House of Lords
Wednesday 21 July 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber while others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally.
The social distancing requirements in the Chamber have been removed, but I strongly encourage Members to continue to wear face coverings while in the Chamber, except when speaking, and to respect social distancing in relation to staff in the Chamber.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them confined to two points and no longer than 30 seconds? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for her long-standing commitment to safeguarding the environment, but she will know that the ICC is far from functioning effectively in relation to the jurisdiction it already has. Our priority is to improve its ability to prosecute existing crimes against humanity before we create new ones.
I thank the Minister for her reply, but many noble Lords and many people around the world would now consider that crimes are being perpetuated against the environment, whether deforestation in Asia or South America, what is happening in the seas on an international level or the known culpability of many of the producers of fossil fuels to not just confuse the issue but downright lie. I would call that crimes against humanity. At the moment, we have limited ability to prosecute. The G20 meeting for Environment and Climate Ministers starts tomorrow in Naples. Could the Minister talk to our representative and ask whether they will raise this issue? This is gaining traction around the world. When we look at the fires in California and the floods in Germany, I do not think we can sit back and say that, as a world, we can continue to do nothing about this.
I know that the noble Baroness has a lot of support on this issue around the House, but the UK will use its COP 26 presidency and all the leadership positions it holds to continue to demonstrate global leadership on climate and nature. Of course I will relay her comments to the Italian conference tomorrow. It is not possible to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees without radical action on nature; I think we all agree on that. Our presidency will seek to drive action to protect and restore ecosystems, and to invest in sustainable agriculture throughout the world.
The Minister replies in her characteristically generous tone, but although I share her concerns about the functionality of the International Criminal Court, does she agree that it is worth exploring this new offence domestically and internationally? Grave offences are about not just enforcement but setting the tone for the kind of society we want to live in and operating as a deterrent. In this context, they could be a significant deterrent against corporates that ignore the grave catastrophe facing all of us for the reasons agreed.
I agree with the noble Baroness that we have to drive this forward. I know that an international group has recently defined ecocide, but I say again that the UK is a key player in all the multilateral forums focusing on tackling climate change. The significant amendment that would be required to establish a crime of ecocide is not only likely to distract from reform of the international court. It would also be extremely difficult to secure the agreement of all state parties and could occupy international negotiators for many years, which is why the UK is concentrating on what we can do domestically and to influence international parties.
The new legal definition of ecocide builds on many aspects of established international criminal law and environmental law, as well as existing text in the Rome statute. Will the Government be a world leader on this? If so, how will they explain it to the oil and plastics industries?
That is an interesting question. The UK’s priority, as I said, is to reform the court so that it functions more effectively and to take a leadership role in persuading international parties of the importance of the environment. On the oil and gas industries, the noble Lord will be aware of a number of initiatives, such as the 10-point plan, the White Paper and the North Sea transition deal, which seeks to show the oil and gas industries a pathway to decarbonising and to reskilling many of their workforce towards more environmentally friendly things, such as carbon capture and storage and hydrogen technologies.
My Lords, the emotive term “ecocide” conjures up horrific images of serious and deliberate crimes against humanity, such as genocide. I understand that an application was made to the United Nations International Law Commission in 2010 that a crime of ecocide be added to the Rome statute, defined as
“the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been … severely diminished.”
Does my noble friend not agree that it is hard to consider ecocide as so defined as a crime at all, let alone one equivalent to such serious war crimes, if it does not even need a person or a—
My Lords, I am afraid we need to move on. We will hear from the Minister.
My noble friend is right that ecocide was removed from the drafting process of the Rome statute and that that was significant in gaining agreement on the crimes eventually included in the ICC’s jurisdiction. A norm of customary international law is that no one may be convicted of an offence except on the basis of individual criminal responsibility. This is reflected in the crimes listed under the Rome statute. Any future agreed definition of the crime of ecocide would need to reflect a similar set of norms.
I think it is time to end the appeasement. It is very interesting that in the past 50 years we have done more damage than it took us 2,000 to do. In the past 50 years, when we had more and more knowledge about the damage we were doing to the environment, we have had this pootling around, this lack of leadership. Great Britain could be the great leader here, as it was in the 1930s, and it could say no to the death of the planet.
I think the noble Lord underestimates the leadership role that we are playing this year in tackling international action to bend the curve of biodiversity loss. At the summit in Carbis Bay, the G7 leaders agreed a 2030 nature compact, committing for the first time to the global mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. We also have the upcoming COP 26 in November. All the actions we are taking through the Environment Bill and other legislative means will provide a leadership role in trying to get these messages across to the rest of the world.
Does the Minister agree that mining and deforestation activities that plague the Amazon are cases of ecocide? Does she also agree that an international law against these activities could become a catalyst for finding new and sustainable ways of operating?
I agree but, as I said, it is very difficult to take the international law path for the reasons I outlined. What we are doing in the UK to stop people using illegally logged wood in furniture imported into the UK is probably a more effective way for us to prevent these sorts of crimes being imported. However, I agree that more needs to be done internationally, but perhaps not through the International Criminal Court.
My noble friend is doing extremely well on this. As a conservationist and environmentalist, I am deeply concerned about the destruction of the rainforest in South America and south-east Asia, the increased use of coal in China and, indeed, the consequences of climate change. Nevertheless, I do not quite understand—perhaps she can enlighten me—what exactly making this a crime would do that would impact on, for instance, the Chinese Government or the Brazilian Government.
My noble friend raises an interesting point because a lot of communist countries, including China, Russia and many of the former eastern bloc, have the crime of ecocide. The issue really is therefore about enforcement. We are trying to drive forward ambitious global action to address these issues as probably the best way forward, combined with strict enforcement measures which the Environment Bill has set out in full.
My Lords, ecocide is a crime against human rights. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, yesterday promised that human rights would be taken into consideration in all companies working in these areas. Can the Minister confirm that this is so and that, at the same time, the human rights of families who then have to move because of ecocide crimes have been affected, and that we will take that into consideration?
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on all the excellent work they are doing in preparation for COP 29 and in the Environment Bill. Will my noble friend tell the House what the Government are doing to increase funding for nature-based solutions to address climate impact, especially as I understand investing in nature could provide at least one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation solutions?
My noble friend is entirely right: investing in nature-based solutions for adaptation will also help build resilience, support jobs, support livelihoods and help tackle biodiversity loss, but finance is lacking. Only 3% of global public climate finance flows was spent on nature. Noble Lords will recall that at the One Planet Summit in January 2021 the UK committed to spend at least £3 billion of our international climate finance on climate change solutions that protect and restore nature and biodiversity over the next five years.
Animal Diseases: Future Pandemics
My Lords, zoonotic diseases comprise approximately 75% of all newly identified infectious diseases and 60% of existing ones. The UK has world-leading “one health” expertise already enhancing the detection, investigation and management of zoonotic diseases. We must continue to weave this approach into the fabric of domestic and global architecture. Through our G7 presidency and ambitious initiatives, such as the centre for pandemic preparedness, we will further strengthen our “one health” capability.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. I shall press him for more specifics. Given the huge cost of zoonotic pandemics—Covid-19 has been estimated to cost the UK £340 billion—what plans have Her Majesty’s Government been considering to improve animal health, public health and environmental health systems which are critical in the prevention of spillover infections from animals to humans in the UK and abroad?
My Lords, there is a very large number of initiatives. I emphasise our international efforts to reverse the underlying causes of spillover infections from animals to humans, including biodiversity loss and the risk from the illegal wildlife trade. Using the UK’s G7 presidency, we have committed to doing more by establishing the International Zoonoses Community of Experts, by creating the centre for pandemic preparedness and conducting a one health intelligence scoping study to ensure that the systems work better together to identify future threats.
My Lords, in 2016 a woman in rural Thailand spotted a cow frothing at the mouth. She snapped a few photos, reported it on the “one health” disease detection app and local authorities stepped in. They limited the spread of foot and mouth to just three cows, averting millions in potential losses. This app is now expanding across Asia and Africa, supported by Dame Sally Davies’s Trinity Challenge. This demonstrates that ever more global health data by itself is just not enough; it is deriving actionable insights from that data that matters, and that needs dedicated analytics tech at scale. What steps is the Minister taking to find and scale the “one health” surveillance tech that we need to prevent future pathogenic risk?
My Lords, my noble friend puts it extremely well. It is exactly that kind of intervention at the front line that can nip infections in the bud, but it is only through international collaboration that we can really tackle the threat of zoonotic infection. The concept of zoonotic tech is not one that I had previously come across, but I will take it away from this debate and have a good look at what more we could do to support it.
My Lords, one of the key “one health” projects initiated by government has been the target of reducing the prophylactic use of antibiotics in farm animals to help reduce the incidence of antibiotic resistance, thereby helping to treat zoonotic diseases in humans. The Government set targets in 2017 on the use of antibiotics in animals over the next three years. What progress has there been? What other plans are going forward, as the 2017 project has now ended?
The noble Lord identifies the threat extremely well indeed. The Department of Health works extremely closely with Defra on this exact point. I pay tribute to both the farming community here in the UK and officials at Defra for their work to encourage farmers to stand back from prophylactic use of antibiotics.
My Lords, one of the most important lessons about “one health” from Covid-19 is that we must share more than just surplus vaccines; we must share the capacity to make vaccine. Can the Minister explain why the Government are resisting even a temporary TRIPS waiver when so many world leaders support it?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that we need to massively increase international capacity for vaccine production. The Government are working on a vaccine strategy that will include ideas for doing that. A TRIPS waiver is something we have looked carefully at. It is our strong view that this Government support intellectual property, because it is only through our commitment to intellectual property that we can encourage the kind of massive investment by the private sector necessary to develop vaccines in the first place. For that reason, we remain hesitant about supporting a TRIPS waiver policy.
My Lords, Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar says in his new book that viruses do not change how they transmit between humans and animals, but humanity has become much more mobile. He deplores the pandemic nationalism evident over the last year, saying:
“Only the virus benefits from a pivot towards myopic nationalism because that will keep it circulating for longer. A divided world is a diseased world.”
I thank the Minister for saying what the Government plan to do through their chairmanship of the G7, but can he please confirm the timetable for the delivery of the “one health” approach, including its funding?
My Lords, it is quite clear that the health and scientific world has, not surprisingly, been focused on the pandemic. The FAIRR report published today and previous reports in this area show what a threat to world health there is from antimicrobial resistance. The question is: how much of a priority is this in the Government’s work? I think that is what most speakers have asked. How much money is the department investing in this area this year and in the next five years?
I assure the noble Baroness that it is a massive priority. The threats from both zoonotic transmission and antimicrobial resistance are areas in which Britain has previously shown great international leadership. Through our G7 chairmanship we will continue to take up that mantle. I pay particular tribute to the work of Dame Sally Davies on antimicrobial resistance. She has done an enormous amount, particularly through the Trinity Challenge, to raise awareness and bring together Governments, industry and academia on this matter. I do not have the precise budget to hand, but I will be glad to write to the noble Baroness with any details that are available.
It is the case that 75% of all newly infectious diseases come from animals. Diseases such as HIV began when transmitted from an animal to a person. The Ebola, Zika, SARS, MERS and SARS-CoV-2 viruses are all examples of recent zoonoses. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out, the changes in human behaviour are only going to accelerate this. That is why we are so committed to the zoonotic agenda and why vets and those who work with farm animals need to have raised awareness of this threat.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Royal Veterinary College. The Minister has stated the Government’s commitment to “one health”, but ODA cuts have slashed by two-thirds the funding of the UK’s single biggest “one health” programme, the One Health Poultry Hub led by the RVC, which tracks and fights disease emergence from poultry in Asia to combat this vector for a human health pandemic that will inevitably occur. How does the Minister intend to fulfil his commitment to “one health”, and the PM’s at the UN and G7 levels, in light of the Chancellor’s Statement last week? The criteria for restoring the ODA cut show that that will not happen for several years.
My Lords, our contributions to “one health” are partly through our collaborations with foreign Governments, but they also include Defra’s work here in the UK and the contribution of British scientists, such as through the Trinity Challenge that I mentioned. The noble Baroness is right that this is not cost free, and we have to explain the value of this work to the taxpayer. That explanation is easier after a pandemic as massive as the one we have had, but we need to look closely at the value-for-money judgments needed before we make the necessary investments in this agenda.
Register of Home-educated Children
My Lords, parents have the right to educate their children at home and many do so very well, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. However, there are some cases in which children are not provided with a suitable education. We remain committed to a form of registration for children not in school. Further details on this will be in the government response to the Children Not in School consultation, which we will publish in the coming months.
The Minister and her predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, have been supportive of the underlying principles of my Bill, and I welcome that. The whole House has given it its support. It was also welcomed throughout the country in the government consultation, so I really ask: when are we going to act on this? It is urgent.
My Lords, unfortunately, I can give the noble Lord no further details on the time. He will be aware that when we launched the consultation on the register in April 2019, we also issued significantly strengthened guidance to local authorities, outlining the current powers and duties they have in relation to children who might not be in school in their local area.
My Lords, parents often choose home schooling to escape the rigidity, values and standardisations of public education. Some people are deeply fearful that a register might seek to reimpose this. Will Her Majesty’s Government assure us that this register is for safety and quality purposes only and that parents will be able to continue to exercise their discretion and freedom of conscience over what and how best to educate their children?
My Lords, obviously within our public schools system there are different ethoses, including, of course, many Church of England schools. The statutory duty on parents is that they have to ensure that their children are receiving a suitable education. Obviously, that can be at home. In the consultation there was an obligation on parents to notify the local authority, because a register without any duty to notify would not be a register at all.
My Lords, the Government are clear that many parents provide elective home education and do it extremely well. The outcomes for their children are excellent, including for many children with special educational needs and disabilities. However, in the consultation it was clear that we need the data to find out where certain children are being electively home educated.
My Lords, I am disappointed that the Minister was unable to give a timeframe for the register. In the meantime, is any work being done to assess the extent to which fundamentalist religious parents, in particular, are preventing their children receiving appropriate education and, indeed, teaching in English?
My Lords, as I have outlined, every parent, regardless of their religious persuasion, has a duty to ensure that their child receives a suitable education. If a parent removes their child from school—and obviously during Covid we have seen a lot of movement of people and removal from the school roll—we have strengthened the regulations so that head teachers have to inform the local authority and have a specific ground for removing a child from a school roll.
My Lords, while a few parents educate their children at home well and have nothing to fear from a register, a very large number of children who are not educated in mainstream schools are in real trouble. Two groups cause particular concern: those who are taught the narrow and often anti-social curriculum of unregistered or illegal schools, which are often also unsafe and unhygienic, and the significant proportion of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children who drop out of secondary school, usually through bullying, and whose parents are not equipped to teach them. How can we leave such children at the mercy of gangs and county lines any longer?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct in relation to unregistered schools. We have been aware of this issue and Ofsted has been resourced to do this. Between 1 January 2016 and 31 March this year, 494 inspections of suspected unregistered schools took place. Some 166 warning notices were given and 91 settings have been closed, so we are alert to this issue. We are aware that it is important that children are on a school roll or being electively home educated because they are exposed to certain risks if they are not in either of those settings.
My Lords, I welcome that answer, which kind of precludes what I was going to ask. Ofsted has spoken recently about sham home education being used as a cover for illegal schools with extreme methods promoting extreme radical views. The Government have committed to cracking down on illegal schools and I welcome the comments the Minister has already made. Do the Government have a schedule of progress? We know that a number of schools have already been identified. Does the Minister have an idea of how many schools have been closed so far? What is the Government’s estimate of how many of these illegal schools exist?
My Lords, as I have said, 91 of these settings have been closed or ceased to operate when they were inspected. We are looking at whether Ofsted needs additional powers when it goes into these settings. Every parent who sends their child to that setting has a duty to ensure that they are receiving a suitable education. We reminded local authorities in the guidance from April 2019, which I mentioned, of the suite of powers and duties they currently have, whether that is prosecution or school attendance orders, to ensure that young people are getting the education they have a right to.
My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister has said, the Government have introduced a voluntary code of practice for out-of-school settings. While this is a start, it is unlikely that the villains who operate unsafe, part-time settings and illegal schools, such as those we have heard about from the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and others, will take note of this. What steps are the Government taking to protect children in these settings from threats such as unsafe conditions and religious extremism?
My Lords, many out-of-school settings offer a very valuable service, particularly to those who electively home educate, because they offer services to groups of children that parents alone potentially cannot offer. We have issued that voluntary code of practice. Many of those settings are charities so they have responsibilities to the Charity Commission as regulated bodies. We also have given £3 million to local authorities to examine ways in which they can boost local capacity to intervene when there is a safeguarding issue. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard every child in their area.
My Lords, I agree with noble Lords who have said that many parents are able to—and indeed do—successfully home educate their children. However, with respect, that is not the issue here. Is it not a scandal that an accurate figure for school-age children not being educated in school is not available? Local authorities are not required to keep a register and they cannot visit children at home against the wishes of the parents. The latest figure, published by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator in February last year, put it at around 60,000. That was before Covid closures, since when thousands of children have failed to return to school. I hear what the Minister says about the consultation but is it not now time for a compulsory register of home-schooled children, maintained by local authorities as a safeguarding measure? If she will not bring forward government legislation, will the Government commit to supporting a Private Member’s Bill such as the one introduced in 2017 by my noble friend Lord Soley?
My Lords, in relation to the register, that is precisely the reason we are committed to a system of registration so that there is an accurate dataset. We have made it clear that if a child has been in school, the head teacher must have a specified reason for removing that child from the roll. In addition to the two groups of children—those on the roll and those who are being electively home educated—it is important to remember that when a head teacher does not have one of the specified grounds, it may relate to a child missing from education, which is a third group. Local authorities have specific, named people who co-ordinate. A lot of children will have dropped off the school roll in one area during Covid and we have a system to make sure that when they, we hope, appear on the school roll in another local authority that data is connected. Let us not forget that third group of particularly vulnerable children—those who are missing from education.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the tone of her reply so far. Will she take this opportunity to give us an assurance that an assessment of the education provided for a child will be taken in each case and that that assessment will have knowledge of things such as special educational needs so that something accurate can be said about what is happening to that child’s education? Ultimately, the child is entitled to an education.
The noble Lord is correct that “suitable” takes into account different developmental and other characteristics of the child. Any special educational needs that a child has are included in the current statutory definition of a suitable education. What detail the register will or will not include are matters to be determined and will be in the response to the consultation.
My Lords, the UK Government are aware of companies selling high-end, state-like cyber capabilities to Governments. We believe that the use of cyberespionage tools against civil society and political groups is unacceptable. It is essential that nation states and other cyber actors use capabilities in a way that is legal, responsible and proportionate.
My Lords, the leaked target list of 50,000 people includes UK politicians and journalists. Clearly, all our mobile devices are at risk of being hacked—a huge danger to press freedom and democracy. What is the NCSC doing to counter this, particularly since the whole Civil Service has now moved over to the iPhone? Why has the Home Office given the NSO Group a marketing platform at events such as a security and policing trade fair last year?
My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are committed to defending the UK from online threats and boosting national resilience to cyberattacks, which the noble Lord rightly asks about. In the past five years, the national cybersecurity strategy has begun to transform the UK’s fight against cyber threats. We do not comment on individual cases or intelligence matters, as noble Lords will know, but while we cannot comment on the specifics, for operational reasons, I underline to your Lordships that we very strongly condemn the targeting of UK individuals.
My Lords, the National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists was, coincidentally, published yesterday. It says that
“A world where journalists are silenced by either fear or censorship is a much poorer one.”
It also says that the Government are committed to keeping journalists “as safe as possible”. It has a number of initiatives, which are to be welcomed, but it is silent on the question of the NSO spyware just referred to, which clearly poses exactly these threats. What plans do the Government have to protect our journalists from such spyware in future?
My Lords, I reiterate the Government’s determination within the cyber strategy to protect all our citizens. I strongly agree with the noble Lord that freedom of the press is an integral part of the United Kingdom’s democratic processes. The Government are committed in every way to protecting the rights and values we hold dear, including the protection of journalists.
My Lords, in the wrong hands Pegasus is a weapon of war against democratic institutions. I did not believe the NSO Group when it told me that Pegasus is used exclusively on serious criminals and terrorists; now we have the proof that that was untrue. It is perfectly possible that Pegasus has already been injected into the phones of Members of this House and the other place. Can the Minister assure the House that the British Government have not deployed, and will not deploy, Pegasus or similar software except when investigating serious crime or terrorism?
My Lords, again, I cannot comment on operational specifics, but I assure the noble Lord that our intelligence agencies are governed by a robust regulatory framework to ensure that any capabilities are always used in a way that is legal, necessary and proportionate—something we ask of all nations. We do not support the commoditisation of cyber capabilities. We continue promoting, with our international partners, the need for tighter export controls to ensure their use legally and responsibly.
I am as appalled as other noble Lords by the revelation about the use of NSO spyware against over 50,000 people across the world. How long have the Government known about the use of this law enforcement-grade software by authoritarian Governments in surveillance of their opponents and journalists across the world, and what have they done about it?
My Lords, again, I cannot comment on intelligence and operational specifics. I am obviously aware of the issues raised in the reports, which in the first instance are all with the company and Israeli authorities. But we have raised our concerns several times with the Government of Israel about NSO’s operations.
My Lords, what assurance can the Minister give us that no journalist, politician or campaigner in the UK has been affected by this software? Would the Government contact anyone who was so targeted? What UK diplomatic channels are being used to ask questions of the countries identified by these leaks?
My Lords, again, I cannot comment on individuals, but I underline what I have said about this Government’s deploring of any effort to target UK individuals, the representations that we have made and the commoditisation of this kind of spyware. Unfortunately, the commercial cyber capability industry is global. We are seeking in many ways to try to secure better control and have legal, proportionate and proper use of any such devices, and better control of exports.
My Lords, I realise that the Minister is under some constraint here, so let me try to put this in a slightly more philosophical sense. Is there not a somewhat justifiable element of fearing what we wish for, not unlike in the Huawei dilemma? In other words, do we need and use this technology and what it covers, and in so doing might we be lowering our own defences to it?
My Lords, I have said something about the controls on our own intelligence framework. As the noble Lord will know, the UK’s use of any investigative powers—I am obviously going much wider than this Question—including equipment interference, is governed by the Investigatory Powers Act. That provides extensive and robust safeguards and oversight that is judicial, political and parliamentary.
My Lords, in the light of the targeting of human rights activists, journalists—including 200 reporters from 21 countries—and lawyers, will the Government consider raising the use of this Pegasus malware at the United Nations Human Rights Council, of which we are a member, and confronting authoritarian Governments with violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically Article 19 on the right to have unimpeded access to information and comment? Specifically, will they commit to examining the targeting of people close to Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in October 2018 while visiting the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, where his body was dismembered, and whose wife and the Turkish prosecutor investigating his death have been targeted by this malware?
My Lords, again, I cannot follow a specific case, but I fully endorse the sentiment of the noble Lord’s question. I repeat that we believe that the use of cyberespionage tools against civil society and political groups, including human rights activists, is unacceptable. I can assure the House that the UK continues to champion human rights, at home and abroad, and that where we have concerns on human rights issues we do not and will not shy away from raising them.
Northern Ireland Protocol
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now make a Statement, which is being simultaneously made in the other place, on the Government’s approach to the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Northern Ireland protocol was designed to achieve a delicate balance between a number of different aims. It reflected a truly extraordinary compromise by the Government in 2019, driven by our steadfast commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. Just over a year afterwards, we also agreed the trade and co-operation agreement, the broadest and most far-reaching such agreement ever struck. Together, these offered the building blocks of a strong, constructive partnership between the UK and the EU, as sovereign equals, yet we have not been able to unlock the potential of that new partnership, and the impact of the current protocol is at the heart of that.
There is no doubt that we have tried to operate the protocol in good faith. We worked throughout 2020 to finalise the areas left open by the protocol text itself, without of course knowing what the real-world impacts of those decisions on the ground would be. This year, we are planning to invest around £500 million in delivering systems and support services to operate the protocol. We have worked with business to help its preparations for the new trading arrangements, but nevertheless, as we have sought to operate the protocol, it is clear that its burdens have been the source of considerable and ongoing disruption to lives and livelihoods. We have seen reductions in supermarket product lines. We have seen more than 200 suppliers decide that they would no longer sell to Northern Ireland. We have seen difficulties not just on the famous chilled meats issue but on medicines, on pets, on movements of live animals, on seeds and plants, and on many others.
Indeed, nowhere are these problems more visible than in the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive conduct 20% of all the EU documentary checks on products of animal origin, despite a population of only 1.8 million people. These burdens will worsen, not improve, over time as grace periods expire, leaving businesses facing ever more unsustainable burdens. These impacts risk being felt in the fabric of our union too. All dimensions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement need to be respected—that is, Northern Ireland’s integral place in our United Kingdom just as much as the north-south dimension of the agreement.
Yet there is a growing sense in Northern Ireland that we have not found the right balance, seen in an ongoing febrile political climate, protests and occasional regrettable instances of disorder, and strains within a power-sharing Executive already dealing with an unprecedented pandemic. We have worked with the EU to try to address these challenges. Some avenues for progress have been identified in certain areas but, overall, those discussions have not got to the heart of the problem. Put very simply, we cannot go on as we are. We have therefore had to consider all our options. In particular, we have looked carefully at the safeguards provided by Article 16 of the protocol. These exist to deal with significant societal and economic difficulties, as well as with trade diversion. There has been significant disruption to east-west trade, a significant increase in trade on the island of Ireland as companies change supply chains, and considerable disruption to everyday lives. There has also been societal instability, seen most regrettably with the disorder across Northern Ireland at Easter. Indeed, the false but raw perception in the unionist community of separation from the rest of the United Kingdom has had profound political consequences. These are very serious effects, which have put people, businesses, and the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement under strain.
It is clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of Article 16. Nevertheless, we have concluded that it is not the right moment to do so. Instead, we see an opportunity to proceed differently—to find a new path; to seek to agree with the EU, through negotiations, a new balance in our arrangements covering Northern Ireland, to the benefit of all. It is in that spirit that today’s Command Paper outlines the new balance that we wish to find. It is a balance which needs to ensure that goods can circulate much more freely within the UK customs territory, while ensuring that full processes are applied to goods destined for the EU. It is a balance which needs to enable all in Northern Ireland to continue to have normal access to goods from the rest of the UK, by allowing goods meeting both UK and EU standards to circulate there. And it is a balance which needs to normalise the basis of the protocol’s governance, so that the relationship between us and the EU is no longer policed by the EU institutions and the court of justice. We should return to a normal treaty framework, similar to all our other international agreements, that is more conducive to the sense of genuine and equitable partnership that we seek.
Of course, we also recognise our share of responsibility in helping the EU to protect its single market. As part of this, we are willing to explore exceptional arrangements around data sharing and co-operation, and penalties in legislation to deter those looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland. I repeat that all this is entirely consistent with maintaining an open border, without infrastructure or checks, between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
These proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland protocol. We do not shy away from that. We believe that such change is necessary to deal with the situation that we now face. We look to open a discussion on these proposals urgently. At the same time, we must provide certainty and stability for businesses as we do so, so we believe that we and the EU should also quickly agree a standstill period, as it were, including maintaining the operation of grace periods in force and a freeze on existing legal actions and processes. This is to ensure that there is room to negotiate and to provide a genuine signal of good intent to find ways forward.
The difficulties that we have in operating the Northern Ireland protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU that reflects our strong common interests and values. Instead of that relationship, we are seeing one which is punctuated with legal challenges and characterised by disagreement and mistrust. We do not want that pattern to be set, not least because it does not support stability in Northern Ireland.
It is now the time to work to establish a new balance which both the UK and the EU can invest in, to provide a platform for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and to allow us to set out on a new path of partnership with the EU. We have today in our Command Paper set out an approach which we believe can do just that. We urge the EU to look at it with fresh eyes, and to work with us to seize this opportunity and to put our relations on to a better footing. We stand ready to work with it in delivering the brighter future that is within reach.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for advance sight of his Statement. However, I was surprised to hear so much of its content on the radio this morning. We are both new to this House, but I have quickly learned the great value of treating this Chamber with respect. Briefing of Statements to the media before the House is discourteous. I hope that he can reassure us that whatever did or did not happen today, this will not become his habit.
When the Northern Ireland protocol was presented as a triumph, I doubt whether the Minister imagined that he would remain responsible for its implementation, yet here he finds himself. Can he tell us whether the problems that he highlights today were anticipated when the agreement was signed? If not, they should have been. If they were anticipated by the Minister before the Government signed up to the agreement, as I suspect, then I am afraid that this will damage our international reputation. In his Statement, he says that he has tried to operate the protocol in good faith, but the technological solutions earlier promised, that would have eased the situation, have not yet materialised, and that does not look like good faith. The problems that he describes are so wide-ranging that if he did not foresee any of them, that raises serious questions about the Government’s approach to the negotiations at the time, and their attitude to the serious undertakings to which they committed the country and from which they now seek to break away.
The protocol was described by the Prime Minister as an ingenious solution. We all remember his promise to Northern Ireland businesses and we all remember him saying that there would be no checks whatsoever. He said that if someone asks you to fill in a form, to “tell them to ring up the Prime Minister, and I’ll direct them to throw that form in the bin.” This is not the first time that the Minister has appeared before this House to discredit his own deal. I regret that this approach has potentially dire consequences for communities in Northern Ireland and, critically, for our international reputation at a time when we are seeking to forge new agreements. The erosion of trust in our Government, an essential component of stability in Northern Ireland, is deeply regrettable and must not be taken lightly.
The Minister’s Statement is, I am afraid, an admission of failure. The Government promised to “get Brexit done”, yet here he is trying to unpick it. The Government must find agreement to fix the problems that the Prime Minister created. We have yet more political brinkmanship and more threats to tear up the protocol, with nothing to take its place. The people of Northern Ireland should not be pawns in a chess match. Communities are tired of these games and the political stalemate. The last thing that they need is a summer of crippling uncertainty which is bad for them and damaging to businesses across the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State knows that the best way forward is to get a veterinary agreement because it is the most straightforward way to remove the vast majority of checks—I am sure that that is what he is saying to the other place right now—but is it not time that the Government simply delivered on what they promised?
The ongoing stand-off is having consequences for Northern Ireland and our relationships with our closest friends and partners. The eyes of Governments around the world are on the Minister this afternoon. President Biden and Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand are among those who need reassurance that the UK will abide by international law and be a partner that they can trust. Is there anything less British than forging an agreement but never having any intention of making it work? What does the Minister think that our friends, allies and future trade partners will make of this?
I am sure that the Minister would never advise the Prime Minister to put his own political interests over and above the interests of Northern Ireland. The Minister objects to the EU’s previous threat to use Article 16 powers—I agree with him and am pleased that he has made it clear that he does not consider now to be the right time for the UK to make use of them—but can he make clear to the House whether, when and in what circumstances he would resort to such a drastic measure as the use of Article 16?
The US State Department has been up front and told us that it is watching this situation closely, and it encourages us to find a solution within the terms of the existing agreement that we so recently and eagerly entered into. What conversations has the Minister had with representatives of the Biden Administration on his new position? What is the assessment of the impact of today’s Statement on the favourability likely to be shown to the UK as we seek to make binding deals in the future?
For us to maintain our position as a respected, trusted partner in defence and trade, we must show that we keep our word. We do not make deals knowing that we will break them. I ask the Minister to keep in his mind the people of Northern Ireland. He owes it to them to quickly reach an agreement with the EU and to find a sustainable, long-lasting way forward.
My Lords, this Government drove through the arrangement whereby Northern Ireland would have a different customs and regulatory status from that of Great Britain. The Prime Minister then claimed that this would not lead to controls on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That claim was not true. The Prime Minister and his colleagues, including the Minister, knew that the EU needed to protect its single market from unauthorised goods entering it through the back door, that this meant checks in the Irish Sea and that this was what they had agreed to. “Economy with the actualité” does not quite do justice to the deception that was perpetrated.
What the Prime Minister and his Government signed up to and their misinformation about it are the real source of the problems and tensions in Northern Ireland—not the EU, which has, true to form, been made a scapegoat. So, when the Minister repeatedly says in this House and elsewhere that the protocol is having a bad effect, we are entitled to ask: why did he promote it, then? The Government’s refusal to accept the consequences of their own actions and choices around the nature of Brexit is deeply unimpressive.
The Statement claims that the Government have
“tried to operate the protocol in good faith”—
but, sadly, that is not the case. The Government admit that they did not know
“what the real-world impacts on the ground would be”
of the protocol and that the problem is the way that it is currently operating. However, they either knew, as everyone else did, that this was indeed how it would operate, with Great Britain and Northern Ireland under different regulatory and customs regimes—in which case they are now being dishonest and disingenuous—or they did not, in which case they are incompetent. The answer is of course both. Mr Johnson, the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and their colleagues wanted a hard Brexit for Great Britain at any cost. The great god of sovereignty was their overlord, and no practical argument could be allowed to impede the achievement of that goal. In fact, the Tory Brexiters gave barely a thought to Northern Ireland, despite claiming to be fervent unionists.
The closer the level of alignment, the lower the lever of checks—hence, from these Benches, we have consistently urged that the best way to eliminate checks on food, agricultural products and animals was to reach a veterinary or SPS agreement with the EU. However, the Government have stubbornly put ideology before the needs of industry and consumers in refusing to take that level playing field step or any others. Instead, they simply throw their hands in the air and cry that the protocol is untenable and that it is up to the EU to show pragmatism and forgo most or all checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. You could not make this up. It is rich coming from a Government who have been thoroughly dogmatic, and it is a breath-taking passing of the buck. It would be gratifying if the Minister, just once, here and now, accepted that he and his colleagues must take full responsibility for where we and Northern Ireland are now.
So, while the Minister believes that the protocol
“must work in a different way if we are to find a stable route going forward”,
he now presents us with a set of proposals that have anything but stable and certain prospects, since they are an attempt to rewrite the protocol with an enhanced threat to trigger Article 16. The choice of confrontation and instability over real solutions, and pushing Article 16 as a potential remedy, are offering a populist, ineffective and false solution. No major business organisation in Northern Ireland or beyond is calling for Article 16 to be invoked, and, if it were, the EU would have the right to take its own rebalancing measures. It is thus not the silver bullet that its advocates think it is.
One of the new suggestions has been labelled an “honesty box” approach, whereby companies that said that their goods were destined only for sale and use in Northern Ireland should be exempted from checks on the Irish Sea border. The deep irony of this from a Government who have proved very far short of honesty and trustworthiness over the protocol does not escape us.
Unilateral action will see a reaction from the Biden Administration and will have consequences for UK-US relations. In view of the fact that the State Department has urged the UK to stay within “existing mechanisms”, since the protocol and the TCA
“protect the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement”,
how will the Government prevent harm to the transatlantic relationship that they claim to value so much? It is wholly counterproductive for the Government to engage in more brinkmanship and unilateral action, rather than working in partnership with the EU to address problems.
The real situation is that scope continues to exist to find mutually agreed flexibilities and mitigations, within the context of the protocol, consistent with the legal regimes of both the UK and the EU. In that context, can the Minister tell me what his reaction is to the proposal from the British former senior European Commission official, Sir Jonathan Faull, in yesterday’s Financial Times? The proposal is a development of proposals that he made two years ago and amounts to “mutual enforcement” or “dual autonomy”, protecting the integrity of both the UK’s and the EU’s internal markets and based on well-tested international trade practice. The UK would introduce, as a matter of domestic law, EU rules only for goods that are exported to the EU and vice versa, and national courts could be empowered to make references to the supreme court of the other party in case of doubt about interpretation.
As Sir Jonathan says, this idea “preserves” UK regulatory autonomy, with “compliance … a legal requirement” here and not an obligation imposed by a foreign power. It avoids the complexities of the TCA’s level playing field arrangements—so will the Government pick it up and run with it? After all, the EU hates it, so this Government must find it very attractive. Such a scheme would need mature and rational consideration in a climate of trust with the EU. What the Government are now doing is, sadly, the very opposite of that.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Ludford, for their comments. There is a lot there, and I will try to deal with them. I will begin by picking up the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, made at the start about respect for this House in terms of briefing. I reassure her and noble Lords that we have not engaged in any such briefing. It is necessary for Statements of this kind to engage in a certain limited amount of diplomatic contact beforehand.
No doubt, that is the source of some of what is read in the press this morning, but I would not like anyone to think that we were not showing appropriate respect to this House in the way that we have gone about this matter.
Turning to the substance: a lot was said about us not standing by our commitments as a Government, about unilateral actions and so on—which I find slightly surprising, because that is not what we have proposed. We have proposed a way forward based on consensus and negotiation. That is the responsible thing in these circumstances. We have always said that all options remain on the table, but we have chosen the way of negotiation and compromise, and we hope that the EU will respond in that way. We believe that the possibilities, if it does, are really quite exciting, so that is the way we would like to proceed.
The issue was raised of why we did not foresee this situation. The current protocol reflects the extraordinary circumstances in which it was agreed, when this Government risked being unable to deliver on a democratically determined referendum result because their negotiating hands were tied by actions in this Parliament. We proposed, and eventually agreed, a protocol that was substantially different from our initial proposals, particularly in customs arrangements and in limiting the consent principle. We thought these changes might well cause problems, but we thought that, with a pragmatic, light-touch application of the rules, the right thing to do was to try to make the protocol work.
We could not predict the future; we could not have foreseen the political turbulence the EU would spark off with its Article 16 proposal in January; we did not anticipate the very purist application that would be applied to some of its provisions. We have all learned from experience. We now know what is working and what is not, and we believe that the best way to resolve the situation is to try to negotiate changes—and we do not see what is wrong with that. Anyone would think that it was a highly unusual thing to renegotiate a treaty; of course, it is not. To take one example: the UK-France treaty on juxtaposed controls was itself a supplementary protocol to an agreement reached in 1986, signed in 1991, renegotiated in 2000 and renegotiated in 2007, as the nature of the juxtaposed controls and the situation they were working in changed. So, there is nothing particularly unusual in this, and we do not apologise for it.
The issue of checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was raised, and the noble Baroness raised the issue of the Prime Minister’s comments about “throwing forms in the bin”. I would note that he made those comments in the context of movements from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and there are no forms for such movements. That was something we secured with the EU in 2020, and that unfettered access is extremely important for these arrangements.
The issue of trust was raised, which is clearly extremely important. Trust takes two, and the EU’s actions on vaccines, on Article 16 and on the immediate resort to legal action to try to stop people in Northern Ireland going on holiday to Great Britain with their pets are all actions that are not conducive to trust. We do not want a relationship with high levels of mistrust. The current problems in the relationship are caused by the extreme difficulties in operating the protocol reasonably. If we can get to a better protocol, we will have resolved some of those problems. That is why we are trying to proceed by consensus and get to a better situation.
The issue of people in Northern Ireland was raised. Of course, the protocol itself requires there to be no impact, or minimised impact, on the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland. The fact that that is not being observed is one of the major problems with the current situation, and that is why we wish to see if we can resolve it in a negotiated way.
The veterinary agreement was raised, and we have made it clear that our position is that an agreement by equivalence could solve problems. But in this Command Paper we are proposing something more fundamental: dealing with the fundamentals of the difficulties rather than the problems. Our proposal for a dual regulatory zone with appropriate processes backing it up—and one of those things could be a veterinary agreement—will resolve these issues in a more fundamental way.
The issue of Article 16 was raised. We set out the thinking on that in the Command Paper, and it is a very legitimate tool for use within the protocol. That is why it is there. We made it clear that the situation would justify the use of Article 16, if we wished to, to deal with both current issues—for example, chilled meats, parcels and so on—and the broader arrangements under which goods enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain. But we have chosen not to go down that route. We prefer to proceed by negotiation, and I hope we can.
I will make a few final points. I have seen the comments from the US State Department spokesman overnight in which he urges everyone to solve differences by negotiation and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We absolutely 100% agree with that, and that is what we have set out today.
The issue of stability in Northern Ireland is very important: business needs stability. The problem is that we do not have stability now, and anyone who heard the comments from the chair of Marks & Spencer this morning and has seen his letter will be very clear about the kind of extreme difficulties that businesses will face if we simply proceed without trying to rectify the situation. We do not have stability now. We need to produce a solution that will generate stability and get us forward into the future.
So we look to make proposals. We have made proposals that set out a negotiated approach. They are significant and substantive; they offer a good chance, in our view, of resolving difficulties on a durable basis; and we very much hope that the EU will look at them, consider them carefully and go forward with us on that journey.
We now come to the 20 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, I am grateful to the Minister for giving evidence on the protocol last week to the committee that I chair. We greatly look forward to future such meetings. We will, of course, study the proposals and the White Paper carefully. Meanwhile, I have one question for the Minister. He spoke about trust. Could he confirm that the Government will do all they can to build—or, perhaps I should say, to rebuild—the trust between the British Government, the European Union and the Irish Government that is essential if we are collectively to find a resolution to the protocol that is in the interests of all communities in Northern Ireland and that they profoundly deserve?
My Lords, I very much agree with those comments. I could spend time, but will not, looking at the origins of this situation of mistrust and why it has been established. I do not think it is helpful to do so today; we are looking forwards and have to deal with the situation as it is. Our very clear proposal to proceed by negotiation, agreement and discussion will, we hope, begin to help re-establish some of the trust that it seems is lacking on both sides.
My Lords, rigid and theological implementation of the protocol has severely disrupted trade, adversely impacted consumers, hit businesses in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland and contributed to political instability. In welcoming my noble friend’s Statement, therefore, I ask: does he agree that it is now the time for the EU fully to respect Northern Ireland’s position within the UK internal market, along with the constitutional and economic integrity of our United Kingdom? Failing that, I assure my noble friend that he will be entirely justified in taking whatever unilateral action is necessary to remedy the current unsustainable situation. In so doing, he will have the strong support of many of us.
I thank my noble friend for his comments. He is obviously correct in saying the place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, in the single market, in the customs territory, is protected on the face of the protocol and is absolutely fundamental. It is the doubts that have been allowed to develop on that subject that are part of the reason we face the situation we face today.
My Lords, in light of the absence of trust caused by the original internal market Bill last September and the unilateral extensions of grace periods in March, how confident is the Minister that the EU will have the appetite to consider such a fundamental departure from the protocol in terms of Article 5? After all, the UK Government negotiated, agreed and ratified the protocol.
My Lords, obviously we will have to see how the EU reacts to these proposals. I hope it will consider them seriously as a significant proposal to find a durable settlement. It is true that they are significant changes to the protocol text and will require that, but we hope that the EU will see that the prize of a durable settlement that allows us to move on is worth the process issue of reopening the protocol text. We must keep our eyes on the prize and what we are trying to do here.
My Lords, trust is clearly broken and must be repaired. The protocol would not have been necessary but it is now, and it is an imperfect solution to a problem unnecessarily caused and created. It does, however, avoid the crippling blow to the peace process that a hard border would have represented and would represent, and it contains special measures to protect human rights and equality until someone suggests a better solution. Also, it is vital as part of the Good Friday agreement that investment will be coming to Northern Ireland and I hope that this Government will continue to encourage this, with the other partners of the Good Friday agreement. Can the Minister give me an undertaking that this is still happening? What plans does he have to take it further, working with colleagues in Europe and the United States?
My Lords, we are obviously ready to work with anybody and plans are in train to encourage investment into Northern Ireland; I believe there are some events in prospect in the next few months. The noble Baroness is right to call the protocol an imperfect solution: I think it is very clear that it is imperfect. I would say, as she does, that much of the protocol is not in question. Issues such as the common travel area, human rights, the Good Friday agreement and so on are not controversial. What we must do is make sure that the trade and governance arrangements of the protocol work better, and the proposals we have put on the table work with the concepts in the protocol to try to achieve just that.
My Lords, today is not the day to enter into a discussion of how we got into this mess, but one fact is clear: the businesses and the people of Northern Ireland are the innocent victims of a situation which they did not create and did not want. With that in mind, I ask my noble friend: are we seriously, as a Government, going to look at real alternatives capable of resolving these issues within the concept of the Belfast agreement, which I believe has been completely demolished by the current protocol? We want new arrangements that are workable, coherent and long-lasting and will bring the stability that businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland urgently need.
My Lords, I very much agree with the thrust of my noble friend’s comments. The proposals that we have put on the table are significant and pretty fundamental in the way that they would adjust the way the trading arrangements of the protocol work. They are intended to be durable and to do something significantly different from what is done now. As I say, we work, in these proposals, with concepts of the protocol; we have not swept it away. We do not agree that the right thing is simply to scrap the protocol and that nothing need fill its place. We believe that the right thing is to work with the grain and use the concepts, but use them to make sure that the arrangements work in a significantly different fashion.
My Lords, decisions made by the Boris Johnson Government, not the EU, over the last year have meant that, for the first time in our history, a Government of the UK are compelling UK businesses that trade within the UK to Northern Ireland to register with the Government as an exporter. Any goods from GB to Northern Ireland will have to be separately conformity-assessed and separately labelled and, this month, new parcel and shipping taxes for consumers, set by a foreign power, are now being paid by people, over which we have no representation whatever. There is no mention at all of these in the Command Paper. Does that mean that businesses will have to live with this unacceptable and outrageous burden on UK businesses trading within the UK?
My Lords, we have set out in the Command Paper the very high-level elements of the approach we wish to pursue. Of course, we want to discuss the detail with the European Union, including in many areas. What we are proposing is an extremely light-touch measure to allow trade to flow freely within the UK customs union and single market. We think that is a reasonable response to the situation that currently prevails.
My Lords, I very much welcome my noble friend’s Statement and I hope the whole House will join me in praising his huge efforts to try to make our relationship with the EU work effectively. Does he agree that the guiding star should be what works for the citizens of Northern Ireland, and that if the EU could shift to a people-centric rather than a rules-centric approach, we could start to make some real progress?
I very much agree with the thrust of my noble friend’s comments. The impact of the protocol on everyday lives in Northern Ireland is a significant part of the difficulty. Again, if one looks at the comments from the chair of Marks & Spencer, we see the risks to everyday life; for example, the risk of not being able to deliver supplies for Christmas under the current arrangements. I do not think that is what either the European Union or we actually want in this situation, and if we can focus on the practicalities and the reality of the situation and try to find a way through, we will all be the better for it.
My Lords, clearly the Northern Ireland protocol is not fit for purpose; it is not working or delivering for Northern Ireland. Any noble Lord who visits Northern Ireland and talks to people will know that immediately, and the Minister has done that frequently. Whatever the benefits, they are massively outweighed by the disadvantages—economic, societal and political. Can the Minister assure me that at the end of this process of renegotiation, or if direct action may be necessary by the Government, we will end up in a position where the new balance of arrangements will restore Northern Ireland to its proper place, with no Irish Sea border and with elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, either here or in the Assembly, having the final say over the laws that govern Northern Ireland?
My Lords, it is clear that the balance we have in the protocol is not working at the moment, and I have explained why on many occasions. The issue raised by the noble Lord is one reason why we think changes to the governance arrangements in this protocol are so important. It simply does not fit with the reality of the situation to have laws imposed and policed by institutions outside the UK territory and subject to the judgments of courts that are not courts of the UK. If we can agree that—I recognise that it is a significant point—I think we will find some of the problems raised by the noble Lord beginning to melt away.
My Lords, there are 32 committees set up under the TCA and the withdrawal agreement, only three of which are directly relevant to the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol, leaving 29 that are not—presumably now 30, given the overnight news on Gibraltar. Does the Minister share the concerns of many that the trust problems that are taking place within the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol might leak across to these other 30 forums, which would be most unfortunate? If he shares those concerns, what are the Government doing to address that?
My Lords, where there are trust problems between us and the European Union, they stem ultimately from the issues that we have on the protocol. I agree 100% with the noble Lord that we must try to nip that in the bud and stop it getting in the way, in a durable way, of the rest of the relationship. The issue of Gibraltar that he raises obviously is a dispute about a different issue. There are analogous elements, but it is important to keep these things separate. The mandate that the EU agreed yesterday does seem to be problematic in a number of ways, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear yesterday. But I do not think it makes sense to connect one thing with another. We deal with each of these issues on its own terms and try to proceed in a constructive way.
My Lords, seven months ago the Minister negotiated and signed the protocol and presented it to the British people as a triumph. Today he stands at the Dispatch Box and says, “It’s rubbish, doesn’t work, we’ve got to have something better”. Would not the first step—and the best way of resolving the trust problems to which he referred—be for him to resign for a gross failure of government policy for which he is personally responsible?
Just say no.
My Lords, the protocol of course was agreed nearly two years ago now, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. We are saying, and we continue to say, that it needs improvement. We have experience that elements of the protocol are not working well, and there is nothing wrong with trying to improve elements of a treaty; it happens all the time.
I thank the noble Lord for his time spent in Northern Ireland listening to people, and for the recognition that the protocol is not working and cannot work. I welcome the proposed changes; particularly important is removing Northern Ireland from being subject to EU rules and the EU court without any say. Could the Minister give us some idea of timescale in terms of just how long these negotiations might go on before it is felt to be time to do something more drastic? Does he agree with me that, if the European Union is really concerned about peace and stability in Northern Ireland, it will respond positively to these proposals—and respond very speedily?
My Lords, there are plenty of deadlines in this process already; I do not want to add to them by generating others. We have proposed a standstill—and I will write shortly to the Commission proposing this. Obviously, if a standstill can be agreed, it will take away some of the significance of the expiry of the current grace period. I very much hope we will be able to do that. Obviously, if we cannot, the 30 September deadline is not very far away. We do not want to be faced with the same situation that we have been faced with before on chilled meats and have to focus on solving the cliff-edge problem, rather than dealing with the fundamental underlying problems.
My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s practical and forward-looking proposals and deplore the backward-looking point-scoring of both Opposition Front Benches. Can my noble friend confirm that, although the EU and its apologists in this House claim that the protocol requires rigid application of all EU rules and checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, in fact, Article 6 says that the Joint Committee shall adopt “appropriate recommendations” to avoid controls at the ports and airports in Northern Ireland “to the extent possible”? So, if the EU refuses to respond positively to his proposals, it will be in breach of both the letter and spirit of the protocol.
My noble friend as always makes a very good point. The issue of the requirements in Article 5 and the requirement in Article 6 to avoid checks and controls is of course one of the areas where you cannot just read the protocol straight; you have to look at the purpose and the way its different provisions interact. It is certainly arguable that the Article 6 commitments are not being delivered on, but we have not so far sought to argue that, because the protocol is a political and purposive document and we believe that the right way to solve the problems arising is in a political way, rather than immediately reaching for legal arguments and processes.
My Lords, this is serious business. Our Queen’s name is on this treaty that we now want to change. The Minister correctly points to precedents for changes to treaties, but I cannot recall any precedent for our condoning—still less proposing—unilateral action if we do not get a negotiated change and the other side does not agree.
I have three particular questions, to which I request precise answers from the Minister, now or in writing. First, on good faith, how does he square with the treaty’s Article 5 our continuing refusal to allow the EU access to the customs database, as we said we would? Secondly, on goods at risk, how does he square his honesty box proposal with what the protocol’s Article 5.2 says about the onus of proof? Thirdly and finally, on Article 16 on safeguards, which the Minister mentioned, which UK exporters would the Government expect to be hit by EU rebalancing measures under the protocol’s Article 16.2?
My Lords, I will address those three points very briefly. We do allow access to the databases. We have recently agreed enhanced access and we have a discussion in train to allow further access. We have no difficulty with access to data; indeed, our own solution requires quite wide access to data to provide reassurances. It is certainly true on the second point that what we are proposing is not consistent with Article 5 as it stands; that is why we need to change it. The system we are proposing is a trust and verify system, which is perfectly normal in business and in these arrangements, and which we think will work very well in this context too. On Article 16, I have set out where we are on this issue. We hope that it will not be necessary to use Article 16. We are trying to proceed by agreement—so hopefully the contingency evoked by the noble Lord will not arise.
My Lords, the time allowed for Back-Bench questions on this Statement have now elapsed. I will allow a minute for a changeover and we will then proceed with further business.
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]
Committee (4th Day)
90: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Review of student loans
(1) The Secretary of State must review and update all the terms of—(a) student loans, and(b) graduate payments,every five years.(2) The outcome of the review under subsection (1) must be published within six months of its completion.”Member’s explanatory statement
The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that there is a regular review of the student loan system so that can any problems can be identified and changes made.
My Lords, I wish to move Amendment 90 in my name, which proposes a new clause to provide for the review and updating of the terms of higher education loans and repayments every five years. Before I briefly turn to that, I just say to the House and to the Minister that it is much appreciated that the Government have set aside four days for consideration of this important Bill in Committee. This is the last amendment I will move, so this is the right moment to thank the Minister for her engagement with the issues. I assure her that all the amendments I have brought forward are aimed at improving the Bill and helping the Government achieve their policy objectives.
I realise that there may well be a very understandable reaction to this amendment: that higher education finance is so difficult and controversial that the last thing we need is a provision to look at it every five years. But, in reality, because the system is so important in the public finances and so politically charged, it is being changed, and it has been changed, in an ad hoc way, from time to time. In this amendment, I have tried to provide a framework so that it can be reviewed and updated systematically, looking at the system and the interactions between its parts as a whole.
This proposed new clause would also tackle a belief—I think it is misconceived, but there are people who hold it—that somehow the system cannot be changed at all. The terms on which the Student Loans Company deals with students, and then graduates, makes it clear from the beginning that regulations for the terms of repayment can be amended from time to time. Of course, there are advocates of a graduate tax. This current repayment scheme is, in many ways, rather close to a graduate tax—a 9% tax on earnings above a certain threshold but with a cap on the total amount. A graduate tax would clearly come with adjustable rates, so this establishes the reality that the terms of the scheme can be adjusted and altered, and that this should be done with a proper systematic overview from time to time.
It would also enable the system to take account of legitimate political debate about the balance between the amount we expect graduates to pay back for the cost of their education and the amount we expect taxpayers to pay by virtue of writing off unpaid student loans. There is genuine and legitimate debate about what that balance should be. Different people of different political persuasions can take different views on what the balance is, and it is also affected by things such as the performance of graduate earnings. I do not think it is now breaking any confidences to say that, when we set the graduate repayment threshold of £21,000, when we brought in the £9,000 fees, it was based on a rather different forecast of graduate earnings than actually happened. So as earnings overall grew by less, the repayment threshold ended up being higher in real terms than had been envisaged. Those are the types of economic scenarios which Ministers rightly should be able to consider, and they should be able to change the system in the light of them.
In the last few years, we have had a range of ad hoc changes, of which the most significant—and, I have to say, I think the most egregious—was the one in 2017, with a very big increase in the graduate repayment threshold and, therefore, a sudden and large increase in the cost to taxpayers from loans that were being written off. It was introduced with no consultation and no wider consideration for the system as a whole. In fact, I have to say that it was a case study in the perils of policy-making by conference speech crisis, which is not a good way to decide how our higher education should be funded.
I very much hope that this approach—which provides that there should be an overall review every five years in which, clearly, the terms of the loan scheme can be looked at in the light of economic and political considerations—provides some kind of framework. The Augar review—a serious piece of work, a lot of which I agree with—is one example of how that could be done, and the Minister might cite it. But circumstances change; debates change. Rather than having a one-off specific exercise like that, I think that, every five years, being able to look at what has happened to the so-called RAB charge, loan repayments and graduate earnings, and adjusting the system in the light of public spending pressures and other issues, makes sense, and it does not stop people doing anything else.
There will be some people in this House who believe that the whole system should be swept away. That is their view, and nothing in this provision changes their capacity to do that if they bring in primary legislation. Equally, Ministers may still want to make changes, from time to time. But this just provides, rather as in the historic social security system, for a systematic overview every five years, with the opportunity to look at all the evidence and decide in a structured way how the system could be recalibrated. I think it legitimises the absolute necessity of keeping the scheme adjusted, and provides a framework for doing so, and I hope it will improve the quality of our ability to scrutinise and improve our higher education financing system as it goes forward. That is why I propose this new clause.
My Lords, I must first apologise for my absence from this Committee on Monday, particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, whose amendments I had signed. It was entirely due to an administrative foul-up on my part.
I speak today in support of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, which in some ways reflects what is happening now in an ad hoc way. Back in 2018, Philip Augar was asked to review what was happening with student fees. In January, we had an interim response from the Government on that, but, according to the Guardian at the start of this month, we are going to get the Government’s full response soon—we are looking at a four or five-year time period, the same as is proposed in this amendment.
What we are hearing about the debate going on behind the scenes before we get that response is talk of tuition fee cuts, a cap on student numbers for certain courses and minimum qualifications, which are all designed to lower the cost to the Government of financing the student loan system. The fact is that, when tuition fees were set at £9,000 in 2012, the intention was to have inflationary increases at regular intervals. But since being raised to £9,250 in 2016, the fees have remained at that level while the real value has declined by 12%. It is notable in this context, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said, that this is an intensely political issue and decisions are very likely to be made in an ad hoc, highly political way.
It is interesting that apparently the report suggests that the Treasury is seeking to directly cut fees and increase repayments, while other parts of government favour more indirect means, such as minimum entry requirements and course caps. We really have to think about that latter approach in the context of the Bill we are debating now; it is focused on the need for more skills and education, yet we are expecting sometime soon a proposal from the Government that will squeeze down and reduce people’s access.
We have to look at where we are: more than £17 billion is being loaned to students each year. The value of outstanding loans has reached £160 billion, and this is expected to be £560 billion by the middle of this century, at 2020 prices. Some 75% of students will not repay their loans. That means half the people in a single generation going through life for 30 years with that weight resting on their shoulders. We are in a situation now where we are stressing the need for this review. Think about Covid; it descended on us and society changed enormously, and in this age of shocks, we do not know what changes will arrive in future.
The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, reflected that the Government would probably not welcome this amendment, because the issue of fees is so difficult and controversial. However, I agree with the noble Lord that this magnifies the need for a systematic, planned, guaranteed measure of review. We could even argue that it would make it easier for Ministers, because by being on the face of the Bill, it would be a review that had to happen, and it would be set in the government timetable.
The practical reality is that what we have now is a fantasy. These are called loans, but most of the money will never be paid back. We as a society need to reflect on the fact that education is a public good, and it should be paid for from general progressive taxation, not weighted on to the shoulders of individuals, in a system whereby those who earn the most can, by paying off their loans fast, repay the least. We need change. The amendment will not achieve that, but it would at least create a pause, a chance to think—indeed, a requirement to think—about what we are doing to our young people and their future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, for introducing his amendment, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for her reflections—and for her courteous but quite unnecessary apology. The current arrangements for student loans are now quite complicated. A recent House of Commons Library brief gave a lovely timeline of all the changes from 1990, when the first loans were introduced for student support—then at just £420 a year. It then tracked the developments, as loans gradually replaced grants for maintenance, and there was a shift from mortgage-style loans to income-contingent repayment schemes. Then loans for fees started, and some maintenance grants came back.
The big shift came in 2012, when fees trebled and the current system was in put in place. The effect of this pattern showed up when I was chatting recently to a member of our small opposition staff team. She had compared notes with a couple of colleagues in the office, and realised that although the three of them had graduated not so many years apart, each had a different package of debt and repayments.
Part of the reason for the complexity is that the system has so many moving parts. A Government wanting to save money have a range of ways to do it. They can change the size of the original debt, as they did dramatically in 2012. They can change the repayment threshold, as they did in 2016, when they decided to stop tracking earnings and freeze the threshold until 2021—although that went down so badly that they changed it again, not just unfreezing the threshold but raising it to £25,000 from 2018. They can change the contribution period; indeed, Augar recommends raising it to 40 years. They can change the contribution rate. That is still 9% for undergraduate degrees, but loans for master’s programmes were introduced in 2016, and for PhDs in 2018. That rate could now go up to 15% of earnings above the threshold for postgrads. Or they could change the interest rates. Indeed, they are spoilt for choice here: they could change the rate while studying or the rate when repaying, or they could change one or both of the lower and upper thresholds. Each of those changes or combinations would have a different distributional effect.
I take it from his introduction that the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, wants a periodic systematic review, and he made his case for that. But does his amendment mean that changes could be made only then? I suspect that the answer to that might affect the Government’s interest in the idea.
One benefit of the systematic approach would be the opportunity to ensure that factual information about the impact of changes to the system was gathered and disseminated. Does the Minister agree that work is needed to ensure that the student loans system is widely understood? After all, if Governments are to make changes to student finance, it is vital that it is not done by sleight of hand, or by banking on the HE version of a fiscal drag. It is crucial that the differential impact on people with different likely lifetime earnings is made crystal clear. After all, if the state is advancing £17 billion a year to higher education students in England and the value of outstanding loans is some £160 billion this year, the least the Government owe the country is transparency, and a good public debate. Does the Minister agree?
My Lords, I am grateful for the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Willetts, and for his thanks. It is a pleasure to engage with noble Lords. This is my first piece of legislation in your Lordships’ House, and I hope that this is the shape of things to come in terms of the tone and the reaction to this legislation.
With £19.1 billion paid out in student loans in the financial year 2020-21, and further increases forecast for future years, it is essential that the Government keep careful control of the student finance system. It is also important that they retain the ability to review and make changes to the student finance system as and when needed, without the potential delays, or the focus on process, that a requirement for a review every five years could impose. I appreciate my noble friend’s comments, but inadvertently, a process may, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, outlined, become constraining, even if it was introduced with the best of intentions.
We must ensure that the system can remain responsive to the needs of the labour market and the wider economy, and thus continue to deliver good value for students and the taxpayer. We agree that, as the noble Baroness said, there is a need for transparency. A wide range of data on student loans and repayments are regularly produced and made publicly available, which enables the Government, and other interested parties, to monitor the student loans system. These include regular publications from the Student Loans Company and the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, outlined, the Government have updated the student loan offer in recent years, with the introduction of several new loan products, including loans to support postgraduate and doctoral study, and we will continue to make changes as and when necessary. Through the Bill, the Government are also introducing a lifelong loan entitlement that will open up new routes for people to retrain and upskill flexibly throughout their lives.
In relation to some of the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, the fees cap of £9,250 is frozen for this year and the next academic year. She talked about the burden, and the responsibility, obviously, is to repay a loan, but 30 years is at the moment akin to many of the mortgage products available on the commercial market.
As the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, correctly predicted, I shall take this opportunity to remind noble Lords of the recommendations regarding higher education, including on student loans and graduate repayments, that were made by the independent panel appointed to provide input to the review of post-18 education and funding. The Government are carefully considering these recommendations before setting out a response to the review, along with the comprehensive spending review.
In conclusion, while I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend for the second time in recent days, I hope that my remarks have reassured him, as I know this has been an issue of concern to him for many years. I hope that he will feel comfortable in withdrawing his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for her courtesy, as always. I do not think my score on the amendments that I have tabled to the Bill has been very high—and I will, of course, withdraw this amendment. However, I hope that it will be possible to come back and consider this matter further.
I shall comment briefly on what has been said. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, came to this from her own perspective, which was interesting. I much appreciated the fact that she too made the case for some kind of structure involving a review every five years. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the Minister, that there is nothing in the amendment that would stop specific changes at specific times. We have had a lot of those, and that may well carry on.
What I am trying to provide for is something more systematic every few years. I am trying to avoid the need for something like Augar—the setting up of a special inquiry—when it should just be natural that every five years we look at what has happened to graduate earnings, at how much of the graduate loan book is likely to be repaid, and at the terms of maintenance support, and we decide whether there should be any changes in the light of changing circumstances—or, indeed, changing political priorities. Providing that kind of health check on the system as a whole every five years would not deprive Ministers of power; it would actually provide an opportunity for a sensible wider public debate on a subject that is often seen as obscure and difficult but should not be because it is of such public interest.
As I said, I will not press the amendment to a vote today, but I hope that perhaps, over the summer, it might be possible to meet the Minister and consider with her not only this but some other amendments that I have tabled, in case we can find a way forward that takes account of the legitimate concerns that she has expressed. I also hope that she recognises that my amendments are aimed at improving the system in line with the Government’s own policy objectives.
Does the Minister wish to respond?
Amendment 90 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 90A. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
90A: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Universal credit conditions: receiving education
(1) In section 4 of the Welfare Reform Act 2012—(a) in subsection (1) omit paragraph (d), and(b) omit subsection (6).(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument make consequential provision.(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would remove the restriction that those “receiving education” cannot claim Universal Credit, which at present may impede some of the most disadvantaged from benefitting from learning opportunities. It is intended to probe how the Government plans to incentivise take-up of training programmes, and to elicit how cross-departmental working can be made more effective in transforming learning and skills.
My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley. On these Benches, we welcome the Bill as the first step in implementing the much more significant role that further education needs to play in transforming the lives and life chances of individuals, communities and wider society. Quite properly, the Bill is chiefly concerned with structural or technical issues. The House has done its usual, excellent and thorough job of exploring large numbers of those matters through the four days spent in Committee. The Bill deals with what one might call the supply side of provision by aiming to make it more responsive and adaptable to the needs of employers and the community, for example. Turning any vision into action is no easy thing and I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for an extremely helpful meeting, including on the issue of incentivising learners to take up the new opportunities that the Bill seeks to increase.
However, one of the crucial factors in radically increasing the take-up of the opportunities that should flow from such responsiveness is the provision of financial support for those who are unable to meet the costs of their studies because they are reliant on state benefits—for example, if they are unemployed. I therefore also support Amendments 92 to 98, all of which—although in different ways—aim at broadening the range and scope of support for learners. As your Lordships will have noted, Amendment 93 also specifically refers to amending the universal credit conditions in a way that would permit full-time study. There is therefore already a wide degree of support for more flexibility in the benefits system to maximise access to skills training and education.
I turn to Amendment 90A in more detail. The current welfare rules pose a major barrier to upskilling or retraining for many people out of work—a situation that is not new. Historically, that was embodied in the 16-hour rule but persists under the new universal credit system. For example, someone currently in receipt of universal credit will lose access to benefits if they take up the lifetime skills guarantee of a fully funded first level 3 qualification or other further education qualification. The Chancellor has invested in programmes in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education to support 16 to 24 year-olds but the programmes do not currently operate in tandem and it is difficult to make them work for employers, students, unemployed people and colleges. In addition, while support with tuition fees is one element in enabling people to begin their courses, living costs—the maintenance element—are often a more significant barrier, a matter often discussed in reference to students in higher education but that is just as much a problem for students in further education, if not more so.
I fully recognise that the Government have begun a significant programme of substantial and complex work over the student loan system and the LLE, and that joint work is already under way between the DfE and the Department for Work and Pensions. I am most grateful to the Minister for having shared with me and colleagues some of those issues and their proposed solutions. We appreciate that there are also significant complexities—technical, practical and legislative—in embodying detailed provision for student financial support in primary legislation, and of which those of us who participated in scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Act and its cousins will be all too well aware. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for the information in her recent letter about the lifelong learning entitlement amendments tabled on Wednesday and the invitation to a briefing on the matter.
However, the purpose of the amendment is to give the noble Baroness an opportunity to assure the Committee that the Government are committed to reforming those aspects of the benefits system that may act as barriers to people’s participation in gaining new skills or increasing their present skills, which our post-Covid society will need. I would welcome further discussions with her or officials as the Government’s proposals are developed. At this stage, subject to those assurances, I will leave this as a probing amendment.
My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 93 in the names of my noble friend Lord Storey and myself. As the right reverend Prelate said, the amendments in this group deal with finance and incentives to take up the training and development opportunities in the Bill, as well as addressing the disincentive posed by universal credit to taking up those opportunities.
Amendment 93 seeks to change the current situation of people who are unemployed and wish to follow full-time training courses to improve their job prospects by giving them entitlement to universal credit, from which they are currently excluded. As has been explained, that is because those receiving universal credit have obligations to prioritise job searches and take available jobs over full-time training. In addition, the length of time in which people can continue receiving universal credit while undertaking work-focused study has been capped at eight weeks. People taking up courses on offer would have to give up universal credit and have the choice of whether to take up chances of reskilling or have enough money on which to live, eat and pay bills. Unemployed people or those on low-paid jobs are the least likely to take out a loan, further risking indebtedness and poverty for themselves and their families.
The Bill is about the importance of training and retraining to support people and employers. The Government have rightly invested in traineeships, apprenticeships and the Kickstart and Restart programmes. However, those schemes have limited eligibility. Unemployment has risen in age groups other than those aged 18 to 25, on whom much attention is focused, but the people who would benefit from claiming universal credit are often those who would benefit most from retraining and development.
There is a lack of co-ordination across departments to make the Bill and its provisions succeed. There needs to be appraisal by the DWP and I should like to hear from the Minister what the Government have done to consider the difficulties of people who are trying to take up courses when they are unemployed and have no other means of support. Amendment 93 seeks to amend the regulations on universal credit to enable a more flexible and enabling approach to those most in need of retraining development for decent jobs. It relates only to courses leading to the lifetime guarantee and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I can be fairly brief, given that my noble friend has just done some of the heavy lifting on the amendment standing in her name and that of my noble friend Lord Storey.
Universal credit is there to help people, and it replaced a lot of other benefits. However, there are problems relating to the fact that generally one is supposed to be looking for work, but the system seems to exclude people from taking on training. That is purely an absurdity. If one wants to try to improve the skills levels of the nation, surely every time that people are available, often when they are not in work, it would be a good chance for them to take up that reskilling.
We need to get people better skilled. I hope that the Government when they answer will be able to tell us exactly how they are going to get those groups of people who are available to take up the training and skill opportunities to take part, because presumably some of them are not doing anything else. If one takes away the foundation on which they are able to live, one is stopping them taking part.
That is not a new problem, but at the moment the benefits system is acting in many cases as a disincentive to upskilling. We should do everything we can to change that. This is as good a time as any.
My Lords, I support the intentions of these three amendments. In essence, they would allow people on universal credit to engage in study without being financially disadvantaged.
The current situation creates a perverse disincentive, whereby those wishing to upskill and gain qualifications that may make them more employable find themselves financially worse off as they no longer receive universal credit payments. Allowing people to study and gain new skills improves their chances of getting off benefits and into employment. Whatever short-term savings the Government make by not paying benefits to people who enrol in training courses, they are lost if the system incentivises people to stay on universal credit rather than participating in education.
One understands completely the desire to limit benefit numbers and, further, to encourage those who can work while studying to do so. However, this needs to be carefully balanced with the need to encourage upskilling at a time when our workforce is changing rapidly—and will continue to do so, in my view.
This is an area that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education need to work together to solve. Can the Government outline what work has been done to date by both departments on this important policy area? What steps will they take to ensure that universal credit policy is not inadvertently discouraging people from participating in crucial skills training?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. This group of amendments has already been outlined clearly by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. To sum up his contribution, he asked how people could better use their time while unemployed than by upskilling. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, said that it would be an absurdity not to encourage the unemployed to improve their skills.
On day one of our debates, we talked a great deal about the need, in our climate emergency and nature crisis, to increase our skills. There is simply so much that we need. People who are unemployed are obviously at a potential point where we can start to fill some of those gaps.
The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, made an important point: that unemployed people are of all ages, from those just leaving school to those in their 70s and beyond who still need, or want, to work. They often have commitments, for example to children, to rent, to a mortgage or to supporting older relatives. We cannot assume that they are just a unit of labour that can be shifted around at will.
What we have seen is decades of wretched economic change in many parts of the country, which has only been amplified by Covid. It is worth looking at a study from the Institute for Employment Studies, published in June. It attempts to explain the current conundrum where we have a recruitment crisis yet in parts of the country there are as many as 10 jobseekers for each vacancy. According to the study, the average number of people across the country claiming unemployment benefit and competing for each vacancy is 2.2, and almost 100 local authorities have five jobseekers going for each available role.
People have to be able to make choices in their own interests and in the interests of the country. Leaving people trapped, applying—pointlessly, they know—for scores and scores of jobs that they know they are not going to get is profoundly dispiriting and damaging. We need to give people the option of finding another path forward in life instead of being trapped in that situation.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken to air these important issues.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham identified some of the major barriers placed in the way of people who want to take up education and training to improve their skills. Did the Minister see the recent report from the Association of Colleges? It concluded that the current social security rules
“actively discourage people from getting the skills they need”—
a point reinforced by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. The report argues that, if this is not fixed, it will result in
“fewer people in stable and meaningful jobs … slower economic growth … reduced opportunity to meet employers’ skills needs; and … bigger tax burdens.”
It is crucial that government policy is joined up, with skills, employment and social security policy properly aligned. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, pointed out, all these must be aligned with our overriding plans to deal with the climate emergency. Amendment 98 in my name is designed to probe whether the Government have any plans to do this, in terms of alignment, by changing the rules on universal credit to support skills development.
Most people who are studying full-time cannot get universal credit. There are exceptions, such as for young people who are doing A-levels or other non-advanced courses and do not have parental support, for those who are responsible for children and for some disabled people with a limited capacity for work. Otherwise, people on UC face the kind of conditionality requirements mentioned by the right reverend Prelate, the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, and others. Specifically, unless they have an easement of some kind, UC claimants are meant to spend 35 hours a week looking for work, and to provide evidence. This can result in some pretty dispiriting things of the kind mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. The claimants are allowed to do part-time education or training, but only if they can fit it in in their spare time—in other words, fit it in around a full week’s job search.
Work coaches can make an exception if they think that more training would help someone on universal credit to get into work quicker. Even then, the training should normally be for a maximum of 30 hours a week so that the claimant can continue with their job search for the remaining hours. In that circumstance, if the claimant were offered a full-time job—even a temporary one—would they have to stop the training and take the job?
Even with full-time or nearly full-time training, it is normally limited to short courses, usually of up to eight weeks in England and a bit longer in Scotland and Wales. However, there is a DWP pilot running until the end of October where the maximum period is raised to 12 weeks for full-time work-related training throughout Great Britain and 16 weeks for skills bootcamps in England. Is this a pilot with a view to extending the time limit more broadly?
Beyond this, it would be good to understand the Government’s plans for enabling everyone to get the skills they need. If the Government want to get everybody initially up to at least level 3, and if they want people to train or retrain for the jobs of the future, what are their plans to ensure that everyone can afford to do this? If some people cannot afford to support themselves while they acquire skills, they risk being trapped either out of work or stuck in low-skill, low-paid jobs, which, apart from anything else, will probably keep them on in-work benefits indefinitely.
I realise that this falls between departments. If this were a DWP Bill, I would not be surprised if the Minister got up and said, “It’s not the job of the benefits system to fund full-time students. That’s what student finance is for”. Since the Minister responding is from DfE, it would be interesting to hear her take on how her department thinks people should be funded to acquire new skills. Above all, government departments need to work together. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, this group of amendments broadly seeks to enable individuals studying at level 3 and below to claim universal credit. It may be helpful to noble Lords if I set out the work already under way in this space, as was noted by several participants in the debate.
Officials at the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions are working together—I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, will be reassured by that fact—to mitigate the barriers to unemployed adults taking advantage of our skills offers. In April, an extension to the flexibility offered by universal credit conditionality was announced for a trial period of six months. The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, made a point about the eight-week cap for full-time training for those on universal credit. As a result of the trial under way, adults who claim universal credit and are part of the intensive work search programme can now study full-time for up to 12 weeks, or up to 16 weeks as part of a skills bootcamp in England. This builds on the eight weeks for which claimants were already able to train full-time. Such measures are helping to ensure that universal credit claimants are supported in accessing training and skills that will improve their ability to gain good, stable, well-paid jobs.
Amendment 90A, moved by the right reverend Prelate, and Amendment 93, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, have a similar thrust so I will take them together. Section 4(1)(d) of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 sets out that one of the basic conditions of entitlement to universal credit is that the person must be “not receiving education”, which can be defined in the regulations made under subsection (6). Financial support for students comes from the current system of learner loans and grants designed for their needs. Where students have additional needs that are not met through this support system, exceptions are already provided under Regulation 14 of the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, enabling those people to claim universal credit.
However, universal credit is not intended to duplicate the support provided by the student support system. Furthermore, the sub-paragraph of Regulation 14 referenced in Amendment 93 provides an exception to the requirement that a person must not be receiving education to be entitled to universal credit. That is designed to support care leavers aged 18 to 21 who wish to catch up on education that they may have missed when they were younger, and to make welfare support available to them. We therefore feel it would be of benefit to maintain this regulation to continue to support this group of adults.
On Amendment 98, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the point raised by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, that it is not possible to take advantage of the lifetime skills guarantee while on universal credit, I point out more broadly that an adult undertaking a course up to level 3 may still be entitled to universal credit. This is provided that their course is compatible with work-related requirements agreed with their work coach. Where the course is work-related and will give the person the best chance of securing work, the work coach may consider it a suitable work preparation activity. In such cases, time spent on the courses will be deducted from the amount of time the person needs to spend looking for work.
To answer the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on this principle, she is right in noting that those on universal credit should not restrict their availability for work in favour of the course that they are undertaking. They might need to be prepared to give up or, more suitably, adjust their course in order to take up work, for example by moving to a part-time basis. The noble Baroness’s second question was on the pilot that we introduced for full-time training to last up to 12 or 16 weeks. We will evaluate the impacts of that extension before making a decision on its future. As the noble Baroness noted, the pilot runs until the end of October and then we will look at its effects.
I hope I have set out that the Government are already taking steps to ensure that the benefit system works better for those who need to undertake training to improve their prospects of finding work. As such, I hope that the right reverend Prelate is able to withdraw his amendment and that the noble Baronesses will not move theirs when they are reached.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply and thank all colleagues for their comments on all three of the amendments in this group. I am very grateful for all the insights that were offered. Thank you, Minister, for outlining where work is already under way. That is reassuring, and it is also reassuring to hear that the DfE and the DWP are working together to help mitigate barriers—I trust that will continue and deepen—and to hear of the greater flexibility already under trial.
On reflection, listening to the complexity with which the Minister cited sections, subsections and so on from different Acts to explain the system does not give me great confidence for the poor person trying to do a level 3 qualification and decide whether they can get some financial support through universal credit. I understand that the complexity of the law is a bit different from the way that a work coach might approach it, but she illustrated one of the difficulties for young and older people seeking to find their way through this system. At this stage, of course I will withdraw my amendment, but I hope that on Report there will be evidence of further joint working with the DWP and further consideration of where this might be eased for those for whom access to universal credit would make a complete difference to their upskilling for the future.
Amendment 90A withdrawn.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 90B. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
90B: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Long-term funding review
(1) The Secretary of State must commission a panel of experts to review of the long-term funding for skills and post-16 education.(2) The panel must consider and make recommendations about—(a) resources available for different types of technical training, further education and higher education; (b) support for disadvantaged students and those with special education needs;(c) the impact of this Act on the long-term funding for skills and post-16 education.(3) The panel must conclude their review and make a report to the Secretary of State with their findings and recommendations.(4) Within the period of one year beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must lay the panel’s report before Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This is a probing amendment, intended to draw out the Government’s plans to introduce a longer-term funding settlement for FE, as called for by the Education Select Committee, prefigured in the White Paper and signalled, as the direction of travel by recent increases in core FE funding, capital funding allocations and the longer term Lifelong Learning Entitlement.
My Lords, in its 2014 report Sense & Instability, City & Guilds made a wryly humorous and powerful case for much greater coherence, greater focus on building on success and greater attention to effective implementation in skills policy. With the White Paper and this Bill, along with associated developments such as T-levels and, we hope, far more radical change to apprenticeships, it is clear that the present Government are moving in that direction—a trajectory that we on these Benches fully support. This amendment seeks to make those policy ambitions more concrete by placing their funding arrangements on a statutory footing.
The goal of joining up the wider education and skills system so that it better meets society’s needs and gives people the skills they need is by no means easy to reach. It also requires that goal to be embedded in a long-term national strategy, most appropriately on something like a 10-year horizon. That strategy needs to sit across government, so that it can more imaginatively bring coherence across departments, as well as give greater stability at college, local and regional levels. Crucially, it requires a matching long-term funding settlement.
It is already possible to see how this kind of cross-departmental approach can bring huge benefits, for example in areas such as sustainability and the green agenda, tackling the recruitment needs of nursing and other allied professions, the major changes facing the automotive industry and the significance of digital skills—all of which require colleges to play a major part in delivering the required skills to individuals, employers and businesses. The need for such a longer-term strategic investment has been called for by the Education Select Committee, is an underlying strand in the White Paper and is being signalled by the additional funding already released to colleges, as well as the lifelong loan entitlement already announced. The Augar report also signalled the clear advantages of treating HE and FE in a more comprehensive way. We look to see how the department intends to see that continue to affect policy.
Clearly, much will depend on the comprehensive spending review and the continued impact of the pandemic on public spending. It would, however, be helpful to have an indication of how such a long-term strategy is being developed and, as the amendment indicates, how it will translate into concrete recommendations and thence long-term action. I beg to move.
My Lords, when the Government are asked to have a long-term look at something, the usual answer is, “We are”. That is what generally comes out with all these different things, but the advantage of the right reverend Prelate’s amendment, which I have signed, is that it puts it in one nice solid place and gives us three good bases to start from.
I was initially attracted by the support for special educational needs, and I remind the Committee yet again of my interests in that particular part of the playground. But looking at things regularly, over a long period of time, is essential if a policy is to develop. To go back to special educational needs, there was a long development of saying, “Of course you can, but a requirement on the way in”—I have an interest in dyslexia—“is that, by the way, you have to pass a written test in English, despite your having God knows how many other qualifications.” I remind the Committee of how many hours I have burned on that subject over the years. If you have a way in, how do you maintain that person? Does that maintenance pattern keep up with both the understanding and the technology out there at the moment? That is a pattern of development that comes one after the other and will change over time.
I hope that when the Minister responds, if only on that aspect of the amendment, she will be able to say, “This is the review process, this is where we are going and this is where we are looking at it”, because I am getting fed up with saying, “By the way, you can do this a different way”, and the Government going, “Oh, really?” A series of rows then goes on, with amendments and government time taken up before they realise. Allow yourselves to be only moderately reactive for once, as opposed to being dragged. Everybody does that to an extent and a degree of moderate reaction is probably understandable, but making sure that you look across this regularly to find out what is possible will probably help. Most other forms of disadvantage come in there as well. The same types of principles apply for general training.
Can the Minister give us an idea of how regularly they are doing this? It should not be the case that they have a look occasionally when something goes wrong or is dragged to them. That really will mean that you have this horrible process of trying to dig out why something has gone wrong, being given an example, saying, “Oh, really? It’s been there a while”, and then coming back to it. Some way of doing what is suggested in this amendment on a regular basis without requiring politicians to dive in, jump up and down and cause the Government to have a look—all Governments have been guilty of this—is what I would like to come out of this, because it addresses a real and ongoing problem.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who has made such a valuable contribution throughout this Committee. The Government’s skills-related goals, as embodied in the Skills for Jobs White Paper and the Bill, are rightly ambitious and will be correspondingly expensive to deliver. The aims of a skills strategy are necessarily long-term, and achieving them will depend on a complex web of specific policies and organisations, as has been clear from the debates we have had in Committee. Ensuring that adequate funding is in place to support all the activities involved across schools, FE colleges, universities, independent training providers, employers, local authorities, combined authorities and, of course, learners themselves, and to ensure a fair balance between them all, will be an immense challenge for government.
Amendment 90B in the names of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, proposes commissioning a panel of experts to review and make recommendations on long-term funding for skills and post-16 education, building, of course, on the foundations set by the Augar review as well as the Skills for Jobs White Paper. This can be only helpful, if not essential, input for the Government, along with the various consultations they are planning, in addressing this challenge and getting the answers right. I too look forward to the Minister’s response and to hearing how the Government plan to tackle the important need for a joined-up, long-term, fully funded skills and training strategy.
My Lords, we welcome this probing amendment, introduced by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and my noble friend Lady Morris. It is an opportunity to discuss the Government’s plans to introduce a longer-term funding settlement for further education, because the White Paper recognised that further education funding has been wholly insufficient.
Alongside increased funding, there is a need for, as alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, simpler, longer-term funding settlements that allow colleges to deliver on long-term strategic priorities. Their funding compares extremely unfavourably with university and school funding. Annual public funding per university student averaged £6,600, compared with £1,050 for adults in further education. Recent research from IPPR has found that if further education funding had kept up with demographic pressures and inflation over the last decade, we would be investing an extra £2.1 billion per year in adult skills and £2.7 billion per year in 16 to 19 further education. The result of this underfunding is that colleges have had to narrow their curriculum and reduce the broader support they offer to students—including careers advice and mental health services—and 16 to 19 funding for catch-up has also been woefully insufficient.
To deliver on the skills agenda, it is imperative that the Bill is backed up by long-term, multiyear, simplified funding. It will require redressing the long-standing underinvestment of the college sector in the upcoming comprehensive spending review with serious long-term funding—otherwise it will simply not be deliverable. But this must not come at the expense of HE funding. We want FE and HE to collaborate rather than compete for resources, because destabilising university funding, cutting courses or capping numbers will deny students the brilliant education and experience that our world-class institutions in the UK have to offer. Denying young people opportunities must not be the legacy of this Government’s approach.
Ensuring parity of esteem between different post-16 routes is enormously important, but it is best achieved by investing in FE and not by taking funds away from HE and levelling down. Having an ability to access further and higher education, with investment that matches that ambition, is the only way that the country can meet its skill needs and provide pathways into good careers today, as well as jobs for the future.
I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for tabling his amendment. Based on the substance of the debate we just had, I am not sure that there is much disagreement between the Government and noble Lords.
The Government are committed to transforming further education so that everyone can access high-value provision relevant to labour market needs and job opportunities. As noble Lords noted, we published the Skills for Jobs White Paper in January, setting out the future policy direction in this area.
Over the past two years, we have invested significantly in post-16 education. In the 2019 spending round, we increased 16 to 19 year-old further education funding by £400 million, followed by a further £291 million at the spending review 2020, so the direction of travel for policy has been matched by the direction of travel for funding.
In addition, we are investing £325 million of the £2.5 billion national skills fund this year to support adult skills and retraining. We are continuing our investment in the £1.3 billion adult education budget and the £2.5 billion apprenticeships budget. We are also continuing our £1.5 billion multiyear capital investment in the FE capital transformation fund. This funding is helping to deliver on the commitments made in the Skills for Jobs White Paper and the lifetime skills guarantee. Noble Lords have rightly made the point about longer-term funding. However, funding beyond 2021-22 will be considered as part of the wider spending review later this year.
In addition, we have launched an extensive government consultation on reforms to the further education funding and accountability system to address many of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. This consultation is a first step towards a funding and accountability system that will maximise the potential of further education and help us to build back better. We want to use the consultation to start a dialogue with the sector, employers and other interested parties on how government funding can be administered more simply and effectively so that colleges and other providers can focus on supporting learners to develop the skills they need.
Similarly, in the Interim Conclusion of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, we committed to consulting on further reforms to higher education, including on future funding. We continue to consider the recommendations made in Sir Philip Augar’s report, supported by an independent panel, and will conclude that review in due course.
Furthermore, to address the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, we want all children and young people, no matter their background or special educational needs or disabilities, to reach their full potential and receive the right support. That is why we are allocating significant increases in high-needs funding—an additional £780 million in 2020-21 compared with 2019-20 funding levels, and a further £730 million in 2021-22, bringing the total support for young people with the most complex needs to over £8 billion.
In addition, the national funding formula for 16 to 19 year-olds includes extra funding for disadvantaged students. This is provided to institutions specifically for students with low prior attainment or who live in the most disadvantaged areas. Last year, the Government allocated more than £530 million in disadvantage funding to enable colleges, schools and other providers to recruit, support and retain disadvantaged 16 to 19 year-olds and to support students with special educational needs and disabilities. We also apply disadvantage uplift through the element of the adult education budget distributed by the Education and Skills Funding Agency to provide increased funding for learners living in deprived areas. The adult education budget also provides funds to providers to help adults overcome barriers to learning. This includes learner support for those with financial hardship and learning support to meet the additional needs of learners with learning difficulties.
As outlined in the Skills for Jobs White Paper, we will ensure that those with special educational needs and disabilities continue to gain direct work-related skills alongside maths and English to increase their employability. The noble Lord will know that the cross-government SEND review is identifying the reforms needed to improve support for children and young people with SEND, including those in post-16 provision, by working with system experts to design a SEND system fit for the future drawing on the best evidence available.
The breadth of measures already in train—some noble Lords may say that is a long list—contain many elements of a concerted strategy that is moving in a consistent direction on the back of a number of reports and reviews that have sought to look at this on a long-term basis, whether we go back to the Sainsbury review or the more recent Augar review. While I completely agree with the need to take a long-term and strategic approach to this issue, I am not sure that a further review supported by an independent panel at this time is the right way to knit this all together rather than the progress that we are making on delivering the important outcomes of a number of those reviews already undertaken. I therefore hope that the right reverend Prelate is able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I knew I could rely on him to pull out the specifics around special educational needs and the reasons for the need for long-term support and development. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for his support for the amendment.
I am very grateful to the Minister for her long and full answer which I will need to read carefully in Hansard to get the full breadth of all she outlined. I thank those who work with her for producing such a comprehensive list at this point. I will need time to look at and reflect on the length of the answer to determine whether there is enough guarantee or whether to pursue the possibility of this being in the Bill.
I wish the Minister well and hope she will have a safe and joyous delivery and much joy in her new child and family life. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 90B withdrawn.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 90C. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
90C: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Assessment of local skills gaps for life skills
Within two months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must prepare and lay before Parliament a means to assess local skills gaps for non-academic skills, including, but not limited to—(a) parenting,(b) budgeting,(c) mental and physical first aid,(d) financial management,(e) practical skills in maintenance and gardening,(f) community organising, and(g) community participation.”
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 90C in my name. I apologise to the Committee that this is a rather late arrival and very large in scope. It arose from reflections on the earlier stages of the Committee’s deliberations about the narrow focus of the contributors to local skills improvement plans, particularly existing employers who are likely to be larger employers. As I listened to that debate, I was forced to reflect on how very old-fashioned and mid-20th century it all felt, even as we were talking about trying to get a wider range of the self-employed and others into the development plans.
We were talking about getting qualifications for work in a very direct, obvious way. Of course, for many roles in society that may still be the case. Brain surgeons inevitably spring to mind—pun unintended—here, but also if you are likely to be, say, a technician maintaining a complicated piece of medical technology, a Passivhaus qualified building designer or a permaculture garden planner, you may go directly to a course and get the job that follows on, but most jobs are not like that, even if we are thinking of this Bill as being only about employment. Most jobs and most lives require a range of technical and soft skills acquired by a mixture of education, training, employment and life experience.
I draw here the example of someone I know from the Green Party—I am going to anonymise this because I did not check with them about using it. They started as a volunteer with a set of technical skills—design skills for leaflets and graphics—but through their voluntary involvement they were drawn into the management of volunteers, fund-raising, administration and management. That eventually led that person into a very different professional job using all those skills. That is what life is like now in employment and well beyond.
On the community side of this amendment, particularly following a decade of austerity, many provisions and services in communities are now provided by volunteers. In the interests of politics, I shall park that to one side while I think about it, but the fact is that often volunteer-run, volunteer-led and voluntarily provided services need people with skills, and with the increasing pension age and the high levels of employment for women, many of the traditional sources of volunteer skills have been closed off. Having been at the centre of a wide range of community groups in some very different communities, I know how deprived, disadvantaged communities, which exist in central London as much as in the north of England, may not have those skills and urgently need them and need local skills providers to be able to help with them.
It is not my intention to press this amendment at this stage. It is a small gesture towards making the Bill about something more comprehensive: skills for life. I hope that the Government will reflect before we reach Report on their approach to the Bill and its very narrow, outdated view of the dividing line between life skills and employment skills, as though they are two separate categories.
My list—I agree that it is somewhat scattergun—includes parenting, which is a skill. One might perhaps include child and older care because those are roles that all of us may well have to fulfil at some stage. Budgeting reflects what we often hear in your Lordships’ House about the need for financial literacy in our increasingly complex world. Mental and physical first aid and practical skills in gardening and maintenance are things that people need in their lives. The last two sections of this amendment—community organising and community participation—focus on the idea of people as part of a community, as all of us are. It is not my intention to press this amendment, but I look forward to the discussion and the Minister’s response. I hope it will be fruitful.
My Lords, it has always seemed odd to me that so many of us complete our education with extensive knowledge of maths, English language and literature, history, languages, the sciences and other academic subjects—in my case including Latin and Greek, much to my benefit—but with few, if any, of the skills listed in Amendment 90C from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, nor other rather fundamental skills such as cooking and household maintenance, generic skills such as communications, teamwork and self-presentation, or even typing and map-reading, which may still prove to be not entirely redundant, despite the impact of technology. Yet these are all valuable life skills that schools should be well placed to teach.
One of the skills listed in the amendment, first aid, could even be a matter of life and death. The figures I have, which may not be wholly up to date, indicate that 60,000 people suffer cardiac arrests out of hospital every year in the UK. Almost half of those that occur in public places are witnessed by bystanders, not infrequently children. With every minute that passes, their chances of survival decrease by about 10%, so teaching children quite straightforward first aid techniques at school, such as how to give CPR or use a defibrillator, can literally save lives, as well as being fun for the learners. The many countries in which such teaching is compulsory have significantly better survival rates from shockable cardiac arrest than the UK—as high as 52% in Norway, for example, against 2% to 12% in the UK, depending on where you live.
I will not labour this specific hobby-horse of mine, except to say that, in my view, it is just one of many strong arguments in support of the need for an assessment of current gaps in the teaching of non-academic but highly valuable life skills and how those gaps might be addressed, as suggested in Amendment 90C. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on how that might be achieved.
My Lords, we are very much in favour of Amendment 90C. I endorse the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in moving it and those of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare.
The life skills set out in the amendment are all essential building blocks in a developed, compassionate and forward-looking society. Many of these categories would fall under the heading of “social solidarity”, a concept that is, I have to say, anathema to many in the Conservative Party who still hold to the infamous, and utterly fatuous, claim by Prime Minister Thatcher that
“there’s no such thing as society.”
If the past 17 months show us anything, they have graphically described how society has pulled together in ways that perhaps we have not seen before out of wartime. I should make it clear that I have seen no evidence that either of the noble Baronesses looking after this Bill fall under that heading, and I am perfectly happy to do so.
Not to accept that these life skills are necessary in ensuring that there are as few local skills gaps as possible once the locals skills improvement partnerships are developed would be, at best, to leave the Ministers open to the charge that they do not attach sufficient importance to them. In reply, the Minister will no doubt say they are unnecessary, but I believe that what this Government regard as necessary does not correspond with what most people have a right to expect in a civilised, advanced society.
Sadly, yesterday provided the latest example of that, with proposals for severe cuts to arts and creative subjects in higher education confirmed by the Office for Students. The Government claim that they want to redirect funding for high-cost STEM subjects, as well as medicine and healthcare. Nobody is denying that these are important subjects—indeed, priority subjects—but that does not mean that arts and culture subjects are not important themselves. They should not be abandoned.
Almost one in eight businesses are creative businesses. Some 2 million jobs in the UK as a whole are in the creative sector, worth a staggering total of £111 billion a year to the economy, and yet this Government of philistines are prepared to ignore those huge numbers and to seriously undermine the creative industries, which include much more than the arts—themselves a form of social solidarity, of course. Yes, film, TV, animation, video games, children’s TV, theatres, museums and orchestras are all included, but so too are advertising and marketing, design, graphic products, fashion, architecture and much more.
The damaging cuts will halve the high-cost funding subsidy for creative and arts university subjects—not next year but as soon as September this year, at the start of the new academic term. That is likely to threaten the viability of arts courses in universities and lead to possible closures, which may well be the Government’s ultimate aim. The universities most vulnerable are those with a higher number of less well-off students, so this will deny young people the kind of opportunities that my noble friend Lady Wilcox mentioned during the last debate.
The attack on culture seems to be just the latest example of the Government’s rather pathetic culture war strategy over recent months. I cannot imagine that the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, as someone who served at the heart of Theresa May’s Government, would countenance such deliberately divisive nonsense.
The Bill should oblige local skills improvement partnerships to consider the role played by the creative industries locally and ensure that they are central to skills development plans. Equally, they should cover the life skills specified in the amendment. For that reason, we are fully in support, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, the Government appreciate the importance of all forms of education in improving life chances, both through employment and through meeting broader social goals. For example, recent research from the Workers’ Educational Association, a leading adult provider, found that 22% of its students took part in activities to improve their local community as a result of their course.
Many of the skills mentioned in the amendment are particularly associated with community learning provision. The objectives of community learning provision are to develop the skills of adults to help them improve their health and well-being, develop stronger communities and progress towards formal learning or employment. Since 2019-20, a significant part of our £230 million funding for community learning has been devolved to mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority. In line with their strategic skills plans, those authorities are shaping education and skills provision, including supporting adults in developing new skills to improve well-being in their local communities. In May 2021, we announced that up to 7,800 colleges and schools will be able to access senior mental health lead training by March next year, as part of the Government’s commitment to offer this training to all colleges and state schools by 2025.
We are also supporting community participation elsewhere in the education system through the teaching of citizenship, which is in the secondary school national curriculum. The programmes of study are to direct teaching towards the core knowledge of citizenship to help prepare pupils to play a full and active part in our society. At key stage 4, pupils will be taught about the different electoral systems in and beyond the United Kingdom and how citizens influence decisions locally, nationally and beyond.
Pupils in the school system also currently receive financial education through the maths and citizenship curricula. To reassure the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, first aid and CPR are included in the national curriculum and are therefore compulsory in maintained schools and a benchmark in academies and free schools.
Improving the responsiveness of provision to the skills needs of local learners and potential future learners is already a key part of the proposals in the Bill. I do not accept that the Government artificially separate employment skills from social or life skills. The new duty set out in Clause 5 would require colleges and designated institutions to review how well the education or training they provide meets local needs and to consider what action might be taken to address any local skills gaps.
As described in our draft statutory guidance, the needs covered by a review would cover the whole of the institution’s education and training offer, including wider social needs of the kind currently addressed through community learning provision. The Government’s view is that decisions on how effective provision is in meeting local needs is a judgment best reached at a local level, by providers working in partnership with both employers and the wider communities they serve. This duty strengthens that process by establishing a legal framework that will help ensure transparency and consistency, and which promotes accountability around decisions on provision that is vital for local communities.
To answer the point from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, the Government absolutely understand the value and the importance of the creative industries and are committed to supporting them. We expect that the Bill will help a vast range of sectors across the economy, including the creative industries, to better link up their needs with the skills that the Government are helping to deliver.
On the basis of what I have set out, the Government’s view is that it is not necessary or appropriate for the Secretary of State to seek to prescribe the process for the assessment of the local skills gaps mentioned, as envisaged by the amendment. Indeed, I acknowledge colleges and other FE sector institutions for the work they already do to meet the wider needs of their communities and learners, and the very positive impacts of their education and training provision. In reviewing its provision under Clause 5, the governing body of a college must do so in a way that considers the needs of all local learners. As set out in our draft statutory guidance, this is not limited to academic needs, or solely to the needs of local employers.
I therefore hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is able to withdraw her amendment and takes some comfort from the fact that the Government acknowledge the importance of the kinds of skills she has set out in her amendment and are seeking to address them both within existing provisions in this Bill but also crucially elsewhere in our policy and agenda.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response and all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. The contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, made me think of an incident when an old man collapsed outside Sheffield Town Hall, obviously extremely ill. I happened to be the first one to reach him and the first to call an ambulance, but I was very relieved when another passer-by announced that he had first-aid training. I acted as a liaison for the ambulance while he took practical action. It was obvious that most of the bystanders wanted to help but had no idea what to do. I note some figures from 2018 from the British Heart Foundation, which I doubt have improved, sadly: nearly one-third of UK adults were not likely to perform CPR if they saw someone suffer a cardiac arrest.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, mentioned social solidarity. I think that phrase is highly apt. These are necessary skills to glue societies together. I also welcome his comments on arts and culture subjects, reflecting the financial value of the creative industries. I also reflect on the value of these to the quality of life for all of us, to well-being and to mental health. We should value creativity as providing challenging, critical ideas. That perhaps give us an idea of why the Government might not be so keen on these subjects. I also note that we have a huge lack of public art in the UK. We could be doing a lot more to fund that in Covid recovery.
I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, acknowledged the way in which skills and training in these kinds of subjects can lead to further study and employment, if not in a direct way. I very much agree with her that decisions about what is needed need to be made at a local level, working with the wider community. This provokes reflections on other debates we have had in this Committee about the role local government and regional and city mayors should have in these local skills improvement plans.
I will go away and read all the contributions carefully, particularly those from the Minister, and will think about where we might go with this on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
Amendment 90C withdrawn.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 91. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division might make that clear in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, has been delayed so I call the noble Lord, Lord Addington.
91: Before Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—
“Personal Education and Skills Account
(1) A Personal Education and Skills Account (“PESA”) is an account—(a) held by an eligible adult (an “account holder”); and(b) which satisfies the requirements of this section.(2) An eligible adult is a person who—(a) is aged 18 or over; and(b) is ordinarily resident in England.(3) A PESA may be held only with a person (an “account provider”) who has been approved by the Secretary of State in accordance with regulations.(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations establish a body to administer the operation of the PESA scheme. (5) In the case of each person who is eligible under subsection (2), the body established under subsection (4) must open a PESA for that person.(6) If a person does not wish to hold a PESA, they must inform the body under subsection (4) in writing in accordance with regulations.(7) The Secretary of State must pay into each PESA a deposit of £4,000 during the year in which each account holder attains the age of 25 and a deposit of £3,000 during the year in which each account holder attains—(a) the age of 40; and(b) the age of 55.(8) Further contributions may be made to a PESA by—(a) an account holder;(b) employers; or(c) any other person as may be prescribed by regulations by the Secretary of State.(9) At any time after an account holder has attained the age of 25, they may transfer funding from their PESA to an approved institution for their chosen education or training course.(10) For the purposes of subsection (9) an “approved institution” is—(a) a “relevant provider” under section 18;(b) such other education or training providers as may be approved by the Office for Students.(11) Prior to an account holder making an initial funding transfer, the National Careers Service must offer a careers guidance consultation to that account holder.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides for individual “skills wallets” which may be used by a person to pay for education and training courses throughout their lifetime. The Government will make a payment of £4,000 when an individual turns 25 and then two further payments of £3,000 when an individual turns 40 and 55.
My Lords, I am sorry that I am out from the subs’ bench here. This amendment is quite straightforward and an act of unprecedented generosity from the Liberal Democrats because it was a clear commitment in our 2019 election manifesto. It is a practical way of dealing with some of the problems that we are looking at here. We would create a personal education and skills account, or a skills wallet. We can go through the amendment in fine detail, but I think my noble friend Lady Janke will be in a much better position to do that than I will. The principle behind this is that you have a degree of money that you are in control of to help you update or change your skills.
Anybody of my age who looks at the various changes in the work environment will know that you not only had to upgrade your skills, you had to change them. The world is a very different place. Let us face it—everything we hear at the moment suggests that the world of work and the skills required for it are liable to change rapidly over the next few years. There is the technical revolution and the digital revolution. Will they continue? Will they evolve? There is also the green revolution going on in the world of work.
The level of possible change required within those ideas is massive. Having the ability to say, “Yes, I have at certain times the ability to change my skill set,” must have some attraction to all those listening. When the Minister responds, I would like her to let us know the Government’s thinking on that idea.
We have given the Government a series of options here; whether they will decide to pay us the ultimate compliment by taking our ideas, I do not know. The ones that we have down here are that you can upgrade, you can change and you are in charge. Maybe you could argue about the times at which you might intervene, but not by much. They are reasonably well paced throughout somebody’s working life. There is an initial stage, then a few years in, then a few years more and then towards the end, as—we are told—we will all be working longer. Surely, that is about right.
I think the fact that you have good careers guidance going in with this is very important. These are components that have to be involved to keep somebody working productively for longer. They come in together and the person has a greater degree of control. There is less bureaucracy as you can choose where you go. You can go to regular employers and trainers, who are identified as being of a certain standard. That is the idea behind this.
I hope that the Government will be quite open to these ideas—and possibly this amendment. Who knows? I am not putting a great deal of money on that but, hey, we live in hope. If we could find out the Government’s thinking on this, we would all be slightly better informed for the next stage of Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords it is a pleasure to follow—if unexpectedly—the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and to express support for the intention of this amendment. In a way, it is an acknowledgement that individuals gaining skills is to the benefit of all us. We should acknowledge that we are not talking here about narrow, financial cost-benefit calculations, but rather acknowledging that skills have a wide range of advantages for us all, embedded as they are in individuals.
I will be brief and I shall resist, with some difficulty, the urge for a cheap political shot about student fees. I have to note, however, that this amendment provides one way to ensure that people can access courses for free. There is an obvious, much simpler way to do that, which would be to abolish student fees and ensure that we are not, as the Bill is currently doing, expanding the burden of debt weighing on individuals in our society.
I look forward to the Minister’s response anyway. The question I am really asking is: do the Government acknowledge that skills are not something just acquired by individuals—I go back to the reference to social solidarity from the noble Lord, Lord Watson—but something that we all benefit from and should all help to pay for?
My Lords, I am not a Lord, as you will see, but I thank the Deputy Chairman for calling me.
I support this amendment, which basically offers much greater certainty and flexibility and indeed—as my noble friend Lord Addington has already said—generosity. It gives confidence to people that lifelong learning is important and that they will have the opportunity throughout their lives to access different development skills and training, so that they can indeed plan their career and own development, while knowing that the flexibility is there to enable them to take maximum benefit from it.
We know that the average British worker will do different jobs throughout their career, so flexible learning will be essential. The developments that we see in green and digital technology will need lifelong learning; they will need people to be engaged at all stages of their lives. This offers a framework and a context for people to have the learning habit throughout their lives and benefit from it. Confidence is important. We heard earlier in the debate that some people will not be able to afford this training. Very often, these are the people who would most benefit from it, so I would like to feel that the Government will consider the idea of giving learners confidence that they will be able to take up opportunities.
With regard to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, this is a different kind of learning. We are not talking so much about specialising in higher education, which I think she was referring to, but the opportunity to embrace a learning experience throughout one’s life. What we have here is a much better and more flexible system.
I hope that the Minister and the Government will look more closely at some of these plans, and perhaps see whether some ideas here could benefit the Bill. I am sure that we will have a chance to revisit these proposals at a later stage. I hope, too, that noble Lords will support the intention behind these plans sufficiently to give them some real consideration, with the possibility of exploring them further at a later stage.
My apologies to the noble Baroness, Lady Janke: my list has an “L” in front of her name. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Janke.
We have heard that this amendment would provide for individual skills wallets, which may be used by a person to pay for education and training courses throughout their lifetime. The Government would make a payment of £4,000 when an individual turned 25, then two further payments of £3,000 when an individual turned 40 and 55. This amendment, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Addington—a highly competent substitute for the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal—is based on a commitment in the 2019 Liberal Democrat manifesto. It is offered up as an alternative to the government plans; I presume it has been costed up.
Labour’s alternative is a job promise which would guarantee training, education, or employment opportunities for young people who have been out of work, education or training for six months. Today, young people are facing soaring unemployment and the toughest jobs market for a generation. The number of FE students has declined by a quarter since 2015, with the number of younger and poorer students declining fastest. Since 2015, the number of learners from the most deprived backgrounds has declined by nearly a third, climbing to almost 40% among learners under the age of 19. Yet young people in desperate need of new opportunities have been overlooked by this Government, whose 16 to 19 funding has been woefully insufficient.
The Welsh Labour Government were successfully elected in May on a manifesto that included a young person’s guarantee of training or work. As the Economy Minister told the Senedd on 29 June,
“we need to give young people hope for the future and to ensure that they are not left behind. It is more important than ever that we support young people to gain the skills and experiences that they will need to succeed, whether that’s in employment, education or starting their own business.”
I would humbly advise the UK Government that they could use this excellent strategy across England.
Labour’s job promise plan would also guarantee that no one is involuntarily away from work or training for more than 12 months, to end the scourge of long-term unemployment. It would allow workers made redundant from furlough instant access to job-finding support through a work coach, without the need to claim social security. Labour would deliver the plan by simplifying and bringing forward £4.5 billion of spending on failed government programmes to provide immediate opportunities to help people into work. Labour has urged the Government to use the underspend from the apprenticeships levy to boost opportunities. Last year, this could have created 85,000 new apprenticeship opportunities for young people aged 16 to 24.
As part of a vision to secure the economy and build back Britain, Labour will also support job creation across the country, including 400,000 green jobs, while filling the 127,000 current vacancies in health and social care and 43,000 vacancies in education through improved training offers. We would take a different approach from the Government by building a secure economy that spreads prosperity across the UK. Britain’s foundations have been weakened and too many people not allowed the opportunity to achieve their potential. Swift changes are needed. The amendments put forward over the four days of this Committee stage would go some way to addressing the deficiencies, if this were a listening and responsible Government.
My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to further discuss our vision for lifelong learning. As part of the lifetime skills guarantee, and as I hope noble Lords are now aware, the lifelong loan entitlement will be introduced from 2025. It will provide individuals with a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education, to use over their lifetime. It will be available for modules and full courses of study at higher technical and degree levels, at levels 4 to 6, regardless of whether they are provided in colleges or universities. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, is reassured that this plan will provide flexibility. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that it will enable people to update and change their skill base across their lifetime.
While the sentiment of the amendment to develop lifelong learning is admirable and one the Government share, unfortunately the personal skills account policy would create significant fiscal and logistical challenges—so at this point I would advise the noble Lord, Lord Addington, not to place any bets on its acceptance. The amendment could disrupt our established loan support system to accommodate an additional system of grants. This would substantially increase the costs to the taxpayer, both in the cost of such grants themselves and in their administration.
The amendment suggests that a new body would be created to administer these learning accounts for every adult resident in England. This process would have to happen seven years before an individual could first make use of any funds at 25, and integration of these new accounts with the Student Loans Company’s existing operations would have significant costs and operational impacts. Moreover, there is an opportunity cost to the Government in depositing thousands of pounds into these accounts, only for them potentially to be left idle and waiting for an unknown point of use. This poses a strong contrast to our current loan support, which is available at the point of study.
To answer one of the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, we are all contributing to further and higher education, as what is called the RAB rate is currently 53p in the pound. That is what the Government end up paying for under the current student loan system that is not repaid by the student.
Finally, these significant changes to the basis of our student finance offer would risk delaying the rollout of the lifelong loan entitlement beyond 2025. I know that many noble Lords have sought to bring that date even earlier. As noble Lords will be aware, the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement was a key recommendation from the Independent Panel Report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, led by Sir Philip Augar. It was also endorsed by the Economic Affairs Committee of your Lordships' House. We want to ensure that the lifelong loan entitlement provides value for money to students, the education sector and the taxpayer. I am afraid this amendment is at odds with these aims. As such, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Storey—sorry, I meant the noble Lord, Lord Addington—will feel able to withdraw this amendment.
My Lords, I should now mention my noble friend Lady Garden, so that all three of us who have covered the Front Bench can be in on this one.
I am not surprised that the Government are not going down there. If I had any money on the Government accepting this, it would have been only on very long odds. However, we are getting a little clearer on what lifelong learning will mean under the Bill and under the current Government. We might want to dig further into the difference in approach here at a later stage of the Bill, but it is certainly something that we must look at all the options for. If the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, looks in our manifesto, she will see that the costings are there. I am sure that is a bit of light reading that she will embrace massively over the holiday.
Having been given that bit of assurance and saying that we will probably come back to this, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 91 withdrawn.
Clause 14 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 91A. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 15: Lifelong learning: amendment of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017
91A: Clause 15, page 18, line 17, leave out “In section 83(1) of”
Member’s explanatory statement
This is consequential on the Minister’s second amendment at page 18, line 17.
My Lords, I beg to move Government Amendment 91A and speak to Amendments 91B, 91C, 99C and 99D in my name. These are primarily aimed at amending Clause 15, which in turn amends the definition of “higher education course” in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, to make express provision for the regulation of modules and to make clear what a module of a higher education course is as distinct from a full course.
The current student finance system does not offer funding for modules, nor is there any fee maximum for such modules or a specific corresponding regulatory system. The lifelong loan entitlement will transform student finance by supporting more flexible and modular provision. This legislative change is needed to ensure that we can deliver modular provision. Taken with the amendments that we have previously laid, this clause makes specific provision for modules in Part 1 of HERA 2017, which relates to the regulatory regime under the Office for Students. The amendments also relieve higher education providers, the OfS and the designated quality body of certain additional burdens which would otherwise arise from the addition of the concept of modules under HERA. These relate to certain requirements to provide or publish information—for example, under Sections 9, 11 and 65 of that Act. We want to reduce bureaucratic burden on providers, and these changes will ensure that the introduction of funding for modules through the LLE will not add to this.
Clause 26 sets out the territorial extent of the provisions in the Bill. This is a standard clause for all legislation. In essence, and with minor technical exceptions, the LLE provisions extend to England and Wales but apply in relation to England, because we are making amendments to the English student finance system. Overall, these changes will help to pave the way for more flexible study and for greater parity between further and higher education. As noble Lords will be aware, we will be consulting on the detail and scope of the lifelong loan entitlement this year. Our commitment to supporting students through the LLE is a key consideration in the public consultation which we will launch in due course. This will include seeking views on specifics of our regulatory system.
My Lords, I speak to Amendment 92 in my name and draw attention to my interests in the register, as chair of TES, the education software and information group, and of Access Creative College, an independent provider of training for the digital and creative industries.
Amendment 92 is a probing amendment, to test the Government’s ambitions for the lifelong loan entitlement and to probe their assumptions about what provision is worthy of funding under it. We do not yet have critical details on the LLE, for which the Bill provides the legislative underpinning. That will emerge only following the consultations that the Minister has just mentioned, and then in secondary legislation due in 2024, ahead of the LLE’s actual introduction in 2025. In theory, the combination of the LLE and the introduction of the system of modular funding that the Minister has just mentioned, for sub-degree chunks of study, will make it easier for adults and young people to access learning in a more flexible way, to space out their studies and to earn while they learn if they wish.
Since 2012-13, English HE students have been eligible for loans only if they are studying at an intensity of 25% or more of a full-time equivalent course and are following a full course for a specified qualification, hence students studying individual modules or shorter courses of less intensity have not been eligible for loans. This has been an important factor in the decline of part-time adult learners. The LLE will, in theory, help to address this problem—therefore so far, so good, and I very much welcome it.
However, there is real complexity involved in the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement, and a danger that theory and practice might diverge in crucial ways in certain respects. One of the main sources of danger is that the Treasury, partly out of its desire for quick savings from higher education in the spending review, may water down the promised skills revolution by insisting on retaining the so-called equivalent or lower qualification rule. Indeed, I expect that the Treasury will put up a valiant attempt to keep the ELQ rule whatever the consultations on the LLE say when they are eventually produced.
The traditional rationale for the ELQ restriction is that funding available for student support is finite and that it is necessary to put in place limits to ensure that all eligible students who wish to enter HE for the first time can do so. Accordingly, the ELQ rule prevents those studying a second HE course, at an equivalent or lower level, from receiving tuition fee loans or maintenance support for the course. For example, if you study classics for an undergraduate degree in your 20s at UCL, you could not then reskill in your 30s by undertaking a diploma in graphic design at UAL.
Restrictions apply even to those who previously followed privately funded courses which they self-financed. These ELQ restrictions seem complex and very unusual, when you look across the global HE landscape. For example, they do not exist in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, whose HE systems are quite similar to England’s. The obvious trouble is that the ELQ rule not only constrains student choice about how best to retrain if they already have a qualification but treats tertiary education—post-18 education—as a one-off event, rather than as part of a process of lifelong learning in a world in which people can expect to have multiple careers over their working lives. Keeping it will therefore make a nonsense of the entire lifelong loan entitlement.
My contention is that any savings which the Exchequer might make on the subsidy in the loan book from retaining it are outweighed by the broader economic costs incurred by making it so difficult for students to change subject and retrain for new careers. We need a serious economic impact analysis of the ELQ rule before we can consider the secondary legislation on the LLE. Indeed, since it was introduced in 2008, various Governments have already effectively acknowledged the flaws with the ELQ by peppering it with ever more complicated exceptions, such as those applying for medicine, dentistry, and initial teacher training. Part-time ELQ exemptions have been made for engineering, computer science and technology, extended to STEM courses in 2016-17. In 2018 further exceptions were made for nursing, midwifery, allied health professions, and so on.
ELQ restrictions were possibly appropriate for a restricted grant-based HE system, but, under the current loans-based system, they are anachronistic and antithetical to the broader objectives of the Government’s skills reforms. That is why the 2019 Augar report rightly recommended that the ELQ rules be scrapped entirely for those taking out loans for levels 4, 5 and 6—yet nothing has happened since.
Two things seem to underpin the Government’s reluctance to remove what remains of the ELQ rule. First is the Treasury’s flawed—in my view—conception of value for money, which crudely measures the worth of the course by how much students repay of their loans. Secondly, there is an entirely misplaced belief in Whitehall’s ability to predict the skills needs of the economy and to operate a kind of modern-day Gosplan through number controls on particular subjects deemed to be oversupplied and out of kilter with the needs of the economy.
If Covid has taught us anything it is surely that we need to value socially useful but lower-earning professions. I am far from convinced that the Treasury’s reliance on the LEO data or belief in its ability to do this micro workforce planning is actually delivering good policy. As my noble friend Lord Willetts said on Monday, we need a “wider range of perspectives”—earnings data cannot be the “be-all and end-all” of education policy. As my noble friend Lord Lucas put it, it is simply much too “one-dimensional” an approach.
We have already seen this short-sighted approach to value for money at work in the rules governing access to the lifetime skills guarantee, which offers funding for those who are 19 or over and do not already have a level 3 qualification. The current list of level 3 qualifications for which the Treasury is allowing funding via the lifetime skills guarantee is far too restrictive, with Ministers stating that this narrow group of courses has been selected principally on the basis of their wage returns. It is striking that, as a result, there is not a single creative arts and design course on that list. In my view, it speaks volumes about whether the Government really do understand the value and importance of the creative industries.
My fear now is that the Government will use this legislation’s fine print and the operation of the lifelong loan entitlement to effectively defund level 4 to 6 courses that have lower rates of repayment via a possible combination of student number controls, frozen or selectively reduced tuition fees and tougher minimum entry requirements. If adopted, this approach would, once again, particularly penalise the creative arts and design courses that fuel some of the country’s most promising creative industries, including those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and including games design, music production and technology, fashion and textiles and the performing arts.
Of course, it would a false economy. The creative industries were growing two and a half times faster than the rest of the economy as a whole in the decade leading up to Covid. Presumably, they were generating enough tax revenue for the Exchequer to repay the Government’s subsidy to creative courses in the student loan book many times over.
The Government seem to have a sense that universities have piled in to creative arts provision and that it has grown like some kind of Japanese knotweed, absorbing an ever-greater share of subsidy in the loan book since the removal of student number controls. This is factually wrong, and it is important that the Treasury recognises that. HESA data shows that 167,000 students were enrolled in creative arts and design courses in 2014-15, representing 7.4% of the student body. There were 187,000 students enrolled in such courses in 2019-20, again representing 7.4% of the student body. Yes—there has been a 12% increase in the number of such students over six years, but that is entirely in line with the growth in HE enrolments across the system as a whole and no more than that. Given that the creative industries were growing at two and a half times the rate of the rest of the economy in the run-up to Covid, it could even be argued that this is a surprisingly low rate of growth in this area of HE provision.
However, we are seeing a number of government levers being simultaneously pulled, effectively discouraging young people from studying non-STEM subjects in the social sciences and the arts and humanities. In my view, this approach is fundamentally mistaken. It will be highly detrimental to international perceptions of the English higher education system if we continue to reduce the subject range of our universities and the supply of high-quality provision across all disciplines and institutional types. The strength in breadth of our higher education system is one of its great features, and it is a big part of what makes it internationally attractive.
So I wonder if the Minister would agree that we need not only a proper economic impact analysis of the ELQ restriction but a serious and holistic evaluation of the economic costs and benefits of creative arts education before we wave through the LLE. If the Treasury really wants to save big money, the Government should abandon any plans that they might have to restrict student choice in this way and instead focus on fixing some of the needlessly costly features of the student loan that my noble friend Lord Willetts mentioned earlier—for example, reducing the student loan repayment threshold could save billions and significantly reduce the proportion of the student loan book that ends up being subsidised by the taxpayer. This would be a far better way of putting the student finance system on a sustainable footing than constraining student choice, stifling education for the creative industries and choking off the supply of talent to socially valuable but lower-earning professions.
My Lords, of the two speeches that we have had so far, the noble Baroness’s introduction of the amendments seemed reasonable and necessary. Then we heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson. When someone who has been involved in the system as recently as the noble Lord says that you have got something wrong, I would listen hard and long—so I hope that, when the noble Baroness responds to that, she will give the impression that that is happening, because the creative arts and the creative sector pay for themselves. Many of my noble friends have spent a great deal of time on this, not usually with the noble Baroness but with others—the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, can probably show you the scars of dealing with that. This must be looked at because the creative sector is a growing part of our economy, and the ways in are not usually through formal qualification.
The amendments in this group with my name—Amendments 99 and 99B—go back to the familiar territory of special educational needs. Amendment 99 basically tries to say that higher education has a series of support structures involved for those with special educational needs who are going through it. The noble Baroness, Lady Penn, referred to one of my slight irritants on this subject—that we are dealing with higher needs, but most people with special educational needs do not have higher needs but just have slight difficulties in certain sectors.
In the higher education sector, one of the most useful things is information capture, for instance—namely, taping or recording lectures and tutorials and playing them back in certain formats, meaning that the person can digest it in other ways, such as in a written format that you do not have to take notes on, which is the great killer for dyslexics. Several pages of hieroglyphics are of no use to man nor beast, and, trust me, when you wrote them you did not really listen to what was going on anyway. That sort of device going through would be very helpful. I am trying to make sure that all these types of provision for lower needs will be accessible by anyone who is going through this lifelong learning process.
I was thinking in particular about levels 4 and 5, because here a person will be working independently for some of the time or, if they are taking lectures, et cetera, will need some support. The support is available in higher education, and higher education goes on within colleges of further education, does it not? It does if you look at their syllabuses. Will we make sure that this facility is there, is used and supports these candidates? If it does, we are doing a good thing with something that is already in place; we do not have to reinvent the wheel. We can go back and make sure we are getting the best out of what is in an existing system and transfer it across.
The same is true, as the right reverend Prelate who is speaking after me will confirm—I may be putting words in his mouth but I will take a chance on it—when we come to further education, where we have a different regime again. To the age of 25, support is more tied in with the education, health and care plan—but they are different regimes working across each other. Are we going to take the best of both and bring them together in one place to make sure people are supported, or are we going to let them compete with one another and decide where we come in? This is something of an absurdity that makes sense only if we assume that further education and higher education do not cross. I would have thought some of the subtext behind much of what we have heard here challenges that. Also, good practice in one area of learning will be good practice in another.
I just hope the Minister will be able, when she replies, to tell me that the Bill will bring a bit more coherence to these plans and support. Look for good practice and make it appropriate to the student, not to whether it is an F or an E—or an F or an H, or whatever the thing is. Is that a dyslexic mistake? Probably. Anyway, as we go through this, whether it is further or higher education we are dealing with should not really matter; it is merely what helps that candidate get through. I think I will get told off for using that expression. If the Minister can give me that assurance, I will be a little happier at the end of this. Making sure there is a coherent strategy that refers to good practice would make many people a little more comfortable about the direction of travel here.
We do not want to keep going back to this. If we can take what works in one sector and apply it to another, it would seem logical and sensible. This may be a challenge that is beyond any one Minister or Government—but strike a blow and we will all remember you fondly, no matter what happens.
My Lords, this debate has, I believe, produced extremely valuable advice for government in sorting out our higher education and apprenticeship problems, and I give great praise to what I have heard today.
My amendment requires the Secretary of State to amend the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011 to ensure that those claiming the lifelong learning entitlement qualify as eligible students for support under those regulations. There is a similar amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on student maintenance, which I understand may have cross-party support. My proposals would create a maintenance support system that enables everyone to live reasonably while studying or training at colleges of both FE and HE. One might ask why student maintenance is needed when the Government’s ambition is to make education and training available to people throughout their life. It is welcome and needed as jobs change and are displaced and are likely to change even faster. The lifelong loan entitlement announced in September 2020 could open up tuition fee loans for people taking level 4 to 5 qualifications, which are especially important for unlocking higher technical skills for the sector.
Clauses 14 and 15 create powers to put this into effect, but they cover only tuition fees and higher-level courses—level 4 and above. This is packaged with an all-age level 3 entitlement in the lifetime skills guarantee. Many adults will be unable to take up those opportunities because there is no support for living costs when they are taking courses at this or higher levels. These people would be prevented from transforming their life chances and becoming part of the skilled workforce that employers and the economy need so much.
How to change? To address these issues, the Government should extend the system of loans and means-tested grants to support adults to be able to live while in relevant education and training. This could be restricted to be available only for the loan entitlement and lifetime skills guarantee. Work would have to be undertaken to align a system of grants and loans with the benefits system so that everyone can access the support and funding they need. The amendment would oblige the Secretary of State to amend the 2011 education regulations to ensure that those claiming the lifelong learning entitlement qualify as eligible students for support under the regulations.
My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds observed at Second Reading, colleges play a vital role in providing for students with specific learning difficulties and disabilities—the term widely used in further education as being broader than the “special educational needs” used elsewhere. This amendment seeks to address the discrepancy between the range and funding available to younger students with specific learning difficulties or disabilities, principally those in school settings or specialist institutions, and those applicable to students in FE. It seeks also to harmonise best practice across the FE and HE sectors, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, outlined a few moments ago. It connects with the earlier Amendments 41 and 43 to 46, especially the requirement to review how well the education and training provided by an institution meet the needs of those with special educational needs in its area, and with Amendment 99, which places a specific duty on the Secretary of State to this end.
According to the Association of Colleges, students with SLDD make up 17% of the overall intake—a figure that rises to 23% of 16 to 18 year-old learners. In 2019-20, local authorities placed more than 64,000 students with education, health and care plans in colleges, 90% of them in general FE colleges and the rest in special institutions. However, the current funding regime does not provide support for those students in FE who do not have EHCPs to anything like the degree required. Yet the Bill makes no specific reference to such students, nor to those with other specific learning needs or disabilities—something to which the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Lingfield, have drawn particular attention during earlier debates and, indeed, on many other occasions in this House.
I know from discussion with the Minister that this is an issue the Government are fully aware of and are eager to address. The Green Paper promised for the summer will, we hope, set out in more detail and in more concrete terms how a much higher degree of priority could be given to this diverse cohort of learners in both policy and funding terms, and how that might best be reflected, if not in the Bill then as government policy develops. It would be most useful if the Minister were able to indicate how she sees progress with the Green Paper and some definite assurance of the Government’s commitment to greater equity or parity in the treatment of older students with SEN in our colleges. I would also welcome a further opportunity for discussion with her, which might also advantageously include other Members of this House with a particular concern for such an important area of post-16 provision.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare.
My Lords, this broad group covers many of the crucial features of the lifelong learning entitlement. I will confine my remarks to Amendments 92 and 95, covering the availability of the entitlement and learners’ eligibility for it. The lifelong loan entitlement and the lifetime skills guarantee are absolutely at the heart of this Bill and the framework it seeks to create. To achieve the more highly skilled, productive and ambitious nation that we seek, people—not just some people, but all people—need to know that there are great opportunities available to them, whether they desire new skills, higher skills or refreshed skills, and they need to know how to find out how to pursue them. That is where careers information and guidance come in and why they need to be properly covered in the Bill.
People also need to know that the training and educational routes to acquiring the skills to grasp those opportunities are realistically open to them, without undue or unreasonable restrictions or conditions. That is what will generate the enthusiasm and the actual take-up, so that the skills policy and the ambitions behind the Bill achieve the outcomes they deserve. Both the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, have mentioned incentivising learners to encourage them to take part, which may not need to be in the Bill itself but needs to be a central part of the strategy.
If I have always nursed the desire to retrain as a bookbinder—or perhaps as a graphic designer, as in the example of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, also a classicist—but I find that loans are available only for specific skills not including bookbinding, or that they do not apply to my age group, or do not include any allowance for living expenses I might need, or are not available to me because I already have an equivalent-level qualification, or are ruled out for other reasons, I may well decide to drop the whole idea as an unrealisable or impractical aspiration. If I get the impression from the outset that there are likely to be such barriers or limitations to accessing the entitlement, I will probably not pursue it at all. But if the lifelong loan entitlement actually means what it says, it could unleash a wave of energy and creativity, as people embrace it to expand their skills and pursue their goals—and indeed their dreams. The suggestion of noble Lord, Lord Johnson, of a proper economic assessment, with that in mind, of the ELQ requirement and the limitations on creative and arts funding, would be very welcome.
The lifelong loan entitlement and the lifetime skills guarantee—LLE and LSG—should be the twin banners for a skills revolution, or a skills crusade, not just sets of rules, regulations and legislation setting limits on training availability. So I enthusiastically endorse Amendment 92 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the somewhat similar Amendment 95 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and, again, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, in their aims to establish a truly all-embracing and inspiring entitlement with a minimum of limitations, driven, above all, by learner aspiration, enthusiasm and desire. The LLE and the LSG together offer a real chance to make education and skills exciting and exhilarating, as they should be. I hope the Government will take that chance, even if not by accepting these amendments.
I wish the Government every success in making progress with this important Bill and with the strategy underlying it. Since this will be my last contribution in Committee, I would like to commend both Ministers—the noble Baronesses, Lady Berridge and Lady Penn—on their contribution to this Committee. I wish them an enjoyable and, I hope, restful—though possibly not, in the case of the noble Baroness, Lady Penn—and very happy recess before we get to grips with the Bill again.
My Lords, we have had some really interesting speeches in this group already, but I am afraid that this is the end of that trend. I am merely going to talk about the government amendments, and my noble friend Lord Watson will cover the interesting bits at the end.
They government amendments represent some of the wiring in the basement of higher education that are going to be needed when the Government unveil their renovation plans in the form of the detail of the lifelong loan entitlement. The Minister moved the government amendments in just over two minutes. I want to unpack them a little, so we can understand their potential implications. I confess I may have a suspicious nature, although I am encouraged, having heard the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, that I am not alone in that.
Currently, the different bits of legislation that frame the regulation and funding of higher education are predicated on the unit of education being a course made up of academic years. The Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998—THEA—governs which HE courses attract funding via the student loan system, by referring to the Education Reform Act 1988, while HERA governs which bits of HE are regulated by the Office for Students and are subject to fee limits and more besides. But of course the lifelong loan entitlement is intended to cover not just university degree courses but courses and modules in further and higher education. To make that possible, Clauses 14 amends the regulation-making powers in THEA to allow for the funding of courses in FE and modules in FE and HE, to set a lifetime funding limit, and to allow for funding based not only on the academic year.
The Minister explained that Clause 15 amends the definition of a higher education course in HERA to make it clear that the regulatory regime applies to modules of courses. The way it does that is to say that an HE course is either a course mentioned in Schedule 6 to the Education Reform Act 1988 or a module of such a course, whether or not undertaken as part of such a course. So a course is either a course or a part of a course—I confess I wrestled for a bit with whether a thing could be itself or part of itself. But then government Amendment 91C now distinguishes between a full course and a module for the purposes of HERA. A full course means a higher education course that is not a module of another higher education course. A module is a module of a full course, but which is undertaken otherwise than as part of those courses.
I know, on the face of it, that that sounds like a circular definition, but I have decided the only way I can understand it is as a set of Russian dolls: a smaller Russian doll counts as a module if she fits inside a bigger one and is a part of that set; an identical Russian doll that is not part of a set at all would not be a module; and a full course is the biggest Russian doll which does not fit inside any other Russian doll. I am grateful to the Minister for giving me access to some very clever and kind officials to help me try to understand this regulation—although I should say that their language was rather more precise, and there was no mention of dolls. I hope she can tell me whether I have got that right.
Why does it matter? I think that is up to the Minister to tell us. On access to student finance, can the Minister confirm whether this means that a module can be funded only via the student loan book if it is part of a full HE course? Is it right that the student does not have to be registered for that course, or indeed any course, while taking the module? Could I, say, draw on my lifelong loan entitlement to take the “Introduction to Christian ethics” module, which is part of a theology degree at Lindchester University, without being registered for that degree, or indeed any degree? If so, that raises another question. Modular degrees generally have a limited number of pathways that can be taken through them to reach a qualification, in order to ensure there is a coherence to a degree and that certain essentials are covered. Could a student take a series of modules, each of which is part of a full course but which taken together will never add up to a full course, and therefore could never lead to a qualification?
Do the Government intend to prescribe the size or shape of a module further, either for funding or regulatory purposes? There are lots of modules around: short, intensive modules and long, less intensive modules; modules worth 10 credits and others worth 15 or 20; and modules at level 4, level 5 and level 6. Clause 14 provides that two or more modules can count as a single module—for the purposes, I presume, of student finance. Is that a hint that the Government may want to set a minimum credit value that will be eligible for support under the loan? If the centre gets too stuck into defining what a module is, does it not risk both the autonomy and, crucially, the flexibility of providers—maybe even getting in the way of the innovation the Government say they want?
There are so many more questions that need answering, about choice, compatibility, comparability, funding and lots more. I suspect the Minister will say we need to wait until she brings forward more amendments on Report, but there is one matter she needs to address today: the changes these amendments would make to the powers of the Office for Students. By switching the unit of HE from just a course to either a full course or a module, these amendments would empower Ministers at a later date to allow funding for modules. But it seems to me that they immediately allow the Office for Students to regulate at the level of a module as well as a course. Amendment 91B does place some limits on that by saying, for example, that the OfS cannot request information on modules more often than courses. It also means that the OfS is not obliged to publish information on fee limits for modules, as it is for courses.
But can the Minister tell the Committee if the effect of these amendments is that the unit of higher education can be a module for the purposes of regulation? What will that mean for the way the OfS regulates quality in higher education? Currently its key metrics are student continuation rates, completion rates and progression to managerial and professional jobs. How does that work for modules? If a student takes modules at several different providers, who is responsible for her outcome? Is it the last one she happened to stop at?
The more I learn about what is in the Bill, the more I realise that there is a hole at the heart of it and that most of the action is happening offstage, beyond this House. The Government want to transform post-18 education and want us to pass a Bill which will give powers to the Secretary of State and the OfS to make changes, but we do not know what those changes will be. The OfS is in the middle of a two-year consultation process. Phase 2 was out only this week and phase 3 is some way off—and that is before we have a spending review, the response to Augar and much more.
How and when will Parliament get to scrutinise all these moving parts of the Government’s plan for higher education? The limited scrutiny offered of spending decisions or pieces of secondary legislation taken piecemeal is no substitute for the ability of this House to train its laser gaze on legislation in the Committee stage of a Bill. I hope that the Minister can give us some answers today and that, by the time we get to Report, we will have more information still.
My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and to express my awe at the—to use her phrase—“laser gaze” she applied to the government amendments, which I will not attempt to emulate.
I will focus on the amendments in this group that are not government amendments. For convenience, I will go through them in numerical order, beginning with Amendment 92 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Marylebone, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, which—as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, noted—has some similarities to Amendment 95, which appears in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and myself. Somewhat to my surprise, I again find myself agreeing with a very large amount of what the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, said, particularly the reflection that earnings data cannot be the be-all and end-all of judging the value of qualifications, and his points on the value of creative subjects, reflecting what many other noble Lords have said in this debate. However, I strongly disagree with his suggestion that lowering the earnings threshold for student loan repayment starting is some kind of solution to the current mess the Government are in. The fact is that we have generations—particularly but not solely—of young people finding it extremely hard to find a secure economic place in the world, and making them more insecure, creating more difficulties and putting further economic pressure on them, very often through those three decades of life when they would normally expect to perhaps settle down, have children or even buy a house, would have widespread effects reaching far beyond the educational impacts.
I move now to Amendments 94 and 95 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, and myself. It is a pity that he has not yet introduced these, but their meaning and intention is fairly clear. We are aiming here to introduce more flexibility and to acknowledge, as I said on an earlier group, that we are not in the 20th century, where people’s lives started by perhaps doing a course of study or an apprenticeship, working for 30 or 40 years and then collecting their gold carriage clock at the end of it. That is not how the world works; people move in many different directions. I have to say, I was rather attracted by the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, of taking up bookbinding; that sounds a rather attractive option. But people move in all kinds of different directions in all kinds of ways, and the idea that they could have some linear, progressive, straight-line course currently mars the Bill, and these amendments seek to acknowledge this. I look at Amendment 94 in particular: life happens. A third to a half of pregnancies in the UK are unplanned; people never know what life will throw at them, and they need flexibility to have the lifelong learning entitlement to work for whatever life throws at them. That perhaps applies even more to Amendment 96. We talked earlier about the possibility of people being able to receive universal credit while studying along their life course, and this is an alternative way of approaching the problem by allowing for maintenance grants—indeed, those two things might well go together, given the nature and cost of living these days.
Coming to Amendment 97, I feel I am picking up a subject on which many other noble Lords are vastly more qualified and have been working on for a long time, but we really have to highlight the utter government failure that this proposed new clause reflects on and, indeed, seeks to ensure is not extended. It is acknowledged that 9% of the student population currently are Muslim—I think that is a higher education figure rather than a further education one—but it should be higher. In 2013, David Cameron promised to provide an alternative student finance option to comply with sharia law, which prohibits riba, or interest. The following year there was a consultation to provide a takaful system that would fit within the existing structures. In 2017, the Higher Education and Research Act was granted Royal Assent and gave the Government the power to introduce such a system—yet we are still waiting. I would very much value any news the Minister might be able to give us on progress in this area. Covid really is no excuse; this has been going on and continuing and was an area of failure far before Covid. I note that in the other place there is an Early Day Motion calling for the introduction of this form of finance for students, which is receiving wide support.
Finally, on Amendment 99—and, indeed, Amendment 99B—I do not feel that I can add anything to what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who is so extremely knowledgeable in this area, said, except to offer support.
This is my last contribution in this Committee. I join many others in offering the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, the very best wishes for the coming month or two in particular. I thank everyone who has contributed to this Committee. We have been a rather small and select band, which seems to be the case with many of the Bills before your Lordships’ House. I hope that we might see a broader level of engagement when we get to Report, but, in the meantime, I thank noble Lords.
My Lords, this has been a lively debate. To echo some of the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I say that this is welcome, because there has been much less engagement than some of us had anticipated with the Bill in Committee. I hope that some of that will be put right on Report.
In this group of amendments, there is a huge opportunity, if the lifelong loan entitlement is designed well, for it to support opportunity around the country by revitalising flexible higher education and reversing the catastrophic decline in the number of adults in England aged 21 and over accessing undergraduate higher education. Yet, as my noble friend Lady Sherlock set out in detail, we still know far too little about the specific design features of the lifelong loan entitlement and how it will work in practice. Like much of this Bill, although urgently needed, the legislation has been laid before the policy detail has been proposed and consulted on.
It is disappointing to say the least that the Government tabled their amendments just a week ago and that further amendments on Report are necessary. I think it is fair to say that the coruscating criticism a few minutes ago by my noble friend Lady Sherlock brilliantly illustrated why we expect the Minister to withdraw and not move the amendments to allow the House time for the proposals to be fleshed out, so that noble Lords can give them the critical analysis necessary to enable the successful implementation that, in fairness, we all want.
We have said before that we believe that 2025 is too long to wait and that the lifelong loan entitlement system, or interim arrangements, must be put in place sooner. Can the Minister clarify whether all adults will be able to access support through the lifelong loan entitlement from its introduction, whenever it does appear, or whether it will be introduced gradually for different age cohorts?
The government amendments tabled on the entitlement provide the building blocks of a modular and potentially credit-based loan funding and fee limit system. We welcome the flexibility for the entitlement to incorporate modular funding and recognise that this presents both opportunities and, given the complexity, significant challenges. We know that details on the funding of courses will need to await the comprehensive spending review in the autumn, but can the Minister confirm whether there will be a fee limit for modules? Will this be proportionate to their credits towards a qualification? In the current arrangements, not all credits attract the same fees; short courses are generally more expensive per credit than full degree courses. The Government’s approach to this will be telling because it matters to potential students who would need to access loans in order to study.
Our Amendment 95 is similar to Amendment 92 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, which we support. I have to say, I much enjoyed his contribution, even if it is slightly odd to be on the same side as him, given our jousting on what became the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017. It is odd but none the less welcome.
Our Amendment 95 would remove the equivalent or lower qualification exemption rules for the lifelong loan entitlement to ensure eligibility for student loan funding for another qualification at that level or a lower level to make career changes as simple as possible. It would also ensure that eligibility is not restricted in any way that would prevent those seeking to use the entitlement in a manner that fits their lifestyle. Many people will have chosen at 18 a degree that has taken them down a different career path to that intended when they studied. It may be that their industry or sector has since contracted or disappeared completely, and the need to reskill becomes even more apparent.
This is why my Amendment 85 would remove the ELQ exemption rule for the lifelong loan entitlement. The equivalent or lower qualification rules prevent someone with a degree or a lower qualification, such as an HND, receiving a student loan for another qualification at that level or lower. We believe that this is a mistake because some in that position will already be in work and seeking to change career. In a loan system, the equivalent or lower qualification rules should be removed to prevent this block on changing careers. It provides a disincentive to do so.
Amendment 95 also aims to ensure that anyone wanting to undertake modular study can do so in all subject areas and that, when doing so, they are able to access the same support for fees and living costs regardless of how they choose to study, including through modules or full qualifications, part-time or full-time, face to face or at a distance.
The lifelong loan entitlement offers up to four years’ equivalent funding for levels 4 to 6. While this may be enough for some people, for others, it simply will not be. Undertaking a foundation or access year plus a three-year bachelor’s degree, which is a pretty common route, would swallow it in one go. This is why Amendment 94 would require the Secretary of State to consult on extending the eligibility to six years to give a bit more flexibility. As I said, for some, four years is not long enough. This will be of particular value to those studying part-time and key to the success of encouraging adult learners to take up an offer to study and reskill.
The Government’s stated aim is to encourage as many people as possible to prepare for the skills demanded by an ever-changing economy. Amendment 94 supports that aim.
It is also worth emphasising that the vast majority of part-time students in England are ineligible for maintenance loans, which are currently restricted to full-time students and part-time students on degree courses at face-to-face providers. This illustrates why the lifelong loan entitlement needs to support all modes of study. In fact, this is highlighted on page 42 of the Department for Education’s own impact assessment, as the noble Lord, Lord Flight, pointed out. The cost of study, including living costs, is very important yet, as drafted, the entitlement covers tuition costs only. Why have the Government ignored their own impact assessment in this regard? They must introduce a system of loans and means-tested grants that enables everyone to live well while studying or training at college across both the further education and higher education sectors.
Maintenance support will be crucial in preventing further hurdles being placed in the path of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds taking up studies. Otherwise, many adults will be unable to take up these opportunities, frustrating their aim—and that of the Government—of transforming their life chances and being part of the skilled workforce that employers and the economy need. Many will have existing debts and financial commitments, as well as caring needs for children or elderly relatives. If lifelong learning is to succeed, the system simply must recognise these differences and provide solutions.
I also hope that the Minister can assure noble Lords that bursaries and grants at a meaningful level will be made available, on the understanding that adult learners applying for level 4 or level 5 qualifications may well have a different attitude to taking on a loan compared to typical, younger, university students. The Welsh Government recently introduced reforms to tackle this issue by extending maintenance support, including means-tested grants, to all students regardless of mode of study while maintaining low tuition fees for part-time study. This has had a huge impact on participation in Wales. Are the Government willing to learn from that good example or is it their aim to try to introduce the lifelong loan entitlement on the cheap? If so, that would be a false economy on more than one level; I really do hope that the Minister can assure noble Lords that that is not the case.
Finally, Amendment 97 would allow the Secretary of State to make provision for sharia-compliant lifelong loan entitlement loans. As is quite widely known, some people of faith, including Muslims, do not feel able to take on interest-bearing loans; this was identified by the Government as a barrier to participation in a consultation published as long ago as 2016. This is an issue that noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, will recall because it became an intractable problem during the passage of what became the Higher Education and Research Act four years ago. For reasons I confess to being less than clear about, and despite considerable effort on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, there has been little progress since then on a sharia-compliant loans system to ensure that nobody is denied access as a result of their religious faith. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the lifelong loan entitlement will address the needs of such students, because it is essential that the entitlement does not erect further barriers to participation and upskilling.
We signify our support for the amendments from Amendment 99 onwards, including those in the Minister’s name.
It is regrettable that it should be necessary to restate the need for special educational needs, but it is. Once again, it has been done most effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. There is very poor alignment between the DWP and DfE strategies on supporting SEND students. In particular, at present, adults in receipt of disability benefits can lose out on benefit entitlements if they engage in education and training, as my noble friend Lady Sherlock highlighted during the debates on previous groups. I hope that the Minister can give noble Lords confidence that the upcoming SEND Green Paper will actively align to the skills reform agenda and describe the strategic oversight needed to support this. This really is an overdue development that cannot be body-swerved by the Government any longer.
There are still many questions for the Government to answer. The policy paper that the Minister circulated to the noble Lords who participated in yesterday’s debate was helpful but, none the less, those questions remain outstanding. I look forward to hearing her response.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords. I am feeling sympathy for my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott as I will deal first with the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on the Government’s amendments.
First, we need the flexibility outlined by the noble Baroness in relation to modules to ensure one of the purposes, which is that a module can be transferred from institution to institution. The noble Baroness used the analogy of Russian dolls; I tend to use the analogy of carriages on a train. A course may be three carriages, but you can pick up one of those carriages and do that course as a module. Obviously, we need to define what a module is; that will be part of the consultation. A fee cap will also attach to that module, to answer the noble Baroness’s question, and you can do that carriage without signing up to do all three carriages at the same time.
The consultation will inform the questions she asked about whether or how you prevent people doing carriage number one of the six different trains. The consultation will inform the decisions that need to be made and, as noble Lords are aware, there will be amendments on Report, which will further amend HERA to attach a fee cap limit to that module, as it is currently attached to an academic year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised questions on the regulatory regime of the Office for Students. We will be working closely with the Office for Students on the interconnection with the student outcomes quality framework of starts, continuity and completion and how that will work when we have modular provision. We are aware of the two cogs that will need to work closely together, but there will still be year-long funding. The HE finance system that at the moment funds straightforward three-year degrees will need to be changed. The Office for Students takes a risk-based approach to its regulatory activity. We are going to work with it to make sure that the expectations on providers are clear. It already regulates the fee limit condition and is required to do so in a proportionate way.
On comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and other noble Lords, I have specifically been asking questions of officials, because I did not have the pleasure of working on HERA or any of the other legislation, and I respect that noble Lords are often experts on the legislative process and bring their scrutiny to bear. But I believe we are legislating in a similar way to how we did with HERA, in that much of the primary legislation is a framework that gives broad powers to the Secretary of State, and then there are approximately 300 pages of statutory instruments on higher education finance, at the moment, which your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity to scrutinise. I sometimes feel a little constrained, because there is a limit to what can be in primary legislation.
In relation to noble Lords’ amendments, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that of course we are listening, and assure my noble friend Lord Johnson that I will make sure that the Treasury has listened to many of his comments, which I think is where he addressed them.
On the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Johnson and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, as I mentioned, we intend to consult on the detail and scope of the LLE, including on aspects such as eligibility—I was asked whether we would get it all at once or whether there would be a transition, and that will be in the consultation—and whether restrictions on previous study should be amended to facilitate retraining and stimulate high-quality provision. The final policy design will be informed by consultation and engagement, which is a crucial aspect of ensuring that the transformation of the student finance system is done in a way that takes into account the needs of providers, learners and stakeholders and, as my noble friend Lord Johnson said, enables that process of learning over a lifetime.
As such, it is very important that this legislation does not pre-empt or prescribe any further decisions based on its outcome. Introducing the proposed changes in primary legislation is likely to prejudice the consultation, which is important to ensure that we listen to providers and all affected by it. I also highlight the purpose of the existing equivalent or lower qualification and previous study rules. We are building the LLE on to a system designed to support students pursuing either further or higher education but, at the same time, to share the cost to the taxpayer fairly. We want to ensure that the lifetime loan entitlement provides value for money to students.
Furthermore, regarding the aspects in the amendment on the mode of study, institution of study and both modular and full course pathways, I confirm that the LLE is intended to support greater flexibility in all those areas. As I set out initially, it will be available for modules at levels 4 to 6, regardless of whether they are provided in colleges or universities. Although I respect that my noble friend Lord Johnson is probing and obviously making comments to the Treasury in his amendment, I cannot help but ask what the effect would be of having these amendments in the Bill. At the moment, if the ELQ is prohibited in the manner proposed by the amendment, we would not, in consultation or further regulations, be able to stop somebody doing the same level 4 course four times, for instance. We do not want to rule out the option of having statutory instruments that allow us to do that.
My noble friend asked questions about the creative industries, of which he is a great advocate. All these flexibilities are aimed at opening up opportunities in growing sectors of the economy. We have talked about LSIPs and the Skills and Productivity Board, but I think I am correct in noting that his examples were related to HE creative industry courses. Our hope and expectation are that this will open up many courses in these sectors within FE, as well as HE, institutions.
We are Chancellor in agreement with Amendments 99 and 99B, from the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. We recognise that many or a disproportionate number of those students are within the FE sector. We want this to be flexible and expect that students who might particularly benefit are those with special educational needs and disabilities, or SLDD, as it was more accurately put by the right reverend Prelate.
I reassure noble Lords that our commitment to supporting FE students through the LLE is a key consideration, but we have yet to determine what form that support will take. I confirm to the right reverend Prelate that the SEND review includes further education; and to the noble Lord, Lord Watson—and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who has raised this away from the Chamber—that there are certain grants for SEND students in HE at the moment. What happens to those in relation to the LLE is also part of the consultation. I hope that noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will tell us what they believe to be the best of both worlds, both in your Lordships’ House and through the consultation—and of course I would be delighted to meet with him and the right reverend Prelate on the issue of special educational needs and disabilities.
On Amendment 94, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, our vision is for a four-year entitlement, as recommended in Augar. Beyond the significant and obvious potential for additional costs, I also highlight to noble Lords that six years of entitlement would enable students to complete one degree, then turn straight around and do another undergraduate three-year degree. As such, a six-year entitlement might inadvertently further embed full-time study for level 6 degrees as the default option, when it is not necessarily best for some students. We are trying to open up the provision to be more flexible.
It is worth noting that the current HE system, as my noble friend Lord Johnson outlined, funds courses that are part-time, with a minimum intensity of 25%. That part-time study may take place over several calendar years. Under the LLE, we would not wish to remove this flexibility. As such, part-time study would also be able to exceed four calendar years.
Amendments 96 and 99A on maintenance were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and my noble friend Lord Flight respectively. We agree wholeheartedly with the importance of ensuring that students are supported to succeed in their studies. It is part of our ambition to help students have the opportunity to choose the best course or modules to suit their needs, rather than the most advantageous funding system. The Bill already provides the necessary powers for maintenance support to be introduced as part of the LLE, if the decision is taken that it should be, following the consultation I have outlined. The consultation will inform the way maintenance loans and other forms of living costs support—which the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, was right to highlight—can be made available to students.
Amendment 97 is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and was supported in her speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss sharia-compliant student finance. Clause 14 already encompasses the possibility of sharia-compliant student finance under the LLE. This is encompassed by the term “alternative payments”, taken from the Secretary of State’s existing powers to make regulations introduced by Section 86 of HERA. As such, Amendment 97 would not give the Secretary of State any additional powers. Alongside our other priorities, we are carefully considering an alternative student finance product, compatible with Islamic finance principles, and have decided to align a decision on implementation with the outcome of the post-18 review of education and funding. We will provide an update on ASF when we conclude that review.
The Bill makes explicit provision for the funding of modules of courses, as well explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and will help create a more flexible system across both higher and further education. However, it does not set out changes to the rules of eligibility, maintenance support or other points of detail, which I argue are more appropriately a matter for regulations. As I have said, much more work is going to be done through the consultation. I will happily report back to noble Lords once the consultation is launched, and again once it has concluded and we have formulated our response.
In recognition of your Lordships’ contributions during this debate, and particularly the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, I beg leave to withdraw the amendments in my name. We will review and table them again on Report, alongside the other amendments we are already planning to table. I hope noble Lords will feel comfortable not moving their amendments when they are called.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, has a question that he would like to put to the Minister.
I am perplexed because, in her response, the Minister said that she expected the announcement made yesterday by the Office for Students on funding for the arts and creative subjects would open up many more such courses. The report that I have received is that high-cost subsidy funding is to be cut by half, with effect from September this year. How on earth could that open up more courses? Universities are saying that they may even have to close down courses. Defunding cannot produce more courses, or have I misunderstood the noble Baroness?
To clarify, the point that I was raising was in relation to FE courses. My noble friend Lord Johnson referred to existing courses in HE in terms of the creative industries. What we are hoping is, through this measure, to see a parity of esteem with FE. Obviously, FE delivers an enormous number of courses at the moment, but we would see an expansion of that provision in that sector as well. I just wanted to highlight that FE is also a main player in that sector. I was not referencing yesterday’s announcement. I am sorry for any confusion.
Amendment 91A withdrawn.
Amendments 91B and 91C not moved.
Clause 15 agreed.
Amendments 92 to 99B not moved.
Clause 26: Extent
Amendments 99C and 99D not moved.
Clause 26 agreed.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 100. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 27: Commencement
100: Clause 27, page 31, line 24, leave out “22” and insert “23”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would prevent Claus