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Public Bill Committees

Debated on Tuesday 30 November 2021

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill (Second sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: †Clive Efford, Mrs Maria Miller

Ali, Tahir (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

† Bradley, Ben (Mansfield) (Con)

† Burghart, Alex (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education)

† Carter, Andy (Warrington South) (Con)

† Clarke-Smith, Brendan (Bassetlaw) (Con)

† Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

† Hardy, Emma (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)

† Hopkins, Rachel (Luton South) (Lab)

† Hunt, Jane (Loughborough) (Con)

† Hunt, Tom (Ipswich) (Con)

† Johnson, Kim (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)

† Johnston, David (Wantage) (Con)

† Nici, Lia (Great Grimsby) (Con)

† Perkins, Mr Toby (Chesterfield) (Lab)

† Richardson, Angela (Guildford) (Con)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Western, Matt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

Sarah Thatcher, Bradley Albrow, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 30 November 2021

(Afternoon)

[Clive Efford in the Chair]

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords]

Clause 1

Local skills improvement plans

Amendment moved (this day): 27, in clause 1, page 3, line 4, at end insert—

(iv) groups representing the interests of people with disabilities,”—(Mr Perkins.)

This amendment intends to ensure that Local Skills Improvement Plans draw on the views of groups representing the interests of people with disabilities.

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment 1, in clause 1, page 3, line 6, after “evidence” insert “, including the views of relevant community groups including those representing the interests of disabled people,”

This amendment intends to ensure that the evidence informing LSIP development includes information directly relevant to improving the employment prospects of disabled people.

Amendment 2, in clause 1, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

“(d) identifies actions to be taken to reduce the disability employment gap within the specified area.”

This amendment intends to ensure that the LSIP is used as a vehicle for improving the employment prospects of disabled people.

Amendment 28, in clause 1, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

“(d) identifies positive actions to reduce the disability employment gap within the specified area.”

This amendment intends to ensure that Local Skills Improvement Plans identify positive actions to reduce the disability employment gap within the specified area covered by the Plans.

Amendment 34, in clause 1, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

“(d) lists specific strategies to support learners who have or have previously had, a statement of Special Educational Need or an Education and Health Care Plan into employment, including but not limited to provision for supported internships.”

This amendment would require that local skills improvement plans list specific strategies to support learners who have or have previously had, a statement of Special Educational Need or an Education and Health Care Plan into employment, including but not limited to provision for supported internships.

Amendment 3, in clause 2, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

(iii) the body is composed of employers who demonstrate reputable practice in relation to equality and diversity in employment, including in relation to disability, and”

This amendment intends to ensure that members of the body with primary responsibility for creating the LSIP have sufficient understanding of and commitment to equality and diversity, including in relation to disability, to enable them to create an inclusive plan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I was coming on to discuss amendment 34, in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, which adds a new line to clause 1:

“lists specific strategies to support learners who have or have previously had, a statement of Special Educational Need or an Education and Health Care Plan into employment, including but not limited to provision for supported internships.”

Supported internships have huge potential. I saw an excellent example when I visited Derbyshire Education Business Partnership, which serves my constituency of Chesterfield, and witnessed its supported internship programme in Derby at first hand. Supported internships are incredibly important in supporting people who may be further away from the labour market, but they currently have a tiny take-up. Everything that can be done to drive up the number of supported internships should be done. They support people who might not be ready to go into the world of work right away but who, with the benefit of a programme like this, can get to know an employer really well; the employer can get to know their strengths as well as their challenges, and they can get into the world of work.

We tabled amendment 34 not only to encourage the Government to insist that strategies for those with special educational needs are expressly considered in local skills improvement plans, but to talk specifically about supported internships, which would make a real difference. Many of us are concerned that chambers of commerce and employers, who are experts in the needs of their workplaces and what skills they need, will not necessarily be aware of the challenges faced by those who are furthest from the labour market. They might be less likely to have strategies of that kind in LSIPs. However, if colleges had a more central role in the plans, chambers of commerce and employers would absolutely recognise the need for programmes of this sort.

I share the belief of my hon. Friends the Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, and many others who put their names to the amendments, that employer representative bodies should have the required training, knowledge and understanding of the educational and health needs of people with disabilities in general and of how people with disabilities can best be supported within a local area in particular. I hope that, when he responds to this group of amendments, the Minister will commit to ensuring that people with disabilities are not forgotten in the Bill, and signal that the Government have specific strategies to ensure that employer bodies have a duty to represent the needs of people with disabilities and support them into the workplace, so that they are not excluded any more.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Efford. I rise to speak in favour of amendments 27 and 28 in my name, and amendments 1, 2 and 3, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham. I want highlight that the Library briefing on the Bill states that 18% of the learners currently in the FE and skills sector have a recognised learning difficulty or disability. When we talk about people with disabilities, we are not talking about a very small minority; we are talking about 18% of those people. The amendments that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham have tabled are very similar. They all basically try to do the same thing: to ensure that the voices of disabled people are heard and recognised in the Bill. They also address the disability employment gap. Mr Efford, I should have mentioned that I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on SEND, which is where a lot of my interest comes from. I know from the work of the APPG and on the amendments that there is a lot of cross-party support for these measures, which we also saw in the Lords. This is not a party political issue. I hope the Minister takes it seriously.

Recent figures show that disabled people have an employment rate that is 28.4 percentage points lower than people who are not disabled. There is a huge disability employment gap and the amendments hope to address that. I recognise that the issue is complex and that there are a number of Government initiatives to address it, but it would be a missed opportunity not to use the Bill and the new process of skills planning that it brings about to help ensure that people with disabilities can contribute to their local economy and that their voices are heard in the discussion of what that local economy should look like. All too often, people with disabilities feel that their voices are not heard. The amendments aim to ensure they are listened to and recognised, and that some action is taken on the disability employment gap. That is the aim of all the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham.

I welcome you to your place, Mr Efford. I want to lend my support to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle and others on this group of amendments. They seek to ensure that the LSIPs take the needs of disabled people and those with special educational needs into account.

Currently, further education caters for a large number of students with such needs, which can be complex. The latest data shows that roughly half of disabled people are in employment—just 53%—compared with just over four out of five non-disabled people. The employment rate for disabled people with severe or specific learning difficulties was 18% back in 2019, the lowest rate of any impairment group. The House of Commons Library briefing notes that 52% of disabled people were in employment, down from 54%, which is really concerning.

The Workers Educational Association notes that

“adult learners in community provision are those with low or no qualifications, who require the most support in order to progress to higher level qualifications.”

Learning disabilities add to that complex state of affairs, which justifies the inclusion of an amendment to provide more support for people with learning disabilities. In its evidence to the Committee, Engineering UK said:

“38% of respondents…reported a lack of role models to be a barrier for pupils with special educational needs”.

One of the employers in my region, the National Grid, is doing extraordinary stuff in engaging and giving work opportunities to young people with complex needs, through its EmployAbility scheme. It is an exemplar project that it has been running for several years.

Those are some of the reasons why the amendments are important to the Bill. The Government’s impact assessment says that those from SEND backgrounds are “disproportionately” likely to be affected, and it is therefore a cruelty not to legislate where possible to mitigate that disproportionate impact. We think it is vital that such provisions be written into the Bill, which is why the amendments have been tabled. We need to highlight the challenges and make sure that we are as inclusive a society as possible, and that we allow for the needs of people with SEND in skills provisions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I rise to speak to amendments 1, 2 and 3 tabled by the hon. Member for Rotherham, amendments 27 and 28 tabled by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, and amendment 34 tabled by the hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Warwick and Leamington.

Those amendments all relate to LSIPs and the importance that we all place on improving the employment prospects of people with disabilities. The criteria for designation of employer representative bodies in the Bill are intentionally focused on the key characteristics and capabilities required for that specific role. We do, of course, want all employers to demonstrate good practice in equality and diversity in employment, including in relation to disability. The Bill is clear that LSIPs should draw on a range of evidence, but we do not consider it appropriate to list all that evidence in the Bill. Instead, I assure Opposition Members that we will set out further details in statutory guidance and continue to engage key stakeholders representing learners with special educational needs and disabilities as that guidance is developed.

The guidance will make it clear that employer representative bodies should absolutely engage groups that can help them to understand the needs of learners with disabilities and the barriers they face, and consider how people with disabilities can be supported to progress into good jobs that meet local skills needs, thereby supporting activity to reduce the disability employment gap. In the work I have been doing in the run-up to the Bill, among many other stakeholders, I spoke to a specialist college in Kent, which had a very powerful message for me. They said that they had catered for a lot of young people whom they believed had a bigger role to play in the local economy, which would be good for employers and the economy, but particularly important for the individuals themselves. That very much reflects my own experience.

For eight years, I was vice-chair of governors at a special school for children with autism in west London. It was an excellent school, not because of my vice-chairmanship but because we had an exceptional head and exceptional staff. It started as a primary school, but went on to become an all-through school. The work the school was engaging in when I left to enter politics was to make sure that it could help young people—often with really profound needs—to transition into the workplace. The alternative for too many people is a life of isolation and loneliness.

I commend the work that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle is doing on the APPG. I am sure that the APPG will want to look at the statutory guidance when it comes out and feed back to us, and we welcome that conversation. There are great opportunities here for dialogue between the ERBs, local providers, and local disability groups to make sure that the needs and the talents of young people with special educational needs are reflected.

Does the Minister agree that it is actually the most logical fit for businesses to embrace and be accessible to those who have learning disabilities? As we know, they are often among the most unconventional, creative and brilliant thinkers.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is absolutely right; something I will come on to in a moment is that when we help young people with special educational needs overcome the barriers to employment, and when we help employers overcome some of the barriers that they may feel exist to employing those young people, it is an extraordinarily mutually beneficial relationship.

I want to push the Minister a little more on the guidance. He has mentioned that it will be statutory, which I welcome, but I wonder whether it will include some of the wording that is in this amendment, which looks specifically at what action will be taken to reduce the disability employment gap. Will that be seen in the statutory guidance?

Obviously, we are very keen to reduce the disability employment gap, and we are always mindful of ways in which we can achieve that. I am sure that it will be in the Secretary of State’s mind when he considers the statutory guidance.

Local skills improvement plans are not the only solution to this issue. Colleges already have a duty to use their best endeavours to secure the special educational provision called for by a student with special educational needs, as set out in the SEND code of practice. That should include a focus on preparing the young person for adulthood, including employment.

In addition to the duties on providers in relation to LSIPs, clause 5 introduces a broader duty for colleges and designated institutions to review how well their whole curriculum offer meets local needs. The duty requires governing bodies to consider the needs of all learners, including current and future learners, and those with special educational needs or a disability.

I appreciate the tone of the Minister’s response, but he has not really given us any detail on why he does not think it appropriate to have the wording in the Bill. Instead, he asks us to take it on trust that we will like the guidance when we eventually see it. We have to vote on the amendment. We have no idea what will be in the guidance. He has not said, “It’s written. It’s going to look like this—I just can’t show it to you.” There will be guidance and at some point we will see it, so can the Minister explain why it is not appropriate that we simply have a commitment in the Bill that LSIPs will have a strategy around supported internships?

On supported internships, I was very interested to hear about what the hon. Gentleman has seen going on in his constituency. I assure him that we are continuing to work to improve supported internships in England, including updating our guidance and, through our contract grant delivery partnerships in this financial year, developing a self-assessment quality framework for providers and helping local authorities to develop local supported employment forums. I respect his desire to see supported internships improve and go further. We share his ambition, but we are not putting every particular intervention that we favour in the Bill, so we will not single that one out for special treatment.

We already know that these kinds of activities are happening. I declare an interest as the chair of the apprenticeship diversity champions network. Employers are recognising that they need to offer these skills and support already. I am sure that the Minister knows that that is already happening.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Government are also developing an adjustments passport that aims to smooth the transition into employment and support people changing jobs, including people with special educational needs and disabilities. That goes back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich made. When I was on the Work and Pensions Committee with the great Frank Field, that was exactly the sort of thing that we were calling for. I am very pleased that this Administration have seen it go out.

The 12-month pilots of the adjustments passport that are under way in HE and post-16 provider pilot sites are capturing the in-work support needs of the individual and we hope that they will empower individuals to have confident discussions about adjustments with employers. It goes back to my point about breaking down barriers both for the individual and for the employer. More broadly, the Government’s national disability strategy sets out how we will help disabled people to fulfil their potential through work, to help reduce the disability employment gap further.

With respect to the comments made by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, if everything were all fine and dandy as it is, we would not have a 28 percentage points disability employment gap. The Minister talks about the statutory guidance. Will there be some sticks as well as carrots in the guidance? If employers and people do not feel that they are being represented, and they are not taking effective measures to deal with the disability employment gap, will there be sanctions?

As I said in the previous sitting, statutory guidance is a powerful tool. If employer representative bodies do not adhere to statutory guidance, they may lose their designation. That is in the essence of statutory guidance. Given the significant amount of work already under way in this space, we do not believe that the amendments are necessary, but we agree with the direction in which they push.

I appreciate what the Minister has said. He has not really given us any detail on why he does not think that it is appropriate. I take his point on supported internships being one strategy: our amendment acknowledged that. However, in terms of amendment 1 on people with disabilities, we are not talking about a fractional thing that is not worth mentioning because there are so many other things that could be mentioned, but about a substantial body of people who have often been missed out by education providers. This is an opportunity to ensure that when the chambers of commerce, or whoever the employer representative bodies are, are writing their local skills improvement plans, those people do not continue to be left out.

I still think that amendment 1 should be accepted, so we will press it to a vote. I am willing to not press the other amendments in this group to a vote, but will look very carefully at the statutory guidance. I think that many people—such as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle and the cross-party group, which was very supportive of this—will listen to the Minister’s response and still wonder why the amendment is not appropriate. For future amendments, it would be useful if we had a bit more of a response as to why the Government are against it, rather than just the fact that they are.

I might try to give the hon. Gentleman a clue on that question. We spent much of the morning arguing about why this policy needed to be locally led, why we wanted devolved authorities to take more control over it and why local government should have more of a say in it. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise how asking Government to dictate what must be in it conflicts with the arguments he has already made today?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but what kind of devolution is it if we say “Well, look, it is up to local chambers of commerce to decide whether or not they have a strategy to support those who are disabled or furthest from the labour market”? If we have a document that must be signed off by the Secretary of State—so on the devolution argument, it is more “devolution of a sort”—what is wrong with saying, “And by the way, for that document that you sign off, we’d better know what the strategy is around disabilities”?

I do not think that the devolution argument is a strong one. Maybe, at a future point in the hon. Gentleman’s career, he will argue for devolution in some kind of role and say, “But trust me, I won’t be having any strategies for disabled people”. I cannot imagine that he would do that, or that any others would. Amendment 1 is just about making sure that those employment representative bodies understand the importance of this issue; that is why we will press it to a vote.

We will come to a vote on amendment 1 after the next group of amendments. Do you wish to withdraw amendment 27?

I beg to move amendment 33, in clause 1, page 3, line 4, at end insert—

“(iv) Local Enterprise Partnerships and the skills and productivity board,”

This amendment would require that local skills improvement plans draw on the views of Local Enterprise Partnerships and the skills productivity board, in addition to those bodies already set out in the subsection.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 38, in clause 1, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

“(d) takes account of a provider of designated distance learning courses that are undertaken by residents of the specified area.”

This amendment would ensure that local skills improvement plans take account of distance learning providers.

Amendment 39, in clause 1, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

“(d) these conditions to include the requirement for the LSIP to give due regard to a national strategy for education and skills, which is agreed across the Department for Education, Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities.”

This amendment would require Government to have a national strategy for education and skills, which is agreed across DfE, DWP, BEIS and DLUHC for which LSIPs would have to take account of.

Amendment 40, in clause 1, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

“(7A) The Secretary of State must prepare and publish guidance setting out the criteria used to determine the boundaries of a specified area for the purpose of this section.”

This is a probing amendment regarding the criteria the Government will use to determine what constitutes “local”.

Amendment 41, in clause 1, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

“(7A) Before local skills improvement plans are introduced outside of trailblazer areas, the Secretary of State must publish guidance relating to their implementation, subject to consultation of all Mayoral Combined Authorities and, where there is not one, the relevant local authority.”

This amendment seeks to ensure that local and combined authorities are consulted on the Government’s plans for the roll out of local skills improvement plans and are in a position to highlight any issues before publication.

Amendment 44, in clause 1, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

“(7A) Colleges and other providers may propose revisions where they consider that the plans do not appropriately reflect the full diversity of priorities across the locality.”

This amendment would allow colleges and other providers to propose revisions to LSIPs if they consider that plans do not reflect the full diversity of priorities across the locality.

I will go through these amendments relatively briefly. Amendment 33 is a probing amendment on the subject of the role of local enterprise partnerships and skills productivity boards. As I said at the start of this debate, those of us who were here in 2010 heard a huge amount from the Government about the role of LEPs. We have subsequently heard about the roles of SPBs, and they both sounded very similar in expectation to what we are now hearing, on a local level, for employer representative bodies.

It therefore strikes me that the Government do not have a great deal of confidence in the LEPs that they created, nor in the SPBs. If I was a chief executive of a LEP, I do not think I would be taking up any credit agreements right now. They must be looking at this Bill and wondering what the future holds for them.

I am interested in the Government’s response to this. Why is it that local enterprise partnerships, which—as we will all remember—were put forward as the way for business and Government to work together on a local basis on a variety of measures to drive economic growth, particularly around skills, are now seen as entirely superfluous in this Bill? Is this the beginning of the end of local enterprise partnerships?

I am interested in whether the Minister feels there should be a duty for employer representative bodies to work in collaboration with them, and what this says about the future of those organisations. Does he accept that it is a failure of Government policy to have set up these organisations that now appear to be being ignored at a time when there is a function that we would naturally think would fall to them?

Amendment 38 relates to designated distance learning. If the covid crisis has taught us anything, it is that more and more has gone online. In the skills arena in particular, that has been hugely transformational for the sector and for many learners. It creates opportunities that were not there previously. We are very concerned that designated distance learning is absent from the Bill, and that is why we have tabled amendment 38. Again, we are keen to hear the Government’s view on that.

Amendment 39 is about Government Departments working together; I think we have all been conscious, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said previously, that that is not a particular strength of this Government. We saw that more than ever during the covid crisis when, on the one hand, there was a real lack of strategy around increasing apprenticeships at a time when we knew there was a boom in youth unemployment and, on the other hand, we had the Department for Work and Pensions introducing the kickstart scheme, which was much more expensive than apprenticeships and offered much less to young people. There was no sense that the different Government Departments were working together.

Our amendment would require the Government and any future Government to have a national strategy for education and skills that is agreed across the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and of which all local skills improvement plans would have to take account. Our particular concern is the lack of cross-departmental work between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education; that is something the Labour party takes very seriously, and there have been regular meetings between teams to work on that whole area.

Amendment 40 asks the Government to publish guidance setting out the criteria used to determine the boundaries of a specified area. There is a real lack of clarity about what is meant by “local area”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle referred to, in different parts of our forms of local government. What is our local area keeps changing. Again, that is not specified within the Bill and I think there will be real concern that we now have this document, which is of tremendous importance to an FE college; it could be the reason why a chief executive loses their job—

I mentioned to the Minister before that I have a lot of sympathy for the Government trying to work out what constitutes a local area. I was talking to a local Conservative MP and we were having a bit of a laugh about it ourselves, because in our area we have Humberside Police, Humberside Fire & Rescue Service and a police and crime commissioner for Humberside, but then we have the Hull and East Yorkshire LEP, and the regional schools commissioner, who has a different geographical area from the LEP, which has a different geographical area from the area that Ofsted covers. Apparently, they are creating a pan-Humber organisation, after the LEP was removed, to look at skills in the area. Good luck to the Minister in trying to work out what exactly the local area looks like, because it is incredibly complicated when we have a myriad different organisations with different geographical boundaries.

I think we are all dying to know who this Conservative Member of Parliament was—I have a suspicion who it may have been. My hon. Friend makes a really important point. If it is, “Good luck to the Minister”, more importantly, it is “Good luck to employers” in actually working out where they should go, which area they are a part of and which local skills improvement plan is responsible for them if they have two sites that are 10 miles apart and there are different providers they have to engage with. This is something that puts businesses off engaging in this kind of skills arena. We have seen it with apprenticeships and the barriers that have been put in the way for businesses to take up apprentices; making it difficult for businesses to engage guarantees that they will not do so. That is a really important point and it is why we have moved this probing amendment.

Is not the argument that the Opposition are making that the public and quasi-public sector is not necessarily making it work now? We do need employers. Employers constantly say that they want to take the lead, and that is exactly what the Bill enables.

As I said previously, we support the principle of local skills improvement plans. Having something that everyone understands is of real value. We are not saying that there should not be any localisation. This is a probing amendment to help us understand. Colleges tend to have a specified area. The Government decided that the local enterprise partnerships would all have their own area. We cannot be, as we used to be in Chesterfield, across two different local enterprise partnerships. We are in one area. The Government have attempted to put firm lines around it, but it has been made slightly more fuzzy.

I think the hon. Member for Great Grimsby has misunderstood. When creating a local skills plan, we need to define a local area. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, whose constituency is opposite mine on the south bank, will be fully aware, the chamber of commerce is actually a pan-Humber organisation, but the LEPs are separate organisations. I am pointing out to the Minister that, if we are looking at creating a local skills plan for a local area, quite obviously we need to work out what that local area is.

My hon. Friend puts it very well.

Amendment 41 asks the Secretary of State to publish guidance relating to implementation, subject to consultation with the metro Mayor or relevant local authority. Under the terms of the Bill, the Secretary of State has the potential to amass new powers, which could be used without appropriate consultation or due diligence. We can see the hand of the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) right through the Bill. I am confident that if the Bill had been devised when the current Secretary of State had been in place for a year or two, it would look very different. The sense of a man who had lost control and was desperately trying to get back control runs right through the Bill.

Our amendments seek to establish a clear duty for the Secretary of State to consult with combined and local authorities before local skills improvement plans are finalised in areas that do not have metro Mayors, ensuring that the relevant local representative bodies are part of the formation of a board. It is about bringing together the various different organisations that would make up a strategic approach to skills. We are saying that, if there is not an employer representative body that is able to broadly represent private and public sector employers, further education colleges, independent training providers and such, the Government should appoint a board made up of those in order to deliver that local skills improvement plan, rather than the current approach, which is just a single body. Amendment 44 says that colleges and other providers

“may propose revisions where they consider that the plans do not appropriately reflect the full diversity of priorities across the locality.”

I am keen to hear the Minister’s response to the amendments.

My hon. Friend has given a thorough analysis on all these amendments; I will just pick up on a couple of points. On amendment 33, I want to highlight how important the skills and productivity board is, given where the country finds itself in terms of its poor productivity relative to most of our economic peers—not just in Europe, but across the globe. We have to work much more closely with that board; that is what amendment 33 is driving at, and that is why it is important to include it.

I will talk specifically about amendment 38, which is on distance learning. There are 70% fewer new part-time graduates entering and accessing higher education every year compared with a decade ago. Distance learning is really important; it is a brilliant way of encouraging people to pick up part-time study. The Open University has 72% of students in full or part-time employment. We are seeing a very concerning regional picture; the Open University’s statistics show a 40% fall in higher education participation in the north-east of the country, and a 32% fall in the north-west and Yorkshire. If the Government are really serious about their agenda, surely we have to provide and invest in more and better opportunities for distance learning—that is why amendment 38 is important. The cost of study is obviously one of the biggest barriers to adult learning. If we consider the needs of distance learners, that barrier is eradicated.

We all know that the Open University is a great institution, started in the 1960s—we will claim that as a terrific Labour success. I do not think any of my colleagues were around at that time, so none of us can claim it in particular. However, it was a great success, and I think that societally, culturally and economically we have benefited greatly from that particular institution. It is one of the five biggest higher education providers in 90% of parliamentary constituencies. It is really important that all of us remember the contribution that it makes. The Open University is also the largest HE provider in 63 of 314 English local authorities—that is 20%. It is also worth highlighting that it is a substantial provider in what might be called higher education “cold spots”, where there is limited face-to-face provision. The importance of distance learning in our education provision must be underlined.

Amendment 41 makes sure that local and combined authorities are consulted on the LSIP before roll-out. I want to echo the previous calls on the importance of including our health boards in the process. In the pandemic, we have seen the importance of local public health provision in regions, and the skills needed to be able to provide that are absolutely essential. We must be clear about how important it is to achieve the regionalisation of drawing those skills. In the visits that have been making up and down the country, that is something that has been made loud and clear to me by colleges and HE providers.

Devolved responsibilities are important but so too is the national strategy. That strategy should be extended across the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department and what I would call DHCLG – the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government as was. The Association of Colleges wrote to say that it wanted to

“enshrine the creation of a national 10-year education and skills strategy sitting across government to deliver on wider policy agendas and to give stability to all parts of the system.”

It added:

“there is a lack of a comprehensive, long-term education and skills plan that brings together all parts of the system towards the same vision…this means that the role of education and skills in addressing wider policy priorities and strategies are not always recognised, for example the role of colleges in welfare, health and net-zero policies.”

I spoke about health a moment ago, but let us consider net zero policies. The Government understand their importance but I want to centre on two things that are massive national issues right now and should be critical to the skills strategy. The first is the delivery of an electric vehicle infrastructure plan, on which we way off the pace. We need to get the skills out there to put in place the necessary infrastructure. We have a growing market for electric vehicles—potentially for hydrogen vehicles as well but EV is the critical one. Manufacturers are making the vehicles, but we do not have the necessary public charging points. We are behind the curve compared with our European neighbours and other leading global economies. That is the sort of stuff that a national strategy could help to deliver. If we are serious about the sustainability agenda, the amendment can help to deliver it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington said about amendment 39, particularly the need for a national strategy for education and skills. It is perfectly reasonable to expect such a strategy. The driving force for it must come from Government, and monitoring of progress across the country must also come from Government. In that way we can ensure that every part of England is firing on all cylinders, narrow the gap and properly ensure that every part of the country is performing as it should.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the productivity gap, because that is a serious problem not just across the country and for the national economy, but within different regions and sub-regions; some are performing very well, others less so. We need a concerted effort across Government and all Departments. If we are serious about levelling up, obviously the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities must be at the heart of that along with the Department for Education, BEIS and, I would argue, the Treasury. If we do not have buy-in from the Treasury to ensure that economic growth is spread fairly across the country, any national strategy is doomed to failure.

I am a devolutionist as well; I want to see strategies developed locally that meet the needs of the locality. That was put perfectly when we talked many years ago about health devolution and Greater Manchester in particular, which had responsibility for health devolved to it. Of course, it remains part of a national health service, just as any local strategy would remain part of the national skills strategy. The “what” is set at the centre, but the “how” is determined locally to meet the needs of that locality. That is exactly what the amendment is designed to achieve.

To illustrate that point, clearly in the health sector we need to assess what the challenges are for our communities and populations. While there is a national picture, there will be different needs in a city such as Coventry, which is close to me and has one of the youngest populations in the whole of the UK, versus a pleasant coastal area, which might be an area that people retire to and will have particular needs as regards the provisions for health.

Absolutely, and the same is true even at the level below that, within a city region. I can speak with experience about my own city region, where there are divergent trends between those living in the north of Greater Manchester, where there are fewer opportunities, and those living in the so-called arc of prosperity around south Manchester. We need to finely tune our local skills strategies to reflect the different make-ups of particular areas.

Talking about how we define areas, I think amendment 40 matters. We are talking about defining “local” which matters for several reasons. First, I am a bit of an obsessive compulsive disorder neurotic and I like things to be neat and tidy. For clarity of purpose, it makes sense to have coterminosity, wherever possible, with other organisations and bodies.

Again, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, I am lucky that my local enterprise partnership, my chamber of commerce, my combined authority and all 10 local councils in Greater Manchester all cover the same boundaries.

Things get a little bit messy. I was nervous when my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington mentioned health trusts, because my own health trust, Tameside and Glossop, crosses the county boundary, although that will be sorted out by the Bill currently going through Parliament. That is the only bit of non-coterminosity I have.

These boundaries matter because if we draw up strategies, plans and proposals, and we want to collaborate with business, education providers, local government and the wider public sector, then we have to have a defined set of boundaries. The closer those boundaries match, the easier it will be to get a strategy in place.

Employers and jobs are not coterminous in a particular area. In southern Humberside and Lincolnshire, we want to ensure that our local skills plans cross those borders, because that is where the jobs are. Coterminosity with local government and quasi-local government does not work, and it will not work for employers. Realistically, it needs to be where the jobs are and where people can travel to.

I know it is probably an unpopular thing to say of her neck of the woods, but I think the hon. Lady has just made the case for Humberside.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s bit of Warrington is in Cheshire or Lancashire based on the old boundaries.

Boundaries matter. I say that as a patron of the Friends of Real Lancashire.

Coming back to amendment 40, the cleaner these boundaries can be, the better. I get that local economies can spread across artificial local government boundaries. I know that because just down the road from where I live is Glossop, in the High Peak in Derbyshire. To all intents and purposes, Glossop is a Greater Manchester town. It looks to Greater Manchester, all its transport links are into Manchester and its healthcare is currently part of Greater Manchester. I get that there is always going to be a degree of “This boundary does not work,” but if we are looking at a particular strategy and then having to engage with a whole range of public bodies in developing and signing off that strategy, it gets overly complicated if we end up having a mismatch of different boundaries, in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle has already described.

To return to the conversation we were having about SEND and disabilities, and the disability employment gap, we will have to collect data to know whether the skills plan is delivering on its objectives and addressing the disability employment gap, so we will need some kind of boundary or defined area from which to collect that data. The Minister said that the guidance would include information on the disability employment gap, but unless there is a boundary, we cannot accurately collect data and we cannot judge whether the plan is a success.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, but it is more than that; we also need to ensure that the strategy works for the entire area. However we define the geographical area, there will be a strategy for it. If there is a mismatch of different public bodies and local authorities in that area, we may well find that one local authority thinks the strategy is working brilliantly in its area—it may well be—but the neighbouring local authority, whose area might be only partly covered by the strategy, might feel like the poor relation without a voice. I am worried about that. I want clarity and for things to be tidy, which is why I support amendment 40. Before I sit down, I promised to give way to, I hope, a fellow Lancastrian.

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that I am in Cheshire—[Laughter.] I understand the point that he is making, but it is not a clear situation. Warrington is a really interesting area because, although many people who live in Warrington work in Manchester or Liverpool, the skills strategy is set by Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership. We are a mid-way commuter town, and although we might want to set a skills strategy for Warrington, the employers that people look towards are in the two major cities that sit either side. His OCD situation may well find that challenging, but it is not as simple or as clear for many areas around the country.

The hon. Gentleman has made a great case for north-west regional devolution in that case. I get what he says, but if Greater Manchester is to have a strategy, the Greater Manchester chamber, which will lead on the strategy, and the combined authority and Mayor, who have to be consulted on the strategy, cover the whole of Greater Manchester—that is nice and tidy. If he wants to make the case for Warrington to become an 11th borough of Greater Manchester so that we can placate my OCD-ness, I am more than happy to welcome Warrington into the club.

The hon. Member for Warrington South also made a powerful argument for an amendment that he had a chance to vote for a while ago, which would have ensured that the strategy is for residents. We would then have a strategy based on all the people resident in the area, regardless of where they end up working.

Absolutely; my hon. Friend could not have put it better. The views of residents matter as well because, as we know, although public bodies, local authorities, LEPs and chambers of commerce operate within defined boundaries, people do not. They do not necessarily know where parliamentary constituency boundaries or council ward boundaries are, and they do not always know where council boundaries are—people are fluid throughout. My hon. Friend is right that there was an opportunity to include the views of residents in the development of the plans. Unfortunately, that amendment was not passed.

I rise to speak to amendments 33, 38 to 41, and 44. I will start with amendments 33 and 38 in the names of the hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Warwick and Leamington.

Amendment 33 would require that local skills improvement plans draw on the views of local enterprise partnerships and the Skills and Productivity Board. We have been clear that local skills improvement plans should be informed by the work of the national Skills and Productivity Board and build on the work of local enterprise partnerships and their skills advisory panels. We will reiterate that in statutory guidance.

This is a quick one on statutory guidance. To clarify, will that statutory guidance state “act in accordance with” or “have regard to”? We all know that statutory guidance that states “have regard to” means “read and ignore.”

I am horrified to hear the hon. Lady’s attitude to statutory guidance. Our intention will be set out in statutory guidance, so that local skills improvement plans will be informed by the work of the national Skills and Productivity Board and build on the work of local enterprise partnerships and their skills advisory panels.

The Minister talks about speaking to local enterprise partnerships, but he must see the point that this is precisely the kind of role that was envisaged for local enterprise partnerships when they were invented. The very fact that he now says that we will go to the employer representative bodies, which we assume are likely to be chambers of commerce, rather than to local enterprise partnerships, must make people wonder, “Is there a future for local enterprise partnerships?” Will he tell us why he thought that local enterprise partnerships were not the right organisation to be the employer representative body in such cases?

We have been clear that we want to have an approach that is completely employer-led. Local enterprise partnerships, which have much to recommend them, are partially informed by employers, but they are public-private partnerships and we want an employer-led process.

Amendment 38 relates to local skills improvement plans taking account of providers of distance learning. I very much acknowledge the remarks made by Opposition Members about the importance of distance learning and how valuable it is to many members of the public who are studying. All relevant providers that provide English-funded post-16 technical education or training that is material to a specified area will have a duty to co-operate with the designated employer representative body for that area in developing a plan. That will be true even if they are based elsewhere and offer the provision by distance or online learning. That will help to ensure that the views of distance learning providers are taken into account.

Amendment 39, tabled by the hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Warwick and Leamington, would require the Government to have a national strategy for education skills that is agreed across DFE, DWP, BEIS and DLUHC, and of which LSIPs would have to take account. The Government have already set out their strategy for skills reform in the “Skills for jobs” White Paper published in January last year, which was agreed by all Departments—not just the ones listed in the amendment. The proposals set out the aim to support people to develop the skills that they need to get good jobs. They form the basis of the legislation we are discussing.

On the local skills improvement plans, we have been clear that they should take account of the relevant national strategies and priorities related to skills, as well as being informed by the work of the national Skills and Productivity Board. The specific strategies and priorities will evolve and change over time. We think the best place to do that is in statutory guidance.

Amendment 40, tabled by the hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Warwick and Leamington, relates to the publication of guidance setting out the criteria used to determine a specific area. The specified areas for local skills improvement plans will be based on functional economic areas. The Government are working with local enterprise partnerships to refine the role of business engagement in local economic strategy, including skills, and to ensure that the structures are fit for purpose for the future. That includes looking at geographies—

I am sure that the Secretary of State, as he engages in the process, will be mindful of the muddle that is Hull and, indeed, mindful of the many economic areas in which hon. Members find their constituencies.

I want to clarify that, whatever boundary it might be, defined boundaries will be set. If we do not set a defined boundary of any type, I cannot see how it will be possible to collect the data and the intelligence to know whether a strategy is working.

We are clear that these will be based on functional economic areas, that they will have a defined geography and that we will ensure that no part of the country is left out.

Will the Minister also clarify this? Is it possible that an area could be in two different local skills improvement plans? For example, Chesterfield was originally part of both the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire local enterprise partnership and the Sheffield City Region one. Both were considered functional drive-to-work areas. Is it possible that an area such as Chesterfield might be in two different local skills improvement plans, or is it the case that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle says, there will be a defined area and everyone will just be in one?

We are working on the basis that there will be a defined area for each one, but we will be mindful of the fact that in some areas the geography does not neatly fit reality. That goes to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South was making.

We will consider this work, alongside evidence from the local skills improvement plan trailblazers, before making final decisions about the specified areas that local skills improvement plans will cover. However, let me reassure members of the Committee that through the designation process, the Secretary of State will ensure that there are no gaps in the coverage of local skills improvement plans across the country.

I turn now to amendments 41 and 44. Amendment 41 relates to consulting local authorities and mayoral combined authorities on guidance for the roll-out of local skills improvement plans. We regularly engage mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority, for example in relation to this Bill and the LSIP trailblazers, and we will continue to do so as we develop our plans for the wider roll-out of LSIPs and the accompanying statutory guidance. We will also engage the Local Government Association and other key stakeholders and make use of the evidence collected from the evaluation of our trailblazers.

Amendment 44 aims to allow colleges and other providers to propose revisions to local skills improvement plans. The Bill already places duties on relevant providers to co-operate with employer representative bodies in developing the plans and keeping them under review. That will give providers the opportunity to propose revisions and help to ensure that the plans are evidence-based, credible and actionable. We expect local skills improvement plans to focus on key priorities for change to make provision more responsive to local labour market skills needs, but it is important to note that those will be changes that providers themselves will have had a role in specifying.

Once an LSIP has been signed off, a provider will be required to have regard to it. The plan will not tell providers what to do. Providers will remain responsible for making decisions as part of their business planning, but they will have the benefit of those decisions being informed by a credibly articulated and evidence-based statement of priorities from business that they will, in turn, be empowered and incentivised to respond to.

We have heard the Minister’s response on those issues. Amendments 33 and 38 to 40 were probing amendments through which we sought to understand the role of the different organisations and how Government would define the different areas. I understood the Minister’s response to mean that no area would be left out, but also that no area would be in two LSIPs —I think that that is what he was saying. That is quite important because if an area ends up being in two, because it is in two different functional drive-to-work areas, that will make the data collection aspect impossible.

There has been a lot of important narrative in this debate about recognising that areas may well look in two different directions. The point that the hon. Member for Warrington South made about looking towards Liverpool and towards Manchester, as well as towards the rest of Cheshire, is important. If Warrington does not end up being in one area or another, the data collection will become impossible, in terms of the success of those particular areas. We will obviously look to the statutory guidance and, if I have misunderstood what the Minister has said, he has the opportunity now to put me right. I think that it is really important to understand whether an area could be in two different local skills improvement plans.

On the basis of the responses and the fact that the amendments were probing, I propose to withdraw amendments 33 and 38 to 40. We would like to put amendment 41 to a vote, because we believe that it is not only consultation with combined authorities that is relevant; we are very concerned that areas that are outside a combined authority will have no democratic oversight whatever. We think that people within those areas will also want to know that there has been some consultation.

I know I am not intervening on the Minister, but I wonder whether a proposed map of the different areas will be put out for consultation before they are agreed and set by Government, and whether there will be an opportunity for local people to influence what the geographical areas will be.

It is the boundaries nightmare all over again. The Minister will have heard my hon. Friend’s question, and I am sure that he and his officers will think carefully on it. Again, we will put only one amendment in this group to a vote. We will not press amendment 44, but we will divide the Committee on amendment 41. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 1, in clause 1, page 3, line 6, after “evidence” insert

“, including the views of relevant community groups including those representing the interests of disabled people,”.—(Mr Perkins.)

This amendment intends to ensure that the evidence informing LSIP development includes information directly relevant to improving the employment prospects of disabled people.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 8, in clause 1, page 3, line 8, leave out “by people resident”.—(Alex Burghart.)

This amendment requires the local skills improvement plan for a specified area to summarise skills, capabilities or expertise that are required in the specified area in general, rather than only by people resident in that area. Amendments 6, 7, 8 and 9 reverse an amendment made at Lords Report.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment 8 agreed to.

Amendment proposed: 9, in clause 1, page 3, line 9, leave out “and other local bodies”.—(Alex Burghart.)

This amendment means that a local skills improvement plan must identify actions that providers can take regarding certain post-16 technical education or training that they provide when making decisions about that education or training. Amendments 6, 7, 8 and 9 reverse an amendment made at Lords Report.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment 9 agreed to.

I beg to move amendment 10, in clause 1, page 3, line 10, after “any” insert “English-funded”.

This amendment limits the post-16 technical education or training about which a local skills improvement plan must identify actions that can be taken to such education or training that is English-funded.

Officials in my Department have engaged closely with counterparts in the Welsh Government, and we believe that we have reached a satisfactory position from a devolution perspective. Government amendments 11, 12, 13 and 14 provide further clarification as to the definition of ‘relevant providers’ that may be in scope of the duties relating to local skills improvement plans in clause 1.

The amendments make it clear that those duties can only apply to institutions within the further education sector in England, English higher education providers, and independent training providers that provide post-16 technical education or training in England. Local authorities, 16-to-19 academies and schools in England may also be subject to the duties in the future should the Secretary of State exercise their power to make regulations under clause 4. Relevant providers will only be subject to the duties relating to local skills improvement plans if they provide English-funded post-16 technical education or training that is material to a specified area in England, including by distance or online learning.  

Government amendments 10, 15, 16 and 17 provide further clarity in relation to the scope of local skills improvement plans. Amendment 10 limits the post-16 technical education or training about which a local skills improvement plan must identify actions that can be taken to such education or training that is English-funded. Education or training should be treated as English-funded where amounts are paid directly to providers in accordance with the regulations made by the Secretary of State under certain legislation, including, for instance, payments made in respect of student loans.

I do not intend to detain the Committee for long. The only question I wanted clarification on, given the conversation we have just had about areas, is about what thought had been given to the responsibilities of providers that are close to borders and provide services across them. We are supportive of Government amendments 11 to 14 and the clarifications established by Government amendments 15 to 17.

As I made clear in my remarks, it depends on whether provision is English-funded; that is, whether the money comes from England. That is how we explain the jurisdiction.

Amendment 10 agreed to.

Amendment proposed: 41, in clause 1, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

“(7A) Before local skills improvement plans are introduced outside of trailblazer areas, the Secretary of State must publish guidance relating to their implementation, subject to consultation of all Mayoral Combined Authorities and, where there is not one, the relevant local authority.”.—(Mr Perkins.)

This amendment seeks to ensure that local and combined authorities are consulted on the Government’s plans for the roll out of local skills improvement plans and are in a position to highlight any issues before publication.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

It will be a great pleasure for everyone to hear that after three and a quarter hours of debate, we have nearly completed clause 1 of our 39-clause Bill. I will try not to detain the Committee for more than 45 minutes at this point.

With local skills improvement plans, clause 1 provides an important vehicle to give employers a more central role in local skills systems, working with providers, mayoral combined authorities and other key stakeholders to reshape provision to tackle skill mismatches and respond better to local labour market skills needs. To develop those plans, designated employer representative bodies will need to engage the widest possible range of employers and draw on a range of evidence, including existing analyses of skills supply and demand.

Local skills improvement plans will give providers an evidence-based summary of the skills, capabilities and expertise required by local employers, helping them to prioritise and focus investment in skills provision. The clause places a duty on providers to have regard to the plans, once developed, when making relevant decisions in relation to the provision of post-16 technical education and training in the area.

The clause will ensure the information, knowledge and expertise possessed by employers, providers and stakeholders is utilised to agree priority actions to align provision to better meet employer needs and support learners. The Bill is about making sure that we have qualifications, designed with employers, that ensure students get the skills the economy demands. Clause 1 is absolutely central to that mission.

I regret that the clause will leave this Committee in less good shape than when it arrived. The amendments agreed by the House of Lords were entirely sensible. They had cross-party support; they were agreed to only because they were voted for by Conservative Members who have tremendous knowledge and experience of these matters and who are much respected, alongside others. It is a matter of great regret that the Government have failed to take on board those helpful amendments, which were added in entirely the right spirit.

We believe that local skills improvement plans are an innovation that is of value, but we are very concerned that the way they are envisaged will make it difficult for them to achieve what might have been achieved. When we come to clause 2, we will get into the debate about how local skills improvement plans might be more representative. What will happen in the event that things go wrong with the employer representative bodies is important. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on those points.

We support clause 1 standing part, but we are disappointed that it leaves the Committee in less good shape than when it arrived.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Designation of employer representative bodies

I beg to move amendment 35, in clause 2, page 3, line 22, after “the” and before “employers” insert “public and private sector”.

This amendment would specify that employers operating within specified areas for the purposes of section 2(1)(a) can be both public and private sector.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 45, in clause 2, page 3, line 22, leave out “reasonably”.

This is a probing amendment to test how the Secretary of State will determine what mix of employers is considered “reasonably representative”.

Amendment 36, in clause 2, page 3, line 22, after “employers” insert

“, local Further Education colleges, independent training providers, local authority (including Mayoral combined authorities) and Local enterprise partnerships”.

This amendment would add local Further Education college, independent raining providers, local authority (including Mayoral combined authorities) and Local enterprise partnerships to those of which employer representative bodies much be representative, in order to be designated as a representative body by the Secretary of State.

Amendment 46, in clause 2, page 3, line 23, after “area,” insert

“including the interests of small and medium sized enterprises, the self-employed and public and voluntary sector employers,”.

This amendment seeks to ensure that employer representative boards include a wider range of local employer interests including small and medium sized enterprises, the self-employed, and public and third sector employers.

Amendment 37, in clause 2, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“(iii) in the event that there is no body in the local area that is representative of the organisations listed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) the Secretary of State will instruct the Local Enterprise Partnership or Metro mayor to bring together a board which is representative of all the organisations outlined in subsection (1)(a)(ii), who will take on responsibility for drawing up the local skills improvement plan.”.

This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State, in the event that the Secretary of State is not satisfied that an eligible body is not reasonably representative of the employers operating within the specified area.

Amendment 42, in clause 2, page 3, line 25, at end insert—

“(c) the Secretary of State has received in writing the consent of the relevant local authority or Mayoral Combined Authority.”.

This amendment provides for local authorities to give consent in the designation of employer representative bodies.

We appear to have raced on to clause 2. Amendment 35 is important, because so much of the Government’s narrative makes it clear that when they talk about employers, they really mean private sector employers. There are huge skills shortages within the public sector. The public sector is an important employer, and it is of particular importance in some of the most deprived communities. Labour’s approach to the Bill will be about asking the Government to place employers and those responsible for education at the heart of a skills strategy.

It is essential that employers in the public sector, including those in health and social care, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington mentioned, be consulted in the formation of local skills improvement plans. Employer representative bodies must ensure that LSIPs fully reflect both private and public sector employers.

Amendment 45 is a probing amendment designed to test how the Secretary of State will determine what mix of employers is considered “reasonably representative”. The Bill refers to the Secretary of State being

“satisfied that…the body is reasonably representative”.

I think it would be interesting to define what exactly is a reasonably representative mix of employers on LSIPs. It is highly likely that chambers of commerce will be the employer representative body by default in most LSIP areas. We have had representations from organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, which has concerns about the powers to be handed to those chambers.

The Minister has said that ERBs that are not performing could be sacked and potentially replaced, but there are not numerous organisations that have the capacity to undertake that kind of work. Indeed, there is some question over whether many chambers of commerce will immediately have that capacity, but they will have the responsibility either way. As has been said, some areas have an active and vibrant chamber of commerce, and our proposals should not be viewed as being hostile to them. There are many excellent professionals in chambers of commerce and many really excellent chambers that make an incredibly important contribution to our local economies and to skills. However, it is important to recognise that membership and attendance can vary greatly within localities. The priorities of some chambers can be dominated by a small number of particularly loud voices. It is important that there are safeguards to ensure that any ERB is representative. I look forward to the Minister’s assurance that that will be the case and that ERBs will consult widely in the formation of the LSIP.

What mechanisms are in place should the Secretary of State consider that an ERB is not representative? What mechanisms are in place to deal with complaints from others, such as further education colleges, which may consider that an ERB is not representative?

Much as I hate to return to the boundary issue, our local chamber of commerce is the Humber-based chamber, which may not end up being the geographical area represented by the skills body. To return to small and medium-sized enterprises, and the concerns of the Federation of Small Businesses to which my hon. Friend referred, in areas where most employment comes from SMEs or the public sector, how can we ensure that they are heard when the skills plan is developed?

That is a really important point. In some cases, chambers of commerce and branches of the Federation of Small Businesses have constructive relationships; in other areas the relationship is less constructive. To place the role of one above the other in respect of an ERB is potentially exclusive.

Amendment 36 would add local further education colleges, independent training providers, local authorities, including mayoral combined authorities, and local enterprise partnerships to those of which employer representative bodies must be representative to be designated as a representative body by the Secretary of State. We are seeking to ensure that colleges, independent training providers, local authorities and LEPs are not shut out of LSIPs and that all form part of the consultation when LSIPs are drafted by ERBs.

Amendment 46 seeks to ensure that ERBs include a wider range of local employer interests, including SMEs, the self-employed, sole trader businesses, and public and third sector employers. In some sectors such as construction, a huge number of those responsible for ensuring that a new generation of people come into the sector are self-employed or sole traders. Historically, they would just have taken on a young apprentice to work with them; they will now potentially be excluded from doing that. We have seen the danger in the way the apprenticeship levy was introduced. Big business was very much in mind when it was introduced, and the way it was designed has massively reduced the number of small businesses offering apprenticeships.

There is a danger of SMEs being excluded from the measures in the clause, particularly in smaller town communities where there are not the major employers that there are in larger cities. We are really concerned that SMEs, alongside charities, community organisations and others, will be excluded from the decision-making process in the formation of LSIPs. Amendment 46 would ensure a role for them, alongside the self-employed, in the drafting of LSIPs.

Amendment 37 moves towards the heart of what a Labour local skills improvement plan would look like. The other amendments attempt to ensure that there is proper consultation by the employer representative body. Given that the Bill gives wide-ranging, undetermined powers to the Secretary of State, we want to ensure that local enterprise partnerships and metro Mayors have their role in local decision making enshrined in the Bill. Amendment 37 therefore proposes that, if no suitable employer representative body is found that can represent all aspects, the Secretary of State be required to set up a board in that area, which would have wider representation from organisations like FE colleges, metro Mayors and local authorities.

I recall the Minister saying that the Secretary of State will have the power to take control from chambers of commerce if they are seen not to be working properly. I wonder whether the Minister would seriously consider our amendment as a model they could use. If there is only one chamber in the area, and that chamber loses control or oversight, who are we going to use instead? Does the Minister anticipate that there will be some form of inspection to check the competency of chambers? Will there be key performance indicators, or some way of flagging whether the chamber is successful or deemed to be failing?

Those are all important questions. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are significant warnings to employer representative bodies in the Bill about failing to satisfy the Secretary of State. In the event that they are dismissed, as the Bill makes clear may happen, who is responsible for the local skills improvement plan after that? Many Members have said that some chambers are really strong, others have different strengths and others are not so strong. Putting all our eggs in one basket, which the Bill pretty much does in the vast majority of geographies, is a cause for concern.

Amendment 42 would place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult and seek consent from local authorities and combined authorities on the formation of employer representative bodies. Given that ERBs will be responsible for the formation of LSIPs, which will have budgetary commitments, it is vital that they have the confidence of local authorities and combined authorities, and that organisations are working in collaboration rather than in opposition, as we have said time and again would be the Labour approach.

I rise briefly to support the amendments. The nub of what my hon. Friend has set out to the Committee could easily have been resolved in our earlier deliberations, when the Minister promised genuine collaboration between the local chamber of commerce and a whole range of public and private sector bodies in developing the plans. The list in the Bill of those public and private sector bodies has been struck out by the defeat of the Lords amendments, so it is right that we have another go here.

First, it is important to recognise, as my hon. Friend the shadow Minister did, the important role the public sector plays in many of our local economies. That is not to say that we should not be trying to boost and drive the involvement of the private sector—we should. We should be expanding the use and involvement of the private sector in the development of new jobs and new investment in all our constituencies. However, it is a fact of life that there is also a public sector in our constituencies. Whether it is the local council or, even after substantial reductions in the workforce over the past 10 years, significant employers such as the police, the fire service and the NHS, which is probably the biggest employer in our constituencies, they have skills and training needs too. We need to ensure that their views are fully integrated as part and parcel of the skills strategies, and the best way to do that is to involve them in the development of the plans. I therefore fully support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend.

It is also important to future-proof the strategies. If the Secretary of State sees the local chamber of commerce as failing in its duty with regard to the strategy, there must be a plan B. Who takes over responsibility for the strategy? It makes perfect sense for that to be the metro Mayor or local government.

I hope that when the Minister responds, he defines whether there is going to be a transparent judgment or transparent criteria. Will the criteria be judged and evaluated? Who will do that judgment and evaluation to determine whether a chamber has failed? It surely cannot be at the whim of the current Secretary of State, whoever that may be, to decide whether a chamber is seen as successful or failing.

My hon. Friend is right. There has to be a fair arbitration process as well, because it may well be that the chamber of commerce does not agree that it is failing, in which case we will have a problem in trying to resolve the matter. I do not want to focus on possible failure, but we have to legislate for it, just in case. I want each and every one of these bodies to be a success but if, for whatever reason, one is not, we must know what the mechanisms are to ensure that the skills strategy for a given geographical area is carried on and made successful. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield’s amendment seeks to get that information from Ministers on what happens if, for whatever reason, things go wrong.

Lastly, I come back to the issue of how boundaries matter. If, for whatever reason, the boundaries for the skills strategy are different from those of whoever takes over that responsibility in the event of the chamber of commerce failing, we need to make sure that it is clear that the replacement covers the same area as what went before it.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Efford. I rise to support amendments 35, 45, 36 and 46, which were well presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield. It is particularly important to reflect the points well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish about public and private employers. Much has been said about the potential for formulating the employer representative body from the chamber of commerce. The clue is in the name: it is about commerce and business, as much as employers.

That leads me on to the bit in between: our strong and vibrant voluntary sector. Recently, we have seen the greater rise of commissioning over many years by many public sector organisations. They have had 10 years of cuts, to be frank, so they have thought of innovative ways to deliver what I believe to be public services still. They have commissioned the voluntary sector, and it is vital for the voluntary sector—as suggested by amendment 46 —to have a seat on that employer representative body, whether as a collective in an overarching grouping or as key individual employers in the designated area, whatever it might be. Equally, we must ensure an interrelationship with other significant public sector bodies—put well by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish. Not being explicit is not recognising what the employment market looks like.

When the Government design the LSIP areas, I wonder whether it would be helpful to produce some data on the respective public-private employer difference in each area. Each area will look different, so I imagine that the employer representatives would be reflective of that particular labour market.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Exactly that—this is an employer representative body. The Bill must be open and explicit about ensuring that the public and voluntary sectors, and others—small businesses, the self-employed—have a seat at the table, through whatever mechanism. It is for them to outline how they wish to do that, but perhaps through something like the Federation of Small Businesses. I think that is vital, because otherwise it just gets lost in the grain. If the measure is to be a success in pushing forward on the skills agenda, we need to be explicit about who is at the table, who is shaping the plans and which areas. I hope that the Minister addresses my comments in his response.

Briefly, the amendments seek to reflect the reality on the ground, as we have heard. Let us think about HS2 and what has been happening. We have had years—decades—of plans for HS2, but we have seen skills sucked out of the regions so that we cannot get normal construction projects completed. That is because there has not been the co-ordination that there should have been. How was that allowed to happen? The result has been a huge impact on our regional economies.

Amendment 35 looks at the inclusion of public and private sectors as employers on the ERB. How can we not include the national health service, for example, and yet are able to include Virgin Care or Circle and others? It is bizarre that the public sector is not included.

On linking to the public sector, amendment 46 also seeks to include other employers, such as SMEs, the self-employed—as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said—and public and third-sector employers. Right2Learn, in a written submission, stated:

“We believe it is critical that local skills and training strategies need to look far more widely at including third sector organisations, as well as HE and FE providers. There must be far more opportunities for the direct involvement of SME clusters and organisations and the so-called gig economy which the Taylor Commission highlighted, including co-operatives and self-employed.”

I have said before, we must include charity-heavy provision and I gave the example of the Workers’ Educational Association.

Amendment 46 states that we need to include the third sector and the local health boards. As I said, we have seen how good that can be through the pandemic. Local primary care networks and public health in our localities really stepped up and showed that what they do is what they know, which is their regions, their populations and their geographies, to deliver good services. The same would apply to the provision of skills across our regions.

I rise to speak to amendments 35 to 37, 42, 45 and 46. Amendment 36 would require designated employer representative bodies to be reasonably representative of a broad range of local stakeholders. We have already been clear that we want local skills improvement plans to be employer led, which means led by genuine employer representative bodies, but we have also been very clear that designated employer representative bodies should work closely with key local stakeholders to gather intelligence and consider their views and priorities when developing local skills improvement plans.

That includes local post-16 technical education and training providers and mayoral combined authorities, which, through our Government amendment, are already specified in the Bill as playing a key role. It also includes local authorities and local enterprise partnerships, among others. This will be covered in more detail in the statutory guidance.

Amendment 45 seeks to test how the Secretary of State will determine what mix of employers is considered “reasonably representative”. When making a judgment on whether an ERB is reasonably representative, the Secretary of State will take into consideration the characteristics of its membership compared with the overall population of employers in the area. That speaks to the point that a number of Opposition Members have made.

We certainly expect designated employer representative bodies to draw on the views of a wide range of local employers of all sizes, reaching beyond their existing membership and covering both private and public employers. They will also need to draw on other evidence, such as other representative and sector bodies, to summarise the skills, capabilities or expertise required in a specified area. That type of engagement is already happening, and happening brilliantly, in our trailblazer areas.

Amendment 35 seeks to ensure that designated employer representative bodies are reasonably representative of both public and private sector employers. The Bill already ensures that that is the case. Clause 4 gives a definition of “employer” for the purposes of interpreting clauses 1 to 3 that covers public authorities and charitable institutions—to the point made by the hon. Member for Luton South—as well as private sector employers.

Amendment 46 seeks to ensure that designated bodies represent the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises, the self-employed, and public and voluntary sector employers. Public and voluntary sector employers are also already covered under the definition of employer in the Bill. Designated employer representative bodies must of course represent the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises in order to be reasonably representative.

Many existing employer representative bodies already do this effectively. For example, SMEs comprise the vast majority of the membership of local chambers of commerce. In drawing on other evidence, designated ERBs may also need to consider the key skills needs of the self-employed in order to effectively summarise the current and future skills required in the area, and that will be referenced in statutory guidance.

Amendment 37 concerns a scenario where the Secretary of State is not satisfied that there is an eligible body within a specified area that is reasonably representative of local employers. We have thought about that, but we really do not think it is likely to happen. Although the “Skills for Jobs” White Paper mentioned accredited chambers of commerce, there are other employer representative bodies with either a national or local presence. We saw evidence of that from the expressions of interest process we ran to select the local skills improvement plan trailblazers, for which we received 40 applications despite only looking for six to eight trailblazers. Many hon. Members today have spoken about chambers of commerce, but the Government are entirely open to representatives from the Federation of Small Businesses and other geographically based organisations that could also be eligible.

All eight trailblazers were chambers of commerce. However, I believe there were expressions of interest and applications from others. For the record, we are not saying that this is solely the preserve of chambers of commerce. We are supporting the trailblazers with £4 million of funding this financial year, and we will continue to support ERBs as they are designated, so that they can develop credible and robust local skills improvement plans.

I appreciate the Minister’s response. I remain of the view that public and private sector employers should feature in the Bill, so I will press amendment 37, which spells out Labour’s much more collaborative approach to this matter, to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 37, in clause 2, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“(iii) in the event that there is no body in the local area that is representative of the organisations listed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) the Secretary of State will instruct the Local Enterprise Partnership or Metro mayor to bring together a board which is representative of all the organisations outlined in subsection (1)(a)(ii), who will take on responsibility for drawing up the local skills improvement plan.”—(Mr Perkins.)

This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State, in the event that the Secretary of State is not satisfied that an eligible body is not reasonably representative of the employers operating within the specified area.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.— (Michael Tomlinson.)

Adjourned till Thursday 2 December at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

SPEB01 Central YMCA

SPEB02 The WEA

SPEB03 London Institutes for Adult Learning

SPEB04 Association of Colleges

SPEB05 The Open University

SPEB06 EngineeringUK

SPEB07 Local Government Association

SPEB08 Birkbeck, University of London

SPEB09 Right to Learn

SPEB10 University of Salford

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill (First sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Clive Efford, † Mrs Maria Miller

Ali, Tahir (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

† Bradley, Ben (Mansfield) (Con)

† Burghart, Alex (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education)

† Carter, Andy (Warrington South) (Con)

† Clarke-Smith, Brendan (Bassetlaw) (Con)

† Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

† Hardy, Emma (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)

† Hopkins, Rachel (Luton South) (Lab)

† Hunt, Jane (Loughborough) (Con)

† Hunt, Tom (Ipswich) (Con)

† Johnson, Kim (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)

† Johnston, David (Wantage) (Con)

† Nici, Lia (Great Grimsby) (Con)

† Perkins, Mr Toby (Chesterfield) (Lab)

† Richardson, Angela (Guildford) (Con)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Western, Matt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

Sarah Thatcher, Bradley Albrow, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 30 November 2021

(Morning)

[Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords]

Before we begin, I have a few preliminary announcements. I encourage Members to wear a face covering, except when they are speaking or if they are exempt. That is in line with the Commission’s recommendations. Hansard colleagues would be grateful if Members could email their speaking notes to the usual address. I remind Members to switch electronic devices off or to silent, and that tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings.

Today, we will first consider the programme motion on the amendment paper, and then a motion to enable the reporting of written evidence for publication. The programme motion, which stands in the Minister’s name, was discussed yesterday by the Programming Sub-Committee for the Bill.

Ordered,

That—

1. the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 30 November) meet—

(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 30 November;

(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 2 December;

(c) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 7 December;

2. the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Tuesday 7 December.—(Alex Burghart.)

Resolved,

That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Alex Burghart.)

Copies of written evidence that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee Room and will be circulated to Members by email in the usual way.

The Committee will now proceed to line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection list for today’s sitting is available on the table; it shows how the selected amendments have been grouped together for debate. Amendments grouped together are generally on the same or a similar issue. Please note that decisions on amendments take place not in the order in which they are debated, but in the order that they appear on the amendment paper. The selection and grouping list shows the order of debates. Decisions on each amendment are taken when we come to the clause to which the amendment relates.

A number of newer Members are present, so I will go through this for clarity. A Member who has put their name to the leading amendment in a group is called first. Other Members are then free to catch my eye to speak on all or any of the amendments in that group. A Member may speak more than once in a single debate.

At the end of a debate on a group of amendments, I shall call the Member who moved the leading amendment again. Before they sit down, they will need to indicate whether they wish to withdraw the amendment, or seek a decision—a vote. If a Member wishes to press any other amendment in a group to a vote, they need to let me know. I am not a mind reader—bear that in mind.

Clause 1

Local skills improvement plans

I beg to move amendment 4, in clause 1, page 2, line 21, leave out “subsection (6)” and insert “subsections (6) and (6A)”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 5.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller? I have no doubt that you will guide us, chivvy us and harry us through the six sittings ahead of us. It is my pleasure to speak to amendments 4 and 5 in my name, relating to local skills improvement plans and the involvement of mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority in their development.

Mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority play a vital role in supporting local communities, developing local economies and strengthening local skills systems. The Government recognise the importance of their work in their area as a commissioner and convenor with devolved adult education functions. As part of devolution, a sizeable proportion of the national adult education budget has been transferred to them. Their views and priorities therefore need to be brought to bear in the development of local skills improvement plans to help ensure that they are effective. That is already happening in our trailblazer areas, which deliberately feature a number with mayoral combined authorities. In recognition of their important role, the Government are bringing forward amendment 5, which will place on the Secretary of State a duty to approve and publish a local skills improvement plan only when satisfied that the designated employer representative body has, during the development of that plan, given due consideration to the views of the mayoral combined authority or Greater London Authority, where it covers the specified area.

We will set out further details in statutory guidance, which will be informed by our ongoing engagement with MCAs, the GLA, other key stakeholders and evidence from our trailblazers. This amendment, in addition to the statutory guidance, will ensure that MCAs and the GLA play a meaningful role in supporting the success of local skills improvement plans.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I would like to take a moment at the start of these proceedings to talk about the importance of the Bill and the approach that the Labour party will be taking to it, alongside Government amendments 4 and 5.

The skills Bill is of tremendous importance. We recognise that there has been, for a significant time, too little investment in skills and in the next generation. In particular, the drastic funding cuts during the past 11 years have had a dramatic impact on our further education sector and on the skills of the nation. It is recognised by many businesses, employers and players in the further education sector that we have fallen behind.

The Bill represents the Government’s approach to addressing the backlog, and they tell us that this approach places employers at the heart of the skills strategy and skills agenda. When I first heard that, it sounded familiar to me, having been a Member of Parliament for the past 11 years. I thought, “Where have I heard it said before that employers will be at the heart of the skills strategy?” I believed that I had heard that from a previous skills Minister, so we did a bit of research in my office, and it turns out that we have heard it from almost all of them.

Back in January 2011, the then skills Minister, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), said of the Government’s approach to skills and apprenticeships:

“The entire focus of our Skills Strategy is in building a training system that is employer led…Indeed helping meet those skills needs, in businesses across the country, will make a major contribution to economic growth.”

In 2015, the apprenticeship levy was introduced, and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, told us that we now had a system in the hands of an employer-led institute for apprenticeships, and that his levy would be a

“radical, long overdue” new approach to apprenticeship funding. He said in this place that it was

“to raise the skills of the nation and address one of the enduring weaknesses of the British economy.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1370.]

His skills Minister at the time, former Tory MP Nick Boles, said:

“At the heart of the apprenticeship drive is the principle that no one better understands the skills employers need than employers themselves.”

By 2017, the Government were telling us this:

“The Apprenticeship Levy is a cornerstone of the government’s skills agenda, creating a system which puts employers at the heart of designing and funding apprenticeships to support productivity and growth.”

In 2018, the then Education Secretary, now the Minister for Security and Borders, told us that local enterprise partnerships were

“business-led partnerships…at the heart of responding to skills needs and building local industrial strategies that will help individuals and businesses gain the skills they need to grow.”

The rhetoric behind this Bill is exactly the rhetoric that we have been listening to for the past 11 years. Indeed, if the approaches of the past 11 years, which we were told placed employers at the heart of skills policy, had worked, we would not need this Bill. The Government are once again returning with the same prescription for the same ailment. They are once again failing to meet the size of the challenge, and in some cases are heading in the wrong direction altogether.

We have a new Secretary of State in post, of course. He is at great pains to tell people that there will be a change of tone and approach. The Bill was the brainchild of the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), if that is not an oxymoron, who was his predecessor—a man who believed in seizing as much power for himself as possible. Since the appointment of the new Secretary of State, we have been told there will be a change of tone and approach, but the Government’s approach to the cross-party amendments brought by their Lordships is not promising.

We entirely support the amendments in this group, which are about the mayoral combined authorities, but it is remarkable that the Government needed to introduce them; that demonstrates that the Government produced the skills Bill without any recognition of the issue.

The hon. Gentleman has identified a key challenge that the Government are looking to tackle. It will clearly be difficult, but we hope that they will be successful. Does he agree that part of the reason why the challenge is so significant is that the previous Labour Government almost entirely ignored technical education and skills, with their obsession with universities and a 50% target?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that question. That has long been the lament. I speak to my colleagues who were involved in skills policy under the Labour Government, and their retort is that the investment in skills under the Labour Government was far greater than what we have seen in the 11 years that followed. There is nothing contradictory in wanting a strategy that allows as many people who want a university education and who are capable of it to have one, and that also has a real commitment to investment in skills.

Over the 11 years of this Government, we have seen the trashing of the idea that universities should be an aspiration for everyone. Alongside that rhetoric—an example of which we have just heard from the hon. Gentleman—we have seen a massive reduction in the investment in skills, and we have seen policies that do not work. The apprenticeship levy led to a massive reduction in the number of apprenticeships. What is said is one thing; what is done is quite another.

Back in the mid-2000s, did not the Labour Government, who predated my time here, introduce national skills academies? The whole point of them was to develop skills across the piece and drive the development of courses that could run in colleges across the UK.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We feel very strongly that we need investment in skills, but we also need a strategic approach that brings in different Government Departments and recognises that skills are the responsibility of not just the Department for Education, but of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury. There has to be recognition that this is about the kind of economy, as well as the kind of skills system, that we are looking to build. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point on the Labour Government’s approach, and the investments they made.

I was a college lecturer in the era that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington mentioned. Curriculum 2000 was an absolute, unmitigated disaster. AVCEs—advanced vocational certificates of education—were withdrawn very quickly. The money that was pumped in was pumped into all the wrong places, and we ended up in a situation where people went to university because there were no proper options for BTECs at level 4 or level 5, or Cambridge technicals or City and Guilds, or anything else. It is not just BTECs but the Pearson monolith we are talking about here.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I accept that she has a long track record in this sector, and that is an important contribution to this debate. The investment in skills then was on a different level from the investment that has taken place since. I am very happy to spend the entire debate talking about the previous 20 years; it would be interesting but not entirely fruitful. I accept that she feels, as she said on Second Reading, that changes to higher national diplomas were damaging; she was negative about the drive towards university education. Like the Labour Government, I believe that we should recognise that it is a brutal world for those who do not have skill. A drive towards university education should not be at the expense of college education; they should be two hands working closely together.

The reality is that university education is not skills education. That is the problem. We have people doing lots of different types of degrees, and they are leaving, as graduates, with no skills, and are not employable in the majority of places.

Order. You cannot intervene on an intervention. I will allow Mr Perkins to respond.

It was such a controversial intervention that people wanted to intervene on it. I do not entirely accept what the hon. Member for Great Grimsby says—that a university degree is not a contribution to the skills of the nation. She hits on a view that is at the heart of much of this Government’s approach, which is that education has value only in so far as it is used in the work that someone goes on to do, and that there is a very narrow distinction between skills or vocational education, which is useful, and university education, which is theoretical, abstract, and of little value. I do not recognise that distinction at all.

May I gently remind people that, while I think it is appropriate to have a broader debate at the beginning, we are talking about amendments 4 and 5?

Sure. I take your point, Mrs Miller. However, the intervention from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby highlights an important broader issue: of course skills and vocational education will always need to lead people being able to find work, but constantly decrying university education, on the basis that it is somehow not delivering that, is mistaken. There has been a real drive by this Government to frame the further education and higher education sectors as enemies that must be pitted against each other. Our approach recognises them as two important, powerful strongholds in supporting this nation to be the kind of nation that it wants to be.

I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish; then, if my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South wishes to come in, I will take her intervention.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think he is absolutely right: we are heading into that age-old trap of not only dividing the academic from the vocational in further education, but implying that higher education is solely an academic route. There are many vocational higher education qualifications out there, and we must not ignore that. On Government amendment 5, the exact point that Andy Burnham—the Mayor of Greater Manchester—and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority have been making for years is that for the Greater Manchester city region to succeed, we must ensure that its skills agenda embraces not only the academic but the vocational, so that we have the skills for the jobs of tomorrow.

The hon. Gentleman has neatly brought us back onto the subject of this debate, so I thank him for that.

I encourage my hon. Friend to expand on that point, because he is absolutely right. It is remarkable that the Government have been forced to introduce Government amendment 5, because it means that they brought the Bill forward without recognising any role for authorities that already have this funding devolved to them in the first place. It is a fairly dramatic change. The approach that Labour would take to local skills improvement plans is fundamentally different from that of the Government.

The Government are taking the approach that these are employer-led documents—that phrase again. They are documents of tremendous importance, so presumably the chambers of commerce will be holding the pen on them and will now, as a result of Government amendment 5, be forced to convince the Secretary of State that they have properly taken on board the views of those democratically elected to lead on skills policy in their areas. So many other important contributors are left on the side lines.

Labour’s approach would be to say that we need to recognise the importance of local skills improvement plans that will dictate the direction of skills policy. What we need is a local skills improvement plan that brings together the role of public and private sector employers; that brings in further education colleges; that brings in significant independent training providers within an area; and that is held together by those with democratic accountability, such as metro Mayors and local authorities. That holistic approach would deliver a skills policy that everyone would be able to get behind and recognise as representative.

The Government’s approach is very much about placing the chambers of commerce at the heart of this, but in fact they have had to bring forward an amendment to even put the metro Mayors and combined authorities back into that role. We support Government amendment 5, but it is remarkable that it was necessary at all.

I would like the Minister to expand on whether Government amendment 4 impacts clause 6 in terms of the duty placed on local skills improvement plans for compliance with section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008. It is crucial that skills policy drives us towards a net zero future, so it is important to understand whether the intention is to undermine that commitment when it comes to Government amendment 4.

Again, we support Government amendment 5, although we are confused about why it is needed and why it was not central to the approach. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned, it is important that we recognise that mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority already have responsibilities in terms of policy and funding for further education and skills, and that they both have good professional relationships with employers, colleges and training providers in their areas. I have been along to meet them in Manchester and have seen their excellent work on careers guidance and their constructive approach to independent providers and the FE sector. That is a great example of how devolved decision makers are better in touch with the needs of their communities than a centralised approach.

It is a shame that the Bill, the brainchild of the former Secretary of State, is a return to the centralisation agenda that has too often bedevilled Whitehall thinking. It was clearly a driving force in the legislation. It is inconceivable that local skills improvement plans could have flown in the face of decisions made locally. It is therefore important to understand what protections there will be for existing funding arrangements with regard to those put in place by metro Mayors. Will they be transferred to employer representative bodies or will there be a dual system?

The Government propose that employer representative bodies consider the views of mayoral combined authorities or the Greater London Authority but, as was said by the hon. Member for Ipswich on Second Reading, what does that say about those communities that are not within metro Mayor areas? The majority of my colleagues on the Labour Benches are in metro Mayor areas—I am one of the relatively few who are not—but many colleagues on the Conservative Benches are in areas that have local enterprise partnerships, which were originally meant to bring together many of the different power brokers. It seems that democratic accountability is missing entirely in areas outside the metro Mayor areas.

This is a crucial point, which I hope we will come to as our consideration of the Bill develops: how do we define regions and regional consultation? The hon. Member for Great Grimsby might have an idea completely different from mine about what constitutes the best region when looking at skills and skills development. I hope that the Minister will take that point away and look to define that later as we go through the Bill.

Absolutely. To return to the subject of the amendment concerning mayoral combined authorities, the phrase “due consideration” is noticeably vague. The kind of due consideration that the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire might have given to the views of the Mayor of Manchester would have left me—and, no doubt, the Mayor of Manchester—with sleepless nights. We hope that a more thoughtful approach is now in place and we welcome the change of tone, but we are not seeing a change in policy.

On that issue of “due consideration” and its vagueness, will the Minister agree to look at producing some guidance on what constitutes due consideration? Is that a consultation that has happened on one occasion, or on a number of occasions? How do we define “due consideration” to ensure that the democratic accountability to which my hon. Friend is referring is put at the heart of the Bill?

I agree with that absolutely. The next part of that—to extend what my hon. Friend is saying—is to ask whether there is a right of appeal for a combined authority or metro Mayor in the event that they do not consider that due consideration has been given to their views. If they think that the employer representative body has put together a local skills improvement plan that has not taken into account the representations made on one or more areas, will there be a right of appeal? Will the fact that the metro Mayor considers that due consideration was not given be able to pause the local skills improvement plan and bring people together?

What role does the Secretary of State consider that he will have? As I said, the previous Secretary of State was very much a centraliser—he wanted his hands on every single decision—and that clearly runs through the Bill. He had all these frustrations with the fact that individual organisations were not doing exactly what he wanted, so he wanted the power to tell them that they had to. Is that the sort of approach that this Secretary of State will take? Having appointed the chambers of commerce to make decisions before those who are democratically elected to do so, he appears to be positioning himself as the arbiter in a whole variety of local decisions. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. Looking at the room, I see that people on both sides are genuinely interested in education matters. I hope that this will be a good Committee that really scrutinises the legislation before us in a shared ambition to make the Bill the best that it can be.

I will be brief. I have already made an intervention about guidance on what constitutes due consideration and about the arbitration processes for conflict over whether someone believes they have been duly considered. Will there be a timeframe for that due consideration? Local engagement and agreement for the skills plans is absolutely crucial, so having that clearly laid out is fundamental.

I hope the Minister will clarify something. I may be misreading the Bill, but am I right in thinking that further education colleges have been removed from consultation, or is that part of a later amendment? The Lords tabled an amendment to ensure that local school improvement plans are co-developed with colleges, local government, elected Mayors, employers and so on. Am I right in thinking that colleges are no longer listed as part of the consultation process, or will that be addressed in another amendment? I may have made a mistake, in which case the Minister will correct me.

We are basing everything on employers and the jobs available now, but has the Minister thought about future-proofing the local skills development plans to include industries that will be developed in future, especially in relation to climate, green changes and so on? We might create the best possible plan for jobs that exist now, but that might not be the plan that we want in five years’ time, so will such future-proofing be included?

I will make just a few very brief comments. I think that the local skills improvement plans are a huge step in the right direction. It is clearly crucial that local businesses should play a role in shaping the curriculum of further education colleges. We need to have far more of an ecosystem approach when it comes to the role of employers, schools, FE colleges and further education. Too often, it seems as if they are kind of on the sides.

What does the hon. Gentleman say to my earlier point, which was that what he is saying is exactly what has been said about every single Conservative skills reform in the last 11 years? They always claim that they are putting employers at the heart of the measures. Why does he think those previous approaches have failed?

To be honest, we are dealing with the Government we have today. I can say, as somebody with an interest in further education and skills, that this Bill is actually the most significant and potentially game-changing piece of Government legislation. My job is to look at the Bill before us today, and I think it is hugely in the right place. That is not to say that improvements cannot be made at this stage, and we will engage in doing that.

There is one quick point that I would like to make. When we talk about the local skills improvement plans and local employers playing a greater role in shaping the curriculum of further education colleges, I think it is important that we consider what might happen. I imagine that the vast majority of education providers will play ball and welcome that input from local business, but on occasions where there may be some resistance and that does not quite work, is there something that could be done to ensure that they come to the table to accept the advice and a steer from local business?

On my comments on Second Reading, which the hon. Member for Chesterfield has often mentioned, I recognise that there is a significant difference between mayoral combined authorities and regular upper-tier local authorities. Certain powers and funding have been devolved to mayoral combined authorities, and we do not have them in every area. I accept that, and I accept why the Government are treating mayoral combined authorities slightly differently from regular upper-tier authorities such as Suffolk County Council. I guess my view would be that the solution is to have more devolution. As somebody who recently, with other Suffolk colleagues, supported a bid for One Suffolk, I would be very happy if there were positive movements so that Suffolk was in a place to have the powers for its principal authority to play a role in local improvement plans.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. My comments follow neatly on from those of the hon. Member for Ipswich, because the reality is that much of what the Government want to achieve in the Bill is starting to happen anyway in devolved combined authority areas where the skills agenda has been devolved. I welcome the emphasis on skills improvement plans and, now, the involvement of the mayoral combined authorities in them. It was perhaps remiss that that was not in the Bill originally, and I am pleased that the Minister has tabled an amendment to ensure that it is clearly in the Bill.

Devolution matters. It works, and it is working. It was a Labour Government who introduced the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, which facilitates the devolution agenda. Greater Manchester, my own city region, was the first to have a combined authority in 2011. It had an interim Mayor in 2015—my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd)—and a Mayor in 2017: Andy Burnham. The skills agenda is at the heart of the Greater Manchester combined authority’s strategies. It has a local industrial strategy. It has the Greater Manchester work and skills strategy and priorities. In 2019, it had the adult education budget devolved to it. It has Bridge GM, which links schools and employers.

The thing that I am most proud of, and which fits neatly in the agenda of the Bill, is the Greater Manchester skills for growth strategy, which is designed to fill occupational skills gaps in the Greater Manchester city region, and provide young people and adults with the skills needed to fill the gaps.

However, we need to go beyond that, and I urge the Minister to encourage combined authorities to future-proof and devolve them the powers to do so. Technology is moving at a rapid speed. Our city region economies are changing dramatically in a short space of time, and we need to ensure that the workforce of tomorrow has the skills of tomorrow, not the skills of today. I welcome the fact that the mayoral combined authorities will be included in the Bill.

On the skills for tomorrow, there is a huge concern about amendment 4, which removes subsection (6) on future issues around climate change and environmental goals. Surely those issues will only grow in importance. Removing that from the Bill seems incomprehensible.

It absolutely does. My hon. Friend is completely right to highlight that, because they are not only the challenges but the opportunities of tomorrow. I firmly believe that the United Kingdom can be a world leader in developing the technologies and equipment to help tackle some of the environmental challenges that the whole globe will face in the years to come. That is certainly true of my city region. It is also true of Hull, where there are huge opportunities not just on renewable power but to develop the next generation of technology.

My hon. Friend has prompted me to point out that wind turbines are made in the great city of Hull, and we are going to be one of the green energy capitals of the UK. I wanted to get that in Hansard.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention—probably almost as grateful as she is to have had the chance to make that press release—and she is absolutely right.

I firmly believe that the skills agenda is linked to the industrial strategy agenda, not just for individual city regions, towns and counties, but for the country. If we want Britain to succeed, we must think not just about the here and now, but about the future. That involves bringing together skills and industrial strategy. In a small way, that is what we are doing in Greater Manchester through the devolution agenda.

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point, which is at the heart of the difference between Labour and Conservative approaches. This Government’s approach is about moving towards a German-style skills system, but the Treasury and Business teams do not want a German-style economy. I very much welcome a step towards the German-style approach, but the Government are trying to impose a model on top of our economy, and that cannot be done without the drive towards an industrial strategy.

My hon. Friend must have eyes in the back of his head, because that was pretty much the next point that I wanted to make. It all hinges on the term “due consideration”. We are doing this in city regions such as Greater Manchester, and we are getting there. We have the skills, and we have good collaboration with local businesses to shape the agenda. We have a shared vision. I accept that that might not be the case in other devolved areas—there might be a degree of friction between the business community and the combined authority—but in Greater Manchester, it is genuinely a partnership. The skills programmes, strategies and priorities are genuinely developed in partnership.

The Minister talks about “due consideration” in relation to the amendment, but I want assurances from him that Ministers will take a genuinely collaborative approach and we will not end up with some monolithic, top-down and Whitehall-knows-best approach being imposed on city regions that are already starting to develop the very skills strategies that are envisaged in the Bill. I will be grateful if the Minister can address my concerns.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I will keep my comments brief, but I want to touch on some of the issues raised by colleagues.

First, LEPs, chambers of commerce and other instances of local involvement in skills plans have been mentioned. Some of those are excellent and some are awful. Will the Minister touch on what safeguards might exist for those plans, particularly in areas without combined authorities? Combined authorities have devolved local oversight or engagement in the plans, but for areas that do not, where will the safeguard be if chambers of commerce that are not delivering for business bring forward less effective plans?

Secondly, I should declare an interest as a local government leader in talks with Government about devolution. In all honesty, I would devolve adult skills to all upper-tier local authorities. However, recognising that areas with combined authorities will have local engagement in the discussion—the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has mentioned future-proofing the Bill—does the Minister acknowledge that the Government are in talks about devolution with counties that will not be part of combined authorities, but that might have powers over adult skills? Is that something that has been considered in the wording of the Bill? Such areas might have that local input or devolved skills budgets and options available to them in future, although they might not be covered by the term combined authority.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle was saying, it is great to be in a room that contains so many educationalists and educators, including my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, who will bring a lot to bear on the Bill.

I will preface my remarks by turning to earlier comments on vocational qualifications and the relative value of one sector versus another. We must remind ourselves to talk about the HE sector as opposed to universities and think about the great breadth brought to our educational sector by higher education providers, who are diverse in nature.

On Government amendment 4, given that COP was a month ago and how disappointing it was, we must ensure that all Bills include elements that remind us of the importance of climate change, which is the issue of our time and that of decades to come. The Government are seeking to remove subsection (6), inserted by the Peers for the Planet group, which importantly sees LSIPs granted to authorities by the Secretary of State only if they comply with the duty in the Climate Change Act 2008. We must ensure that, at every opportunity, in every piece of legislation, that duty is embedded in our thinking, and future generations must know of our determination on that.

I am sure that the Government are committed to environmentalism—they certainly talk about their commitment—and addressing the issue. I urge Government Members to think about this measure as it is particularly important in terms of education and what is being shared with the next generation. I remind the Committee that it was a concession in the Lords, so I am surprised that it should be opposed in the Commons.

I turn to Government amendment 5. It is important when designating LSIPs to consider the views and wishes of the mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority. The Association of Colleges made that clear when it said:

“The voice of employers is critical—but it is also important that LSIPs reflect wider priorities too”.

Through the pandemic, we should have learned just how important localism is. One of the great successes was the delivery of track and trace and the vaccine programme locally. The same should be said of how we design our needs for skills and education in our regions. The principle of subsidiarity—decisions being made at the local level—is really important.

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point. We have a couple of enthusiasts for devolution of power on the Government side of the Committee, but I fear they may be disappointed because the Government’s approach to devolution is very much less enthusiastic than that of the previous Conservative Governments in 2015 and 2017. The Bill, which seeks to bring a lot of power back to the centre, seems to prove that.

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I think many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Mansfield, will be disappointed about that. It is really important that the Government send clear messages about devolution and what they want to see, but in many facets of Government business there seems to be a greater concentration of powers coming into Whitehall and Ministers’ offices than devolution to the likes of Mansfield, Manchester, Liverpool the north-east and so on.

As I said, one of the great learnings of the last 20 months is just how brilliantly our local services and authorities can deliver things. That is because they understand their geography, their communities and their populations. I am concerned about how due consideration, a much-vented issue in the last half hour, might work, particularly given the reliance on the personality of the individual who happens to be in the seat at the time. I will not go into any further detail on that because it has already been much explored.

Will the Minister provide a bit more information on what factors will be considered in the designation of an LSIP? The Local Government Association has stated:

“the reforms need to be implemented as part of an integrated, place-based approach. Without a meaningful role for local authorities, the reforms risk creating an even more fragmented skills system, with different providers subject to different skills plans”

I urge the Government and the Minister to listen and respond to the experience of the Local Government Association.

Let me offer the Minister a concrete example of the situation in Hull. We have the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce, which reaches over to the south bank, and we have a newly formed LEP that serves just Hull and the East Riding. We have a careers scheme for Hull and the Humber, and separate counties that have no overall mayoral authority, but an elected police commissioner for the whole of the Humber. To say that is muddled does not go far enough. I really feel that the amendment should make allowances for areas that are as muddled as Hull.

That is a good illustration of just how complicated these matters can be. I hope that there will be greater clarity on how the measures will work in future.

We have heard from colleagues how well things can work, including my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, who told us about how Manchester is just getting on with it. Having been up there recently, I have seen the extraordinary work of that cluster of universities and colleges, and how they are co-operating and collaborating in their brilliant work to bring skills to their known geography—I want to place on the record how mighty impressive that was. I agree with the hon. Member for Mansfield on counties and how they work in their regions; that must be clarified as well.

I ran a business in Greater Manchester’s Media City for many years. I saw the work of universities; in fact, I saw the universities arrive in MediaCity while I was working there. It was employers who actually drove that forward. I have listened to Opposition Members talking about local government and universities driving things forward, but businesses have been driving forward the skills agenda in Greater Manchester for many years. We have to put on the record the important role that business plays in that. The skills agenda is not being driven by local government alone; businesses are really at the heart of it.

I knew it was Warrington. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments—I worked in the industry for many years myself. Businesses have an important part to play as consultees, but my concern is about the balance struck between what business wants and wider needs—we have to get an absolute balance between that.

To give the hon. Gentleman a small example, Warwick University, which is close to my constituency, was founded back in the 1960s, but it was founded off the back of the automotive industry. That did not mean that it should be an automotive industry establishment, and it is not. It happens to be one of the best universities in the UK and globally, but it was part founded by industry. That is where collaboration can work, and the last Labour Government certainly looked very closely at that when developing regional plans to promote industries. I take on board his point that industries and businesses have an important role to play as consultees, but plans should not be explicitly or purely at their direction.

What an interesting debate to start off the Committee stage of the Bill. There are so many comments to come back to. As a general observation, it was very nice to hear the hon. Member for Chesterfield praise Conservative predecessors of mine for their comments about an employer-led system, which we have indeed been building up during our time in power. The Bill is simply the next stage in that process.

The fact that that process was required was first highlighted in a 2011 report by the Labour peer Lord Sainsbury. I do not want to get into the deep politics of it—we have the Bill to consider—but that report was written after Labour had been in power for 13 years. He felt that it was necessary to begin long-term reform of the skills system to make it more responsive to the needs of business and to make sure that students could get the qualifications they needed and the technical skills to go into the jobs that the economy demands. It is a great honour to present the Bill as a means of taking those ideas on to their next stage.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chesterfield for saying that Labour will support the amendments and the local skills improvement plans. However, I need to clarify a point made by a number of Opposition Members: the Government are not removing clause 1(6). That seems to be a point of confusion. Clause 1(6) stands part of the Bill. Government amendment 5 would insert subsection (6A) to clause 1, on page 2, in line 32. It does not do anything to clause 1(6).

On a point of clarity—forgive me if I have this wrong— amendment 4 does seem to leave out subsection (6). My mistake—it says

“leave out ‘subsection (6)’ and insert ‘subsections (6) and (6A)’”.

With that in mind, and in answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield on the impact of Government amendment 4 on clause 6, there is no friction at all between Government amendment 4 and clause 6. The amendment requires the Secretary of State to have regard to clause 1(6) and (6A) when deciding to approve and publish a plan. I hope that has cleared that up.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle raised a point about LSIPs and colleges, which will be dealt with in statutory guidance. The Secretary of State will lay very good statutory guidance on how employer representative bodies will work and how local skills improvement plans will be written.

We expect the whole process to be collaborative. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish spoke very well about the existing collaboration in the system. It is something that we recognise in all of our combined mayoral authorities. We do not see there being any great friction or need for friction. We want to see authorities, businesses and providers working in harmony, as many of them already do. What we are doing in the Bill, and in these clauses, is simply creating a process that helps establish that good working.

I was up in Salford not long ago, in MediaCity, where I saw some of the Government’s fantastic digital boot camps. Young people—and some not so young people—are learning the skills of tomorrow at speed in 16-week courses, getting apprenticeships in MediaCity and meeting people who have previously done the apprenticeships, who now have jobs in MediaCity. We saw that Government initiative backed by local business is not in friction with the good work the local Mayor was doing—instead, it complements it. We also saw the local economy boosted as a result.

Some of the remarks made by hon. Members suggested that there is always going to be a terrible tension between what local political leadership and businesses are trying to do, and what local providers want to do. I do not think that will be the case. In fact, there is an enormous amount of goodwill in the system and people are desirous of working towards the same aims.

On the points raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich and for Mansfield, do I see before me two future leaders in their respective areas? Well, one leader already, but who knows if they will become greater leaders still? Obviously, at the moment combined authorities have a greater responsibility for adult skills than local authorities do, which is why we put them on the face of the Bill. In the course of statutory guidance and as situations evolve, perhaps it will be possible for us to set out how we expect that work to evolve.

I do not recognise the comments made by some Opposition Members about this Government not having an appetite for devolution. Success has many fathers. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish talked about how Labour’s devolutionary reforms led to mayoral combined authorities, but I remember the Manchester devolution deal being done under the Conservatives.

I can second-guess where the Minister is going and I am grateful to him for giving way, but I was merely pointing out that the piece of legislation that permits combined authorities was one of the last pieces of legislation that was introduced by a Labour Government. It was clear that was where Labour was heading, but credit where it is due. David Cameron and George Osborne did allow significant devolution to my city region.

Order. As interesting as devolution is, can we remind ourselves that we are talking about local skills improvement plans?

I apologise if I am being tiresome, but just so I have understood this correctly, can the Minister confirm that the amendment leaves out subsections (6)(b), “adaptation to climate change” and (6)(c), “meeting other environmental goals”, but leaves subsection (6)(a)? Does the amendment remove paragraphs (b) and (c), lines 30 to 32, with those specific references to “climate change” and “other environmental goals”?

So that we are all clear, does that mean that “adaptation to climate change” and “meeting other environmental goals” are being removed?

Minister, would you like to complete your remarks and maybe others can provide you with a little bit more information?

That is very kind, Mrs Miller. I will seek absolute clarity on this point, but my understanding is that the Secretary of State will still have to have regard to section 1 of the Climate Change 2008. That is an important concession that was made in the House of Lords, for obvious reasons.

To go back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South, one of the major players—perhaps the major player—in what this Bill seeks to achieve is business. It is often business that drives, through its work with local providers, a responsive system, which means that the employers of today ensure that the employees of tomorrow have the skills that they need.

In Warrington, we have used the town deal to put a focus on skills, with the employer at the heart of it. A digital skills academy has been created in Warrington, driven by employers but facilitated by the local authority, allowing the focus for colleges and for future growth in those areas. Businesses have really been at the heart of that work, which for me is so important.-

That point is well made, and I very much hope to visit Warrington in the near future and see that good work.

The Minister may have received guidance that might help him, but as I understood it, paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of subsection (6) all remain in the Bill; he is simply adding proposed new subsection (6A), which we have just been debating. The amendment does not take out any of the paragraphs in subsection (6), unless I have misunderstood it.

To bring a bit of clarification to proceedings, the hon. Gentleman is quite right. Contrary to some of the messages that Opposition Members gave earlier, we are keeping all of clause 1(6)—that means paragraphs (a), (b) and (c).

Amendment 4 agreed to.

Amendment made: 5, in clause 1, page 2, line 32, at end insert—

‘(6A) Where a specified area covers any of the area of a relevant authority, the Secretary of State may approve and publish a local skills improvement plan for the specified area only if satisfied that in the development of the plan due consideration was given to the views of the relevant authority.

For this purpose “relevant authority” means—

(a) a mayoral combined authority within the meaning of Part 6 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 (see section 107A(8) of that Act), or

(b) the Greater London Authority.’—(Alex Burghart.)

The effect of this amendment is that the Secretary of State must be satisfied that due consideration has been given to the views of a mayoral combined authority or the Greater London Authority before approving a local skills improvement plan for an area that covers any of their area.

We had some quite general debate on that group. I hope people have got things off their chest. Perhaps we could have a slightly more focused debate as we move forward.

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 1, page 2, line 35, leave out from “body” to “for” in line 37.

The effect of this amendment is that a local skills improvement plan will be a plan developed by an employer representative body which is designated for a specified area. This amendment, together with Amendments 7, 8 and 9, reverse an amendment made at Lords Report.

The amendments strip back some of the detail in clause 1(7), which can be better dealt with in statutory guidance. As well as engaging a wide range of employers, a designated employer representative body should work closely with all relevant providers, local authorities and other key local stakeholders to develop its plan. Without such widespread engagement, the resulting plan is not likely to be very effective. Key stakeholders with valuable local intelligence include, but are not limited to, the Careers and Enterprise Company, local careers hubs, National Careers Service area-based contractors and Jobcentre Plus. Our expectations on local stakeholder engagement will be set out clearly within the statutory guidance. The guidance can be updated regularly to reflect evolving needs and priorities, as well as best practice. It also enables the required level of detail to be captured.

Clause 1 already places duties on relevant providers to co-operate with employer representative bodies to ensure that their valuable knowledge and experience directly inform the development of the plans, so that they are evidence-based, credible and actionable. Clause 4 makes it clear that relevant providers include independent training providers and universities. I therefore do not believe that the Lords amendment is needed, particularly given the MCA and GLA amendment that we have just discussed.

These are four significant amendments. Notwithstanding the assurances that we have just received from the Minister, they specifically take out what I think was a very strong amendment, supported by Members across the House of Lords, that added the importance of a collaborative approach to the Bill. For all the Minister said in that contribution, and the one before, about the importance of these partnership arrangements, it is not really a partnership arrangement. It is clear that all those consultees are subservient to the chamber of commerce which, ultimately, holds the pen and makes the decision. That report will then have to meet with the approval of the Secretary of State. The hon. Member for Mansfield raised in a previous debate the question of what happens, given the huge variety in the strength of different chambers of commerce, different local enterprise partnerships and so on, in the event that a local skills improvement plan goes to the Secretary of State and is considered not be adequate? Obviously, we can only assume that the Secretary of State would send it back.

Chambers of commerce are very varied organisations; I think everyone would recognise that there are some excellent ones—I count those in Derbyshire and the east midlands as an example of that. However, there are others that are much smaller and have very different areas of responsibility. Chambers of commerce are membership organisations that represent some of the businesses in their community; that is unlike chambers of commerce in Germany, which are compulsory for businesses to join, and therefore are representative, quasi-governmental organisations. In this country, chambers of commerce are one of many different business organisations that businesses might choose to join. Different chambers have different areas of priority and expertise and different industries that are particularly important to them. Even among their memberships they have, in my experience, a small number of members who are very active within them, and large numbers of members who take a much less active role.

What we have in the context of many of the consultees that the Minister referred to going into the guidance notes, are a number of organisations that are in some ways more consistent, and will definitely offer a breadth of approach. Therefore, the fundamental difference of the approach that Labour would take in the Bill, compared with the Government, is around whether it is a true partnership. The difference is whether it is a partnership that recognises the voices of public and private sector employers and of further education colleges, that recognises the power of those independent training providers that do such great work across the country, and that recognises statutory organisations such as jobcentres, all of which have a role in this, or whether, as the Bill says, they are all consultees, but the chamber of commerce ultimately writes this plan. We would like to see far greater parity in that power; we think it is a local skills improvement plan that would have more buy-in and more belief in the local community, and would be much more respected on that basis.

I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my concern, given amendment 6, that the specific reference to further education providers is removed from the Bill. Any local skills plan needs to be done in conjunction with further education providers; there is no point writing a Bill that does not have the capacity to deliver in that local area. It seems slightly odd that a specific reference to further education has been taken out of the Bill.

I agree with my hon. Friend. She is right that Government amendment 6 removes the words,

“in partnership with local authorities, including the Mayoral Combined Authorities and further education providers for the specified area”.

The Minister says that we should not worry, it will be in the guidance. However, the different approach by the Lords recognised that it was a genuine partnership. These organisations are now consultees that will make their representations to the chamber of commerce, and hope that the chamber of commerce smiles on the view they put forward. It is a totally different type of relationship. The relationship is either one of partnership or of subservience; the approach the Government choose to take is one of subservience.

My hon. Friend is making some very important points. On the face of it, it would seem that the Government seek to make local employers’ organisations ultimately responsible for the direction and control of our colleges, and potentially our universities as well.

In terms of areas that are not already devolved, that is absolutely right, and adult education budgets will be very relevant.

Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I will not dwell on the subsequent amendments, because we will have an opportunity to debate them, but I will touch on some of our concerns about the way in which the needs of learners might not necessarily be at the forefront of people’s minds in chambers of commerce. For example, to what extent will chambers of commerce be aware of the specific needs of people with education and healthcare plans or other disabilities? The amendments seek to reduce the extent to which it is partnership working and move to a hierarchy, with the chamber of commerce holding the pen and driving the bus, and others making suggestions about the route.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right as to whether it is a true partnership relationship or a relationship of subservience. I draw hon. Members’ attention to amendment 7. Not only does amendment 6 leave out specific reference to further education providers; amendment 7 leaves out specific reference to community learning providers, designated institutions and universities. Again, it is no longer a partnership, as was written in the Lords amendment. It becomes a situation in which central Government make the decisions and education providers are in a subservient relationship with them. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

I thank my hon. Friend for saying that, and I agree. Government amendment 7 is consequential to Government amendment 6, and she is right about what that means. We have real concerns about how employer-representative bodies and LSIPs will fit within sectoral expertise in sectors such as construction and manufacturing, which transcend local areas but are incredibly important, particularly where our economy is hugely lacking in the development of the next generation.

It is really important to recognise that we have huge skills shortages in the public sector as well as the private sector. Health and social care is a classic example, but there are many others. The voice of the public sector must be heard, and we must ensure that it is able to support people who aim to get from unemployment into a trained-up place in the workplace, because they are also central to this sort of approach. I am interested to hear from the Minister what framework he envisages for LSIPs aligning with sectoral programmes and a national industrial strategy.

Government amendment 8 removes the words, “by people resident”, from the sentence about the skills required in a local area. The purpose of the Lords amendment was important: it was to ensure that LSIPs focused not just on the needs of employers but on the people resident in a community. What would happen in a situation whereby employers were satisfied with the extent to which they were able to access the skills that they needed, but a large number of people were employed and unable to get into the labour market? Ultimately, it is not the responsibility of chambers of commerce to address youth unemployment; it is the Government’s responsibility. If businesses consider that they are able to access the skills that they need, but there is still a large number of people who are unemployed, who takes responsibility for that? The Lords amendment ensured that the people who were resident in a local area were considered in the local skills improvement plan. The Government are taking those words out, which means that it goes back to being a plan put together by businesses to solve the needs of businesses, regardless of whether that addresses the problems of people struggling to access the labour market.

My other concern with the amendments, which I hope the Minister will address, is about areas with many small and medium-sized enterprises. Areas with large numbers of big employers can obviously exercise that strong voice, for example through chambers of commerce, but I am worried that in areas such as Hull, with predominantly SMEs, as I am sure Government Members will recognise, that voice will not come through as strongly.

My hon. Friend worries with due cause. Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, small businesses have found it incredibly difficult to access apprenticeships. There has been a huge driving down in the number of people getting apprenticeships within small businesses. In areas such as Chesterfield, where smaller employers make up the majority of the economy, the apprenticeship opportunities are much lower than they were a few years before. Ensuring that the voice of small business is heard within this is incredibly important.

The Minister did not really talk about this amendment at all, but the Government might say that the skills plan also needs to have a focus on those relevant to a local employer who are not currently resident—we might call it the “on your bike” amendment, with the Government saying, “We want an approach that identifies skills needs of people who are not currently here.” If that was their intention, then it could have been worded to ensure that there was a strategy for attracting new workers. Simply taking those words out means that this is a plan for the employer community that does not have to consider those questions around the learners who are excluded from the labour market if those employers consider that they are relatively satisfied with what they are able to attract.

There is an important point here. At the moment, shortly after Brexit, there is a lot of focus is on skills shortages and staff shortages, and the sense, which I totally agree with, that we need to make more of the people we have. However, there may be other times when there is a real surplus of unemployed people, and we need a strategic approach that, in those times, supports those people into work, even if there are not a huge number of vacancies in the labour market. I think that those words are important.

Government amendment 9 removes the words “and other local bodies” from the clause concerning post-16 technical education, which was an amendment that the much-respected Lord Baker of Dorking added to the Bill. The Lords amendment that this Government amendment seeks to undo was drafted to avoid being too prescriptive, but it would have allowed LSIPs to work closely with other agencies, including Jobcentre Plus and careers advisory services, in providing careers information, advice and guidance.

All those organisations are important to ensuring that they are able to get into schools and support young people to get representation and ideas from both the business community and environments that they have not been familiar with. I would have thought that an amendment recognising that the careers responsibility is not just a responsibility of schools, but something that should be open to businesses, would have very much fitted with the spirit of the Bill. It was an opportunity for the Government to enable other bodies to play an important role in that post-16 technical education and careers guidance, and it is therefore disappointing that it was taken out.

We agree with their lordships on the introduction of these amendments, and we are disappointed that the Government are seeking to remove them. On that basis, we will look to support the amendments brought in by their lordships and disagree with these Government amendments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. It is appropriate that I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a governor of the fantastic Luton Sixth Form College. I support the speech given by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, the shadow Minister; I was also very disappointed.

The irony is not lost on me that a slightly less democratic place wanted to put more democracy into this Bill, which I was very pleased to see. The Government amendments take out democracy by removing the references to local authorities and mayoral combined authorities. I heard the Minister’s comments about expecting it to be collaborative and wanting good will between the different organisations. In order to ensure that all parts—the legs of the chair, so to speak—are in the Bill, the amendments made in the House of Lords should stay there.

I have a great passion for local authorities and the role they play in adult education. They have already been doing great work, understanding their own areas. In the general debate the point was raised about the role that locally elected leaders, local authorities and combined authorities play in place making, and the skills agenda is key to that. One of the points that has not been referred to specifically comes under amendment 7, which would take out the reference to the “long-term national skills” strategies. That is wholly important and not just secured through local businesses thinking about the skills they need roughly now. Retaining that reference to the long term and the statutory responsibilities of local authorities and combined authorities in the Bill would create a much firmer and stronger situation in our local areas. I speak as a former councillor on Luton Council. Great work is done at local grassroots levels.

It is generous of my hon. Friend to give way. She was in full flow and I did not want to interrupt her. In response to her point, it is fine to consult and get the views of businesses in developing a plan, but they do not necessarily know what is coming down the track: future opportunities, future business and future sectors that do not even exist yet. That is why it is important to keep as broad a base as possible. That was one of the points she was making well, but I wanted to amplify that.

I thank my hon. Friend for that fantastic intervention. It leads on to a couple of other points about those who are not in employment, and particularly local authorities with responsibility for young people who are NEET—not in education, employment or training. It is absolutely vital that those are addressed and that they have a formal seat at the table in that area. Equally, on my hon. Friend’s point about looking to the future, local authorities do a great amount of work to understand their populations and trends so they can project how many young people are coming through or whether school or training places will be needed. Employers do not always have easy access to that, but local authorities need to have an equal seat at that table in developing the plans, rather than just being tucked away in some statutory guidance. We know what happens with guidance; it is just guidance and it is often ignored.

On that point, I hope that the Minister will clarify that this will be statutory guidance, not just guidance that has been issued as a general idea that we can do it if we would like to. Statutory guidance is needed.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point about statutory guidance. In fact, if the guidance is going to be statutory, why not just make it statute and have it in the Bill? That is what I would like to see. It is important that local people have democratic oversight of what is happening in their areas. That is why I want to see local authorities, combined authorities and other organisations that can shape what is going on in their local areas.

On that point, the removal of

“schools, further education institutions, community learning providers, specialist designated institutions and universities”

means the people who actually deliver the skills strategies are being removed from a Bill about skills. It is a little odd.

I thank my hon. Friend for making yet another fantastic intervention. Yes, it is a little odd. Equally, amendment 9 removes other organisations, such as our Jobcentre Plus.

Mrs Miller, you will forgive me for intervening on an earlier intervention. What I was trying to get at with regard to universities is that they are also very much involved in skills development. I refer to the University of Bedfordshire, which is in my constituency. It has a fantastic new STEM building—science, technology, engineering and maths. Industry-standard equipment has been brought into the science labs, so the students studying for degrees such as biochemistry are using the equipment that is used out in industry. This is not just about theoretical and academic issues; it is also about key skills.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out how incorrect the intervention was. One of the areas where we are desperately short of workers is social work. How do we train up social workers? They are trained up at a university. The idea that universities are only for academic knowledge and not places where people can be trained for jobs is ludicrous.

My hon. Friend also must have eyes in the back of her head, because one of the other points I want to talk about is health and social care. Again, I will talk about my fantastic home town of Luton. Someone can study for a BTEC in health and social care at Luton Sixth Form College, or study at the University of Bedfordshire and get practical skills training as a nurse, paramedic or midwife, before going on to be a nurse, paramedic or midwife at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital. All of those bodies will not be included in developing a skills plan if they are not set out in the Bill. I want to see them included, so that everyone feels that there is equality of partnership work, to ensure that what is needed is recognised.

I will not prolong my remarks any longer, but I just want to reiterate the points made from the Opposition Front Bench and say that taking out these important clauses that were inserted by the Lords weakens the Bill.

What is concerning about these amendments is the direction of travel. What is it that the Government are trying to achieve by removing these Lords amendments, because they seem to be incredibly positive and constructive about getting the right and relevant organisations across the piece to be involved in the development of a plan? The idea of a LSIP is a very good thing, but it must draw on the skills, knowledge and expertise of these bodies from a region, so that they can bring them to bear on the design of a LSIP, to ensure that the present and future needs of a region can be met.

My fear, having listened to the debate over the last few minutes, is that there is a horrible parallel with what is going on with the integrated care systems, whereby we are seeing more involvement by the private sector and a diminution of the provision from the public sector. When we look at individual placement and support, or IPS, we see that there is an absolute withdrawal of the public sector. The public sector will also have little to no say on what will happen with the delivery of skills in a region. That runs counter to what the Local Government Association believes.

The LGA says in its written evidence that it believes

“the reforms need to be implemented as part of an integrated, place-based approach.”

We have also heard evidence from the Association of Colleges, which said it was

“disappointed the Government have tabled an amendment to remove”

the reference to post-16 education providers. It is quite rightly disappointed.

Warwickshire College Group, based in my town, is a huge college that covers Warwickshire—I think it is still the sixth largest in the country, so it is a college of some substance. It wrote to me to say that it wants to ensure that colleges are co-constructing LSIPs with employers and that it very much needs to be involved, because it is within the power of colleges to further think strategically—that comes back to the point I was making earlier—and innovate for the skills needs of their communities.

We have also heard from the Workers Education Association. Its submission said:

“We are pleased that the Bill…should “draw on the views of”…further education institutions, community learning providers”,

and others, and that:

“We hope to see this retained and strengthened in the…Act.”

Then we get to organisations such as Central YMCA, which said that, as an independent training provider, it believes it is vital that LSIPs should draw on the views of organisations such as themselves, as well as those of schools and FE colleges.

The LGA believes that the Lords amendment should be maintained, to ensure that all employer representative bodies across England should

“work with local democratic organisations to better coordinate provision and align pathways of progression for learners.”

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said at the outset, we are extremely concerned that removing these organisations—removing, wholesale, the likes of schools, specialist designated institutions and universities from participating in the design of the plans—seems ignorant in the pure sense of the word. It weakens the plans. It does not maximise the true potential of what the region can do with collaboration between the public and private sector in the design of those plans. The Lords got it right, and it is really disappointing that the Government, for whatever reason—ideological, perhaps—should now be seeking to remove this provision.

I do not want to prolong the debate on this group, but the Minister, in the discussion on the previous group, sought to assure the Committee that the approach was genuinely collaborative. Yet this group of amendments strikes out Lords amendments that would make the approach genuinely collaborative. I do not understand the thinking here. I cannot understand what the Minister thinks he is gaining or achieving by striking out the Lords amendments.

Let us look at the amendments in detail. Government amendment 6 would strike out, in clause 1(7)(a),

“in partnership with local authorities, including the Mayoral Combined Authorities and further education providers”.

The explanatory notes state that the reference to mayoral combined authorities is not required because that point has now been made clear through the earlier Government amendment that we have passed. I accept that point, but there is still a role for other local, non-mayoral combined authorities to have a view and an input into the skills agenda for their area, whether that is a unitary authority or a county council. These issues are part and parcel of what those local authorities do.

It feels like removing the Lords amendment will result in democratic accountability if the area has a Mayor; if it does not, there is no democratic accountability. An area such as Hull, which has no mayoral authority, has no democratic accountability or reference in the Bill. That feels unfair.

It not only feels unfair; it is unfair. I get that mayoral combined authorities have specific skills responsibilities devolved to them, so clearly the level of input from a mayoral combined authority is greater than that of a county council or a unitary authority that does not have those specific responsibilities devolved to them, but the council’s strategy for that area will involve education, skills and economic development. Those are important elements for county and unitary authorities.

I fear it is actually worse. The Government amendment agreed by the Committee a moment ago did give a role to mayoral combined authorities, but that role was that the Secretary of State had to satisfy himself that they had been consulted. The pen is still held by the chamber of commerce. The Lords amendment that the Government amendments in this group get rid of are about genuine partnership. The Bill, as brought from the Lords, states that it will include

“an employer representative body in partnership with local authorities, including the Mayoral Combined Authorities and further education providers for the specified area”.

That partnership is being entirely removed. Metro Mayors are being left as a statutory consultee, which the Secretary of State must satisfy himself are being consulted. The other partners will have no role whatsoever, except for in guidance, which will say, “Make sure you talk to them.” This change is about moving from a partnership approach to a consultee, subservient approach.

My hon. Friend the shadow Minister is absolutely right. When we look at what else is being deleted from clause 1, subsection (7)(b)(ii) talks about

“regional and local authorities, including the Mayoral Combined Authorities, within the specified area with specific reference to published plans and strategies which have been developed by these authorities”.

All those authorities have plans and strategies; I listed a number of them in relation to Greater Manchester. If the mayoral combined authorities are going to be involved in this, why take out a specific reference to the plans that have been developed by them? As I said previously, unitary authorities and county authorities have those strategies too, yet they have no say whatsoever.

I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, because he was first, and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, and I would like to draw him further on it. I accept and respect what the Government are doing with some of the allocations of moneys to towns through the towns fund and so on, but it seems odd that we have some visionary authorities, not just at county level but at town and district level, that are doing extremely good work—I include my own in that—and they are not included. They should be party to this. They know what they want to do, they know what they are capable of, they know the areas where they can develop and they need those skills to ensure it is realised. I emphasise that those sorts of authorities should be included as well.

I completely agree. Every layer of local government has an interest in the health and wellbeing—in the broadest sense—of the population. The best way to improve the health and wellbeing of the population is to ensure that people have good skills, good education and good job opportunities. That is the route to health and wellbeing, and that is true both at the district level and at upper levels.

I want to highlight to Government Members, although I am sure the hon. Member for Mansfield will know this as leader of a local council, that local councils have a statutory duty for all children with special educational needs or disabilities up to the age of 25. They have a statutory duty for looked-after children. They have a statutory duty regarding the number of young people not in employment, education or training—NEETs—as well. They have those statutory duties, yet the Government amendments remove their voice from the local skills plan. That does not seem right.