Skip to main content

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Volume 815: debated on Monday 25 October 2021

Third Reading

My Lords, before the Third Reading of this Bill I would like to make a short statement about our engagement with the devolved Administrations. Officials and Ministers have worked closely and collaboratively with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations throughout the passage of the Bill. We are continuing to discuss the requirements for legislative consent from the Welsh Government for this Bill and are grateful for their continued engagement on this issue. I beg to move that this Bill be read a third time.

My Lords, it is not my intention to delay the House, given the length of the previous debate on procedure, but I want to make three points. First, in the debate in this House on the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill we have had some exemplary and extremely profound contributions from Members. I want to appeal to the Minister, who is new to her post, to take back to her ministerial team and the Cabinet, as this Bill moves to the House of Commons, the genuine feelings of this House and—as has just been displayed in terms of the procedure issues—to think, reflect and not necessarily to move at the speed to which the Government are currently committed on certain aspects of government policy in relation to defunding qualifications.

I know from previous experience in my dealings with the Minister that she does listen and does care. I say to the officials who do not often get addressed in this House, or for that matter in the other House, that getting something done well is better than getting it done quickly—particularly when those who have put through legislation are rarely around to see the consequences of their own mistakes. Sometimes it would be good if those officials working on Bill committees were able—I have put this forward on many occasions in the past, so this is not a knock at them—to take forward the legislation on which they have worked. It would be an exemplar way of using their talent and ensuring that other people simply did not pick up the pieces of something that has been done before.

Secondly, announcements were made this weekend by the Chancellor of the Exchequer—or rather, they were briefed to the media—about funding. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us anything about the supposed additional—and I do mean additional—funding in terms not just of T-levels but of the skills agenda as a whole. How much of this is money that has not already been earmarked for this area in previous Budgets and announcements? It would be really helpful to know that, so that we could have some transparency. The BBC in particular seems now to take such briefings lock, stock and barrel—it was not just on this issue but in respect of a number of press releases, announcements and briefings over the weekend—and I say this as a supporter of the BBC. It may be that the reductions in funding for news and current affairs, and for the research that needs to be done, have affected it, but it does not help in terms of transparency or knowing what is going on in what is effectively a Budget but which as an Autumn Statement allows the Government simply to wipe out any previous protocols regarding budgetary matters.

I cannot put my third point to the Minister too strongly. The letter that she kindly circulated referred to the defunding of students on particular courses arising from the procedures of implementation of T-levels—which I still support, as I do the thrust of this Bill. The letter states that students who are most likely to be taking qualifications that will not be funded in the future will have the most to gain from these changes, because they are currently more likely to be taking qualifications that do not deliver the skills that employers need. Now in some cases that might well be true, but many of us have simply wasted our breath if it has not been understood by Ministers and officials that many BTEC national diplomas, upgraded recently, are just what employers need for the future. T-levels must stand on their own quality and their relevance in the sectors of the economy to which they will be applied, and so must BTEC national diplomas, but a little time to carry through these changes would not come amiss.

I hope not only that the amendment moved from my own Front Bench by my noble friend Lord Watson will be accepted in the other House but that there will be some reflection on the excellent debate on the evening of 12 October, which had two elements: the first was excellent propositions and the second was a case study in how not to do politics that schools, colleges and universities might use in the future. Those who were in favour of moderate changes to the propositions managed to filibuster the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, to the point where it was not carried. Sometimes we get the politics wrong and the speeches and the intentions right.

My Lords, I will be brief. First, we are probably facing a renaissance in further education and vocational education, and maybe the starting point is this Bill.

Secondly, I want to thank the Minister—if I could catch her eye—and her predecessor for the thorough and courteous way in which they have handled this Bill. It has been an exemplar of how to take a Bill through this House. Listening is always so important.

At the end of the day, two things matter. One is that the funding is there; the other is that we need to see a cultural change in how society views further and vocational education because if that does not happen, then all our hard work will be for nothing.

I end by thanking my own colleagues, who do not happen to be here, for the support they have given me—particularly when I was away in the Bahamas during Report, but I will keep that quiet. I also thank the Minister’s staff again for the thorough way they have dealt with any requests for information. I hope that the amended Bill—it has been amended by two former Secretaries of State, by Labour and by my Lib Dem Benches—will be agreed by the Commons.

My Lords, briefly, it has been a great pleasure for me to participate from the Cross Benches in these debates, along with so many much more distinguished experts and a wisdom of former Education Ministers, if that is the correct collective term. This is a very important Bill and I very much echo what the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Storey, have said. I hope that the Government will listen to the issues raised in our debates and think about them carefully as the Bill progresses. I add my thanks to the Minister, to her predecessor and to the Bill team, not least to the current Minister for going beyond her normal duties to help me with my maths abilities, which clearly need some improvement. I very much hope that this will be the Bill that delivers the skills and post-16 education system we need, unlike so many of its unfortunate predecessors.

My Lords, I have prepared a few words that I intended to say on the Motion that the Bill Do Now Pass. I thought that the Minister would have moved that but we seem to have got there anyway, by whatever route. I am sure noble Lords will not be too unhappy about that, although perhaps the clerk may be.

As noble Lords have demonstrated over four days in Committee and two on Report, the Bill as drafted was not fit for purpose and required considerable improvement. In addition the Minister herself has introduced three concessions, not the least of which concerns net-zero emissions targets, which of course we welcome. Noble Lords have supported eight amendments; what was most remarkable was the extent to which they were the product of effective cross-party planning and execution. Of course, as noble Lords know, no win in your Lordships’ House can be achieved without some cross-party co-operation. But we believe that the number of noble Lords from the government Benches who made clear their dissatisfaction with various parts of the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has just suggested, ought to give the Minister and her Government pause for thought.

With three of their defeats involving amendments in the names of former Conservative Secretaries of State for Education, the Government need to accept that with regard to the Bill they do not possess a monopoly of wisdom on matters as diverse as universal credit conditionality and the withdrawal of BTECs. My noble friend Lady Sherlock has a unique ability: she can explain universal credit in an understandable manner. I have never found anyone else who can achieve that feat.

It would be unkind to press the Minister any further on the mystical missing amendments on the lifelong loan entitlement, because I suspect that in her private moments, she asks herself the same questions as noble Lords: do they really exist? Will they ever appear? We have been promised them so often that on these Benches the suspense is now killing us. We also await details of sharia student finance for both higher education and further education to be announced as part of the spending review, as well as an announcement on fees, which the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, the then Minister, promised in Committee.

However, I would like to record my admiration for the Minister’s ability to pick up the baton on the Bill after it was, I think I can say, thrust at her midway through its consideration in your Lordships’ House. I should say that the change of Minister caught us on these Benches by surprise, because we thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, had coped admirably up until then—although it would appear that was not the view shared by the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip. On my behalf and that of my noble friends Lady Sherlock and Lady Wilcox, I say for the record that we want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for her work on the Bill and for her openness and willingness to engage with us. I also say on our joint behalf that that is not to suggest that the Minister—the noble Baroness, Lady Barran—is any less so in that regard.

I also add my thanks to the Bill team for the briefings it facilitated and its willingness to discuss with us, openly and in detail, aspects of the Bill that were unclear or about which we had concerns. It certainly helped to put us more in tune with the thinking on the Bill, even if we were not always convinced by the arguments.

I thank all noble Lords who have been involved with the Bill at various stages. Of course, the Public Bill Office has, as ever, been extremely helpful. All Ministers, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Barran, Lady Berridge, Lady Chisholm and Lady Penn, have been most helpful and always pleasant to deal with. Given that my team has also contained two noble Baronesses and a female legislative and political adviser, I have clearly been the token male in all this.

I thank my colleagues, my noble friends Lady Sherlock and Lady Wilcox, for their support and advice, particularly last week, when the change of date for the second day of Report made it impossible for me to participate. They achieved five wins out of five on that occasion, which perhaps suggests that I should have absented myself more often.

As noble Lords are aware, Ministers have a vast array of officials behind them at times like this, and rightly so, but, as the Opposition, we have just one person: Rhian Copple, the legislative and political adviser for our team. She has been an endless source of ideas and support in so many ways, not least in drafting amendments and negotiating with the Public Bill Office, representatives of other parties and Cross-Benchers. We all owe her a huge debt of gratitude.

I wish the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill good luck in another place. It will need it.


Moved by

My Lords, I am delighted that the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is finalising its passage through this House. As the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, articulated, our debate has been thoughtful and powerful and, above all, has demonstrated our clear shared commitment to a high-quality skills system. I can reassure the noble Lord and your Lordships that I have discussed and will continue to discuss our debates in detail with my ministerial colleagues. This is a real priority for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and for the Minister for Skills, and I thank them both for attending today’s debate.

This Bill provides key legislation that will enable a transformation of the country’s skills landscape. It will help to provide the skills that employers need today, as well as those of the future, and support our path to net zero. It will also contribute to building a system where all people, regardless of their background or circumstance, have the opportunity to undertake high-quality training that enables them to meet their full potential and get the skills they need for employment. These outcomes will benefit us all by boosting productivity and fortifying the economy.

It has been a genuine privilege to work on this Bill, if only briefly. Its passage has been an exemplary demonstration of the important role that this House plays in the legislative process. I express my particular thanks to Members on the Front Benches, including the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Storey, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, Lady Wilcox and Lady Garden.

Of course, as your Lordships have pointed out, we have also benefited from the insight of many former Education Ministers and Secretaries of States in this House, whom I would like to thank. They include the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, my noble friends Lady Morgan of Cotes, Lord Willetts, Lord Baker and Lord Johnson, and my noble and learned friend Lord Clarke. I also thank the many other noble Lords who took part in the debates. The Government have listened to the important points made and will carefully consider the amendments that have been agreed by the House.

I also believe the Bill has been made better thanks to the important issues raised during its passage. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his sustained campaign for the criminalisation of essay mills, the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for his work on helping to ensure that religious sixth-form colleges can become academies, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and her fellow Peers for the Planet for raising the important issue of net zero, which the Government have now incorporated into the Bill.

I also emphasise my gratitude to my noble friend Lady Chisholm, who has provided great support in bringing this Bill through the House. Of course, the Bill would not be where it is without the tireless endeavours of my predecessor, my noble friend Lady Berridge, and the support of my noble friend Lady Penn. I also thank the Lord Speaker and all the parliamentary staff involved. My final thanks go to the supporting officials at the Department for Education for their hard work throughout this process. I invite your Lordships to imagine for a second what the words “reshuffle” and “new Minister” sound like to an official who has worked very successfully with a Minister through a Bill; they have handled those two realities with incredible professionalism, patience and skill. I send them my heartfelt thanks.

This Bill, as we have heard, represents an important step towards building a skills system that will boost productivity, support levelling up and create new opportunities for people across the country. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked about the balance between politics and implementation. I know how strongly my right honourable friend the Secretary of State feels about the importance of good implementation as well as good politics. I hope many of your Lordships will agree with me that this Bill will make a significant and positive difference to people’s lives. I am proud to have worked on it and once again thank all noble Lords for their contributions to its passage through this House.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.