try to get things sorted out on the ground? Seventy-five years of independence in Ethiopia seems to have left just a tragic mess, and we appear to be on the point of a failed country and continent. What do HMG think they can do to help?
My Lords, I will not agree with my noble friend on the fact that it is a failed continent. I think there are many successes across Africa but, as I alluded to earlier, we are working with key partners and through UN agencies both on the ground and through political engagement to ensure that we bring about a peaceful resolution of this conflict.
My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea, which will be addressed this afternoon by the United Nations special rapporteur on Eritrea and will focus on Tigray. How do the Government intend to respond to his findings of appalling human rights violations by Eritrean militias in Tigray? Did the Minister discuss it when he met the Secretary-General of the United Nations last week? Are we working with Ireland, which is proposing to raise this in the Security Council this week? Are we considering joining Belgium, which is using universal jurisdiction to bring prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity?
My Lords, yes, I did discuss this with the UN Secretary-General António Guterres last week when I met him. We are awaiting a full report of that joint investigation by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which is currently under way. We will continue to work with key partners on the UN Security Council, including Ireland, to find further resolutions and we continue to lobby for a full debate at the UNSC.
My Lords, looking longer term, in the view of the Government, which of the outside bodies is best placed to play a peacebuilding role—the UN or the EU? Does the Minister agree that the causes of instability in conflict must be tackled and that these include the insupportable population explosion from 18 million in 1950 to about 110 million now, and projected by the UN to be 190 million by 2050 and 250 million by the end of the century? Does our aid include family planning?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the issue of population growth must be addressed, not just in the region we are currently talking about but across the world. We believe that prioritising girls’ education for 12 years is part and parcel of finding that long-term resolution. We are working with all agencies to find a resolution and the African Union, as well as the UN, has an important role to play.
My Lords, yesterday in the other place the Minister for Africa stated:
“a high level of sexual violence is being directed at children”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/6/21; col. 41.]
in Tigray. This comes on top of the report about barbaric gender-based violence unleashed against the Tigrayan population as a whole. Can my noble friend tell the House, eight months later, how many of the UK team of experts set up to collect evidence of sexual violence, in precisely these kinds of situations, have been deployed to Ethiopia or to neighbouring countries to ensure that evidence is collected and perpetrators are eventually brought to account?
My Lords, I apologise as I did not catch the whole of my noble friend’s question because of the connection, but I picked up the main gist. As the Prime Minister’s special representative on PSVI—preventing sexual violence in conflict—I can assure her that we have prioritised this. On identifying personnel from our team, we are currently looking to formally deploy directly on the ground in the coming weeks. We have been working with agencies on the ground, including UNICEF, Red Crescent and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society. Thus far, although the situation is dire, we are currently supporting 545 survivors— 542 women and 3 men— directly with case management services. The proportion of people impacted internally and through allegations of sexual violence is far greater, so there is further work to do and this is a key priority for me as the Prime Minister’s special representative.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 14 June.
“Mr Speaker, these past six months, we have all been involved in a race between the vaccine and the virus. Our vaccination programme has been delivered at incredible pace: we have delivered 71 million doses into 41 million arms; and over 93% of people aged 40 and over have now received at least one dose. Because of this pace, we are able to open up vaccinations to those aged 23 and 24 tomorrow.
It is this protection that has allowed us to take the first three steps of our road map, meaning that right now we have one of the most open economies and societies in Europe. We have been able to remove the most burdensome of the restrictions and restore so many of the freedoms that we hold dear. At every stage, we have looked at the data, set against the four tests that the Prime Minister set out to this House in February. The fourth of those tests is that our assessment of the risk is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern.
The delta variant now accounts for over 90% of cases across the country. We know that the delta variant spreads more easily and there is evidence that the risk of hospitalisation is higher than for the previously dominant alpha variant. Case numbers are rising, up 64% on last week in England, but the whole purpose of vaccination is to break the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths. That link is clearly weaker than it once was. However, over the past week, we have seen hospitalisations start to rise; up by 50%. Thankfully, the number of deaths has not risen and remains very low.
Sadly, before the vaccine, we saw that a rise in hospitalisations inevitably led to a rise in deaths a couple of weeks later. The vaccine in changing that, but it is simply too early to know how effectively the link to deaths has been broken. We do know that, after a single dose of the vaccine, the effectiveness is lower against the delta variant, at around 33% reduction in symptomatic disease. However, the good news, confirmed with new data published today, is that two doses of the vaccine are just as effective against hospital admission with the delta variant compared with the alpha variant. In fact, once you have had two doses, the vaccines may be even slightly more effective against hospitalisation if you have caught the new delta variant. This gives me confidence that, while the protection comes more from the second dose, and so takes longer to reach, the protection we will get after that second jab is highly effective—and, if anything, slightly better—against the delta variant. So, for the purpose of the restrictions, while it will take us a little longer to build the full protection we need through the vaccine, all the science is telling us that we will get there. Of course, all this says that it is so important that everyone gets both doses when the call comes. Even today, I have had messages from people who have had their jab, and I am so grateful to each and every person for making our country safer. At every stage of the road map, we have taken the time to check it is safe to take the next step. Our task is to make sure the vaccine can get ahead in the race between the vaccine and the virus.
I know that so many people have been working so hard, making sacrifices, being cautious and careful, and doing their bit to help this country down the road map. I know that people have been planning and arranging important moments and that businesses have been gearing up to reopen. So it is with a heavy heart, and faced with this reality, that we have made the difficult decision not to move ahead with step 4 next week. Instead, we will pause for up to four weeks until 19 July, with a review of the data after two weeks. During this crucial time, we will be drawing on everything we know works when fighting this virus and will use the extra time to deliver the extra protection we need.
Despite the incredible uptake we have seen in this country, there are still people we need to protect: 1.3 million people who are over 50 and 4.5 million over-40s have had a first jab but not yet a second. The pause will save thousands of lives by allowing us to get the majority of these second jabs done before restrictions are eased further. We are today reducing the time from first to second jab for all people aged 40 and over from 12 weeks to eight weeks to accelerate the programme. If, like me, you are in your 40s and you have a second jab booked 12 weeks after your first, the NHS will be in touch to bring it forward, or you can rebook on the national booking service. Our aim is that around two thirds of all adults will have had both doses by 19 July. I can tell the House that we have been able to deliver the vaccine programme faster than planned, so we can bring forward the moment when we will have offered every adult a first dose of the vaccine to 19 July, too. In this race between the vaccine and the virus, we are giving the vaccine all the support we can.
We have always said that we will ease restrictions as soon as we are able safely to do so. Even though we cannot take step 4 on Monday, I am pleased that we are able carefully to ease restrictions in some areas. We are removing the 30-person gathering limit for weddings, receptions and commemorative events—subject, of course, to social distancing guidelines. I am very grateful for the work of the weddings task force on this relaxation. We will be running another phase of our pilots for large events at higher capacities, including some at full capacity, like the Wimbledon finals. We are easing rules in care homes, including removing the requirement for residents to isolate for 14 days after visits out, and we are allowing out-of-school settings to organise residential visits in bubbles of up to 30 children, in line with the current position for schools. I thank my honourable friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) for his work in this area.
Even though we have not been able to take the full step as we wanted, I know that these cautious changes will mean a lot to many people and move us a little bit closer to normal life. As we do this, we will keep giving people the support they need. We are extending our asymptomatic testing offer until the end of July. We have put in place one of the most extensive financial support packages in the world, and we will continue to deliver enhanced support for the worst-affected areas.
We have seen how this approach can work—for example, in Bolton. Cases in Bolton have fallen by almost a third over the past three weeks. Even as hospitalisations have risen across the north-west, in Bolton, they have fallen by more than half. Last week, we introduced enhanced support in Greater Manchester and Lancashire, and I can now tell the House that we are extending these extra measures—surge testing, cautious guidance and extra resources for vaccination—to Birmingham, Blackpool, Cheshire, including Warrington, and the Liverpool city region. We know from experience that this approach can work, but we need everyone to play their part, so I urge everyone in these areas to get tested and to come forward for the support that is on offer. When you get the call, get the jab and help keep us on the road to recovery.
Finally, none of this would be possible without our vaccine programme. Without the vaccine, faced with these rising cases and hospitalisations, the clinical recommendation would have been to go back towards lockdown. The Vaccine Taskforce is critical to the work to deliver supplies, the work on booster jabs and ensuring we are protected for the future. Dame Kate Bingham did a formidable job in melding the best possible team, and I would like to congratulate her and everyone else who was recognised in Her Majesty’s birthday honours this weekend. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that Sir Richard Sykes, one of Britain’s most acknowledged biochemists and industry leaders, has agreed to take up the position of chair of the VTF. Sir Richard brings to bear experience from leadership positions in both the public and the private sectors, and I am delighted to have him on board to lead the team in the next stage of this mission.
This race between the vaccines and the virus is not over yet. These difficult restrictions challenge our lives in so many ways, but they play a vital role in holding the virus back and protecting people while we get these jabs done. So let us all play our part to keep us safe from this dreadful disease. I commend this Statement to the House.”
I thank the Minister for this Statement. These Benches agree with Mr Speaker; in the statement he made prior to the Secretary of State’s Statement last night, he expressed a deep frustration on behalf of all parliamentarians about the Government’s conduct. The announcement yesterday was both predictable and, sadly, predicted. I sigh, because the Prime Minister is now referring to 19 July as “terminus” day instead of freedom day, which has probably brought eye-rolls everywhere. When will the Prime Minister learn that caution and the use of data means also being cautious about how you express these matters?
The Minister will know that on these Benches we support the Government’s decision to delay the move to the next stage of the road map, but do so with a deep sense of anger, if not despair, that this should be necessary. Since the delta variant of coronavirus, first discovered in India, was detected in the UK in April, cases have surged across the country, with the variant now making up 96% of new infections. Experts confirmed last week that the variant is 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant, first discovered in Kent in 2020. Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute have used genomic sequencing to produce maps which show how rapidly the delta variant has taken over in England, and I commend them to noble Lords. They are alarming in that they show the rapid spread to almost the whole country by the end of last week. It is doubling week by week—still with small numbers now, but that will change if this doubling continues.
There were warnings of a new variant in India on 25 March. It is reported that Ministers first learned that the delta variant was in the UK on 1 April. I must ask the Minister: is that true? The Government red-listed Pakistan and Bangladesh on 9 April, but did not red- list India until 23 April, by which point 20,000 people had arrived from India. As my right honourable friend Jon Ashworth said yesterday in the Commons,
“Our borders were as secure as a sieve, and all because the Prime Minister wanted a photo call with Prime Minister Modi.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/6/21; col. 77.]
On 20 April I said to the Minister:
“With regard to protecting our borders, this week Hong Kong identified 47 Covid cases on a single flight from Delhi.”
We were closing our borders on 23 April, and I asked him:
“there will be hundreds of people arriving on flights from India. Is this not very risky?”—[Official Report, 20/4/21; col. 1769.]
I now return to that question. How many people arrived from India carrying the virus during the period from when the Government were aware of the variant at the beginning of April to 23 April, when India joined Pakistan and Bangladesh?
It is unforgiveable that Ministers have consistently promised to take control of our borders and conspicuously failed to do so, particularly at the very moment when it mattered most: when we were succeeding in the vaccination rollout and the gradual loosening up. The Prime Minister not only opened the back door to this variant; he failed to take measures to suppress it when he could.
There has been growing prevalence of this variant among school-age children, yet mandatory mask-wearing has been abandoned in secondary schools. I have raised this with the Minister at least once before. He has to explain why this has happened, despite being repeatedly asked in both Houses. We also know that isolation is key to breaking transmission yet, 16 months on, people are still not paid adequate financial compensation to isolate themselves. When asked about this at the Select Committee last week, the Secretary of State claimed that people would game the system. Does the Minister believe that this is true? After all the sacrifices and rule-following of the public, does the Minister have the same low opinion of our fellow citizens as his boss?
Yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State supported extending restrictions by pointing to plans to go further on vaccination. But even after extending the doses as outlined in the Statement, large proportions of the population will still be left unprotected —having had one dose or none—and exposed to a variant that, if left unchecked, will accelerate and double every week. That would mean more hospitalisations, more long Covid, more disruption to schools and more opportunities for variants to emerge. What will happen under these circumstances? Will the Prime Minister still lift the restrictions?
My reading of this announcement and the terms in which is it couched is that the science points to us being in a very dangerous position. We could lose the battle that is going on between the vaccine and the virus. Will there be vaccine surges to counter this in areas where the virus is most prevalent? What is the plan to bring down infections and extend vaccination rates in hotspot areas? We have learned that in some places—Leicester, Chorley, Tameside, Salford and Wigan —the dose numbers have gone down. Has vaccination surging been abandoned in those hotspot areas? Will the Government bring forward accelerated second doses, and how are they working further to overcome vaccine hesitancy?
The Chief Medical Officer said last night that we would be lifting restrictions were it not for the delta variant. The Prime Minister should have moved at lightning speed to prevent the delta variant reaching our shores. Instead he dithered, and today he is responsible.
My Lords, we on these Benches echo the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for the Commons Speaker’s statement yesterday on the Government’s continued abuse of Parliament.
We repeatedly warned the Government that sending out mixed messages about lifting restrictions on 21 June would cause problems. Even in March, the Prime Minister made it evident that he wanted us out of restrictions “irreversibly”—his word—by next Monday. What is worse is that we are now in a fourth Covid wave because of his desire to visit President Modi in India in mid-April. The resultant dangerous dithering about putting India on the red list contrasted sharply with the TV news. Every evening, we saw that the then delta variant was scything through India. Even then, Indian epidemiologists were talking about a much faster transmission. We on these Benches have repeatedly asked why India was not added to the red list on 2 April.
At yesterday’s press conference we were warned that the current delta variant wave will likely peak in mid-July, as cases, hospital admissions and patients needing ICU increase steadily. Even if vaccines mean that hospitals are not being overwhelmed, there is an increase. The UK now faces continuing restrictions entirely because of the Prime Minister’s delay.
The academic paper Estimating the Failure Risk of Hotel-based Quarantine for Preventing COVID-19 Outbreaks in Australia and New Zealand, published in February this year, calculated the risks and likely seeding of variants in the light of infection control and surveillance used locally. It now provides an essential baseline to assess seeding of cases coming from abroad. Devan Sinha of Oxford University and other UK scientists have used this to look at the seeding of the delta variant in the UK. He noted that 96% of the seeding of the delta variant occurred after 2 April—that is, after Pakistan and Bangladesh were added to the red list but India was not. He estimates that putting India on the red list on 2 April would have delayed the current wave by a further four to seven weeks. That four to seven weeks would have meant that all over-40s had had access to a second dose and, at seven weeks, most over-30s. He said that the wave would have been
“much smaller and mostly neutered”.
What have the Government learned from this delay? Why did it take so long for the delta variant to be moved from a variant of interest to a variant of concern? Despite MPs, Peers and scientists all asking in early April, Matt Hancock told the Commons that it would be listed as a variant of concern on 20 April. In fact, it was not listed until 7 May. Even worse, surge testing did not start until May either. If it was serious enough for India to be added to the red list by 23 May, why was it made a variant of concern only on 7 May? Was the delay with PHE or with Ministers?
The necessary continuation of restrictions at the current level means that a number of support schemes are now out of kilter with the restriction levels. These include lifting the embargo on evictions, the reduction in furlough support while people are still being asked to work from home if possible, and other business support mechanisms. Please can the Minister say whether they will be extended until we know that we are lifting restrictions completely? When, oh when, will any of these Statements or communications make it clear to the clinically extremely vulnerable and their families and friends what they are expected to do?
The Statement lists the areas where restrictions are to be lifted, many of which will be welcome, especially the 30-person limit on attending weddings, receptions and commemorative events, and out-of-school residential visits in bubbles of up to 30. But I ask again about mask wearing in schools, given the continuing increase in delta variant cases among children. Will there be specific guidance for these events, including lateral flow testing before and after, so that any outbreaks at a wedding could be tracked and managed? What level of new Covid cases per day would change the pilots on large events with higher capacities, especially the ones planned at full capacity?
It is good to see the removal of enforced quarantine for care home residents after trips out of homes. I never did understand that one, given that staff and visitors did not have to self-isolate.
It was good to hear the emphasis in the statement from Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Valance on the importance of the second dose. I repeat my regular plea that all Ministers use this as a reference point. Far too many only ever use the number of people having had the first dose. With the delta variant, it is even clearer now that two doses are essential.
Why on earth did the Prime Minister say yesterday that 19 July is definitely the terminal day for restrictions? We all hope that he is right, but if he and Ministers are led by data, how can he say that?
Finally, the Statement refers to surge testing in areas where the variant is also surging, but maps show such a steady rise in cases across the country. Can the Minister confirm that there are enough test, trace and isolate staff to manage effectively this fourth wave of Covid?
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Thornton, for such thoughtful and searching questions.
As ever, I am also grateful to my own Benches for their support in these difficult times.
This Statement from the House of Commons has been reflected on very thoughtfully and accurately, as shown by some of the questions. I remind noble Lords that the rollout of the vaccine is happening at pace, but it deserves to have a breath and the space to be seen through, all the way, before we make categoric steps towards opening up. I emphasise in reply to these questions that the supply of the vaccine has stepped up. Pfizer’s forecasted supply in June will be 30% more than in May; in July, it will be 80% more than in June; and we hope to have that sustained level in August. By the week commencing 19 July, we will have offered all adults a first dose, as well as a second dose to those aged over 40 who have had their first dose by mid-May.
This rollout will be absolutely transformative. It will mean that we overtake an important inflection point: the numbers of those who have had their second dose, and who are therefore, as statistics show more and more clearly, highly resistant to this virus, and certainly to severe disease and death. This variant is undoubtedly much more transmissible, by between 50% and 80%. It is therefore completely proportionate and reasonable that we take this moment to delay step 4 and give the vaccine rollout the space that it needs.
I will build on the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the work done by the Sanger Institute on genomic sequencing. It is only because of enormous investment, and the skills and expertise of those in genomic sequencing in the UK, that we understand as much as we do about the variant. In her comments on India, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, spoke about the process of analysing VOIs and VOCs. She is entirely right to allude to the fact that this is an extremely complicated matter. This analysis is down to the scientific judgment of those who have a copy of the variant. It took a very long time to get a physical copy of the variant from India, or even to have a digital sequence of it. That is why these things can take some time.
This demonstrates why we need to tidy up and invest in international systems for surveillance. An enormous amount of energy went into the G7, and I can report to noble Lords that, during the health track, we made great progress in the pandemic preparedness work stream in setting up an international scheme for exactly this kind of surveillance. It is imperative that we know what is happening in communities all the way around the world, because we are all touched by the mutations of this virus, wherever they happen. We continue to invest in the national variant assessment platform, which is our offer to the world to genomically sequence any variant sent to the Sanger, so that we can share that data with countries around the world.
We have also invested enormously in the control of our borders. Through both its red list and its amber list, the managed quarantine service has done an enormous amount to stop the transmission of new variants into this country. I pay a huge amount of tribute to Border Force and those in MQS, who have done a terrific job of bringing in this completely new infrastructure and this service that has done a huge amount to keep out variants—including the Manaus variant, the South Africa variant and others—through the red-listing process.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about school-age children and mask wearing. It is important that we keep a balance. Even though the infection rate is creeping up among school-age children, we need to protect the life they have in schools. In areas of enhanced response, the wearing of masks is now a recommended option for those who seek to take it up. That is a proportionate response in areas of rising infection. But across the estate, we think it is proportionate to step away from that at the moment.
On isolation payments, I can share with the noble Baroness that we are putting £2 million of funding into an agreed pilot across the Greater Manchester area, testing ways to encourage people to comply with self-isolation rules. The pilot will include support and engagement teams who will work with households within 24 hours of a positive test. The pilot is expected to reach 13,000 people over 12 weeks, and I am hopeful that it will guide the way forward in this area.
The vaccination surge is absolutely working. We saw a dramatic change in the vaccination uptake among the community in Bolton in particular. That is one area of Britain where the infection rate is coming down, which demonstrates the effectiveness of both the vaccination surge and the testing surge. We are now focused very much on accelerating second doses, particularly for over-40s. Millions of over-40s have had their first dose; some have an appointment for their second dose and some do not. It is very much the focus of our efforts to ensure that we get those people over the line and finish the job, to protect them and the ones they love.
This is an important development in our steps programme. It is frustrating, but there is an enormous amount to be optimistic about and it is in that spirit that we have made this decision.
We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, what is the point of this Statement? It was briefed to the newspapers over the weekend and the contents were given to members of the press for scrutiny. So Laura Kuenssberg has done the job and there seems to be little for us to do—which may account for the grumpiness I see around the Chamber. Has my noble friend seen the excellent report of the Constitution Committee of this House published on 10 June, entitled COVID-19 and the Use and Scrutiny of Emergency Powers? It is damning of the Government’s use of secondary legislation without proper consultation—of which today we have yet another example. Will the Government mend their ways and accept the recommendations in this excellent report?
My Lords, I absolutely pay tribute to the Constitution Committee. It was generous enough to have me appear in front of it, and I gave several hours of evidence. I am glad to see that my noble friend read the report; I hope he enjoyed my evidence in it as well. In that evidence I made it absolutely crystal clear that the Government work with the laws at our disposal; that is what we have to hand. There may be a time when Parliament chooses to review those laws. Now is not the time, but when it is we will do it.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that many people would like to know whether, having had two vaccinations, they have antibodies? Is this possible? Also, there has been a shortage of the Pfizer vaccine. How can this be increased worldwide?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that many are curious about whether they have antibodies, but I warn her that the presence of antibodies does not necessarily correlate with immunity. Some people have strong immunity and no antibodies, and some have antibodies but not immunity. This is one of the mysteries of the body’s response to the disease and one of the reasons why it has been such a confounding disease to fight. But if anyone does want an antibody test, they should ask their GP and it can be arranged.
My Lords, very bluntly, we are facing this unpalatable Statement today because of the Prime Minister’s inability to take decisions. The Government learned of the arrival of the Indian variant as early as 25 March, yet took no action for 30 days, allowing 20,000 people to enter the UK. The result is that they put the public’s health at risk. As a consequence, we now face a further four weeks of restrictions, with accompanying hardships. Have the Government learned their lesson?
My Lords, I am not sure whether I accept the characterisation presented by the noble Lord. We have worked incredibly hard to bring in a managed quarantine system that is a novel, new introduction into the UK. We have done extremely well in fighting off many of the variants that have come to our shores, including the Manaus variant, the South African variant and others. We have strong links with Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, which means there is a lot of traffic between our countries. I am not sure whether it would ever have been possible to prevent this variant making landfall in the UK at some point. But we have done an enormous amount in the UK to delay and prevent the arrival of these variants, and for that I am enormously grateful to those involved.
My Lords, following the data is the Government’s mantra. Using the Government’s own test and trace data, for the two weeks prior to Bangladesh going on the red list it had a positivity rate of 3.7%; India’s was 5.1%. Of all variants entering the UK, including the delta variant, more than 50% of cases came from India and fewer than 5% from Bangladesh. So if the Government were following the data on 2 April, why was Bangladesh put on the red list and not India?
The noble Lord is enjoying the benefit of hindsight very much indeed; we can all use the retrospectoscope. The data he refers to was not available to us at the time. We did not know that the variant now known as India 2 was a variant of concern. We did not know that it was going to be the most transmissible one. There were three variants in India; we did not know at that point which of them would present the most problems. It is extremely easy to sit here, look back and say that one person should have done this and another should have done that. I ask the noble Lord to try to sit in the seat of those who made the decisions at the time.
My Lords, regardless of matters of hindsight, does the Minister agree that prolonging the restrictions might be justified for certain reasons? I do not demur from that, but the prolonging of inconsistencies is a serious impediment to public adherence to the rules. You do not have to look very far to see where the discipline broke down a long time ago. For example—this is not special pleading; it is just at the forefront of my mind—you can sing in a pub but not in a church. This is what brings the rules into disrepute, and therefore people do not agree with them.
Secondly, can the Minister say something in response to Michael Gove’s reported comments about acceptable death rates? We have learned to live with acceptable death rates from flu and other seasonal diseases. Will the Government do some work on what might be an acceptable death rate from Covid in future and be up-front with the country as to what that might be? I think we can take it.
I hear loud and clear the frustration of many noble Lords on the question of singing in churches; it is enormously frustrating to those who have a passion for singing. But I would be pretending to be other than I am if I did not level with the right reverend Prelate and say that this is an airborne, aerosol disease. It is breathed into buildings at huge risk to those inside, and there is a direct correlation between infection rates, that aerosol and that kind of singing. The decision has been made with huge regret and not without a huge amount of scientific analysis, and those who have made their case have been heard loud and clear—but we have to fight this virus and prevent people getting sick.
I do not accept the right reverend Prelate’s view that discipline has broken down. Quite the opposite: I am astounded by the British public and their adherence to voluntary guidelines and arrangements. I pay tribute to the British public, and I do not think that the right reverend Prelate does any favours when he suggests that discipline has broken down.
Lastly, I really do not accept the concept of an acceptable death rate. That is not how we play the health system in this country. We are here to save lives; that is our priority. There is a balance between the economy, freedom and lives, but as a Health Minister my starting point is to save lives.
My Lords, it is great to see the data on the efficacy of vaccines against the delta variant, but we know that that might not always be the case in the future. The announcement from the Prime Minister that we will share 100 million of our excess vaccines is a welcome first step, but the G7 failed to achieve its 1 billion target, let alone the 11 billion that the WHO says is needed. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that variants present one of the greatest threats to the unlockdown here in the UK and that the pandemic is not over here unless it is over everywhere? What are the next steps to ensure that low-income countries are vaccinated as soon as possible? Given the success of our vaccine programme, will the UK take a leadership role in this, as we continue our G7 presidency?
Yes, I entirely agree with my noble friend on this matter: we are of course only safe when we are all safe. As chair of the G7, we have done an enormous amount to try to show leadership in this area. The G7 committed to share at least 870 million doses directly over the next year and to make these doses available as soon as possible. But the numbers involved are absolutely enormous: 870 million is an astonishing figure, but it is not near to the 8 billion that we ultimately need. At the end of the day, we need manufacturing in all the regions of the world. That is why, as the supporter of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is made on a profit-free basis and on extremely generous terms to manufacturers of the world, Britain has given an enormous benefit to the world. I very much hope that the manufacturing can ramp up to meet that need.
My Lords, I welcome the small but vitally important concession to care home residents in the Statement. However, the Prime Minister has left in place the cruel and unnecessary controls over care home visits. Even visitors who have had two vaccinations and a negative test before visiting must wear PPE and maintain social distancing—no hugging, for example. This is inhuman, particularly for people with dementia, and the risk must be close to zero. Will the Minister plead for immediate changes to those really unnecessary rules? They are well overdue.
The noble Baroness makes the case extremely well, and I agree with her sentiment that the rules are extremely tough. I have heard loud and clear the many noble Lords who have made this case, and we look at it very carefully and thoroughly. At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the most alarming images—and one that has always stuck in my mind—was that of care homes in Spain in Italy, where so many of the residents had died. What we know for sure is that, even with the vaccine, the virus can spread through a care home at great pace—typically half of residents will be infected the moment the virus arrives in a care home. Even with the vaccine, we still have to step carefully, and that is why these measures are still in place. I very much hope that they will be lifted, and I will celebrate that along with all noble Lords who have made this case to me in the past.
My Lords, following the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, when Gordon Brown called the G7 summit an “unforgivable moral failure”, was he not right? With potentially billions to vaccinate, the West has miserably abandoned the moral high ground on vaccine supply, leaving it to the Chinese and Russians to win new friends and secure influence worldwide. Has not Prime Minister Johnson, with his short-sighted, unimaginative approach, damaged our credibility across the world? We should have been a major worldwide vaccine distributor-producer; we failed, and we failed miserably.
No, I am afraid the noble Lord completely overstates the case; I do not accept the characterisation he has made at all. The challenge is enormous, and he is right to feel that this is one of the most important tasks for humanity in the round—I cannot emphasise that enough. But the practicalities are that, in Britain, we make hardly any vaccine at all. It is not for us as a nation to manufacture the vaccine. Where we have contributed is, first, through the science—particularly the AstraZeneca vaccine—and, secondly, through global leadership. The Prime Minister, through the G7, has sought to use that post as much as he can, in order to promote the vaccine. I do not accept that China and Russia have in any way contributed anything like the West has done; the numbers simply do not support that. We are working extremely closely with the regions of the world—with Africa, South America and beyond—in order to set up the kind of manufacturing that those countries need to provide their people with the safety from the virus that they deserve.
My Lords, urgent decisions on Covid restrictions are needed elsewhere in the United Kingdom as well. Does the Government accept, however, that decisions that are for a devolved Government to make must be that devolved Government’s responsibility, and their responsibility alone? For Westminster to impose its will on the Assembly on devolved matters would be totally unacceptable and would lead inevitably and inexorably to a collapse of confidence in devolved institutions.
My Lords, in early April, when the Government put Pakistan, along with Kenya and the Philippines, on the red list, they gave us reasons which many people believe did not add up—but I am not going to argue with that. What we did not know, and still do not know, are the criteria for those countries to be taken out of the red list, as there are millions of people affected by that. In April, in Pakistan, new cases were running at over 6,000 a day. That has now been reduced to just over 1,000 a day. Pakistan has made a huge improvement in reducing the number of Covid cases. Will the Minister tell the 1.4 million British people of Pakistani origin living in this country when the Government plan to take Pakistan off the red list, and what are the criteria?
The noble Lord is entirely right to ask about the route out. That is exactly what we hope to be thinking about very soon. The criteria will include how much vaccination we have here in the UK and the efficacy of that vaccine against all the variants present in the world. They will also include the presence of variants in the other countries; there is a stepped process for analysing that. Lastly, they will include the infection rates in those countries. We hope to be able to take concrete steps on that shortly. The treaties necessary to have mutual vaccine recognition are being discussed at a high level as we speak.
My Lords, my noble friend will not be surprised if I ask him whether he can guarantee that, by 19 July, all care home workers will have been vaccinated. But could he also answer this question? Why is he allowed to go down to his local pub and sing “Roll Out the Barrel” but he cannot go into his local church and sing “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer”?
I completely accept the challenge. These anomalies exist and he is entirely right to beat up the Minister for this kind of stuff. It is unbelievably difficult to write guidelines that touch so many different parts of life, and I would not pretend for a moment that there is 100% consistency in everything that is done. But I have made the point emphatically: these things are done to save lives and protect people from infection. They are done with a heavy heart, having looked at the scientific evidence, with a sense of regret that we are letting down those with a passion for singing and religious worship, and in the hope that we can get rid of them very soon. We are taking concrete steps as quickly as we can to deliver the vaccines. In terms of care homes, as he knows, there is a consultation in process and that consultation is working its way through.
The Prime Minister rightly says that we have to learn to live with Covid. Therefore, does the Minister agree that, while vaccinations provide protection and effective test and trace is essential, it will continue to be necessary to take sensible precautions for self-protection if we have to learn to live with this virus and its variants? Does he also agree that there is a need for continuous public education and clear, consistent guidance to explain why these precautions are necessary? If so, apart from the effective rollout of vaccinations and test and trace, what plans do the Government have in the longer run for promoting a public education health programme?
I am enormously grateful for the question from the noble Baroness. She gives me an opportunity to lift my head for a moment and think about a brighter future, because she is entirely right. One of the possible benefits from this awful virus is a different approach to public health that is much more effective in fighting contagious diseases, where we have much more effective tests for everything from flu to RSV to things like Covid as well, and where we can get therapeutic drugs to people the moment they test positive so that they do not fall sick. We can use this investment in public health to help level up some of the health inequalities that have beset this country so heavily.
My Lords, is there not a problem in looking for a different approach in the future? The precedent set by the Government’s attitude to Parliament fills one with a great deal of concern about the way our parliamentary democracy is going to work. Can he simply tell me why the Prime Minister did not make a Statement to the Commons last night?
Can I ask the Minister what we have learned from the treating of this pandemic to help us face the future? We have learned very clearly how much countries depend upon one another. Our first vaccines came from Belgium. Can we make sure we do not build walls, but build bridges, as we look forward to the future?
My Lords, I am extremely touched by the noble Lord’s words, and I completely endorse his meaning. It was awful last year when we saw multilateralism and global co-operation fracture and decay. We had to look to our friends and resources within our own borders to answer the pandemic. That did not work and will not work. The noble Lord is absolutely right. From a pragmatic point of view, we depend upon global supply chains for the benefit of global science. From a personal and human point of view, we depend upon the solidarity of humankind to get us through these awful moments. I completely endorse the noble Lord’s point.
My Lords, I commend my noble friend for all his work helping fight this dreadful pandemic; I know his dedication is second to none. I hope he will forgive me for asking: what is the endgame? He has said today that we must prevent people getting sick, but that seems to mean just getting sick with one illness: Covid. What about the suicides, heart attacks and cancers that are being missed because of lockdown? Covid is responsible for less than 1% of deaths right now. Can we not trust the British people to be sensible and choose the risks they are willing to take, along the lines the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, using the example of the Government banning hugging for care home residents? I find this intrusion in our private everyday lives deeply frightening.
My Lords, I absolutely forgive my noble friend because that is an extremely sensible question. I take it on board completely. The endgame is to end a contagious disease that has exponential growth. As she knows, R is currently between 1.2 and 1.4. If it goes unchecked, this disease will spread pretty much through the whole population. The vaccine is excellent at keeping people out of hospital, but not everyone. It is excellent at preventing deaths, but not for everyone. It is good at stopping the disease, but only half of the disease. We must get enough vaccine out there so that the disease will not run through the entire population and lead to the deaths of thousands, tens of thousands, or more. That is the endgame of this project.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Covid cases reported daily in the media are not clinical cases? They are not sick people but positive results of the PCR test. Given that the PCR test is incredibly sensitive and can detect tiny numbers of virus particles, what proportion of positive tests is likely to develop clinical disease?
My Lords, the PCR test is very sensitive. Most people who take the test are presenting a symptom, so a very high proportion of those positives are people who have the disease when they take it. Of course, there are many who have the disease and do not take a test at all, so there is more disease in the population than accounted for in the positive tests. There is a very small proportion of people who might have shreds of the virus from a previous infection who then test positive, but it is thought that that proportion is very small.
My Lords, yesterday the Prime Minister said that this extension of restrictions will
“save many thousands of lives”
and he was backed up by the Health Secretary. Since 18 May, the weekly average number of deaths per day from Covid has been in single figures—almost all of whom will have had underlying health conditions—while each day about 450 people die from cancer. Will the Government publish, or will my noble friend give Parliament the opportunity to see, the evidence and research behind the “many thousands of lives” saved?
My Lords, I completely understand the point. There is a lag to the deaths. At the moment, we are seeing the infection rate go up, which is leading to a small increase in hospitalisations. As my noble friend quite rightly points out, that increase has not been seen in deaths yet, and thank goodness for that. We do not know for sure what proportion of infections will lead to severe disease or death. We know it is a percentage; we do not know exactly what percentage. But should the disease spread through millions in the population, which is entirely possible without the NPIs we have in place, then the number of deaths will be very significant—possibly as many as we have seen already.
I do not think the Minister should dismiss so lightly the questions about inconsistencies in the regulations. This really does get home to whether the public are going to believe in and carry out those regulations. Can I give him one example? Wimbledon is going to be full to capacity with singing, clapping and cheering—yes, outside—but how on earth then can weddings and outside receptions not be allowed to sing, cheer and do all the things that happen at weddings? These inconsistencies do not make common sense. The Minister needs to understand that.
I hope that the noble Baroness will accept my apology if I have in any way suggested that I am flippant about inconsistency—I am not. What I have in my mind is the huge amount of work that is done by policy officials in order to try to be as consistent as possible. I pay tribute to the colossal human effort that goes into trying to make sure that everything we do is aligned. It is a monumental and very difficult task.
The noble Baroness is right to say that Wimbledon is a big event pilot, quite different in its ambition and its tone to some of the other events—for instance, the care homes that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, referred to. What we are trying to do is to take fairy footsteps out of the pandemic. Wimbledon, for instance, will account for many hundreds of thousands of tests as we use very rigorous testing procedures to try to protect the rate of infection in that big event. If it is successful, it will help us lead our way out of this horrible arrangement.
At a personal level, I feel very sorry for the Minister. He must realise that there are considerable doubts across both Houses about the Prime Minister’s sincerity and truthfulness. Have we been told the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the delay over dealing with India?
My Lords, in this pandemic, as always, the difficult judgment that has to be made is between lives and livelihoods. Decisions have been taken to protect lives by retaining the existing measures for a further month. The Minister will no doubt appreciate that I and other noble Lords have been extensively lobbied by musicians, independent workers in the hospitality and entertainment sectors, who have fallen through the cracks with no support. Does he not agree that it is reasonable to argue that an equitable balance now would be to provide targeted financial support to those self-employed and freelance workers who have not had a fair deal throughout this crisis?
My Lords, having worked in the music industry for 15 years, I absolutely identify with the challenge he describes. However, I remind him that we have been emphatically forthcoming in trying to support workers through this difficult pandemic. We have provided £70 billion for the furlough scheme and £33 billion for the self-employment income support scheme, which would touch many of the musicians to whom he refers. We have stepped forward financially in a very big way and will continue to do so until the end of this awful situation.
The Minister has said several times that there are grounds for optimism. Does he not realise that this delay has caused despair? The Minister urged opponents to sit in the seats of decision-makers. Can I urge him to sit in the seats of the trashed events industry today and those likely to lose their jobs in hospitality, sport, theatre and so on? I appreciate that many people and the public remain nervous of living with the virus, despite the wonders of the vaccine. However, is it not the job of the Government to lead with courage, to reassure people not to be unduly frightened or succumb to fatalism, and to protect the unquantifiable non-Covid-related social fabric of society, which they are tearing up?
My Lords, I sympathise with those in the events and hospitality industry. As I said a moment ago, it is an industry I have a huge affection for. I worked in it for many years and I know through my friends and family who work in it how hard hit it has been, in particular for those who work on a casual basis and enjoy it from an aesthetic point of view as well as needing work of a casual nature. But these decisions are tough and hard. It would have been easier, perhaps, to have given ground in areas where we have been pressed and lobbied, but we have, where necessary, made the tough decisions based on the science and the advice that we have from clinicians in order to protect both life and the economy. At the end of the day, we do not have an economy if we have a pandemic running through our society. We do not have trust and we do not have people going out and about and enjoying normal lives if there is disease. That is one important reason why we have backed the decisions we have made.
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]
My Lords, first, I thank those who contributed to the debate following Her Majesty’s gracious Speech, when we first discussed this Bill. I also thank noble Lords who attended the recent briefing with departmental Ministers. For the benefit of noble Lords contributing remotely, I note that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills is physically present with us in the Chamber today. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, and it is wonderful to see the priority given to the Bill by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who is speaking today on her birthday. I am glad to see a common desire to look at skills reform and further education. I look forward to the debate that we will share, and I welcome the scrutiny that the Bill will be placed under.
We can all agree that skills and post-16 education needs its moment in the spotlight, both in Parliament and in communities across the country. We talk about the forgotten 50% of people who do not go to university; today, we are giving this policy and the people it affects the attention they deserve. We can see today the vast challenges facing the nation. Covid-19 has significantly impacted the economy and shown us how urgently we need a resilient, highly skilled workforce. We all see the clock ticking towards 2050, when we have committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions, and we are all aware of our need to succeed as an independent trading nation, following our departure from the European Union.
This is also the perfect opportunity to think about what constitutes our nation. Is it one big city, or a couple of big cities? No, it is a diverse set of communities, families and individuals, with different ambitions and potential. This means that we need to match opportunities with the talent that we know can be found across the country. We need to ensure that people can succeed without feeling that they have to move to one of the big cities. This past year’s extraordinary transition to flexible working for many has only proved this further. We have a duty to make sure that the skills provision offered in people’s home towns meets their needs and ambitions and that of employers, so that everyone has the opportunity to realise their full potential and find success, wherever they live and whatever their background.
The evidence is clear: we have a problem in the balance of education. Only 4% of young people achieve a qualification at higher technical level by the age of 25, compared to a third who get a degree or above, yet 34% of working-age graduates are not in high-skilled employment. No wonder more parents would now prefer that their child gain a vocational qualification than a degree. University is a great option for some but not the best option for everyone, and it should not be seen to be the only pathway to success. My honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills often tells me how inspired she is by the learners she meets on visits to colleges and further education institutions—people who have found their vocation and their way of success through technical education.
Philip Augar’s 2018 Post-18 Review of Education and Funding made the call for parity of esteem between further and higher education. I take this moment to offer my congratulations on his recent knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. The review set out the case very clearly for a genuine choice, for everyone, beyond the fantastic opportunities offered through our world-class university system. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, who served on the review’s panel. The Government have listened to this call; the Skills for Jobs White Paper, published earlier this year, set out our vision to reform post-16 education and training. We will prioritise flexibility, accountability and quality, and we will put employers at the heart of the system, building on what we have done with apprenticeships and T-levels, so that individuals can know what their qualification leads to, and employers can have confidence in them. Given that 80% of the workforce of 2030 are already in work today, it is essential that we have a flexible system for adult retraining which supports people to progress in their careers.
We want our reforms to work for everyone, which is why we are working with noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Addington, to ensure that we support those with special educational needs to access the improved skills training and education that our reforms aim to deliver. I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord for his dedication, challenge and advocacy on this issue, as well as our other FE ambassadors, who have brought a breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm to our discussions.
The chair of the Education Select Committee, the right honourable Robert Halfon, called the White Paper a “sea change”. The Association of Colleges noted that it
“recognises the vital role that colleges and further education will play in levelling up for people and places whilst tackling long standing concerns about stagnating productivity”.
Employers such as the Co-op welcomed our reforms.
We know that to deliver the reforms successfully requires funding. That is why we have backed up the White Paper with £2.5 billion towards the national skills fund, £1.5 billion to improve the college estate, and £650 million extra into further education for 16 to 19 year-olds. The White Paper sets out our comprehensive programme for reform, and the Bill before us will provide the necessary statutory underpinning for change.
The Bill is divided into three sections that support the principles of the White Paper. First, it aims to provide a framework for ensuring that skills and post-16 education leads people towards a great job. That is why we are creating a statutory underpinning for local skills improvement plans, which we will shortly be trailblazing in some local areas. By putting employers and their representative bodies at the heart of the post-16 skills system, we are focusing on meeting local skills gaps and prioritising training in growth sectors. This will ensure that employers have the skills they need to drive growth in local areas; it will support opportunities for learners to get good jobs and help the existing workforce to retrain. This will help us get rid of the idea that career success can be found only in a big city.
Relevant providers will need to have regard to these plans when considering their technical education and training offer. These changes will also be supported by a new duty on further education institutions to review their provision to ensure that it meets local needs. In addition, the Bill supports the provision of the advanced technical and higher education skills the country needs by creating a strong link to employer-led standards. The Bill will reform the technical education system so that it is high-quality, stable and coherent. It does this by giving the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education powers to approve new categories of technical qualifications, simplifying a system in which there are currently over 12,000 qualifications. The Bill also gives a statutory footing to the collaborative relationship between the institute and Ofqual.
Perhaps the major plank of the Bill is that it supports the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement, as part of a flexible lifetime skills guarantee. This measure will be rolled out from 2025 and will give all adults access to the equivalent of four years of student loans for higher-level study at levels 4 to 6. The loans will be able to be used flexibly, full time or part time, for modules or full qualifications and for provision in colleges or universities. At the moment, maximum amounts for funding are set in relation to an academic year. The Bill will make it clear that maximum loan amounts can be set in other ways. The Government will consult on the details of the lifelong loan entitlement, including on how best to support students with the living costs of study, and whether equivalent and lower qualifications restrictions should be amended to support retraining and stimulate provision.
The ambition is to replace the two existing systems that offer government-financed loans to learners studying at levels 4 to 6 with the single LLE system. These two existing systems of higher education student finance and advanced learner loans provide funding support for different types of courses. The lifelong loan entitlement aims to create a simpler and clearer system, but it will require extensive operational changes to the student finance system and the types of course available, which is why it will be rolled out from 2025. It is the step change in the system that will give people the opportunity to upskill, retrain and reskill, providing the alternative to the notion that a standard three-year degree is the only route to success and giving people the flexibility to change their future.
Of course, it is important to ensure that there is sufficient provision for lower-level qualifications. That is why, separate from the Bill, the Government’s adult education budget will continue to fully fund courses in English and maths up to and including level 2 for adults who have not previously attained a GCSE grade C or, in new currency, grade 4. The national skills fund funds adults to complete their first level 3 qualification alongside the new skills boot camps.
These reforms mean very little if education or training provision is not of the highest quality. That is why the second part of the Bill proposes powers to make regulations to improve and secure the quality of FE initial teacher training by shaping the market for that provision. This power will be used only if these improvements cannot be achieved through working collaboratively with the sector. The Bill will also make it clear that the Office for Students has the ability to make assessments by reference to absolute student outcomes. This will give confidence that the same standard can be applied across all higher education providers and for all students, while continuing to take into account context and individual circumstances.
The third part of the Bill aims to ensure there are sufficient protections in place for learners. It will allow the Government to introduce a list of post-16 education or training providers. To be on this list, providers will need to meet conditions aimed at protecting learners against the negative impacts of potential provider failure. This issue, which relates particularly to independent training providers, was raised in this House during the passage of the Technical and Further Education Bill in 2017. I am glad to bring a solution to this issue back to the House today. This section of the Bill also gives powers to the Secretary of State, who took his place on the steps of the Throne as I began, to intervene in the statutory further education sector where local needs are not being met, or to direct mergers or structural change where that is the best way to secure improvement. Alongside the final part of the Bill, it will improve the efficiency of the FE insolvency regime. One of the strengths of the FE market is the flexibility of its provider base. These measures will give the impetus for this flexibility to be used to protect learners and provide education and training that has this clear path towards the labour market.
I am delighted that this Bill is before us today. We have an opportunity to begin the process of transforming opportunities for young people and adults. Events of the past year have shown us how important skills and further education will be to our recovery as both an economy and as a nation. As noble Lords have often said, this has been the Cinderella of the sector for too long. This reform is long overdue, but is only one step on a longer journey. We will work to ensure that the 50% of people who do not go to university will no longer be called “forgotten” and stuck in what are wrongly called “forgotten towns”. Instead, we will make skills and jobs available to everyone, wherever they are. This Bill will help provide those learners with high-quality provision, protection and the skills and education that can transform their lives. I beg to move.
I thank the Minister for her kind wishes—a year older and, hopefully, a year wiser in the company of your Lordships.
I am opening this debate from the Opposition Front Bench, and I am able to do so after a lifetime of working with young people, developing their skills and encouraging lifelong learning. In recent years I was able to use that experience as the local government education spokesperson for Wales, specifically with a skills agenda as the lead portfolio holder in the Cardiff capital region, which covers 52% of the Welsh population. The regional skills partnership showed me that, by working together with all interested parties, real progress could be made to promote strategic and collaborative decision-making. Representatives from business, further and higher education training providers and national and local government joined together to share their knowledge and understanding of the sectors they represented, to ensure the region was able to respond to a demand-led approach to developing skills and talent. The lack of that level of shared collaboration across all sectors is a significant area of concern on the face of the Bill as it stands.
While wholesale changes to the way we support FE skills, adult learning and part-time HE are long overdue, this Bill remains inadequate to tackle the scale of the skills challenges that have resulted from years of neglect and austerity, exacerbated by the pandemic. As furlough ends, no community will be untouched by unemployment. It is vital, therefore, that a joined-up, place-based employment, skills and careers system offers adults and young people the recovery they deserve, by providing access to quality education and training opportunities. A range of choices and opportunities should be central to any reform, and changes to the post-16 education system should allow for progression and pathways between technical education, apprenticeships and existing further and higher education qualifications.
Among others, local government has an important role. Councils have direct functions to plan post-16 skills, support young people with specific needs and deliver adult and community learning and other related functions. Mayoral combined authorities have devolved responsibility for the adult education budget, which they have used to reshape the local further education offer, working with employers, FE providers and constituent local authorities.
There is, however, an overt emphasis in the Bill on an employer-led approach to develop local skills improvement plans alongside training providers. We offer that MCAs and local authorities should be strategic partners—and on the face of the Bill. Their wide-ranging knowledge and expertise on this agenda are currently missing, and we will be seeking amendments to develop collaboration, away from the overarching employer-led approach that currently dominates.
Therefore, can the Minister explain why metro mayors and combined authorities, many of which have democratic accountability for local skills and economic regeneration, have been excluded? How do the Government envisage LSIPs relating to existing local and regional economic strategies, especially where funding may be directly linked to delivery against them? And why are local enterprise partnerships not covered in the Bill?
Furthermore, the Bill does not provide support for any qualifications below level 3, despite lower-level qualifications offering many adult learners key progression routes. Nor does it support subjects outside a narrow band of technical disciplines. Labour is concerned that nearly 1 million priority jobs will be excluded from the LSG in sectors facing a skills shortage.
The Bill also appears to omit reskilling and second level 3 qualifications. So can the Minister confirm that the LSG does not cover subsequent level 3 courses? Does she agree that all adults should be eligible for retraining, given the impact of the pandemic and changing market needs? Is it not now time that the Government put the LSG on a statutory footing?
We are concerned that the detail of the lifetime loan entitlement is yet to be confirmed. It appears that it will only cover tuition costs for higher-tuition courses. Labour believes the system of loans, and in particular means-tested grants, should be extended to support adult learners’ living costs, and that universal credit conditions should be reformed so that the people who would benefit from attending college or accessing training while unemployed or in part-time employment do not lose out.
The planned introduction of the LSG in 2024 and the LLE in 2025 should also be brought forward by several years. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will introduce these LLE amendments in Committee and ensure that they are not tabled at the 11th hour?
There is concern that many adults will be unable to take advantage of the opportunity to gain level 3 qualifications if they lack a level 2 qualification. The Bill omits the value of qualifications below level 3 in creating progression pathways for students. Recent Department for Education data has shown the return on investment of these qualifications and concluded that the present net value of qualifications below level 2 is higher than for level 3.
Another clear omission is funding for adult learners to take a second level 3 qualification. Many adult learners will have achieved their first level 3 many years ago and may have used it to pursue a career that is no longer viable. With the economic turmoil that has come from this pandemic, many adults will want and need to reskill rather than upskill—to switch sectors and enter new careers. Support for second level 3 qualifications could facilitate this.
Every area in the UK needs a mix of provision specific to their local context—to their community and sub-economy. However, the Bill is not explicit in certain features of the LSIP, including what constitutes “local”. Is it a specified area, or is the scope of further education provision included? Does the Minister believe that the definition of “local need” should incorporate a broad range of outcomes related to health and well-being, community participation and other social and economic outcomes that can be linked to community adult learning?
The Bill does provide for a statutory basis for LSIPs, with the Secretary of State gaining powers to designate employer representative bodies. I am pleased to see that he is here to hear it directly from me. But we are concerned that the Government’s desire for employers to take the lead in skill reform lacks clear structure and transparency and will render providers passive recipients of LSIPs. We will seek to amend the Bill to empower metro mayors and combined authorities to coproduce the plans, in recognition of the crucial they have to play.
We will seek to extend LSIP consultation to student representatives, trade unions, local and devolved government and other relevant agencies. We also intend to probe further how ERBs will be held to democratic accountability and the degree to which providers meet local needs. We are concerned that the Secretary of State has the power to select or sack ERBs, sign off on all LSIPs, dictate whether colleges fulfil these requirements, and to merge or replace colleges without recourse to local circumstances. The first port of call for approving local plans and remedying poor local performance should be local and not the centralisation of taking back control to Westminster. The Secretary of State’s powers must be narrowed to apply only in clearly defined, exceptional circumstances.
The Bill gives the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education—a non-departmental public body directly accountable to Ministers—the ultimate sign-off power for the approval and regulation of technical qualifications. We are concerned that this handing back, day to day, of political control of technical qualification regulation would undermine the independent status of Ofqual and risk a cumbersome new dual regulatory approval system. We will seek to amend the Bill to ensure that Ofqual remains the sole body.
We further believe that the failure to link this Bill to the apprenticeship levy is a missed opportunity, given that the underspend could be used to provide quality training, education or employment opportunities. It is especially disappointing that supported internships, which can play a huge role in supporting learners with learning difficulties to prepare for and enter the world of work, are missing from the Bill.
We urge the Government, in tandem with the introduction of the Bill, to prepare and publish a cross-departmental 10-year national strategy for education and skills to deliver on a wide policy agenda. Consultation must be wide so that the strategy and oversight of meaningful collaboration, as I outlined at the beginning, can be carried forward towards a better tomorrow for the people who have done so much during this past year to demonstrate the dependence we have on their skills and their hard work in running our services and industries.
My Lords, I too wish the noble Baroness a happy birthday. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Black.
We are finally getting there, are we not? There is the work that the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, has done and now she has been promoted to advising the Prime Minister on this area. There is Philip Augar’s report, which was so important. There is the Technical and Further Education Act, which the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, was part of; it is good to see him taking part in this debate. There seems to be a sort of sea-change taking place, which I very much welcome. I suspect that many of us will repeat the same issues.
I consider this the most important education Bill that your Lordships have considered in certainly the last 20 years. The skills and vocational education Bill arrives when we face huge skills shortages, high rates of youth unemployment and the uncertainties of the post-Brexit, post-pandemic world. Yet opportunities are there, not least the green revolution. The Bill must be about the education system that we want for our children and young people.
Many young people are being denied the opportunities that their academic peers have always received. We have an educational ethos in our country that celebrates and rewards the academically minded and treats the rest as second best. For most parents and, indeed, society, the hallmark of a successful education is passing the required number of GCSEs to progress into the sixth form and then getting good A-level grades to secure a university place. However, research tells us that an academic and knowledge-based curriculum is not suitable or worth while for 50% or so of our school pupils, yet we persist in putting these pupils in an academic straitjacket. Instead, we should provide a vocational education as good, respected and celebrated as the academic one. Would it not be uplifting to see banners outside school gates praising not only the A-level pass rate but the vocational success of our students?
The other key ingredient must be first-rate careers guidance and education. Every pupil should be given regular face-to-face support by a qualified careers teacher or officer to understand the pupil’s abilities, interests and passions, and to clearly let the pupil see the opportunities available and not try to push them into the sixth form. It might be more appropriate for them to go to a further education college or a UTC or to undergo an apprenticeship. By doing this, we will gradually change the mindset not just of pupils and parents but of society itself, so that vocational education is regarded as the right route for a large number of our students.
The Bill is an important beacon for changing attitudes and perceptions. It gives us the opportunity to realise that education should be an opportunity for life, so whether you are a mum who is now ready to go back and study or someone who wants to retrain so that they can improve their job prospects, that opportunity is freely available. There should be no barriers to learning. Everyone, no matter their circumstances, should be encouraged to have lifelong learning opportunities. Indeed, as our Prime Minister said:
“These new laws are the rocket fuel that we need to level up this country and ensure equal opportunities for all … I’m revolutionising the system so we can move past the outdated notion that there is only one route up the career ladder, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to retrain or upskill at any point in their lives.”
They are passionate words from the Prime Minister. We must ensure that the Bill captures his rhetoric. I am sure there will be a large number of amendments that enable this to happen.
If we really mean lifelong learning opportunities for all, a number of areas need clarification and probably amendments. The lifetime loan entitlement would open up tuition fee loans for people taking level 4 and level 5 qualifications, which are especially important for unlocking higher technical skills. Many adults will be unable to take up these opportunities because there is no support for living costs while they are taking a course. Thus these people will be prevented from transforming their life chances and being part of the skilled workforce that the country and the economy need. We also need to look at the entitlement rules for those people who are unemployed and on universal credit and would benefit from attending college. The 16-hour rule is a barrier to those NEETs who could be upskilled or retrained.
As we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, the Bill offers no support for those students below level 3. Surely it is important that we recognise that this is part of the educational landscape. Many adults achieved their level 3 many years ago and maybe want to pursue a new career or reskill. Support could facilitate this. Should we not be making funding available for these learners?
I want to raise two other considerations, perhaps minor ones but important ones. Some people of faith, including Muslims, do not feel able to take on an interest-bearing loan. The Government identified this as a barrier to participation. What progress has been made on a sharia-compliant loan system? Students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those on universal credit struggle to get the technology they need. Will the Government consider making IT support available for these students? While we are talking about barriers, what progress has been made on the issue of 16 year- olds who are denied the opportunity to take part in the Kickstart programme because they are on universal credit?
Apprenticeships were one of the flagship policies and achievements of the coalition Government, but sadly we have seen the number fall 18% year on year, so that in 2019-20 it was down by 319,000. We know that any business with a payroll of more than £3 million has to pay 0.5% in a levy, but businesses are often unable to use all their levy, so it gets clawed back by the Treasury. A recent survey by Energy & Utility Skills received responses from 22 companies which employ 100,000 people, with over 4,000 apprenticeships, and found that half the levy they paid was going back to the Treasury. Could we not be imaginative and start using that levy in different ways? Some businesses are already being imaginative and using the levy to provide courses for their existing staff. At the Youth Unemployment Select Committee today, we heard one of the witnesses say that the apprenticeship scheme was in danger of becoming an adult learning scheme. That is a sad indictment of our high hopes for apprenticeships.
I reflect that a significant number of employers are concerned that young people entering apprenticeships and vocational training programmes do not have a sufficient foundation in practical skills and work readiness to enable them to progress as quickly as they might; often the shortcomings are not academic. Would it not be imaginative to use some of that levy which has to be returned to the Treasury to fund local employment engagement, perhaps with local schools?
If the Minister has time, perhaps she would be kind enough to write to me about regulation. The Bill will transfer powers from the independent regulator, Ofqual, to the less independent, non-government body, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. It is responsible for introducing its own T-levels while also regulating the broader qualification market. Is there not a risk of a real conflict of interest? The Bill would allow it to charge fees for the approval and accreditation of new qualifications already regulated by Ofqual. There is no information about how these fees will be regulated. The relationship between Ofqual and the IfATE needs detailing. The current proposals have the potential to cause overlap and confusion.
We have seen how other European countries, notably Germany and Switzerland, have valued the importance of vocational education and, as a result, have done far better than the UK in providing the skills that their economies need. Let this Bill, wisely amended, give every person the opportunity they need, as well as what the country and the economy need, to be successful.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill because it acknowledges the importance of skills and vocational learning to the economy, productivity and, let us not forget, the capacity of people to fulfil their personal potential. I hope it will be a significant step towards reversing the huge decline in adult learning we have experienced in recent years which, as some of us believe, is overdue. But whether it is successful in doing that will depend not on bold ambitions and warm words but on the detailed delivery. In particular, it will depend on some issues which are either not covered at all in the Bill or referred to only in outline. I want to touch on one or two of those today.
The first is advice and guidance. The White Paper for skills and jobs rightly says that we need:
“Clear and outcomes-focused careers information”
and that it is
“fundamental to the success of our reforms.”
The White Paper says:
“We need impartial, lifelong careers advice and guidance available to people when they need it, regardless of age, circumstance, or background.”
I would also say that we need a system in which the Careers and Enterprise Company and the National Careers Service are working more effectively together to create an all-age careers system better able to support learners seeking to navigate what will be a much more complex system following the implementation of this legislation. I would also like to see us providing more face-to-face coaching, not just a better digital information bank. I think that will be especially important as we exit the pandemic. I know that Sir John Holman has been appointed to advise on all of this, but we still await his recommendations, and it is unfortunate that it has not been possible to incorporate them in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can update us about where these recommendations are, when they will be published and how they will sit alongside the Bill.
The second issue is the lifelong learning entitlement. The Open University has pointed out that this is presented in the Bill as a bolt-on, creating a separate funding system for modular study. A more ambitious reform would have been to create a unified credit-based system for learning that does not distinguish between different modes of study. But leaving that to one side for the moment, Clauses 14 and 15 leave some very important questions unanswered—questions which I have raised before in the House in debates on lifelong learning. For example, will people be able to use their entitlement to study at an equivalent or lower level to their previous studies? The local skills improvement plans might well encourage them to do so. I know that this is subject to consultation, but could we not take action on this earlier? What will the repayment terms be for any loan? Will we continue—perversely, I think—to penalise students who choose to study at a distance? How exactly will the credit transfer arrangements work between providers?
Then there is the cost of study itself, including living costs. This is not addressed in the Bill; it is another matter for consultation, but it is key to the successful implementation of these reforms. The Welsh Government recently introduced reforms to tackle this by extending maintenance support, including means-tested grants, to all students, regardless of the mode of study. Importantly, they also introduced lower tuition fees for part-time study. As a result, they have been rewarded with a huge increase in participation, which is what we all want. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are thinking along similar lines?
I agree with the principle of having the employer’s voice heard clearly in the skills system and for skills providers to be responsive to, and accountable to, local employers for their provision. Actually, some older Members will remember that this was one of the reasons why we once had a department for education and employment. Some colleges and independent training providers have too often focused on offering courses and programmes which generated much-needed funding but were not necessarily relevant to local employment needs. What I struggle with, though, is why this is being piloted with chambers of commerce and other representative bodies when they are not resourced for the task and sometimes do not have very strong membership bases. We already have skills advisory panels that bring together employers, providers and funding agencies and are supported by learning and enterprise councils, so do we really need to introduce additional complexity? Why not build on the existing skills advisory approach and make a more inclusive way of providing advice on employers’ needs?
Finally, as I suspect others may not raise it, I shall say a word about independent training providers. The Bill rightly focuses on supporting colleges and further education, but independent training providers at their best can be more fleet of foot and more responsive to employer and local skill needs. In my local area here in Gloucestershire, many providers feel that the skills Bill could make their existence more perilous. They recognise the importance of offering high-quality provision and being sustainable businesses, but many feel that they will be disadvantaged by, for example, not being able to bid into the skills accelerated development fund and being seen as second-tier providers for various contracts. During the passage of the Bill, we need to ensure that it is possible for independent training providers to continue to provide their best and to strengthen in the future.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the Bill. I begin by declaring my interests as chancellor of the University of Leicester, a visiting professor at King’s College London and a member of the boards of Thames Holdings Ltd and UKRI.
The principles and objectives of the Bill are very welcome. It is absolutely right to want to do more for further education colleges, to focus on technical and vocational skills, and to try to do more on lifelong learning, but there is a lot to do to flesh out those principles in practical legislation. The Government have several important consultation exercises under way at the moment, which will help them see how they intend to apply those principles. I hope the Minister can assure the House that we will have ample opportunity to review and revise this legislation as it goes through both Houses of Parliament in the light of the outcomes of their consultations.
While I welcome the principles, the really important matter is what they mean in practice. Here, I have to say that I am concerned about a deep confusion—an artificial conflict, perhaps—between “vocational” and “academic”. In her opening speech, the Minister herself referred to parents preferring that their child should have a vocational qualification rather than a degree. I am familiar with the research, published by the Social Market Foundation, on which that statement rests. I find it very hard to make sense of the question that was put to people in that opinion survey. I talk to universities, which tell me that 70% of their students are studying on a course accredited by an employer or an employer organisation; they are doing courses that are a licence to practise. The White Paper rightly refers to the need for nurses and engineers. These courses are also delivered by universities—are they academic or vocational? It is a false distinction, which should not be used to create conflict between higher and further education when both have an important role to play. You can do academic courses in further education colleges and vocational courses in universities. If distinctions are used to create conflict between these two parts of our education system—both very important—the cause that the Minister rightly supports will be put back rather than advancing.
I have met a young man at a workbench making a bit of kit to be launched on to a satellite as part of his doctoral training. It is an old Oxbridge mindset, the belief that universities are for the liberal arts—for gentlemen—while vocational courses are for training colleges, and that if a university dares to provide vocational training it must mean that it is a bad university. That model is one of the reasons we have the skills crisis that we worry about now; it is the wrong mindset for trying to tackle this problem. I very much hope, therefore, that the Minister will be able to assure us that she fully understands that universities—especially some of the less prestigious universities, whose origins are often as colleges of advanced technology and which have not lost sight of their original mission—are one of the instruments that she can use to fulfil her objectives.
This is also very important, and will be tested, in the Minister’s admirable objective of tackling the anomalies of level 4 and 5 funding—a peculiar feature of the system, going back to provisions in the 1992 Act. Augar was right to say in his report that we need a more flexible regime for levels 4 and 5. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, for her campaign on this. We do need a better funding arrangement for levels 4 and 5. At the moment they are niche, essentially nursing diplomas for women and engineering courses for men; I do not say that with any endorsement of the stereotypes but it seems to be the origin of the widely cited figure for earnings for some at levels 4 and 5. We need to make it easier and more flexible, but can the Minister assure the House that funding for levels 4 and 5 should be institution-blind? It should be delivered by FE colleges but could also be delivered by higher education institutions.
The new loan scheme is an exciting initiative. I confess to this House that, looking back on my record in government, one of the things I most regret is the decline in adult learning during my time as Minister. There are many complicated reasons for that. One was that we tried to apply the same funding model to adult learning as to 18 year-olds going to university. For an 18 year-old, taking on a loan when they are at a big fork in the road does not, thank heavens, put them off going to university. For adult learners, however, taking out a loan may be a very different decision and far more worrying. So, one lesson I learned from what we went through was that a single funding model may not work as well for adult learners as for younger people en route to university. I hope the Minister will reflect on that as the Government design this new single scheme.
I wished to comment further on the role of employers and the importance of individuals, but I see that time has passed. I just say to the Minister that while, of course, employers have an important voice, we should not forget the individual learner. He or she may be inspired to shape their life around a course or an occupation, and it might not be for a big industry in the area where they live; it might be in something exciting on the horizon for which there is not currently an employer. I very much hope that, in the course of our debate, the Minister will say that the individual shaping his or her destiny matters as much as the employer and the education institution.
My Lords, I strongly endorse the previous speech, particularly as it notes the crazy distinction between vocational and academic study. On these Benches, we welcome the commitment from the Government to the further education and skills sector as set out in the Bill. It is particularly pleasing to see that the Bill builds on the practical reforms outlined in the Skills for Jobs White Paper. In this context, I also strongly commend to the House the Church of England’s new vision for further education report, published at the end of April, which also recognises the key role that FE plays in driving individual, community and societal transformation.
I wish to make three points. First, how might learners be enabled or incentivised to upskill or reskill, particularly those such as the long-term furloughed or people heavily reliant on welfare payments, who have been particularly impacted by the pandemic? The Bill outlines structures and organisations required for delivering training but does not suggest how such people actually get to the training in the first place. Clearly, the welcome commitment to a reintroduction of maintenance grants is a significant part of this, yet the need, already referred to by other speakers, to cover basic living expenses while studying is an immediate and powerful potential barrier to learning. This could be an opportune time to reconsider the 16 hours-a-week work rule for those in receipt of universal credit, with proper safeguards in place to prevent abuse of the system. Great training is pointless if the people who need it are not incentivised to access it.
Secondly, how do the Government plan to ensure that local SME voices are heard and not overpowered by larger employers, which typically find it easier to meet expectations from Government? Over 80% of the UK economy is driven by the service sector, which is dominated by small and medium-sized employers. SMEs play a central role in levelling up, as they are typically more likely to employ those from disadvantaged groups with lower employment chances. This lies behind Wakefield Council’s launch, in March, of its new strategy to become a “Learning City and District”, one of the four pillars of which is to:
“Provide an inclusive jobs market for residents to find and sustain well paid employment, by ensuring access to learning is available for all levels and to all ages with increased participation from hard to reach/disadvantaged communities.”
An employer-centred focus is crucial to the success of the skills reforms. However, equally crucial is the development of longer-term thinking about the future skills needs of society. This means that meeting present perceived needs locally must be balanced by an appreciation of longer-term changes in future skills demand, particularly if we are to join up local and national provision.
Thirdly, colleges play a vital role in providing for students with specific learning difficulties and disabilities. According to the Association of Colleges, such students make up 17% of the overall intake, a figure which rises to 23% of 16 to 18 year-old learners. In 2019-20, local authorities placed over 64,000 students with education, health and care plans in colleges—90% of them in general FE colleges and the rest in specialist institutions. The funding regime does not provide support for students in FE who do not have EHCPs to anything like the degree required, yet the Bill makes no specific reference to such students, although we welcome the promised Green Paper due in the summer. It would be helpful if the Minister could consider how the appropriate degree of priority could be given to this diverse cohort of learners in policy and funding terms, and how that might best be reflected in the Bill, as it passes through the House.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward a Bill to address an area which, for more years than I care to remember, has resisted every attempt to implement a coherent long-term employment policy. I am no fan of Dominic Cummings but, during his recent evidence to the Select Committee, he was precisely on the money in pointing out the lamentable record of successive British Governments to learn lessons from countries such as Norway, Finland and New Zealand —the noble Lord, Lord Storey, added Germany and Switzerland—which have successfully created well-thought-through skills and apprenticeship programmes. These policies have allowed many of them to race past us in offering appropriate pathways and opportunities for skilling and reskilling those for whom higher education was either unavailable or simply not all that attractive.
I have never been able to establish whether this is as a result of arrogance or ignorance but, either way, many sectors of our economy have been allowed to atrophy as a result of inattention and neglect. This has not been for lack of announcements, speeches or data; it is more to do with an inexplicable failure to follow through, fund and deliver. This Bill, if enacted with imagination and commitment, could prove a watershed. If the Government are serious about levelling up, they can be credited for at least giving themselves the legislative opportunity to prove it.
The Bill has the potential to become a vehicle for broadening and deepening apprenticeship schemes, for example by taking account of the mobility of freelance employment, but that should be the beginning of its ambition, not the end of it. While I broadly agree with the employer-led concept, a potential Catch-22 situation needs to be considered, whereby established incumbents find themselves favoured over those wishing to take advantage of new business opportunities, most especially in areas with diminishing growth prospects. I am sure the extension of things such as maintenance provision, as a counterbalance to embedded regional inequalities, is something the Minister will want to touch on in her response.
While well-intentioned, I am concerned that this Bill and the White Paper on which it is based are nowhere near imaginative enough in their interpretation of what future employment patterns might look like. Regrettably, when it comes to implementation, we invariably seem to find ourselves working from a 10 year-old playbook. I cannot have been the only person dumbfounded that “creativity”, having featured in the Secretary of State’s introduction, failed to reappear in either the Bill or the Skills for Jobs White Paper that preceded it. When she responds, could the Minister please explain this omission or possibly tell me that I need my glasses tested?
Creativity is an entirely sustainable asset—one the UK has proved to have in abundance. In my judgment, it will prove the great differentiator among ambitious, competitive nations in the digital world. Surely it needs to be incorporated into every aspect of the way that we think about skills and training for the future. For example, far too little thought has been given to how we cultivate greater agility in the workforce by encouraging transferrable skills across sectors. The White Paper described the need to develop
“higher-level technical skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths”.
Of course, STEM and digital skills should be at the forefront of how we plan for the future, but they have to walk hand in hand with creativity if we are serious about developing a truly successful economy.
A good example of this thinking comes from Demis Hassabis, the founder of the AI company DeepMind. He put it this way:
“Some of the most interesting areas of science are in the gaps between … subjects… What I’ve tried to do in building DeepMind is to find ‘glue people’, those who are world class in multiple domains, who possess the creativity to find analogies and points of contact between different subjects. Generally speaking, when that happens, the magic happens.”
The successful growth of companies such as DeepMind should serve as a warning regarding the dangers of a purely employer-led focus, because history suggests that incumbents are a lot less likely to spot where the next big opportunity will come from.
I find it unsurprising to learn that, in 2018, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that education in these subjects should include the humanities, arts, crafts and design. That recommendation has now been rolled out right across North American universities. For example, 100% of undergraduates at MIT, one of the world’s leading technical institutes, study the arts, humanities and social sciences. In fact, those subjects now account for 25% of their overall class time.
Collaboration between a variety of talents and skills has to be the right way, possibly the only way, to ensure the success of a balanced competitive workforce—the kind of workforce that the Bill seeks to create. There will also be an overwhelming need for departmental collaboration. Can the Minister assure the House that the transition of support from the DWP into this new skills framework will be made as uncomplicated as possible? It will need to be if the Government’s levelling-up ambitions are to be fully realised.
Finally, on this vital issue of collaboration, the idea that improved provision for further education can be resourced only at the expense of higher education is to totally misunderstand the challenges of the global economy. Far from being in competition for resources, these two sectors should be encouraged to move in lock-step, as never before. This point was powerfully made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and I completely support what he said. In my view, ensuring a successful partnership between further and higher education represents exactly the type of approach that is needed to make this legislation a success. I do not see this as a political Bill so, given a thoughtful Committee stage and a listening Government, we have the opportunity to send a valuable and uncontentious piece of legislation for ratification in another place.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction to the Bill which, in many respects, I welcome very strongly. It has a sense of direction; the Government have clearly been listening to the advice of employers and the education sector. I very much look forward to hearing shortly the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome.
I cannot recall a time when there has not been a skills shortage or a skills crisis. This is inevitable because the needs of our economy are constantly changing. However, there is a substantial difference today: the needs of our labour market, post Brexit and post Covid, are changing quickly. As an example, we do not have enough technicians or engineers, and there is a need to develop greater strength in digital skills at all levels. As a further example, the pandemic has resulted in a reduction in the number of apprenticeships available. There are not enough generally, nor at degree level.
The lifelong loan entitlement could be a boost to both individuals and employers, but I hope that, as the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said, the Government will not try to bolt it on to the current system of funding and will instead make it part of a reformed system of financial support. The Government’s forthcoming consultation should reflect the fact that loans by themselves may not be an attractive proposition to some adults, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, pointed out a few minutes ago.
Recent government policy towards the FE sector and part-time higher education has led to both being treated as the poor relation of traditional academic learning. Funding per student has been lower in FE for too long. There has been a very worrying drop in participation rates in part-time higher education in recent years, caused by funding cuts and the HE loans system. It is vital that the silos between higher, further and adult education and apprenticeships are reduced. Further education and higher education should not have to compete against each other for resources. The ambition should be a unified skills system with expansion of the FE sector, apprenticeships and part-time higher education, with parity of esteem between these and traditional full-time, non-vocational academic routes.
I would like to make a point about progression routes. I welcome national skills funding to help adults have free access to level 3 qualifications through some 400 courses, but there is no mention of any qualifications below level 3, yet it is these which promote progression to higher levels. Six million adults were identified in the Augur review as not having qualifications at level 2, yet the total number of adult learners has been falling in recent years. If we want people to reach level 3 and above, more of them need to achieve level 2. I wonder if the Government have a plan.
The Government’s ambition to put employers at the centre of skills development is welcome. But the test of the new approach will come in how effective the forecasting of future requirements is for industries that are in the early stages of development. Long-term investment in the green economy, for example, will require new skills sets at all levels. As the Bill progresses through the House, I hope we can examine whether the Government are putting in place structures that will effectively identify skills needs five years and 10 years ahead and how our education system as a whole should adapt to deliver them.
I spoke earlier of the lifelong loan entitlement, and I understand that a consultation will start this summer, but secondary legislation can be expected only in 2024, with implementation in 2025. Given the impact of the pandemic, what is happening over the next four years to ensure that all those who need to access training can get it, in addition to meeting the needs of employers post Brexit? Does it have to take so long—four years—to effect this change?
The lifelong loan entitlement may be a crucial part of future plans, but a lot more detail is needed on the extent of entitlements, on the funding of modular systems, on repayment terms, on whether modular study will be permitted for all subject areas or just those defined by the Government, on whether students can get the same support for their costs irrespective of their method of study, and on whether existing graduates can use it to retrain.
Finally, I hope that we will take a close look at how local skills improvement plans will work in practice. It will not be the first time that such planning has been localised. That said, I wonder if the Government have a plan for bringing together the information from all the local skills improvement plans to shape national workforce planning? It will be extremely important to do so.
I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome.
My Lords, it is a great honour to have been appointed to your Lordships’ House and to speak here today for the first time. I draw the attention of the House to my current employment in higher education. I am sure that most noble Lords will remember only too clearly how they felt in those first few days and how grateful they were for the generosity of spirit shown to them by others. That paying forward of grace is a testament to the strength of community in this House and its all- embracing welcome, and I am both grateful and humbled to be a beneficiary.
There are so many who deserve my unreserved thanks for their kindness, from the justifiably legendary doorkeepers to the police officers and Black Rod, and indeed all staff and departments—including those in digital services, who have been unbelievably patient with the shortcomings of this technological dinosaur. I also wish to extend my thanks to Garter, who was somewhat relieved when I chose the simple “Strome” as my territorial designation, rather than the more complex Gaelic, “Tomnahurich”. I am so very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for their support and guidance when introducing me to the workings of the House, and to my noble friend and mentor Lord Patel, who has always held my deepest respect and gratitude for the kindness shown to me in the 15 years that we have known each other. I recognise that I still have much to learn from his vast experience in this House, but I hope that I may contribute on matters within my domain, which might include science, justice, education, death and dying, anthropology, child protection and forensic investigation.
Many of our skills are transferred and learned from those closest to us, whether they are family, friends, teachers or mentors, and we cannot predict which will stand us in the best stead. Arguably, my most practical life skill was acquired at the age of 15, when I studied for an O-grade in secretarial studies. It was a class comprised exclusively of girls, who were all taught to touch type. I could never have predicted the benefits that an average of 95 words a minute would bring in the digital world that now dominates our lives.
A second skills set was taught by my father when preparing the rabbits, deer and pigeons that he would bring home for my mother to cook. It led me comfortably to my first job as a teenager, working in a butcher’s shop, and then to honing the dissection skills required by a human anatomist and to the practical skills and strong stomach required by a forensic anthropologist, whether working to identify the deceased in the aftermath of the war crimes in Kosovo or processing the mass fatalities of the Asian tsunami.
A third skills set was developed in the meeting rooms of the Women’s Institute, the Rotary and the Round Table, learning how to convey science to the public in a manner that was concise yet understandable. This served me well in the UK and at the International Criminal Court, where I have given evidence as an expert witness to assist juries in their deliberations.
My current role as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement at Lancaster University affords me the great pleasure of working closely with our further education colleges, universities and civic partners, to embed the value of education in our local and regional communities. Operating as we do in an area of multiple deprivation, the partners are acutely aware that the lifelong acquisition of skills is critical to the development and future workforce placement of our young people.
I am supportive of this Bill in raising and promoting the quality and place-based relevance of post-16 skills provision, although I inwardly flinch at the partitioning of education into traditional age and sector-based silos. In my experience, education can be an effective route out of poverty, but it requires all parts of the ecosystem to work in progressive collaboration. We sometimes forget that our life habits and ambitions may be hard-wired long before we even enter secondary school, yet the discussions about “workplace” and “skills set” still come towards the end of that educational pipeline. Perhaps that is too late to have any realistic hope of breaking the educational poverty cycle that has become a generational and geographical norm for many.
Perhaps I may share a brief example. The Morecambe Bay Curriculum is a 25-year, educational, place-based community commitment. It is a civic collaboration between local residents, pre-school, every primary and secondary school in the region, Lancaster & Morecambe College, the universities, the local city authority, the NHS, the LEP, the chamber of commerce, businesses, employers and the Eden Project North. Many young people from this region come from homes with no prior experience of formal post-16 education and no experience of regular paid employment that leads to skilled jobs. If we wish to break that cycle, we need to sow the seeds of change much earlier.
Children as young as five will undertake little work experience placements with local businesses, developing a sense of pride in both belonging, and contributing, to their “place” while learning that each aspect of their own educational journey can evolve seamlessly into the next. We aim through that programme to make post-16 education and the concept of a “skilled job” the norm.
The role of early intervention in the success of the uptake of skills-based learning, its translation into the local workforce and then into regional economic growth and regeneration requires sustained commitment from all component parts. It will take the combined will of a joined-up community ecosystem to break the current cycle and educate those young people into skilled jobs.
I would simply request that, as we progress this Bill and focus, as we inevitably will, on a particular sector of our education system, we are mindful of changes that may need to be effected elsewhere if we are to maximise success. We will all benefit from a holistic approach, because strength and success lie with all our educational components working together seamlessly as an ecosystem—not just the colleges in isolation, but in genuine partnership with the schools and the universities.
In conclusion, it is an honour and a privilege to be a Member of this House and to be permitted to participate in its work.
My Lords, it is a huge pleasure to follow such an outstanding maiden speech by my noble friend Lady Black of Strome. I am sure that all noble Lords will, like me, be in awe of her distinguished career and achievements. As a forensic anthropologist she has pioneered techniques of human identification both in the UK and worldwide which have helped bring people to justice. In the UK, her work on the sexual abuse of children marked a step change in the ability of the criminal justice system to identify paedophilia, and internationally, her work in Kosovo after the atrocities there, in Thailand after the tsunami and in Iraq have brought her work worldwide renown.
Glancing through her illustrious career, I have to say that I was pleased to discover one small thing we had in common: we both took Saturday jobs at the age of 12. I was a humble shelf stacker but, as we have heard, my noble friend had the foresight to get a job in a butcher’s shop, where she clearly learned things that would be useful in her later career in forensic anatomy. I know that my noble friend will bring her insight, knowledge and experience to this House and that we will all benefit from hearing from her. She is most welcome in your Lordships’ House and I congratulate her once more on her excellent maiden speech.
On the Bill, I declare my interests as co-chair of the APPG on Modern Languages and vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, and I hope that the Government and employers will take advantage of the opportunities this Bill offers to act on what they know about the importance of language skills—namely, that the UK’s deficit in foreign language skills damages the economy and inhibits recruitment and employability across all sectors and at all levels. Languages are not just an academic discipline but a vital technical skill that can boost export growth and social mobility. Foreign language skills are in particularly high demand in finance, IT, transport, fashion and hospitality.
There are marked regional disparities in the UK’s skills base. Regional weaknesses in the take-up of foreign languages correlate with regions of poor productivity and low skill levels. In the north-east in 2016, for example, only 43% of pupils sat a GCSE in a language, compared with 65% in inner London, and this gap has been widening year on year. Employers say that they are unhappy with the foreign language skills of school leavers and graduates in the UK and are increasingly forced to recruit from overseas to meet their needs. If the Government are serious about social mobility and levelling up, a boost to language skills would be a jolly good place to start.
We need the business community to step up and be very clear when it comes to its input in shaping the new local skills improvement plans to insist that language skills are needed and must be included. Research suggests that the UK economy is losing out on well over £50 billion a year in lost contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workforce. Viridian Solar, an SME based in Cambridgeshire that makes solar roofs, told me:
“Foreign language skills are important”
for “global export growth.”
Another Cambridge company, i-Teams, helps the next generation of science-based entrepreneurs develop business skills and has so far helped 90 start-ups. Its founder told me that
“language skills are a key advantage”
and said that innovators
“need to be able to communicate both through language and across cultures. It cannot be assumed that all the people with whom they must work … can speak English.”
And Alchemie, a large company specialising in sustainable technology for dyeing fabrics, has found:
“Language and cultural knowledge is very important to Alchemie in its expansion into China. A basic knowledge of Chinese for business purposes would be really useful for staff members. Further training or coaching in that is really important.”
New research released only last month by Aston Business School confirmed that language skills are a key driver for SME export success, revealing that firms making use of language capabilities are 30% more successful in exporting than those that do not. Export sales, growth and profits are all significantly increased by hiring people with language skills and cultural intelligence, language training for existing staff and investing in professional translation services.
Employers’ organisations and sector groups are also on board. The CBI’s chief UK policy director has said that better foreign language skills are
“critical to increasing the UK’s global competitiveness and to ensuring young people have the high level of cultural awareness that supports a successful career.”
The tourism sector trade association UKinbound asked its members what barriers they faced when recruiting a British national and 60% responded
“insufficient skills for the role”,
including foreign language skills. Some 23% of respondents to a British Chambers of Commerce survey said that German and Mandarin will be important to their business in the next five years, and 20% said French and Spanish. The BCC says the extent of our languages deficit is sobering, with the biggest language barriers in the fastest-growing markets. It wants to see commercial export skills at the heart of business education in both further and higher education, with fully integrated foreign language skills as part of that, as well as in schools and workplace training.
Finally, the Bill refers to FE colleges, but local skills improvement plans should also seek to build links with university-based training opportunities, and university language centres rather than modern language faculties are the best place to make connections with community colleges. So will the Minister ensure that no regional language skills gaps remain as a result of the new improvement plans and say what, if any, oversight or indeed override the DfE will have to correct any such gaps? Are the Government prepared to provide leadership and encouragement to local business communities to follow through on all the surveys, research and sector examples I have quoted today, perhaps by using the power the Bill will give the Government to issue guidance to support the development of the plans in order to ensure a place for language skills? Will the Minister also spell out how the DfE will be working with BEIS on this, given that department’s international remit and extensive networks, and experience of language skills? I very much look forward to her reply to this and my other questions.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, on her extraordinarily fine maiden speech. I am looking forward to learning a lot from her in a lot of different areas.
I too welcome this Bill. It is an important bit of legislation, possibly the most important for the levelling-up agenda in this Parliament. I have a few reservations and would appreciate reassurance on a couple of points from the Minister. I declare my interest as a visiting professor at King’s College London, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and chair of two private education companies Tes, and Access Creative College, a provider of further education training for the creative industries.
There is a huge amount to welcome in this Bill, but for me there are two features in particular: the lifelong loan allowance, which is being put on a statutory footing; and the introduction of modular funding, which a long-overdue reform that will bring valuable flexibility into our student funding system. However, I have some concern that the Treasury may water down the rocket fuel of the promised skills revolution. A number of noble Lords have already hinted at where this might arise. One of my concerns is around the rigidity of the current system that prevents people from studying at an equivalent or lower level than an award that they already have, as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said in his excellent speech. To my mind, that makes a nonsense of the lifelong loan entitlement. I appreciate that the Government are consulting on it. I hope that the results of that consultation come out the right way, because if we stick to it, it will prevent people from reskilling effectively.
My other area of concern is around what I see as the Treasury’s persistently flawed conception of how to measure value for money in post-16 education. The idea that you can measure the worth of a course by the proportion of the student loan that ends up being repaid is far too reductive. If we stick with it, it will stop us from properly funding what are socially useful and valuable but lower-earning professions and paths in life. We already see hints that this is the prevailing view and that it will continue to be the prevailing view in the list of some 400 qualifications that are eligible for funding in the lifetime skills guarantee. That list of 400 qualifications is still too restrictive. As far as I can see, it does not include any creative arts courses, for example.
My concern, as this Bill makes its way through this place and the other place, is that when the section lands on the new student finance system, the Treasury uses this legislation’s fine print to further defund those areas of provision that have lower rates of repayment associated with them, through a mix of potential policy tools, including student number controls by subject, higher minimum entry requirements by subject and a variety of others, most notably the potential for much lower fee levels for those courses.
Those are all big risks as this Bill makes its way through this place. I would appreciate any reassurance that the Minister can give on that front. I am particularly concerned about what it would do for the provision of creative education courses. It is highly likely that, if we go down that path and defund courses on that basis, it will starve the supply of talent into some of our most promising industries as an economy—performing arts, creative design, creative computing, music technology, music performance and so on. That would be a sad outcome for us as a society and it would also be an economic nonsense. These were industries that were growing at five times the rate of GDP before the crisis, and we should not do them the disservice of starving them of talent as we come out of it.
My sense is that if the Treasury wants to save money, and I understand that it wants to invest money in other areas or education systems to support catch-up elsewhere, which is entirely understandable, I recommend that it looks at lowering the repayment threshold on the student loan as a far more sensible source of much larger sums of money. The Higher Education Policy Institute, for example, has calculated that lowering the repayment threshold to just below £20,000 from the current level of £27,295 would save £3.8 billion and reduce the proportion of the student loan that is not repaid to one-third, from current levels of over one-half. That seems a very sensible and more fruitful area of reform for the Treasury to look at.
Time is running out, but I welcome this Bill. It is a really important Bill. I congratulate the Minister and the Secretary of State for bringing it to Parliament. I will certainly be supporting it. However, it is clearly something of a down payment on a much bigger set of changes that, ultimately, we will need if we are going to have a joined-up system of post-16 education and skills. We have a rather bewildering array of regulatory and funding bodies out there in the landscape: the OfS, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, and so on. The time is surely coming, now that through this Bill we are introducing much more flexible systems of funding, for us to move to a joined-up system of regulation and funding for all post-16 education.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome this Bill and endorse the Government’s decision to give technical education the profile and priority that it deserves.
Unlike other noble Lords contributing to today’s debate, this is not an area on which I am a policy expert, but I hope to make a relevant contribution as someone who chose a technical education at the local FE college after leaving school at 16, and who, armed with that technical training, professional pride in my skills and an aptitude and enthusiasm to keep learning on the job as I progressed in my career, became Leader of your Lordships’ House. I have had the great privilege of working for and alongside, and of being supported by, some brilliant people with high academic credentials, and together we have been an effective team. I endorse the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, not to create new divisions or false distinctions between people who are talented and gifted. I feel I must put on record that I love highly educated people. I am not looking to do anybody down here, least of all the noble Lord, Lord Willetts.
However, one of my concerns about the consequences of successive Governments prioritising university and getting a degree as pretty much the only route to an increasingly narrow definition of success is the lack of diversity in leadership roles across politics, Whitehall, the public sector more broadly, business and the media. In other words, we have the rather conflicted situation now where those in positions of real power or influence, regardless of where they may have started in life, have all followed the same university path and therefore tend to define success in their own image. Therefore, while I welcome this Bill and applaud all that the Government are doing in this area to promote skills and further education colleges, those of us who make decisions which affect everyone else still have work to do in how we think about technical education or those who do not go to university.
As we consider this legislation and look beyond it, I will highlight three big traps that we must avoid falling into. The first is seeing technical education as a consolation prize for those who, in the minds of graduates, do not have the potential to be like them. Some people learn to know; some of us learn to do. Some of us learn best by observing and absorbing rather than by studying theories. Non-graduates are often more strategic in their thinking because they rely on what they can see to understand and identify the problem that needs fixing for things to work better. Therefore, it is important that we recognise the value from this difference to achieving our collective goals if we are to see results which benefit all of us.
The second trap we need to avoid is assuming that anyone who follows a technical route is not ambitious, or to dismiss as unimportant what some people might see as modest ambition because it does not involve holding power over other people’s lives. We are all different. What is important in my mind is encouraging pride and professionalism in doing a job well, whatever it is, and showing respect for that when we see it.
The final trap is assuming that people who follow a technical route, or indeed anyone who does not have a degree, cannot become senior leaders in business, politics, the public sector or anywhere else. We have to get out of this mindset that somehow leadership is all about knowledge—it is not. It is about being able to understand and see the bigger picture and to communicate in bold strokes. That does not come from having a degree; it comes from experience, and a desire to engage and understand the world through the eyes of people who see it differently from us.
As one of your colleagues who is technically trained, who started out with modest ambitions and who has grown in confidence and ability as I have gone from job to job, I offer that perspective, with all due respect to those who have followed a different path and those who will be charged with implementing the results of this legislation. In addition to what the legislation seeks to achieve in improving technical education, I hope that through our scrutiny and debates we as parliamentarians change our perception of the potential of those for whom not going to university is the best route to their own definition of success, and that we aim to achieve much greater diversity in positions of power.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black. In this House, we always enthusiastically congratulate those who have made their maiden speech. On this occasion I thought hers was absolutely excellent, and I would like her to develop the origins of why she and I are technical dinosaurs—because I am, and she declared her objection to technology as well.
I strongly welcome the Bill, and the fact that the Secretary of State and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary have joined us. I welcome it because it shows a genuine commitment to further education, adult learning and the development of the technical education and learning process for the future. I fear, however, in the very short time I have, that I am going to have to concentrate on the things that worry me, rather than the things I am enthusiastic about such as the lifelong guarantee, the commitment to professional development in further education and private providers.
The reason I am concerned is that the opening speech by the Minister highlighted divisions. She was clearly following the script, if I might put it that way, because she is not like that at all. The divisions that grew up five years ago on the back of the referendum are almost embedded in our politics. The divide described this afternoon between town and city does not really exist. The divide between further and higher education does not really exist. The divide between the academic and technical does not really exist. I am very self-assured, as you all know, so there are rarely times in my life when I hear a speech and think I could not do better than that. This afternoon, however, the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, was much better than the one I am making. It made many of the points I would have wished to have made.
Let me very quickly touch on my journey, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, touched on hers. I got my qualifications at evening class and day release and eventually, after six years, went to university. I did a vocational qualification on day release, and my A-levels in the evening. I saw no difference between those; I saw no reason why we should divide them. I see no reason why we should not be in favour of T-levels but strongly in favour of retaining BTEC national diplomas, which got my eldest son to Liverpool University and later to a master’s degree.
I see no reason why we should not learn from our own history. In metallurgy in Sheffield, it was the factory worker and the researcher who put their heads together. Now we have advanced apprenticeships with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at Sheffield University; I should have declared my interest in it. We have the commitment of Sheffield Hallam University with the Sheffield College and other colleges in South Yorkshire, and Huddersfield University with Barnsley college of technology—where I once taught in further education, and where many people, like my elder sons, got their education through FE. There is no divide: it is an artificial concept which I think is extremely dangerous. Please do not let us go down that route.
T-levels are one thing, and organising for people will not go down one route for life is another. This is why the appeal by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in relation to what is happening with artificial intelligence and robotics is so important. These are not qualifications for life any more. There are no jobs for life. We need to return to learn on a continuing basis. I tried to instil this in the learning-age policy paper over 20 years ago when I was Secretary of State, when we set up learning and skills councils at local level that were designed to engage employers, colleges and individuals. Unfortunately, my own Government then centralised that and eventually killed it off. We have been around this road before. Some areas have very strong chambers and employer engagement. Some lack the capacity to do it. That is why what the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said at the beginning of this debate is so important—that we draw people together to be able to do the job well.
In the meantime, do not defund courses that are valuable to learners, do not claw back money from further education as is happening at the moment, and do not defund or claw back money from residential colleges such as Northern College in South Yorkshire. Instead, let us join together—because we can on the Bill—to make this a really exemplary piece of legislation. Let us go forward in unity to offer people the education that they need at the time that they need it, and do so on the basis that they will progress through life in very different ways from where they started.
My Lords, this is one of those debate where I feel a degree of sympathy for the Minister, not only because she was nice about me when she started speaking, but because she may acquire a sore neck from having to turn around to answer people on her own Back Benches.
The noble Lord, Lord Willetts—he has clearly had enough now and is running away; I could not resist that, sorry—set a very high bar for us. He also made many of the points that I would have started with before my main point here, which is about special educational needs. The primary one is that we are going through part of a continuum, and that we are putting in place artificial barriers for further and higher education. That does not really work. Secondary school education cannot be seen as removed from this as well; it is part of a continuum. Where people start and how they go through is affected. The original block of their educational experience is going to affect the way they come through this. As my noble friend Lord Storey started by saying, if they do not get better career guidance, they will carry on with the same types of intervention, powers, hierarchies and activities they have always had, because that is the way you do it—that is the way you carry on. No doubt that is an important factor.
If we are to build up T-levels at levels 3, 4 and 5, replacing the status this sort of thing had a few years ago—or a few decades ago; I forget how old I am getting—we have to make sure that parents know they are career choices that will get people employed and make them a valid and interesting career, and we have to guide them through it. That will require real investment in those giving that advice. They have to be in the secondary schools, or in the initial phase that connection has to be made. It does not matter what is being given; if something becomes a secondary option, it is downplayed —end of.
To declare my interests, I am chairman of the company Microlink, which deals with assistive technology. I am president of the British Dyslexia Association. I am dyslexic and a user of assistive technology. I have not misspelled a word in years, but I have occasionally put the wrong one into many a message via voice technology and then not checking it. Many here will have suffered hearing that, I am afraid.
If we are to get the best out of all our students, we have to start dealing more coherently with special educational needs. At the moment we have a savage fight to get identification. Quite a while back, councils stopped putting £100 million a year into contesting people who wanted to get education, health and care plans. They lost 85% to 90% of those cases. We have a ridiculous system where the graduated approach we are supposed to be bringing in with the plans is not working. People are not getting identified because of the system.
What the Bill can do for the majority of those with special educational needs is make sure that those with moderate needs or those who are not identified are being picked up and offered the support that is easily available to them. Everybody’s phone, effectively, does voice recognition, so why do we not use voice recognition as a perfectly valid way of getting through an English test for those with dyslexia, dyspraxia or one of the other conditions? It is established in our lives. But no: someone who cannot do this has to take a spelling test.
I refer back to the hours I have inflicted on this House on the English test for apprenticeships. If you want to read all of it, then masochism is probably a part of your life, but this is something we should be adapting. There is a clause in the Bill on teacher training; we need to ensure that teachers can spot these conditions. Dyslexia is only one of the ones available: ADHD, dyspraxia, higher-functioning autism—they are all there, and that is just neurodiversity. How are we going to spot these conditions for people where it is not an absolute and who do not have the tiger parent to get it identified? Are we going to make sure that we can do this to get these people through the system?
We have a model to support this for level 4 and 5 qualifications requiring independent skill. It is called the disabled students’ allowance, and it has all the institutions that go with higher education, such as information capture—the sort of stuff we are doing now, which is being recorded by people using this for Hansard—which is now a given in higher education. Most of the colleges that run higher education courses will run through levels 4 and 5. Can we make sure they are all integrated—it is not that big an ask—so that somebody who cannot take notes from a lecture given as part of a course is presented with the information they need to study? If it is in an electronic format, they can get it into a verbal format. Voice to text and text to voice are very old hat now: how many people read books in the form of audiobooks?
We are not asking for the world here. These sorts of changes help, and they also help those who do not have these problems or are not on these spectrums. Can we make sure that this is integrated into our approach? If it is not, we will make life needlessly difficult. Please let us not get sucked into the idea that only higher needs need to be paid attention to, because that is a small group. It is those who are just failing and continue to fail that we should be giving some thought to.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington. It is an enormous pleasure to add my congratulations to my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, on her brilliant maiden speech. She is undoubtedly a world leader in forensic science and its use in the criminal justice system, and in forensic anthropology. I have known her for many years. “Tenacious” and “determined” are words I associate with her. She tried to recruit me once to help raise funds for a new mortuary in her department. I declined, so she set up a competition between 10 crime writers: the first one to raise £1 million from their readers would have the mortuary named after her or him. She raised over £2 million. Her newly unveiled portrait in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh will, I wager, become the most talked about portrait among viewers for three reasons: its size—it is big—it’s title, “Unknown Man”, and the various images within it. I have little doubt that the noble Baroness will make a huge contribution to the House, and I wish her well.
I declare my interests as Professor Emeritus at the University of Dundee and as a former Chancellor there. I support the principle of the Bill and congratulate the Government on bringing the legislation. I am also pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, is taking the Bill through your Lordships’ House. I say this because I witnessed her passion for and commitment to improving the lives of disadvantaged young people through creating opportunities for education and skills training when she was a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility.
My comments mainly relate to the need for education in STEM subjects. The Bill sets out government plans to produce a skills revolution and to introduce flexible loans, and a promise to strengthen jobs. The intention is to drive up opportunities, reduce ethnic disparities and narrow pay gaps, all of which is welcome.
Simply offering more further education and training courses alone will not deliver on the levelling-up agenda. Young people need clear advice and guidance on how to access courses, what it will cost them and what is on offer. They will need to be able to see at first hand what kind of jobs are available. Key to all this is the need for high-quality careers advice for young people and adults—an area where the Bill has very little to say, despite the acknowledgement in the Skills for Jobs White Paper that careers provision is an important element of the overall education system.
EngineeringUK, together with seven other STEM and careers organisations, highlights this in its recent report, Securing the Future: STEM Careers Provision in Schools and Colleges in England. It finds that schools and colleges struggle to deliver STEM careers provision to many of their young people. Time and funding are cited as key barriers by careers leaders surveyed for the report, with 70% saying that staff time was an issue and 46% saying lack of funding was a barrier.
The report also finds that the digital divide that has affected young people’s learning throughout the United Kingdom since the start of the pandemic has also affected STEM careers activities in schools and colleges. The report found that 68% of schools with above average free school meals eligibility said that a lack of access to technology and the internet was a barrier, compared with 36% of schools with below average FSM. I hope that my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox might say more regarding the digital divide following her committee’s fantastic report on the subject.
Going back to a lack of careers advice, will the Government commit to publishing a fully funded careers strategy alongside the Bill to help unlock the skills reforms in the Bill and build on the Skills for Jobs White Paper? It sets out the Government’s blueprint for reshaping the technical skills system to better support the needs of the local labour market and the wider economy, with local skills improvement plans being the key component. Clause 1 encapsulates the Government’s plans to deliver on the above. With a fast-evolving labour market, effective local skills planning is important to identify specific skill needs across the country, including demand for skill needs in the engineering sector, the wider STEM-based industry and the economy.
Real-time labour market data is important for ensuring policy reforms to education and skills and emerging sector needs. I would welcome more clarity about how the local skills improvement plans proposed in the Bill will feed into national workforce planning, as has already been mentioned. How will DfE and BEIS work together to ensure a strategic approach to addressing the skills gap? How will information within local skills improvement plans help shape and inform national industrial policy and workforce planning? How will the Government use the reforms in the Bill to identify and respond to low-density regional skills needs important to the overall strategic direction of the UK, such as specialised engineering skills?
I realise that the Minister may not be able to answer all my questions today; she may agree to write. I look forward to the Committee stage of the Bill.
My Lords, I had a good education; what I have made of it is perhaps a different matter. Sixty years ago, I was taking my A-levels and S-levels. At 17, I left school and went to work. I have said that I have no regrets about that, but I would not recommend it.
It is perhaps relevant to agree with the delightful maiden speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, regarding the great advantage my wife had—along with my noble friend Lady Stowell—in getting secretarial skills. How I miss the ability to take shorthand and to type. How I miss the digital tools that many noble Lords feel embarrassed by not having to hand and that the current generation has. But it will please the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, that I did go and work in Holland and learn Dutch.
I am a fan of this Bill. I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for introducing it and for us to be able to talk about it. It obviously derives from the Skills for Jobs White Paper, and we all know that there is—and I am not given to hyperbole—a real crisis in skills in this country. It is having an effect on productivity in our industries and service industries, and at every level.
In my view, localism is the key, and the Bill draws on that. We know that resources for further and technical education vary enormously at local level. I believe that the employer-led LSIPs are an important factor in addressing this problem, and I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport—I am sorry to see that she is leaving the Chamber at this moment, as I disagree with her. I believe that employers will guarantee that the resources, the buildings and the trainers and teachers are in the right place. This whole strategy will have a huge benefit from employer participation in deliberating on the employment of assets.
Perhaps I can deal with practical aspects of the Bill; I will concentrate on my own experience as an employer. It will not surprise noble Lords—knowing that I am a horticulturalist and a farmer in intensive horticultural production—to learn that many people working in that industry, in both the field and the packhouse, are seasonal workers. The whole business of Brexit has revealed the flaw in this strategy and the need for a skills base in horticulture and intensive agriculture. We need skills training and skilled workers, and we need automation in the field and the packhouse because we can no longer rely on this skilled workforce. Who speaks for these people? Who speaks for seasonal workers in getting skills? That is why this Bill is important in giving employers the opportunity to make sure that they have these opportunities.
I also have another interest in that I am the group leader on the visitor economy section for the Midlands Engine APPG. This is another area in which seasonal work is very much the rule. Take the seaside strip of Lincolnshire—Skegness, Mablethorpe, Cleethorpes and that area—where as many as 40% of people are, in some way or another, employed in the seasonal economy based on recreation and leisure. There is no harm in that—there is nothing wrong in it—but we ought to realise that they too need opportunities to train and to find alternative out-of-season employment, which might well be to their advantage. Who speaks for them? I like to think that at least I do so, here today.
If we are to build back better, we need bricklayers, plumbers and engineers—all the practical people whose absence from our daily lives has only to be witnessed by anybody trying to get any construction work done in their home or factory. The need for training in these basic skills, which have largely been forgotten, is essential.
My Lords, I first join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her maiden speech. Not only was it an excellent speech but she gave us a glimpse of her background, which is so fascinating that, had I been in charge, I could have let her go on for ages and listened to more of it. I know it will be a very good background for the contributions she will make to our debates in future, and I wish her well.
I also join others in generally welcoming this Bill. A lot of people have said that we have not done enough about skills before; that is why we welcome the Bill. We need to be really careful about this. We have tried to do a lot about skills, but we have never got it right—there is a big difference. Over the last 30 years, 70 pieces of legislation or government interventions have tried to make our skills provision and training better than they are. Anyone here who was a Minister would possibly say, as I do when I look back on my time in office, that they are not satisfied with what was able to be done on the skills agenda. Doing something for the first time is good but it is different from trying to get it right this time. That is how I will approach my contributions to this issue as we go through.
Two things have been done wrong in the past, and they were referred to by my noble friend Lord Puttnam. One is a lack of persistence: Governments have started along this track, then dropped it. Secondly, it has never been a priority for money; they have given some money but never enough, and lessons can be learned there as well.
I want to say briefly—this has been touched on by my noble friend Lord Puttnam and the noble Lord, Lord Johnson—that the division between creative and technical is a false one. If ever in our history there was a time when we could separate creative subjects and the humanities from technical subjects and the sciences, it is not now. We need to drop that language and those thoughts, because success will lie with the people who can bring those things together. That goes to the argument about the lifelong loan entitlement, which I broadly welcome. I have two questions on that. The first is that I am not sure for which subjects the grant will be available. I hope it will not exclude creative subjects, because that would not be good for the agenda before us.
I welcome modular learning with some caution: it is not as easy to organise or do as linear learning. Something we have done wrong in the past with vocational studies is to make it modular but not give students and learners the opportunity to link one module with the other. The joins are where it goes wrong, so my advice to the Minister is: watch the joins and mind the gap. We have to make sure that people can move from one module to the other.
I want to spend my time on the local skills improvement plans, which I gather are going to be called LSIPs, so that is how I will refer to them. The Government have said that employers and businesses are at the centre of the creation of local skills improvement plans. I cannot disagree with that; I cannot say that they should not be at the centre or not be listened to. They are important, but I am worried about how much emphasis the Government are placing upon the leadership of employers and businesses at the centre, at the heart, or in the driving seat of these LSIPs, depending on which words you choose to use. Although they are important to this plan, so are others.
Learners are at the centre of what we want to do, as are providers and our locality and its needs. The local economy in that area is also at the centre, and whoever can guess what the skills of the future will be also needs to be at the centre of these LSIPs. It is a more complicated Bill than just being about putting employers and businesses in the driving seat. At the moment, I am not sure that the Bill really recognises that complexity or gives some indication of which route the Government will wish to take. That is what the Committee and Report stages will be about. I hope that we will have the opportunity to flesh it out then.
We are asking employers to become partners in the education process, and that is a big ask; it is not their core job. It is not what they worry about in the middle of the night or get up in the morning thinking about. We are asking them to become educationalists while they have other worries, especially now; they have other things to prioritise. I am not sure what happens and what powers the Government will have when it goes wrong: when the businesses do not lead us in the right direction or take a back rather than a front seat.
The challenge here is to get the partnership right between the providers and employers. I worry that the Bill is written almost as a customer/provider relationship. There is an invitation to employers to lead the show and a legal obligation on the providers to provide the learning courses. The Government will be taking a power to sack colleges or hit them over the head if they do not deliver on the local plans. It is not imaginative or creative, or the sound basis for a meaningful partnership, so I want to look at that as we go through the Bill.
I know that having too many people in the driving seat can lead us nowhere; I understand that, and that leadership is important. But we want partnership with a purpose in which everyone has a role and a responsibility, and everybody needs to be held accountable in that. How we write that into the detail of the Bill will be vital in making sure that the wish across this House for the Bill to be a success comes to fruition.
I too offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her impressive and extremely entertaining maiden speech. I am sure that we are all looking forward to her contributions to our work.
Like other noble Lords, I welcome many of the proposals in the Bill, particularly to make it easier for adults and young people to study more flexibly, allowing them to space out their studies, transfer credits between institutions and take up more part-time study. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, has just said, the principle of colleges and employers working together underpins much of the Bill. It rests, too, on the leadership of employers. My experience leads me to agree very much with the issues she identified. Yet it is important that this is a co-operative and fully accountable partnership. Will the Bill create a duty on schools and universities to collaborate with colleges and employers in the development of skills plans, so that the training on offer meets the needs of local areas and of the national economic strategy?
As a former council leader, I have seen that the actual experience can be very patchy: stronger in some areas than others. In sectors where there are many SMEs the employers’ input can be limited, for a variety of reasons. As the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, sometimes employers are not well represented by particular employer organisations which vary in strength in different areas. There needs to be better accountability and understanding of the difficulties involved. The present system gives no incentive for proper co-ordination. Instead, it focuses on delivery of qualifications rather than on the long-term strategic priorities.
I would welcome a better understanding from the Minister as to how she sees this working. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, also said, I am sure that we will want to explore this area during the passage of the Bill. I also emphasise that local authorities should be key players in any future collaboration. Many people face great difficulties in accessing education, whether part-time or full-time. They may be care leavers or have special educational needs, as my noble friend Lord Addington mentioned, or not in education or training. They may be long-term unemployed people. They face difficult barriers and would need access to a whole range of local services to help them to be ready for work or training.
Local authorities are of course essential in providing these sorts of services. They link with adult education provision and other support, such as mental health, housing, debt management, support for parents and childcare. Their involvement will be essential to prevent those most in need of support and training being left behind. As a former adult learning tutor, I know that the role of local authorities in adult and community provision has been a bedrock, providing many adults with opportunities to train and upskill. For many adult learners, adult education is the first step that they take. It gives them confidence and so often inspires people to take up further learning opportunities. The current budget has been halved; I very much support the LGA proposal to reinstate this budget as a fundamental building block in the provisions of the Bill.
It is also important that financial support is considered essential if poorer students are not to be penalised. Flexible and part-time learning is essential for potential learners. My own experience is that, although I went into higher education when I left school, I subsequently took a degree with the Open University. I experienced for myself the great difficulties that one has in trying to keep up the commitment to learning while either bringing up a family or working and needing to prioritise earning a living. These can really undermine the motivation of people who are trying and gain qualifications or skills or, indeed, add a new dimension to their lives through study. I underline here the need to revisit the benefits system so that those acquiring new skills will have their needs fully taken into account and not be excluded from benefits.
I also emphasise the importance of longer-term strategic goals. Anyone involved in education over the last 20 years has experienced constantly shifting grounds in how the system operates, in its objectives, and in the local and national priorities. We need to recognise some long-term objectives and ensure that our training and education objectives and skills acquisition link fully to the economic strategy and its requirements. In recent years, many of us have found the unhelpful element of competition in post-16 provision counterproductive, with an overemphasis on delivering qualifications rather than focusing on strategic and local long to medium-term priorities.
So I hope the Bill will ensure that the providers of post-16 education and training are aligned and not preoccupied with short-term expediency and quick fixes that do not really take us further forward. We certainly welcome the Government’s interest and ambitions for skills and lifelong learning, in particular the strong collaboration of cross-providers. The new lifelong learning entitlement is a huge step forward, but there must be access to all, and we must address the skills shortfall of so many citizens if we are to face the challenges of the future. We support much of the content of this Bill and look forward to taking forward these issues through its passage.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox of Soho, is appearing remotely. We can see her but we cannot hear her.
We will go to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes.
My Lords, I am very sorry that we have not been able to hear the chair of the Covid-19 Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. I hope we will be able to hear her contribution at some point during this debate.
I draw the House’s attention to my role as a director of the Careers & Enterprise Company. I am also delighted to be one of the FE ambassadors that my noble friend the Minister mentioned earlier on. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her excellent maiden speech. I am entirely in agreement with her that one of the most useful skills I have ever been taught is to touch-type.
I welcome the Bill, as other noble Lords have done, and also the White Paper on which it was based. It has confirmed and elevated the importance of further education, and it is a clear commitment not only to boost skills but to strengthen our economy and increase individual productivity. In the time available I will focus on the involvement of employers in skills needs and, if there is time, say a little bit about the lifelong learning entitlement.
The involvement of employers in identifying skills needs, which is in Chapter 1 of the Bill, I entirely support—and there is wide support for this, as we have heard—the aim for there to be a more strategic relationship between employers and further education and training providers. However, I have spoken to Loughborough College locally, which is already working with more than 700 employers—and I am sure that many other colleges would say the same. So there is a feeling that perhaps what is being asked is not always new but is being pulled together in one place for the first time.
Other noble Lords have mentioned the local skills improvement plans, which will obviously be very important. But, as my noble friend the Minister said, they are really only being piloted in certain areas now. I hope that I can prevail on her, and through her to the Secretary of State and to the skills Minister, that in the course of rolling out the local skills improvement partnerships, we should not undo what is already there.
As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said, careers education is of critical importance. It gives a strong underpinning to the Bill; although it is not mentioned in the Bill, it was mentioned in the White Paper, where there was a commitment to careers hubs. Careers hubs have improved careers provision by 92% in the two years since they were started. They are a central plank of the White Paper, they are set up and delivered through the Careers & Enterprise Company and they are designed to bring together employers, schools, colleges, apprenticeship and training providers and others aligned to national skills and local jobs. They have already established themselves as anchor institutions in local areas, not just as careers programmes in schools and colleges but also as the link with the local economic strategy, because they are tailored to be responsive to local economic need.
I hope that Ministers are aware that careers hubs offer the Bill three things. The first is that they are the key route for local businesses of all sizes into schools and colleges. I kn