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Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords]

Volume 703: debated on Monday 15 November 2021

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In my previous role as Vaccines Minister, I set out how as a nation we would work our way back to normality by delivering an incredible vaccination programme—the product of evidence, expertise, commitment and, of course, collaboration. I am now here, I am very pleased to say, as Education Secretary, but I make it clear that my first and foremost aims remain the same. I am determined to focus on evidence, data and delivery, and on realising the huge potential in our most valuable resource: the human resource, our people.

The Secretary of State refers to evidence and data, which all of us in this House rely on. Given the evidence and expertise from professionals about the move to get rid of the BTEC qualification, is it not time that he rethought that proposal?

I hope, as I did in the weekly briefings that I gave as Vaccines Minister, to convince the hon. Lady tonight that that is incorrect. We are not getting rid of BTECs.

I know at first hand how important education is. As colleagues who have known me for a long time will know, I came to this country with my family at the age of 11, without a word of English—and here I am now in this Chamber. With the right education, opportunity abounds.

Unfortunately, we are still feeling the aftershocks of the pandemic and we still have many challenges ahead. We need to recover economically; we need to level up our country. I am glad to say that we are already making headway with levelling up. The Chancellor’s Budget is putting the money where it is needed, with £374 billion of direct support for the economy over this year and last year. The Prime Minister’s plan for jobs is working, with the peak of unemployment forecast to be 2 million lower than was previously predicted. Wages are growing, and we will build on that by having skills at the very heart of our plan.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place; there were many positive elements of his vaccination strategy. I want to ask him about apprenticeships, because he says that he arrived in the UK and has been such a successful individual. Is he disappointed that there has been a 41% drop in apprenticeship take-up? Is that not a bit of a national disgrace?

The hon. Lady may recall that I first joined the Department for Education as apprenticeships tsar; I hope to talk about that later in my speech. I introduced the standards and the levy, and we did incredibly well in pushing quality ahead of quantity. It is very important for this House to focus on outcomes rather than just inputs.

Skills, schools and families—this is our mantra. Skills are about investing in people all across our country, about strengthening local economies, about productivity, about stabilising the labour market and about global competitiveness. They are about shoring up—and shoring ourselves up—for a better, stronger, more prosperous future. This is not a pipe dream; we are getting it done right now.

In January, our White Paper “Skills for Jobs” set out our plan to reform the skills system. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), for his work on that brilliant White Paper; I will not repeat everything that it said, because I am sure that hon. Members will have familiarised themselves with it, but I hope to show how we have acted on it.

First, we have significantly increased investment. We are investing £3.8 billion more in further education and skills over the Parliament by 2024-25. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), said earlier this month, that is

“a remarkable amount of money for skills.”

I note the cross-party support for the measure in the Bill. Lord Sainsbury, who led an independent panel on skills on behalf of the coalition Government, is a big supporter of our plans. As President Truman once said, it is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. That is what we are trying to do, and I hope that the Opposition will join us tonight: to work together to level up the skills base across our great country.

We are delivering an extra £1.6 billion boost by 2024-25 for 16 to 19-year-olds’ education, including maintaining funding in real terms per student and delivering more hours of teaching for T-levels. There is an extra hour a week for all students in that age group, who have the least time to catch up from covid. Apprenticeships funding will increase to £2.7 billion by 2024-25 to support businesses of all sizes to build the skilled workforce that they need. We are making vital improvements to FE college buildings and equipment across England, and we are delivering on our National Skills Fund manifesto commitment to help transform the lives of people who have not got on to the work ladder and who lack qualifications.

I welcome the Bill, and I welcome what the Government are indicating that they wish to do, but may I ask a quick question? Only 26% of disadvantaged white British boys and 35% of disadvantaged white British girls achieve five good GCSEs including English and mathematics. What is happening to those young boys and girls who are not obtaining all the qualifications that they need in order to advance themselves and gain employment?

The Education Committee did a very important piece of work on that precise subject. We are investing in recovery—investing £5 billion, following the Budget. We are investing in tutoring, and, of course we are investing in the quality of teaching. There cannot be great outcomes without great teachers, and we are providing 500,000 teaching opportunities.

I will now make some headway, if I may. As you quite rightly told me, Madam Deputy Speaker, many other Members wish to contribute tonight.

As well as the National Skills Fund manifesto commitment to help transform the lives of people who do not have the opportunities that many of us in this place have had, we are implementing the policies in the White Paper. For example, we have established eight trailblazer areas across the country where the first local skills improvement plans are being developed by employer representative bodies. They are currently engaging employers, education providers and key local stakeholders to begin the development of these important plans in the context of the skills landscape. The trailblazers are in areas from Kent to Cumbria, and they will generate valuable learning to inform the wider roll-out of these plans across our country.

The Bill also specifies the essential legal framework for our reforms. We are setting ourselves up for success by giving people the skills and education that they need for work by improving the quality of what they learn, and, of course, by protecting our learners from the disruptive impact of provider failure, reducing the risk that they will miss out on vital learning because, for example, the training provider with which they are studying goes bust.

I have seen at first hand the transformative power of education, and I want to take a moment to retell the House about an experience that I had while visiting Barnsley College. It was the first in south Yorkshire to roll out T-levels, and while I was there I met several of its students. I want to tell the House about one of them. I have rarely met a more inspiring individual. He told me that with his T-level—I am quoting him word for word—“I am looking at unis now and thinking which one I am picking, not which one is going to pick me.” Greg is living proof of the transformative effect that our skills programme is having.

I also met students at Barnet and Southgate College, during my first week in my present post, and saw how state-of-the-art facilities were helping those with learning difficulties and disabilities to realise their ambitions. The college is going further by strengthening its ties to local businesses: it has worked closely with its local chambers of commerce to provide a range of services for local businesses as a hub in the college. So our reforms are working, and they are very much evidence-led. They are changing people’s lives and levelling up the country, and the Bill will help to secure them for the years to come.

This is an excellent Bill which deserves a Second Reading tonight. One college that my right hon. Friend knows well is Peter Symonds, in my constituency, which is transforming lives and T-levels. It has done very well out of the post-16 capacity fund bid, in which, as I found out last week, it was successful, and will build a new 12-classroom block as a result. I wonder whether the Secretary of State, in his new role, will make a glorious return to Winchester to see what excellent post-16 education looks like in the heart of Hampshire.

I am well aware of that investment, and I will certainly look at the diary to see whether I can make time for a visit. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart)—the skills Minister—is gagging to get down to Hampshire and have a look at Peter Symonds College as well.

Skills are very much about providing people with fulfilling and productive jobs, and helping them to improve their lot. One of the key parts of the Bill deals with local skills improvement plans, which place employers, through representative bodies, at the centre—the heart—of the local post-16 skills system. Only through really understanding what is needed in a local area and working in a holistic way with employers, education providers and key local stakeholders can we develop a credible local plan to ensure that skills provision meets local needs.

Mayoral combined authorities which have certain devolved responsibilities for adult education are also critical stakeholders, who will be closely engaged in this process. I am pleased to say that we will introduce an amendment to place the role of those authorities on the face of the Bill.

I will try to give way later. I apologise, but I need to make some headway, because a great many Members want to contribute to the debate.

Local skills improvement plans will help to ensure that the skills system is responsive to labour market skills needs and supports local innovation and growth, with every part of the country able to succeed in its own unique way. This is levelling up in action. As the Prime Minister said at COP26 two weeks ago,

“When it comes to tackling climate change, words without action, without deeds are absolutely pointless.”

In the Bill, we are taking that action by setting out the need to consider skills that support our path to net zero as part of the local skills improvement plans. It is not only good for the planet, but good for business.

Another priority for our skills agenda is for lifelong learning, and delivering on our commitment to the lifelong loan entitlement. The LLE will help to give people a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education at levels 4 to 6, for use on modules or full courses, in colleges or universities, over their lifetimes. If you had told me when I was apprenticeship tsar under the coalition Government that there would be a Prime Minister who would introduce this measure, I would have bitten your arm off, Madam Deputy Speaker. I cannot emphasise enough that this is a step change in our system, which will revolutionise the way in which we see education, retraining and upskilling in our country. Some 80% of the workforce of 2030—which is not a long time from today—are already in work, so we need to be able to adapt to the future economy and those skills needs.

The fact that we are talking about further education and the skills guarantee is a paradigm shift, and it is very welcome, but what are we doing to ensure that those who do not have a level 2 qualification, or who have difficulty with reading, can access the guarantee?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I will address that level 2 issue later in my speech.

The LLE will give us the flexibility to be—I hope—responsive and agile, and will enable people to succeed at any stage in their lives. It will also give them the option of building up their qualifications over time, with both further and higher education providers. They will have a real choice in how and when they study to acquire new, life-changing skills. The LLE will help to create the parity of esteem between further and higher education that we so desperately want to see and so desperately need.

I am pleased to inform the House that since the Bill’s introduction, the Government have introduced further measures to help eradicate that scourge of honest and faithful academia, essay mills. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for his work on this topic, and I know that he will appreciate these measures. It is high time that we stamped out a dishonest practice that both undermines our further and higher education systems and puts students at risk of exploitation.

Any reform of our system must also reform our set of technical educational qualifications, to close the gap between the skills gained through a qualification and the skills employers tell us they need.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. We have worked together on education issues in the past, and I hope to do so in the future. May I press him further on the point my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) made about BTECs? He may not intend to abolish them, but will not effectively defunding them have the same effect? Is that not why so many former Conservative Education Ministers made that point in the Lords?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose opinion I value highly. He and I have worked on education for a number of years on a cross-party basis. The important thing to remember is that the Sainsbury review was clear that for T-levels to succeed, where there is duplication and lower quality, we need to remove lower quality; that does not mean getting rid of high-quality BTECs. I will say a little more tonight that I hope will reassure the House on how we are doing that without kicking the ladder of opportunity away from anyone who deserves that opportunity. I hope I will be able to allay some of his fears.

Going back to the reform of our system, we are extending the powers of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to approve a broader range of technical educational qualifications. The institute will ensure that the independent voice of employers is embedded throughout the process, while working in harmony with Ofqual to ensure quality.

I want to be perfectly clear: the Bill focuses on the approval and regulation of technical qualifications, rather than the funding of technical or academic qualifications. However, when it comes to both academic and technical qualifications, what we are looking for the most is quality. There is no point in a student taking a low-quality level 3 qualification that does not equip them with skills for a job or help them to progress into higher education. That is even more important when it comes to disadvantaged students.

We have more than 12,000 qualifications at level 3 and below. By comparison, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, all widely regarded as having high-performing technical education systems, have around 500 or fewer. Our qualifications review is vital to ensuring that what is on the market is the best it can be. I am clear that T-levels and A-levels should be front and centre of the level 3 landscape, but I am convinced that we need other qualifications alongside them, many of which exist now and play a valuable role in supporting good outcomes for students. It is quite likely that many BTECs and similar applied general-style qualifications will continue to play an important role in 16-to-19 education for the foreseeable future.

Our reforms to the qualifications landscape are rightly ambitious, but we know that we would be wrong to push too hard and risk compromising quality. That is why I am announcing today that we have decided to allow an extra year before our reform timetable is implemented. The extra year will allow us to continue to work hard to support the growth of T-levels and give more notice to providers, awarding organisations, employers, students and parents, so that they can prepare for the changes.

I am a firm believer in T-levels. As I have said before, I want them to become as famous as A-levels, and I want to ensure that we get them right. As many young people as possible should have the advantage of studying for and successfully completing a T-level. We hear consistently that some students are put off taking a T-level because they are worried that they will fail if they do not reach level 2 in English and maths. We want to change that and bring T-levels in line with other qualifications, including A-levels. We are absolutely clear that English and maths should remain central to T-level programmes, but we do not want to unnecessarily inhibit talented students from accessing T-levels simply because of the additional hurdle that reaching level 2 in English and maths represents. That is why I can also announce today that we will remove the English and maths exit requirements from T-levels. That will bring them in line with other qualifications, including A-levels, and ensure that talented young people with more diverse strengths are not arbitrarily shut out from rewarding careers in sectors such as construction, catering and healthcare. The institute is taking immediate steps towards that.

Fewer than 1% of college students are on a course with coverage of climate change. Unless we embed climate change and the environment into our post-16 education, the Government’s plans to get to net zero will simply not be possible. Bath College is offering some of those courses and doing something about it. Will the Secretary of State commit the Government to putting its weight behind courses that embed climate change into the curriculum?

We must have very short interventions at this stage, because we have a lot of people who want to contribute to the debate.

We are doing much of what the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) asks for, including in the local skills plans, where net zero will very much be part of the planning and development process. I will make some headway, per your instructions, Madam Deputy Speaker, because there is a lot to get through tonight.

I also want to ensure that all students from the first two cohorts are not unfairly disadvantaged by the ongoing challenges that covid presents for T-level delivery. We have therefore recently announced a small number of temporary flexibilities on how industry placements can be delivered for those groups, including allowing some virtual working.

We are working to improve technical education at all levels, including level 2, which has been neglected for far too long. Getting level 2 and below right is key to ensuring that students have clear lines of sight to level 3 apprenticeships and traineeships, and, for some, directly into employment. We will consult on proposals for reform later this year, but we will work at speed.

It is in the interests of learners that we take a fresh look at the system and make it easier to navigate, with better outcomes for learners, employers and our economy. When I was apprenticeship tsar, I saw how clearly people in other countries understood their system and how that made a world of difference. Everyone understood it: the student, their family and their employer.

Since the Bill’s introduction in May, it has been subject to thorough and significant scrutiny in the other place. I express my thanks to all those who contributed, but especially to the Minister for the School System, who took on this Bill just before Report and did so brilliantly. My noble Friend brought forward some Government amendments on Report, including clauses on essay mills and an amendment to allow 16-to-19 colleges to become academies with a religious designation —something I know my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) will be very happy about. Important and sensitive issues were raised in the other place, and I can be clear that we are listening and taking careful consideration of the proposals made there. Not all changes are right for legislation, but I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of many of the proposals.

It is a privilege to be able to take this Bill through the House. I know there are many exciting and thought-provoking debates ahead of us, but, most importantly, we must remember why we are doing this: to deliver high-quality qualifications, designed with employers, to give students the skills they need. With the support of hon. Members on both sides of this House, the Bill will signify a major milestone in our plan for jobs and our economic recovery. The Bill will set us up for the future we want and, crucially, the future we need. I commend it to the House.

It is a great pleasure to follow the Secretary of State.

I place on record my thanks to Lord Watson, Baroness Wilcox and Baroness Sherlock for their work on the Bill. I hope the House will protect some of the improvements made to the Bill, on a cross-party basis, in the House of Lords.

Over the past decade we have repeatedly heard from Conservative Members that skills matter and that further education and training are essential to our economy and our country’s future, and we heard it again from the Secretary of State tonight. We agree, but the result of that rhetoric under successive Conservative Governments, is that we have 188,000 fewer apprenticeship starts, college numbers down 26%, 9,000 fewer further education staff, adult learner numbers down 25%, and funding of adult skills still at only 60% of what it was in 2010. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) acknowledged, successive Conservative Governments have left further education overlooked, undervalued and underfunded.

I assure the Secretary of State that we will not oppose the Bill, as amended and improved by the noble Lords, this evening. After a decade of Conservative damage to the sector, I desperately want the Government to get skills policy right. Labour believes in a high-skill economy that delivers the opportunity for workers to train and retrain, and to gain and sustain fulfilling, rewarding jobs in which they take great pride.

That is why my Labour colleagues and I, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), have long championed further education and lifelong learning. In 2019, Labour’s lifelong learning commission set out an ambitious approach that would give all learners the chance to make the most of their learning throughout their life. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) has set out plans to buy, make and sell more in Britain, as it would support industry to deliver quality jobs in every part of the country. And it is why, at our party conference this year, the Leader of the Opposition set out Labour’s plans to ensure every young person leaves education with skills for the future, ready for work and for life.

Labour would embed the digital skills that young people need across all subjects, by providing every child with ongoing access to a device and delivering professional careers advice and two weeks’ worth of work experience. We would reform the citizenship curriculum to give young people the life skills they say they want: how to open a bank account, what “tax” means and what they will have to pay, and how to sign an employment contract—or, as one young person put it to me, how to be an adult. I think we all need a bit of that sometimes.

Labour would deliver this by engaging with employers across the public and private sectors, and I thank those who joined me and the Leader of the Opposition at our roundtable earlier this month. We would work across Government to tackle the challenge of four in 10 young people leaving education today without qualifications essential for the modern economy. At the current rate under the Conservatives, reducing that even to three in 10 young people will take 300 years. Labour will not stand for that.

We would also ensure that every adult has the opportunity to retrain and reskill where necessary, to address technological change and globalisation and tackle the climate crisis that will see the workplace constantly evolve. That level of ambition is lacking in the Bill.

Labour agrees that we need world-class vocational training routes, and we welcome the introduction of T-levels. We want them to succeed, but they will not be right for all students. By forcing students to specialise too early, there is a danger of reducing, not enhancing, student choice. The Department’s own impact assessment demonstrates that promoting T-levels through the over-hasty defunding of most BTECs risks holding young people back from achieving the qualifications they need.

It is welcome to hear the Secretary of State confirm that there will be an extension of one year before the defunding of courses takes place, but he knows that is a very short time for people to come to terms with the new T-level offer. He will also know there was cross-party support in the House of Lords for Labour’s amendment proposing a four-year moratorium on defunding. I urge him to look again at the time needed to enable these reforms to be embedded successfully and sensibly.

I noted what the Secretary of State said about removing the requirement in T-levels for GCSE English and maths, which will open up these qualifications to more students. Will he, or perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), in winding up, say what support will be on offer to students who lack these important GCSE qualifications, as literacy and numeracy skills will clearly remain important? As the measure may well open up T-levels to more young people, what is being put in place to ensure there are sufficient work placement opportunities with employers to accommodate the potential larger numbers?

It is important that we get these qualifications right, because vocational qualifications change lives. From what the Secretary of State said this evening, and indeed from what we have been hearing from Ministers for some time, we effectively have a planning blight hanging over BTECs. When he talks of some low-level qualifications at level 3 being abolished and replaced with T-levels without specifying which qualifications he means, he undermines confidence among young people, teachers, parents and employers in all the applied general qualifications.

This matters most to students in the most deprived communities. The Social Market Foundation has found that 44% of white working-class students enter university with at least one BTEC, and that 37% of black students enter university with only BTEC qualifications. Removing opportunities for those students does not sound anything like levelling up, so it is important that we have clarity from the Minister about how their interests are to be protected.

I heard the Minister suggest at the Federation of Awarding Bodies conference last week, and the Secretary of State repeated it tonight, that it will be important to keep open routes to university that include vocational qualifications such as T-levels. This comes as a surprise to the Labour Front-Bench team, and I think it will come as a surprise to universities, which have not necessarily signed up to admit students on the basis of T-level results. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister say a little more about how they intend T-levels to be a route to higher education?

Like the Government, Labour recognise the crucial role of employers in identifying skills needs and delivering training, so it is right that employers are key partners in local skills improvement partnerships, but the partnerships must be designed in the context of local economic and regeneration strategies driven by metro Mayors and local leaders. There was cross-party support in the Lords, as the Secretary of State knows, for Labour’s amendment to make mayoral authorities and local further education providers part of the local skills improvement partnerships. I am glad he has agreed tonight that metropolitan mayoral combined authorities should have a role, but he needs to go further. What about authorities outside metropolitan combined areas? What role does he now foresee for local enterprise partnerships in setting the skills agenda?

The Government may have abandoned their own industrial strategy, but at local level there is recognition that the Government and employers need to be co-leads, alongside local colleges and providers, in bringing together knowledge and expertise to meet the needs of the local economy.

I welcome the concession from Baroness Barran, especially following the conclusion of COP26 at the weekend, on local school improvement plans having due regard to meeting environmental goals. I hope we can agree, too, on welcoming the amendment to include special educational needs awareness training that is relevant to students of initial teacher training FE courses.

The Bill has reached us from the other place in an improved state, but the Government must be more ambitious. The Secretary of State spoke tonight of the Government’s plans for the lifelong learning entitlement and the Minister in the other place promised a consultation ahead of further primary legislation. It would be helpful tonight for the House to have a timetable set out for that to happen. In the debate on the Address this year, I raised concerns that waiting until 2025 for the lifelong learning entitlement to come into effect was far too slow for workers who have seen their jobs change or disappear and need urgent support to retrain. With the prospect now of further consultation and further legislation, I fear we will see even further delay.

On the wider question of the lifetime skills guarantee, which we would like to see in the Bill, will the Minister explain in winding up why 9 million jobs, a third of all jobs across the country, are in sectors excluded from the guarantee? Such sectors include retail and tourism, which have been hardest hit during the pandemic and, incredibly, lecturing and teaching. Will he explain why it excludes 65% of people over the age of 16 who already hold a level 3 qualification, preventing their retraining to gain new skills? Will the Secretary of State commit to the amendment originally tabled by Lord Johnson that would ensure a review of the impact on re-skilling of funding restrictions on those who wish to get a qualification at a level equivalent to or lower than that they already hold?

Most concerning—the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) alluded to this—is the lack of an offer in the Bill to workers needing support to gain level 2 or other qualifications to get them in the pipeline to progress their learning to level 3 and beyond. Nine million adults lack basic literacy or numeracy skills and, despite the announcements in the Budget last month, those people are excluded from the Government’s flagship policy—why? What are the Government doing to tackle the disastrous fall in apprenticeship starts since the apprenticeship levy was introduced? Why have plans for apprenticeships not been provided for in this Bill?

The prospect of further Government delays to the lifelong learning entitlement brings me, finally, to the wider proposals in the Augar review. Current and future students have seen regular backroom briefings to the press about potential fee cuts to and attacks on the quality of their courses, and regressive changes to their loan repayments that will leave them even worse off. Will the Secretary of State now bring these damaging rumours to an end and come forward with constructive, progressive proposals to support university students, so that all who wish to and can benefit from higher education have the opportunity to do so?

Young people starting work today will still be working in the 2070s and I do not think any Member of this House could claim to know what skills they will need then. It is imperative that we give them the skills to adopt new ways of working and adapt to an ever-changing and uncertain world. At the same time, we must equip our education system with the capacity for adults to train and retrain, move between jobs and industries, and gain new skills and knowledge throughout their lives. As I have said, we will not be opposing the Bill today, but nor do we think it sufficient. I urge those on the Conservative Benches to be more ambitious, to listen to colleges, universities, employers and Labour, and to match the aspirations young people and adult learners have for themselves. The Bill must set out a pathway to the future that is fit for individuals, employers and our economy. The next generation, businesses and our whole country deserve better than this.

I would like to put on record that I strongly welcome the principles behind the Bill and the additional huge investment—a 42% cash-terms increase—in skills announced in the Budget. For too long, further education and skills have been the Cinderella of our education system. I have always said that it is worth remembering that Cinderella became a member of the royal family and I believe that with this Bill the Government are banishing, or beginning to banish, at least, the two ugly sisters of snobbery around skills and under-funding. We know that funding per FE student aged 16 to 18 fell by 11% over the past decade. For that reason, I ask the Government to consider the amendment tabled by Lord Clarke, which would mean that, as with universities and schools, money would follow the pupil for FE colleges that set up approved courses. In other words, the Government would provide for automatic in-year funding for FE colleges that offer approved level 3 qualifications from approved providers.

Participation in adult skills and lifelong learning is at its lowest level in 23 years. Nine million working-age adults in England have low literacy or numeracy skills, and 6 million adults are not qualified to level 2. The lifetime skills guarantee offers an exciting opportunity for a level 3 qualification to millions of adults, which I really support. Again, I ask the Government to consider funding for those without even a level 2 qualification, but that at least includes a mechanism for progression to level 3.

We must take this opportunity to improve careers education and guidance and I welcome the inclusion of clause 14 on careers. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, just two in five schools were complying with the Baker clause. My Committee’s report on disadvantaged white working class boys and girls, which has been mentioned already, looked at the underperformance and recommended that compliance with the Baker clause be linked to Ofsted inspection outcomes, with schools not given a good or outstanding rating unless they comply with the clause.

Alongside the lifetime skills guarantee and the lifelong loan entitlement outlined in clauses 15 to 18, which I support, and the increase in the level 2 take-up, which I mentioned earlier, I ask the Minister to level up adult learning for the most disadvantaged by also rocket-boosting community learning. Perhaps, as we suggested in our Select Committee, we could have an adult community learning centre in every town.

To further incentivise businesses to train staff, perhaps the Government should also consider a long-term plan to introduce a skills tax credit to revitalise employer-led training. We must do more to boost apprenticeships, on top of what the Government have done. We have had millions of apprenticeships since 2010, with 90% of those who complete getting good jobs and skills after. However, perhaps the Government could consider reforming the existing levy on employers in a strategic way to close the skills deficit and ensure that more young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can access this opportunity. Lord Clarke has introduced amendment 25 and I ask the Government to look at it favourably, so that companies are more incentivised to hire young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I also ask the Government to use the Bill to look at the £800 million diversity and inclusion fund spent by universities and re-boot it to ensure that access and participation is prioritised towards students from disadvantaged backgrounds doing apprenticeships. Over the next decade, universities could work towards having 50% of their students undertaking degree-level apprenticeships. My Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry on prison education and the Government could consider changing the legislation so that prisoners can do prison apprenticeships.

I welcome what has been said on BTECs. The Education Datalab found that young people who took BTECs were more likely to be in employment at age 22 and at that age were earning about £800 more than their peers taking A Levels. So these are qualifications with good outcomes and we must make sure not only that T-levels are successfully embedded in the system, but that quality BTECs should remain for all students to access. Finally, I urge the Government to look at the EBacc and ensure that design technology and computer science are included as an option as part of that. However, I look forward to working constructively with them on this excellent Bill.

Having spent most of my working life in further education, I am delighted to speak in this extremely important debate. My constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough is home to two excellent colleges that are well attended by local people of all ages who undertake qualifications of all types. It gives me no pleasure, however, to report that my constituency also has one of the highest instances of child poverty in the country. It is my firm belief that good education provision is one of the most powerful tools to eradicate poverty, so it is essential that people who live in my constituency can access high-quality education.

I am pleased to hear that, according to the Secretary of State, there is still a promise to keep BTECs, because the previous Ministers and Secretary of State were completely unable to commit to that, but I do have some sense of cynicism about the matter. The roll-back of BTECs would reduce student choice, degrade the variety of qualifications that employers can look for in potential employees and deny existing employees the opportunity to upskill. The education system helps to close the skills gap and also needs to play its part in the levelling-up agenda. I have always been unconvinced that the way to do that is to remove a successful qualification that is being taken by almost a third of 16 to 18-year-old level 3 students.

The success of BTECs as a driving force of social mobility cannot be ignored. The Social Market Foundation found that almost half of white working-class students had at least one BTEC on entering university and that almost two fifths of students from diverse backgrounds enter university with only BTEC qualifications. That clearly means that students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be adversely affected were the proposal on BTECs to go through. Surely pathways should be extended and not closed off.

There are many concerns about what the T-level curriculum will look like and who will be able to access T-levels. If the changes took place tomorrow morning, only 40% of Sheffield College’s 16 to 19-year-old level 3 students would move to a T-level. The rest, who are studying other advanced generals, would be displaced without a full-time level 3 programme.

The hon. Lady might be aware that T-levels are already up and running, so she has the opportunity to see the depth and breadth of the T-level curriculum. Perhaps she could take the opportunity to see at first hand the benefits it will bring to her constituents.

I have spoken to the principals of Sheffield College and Longley Park sixth-form college in my constituency and they are extremely concerned about the proposals.

Four of the five most popular courses at Longley Park sixth-form college are applied generals. Such qualifications can help young people to gain entry to university or, indeed, enable them to access employment or further training. Longley Park is a sixth-form college at the heart of a council-housing estate in a deprived area that ensures that 1,200 young people a year enter adulthood with a level 3 qualification.

It seems that the Bill attempts to solve a problem that many local colleges have already addressed. For example, Sheffield College has 2,500 employer partners. Having successfully built these relationships over many years, the college offers a varied choice of qualifications and employment opportunities to students and prospective students of all ages across the city. That is why it is of great concern that under the Bill the Secretary of State will choose the employer representative bodies. There is very little detail on how the Secretary of State will make such decisions. If the Government are serious about levelling up, the Bill must ensure that local leaders get a say in how local ERBs are formed and who serves on them.

Over the past 15 or so years, the number of adults in further education has fallen by half. Over that same period, funding has been cut by two thirds. Boosting the number of adult learners is key to driving down poverty and fulfilling the levelling-up agenda. The lifetime learning guarantee is welcome, but I agree with the Association of Colleges, which wants to see the scheme broadened to include a wider range of courses and the ability to undertake a second level 3 qualification, so that people can retrain and reskill. There are also concerns that the guarantee has no statutory footing. I urge the Government to demonstrate their commitment to the guarantee and to give it a wider scope on a statutory footing in the Bill.

Ultimately, the post-16 education sector is ready to deliver a boost in skills and to play its part in levelling up. However, the sector cannot do that without the significant investment it has been calling for over the past decade. I hope that the Bill progresses through this House in a collaborative way and that the Government will listen sincerely to Opposition Members who want to help to improve it and to make sure that our education system works for the needs of learners, the economy and local communities.

I will carry on.

In conclusion, for the Bill to be successful, the Government must ensure that colleges receive the funding that they need and the recognition that they are experts in their field and are already committed to the skills agenda. The big question is whether the Government share their ambition. I urge the Minister to confirm that they do and to do so with actions, not words.

We talk about levelling up, and there is surely no better way to level up throughout the country than through investment in our human infrastructure—in the people across communities in the north, south, east and west—and that is what this Bill is all about doing and delivering on. At the heart of that has to be an understanding that employers play a critical role. This is not an issue that we have been debating for just the past five or 10 years; indeed, the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal party have discussed it for the past 100 years. We have recognised that there are skill gaps in our country that we have needed to address and that other countries have had a competitive advantage in the way they have dealt with skills and made sure that their workforce have been better able to respond than ours have.

One key thing is the need to ensure that all the qualifications that are undertaken, whether at colleges or universities, are based on employer-led standards. There should be no shame in saying that what not only our young people but people of all ages learn will equip them with the skills needed for them to walk into work. That is our duty, it is what we want to give to everyone in our country and it is why the Bill is so incredibly important.

If we look at Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and so many other countries around the globe, we see that one area in which they are so much stronger than we are in this country is qualifications above A-level and below degree level—the higher technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5. If we do not plug that gap, we will continually be out-competed by other nations. Some 10% of our workforce between the ages of 18 and 65 have a level 4 or 5 qualification, compared with 20% in Germany and 34% in Canada. We need to address that, which is why the lifelong loan entitlement is so critical. But as well as bringing that forward, we need to get it right.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman’s point about employer-led qualifications and an employer-led direction. I am sure he will take this opportunity to commend the Northern Regional College, which has just today started a pioneering new project that will bring employers on board with students and lead directly to proper employment with the manufacturing taskforce in Northern Ireland.

I very much join the hon. Gentleman in commending the Northern Regional College for its work. We see such work right throughout the United Kingdom, but the Bill will give us the opportunity to really power that work forward in colleges and, hopefully, universities right across England. That is going to be key. We have to look at how we start to close the competitive gap with other countries. We need to make sure not only that all our qualifications have employer-led standards but that we drive people up the skills ladder as we go. We have the opportunity to do that.

I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister sums up, he will touch a little on the LLE, which is really important, and that he can reassure me from the Dispatch Box this evening on this point about those who make use of it. One key element of the LLE is the ability to take qualifications, whether a full degree or a level 5 or 4 qualification, in a much more modular way. In the interests of students, it would be useful if the Minister could spell out from the Dispatch Box that students who take a full level 6 qualification, which is done in a modular way, would not be paying any more than £9,250, which is what someone who is taking a classic and standard degree qualification pays. That would greatly reassure many people, and I hope that the Minister is able to do that from the Dispatch Box this evening.

This is not about pitching colleges and universities against one another. An interesting point was made on this by a number of Lords in the other place: for us to be able to deliver on the Government’s aspirations for more level 4 and level 5 qualifications, universities need to play their part. Indeed, they have an incredibly important role to play in that delivery. Putting this skills Bill into statute, making sure that we actually put employers at the heart of decision-making and that they have a clear say would be truly transformative.

I would like to put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend for his time as Secretary of State and for listening to me pecking his head for years about further education. Was he truly inspired by the colleges and students that he met around the country, since his work was a lot of what got us to where we are today?

My hon. Friend and I went to the same college, and we were both very much inspired by that.

Across the country, so many colleges are doing an amazing job, but what we have been seeing over the past year and more is investment flowing in that direction. None the less, let us not underestimate how important it is that employers are involved in this. They need to have a say and an influence, and they need to be able to design the qualifications. If we look at T-levels, we can see that they have been designed hand in glove with employers to make sure that when those youngsters leave college or school, they can step into the world of work and succeed. That is the hallmark of a great qualification, and that is what we should be proud of.

To borrow a phrase, “The best way to level up our country is through education”. Education, coupled with opportunity, is how we give our nation’s children the best chance in life. Each young person is different. Under the current system, students can decide whether studying A-levels, T-levels or a BTEC is best for them. Yet, under the Bill, the Government plan to scrap BTECs. That is what is behind this: cut the funding and scrap the opportunity. BTECs have been a lifeline to many young people in my constituency. Indeed, when I was a governor for many, many years—40 years, in fact—it was a joy to see the number of young people who carried on in education when BTECs were introduced. I am sure that the same is true in many other Members’ constituencies.

It is estimated that, currently, at least 30% of 16 to 18-year-old students have chosen to study a BTEC. This Bill will eventually take that choice away. If the Government are as committed to levelling up as they constantly claim, then why are they looking to scrap one of the best tools to achieve this?

BTECs have been the engine of social mobility. Some 44% of white working-class students who enter university studied at least one BTEC, and 37% of black students enter university with only BTEC qualifications. There is no levelling-up agenda if the Government scrap the BTEC lifeline.

I suspect that we may have been listening to a different opening statement from the Secretary of State, because I quite clearly heard his commitment that BTECs will remain where they are high quality and where there is a need for them. Does she remember that being a part of what he said?

The Government are taking the funding away, and it is that that will stop young people getting these qualifications. People need to wake up to what is happening. The Government are taking the funding away. They are not cutting the opportunity straight off—it will just drift away. Young people will not go forward to T-levels. They will drop off and leave at 16. They will not go into further education. That is what will happen and that is what is intended.

T-levels are a welcome introduction, but they are not the same as BTECs. I have been implored by Carmel College in my constituency, one of the finest colleges in the country, to stress the following point: scrapping BTECs will lead to more young people dropping out of education altogether. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) seems to be sniggering on the Back Benches, but there is nothing to snigger about. I see young people achieving opportunities now when they did not in the past before BTECs. We cannot treat all young people the same; they are not all the same. For some young people, A-levels are best. For others, T-levels are the way to go. Many also find that BTECs are the route for them. We must protect all three routes. After all, our education system should be there to help young people excel in a way that suits them best. The Government should not be attempting to force them down a path that is not right for them. This is all about ending an opportunity for young people whom the Government do not value as much. There is no chance of levelling up with the Government at present.

Let me start by thanking the Secretary of State for what I thought was a rather conciliatory speech. Hopefully, it will set the tone for this evening’s debate on a Bill that has already gone through the other place. We have seen a number of amendments tabled, not least the one on essay mills—I am very grateful to the Government for adding it to the Bill. That was the result of a cross-party effort, involving not just myself, but Lord Storey who has led the charge in the other place, I think, for the past five years. I hope that, in this place, we can try to build some cross-party consensus in order to improve the Bill, as the Lords have done.

In that spirit of cross-party consensus, I would like to reflect on the words of the Opposition Front Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who set out very clearly the challenge with the lifetime skills guarantee. At present, it is not a guarantee for all those who need lifetime skills. As the Secretary of State clearly set out in his speech, 80% of the adult population in 2030 are already in work. If we wish to grip the challenges that climate change presents and grip the challenges of the systems-based approach that will lead to net zero across all parts of this country, we will need new forms of skills, reskilling and upskilling in green technologies, in retrofitting boilers and in all those things that, at the moment, we struggle to be able to do. We will need those reskilling and retraining opportunities. Those will come only if we take this moment to expand the lifetime skills guarantee and, importantly, as the Secretary of State said, the lifetime loan entitlement, because nothing flows without the finance. We need to ensure that that is available to those who have a level 3 qualification or above. We must look to abolish the so-called equivalent, or lower, qualification rule.

I want to declare my interest as having established a new Lifelong Education Commission with ResPublica. I am not paid for doing it, but I want to make sure that it is on the record that I have this interest in running the commission. The commission has published its first report, which looks in particular at what is needed when it comes to the frameworks. It is very easy to announce the lifetime skills guarantee—it sounds great. It is very easy to talk about a lifelong loan entitlement—it sounds marvellous—but unless we get the partnerships right in order to be able to deliver and implement this locally, they are just words. They are just a framework. I desperately want this to succeed.

I have been in this place for 11 years and, if I am honest, one of the greatest failures of my Government has been the decline in adult and part-time learning due to a lack of funding. We now have an opportunity to learn a lot of lessons from what went wrong there.

My right hon. Friend is making a very good speech. Would he consider and welcome the improved approach to collaboration that the Treasury Bench has taken this evening, with the involvement of metro Mayors and combined authorities? Does he also agree that if we want to have a truly locally driven skills agenda, we need to involve local enterprise partnerships? They are often a much better voice for local employers than the chambers of commerce, which can be quite variable— not in the case of Suffolk, I hasten to add, but more generally.

My hon. Friend’s intervention brings me to my second point, which is about the need to take a truly place-based approach to these reforms, if they are to succeed. We cannot necessarily legislate, top-down, and expect the reforms somehow to be successful. We have to involve local communities, because they know what will work in their local ecosystems. Many points have been made today about the role of employers. I would also say that universities are missing from the local skills improvement plans. The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), made a point about the involvement of universities; they should be written into the Bill as part of the local skills improvement partnerships.

I know that we have had a review of the form and function of local enterprise partnerships. It may be that the levelling up White Paper brings further light on their role. There is enormous variability in the actual skills base of local enterprise partnerships to understand what is needed when it comes to delivering local skills. If we are going to level up, we want to ensure that we level up the capacity and capability of local actors to deliver on the ground, so ensuring that we get the correct place-based approach is important. I do not mind which actors locally are involved in the partnerships. I just think that it should be up to local communities to help forge the approach.

Let us look at what is happening in the Health and Care Bill, for which I have sat on the Bill Committee. We have seen that local approach with integrated care boards and integrated care partnerships. The Government are trusting them to come up with their own membership; it is not prescriptive. We have to try to demonstrate the same level of trust in education at a local level as we are doing with health through that Bill.

The right hon. Member is talking about the Health and Care Bill and trusting that this will all be okay; it is as if fingers have to be crossed and things are devolved down to a local level. Given the very high number of Members of Parliament with financial interests in private health, this is a dangerous road to go down. Will he revisit the view that he has just expressed? That Bill is a privatising Bill that is going to make it harder for people to get healthcare. It will open up the whole thing to the private sector in a way that we really need to object to.

Before you respond to that, Mr Skidmore, the time limit will be four minutes after you have finished your contribution.

It is not an amendment for this Bill so I am simply not going to respond to that point.

I will finish by reflecting on the wider tone in which we take this debate forward. The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, talked about the need for partnerships between universities and further education colleges, and about ensuring that we do not pitch one against the other. That is absolutely right. This is a tertiary education Bill that is meant to be uniting, not divisive.

The Education Secretary, in his opening remarks, talked about President Harry Truman’s comment that it does not matter who takes the credit, as long as something is delivered successfully. I would like to quote another US President, Abraham Lincoln, who said:

“You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.”

I think that that applies when we look at the role of universities and further education colleges. We need them to work together in a sustainable ecosystem. We cannot allow the Bill to divide and rule, or somehow to allow for FE colleges to be compared unfavourably or favourably against universities.

We need higher technical education to succeed. To do that, we need flexible pathways that will allow the individual learner to move between FE and higher education—and sometimes back again—across the country. We will only ensure that those flexibilities exist if we support every part of the education sector and every institution. It is the institutions and their strengths that will deliver success in this vital Bill.

I welcome the fresh focus from the Government on skills and further education. FE has long been the forgotten sector in education, with adult education funding having been halved over the past decade. Vocational training and qualifications have for too long been incorrectly treated as inferior to academic qualifications, which is why the Liberal Democrats have long promoted the policy of personal education and skills accounts, also known as skills wallets, which take a grant-based approach to support lifelong learning throughout adulthood. Vocational skills and lifelong learning have never been more important than now, in our post-Brexit—and soon, hopefully, post-pandemic—economy, as our country faces immense skills shortages in a number of sectors. However, I fear that the Bill introduced in the other place lacked ambition and attempted to slip under the radar the devastating assault on BTECs about which we have heard.

I want to touch on three points, all of which concern areas where non-Government amendments were made in the other place. I hope that the Government will not seek to overturn those amendments. As many Members have stated, BTECs are immensely popular, with more than a quarter of a million students taking these qualifications in any given year. They are disproportionately taken up by students from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities, and those with special educational needs and disabilities. It was therefore pretty shocking that the defunding proposals were slipped out at the start of the summer holidays, alongside a shocking impact assessment and in the face of opposition—with some 86% of respondents to the Government’s consultation opposing the plans. Even the former Conservative Education Secretary, Lord Baker, described the plan as “absolutely disgusting” in the other place, saying that it would deny “hope and aspiration” to many people from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

I urge the Minister to retain in full the amendment made in the other place to phase out the funding over four years, rather than over one as the Secretary of State announced today. Withdrawing funding sooner would narrow choice and force students into unsuitable qualifications. The Conservatives claim to be in favour of choice and competition, so I find it surprising that they want to force BTECs out of the market by defunding them. Lord Willetts made a similar point in the other place.

Let me turn to another amendment that I hope the Government will not overturn, regarding the penalty for benefit claimants who choose to continue their education to improve their job prospects. I very much hope that the Government will retain the Bishop of Durham’s amendment on universal credit conditionality, which is now clause 17. In taking away the £20 universal credit uplift and reducing the taper rate, Ministers have made much of the importance of making work pay, and getting people off welfare and into high-quality, well-paid jobs. However, the current system puts in place a range of barriers and disincentives to education for those on universal credit, which flies in the face of the Government’s ambitions. I therefore hope that they will retain the amendment.

Finally, I turn to the local skills improvement plans. I very much welcome the Government’s amendment in the other place to ensure that climate change and the environment are at the forefront of local skills improvement plans. That is critical if we are to be at the heart of the green industrial revolution. However, I urge the Government to keep in full the amendment made in the other place on the involvement of local authorities and regional government in the development of local skills improvement plans alongside ERBs.

I welcome the Bill, but I hope that the Government will go further and maintain a number of excellent amendments made in the other place.

It is wonderful to see the focus on adult education in the Bill, but I agree with some of the comments that there should not be an arbitrary distinction between an area that happens to have a Mayor and combined authority and an area that does not. I do not see why Suffolk should not benefit from devolved adult education in the same way as Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, which happen to have a Mayor.

For the skills improvement plans, some areas will have an effective chamber of commerce that can work well, and other areas will not have an effective chamber of commerce but a much better local enterprise partnership. A little flexibility on that point would be welcome. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) about the relationship between further education and higher education and the role of higher education in these plans. Fortunately, we in Ipswich benefit from a very strong relationship between the University of Suffolk and Suffolk New College. In Ipswich and Suffolk, the University of Suffolk has a critical role to play in degree apprenticeships and skills, and it is playing that role through the town deal and other Government support.

On the broader point about having one ecosystem, that is also linked to breaking down the barriers between schools, further education, higher education and business, and getting to the point where there is one ecosystem with no silos. That is ultimately what we want, linking not just young people but all people with local opportunities for higher-wage jobs so that they can get on. In terms of the importance of levelling up, in certain deprived areas, if there is only one, academic, pathway, a certain number of people might crack that pathway, but they often leave the area and never come back. It is vital that there is also a technical route that links in with local opportunities, because a lot of people who succeed in that route will be role models in their area and play a role in levelling up whole communities.

How is Ipswich currently benefiting from this movement in direction and strategy in further education? There are bad things and good things—mostly good. Through the town deal, we have £1.2 million going into a maritime skills academy that will train the next generation of boat builders—a highly skilled profession. In the past, most of the people who worked at Spirit Yachts were from outside the area; now, through the Government project, they will be from the local area, which is good thing. There is also the £2 million tech camp, with net zero, sustainable methods of construction—the first of its type in the country. The University of Suffolk’s £2.5 million integrated health and social care academy, achieved through the town deal, is very much to be welcomed. Last week, we learned that Suffolk New College, which I think is the best further education college in the country, has approximately £4 million of post-16 capacity funding from the overall fund of £85 million. Suffolk New College is one of 39 further education colleges to benefit from that funding, so although I have not had confirmed exactly how much we will get, I suspect that it will be about £3 million or £4 million, if I am being ambitious.

I very much welcome the Bill. We have to have multiple pathways to enable people to get on, and we have to have a proper approach to adult education, but flexibility is a must.

Having gone to a further education college myself, I am a strong supporter of further education and alternative routes to higher education or skills. As chair of the all-party group on social mobility, I think that both FE and alternative routes are the route to better social mobility. Since becoming a Member of this House in 2015, I have spoken numerous times, including in my maiden speech, about the importance of devolution in England and post-16 education. We need to match up the opportunities that exist in my very wealthy city with the lack of opportunity that too many of my constituents face. It remains a dreadful waste of their human potential.

In terms of supporting FE and apprenticeships, I have served as chair of the APPG on apprenticeships and I run an annual apprenticeships fair because I think that is the route up the ladder. It is a crucial step up, particularly for those who have a poor experience of school or no history or experience of higher education. The lack of a proposal or support in the Bill for lower level apprenticeships is a major mistake. The Government need to think again and try to match up some of those aspirations, particularly around level 2 and level 3.

On BTECs, I cannot say better than what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) and for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer). BTECs are a hugely valuable bridge of hope and encouragement. Frankly, we cannot keep experimenting with these kids. We would not be doing this with A-levels; nobody messes with A-levels in the way mess with the opportunities for these kids. We need to give them some security, and security of having people to teach it as well, as well as employer confidence.

I have often spoken about how poor career support is. These are confusing pathways for young people, particularly the young disadvantaged, and we need to make that better, but six years on, we still seem to be talking about the importance of career support. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State and await with interest further detail about managing that pathway and making it simpler. I think he understands that and we have to see whether he can deliver it.

As others have said, the Bill has been much improved in the Lords, and I support the amendments made there. On local ecosystems, I agree with my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore). We have heard some interesting discussions about the Secretary of State’s power grab and permissiveness at the local level. The Government have not got this right and there surely is some cross-learning to be done, because what is worrying about this Bill is the Secretary of State’s powers. There are no real criteria for when or how he or she can sack the local chamber of commerce person or the principal of the college if he or she thinks they are not performing. We have a similar problem in the Health and Care Bill. It would be good if the Government talked to different parts of their own side about that.

Fundamentally, we cannot deliver any of these things without a strong further education sector. The problems that we continue to have in Bristol are largely financial involving the college, but it has been “requires improvement” for some time, and that needs to change, because it means we cannot cohere the ecosystem and support other providers, such as the Knowle West Media Centre in my constituency, which I visited last week. Such organisations are at the forefront of digital innovation and supporting young people from the community into these larger providers. I await with interest how local accountability through the West of England Combined Authority will work, because it is clear to anyone that the FE funding model is broken.

With the amendments from the Lords, this is a better Bill for Bristol South, but many questions remain about the criteria for success. What is the Secretary of State’s real involvement? How can we support the local ecosystem? Being caught between the LEP and chambers of commerce is like being caught between a rock and a hard place, so that needs a great deal of examination. Democratic accountability is important, but crucially we need encouragement, support, ease of access and opportunity for our young people and those who have fallen behind at an earlier point in their lives. That is the only way we can ensure better social mobility.

I am delighted to speak today on this very important Bill. With the impact of covid-19, which exacerbated the skills shortage, the need to adapt to meet net zero by 2050 and the opportunity to flourish as an independent trading nation, the need to support skills across the UK is clearer than ever as we try to level up the most deprived areas of the country.

We talk about levelling up, but we are T-levelling up with this Bill. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on T-levels, I and the other members of the APPG heard at first hand from T-level students about the huge impact these qualifications have had on their lives and in assisting them to achieve their career aspirations. We heard from inspiring T-level students from Grimsby Institute, Walsall College, Fareham College, Blackpool and the Fylde College and Cirencester College, showing the huge impact these qualifications are having across the country.

I also had the huge privilege of meeting students at Bury College alongside the former Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan). We attended lessons to discover how students on the college’s brand new T-level courses would benefit from these innovative technical qualifications. Although there is more work to be done, such as ensuring there are no gaps in T-level provision in constituencies across the country, I am delighted that this Government have introduced the new qualification, effectively adapting to the needs of a modernised 21st-century British workforce.

Secondly, I emphasise the importance of improving literacy rates in the UK. Improving skills and introducing T-levels is a great step forward, but how can people access them without literacy? It is vital that literacy skills are embedded in a post-16 skills strategy. Research from KPMG has estimated that literacy failure costs the UK economy £2.5 billion each year. If we prioritise literacy skills in the post-16 space, it could have a significant economic benefit.

A quarter of all 15-year-olds have a reading age of 12 or below. That puts them at a disadvantage in their GCSEs, meaning they are unlikely to get the grades to progress to further education. Literacy should therefore be prioritised in the post-16 skills agenda to give students the vital skills they are missing, which will help them progress to further educational opportunities and enhance their future employment opportunities. That is particularly important when 70% of employers rate literacy skills as one of their three most important considerations when recruiting school and college leavers.

The National Literacy Trust has responded to that research with its flagship literacy and employability programme, “Words for Work”. It gives young people from disadvantaged communities the literacy and communication skills they need to reach their potential. It would be great if the Government recognised the importance of such programmes, which bring schools, colleges and businesses together to give young people the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

Last, I pay tribute to the College of Rugby in Whitefield, which provides education, skills and training in the setting of a working rugby club. It also provides external qualifications, such as refereeing and first aid. It is great to see such institutions striking a realistic balance between sport and educational development. Will the Minister meet me to discuss what we can do to support unique institutions like that?

I support the Bill, which sets out to deliver high-quality, skills-focused education, eliminate the barriers that hold people back, and provide a ladder of opportunity across the entire country as we build back fairer.

Order. Tahir Ali will be the last speaker on four minutes. I am afraid that, to get everybody in, we will have to drop it to three minutes.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I share the experience of the Secretary of State, having come to this country unable to speak a word of English—but I was only 13 months old. I am proud to be a product of BTEC, and not BTEC politics but BTEC engineering. I am probably right to surmise that Government Members who hold BTEC qualifications will be lower in number than those who are Etonians.

As a product of BTEC engineering, having secured an apprenticeship, been enrolled on to a course and achieved grades at merit or distinction, I was encouraged to study at undergraduate level at a local university. I was the first in my family to attend university, and my graduation was one of the proudest days for my parents. Thirty years on, my son, Tayab Ali, left school with good GCSEs but did not want to do A-levels. Like his father, he did BTEC engineering, which he completed in 2019 with grades of distinction star, distinction star, distinction. After covid, he secured an apprenticeship and is now studying for a degree paid for by his employer, just like mine was.

Not everyone takes the A-level route of some academics. As someone said earlier, no one would mess with A-levels, so why are we talking about scrapping BTECs and promoting T-levels instead? That risks holding back 80,000 students from achieving a level 3 qualification. My son would not have been able to achieve such a qualification. BTECs are valued highly by employers and universities, with 230,000 students having achieved a level 3 BTEC qualification this year alone.

The DFE wants to remove funding from any BTEC qualifications deemed to overlap with A-levels or T-levels, which seriously risks affecting students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds pursuing those qualifications, and disproportionately impacting those with special educational needs and those from Asian ethnic groups.

It is no surprise that 86% of respondents to the DFE’s consultation disagreed with the plans to scrap BTECs. I urge the Government to abandon their plan to withdraw support and funding for BTECs and to provide the best range of options for all young people to consider.

I welcome the Bill and the intention to create better technical and vocational pathways for young people and give them clear careers advice, so that they end up on the right route for them rather than on whatever all their mates are doing. The lifelong learning guarantee and finance are hugely important, particularly in these post-covid times of massive skills shortages. With more people changing roles and careers in an ever-changing economy, it will be more important than ever to ensure that we support adults as well as young people to train and upskill. I also welcome the huge boost in funding for technical skills and vocational learning in the Budget. There are some fantastic examples of this in Mansfield. West Notts College and Nottingham Trent University have a partnership around health in particular, where they are joining up post-16 and HE, technical and vocational routes into the local hospital, which is our biggest employer. That is a really great example that we could definitely build on. As a county council, we want to add into that social work and social care, and make sure that we have that output from our local organisations and education providers. That is exactly the kind of example of providers working with business to create the kind of roles that we need in our local area, which I think is really important. Mansfield is benefiting from additional funding, too, at the minute.

The Secretary of State picked up on some of the things I was going to ask, and either my telepathy is working better than I thought or he is as wise as I am. I was going to ask him not to bin BTECs in their entirety, but to rationalise them and to make sure that we keep the best ones as clear routes to post-16 education for young people, which he has committed to do. I was going to ask him to be more flexible about T-levels and the entry routes into them, because clearly we should not be preventing people who want to do a T-level in early years education from accessing it because they were not very good at trigonometry. That really does not make any sense, so I am glad that he has committed to doing that.

If I were to ask anything else of the Minister who is on the Bench at the minute, it would be to talk about the level 3 entitlement. I think that is really important and would be really beneficial, but in communities such as mine, where 25% of people leave school with no level 2 qualification, being able to access level 3 will still be challenging. I wonder whether we could offer any additional support to help people to get into that and expand it to perhaps some of the areas where that is the biggest challenge. If he wants to pilot something, I know a place that would really welcome it.

On some of the powers that the Bill looks at to review provision and how it engages with business, I mentioned the positive example in Mansfield. Nottinghamshire is currently having conversations with Government about devolution and about county deals. We talk about adult skills in that budget. I wonder what scope there is to look at post-16 in that conversation, too, to join these things up—as we are doing at West Notts College with Nottingham Trent University—and to look at how we can embed social care interventions and youth work into that to do something really positive for young people’s life chances. I would welcome a conversation with the DFE about that as part of those talks, but I really welcome the scope and the intent of the Bill, which I think will make a huge difference to the people in my constituency.

Of course, I welcome the reforms in the Bill that attempt to improve the quality of post-16 education, but the sector has been underfunded and indeed under-appreciated for too long and that must change.

I am relieved that peers have succeeded in amending the Bill to specify the Department for Education must not withdraw funding for BTEC qualifications, as currently planned, until there is strong evidence that they no longer meet employer and indeed students’ demands. Therefore, it is important that this House backs the Lords in that key amendment. BTECs are vital for allowing students to combine practical study with academic learning, and it would be incredibly short-sighted if that opportunity were taken away. I hope the level of support shown during this debate for BTECs will convince the Government to change their mind on this.

I now turn to the introduction of local skills improvement plans; I will call them LSIPs. These are a welcome measure in the Bill that aims to create a stronger link between local skills needs, as identified by employers, and the courses offered by colleges in the area. However, there is currently no reference to special educational needs or to disability employment anywhere in the legislation, which I find rather shocking. Some 21% of all students in general further education colleges have a learning difficulty or disability, rising to 26% among 16 to 18-year-olds. That equates to around 240,000 16 to 19-year-olds with SEND across all further education colleges. There is no mechanism in the Bill to encourage or require employers to use local skills improvement plans to help address the disability employment gap, which stands at nearly 30%. While a requirement in draft guidance for college governors to assess the quality of courses for students with SEND every three years is welcome, that on its own is not enough to have an impact on disability employment rates.

There are three key changes that would significantly improve the Bill for disabled people. First, the Bill must require evidence informing the development of LSIPs to include information directly relevant to improving local disabled people’s employment prospects. Secondly, LSIPs must include positive actions to improve the employment prospects of people with disabilities. Thirdly, members of employer representative bodies must be responsible for creating skills improvement plans that must demonstrate a commitment to equality and diversity, so they can create an inclusive plan for all, especially disabled people. I will be tabling amendments that would ensure the Bill fulfils these three key points to improve outcomes for SEND students and disabled people, and I hope the Government will look favourably on them.

As we all know, the future is all about a good education and having the right skills. If we are to have a prosperous and successful nation, we need our education and training systems to be first class and competitive. The same applies to individuals: if they are to thrive, they must be provided with the opportunities to do so. Education and skills can be a great leveller. A modern economy also demands a much higher degree of skilled workers than ever before. The jobs of the future will require people to be better trained and have the requisite skills, and we must also be aware that the skills and jobs of tomorrow may be very different from those of today.

We also know that rising living standards and greater wealth only come from a more productive economy. Improving our national productivity will require innovation, investment and a skilled workforce. In January, I will be hosting my eighth skills fair in Carlisle. It was first set up at the behest of local employers and training providers in the area and is supported by such businesses as McVitie’s, Nestlé, Pirelli and Center Parcs. The key point is that they wanted a skills fair, not a jobs fair; those and other businesses recognise that it is skills that matter. I therefore fully support the direction in which the Government want to go and the improvements they want to see.

I appreciate that the Bill covers a number of policy and administrative areas, but I want to pick up on just two points. First, it is absolutely right that all pupils and students are made aware of all the training and educational opportunities and possibilities open to them: academic, technical and apprenticeships. We are fortunate to have a quality university sector and the university option is clearly important, but other training opportunities are of equal importance. Indeed it is arguable that technical training and apprenticeships are almost more vital if we are to improve the performance of our economy. That will be required if we are to become competitive in the global economy so it is absolutely right that all institutions have a duty to make sure that students have all options.

Secondly, it is vital that employers, and indeed local leaders, are at the centre of the skills system—and it must be local employers. They know what skills are needed and the training and courses required, they know the local economy and they know where the jobs of tomorrow are likely to be created. A real partnership between business and training providers can be the blueprint for a better skilled and trained workforce that benefits the individual as well as our country.

Since 2010, Conservative-led Governments have cut adult education budgets by half, damaging the life chances of people right across the country. They have pursued an ill-conceived austerity agenda and our society is the poorer for it.

Being able to read and write is essential to full engagement in society. Illiteracy blights lives. It prevents people from getting decent employment, is the source of immense disadvantage in navigating the various social structures on which we all rely at some points in our lives, whether that be housing, health and care services, education or social security, and it leaves people vulnerable to exploitation.

These profound disadvantages are experienced by the more than 7 million adults in England who, according to National Literacy Trust estimates, have very poor literacy skills. That is 16.4% of the adult population. Tackling the crisis in adult literacy therefore must be a priority for Government.

The Government made an announcement in the autumn Budget about funding for a new UK-wide numeracy programme to improve basic maths skills, but I ask the Minister where the money is to address the crisis in adult literacy. As the Workers’ Educational Association has pointed out, little in the Bill directly supports learners who want to study below level 3. Without targeted support for community learning below level 3, there will be limited pathways for the most disadvantaged learners—those furthest from the workforce—to progress into further education and/or work.

It is also important that the Government consider the barriers potential learners face. When I was an adult education tutor I met many people who wanted to improve their situation and career prospects but who were unable to get the education they needed as they were constrained by social security rules. The amendment tabled by the Bishop of Durham in the other place requiring the Secretary of State to review universal credit conditionality to ensure that adult learners who are unemployed and on universal credit remain entitled to universal credit if they enrol on an approved course is incredibly important. Nobody should be barred from education because of their employment status.

It is really disappointing that the Government intend to press ahead with plans to defund the majority of BTEC qualifications in spite of the high value placed on BTECs by students, employers and universities. Around 230,000 students achieved their level 3 BTEC qualification this year. It is notable that the Department for Education’s own impact assessment concluded that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will lose out the most from the move to scrap most BTEC funding. At a time when we have deep inequality in the country, more than 14 million living in poverty and a serious depletion of opportunities for adult education as a direct result of Conservative Government austerity, that cannot be right. Adult education has the power to transform lives and to embed in communities a culture of learning that we shouldall be able to enjoy. It is important that the Government ensure that opportunities are available to people regardless of where they live and their employment status, and that financial barriers are removed.

It is an absolute joy and delight to be here to talk about this Bill, which I wholeheartedly support. It speaks to places such as Great Grimsby. To level up properly, we really need to support technical education. That is something we have needed to do for decades now. Despite the caricature by Opposition Members, I got a BTEC myself and I taught in further education for 22 years, but not all BTECs are equal; some are very high quality, and some are not such good quality. That is why we need to take a really good look at the whole provision.

I taught in further education when new Labour had its mantra of “education, education, education”, and I can tell the House that that actually decimated technical education. HNCs and HNDs virtually died overnight, and towns such as Great Grimsby, which has fantastic further education provision—we have the Ofsted grade 1 Grimsby Institute and the Ofsted grade 2 Franklin Sixth Form College—were utterly gutted by what happened in education then. That proves that this is about not the amount of funding that we put in, but where we put it and where our priorities lie.

It is absolutely key that we put employers at the centre of this policy. That makes employers realise that they have the power, and they will work with our educators to make sure that we are getting the right kinds of qualifications. In Grimsby, our biggest employer is our seafood sector, but we have a dearth of qualifications in that sector. That is why it is fantastic that we are developing our apprenticeships provision, which is utterly needed.

However, I want to make sure that we include everybody in our local skills improvement plans. That includes all types of employer—our large employers, our small and medium-sized enterprises, our sole traders—as well as our educators. I was happy to see in the Bill that we have not specified the type of designated employers’ groups that should come together. As other Members have said, we have some weak groups and some strong groups, and we need to make sure that we are able to account for that. I am heartened that the Secretary of State will sign off the LSIPs, because that will make sure that we align them with the skills we need locally and not the skills that suit the providers, which is what has happened for the last few decades.

As a further education ambassador, I am delighted to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), and I look forward to seeing the Bill go through the House.

I pay tribute to the staff at Christ the King Sixth Form College, which I have recently been in contact with. They really do go the extra mile to support young people in my constituency with vocational and non-vocational skills and learning.

I am very supportive of the aims of the Bill, but in content it is just too weak to meet the task facing us. It tries to make up for over a decade of neglect with too little action. We have a serious shortage of skilled workers in certain British jobs. Eleven years of short-sighted education policy in this country has contributed to that issue, but education is not the only factor. Due to the disastrous Tory Brexit agreement, we are now experiencing a wide variety of economic issues. Only now are some people realising how important EU migrant workers were. We are all now feeling the effects of the worker shortage and supply chain issues. Only now are some people realising that they were wrong in their attitudes of superiority over that workforce and eating humble pie.

Of course, the Government should be turning their attention to further education to try to fix their crisis, but taking a bulldozer to the current BTEC system is not the answer. BTECs have helped so many students, in my constituency and beyond, to pursue their potential in vocational subjects. It is indeed important to open alternative pathways for young adults who do not feel that the traditional sixth-form education is for them. Sadly, the numbers show that pupils with different skills and interests from the standard academic subjects have been failed by successive Tory Governments. A staggering four in 10 young people are currently leaving education without level 3 qualifications. When we consider that those Governments have slashed further education by a third since 2010, it is not that much of a surprise.

The Bill is not popular across the board. Some 86% of respondents to the Department for Education’s consultations were against the proposals for qualifications to overlap A-levels and T-levels. The Secretary of State said that he will look at the data, but he is obviously not looking or paying attention to that data. Even Margaret Thatcher’s Education Secretary, Lord Baker, has spoken out against the proposals, so why are the Government persisting with scrapping the BTEC system when students and professionals alike are so against that?

If the Government really want to strengthen the workforce of the future, they will invest more money, more resources, more teaching, more child and adolescent mental health services, more student choice and more financial support for students. Let us improve what we have, not defund it and not move towards scrapping it all together.

I, too, warmly welcome the Bill, with the emphasis it places on lifelong learning. Although 50% of people go to university, all of us will be working for something like 40 to 50 years, so it is very important that people have the opportunity to acquire new skills during their lifetime. I therefore join voices from across the House in whole-heartedly welcoming the direction of travel in the Bill.

I particularly welcome the Bill’s emphasis on place and local economic links, with links to local employers and a greater emphasis on local governance. My local schools with sixth forms will also welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement this evening of the extension of funding for certain courses to 2025. One local high school has written to me to emphasise that its students value taking courses in sport, business, travel and tourism, sound engineering and IT. This is, therefore, a very positive Bill.

I want to use my time to raise a local case, which the Minister was kind enough to discuss with me recently, where the direction of travel is completely wrong: the case of Malvern Hills College. It is a wonderful college, which has been in the town of Malvern for nearly 100 years. About five years ago, it was acquired by Warwickshire College Group. Warwick, of course, is quite a long way from Malvern. The group, which has a lot of disparate sites, took the unfortunate decision to close the college. The college has been going for nearly 100 years and is very valued by the local community. The community has put in place a covenant on the site, which is that it should be used for educational purposes only.

I urge the Minister, in his response, to see whether he can use the powers in the Bill to examine that very unfortunate decision and push back on Warwickshire College Group’s plans to close an institution that for nearly 100 years has been enhancing the skills, the lifetime learning and the life chances of people in Malvern. There will be a demonstration to show support for the college, and 5,000 signatures have already been added to the petition.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I speak as a vice-chair of the all-party group on sixth-form education and as a proud governor of Luton Sixth Form College.

Under the Conservative Government, further education and training have been treated as an afterthought for over a decade. Post-16 and further education budgets have been slashed by a third since 2010. According to the Learning and Work Institute, last month’s Budget will restore funding to only 60% of the 2010 level, leaving a £750 million gap. Students make choices at 16 that will affect the rest of their lives. Sixth forms and colleges are there to guide them by recognising their strengths and shaping their development, including helping with appropriate choices about the right course of study.

BTEC qualifications are a key option available to students. They allow students to shape their learning, combining academic learning and practical skills and a range of assessment types. For example, the health and social care BTEC is a practical, work-related course that provides students with the option of formal study in future to become a nurse, midwife or social worker or of a more practical option through an apprenticeship or becoming a healthcare assistant. In towns such as Luton, the ecosystem is excellent: people can study a health and social care BTEC, study at the University of Bedfordshire in Luton and then progress to work at the Luton and Dunstable University Hospital.

Defunding—in effect, scrapping many BTECs—will leave many students without a viable pathway after GCSEs, hampering their progression to higher education or skilled employment. Disadvantaged young people are most likely to suffer. The Department for Education equalities impact assessment concluded that

“those from SEND backgrounds, Asian ethnic groups, disadvantaged backgrounds, and males”—


“disproportionately likely to be affected.”

I am fully aware of how the proposals will impact on students at Luton Sixth Form College, where over 70% of students are not white and 70% receive bursaries, such as free school meals. UCAS data from 2020 shows that 92% of BTEC students accepted university offers.

Fundamentally, this is a class issue. Working-class students who are more likely to study BTECs and do not have the personal networks to support a future career will lose access to a route to higher education and employment. BTECs are engines of social mobility. Research from the Social Market Foundation found that 44% of white working-class students who enter university studied at least one BTEC, and 37% of black students enter with only BTEC qualifications.

It is impossible to square the Government’s stated ambition to “level up” opportunity with the plan to get rid of most BTECs, including all larger versions of the qualifications that are deemed to overlap with A-levels or T-levels. In his closing remarks, will the Minister explain how this ill thought out decision fits with the Government’s claim to level up in education?

This is a very exciting Bill and I support it, but I think that the Government are missing a big opportunity here if we are waiting until post-16. Only 49.9% of young people achieved a GCSE in English and maths of grade 5 and above in 2019-20, with many being forced to take them over and over again in post-16 education, so I am really pleased to hear the news today that that will stop. By that stage, many of them are already disengaged and we will have lost many of them from education and skills training.

I think we should be looking at a 14 to 18 curriculum across the board in the Bill. We already have university technical colleges, which follow that model. I point out that UTC Portsmouth has 34 local business partners that are already helping to shape its curriculum and that, last year, 100% of leavers got jobs. It is getting young people into what they are really interested in learning from 14 rather than making them fit into our present assessment system until they are 16.

We have a shortage of skills, which is keeping our economy back and making us less productive and less competitive compared with our international peers. Most, if not all, of our competitors do not pause education at 16 with exams, which incidentally take out six to seven months of what should be a productive learning year, so why do we?

We should get rid of GCSEs and replace them with a school leaving certificate at the end of schooling or training at 18. It should include academic, technical and vocational qualifications, with a wider spread of learning to equip young people for the skills that we need today. Training young people from the age of 14 will make sure that they are engaged, because they will know that what they are studying will help with future employment. We need to put technical and vocational education on a par with academic qualifications, making sure that we work with businesses, universities and young people to design a curriculum that works for everybody and helps young people to contribute to the community, as well as preparing them for the life of work.

Charities such as Oarsome Chance in Gosport are taking young people from the age of nine who are at risk of exclusion and disadvantage, including some from Meon Valley, and giving them skills for future employment, including life skills. These young people struggle with attaining GCSE level 2, but the charity gives them an alternative education provision that re-engages them and helps them to find a route to employment. That should not be left to charities, however; it should be in our mainstream education system.

Failing at 16 has a major impact on any young person, so I plead that the Government look again. The Bill is an excellent start, but skills learning for young people’s employment future should start at 14, not 16.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. As a strong supporter of further education and community adult education, I am pleased to be holding a jobs and skills fair in Roehampton on Friday, to which I invite all hon. Members including the Minister. I also invite the Minister to come and speak to schools and to South Thames further education college, because I feel that there is a huge disconnect between what I have been hearing from them and what has been stated about the Bill.

I went to South Thames College this morning to talk to teachers and students. They are extremely worried about the significant pay gap of £9,000 between further education teachers and schoolteachers, which affects recruitment, retention and the ability to employ industry experts for technical subjects. However, their main concern is about the scrapping of BTEC qualifications. Going ahead with those plans will undermine the ambition of the Bill fundamentally, so they need to be revisited. The Secretary of State says that he will extend the transition period and change the requirements for English and maths; those measures are welcome, but they are absolutely not enough to make up for the difference between BTECs and going on to T-levels.

We need a two-route model for technical education, keeping T-levels with BTECs alongside them. Let me set out some reasons that schools have given me. First, T-levels have too high an entry barrier simply to replace BTECs. South Thames College has 4,500 students, but 2,000 would not have the qualifications for T-levels. What would happen to them? Scrapping BTECs is taking the rungs out of the ladder of opportunity, mainly for disadvantaged students in our communities.

Another fundamental difference is that BTECs are made up of units. That enables learners to take English and maths alongside the course, which will simply not be possible with T-levels; it also enables learners to work alongside their studies, which will not be possible with T-levels either, meaning that many students will be shut out of further education. BTECs can have a good impact on mental health because of the varied assessment outcomes and measures, which will not be possible with T-levels.

T-levels are not deliverable at the scale needed by the schools and colleges that I have talked to, because of the number of work placements required. They will cut off a route to university that is currently taken by many medical students, and they will undermine some apprenticeships. I urge Ministers to stop this hammer blow to social mobility, stop the biggest threat to post-16 education, and keep funding for BTECs in the long term, alongside T-levels.

We are very lucky in Loughborough, because we have a thriving education sector. In many ways, education is our industry, and productivity and outputs are second to none. I consider that the Bill will ensure that the opportunities that we already strive for in Loughborough are spread throughout the country.

One aim of the Bill is to place employers at the heart of our skills system, establishing a skills accelerator to enable employers and education providers to collaborate to ensure that skills provision meets local need. Loughborough already owns the T-shirt on this, from A-levels, university courses, apprenticeships, BTECs, traineeships and the lifetime skills guarantee to the town deal-funded careers and enterprise hub in the centre of town. Loughborough College is also in the process of building a T-Level centre—thanks to Government funding—and we are hoping that the joint bid with Loughborough University, Loughborough College, Derby University and Derby College will be successful and enable an institute of technology to be established. Our local providers aim to skill young people and upskill adult workers specifically for our businesses and organisations.

Last week I met the BTEC uniformed services students at Loughborough College and saw the skills they were gaining and the development path they were on, just as it was when a member of my own family completed the course. Every one of them is a credit to their course and will go on, I am sure, to be highly competent professionals in areas such as policing and the armed services and in other related roles, following their lifetime ambitions and goals and helping to fill the crucial roles that our country needs. I wish them all the very best for the future. I therefore welcome the confirmation from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the Government continue to recognise the importance of BTEC qualifications.

The Bill will also make it a criminal offence to arrange contract cheating such as essay mills, and I particularly want to thank Loughborough Students’ Union for all its work and campaigning in bringing about that amazing reform.

This Bill is an opportunity for us to give further education the attention that it deserves, but if we are to realise the full potential of further education, we must make up for years of cuts under successive Conservative Governments. It is the worst-funded sector in our cash-strapped education system, particularly for adult learners. We have already had many debates on this subject. Jayne Davis, the new principal of the excellent Bath College, told me that further education in this country was at a “tipping point”. The sector does not need catch-up funding; it needs a long-term funding strategy.

Further education must be at the front and centre of our covid recovery, creating a workforce that has the skills we need to fill the gaps in our national and local economies. I need no excuse to talk once more about the fantastic efforts of Bath College, Bath Spa University, Bath and North East Somerset Council, and the Institute of Coding. Together, they were quick off the mark in response to covid, to get the I-START project up and running. The project enables our workforce to upskill through blended, flexible modules. Those who have spoken today about a flexible education system should look no further than Bath for an example of what can be achieved through collaboration between our local authorities and all parts of our education sector.

A key opportunity for further education is to be at the forefront of our efforts to reach net zero. Currently, fewer than 1% of college students are on a course with broad coverage of climate education. Unless we embed climate and environment in our post-16 education curriculum, the Government’s plans for net zero will simply not be possible.

Bath College is doing that already, and now the Government must step up as well. This Bill should be helping students—their voice must not be lost along the way—but the Government’s proposals to defund BTECs, about which we have heard a great deal tonight, will leave many students without a viable pathway at the age of 16. Current estimates suggest that at least 30% of students in England currently studying at level 3 are pursuing a BTEC. Withdrawing support from BTECs could lead to those students studying for a qualification that was not right for them, or dropping out of education altogether.

T-levels are a welcome development, and I hope they will give future generations the technical skills that they need to succeed in their careers, but BTECs do that as well. Creative subjects such as performing arts are among the first courses that fill up in our local college. BTECs are important to those who study for them, and they are also important to Bath. We must not take choice away from students.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). While she was speaking, I was struck by something that she did and so many others have done during the debate: she paid tribute to the educational establishments in her constituency. This is what is bringing us all together. We all want this to work. We all know how important skills are to our future and our future generations.

I am proud to support the Bill, and I will pick two main reasons—I could go on, but we have a time limit. The first element is the Bill’s commitment to ensuring that skills, education and training respond to the needs of the local economy, something my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) referred to. For Milton Keynes, that means delivering new skills in our local industries, such as tech and finance. I have talked at length about the robots, the driverless cars and the e-scooters that make Milton Keynes the wonderful place it is. Basically, we will be enhancing and future-proofing our reputation as a hub for innovation and technology.

The second element is the introduction of the lifelong learning entitlement or LLE, which will open so many doors to people across Milton Keynes. It will allow people to pursue a career that was previously out of reach: if we add in that first element of ensuring that we are on top of future skills requirements, it will allow people to pursue careers that we have not even thought of right now.

I am proud to say that Milton Keynes is already leading the way on this matter, as we are home to the wonderful Open University. Previous speakers have mentioned modular learning, including, I think, the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson); the Bill is an amazing step towards our goal, but in my remaining minute I will share a few concerns.

First, I am keen to see provisions relating to local school improvement plans take into account the role of online and nationwide skills providers such as the OU in Milton Keynes. The OU is one of the top five skills providers in 90% of the English parliamentary constituencies and plays a formidable role in our levelling-up agenda, so it is important that those plans are as inclusive as possible.

Secondly, the funding provided by the LLE, while welcome, must address the disparity between those who can study full or part-time in a traditional sense and those who can only undertake modular study. I urge the Government to produce further guidance on that.

I would be remiss if I did not mention—I hope the Minister knows this is coming—that as part of how this Bill sits we need a new university in Milton Keynes. I ask my colleagues at the Department to reconsider and re- engage with the idea of Milton Keynes university, MK:U.

I begin by paying tribute to everything that Wirral Met College in my constituency does to equip young people with the skills they need to thrive in a fast-changing world. Even during the darkest days of the pandemic, when colleges across our country were forced to shutter their doors, educators never wavered in their commitment to their students, but our colleges and sixth forms simply cannot be expected to survive on goodwill alone.

Since 2010, the post-16 education sector has been decimated by sweeping funding cuts. Further education budgets have been slashed by a third, while spending on adult education has fallen by more than half in real terms. Even with the recent announcement of additional funding in last month’s Budget, Government spending still falls way short of what it was when Labour was last in power. The Government can talk as much as they like about the importance of lifelong learning, but their promises will always ring hollow while spending levels remain so woefully inadequate.

I hope the Minister will soon come before the House to explain what steps the Government will be taking to undo the catastrophic legacy of 10 long years of austerity on this critically important sector. I know that many of the young people I represent feel deeply concerned by the Government’s proposals to defund the vast majority of BTECs. Those qualifications have proved a precious resource for the hundreds of thousands of young people who complete them each year, and no one has benefited more from their introduction than young people living in the north end of my constituency, one of the most deprived areas in the whole UK.

Ofsted and the Government’s own equality impact assessment have warned that those are the young people who stand to lose the most from the Government’s reckless plans to replace BTECs with unproven T-levels. That is why I warmly welcome Lords amendment 29, which will maintain approval for BTECs until such time as T-levels are fully rolled out. With employers, educators, trade unions and a host of former Education Secretaries calling for the retention of BTECs in their entirety, the Minister must explain why he is so intent on pushing ahead with these reforms when there is such broad consensus about the damage they will cause.

I welcome this Bill. Some may say it is not before time, but it provides the means both for addressing the problems that have hung over the UK for too long and for meeting future challenges. It is, in many respects, a landmark Bill, and thus it is important that we get it right so that it can herald the start of a new era that provides people of all ages, whatever their background and from wherever they come, with the opportunity to realise their full potential.

As we have heard, amendments have been made in the other place, often on a cross-party basis. I urge the Government not to seek to strike them out too hastily, as many of them improve the Bill. Such is the strategic timing of the Bill that, from my perspective, the amendment in the names of the noble Lords Clarke and Layard, to place the lifetime skills guarantee on a statutory footing, is well merited.

With the welcome reduction in the taper rate of universal credit announced in the Budget, the Government have placed much emphasis both on the importance of making work pay and on the current high level of job vacancies. Unfortunately, many people are currently some distance from the workplace and are not able to take advantage of these opportunities. However, many of them would be able to do so if universal credit conditions were reformed so that they could more readily access education and training. With that in mind, I urge the Government to consider carefully the amendment tabled by the Lord Bishop of Durham.

The opportunities that the Bill provides are immense, but they will not be realised without proper investment in our often unsung but nevertheless impressive national network of colleges. The funding announced in the comprehensive spending review is welcome, but it should be viewed as only a start.

In recent years, one of the great success stories in north Suffolk and east Norfolk has been the significant progress made by East Coast College with its campuses in both Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. The college is a pivotal player in the strategy to remove pockets of coastal deprivation and to realise the full potential that the zero-carbon economy presents in sectors such as offshore wind and nuclear at Sizewell C. To play this role fully and properly, East Coast College and colleges across the country must be properly resourced. A resilient college network is vital if we are to achieve the aims of this Bill.

I commend the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Government for this Bill, which is a positive step in the right direction. It is England-centred, and therefore it will not affect us directly in Northern Ireland, but in my intervention on the Secretary of State I referred to the underachievement of disadvantaged white British boys and girls, which has been replicated in Northern Ireland.

My colleague Peter Weir MLA was an assiduous Education Minister, and he introduced a strategy to address the underachievement of young protestant males in our school system. They were failing to be educated, and they left school without qualifications. We must be cognisant of targeted need, and we must respond to that need appropriately. Peter Weir sought to do so and, before he left his post as Education Minister, he launched the “A Fair Start” report and action plan to address it. Across the UK, we need to ensure that every child, regardless of their background, class, creed or colour, has a fair start, and I commend the report to the Minister.

I support the Chancellor’s decision to support apprentices with a £3 billion investment to build a high-wage, high-skill economy. It builds on the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee, which directly invests in 16 to 19-year-olds and will see the numbers double and the number of skills bootcamps quadruple. It is a positive strategy, and there is funding to make it happen.

I have served on Glastry College’s board of governors for 34 years, and I have seen many boys go through the school, both those who are academically qualified and interested, and those who have more practical skills. Many who struggle in academia excel with their hands. We need the skill of the steelworker to form the bolts and screws, and we need the skill of the surgeon to complete the hip replacement. We also need those who are educationally disposed to take other opportunities. Both are essential for success, so we need to build up both forms of education, academic and practical. I am very supportive of the enhancement of apprenticeship places and incentives for small and medium-sized enterprises, the employers, to take on apprentices as a way to combat the underachievement in those fields that must be targeted. I believe that the Minister needs to work alongside colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make sure that our young people have the skills for tomorrow that we wish them to have.

On Friday, I had the great pleasure of speaking to and listening to about 200 businesses at the Warrington Business Exchange. It was the first time they had come together for about two years. The No. 1 issue they raised with me was skills, and I was delighted to say to them that we have an oven-ready Bill to satisfy all of their needs.

Having worked as an employer for many years, I can say that one of the greatest issues that businesses face is finding individuals who have the skills to take their businesses forward. Most of us who have watched the news over the past six months or listened to the radio know that we have a skills issue in this country. That is not new. The challenges of preparing young people for that giant leap from education into the world of work have been there for many years, so the Bill is very welcome. It really does address some of the key issues that employers and young people face, which is why I welcome many of the reforms it introduces.

In particular, we need to make sure that the 50% of young people who do not go to university are not deprived of the chance of a great education, a vocational education, that will help them to be the best that they can be in their life. This Bill and policy sit at the heart of levelling up; this is part of the outcome that will drive opportunity for young people around the country.

Let me spend a moment talking about some of the things that Warrington is doing with its towns fund deal. The Government have allocated £22 million to Warrington. A proportion of that is going to help with skills for specific sectors, with £1 million going to tackle the skills shortage in the health and social care sector, with an academy being set up at the Warrington & Vale Royal College; and £3.3 million going to set up an advanced construction and engineering academy in Warrington, specifically business-led, to broaden the offer and help to ensure that we get young people trained up for our local economy.

Finally, I wish to touch on T-levels. So much has been said about phasing out BTECs, but I want to talk about phasing in T-levels. Warrington’s Priestley College has led the introduction of T-levels in the north-west of England, and I talked to the senior team there who have worked on T-levels. They have introduced courses on science, healthcare, education and childcare, and digital production, and they are absolutely committed to ensuring that they go further and faster with T-levels, because they have seen the difference that this makes to young people. So when I hear Opposition Members talking down the opportunity that T-levels bring, I say to them, “Go and look at some of these colleges and see the opportunities that they bring forward.”

I congratulate the Department for Education, Ministers, former Ministers and the former Secretary of State on their work to get the Bill over the line. I have been amazed to listen to Opposition Members rewrite their education history. Labour’s “Education, education, education,” sounded good, but it actually focused on getting 50% of kids into university, regardless of the degree, and forgetting about the rest. It made jobs bad and uni good. The reason I know that is because in the 1990s I left home at 15; I did not do very well at school and did not go to uni, and I was made to feel bad about that. Time and again, I was told that I would not succeed, but now I am here, causing you lot trouble.

I cannot describe what a difference it makes for young people in Stroud to hear that their training courses are being discussed by Ministers now. Which skilled people did we miss during the lockdowns and realise that we cannot live without? It was local chefs, beauticians, hairdressers, carers, brickies, childminders and creatives, every single one of whom got their education at colleges. My wonderful South Gloucestershire and Stroud College and the Association of Colleges recognise the significance of the Government’s now recognising colleges’ central role at the heart of our economic recovery. We are using colleges to address long-term regional inequalities and the transition to net zero. This has not happened before.

When the Minister sums up, I would like to hear more about putting the lifetime skills guarantee on a statutory footing and extending it to include level 3 courses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) said. I would like to know whether the Government are looking at the creation of maintenance support systems, as proposed in the Philip Augar report, and whether they will create a duty for schools and universities to collaborate with colleges and employers in the development of skills plans. Stroud is already modelling putting employers at the heart of FE: the growth hub and the GFirst local enterprise partnership are already based in our college, and our wonderful University of Gloucestershire already collaborates with colleges and employers.

As I said in my essay for the Conservative Environment Network, I believe there is a green skills emergency. I meet vocational FE students in Stroud all the time and they want to create the businesses that fix our planet, our homes and our cars. Currently, only 5% of mechanics can fix electric vehicles; we have to change that. The think-tank Onward knows that we need 170,000 more green-skilled workers to qualify for retrofitting and renewable heat each year. This has to change: if we do not have the skilled people, we will not be able to save the planet. It really is that simple. I am therefore pleased to note that the Government are considering amending the Bill to require the local skills plans to include the UK’s net zero target and other environmental goals. That is really important if such plans are to be approved. The Government are genuinely changing lives with this Bill, and I thank the Secretary of State very much.

It is a great pleasure to wind up for the Opposition after a good debate on this Bill, with some excellent speeches and important contributions from Members in all parts of the House. I repeat the tribute by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) to our colleagues in the House of Lords, who adopted a constructive, cross-party approach to the Bill.

I hope that the Minister has taken note of the contributions to this debate, because much of real value was said by Members on the Opposition and Government Benches. Indeed, two contributions from Conservative Members were—I suspect inadvertently—very revealing. The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) revealed that adult education funding is currently at its lowest level for 23 years. That set me thinking about what might have happened 23 years ago that meant that adult education funding was at such a low level but improved substantially over time, only to reach its nadir now. Of course, a Labour Government happened 23 years ago, and it has taken 11 years to unwind that Labour Government’s investment in adult education to the current nadir.

The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), also made a revealing contribution: he said that levelling up is all about investment in human beings—people in every area throughout the country. Of course, he was one of the Secretaries of State who was in power while there was a 40% reduction in adult education. He presided over that. I absolutely agree that if levelling up is to mean anything, it has to mean investment in people, which is precisely what we have not seen under this Government.

A number of Members spoke powerfully about the role of BTECs. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) spoke of Lord Baker’s description of the defunding of BTECs as “act of educational vandalism”. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) spoke up for her local college and about the number of students at that college who would miss out. My hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) spoke of the importance of the BTEC pathway, particularly for disadvantaged students. And my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) spoke passionately and movingly about his own journey as a BTEC engineering student who went on to be the very first person in his family to go to university, and his pride at seeing his son follow in his footsteps.

This question is really important, because the Government have set out to trash the reputation of BTECs and then come back and said, “Actually, we’re only going to get rid of some of them—only the low-quality ones.” The damage is being done already. Students are on those courses now: 230,000 students who are doing level 3 BTECs are being told that those are poor-quality qualifications. Why make that announcement and create all that uncertainty and then say, “Oh, we’re going to do a review and then we’ll look at the evidence.”? This whole approach has been wrong. I welcome the more conciliatory language that we are hearing from the new Secretary of State, but the damage has been done, and we need to quickly hear from him which of those courses will be carrying on, which ones will not and what is the plan for those students who will not be doing T-levels.

The real worry is that this will result in fewer students from more deprived communities achieving vocational qualifications at level 3. Pulling up that drawbridge will, without question, restrict opportunities, particularly for white working class and black, Asian and minority ethnic students from those communities. The Secretary of State repeated the description of BTECs as a low-quality qualification, so if we are hearing a change of tone, we need to know whether we are seeing a change of policy.

There was a lot of discussion about local skills improvement plans. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke about the extent to which special needs students are missing from LSIPs, which is an important point. We very much welcome the Secretary of State’s climbdown on the subject of metro Mayors and their responsibility in terms of LSIPs, but if the responsibility of those elected to local government in metro Mayor areas is accepted, as was said by the hon. Members for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), what of areas that do not have metro Mayors? Why is there no local democratic accountability for those areas? It occurs to me that the vast majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends represent areas that have metro Mayors, but the majority of Government Members do not, so they will have no democratic accountability whatsoever. The point made by the hon. Member for Ipswich about the variation in chambers of commerce—some are very good and some are much less good—was well made.

Let me crack on. If I have time, I would be very happy to hear from the hon. Gentleman.

The Government have indicated that they will seek to overturn Lord Baker’s amendment on careers guidance, which would have allowed a range of educational and training providers access to every student in years 8 to 13. The House will be aware that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has committed a future Labour Government to guarantee face-to-face professional careers guidance for every pupil, and compulsory two-week work experience. The Government should seek to match that ambition.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) spoke about students considering careers that they had not even heard of previously. That is incredibly important. It is one of the reasons why careers guidance is so crucial. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South spoke about the fact that poorer children do not have the networks on which the more affluent children are able to rely.

We absolutely support the Government’s intention to introduce a lifetime skills guarantee. It is a return to what students would have been able to enjoy under a previous Labour Government. However, as has been said, there are currently 9 million jobs in our economy that will be excluded. Anyone who has a level 3 qualification already and wants to retrain in the future will be excluded from doing so. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) and the right hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who is growing very nicely into his beard—[Interruption.] It is always a pleasure to see someone who has aged almost as much as I have in the past 11 years. He made what I thought was a mature point, bestowing on us his status as a greybeard, that this is not actually a guarantee. The fact that it is not on a statutory footing means that it is only an aspiration. It is an aspiration that we welcome, but the word “guarantee” means something. If we cannot guarantee that this will be available to so many students, as I have already laid out, it is not a guarantee at all.

We welcome the funding changes that the Secretary of State announced, but one of our key criticisms of the Bill is that much of it is ill-defined and not fully thought through. The fact that we have an announcement that there will be an extension while the Government work out which courses are needed and which ones are not is exactly why these announcements should not have been made until the Government had done their research.

T-levels are obviously a fantastic idea. We have already heard from the Secretary of State that there are more than 12,000 qualifications. Does the hon. Member agree that that is far too many and that, based on international comparisons, fewer than 1,000 would be really sensible?

It is an interesting point. The Government have said that there are too many qualifications. They have spoken about scrapping BTECs and are undermining them by saying that they are low-quality qualifications. Now they are going to go away and find out which ones they want to get rid of. That approach seems like it is the wrong way around. Why do the Government not identify the poor-quality qualifications and then start announcing their policy? That is where they have got it wrong.

Let me turn to the need to have maths and English as an exit-level qualification for T-levels. The Secretary of State is right to change his approach to the issue, as we have been calling for, but given that maths and English were an entry requirement for all students who are currently doing T-levels, the pilot is going to be misleading. The people who are doing T-levels currently—we will be investigating their outcomes in the pilot—will be different from those who will be able to study T-levels after this change. It is important that that is carefully considered.

The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) was absolutely right to speak about the universal credit amendment. We keep hearing the Government talk about the importance of people on universal credit being able to get into work. If we want universal credit to be a pathway towards helping the country to solve the skills crisis, people need to be able to afford to develop their skills. The hon. Gentleman was therefore right to say that the amendment should seriously be considered.

There were a couple of other very relevant contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) raised the important issue of FE lecturers’ pay. So many really good-quality FE lecturers have been forced to leave the profession because of real-terms pay cuts over many years. The skills drain has had a massive impact on our further education sector.

The hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) told us that he has been racing around employers in his constituency and telling them that there is an oven-ready Bill that will address all their skills needs. Well, he might be well advised to move office and not tell people where his new one is, because they might end up disappointed that he has slightly overpromised in that regard.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) blamed the Labour Government for the fact that she was made to feel bad when she left school at the age of 15. I notice that she was 15 in 1996, so it was a Conservative Government who made her feel bad. I am sorry that she had that experience, but she is knocking at the wrong door.

The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) addressed the problem faced by many hon. Members—a reduction in the time limit—by doing a seven-minute speech in three minutes. In the event that he ever loses his current job, he might want to consider being a horse racing commentator. But he had a lot to say and it was important.

My hon. Friends the Members for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) spoke about the scale of the cuts, and the collapse in investment in further education and adult education.

This is a small Bill, which is limited in scope. It leaves out apprenticeships and is silent on the role of independent training providers, which provide the majority of workplace learning. It lacks strategic vision, and is undermined by its lack of scale and urgency. There are some aspects that will make small improvements—we are not hostile to all that is in there—but it lacks the scale of reform and investment required to deliver the promised skills revolution.

The skills Bill is in danger of going down as an historic missed opportunity. The Government should recognise that the amendments introduced by their lordships strengthen the Bill; recognise that apprenticeships are central to skills in this country, and do more to increase the numbers studying and offering them; encourage a collaborative approach that recognises a role for all communities, whether they happen to have a metro Mayor or not; and address the chronic underfunding that has characterised the last 11 years in further education. If this Government took the approach that Labour is calling for today, they would have a chance of enabling England to compete with the very best skills systems in the world. It is the very least that English workers and employers deserve.

As someone who has spent the majority of his life in education or education policy, it is a real honour to be presenting this Bill on Second Reading. The Bill forms a cornerstone of some historic reforms that we are bringing to the skills agenda in our country: reforms that will help us more closely align skills training with the needs of employers; reforms that will help us to help all students, at all ages and stages, find more reliable routes to employment; and reforms that will help us level up our country and build back better.

This has been a long journey, and I want to thank some of the people who have been involved in it: not least, in the other place, Lord Sainsbury and Baroness Wolf, who have done enormous work to get us here, but also my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), the former Secretary of State, who gave such an impressive speech, and my hon. and glamorous Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), the former Minister for apprenticeships and skills. I also feel the need to mention another noble Lord in the other place who wrote a report for the Government in 2012—Lord Lingfield, who is genuinely one of the unsung heroes of education reform over the past 30 years. I put on record my debt to him and to his thinking. All of their work—the cross-party work that we have heard so much about tonight—has shown us the importance of building a skills system that can work for everyone.

There have been some powerful speeches, many delivered at high speed, and some important arguments made. I will try to deal with as many as I can in the time I have available. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the outset, our reform agenda is about both local prosperity and global competitiveness. It is about the needs of labour market and the needs of the student, and it is about our collective need for a more prosperous future. That is why this Government are putting the money down to get the job done: £3.8 billion more for FE and skills over the Parliament, the biggest increase in over a decade; £1.6 billion more for education at 16 to 19; £554 million for adult skills, a 29% increase in real terms over four years; and £2.7 billion for apprenticeships by the end of this spending review period—all this and more, to give people the skills the economy needs.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, said that skills had often been the Cinderella service; well, tonight it continues its journey to the ball. But if it is Cinderella, I wonder who the fairy godmother is. Is it my right hon. Friend himself, is it the Secretary of State, or is it the Chancellor, who provided this money? The Opposition have talked about the state of funding over time. I taught history for quite a long time, and one of the things we learn when we study history is that the left loves to rewrite it—when it is not destroying it. Some Conservative Members remember why there was a need for austerity in 2010. Indeed, in a powerful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) talked about a time when the Opposition were in power and things were not quite so rosy as they seem to remember.

This is not rewriting history but merely to point out to the Minister, who may not remember, that when Labour left office in 2010 the economy was growing, and what happened then was that it was thrown into reverse by the Government of the time’s austerity policies.

Rewriting history yet again: everybody knows that the last Labour Government left the economy of this country in the gutter and it required a Conservative Government to pick it up and to create the jobs miracle that we saw before the pandemic.

We want the skills system to become more responsive to the needs and knowledge of employers, creating dialogue between skills providers and industry. That is why the Bill establishes the employer representative bodies and local skills improvement plans.[Official Report, 19 November 2021, Vol. 703, c. 6MC.] Employer representative bodies will hold the ring locally on the needs of local employers, finding out what skills they are looking for and working with colleges to make sure that those skills are built up. For the first time, employers in an area will know exactly who to go to when they want providers to respond to that need. That is what I have heard when I have gone around the country in my first few weeks in this job. The other day I went to Doncaster and heard the people who are masterminding the first LSIP say that for the first time people know to come to them in order to speak to providers and get skills put on the table.

Using that sort of intelligence, ERBs will produce local skills improvement plans to nudge local learning in the right direction. An ERB is a body with a plan to help the next gigafactory, the next offshore wind farm, the next nuclear plant and the next electric vehicle factory to find the workers with the skills they need; a body to help the retrofitters, the digital networkers and the constructors of HS2 to get the skills that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) talked about in terms of the green revolution and our net zero plans; and a plan to help local areas get the skills they need to harness the talents of the people to build the infrastructure of tomorrow, led by employers, supported by Government and driven forward by our excellent further education colleges.

However, our work to align the needs of the economy with the desire of students for modern skills does not stop there. To do all this, we need technical qualifications that meet the needs of employers. T-levels—the new gold-standard qualification at level 3—have been drawn up with the input and expertise of more than 250 employers to ensure that they provide students with the right skills for the workplace—skills that will be relevant and recognised in the real world. This, we must remember, was done following the recommendations of the Labour peer, Lord Sainsbury, to whom I again pay tribute.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) spoke—I refer to him because my father-in-law was from Birmingham, Hall Green— powerfully and movingly about his experience and his son’s. I have no doubt that he and his son would have been able to do a BTEC in engineering, flourished through it and been able to enjoy some of the great advantages I have seen when I have visited colleges in south Essex, Walsall and south London, where students are studying T-levels and thriving.[Official Report, 19 November 2021, Vol. 703, c. 6MC.]

The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) made a very good speech. Putney does not have T-levels yet, but she should visit one of her neighbours that does. She will see teachers and students who are inspired, working with employers, getting excellent work placements and seeing their destination as work. These are high-quality qualifications that will meet the needs of the local community.

I was pleased to hear the Opposition support our changes on level 2 English and maths as an exit requirement for T-levels, because we want these new gold-standard qualifications to be open to as many people as possible. What we see emerging is a new pathway to work for everyone at 16-19. For students at level 3, there will be world-class qualifications designed with employers leading to degree-level apprenticeships, work and, yes, higher education, because more than 50 universities already accept our T-levels. For students who are at level 2 at 16-19, there will be, thanks to our forthcoming consultation on level 2 and below, world-class qualifications designed with employers leading to traineeships, apprenticeships or work, or, indeed, the opportunity to take up the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee at level 3 and get the skills they want, that they might not have had the chance to gain at school.

I say to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) that there will be choices for everybody and opportunities for everyone to progress towards work. Skilling up will not end when someone leaves college. We have bootcamps of the type I have seen in Salford and Doncaster. We have the multiply programme for numeracy skills—the great half-a-billion-pound project initiated by the Chancellor at the spending review. For literacy, which was understandably raised by a number of Members, I remind the House that full funding for adults who do not already have a GCSE pass is already available. We also intend to help people who have level 3 to progress. That is why the Bill lays the foundations for the lifelong loan entitlement, which gives adults who want to get a higher technical qualification the opportunity to invest in their future, to retrain and upskill.

This is a landmark Bill that will further the cause of skills in this country. It will give students the skills they need and that the economy wants, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords]:


(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 7 December 2021.

(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading

(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.

(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.

Other proceedings

(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Steve Double.)

Question agreed to.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] (Money)

Queen’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords], it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of:

(1) any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by the Secretary of State; and

(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Nadhim Zahawi.)

Question agreed to.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] (Ways and Means)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords], it is expedient to authorise the charging of fees under the Act.—(Nadhim Zahawi.)

Question agreed to.