All 5 Baroness Berridge contributions to the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022

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Tue 15th Jun 2021
Tue 6th Jul 2021
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]
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Mon 19th Jul 2021
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Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for International Trade

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Baroness Berridge Excerpts
2nd reading
Tuesday 15th June 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, first, I thank those who contributed to the debate following Her Majesty’s gracious Speech, when we first discussed this Bill. I also thank noble Lords who attended the recent briefing with departmental Ministers. For the benefit of noble Lords contributing remotely, I note that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills is physically present with us in the Chamber today. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, and it is wonderful to see the priority given to the Bill by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who is speaking today on her birthday. I am glad to see a common desire to look at skills reform and further education. I look forward to the debate that we will share, and I welcome the scrutiny that the Bill will be placed under.

We can all agree that skills and post-16 education needs its moment in the spotlight, both in Parliament and in communities across the country. We talk about the forgotten 50% of people who do not go to university; today, we are giving this policy and the people it affects the attention they deserve. We can see today the vast challenges facing the nation. Covid-19 has significantly impacted the economy and shown us how urgently we need a resilient, highly skilled workforce. We all see the clock ticking towards 2050, when we have committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions, and we are all aware of our need to succeed as an independent trading nation, following our departure from the European Union.

This is also the perfect opportunity to think about what constitutes our nation. Is it one big city, or a couple of big cities? No, it is a diverse set of communities, families and individuals, with different ambitions and potential. This means that we need to match opportunities with the talent that we know can be found across the country. We need to ensure that people can succeed without feeling that they have to move to one of the big cities. This past year’s extraordinary transition to flexible working for many has only proved this further. We have a duty to make sure that the skills provision offered in people’s home towns meets their needs and ambitions and that of employers, so that everyone has the opportunity to realise their full potential and find success, wherever they live and whatever their background.

The evidence is clear: we have a problem in the balance of education. Only 4% of young people achieve a qualification at higher technical level by the age of 25, compared to a third who get a degree or above, yet 34% of working-age graduates are not in high-skilled employment. No wonder more parents would now prefer that their child gain a vocational qualification than a degree. University is a great option for some but not the best option for everyone, and it should not be seen to be the only pathway to success. My honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills often tells me how inspired she is by the learners she meets on visits to colleges and further education institutions—people who have found their vocation and their way of success through technical education.

Philip Augar’s 2018 Post-18 Review of Education and Funding made the call for parity of esteem between further and higher education. I take this moment to offer my congratulations on his recent knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. The review set out the case very clearly for a genuine choice, for everyone, beyond the fantastic opportunities offered through our world-class university system. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, who served on the review’s panel. The Government have listened to this call; the Skills for Jobs White Paper, published earlier this year, set out our vision to reform post-16 education and training. We will prioritise flexibility, accountability and quality, and we will put employers at the heart of the system, building on what we have done with apprenticeships and T-levels, so that individuals can know what their qualification leads to, and employers can have confidence in them. Given that 80% of the workforce of 2030 are already in work today, it is essential that we have a flexible system for adult retraining which supports people to progress in their careers.

We want our reforms to work for everyone, which is why we are working with noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Addington, to ensure that we support those with special educational needs to access the improved skills training and education that our reforms aim to deliver. I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord for his dedication, challenge and advocacy on this issue, as well as our other FE ambassadors, who have brought a breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm to our discussions.

The chair of the Education Select Committee, the right honourable Robert Halfon, called the White Paper a “sea change”. The Association of Colleges noted that it

“recognises the vital role that colleges and further education will play in levelling up for people and places whilst tackling long standing concerns about stagnating productivity”.

Employers such as the Co-op welcomed our reforms.

We know that to deliver the reforms successfully requires funding. That is why we have backed up the White Paper with £2.5 billion towards the national skills fund, £1.5 billion to improve the college estate, and £650 million extra into further education for 16 to 19 year-olds. The White Paper sets out our comprehensive programme for reform, and the Bill before us will provide the necessary statutory underpinning for change.

The Bill is divided into three sections that support the principles of the White Paper. First, it aims to provide a framework for ensuring that skills and post-16 education leads people towards a great job. That is why we are creating a statutory underpinning for local skills improvement plans, which we will shortly be trailblazing in some local areas. By putting employers and their representative bodies at the heart of the post-16 skills system, we are focusing on meeting local skills gaps and prioritising training in growth sectors. This will ensure that employers have the skills they need to drive growth in local areas; it will support opportunities for learners to get good jobs and help the existing workforce to retrain. This will help us get rid of the idea that career success can be found only in a big city.

Relevant providers will need to have regard to these plans when considering their technical education and training offer. These changes will also be supported by a new duty on further education institutions to review their provision to ensure that it meets local needs. In addition, the Bill supports the provision of the advanced technical and higher education skills the country needs by creating a strong link to employer-led standards. The Bill will reform the technical education system so that it is high-quality, stable and coherent. It does this by giving the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education powers to approve new categories of technical qualifications, simplifying a system in which there are currently over 12,000 qualifications. The Bill also gives a statutory footing to the collaborative relationship between the institute and Ofqual.

Perhaps the major plank of the Bill is that it supports the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement, as part of a flexible lifetime skills guarantee. This measure will be rolled out from 2025 and will give all adults access to the equivalent of four years of student loans for higher-level study at levels 4 to 6. The loans will be able to be used flexibly, full time or part time, for modules or full qualifications and for provision in colleges or universities. At the moment, maximum amounts for funding are set in relation to an academic year. The Bill will make it clear that maximum loan amounts can be set in other ways. The Government will consult on the details of the lifelong loan entitlement, including on how best to support students with the living costs of study, and whether equivalent and lower qualifications restrictions should be amended to support retraining and stimulate provision.

The ambition is to replace the two existing systems that offer government-financed loans to learners studying at levels 4 to 6 with the single LLE system. These two existing systems of higher education student finance and advanced learner loans provide funding support for different types of courses. The lifelong loan entitlement aims to create a simpler and clearer system, but it will require extensive operational changes to the student finance system and the types of course available, which is why it will be rolled out from 2025. It is the step change in the system that will give people the opportunity to upskill, retrain and reskill, providing the alternative to the notion that a standard three-year degree is the only route to success and giving people the flexibility to change their future.

Of course, it is important to ensure that there is sufficient provision for lower-level qualifications. That is why, separate from the Bill, the Government’s adult education budget will continue to fully fund courses in English and maths up to and including level 2 for adults who have not previously attained a GCSE grade C or, in new currency, grade 4. The national skills fund funds adults to complete their first level 3 qualification alongside the new skills boot camps.

These reforms mean very little if education or training provision is not of the highest quality. That is why the second part of the Bill proposes powers to make regulations to improve and secure the quality of FE initial teacher training by shaping the market for that provision. This power will be used only if these improvements cannot be achieved through working collaboratively with the sector. The Bill will also make it clear that the Office for Students has the ability to make assessments by reference to absolute student outcomes. This will give confidence that the same standard can be applied across all higher education providers and for all students, while continuing to take into account context and individual circumstances.

The third part of the Bill aims to ensure there are sufficient protections in place for learners. It will allow the Government to introduce a list of post-16 education or training providers. To be on this list, providers will need to meet conditions aimed at protecting learners against the negative impacts of potential provider failure. This issue, which relates particularly to independent training providers, was raised in this House during the passage of the Technical and Further Education Bill in 2017. I am glad to bring a solution to this issue back to the House today. This section of the Bill also gives powers to the Secretary of State, who took his place on the steps of the Throne as I began, to intervene in the statutory further education sector where local needs are not being met, or to direct mergers or structural change where that is the best way to secure improvement. Alongside the final part of the Bill, it will improve the efficiency of the FE insolvency regime. One of the strengths of the FE market is the flexibility of its provider base. These measures will give the impetus for this flexibility to be used to protect learners and provide education and training that has this clear path towards the labour market.

I am delighted that this Bill is before us today. We have an opportunity to begin the process of transforming opportunities for young people and adults. Events of the past year have shown us how important skills and further education will be to our recovery as both an economy and as a nation. As noble Lords have often said, this has been the Cinderella of the sector for too long. This reform is long overdue, but is only one step on a longer journey. We will work to ensure that the 50% of people who do not go to university will no longer be called “forgotten” and stuck in what are wrongly called “forgotten towns”. Instead, we will make skills and jobs available to everyone, wherever they are. This Bill will help provide those learners with high-quality provision, protection and the skills and education that can transform their lives. I beg to move.

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Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions today; I appreciate the expert knowledge that they bring and the many passionate speeches. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, I hope I have retained some of my rationality during this interesting debate.

I begin by giving a special thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Black, for her maiden speech. Like my noble friend Lady Morgan, I am the beneficiary of a touch typing course, which has stood me in good stead. I was fascinated to hear of the career of the noble Baroness, Lady Black, in forensic anthropology—but, as one of the more squeamish Members of your Lordships’ House, I do not need to know anything further. I wish her well, and hope that she enjoys her time in this House as much as I do.

I turn now to the points that noble Lords have raised. But given that there have been 50 speakers, as was outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I am afraid that the department will be writing some letters after I have concluded.

Before I turn to the specific questions, many of your Lordships followed the lead of my noble friend Lord Willetts, including the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and my noble friends Lord Baker and Lord Cormack. I am the beneficiary of the wisdom of previous holders of junior and Secretary of State positions in the department, in that my homework has been corrected: there is no artificial distinction between vocational, technical and academic—no sense that one is better than the other. We are trying to achieve a system where they all have parity of esteem, where the institutions that teach these qualifications have parity of esteem and where the quality of all those qualifications is there.

The reforms in the Bill are aimed at bringing the system closer together and the lifelong loan entitlement, for instance, will bring together all the funding support for learners—that is, level 4 to level 6—wherever you might be studying that. One can also look at the system at the moment and see that there is not a conflict or a battle between FE and HE—the Government do not desire that at all. We recognise the collaboration there is. When we look at the recent introduction of institutes of technology, we see that they have been a collaboration; the university technical colleges of my noble friend Lord Baker have also been a collaboration, as have been the recent specialist maths sixth-form colleges, with universities involved in 16 to 19 provision. So the system is not even that twofold—just FE and HE. We will also fund T-levels, A-levels and other high-quality academic and technical qualifications for young people and adults at level 3. This will ensure that, whatever option learners choose, they will have a pathway to success.

A few noble Lords mentioned being disqualified from access to LLE. If you want the funding for level 4 and you are accepted by the institution to study that, it does not matter if you do not have level 3 or level 2. That is how universities have operated for a while: they sometimes have different access routes. Therefore, although obviously we have the funding situation for levels 1 and 2, you will have that entitlement. If you get accepted on a course at level 4, you will be in the lifelong loan entitlement pot. There is no prerequisite that you have to have level 3. However, of course we recognise the value of those qualifications, as many noble Lords have said, and therefore the advanced learner loans will still exist for level 3 courses that are not the 400 courses that we are currently funding if you do not have the full entitlement or if you have the full level 3 entitlement and want to do something different. I hope that clarifies that everyone will have that lifelong loan entitlement between levels 4 and 6.

On the measures in the Bill on local skills improvement plans, I agree with my noble friend Lord Taylor on the importance of localism. The local skills improvement plans are putting employers at the heart of the skills system in a way similar to the apprenticeship situation and the T-levels that we have designed. Many noble Lords talked about that tension: someone has to be in the driving seat here. There cannot be a cast of thousands but there needs to be appropriate consultation. So the Government have decided that these will be employer representative groups. To clarify to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, we did not define them as businesses but as employers. That might be the big local hospital, or a university might be an employer for that purpose rather than just being the provider. They are well placed to have that convening role, including of course the SMEs, in their local area. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds highlighted, their involvement is crucial.

My noble friend Lady Morgan asked what the Government envisage ERBs to be. We consider them to be independent bodies designated by the Secretary of State to develop local skills improvement plans. They are capable of developing that plan in an effective and efficient manner and many noble Lords talked about the future—the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Lane-Fox. The plans have to be dynamic and will include not just existing skills but what the future for the local area looks like. I want to reassure the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins, Lady Janke, Lady Henig, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that in Section 4 the relevant providers are not just FE and HE; they include the schools that are delivering post-16, as well as the independent training providers. So the educators are included, and it is supposed to be a dynamic relationship between the employer representative body and the relevant providers that, as I say, we have outlined.

On a point raised many hours ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, the mayoral combined authorities will be engaged in developing the local plans. The White Paper talked about the fact that they will be consulted on this and, as I mentioned, we have these trail-blazers that we have recently procured, so we will know the particular areas where we will be starting there. They will help to shape the local plans.

However, one reason to have local skills improvement plans is the gaps we have at the moment. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, referred to this position for parts of Shropshire, in such a dynamic region as the West Midlands. There will be a local skills improvement plan across the country and it is obvious to state, but perhaps I need to say it, that not everyone has a mayoral combined authority. As noble Lords have often said, we do not have a settled, defined geography out there for many things—our police authorities, our local government—so this is where “local” will be defined by the local employers coming forward. Many of the current trailblazers have come with the endorsement of local government or, where relevant, the mayoral combined authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked how the local skills improvement plans will interact with national strategies. They will be informed by the national skills priorities, as highlighted by the Skills and Productivity Board; that will remain. The board will undertake expert analysis of the national skills that we need to inform government policy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked what powers the Government have should businesses take a back seat and rest on their laurels. If the ERB does not comply with the set conditions, the Secretary of State may not approve and publish its skills improvement plan and could remove its designation. Obviously, it goes without saying that all the powers of the Secretary of State are subject to criteria for judicial review. These powers must be used in a proportionate manner, et cetera; they are obviously not an absolute power.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan, Lady Young and Lady Bennett, talked about the importance of green jobs and net-zero carbon. We expect the LSIPs, led by the employer-represented bodies with that link to the national strategy, to look at what future green jobs are in the area. An element will be national because of what needs to happen with household boilers, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned, so there will be an interconnection there.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry, raised questions on local needs. It is about the needs of the learners and the employers in a local geographic area served by the college. The noble Lord, Lord Bradley, questioned the centralisation here, but what we are saying here is that we are allowing “local” to define itself. We have not said that it has to be the local authority area, the MCA area or the LEP area. There is a dynamic here to areas being able to say, “This is the area that we, as employers, need to look at.” The plan will be an important point of reference.

As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, spoke, I mouthed “Newton Rigg”. I am aware that there have been issues in relation to the provision of land-based education in that part of Cumbria. I regularly see questions about it, so I will happily engage with him if I can offer any further assistance.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and other noble Lords that the purpose of the section of the Bill dealing with technical educational qualifications, which includes a lot of hospitality within that sector, is to simplify the approach to regulations between the institute and Ofqual. The two bodies already work effectively together. They are effectively collaborating; we are embedding, or perhaps futureproofing, it so that they carry on working in the way that they do at the moment. In the legislation, we are extending the technical qualifications that IfATE can regulate but Ofqual will continue to have independent regulatory oversight of technical qualifications in live delivery. The legislation will bring the treatment of technicals more in line with A-levels and GCSEs, where the content is subject to regulatory scrutiny. Obviously, we have been talking to Ofqual during preparation of the Bill.

Extending the institute’s power will raise the quality bar and ensure that the majority of these qualifications, like apprenticeships and T-levels, are aligned to employers’ standards. This will place the employers’ voice at the heart of the system. We are creating a clear progression pathway for learners and there will be an opportunity for Parliament to consider the details of the regime when the regulations are laid.

It has become clear today that a lot is happening around this legislation; this is the statutory underpinning to the skills White Paper, but we also have the consultation that has just finished on level 3, the call for evidence on level 2 and the consultation on the details of the lifelong loan entitlement. Turning to that, I confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that it is our intention, as outlined in the Explanatory Notes, to bring forward amendments to the lifelong loan entitlement ahead of Committee. I can also confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, that the LLE will be available to be used from levels 4 to 6. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, also mentioned the funding of level 3. As I have outlined, that is covered by the national skills fund and there are now the boot camps—flexible courses for up to 16 weeks. As I have said, that is in addition to the availability of the ALL and bursary support fund for level 3 qualifications.

Many of your Lordships, including the noble Lords, Lord Bichard and Lord Watson, and my noble friend Lady Wyld, raised questions on the detail of the LLE ahead of the upcoming consultation. We will do that as soon as possible during the passage of the Bill. I am not able to give a clearly defined timeline on this, but the consultation will cover questions on, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned, maintenance credit transfers; the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and many other noble Lords mentioned the ELQ rules, which will also be within the consultation. I am happy to ask officials to set up briefing sessions with noble Lords once the consultation has been launched.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Curry, my noble friend Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, asked about the introduction date of the LLE. As well as the consultation, we have got a lot of work to do with the Student Loans Company to co-design a system capable of delivering the required operational changes, and we will introduce secondary legislation to enable the LLE to function. This, as I have outlined, is the whole pot for level 4 to level 5, so there will of course be changes. Once you release the maximum loan amount for the academic year, that has a knock-on implication for that which it already funds—mainly the level 6 undergraduate degree. We have got to get this right operationally and, unfortunately, it is going to take more time than we would ideally like.

The question of part-time study was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lane-Fox and Lady Greengross. I have to say, having been to a graduation at Birkbeck university, I was overcome by emotion seeing people getting their degrees, many with their families and children there. The decline in part-time study and adult education is a great shame, and I thank my noble friend Lord Willetts for his humility in accepting that it is something that we are seeking to put right. One of the main purposes of this is to ensure that the loan entitlement enables that modular, part-time learning to begin again. But I accept the questions raised about how adults access loans, as opposed to young people; I am sure there are behavioural scientists looking at how we get people to take these loans up.

In response to my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, the LLE will be available regardless of where you study—it will be “institution blind”, as I think another noble Lord said. It will be based on the level of qualification you are studying, not which institution you have selected to study in.

On the parts of the Bill that relate to initial teacher training, as I have outlined to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, the powers we are taking are to deal with the small part of the market that is not producing the quality that it should for initial teacher training for FE. Once we have worked in collaboration with the sector, if we still need that power, we will use it, but we want to make sure that the quality is there.

I believe the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, relate to the current review of the ITT market for school-based training, and so I will ask officials to write to him, as that is outside the scope of this Bill.

On that note, there were other matters, as this Bill sits quite narrowly within a framework of a lot of other interconnected issues. I will deal with a few of those in the time I have left.

I am very grateful again to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for highlighting the importance of special educational needs and of using the assistive technology to support FE learners with SEND. This is an important part of the Bill. Obviously, the figures for those with SEND show that a higher proportion of them go into technical or vocational qualifications or into FE institutions.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about alternative student finance. We are considering a student finance project that is compliant with Islamic finance principles in parallel with the post-18 review of education and funding. That review is due to conclude alongside the next multi-year spending review, so we will provide an update then. I know that that is an issue that has been talked about for a number of years.

Of course, many noble Lords raised questions about apprenticeship funding. Again, apprenticeship levy funding is not part of the scope of the Bill, but £2.5 billion is available this year and the funds available to levy-paying employers are available to be transferred down the supply chain. We are working on the apprenticeship levy to ensure that it is meeting those needs. Most employers who pay the levy might not spend all of their funding, and they can fund apprenticeship starts in smaller employers. We will make improvements to support employers offering more apprenticeships and to make them more flexible through accelerated front-loading and flexi-job apprenticeships and making transfers easier. We also have a specific piece of work on the sector that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is in—that is the creative industries—where apprenticeships have been difficult because there is not one employer and people are going from project-based work.

The importance of careers advice was mentioned by many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Patel, Lord Addington and Lord Bichard, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and my noble friend Lady Morgan. Obviously, that is not within the Bill, as far as I am concerned, because we do not need statutory underpinning for that. However, I recognise that the Bill is sitting in this wider framework of connected issues, and we have given £100 million to the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company this year.

On the perennial issue of cross-government working, which was mentioned by many noble Lords—particularly the noble Lords, Lord Puttnam and Lord Patel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and my noble friend Lady Stroud—and also came up in one of our meetings in advance of today’s Second Reading, we are looking to answer those questions, so I will write to noble Lords about the interconnection of this with the benefits system. It is not straightforward to answer in a Second Reading debate how we can ensure that it connects properly, but I will write to noble Lords.

In relation to the specific question on the Kickstart scheme, I am told here that universal credit claims are eligible if the claimants are aged 16 to 24 and meet the relevant conditions. We are working with DWP to turn those as well into apprenticeships when it is right for the employer and that young person. I hope that answers the specific question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, but if it does not, I will write further to him.

Obviously, I have read the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, in the Times, which I think were more properly addressed to the Treasury in relation to the finances. The issue was also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and that will also be passed on.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly agree with the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, about the importance of the Bill. The imperative is the need now for us to follow through, to fund this and to deliver it. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 8.09 pm.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for International Trade

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Baroness Berridge Excerpts
LSIPs must include the interests of students whose needs are not encompassed by local employers to prevent geographic fatalism of employment. We should encourage social mobility and prevent history repeating itself. Large swathes of the United Kingdom that were reliant on coal and manufacturing industries have never recovered from their collapse; for this very reason, we must ensure that the skills Bill does not have a narrow focus on historical sectoral dominance.
Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions. Bearing in mind that questions have been raised about the structure and nature of the Bill, it may be useful to deal with those points first. The Bill will provide a framework. It gives the Secretary of State power to designate an employer representative body. That is not necessarily a group of employers but, as outlined in Bill, a body required to be “reasonably representative” of employers in the local area.

With respect to the framework, as was mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, there is a balance to be struck between not wanting to dictate centrally and having as much flexibility as possible, so that it is not prescriptive from the centre and the employer representative body can take into account a wide number of stakeholders and gather a wide range of evidence. This will set up a dynamic relationship. Clause 1(4) provides that the relevant providers have a duty to co-operate with the development or review of a local skills improvement plan. As some noble Lords have outlined, that duty places the further education colleges as a central plank in creating the plan for the local area. With respect to Clause 5, the plan is one thing that providers should have regard to when they are looking at local needs more generally.

I believe that noble Lords, at Second Reading and today, have had some concern about the scope of the local skills improvement plan. It is based on technical education—the beginning part of the Bill outlines what technical education is material for the purposes of the plan—but then the duty under Clause 5 for those providers is local needs. So it is much wider than just the technical education part that forms the central plank of the local skills improvement plan.

This will use the powers of the Secretary of State to designate that body and set up that dynamic relationship. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, mentioned that relationship with the national priorities. The Skills and Productivity Board, which looks at national skills requirements, will be reporting later this year, so that will be a central coherent national skills outline that every local skills improvement plan will have access to and will be referenced in the guidance. Hopefully, that will produce the dynamic relationship between the national skills plan—so each of the areas will have the same plan for national skills—and the local area. At the local level, you have the employer representative body with a duty on the relevant providers to co-operate in that dynamic relationship.

Noble Lords have made some very powerful points, and maybe we are going to come down to a bit of a House of Lords point about “Do those points belong on the face of a piece of primary legislation or are these important considerations to include in the guidance?” From the nature of this legislation, it is a framework. The challenge that could be made to the Government if we were too prescriptive in the Bill would be that we were trying to Whitehall-lead this—and that cannot be.

On the trailblazer process—for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris—the current timetable is that the trailblazers will be announced later this month and end in March 2022. They will be important in fleshing out what should be in the statutory guidance that is mentioned in the legislation, and the national rollout will commence after Royal Assent. I hope that assures noble Lords that we have a timetable for this.

On the challenge about why this legislation is needed, there is a very clear DNA running through the technical education qualifications that one can see with apprenticeships, T-levels and the current review of levels 4 and 5. The majority of technical education qualifications in this country should be connected to an employer standard so that the employers know what that student can now do and the student knows what currency that qualification has. I recall serving with many noble Lords on the one-year Select Committee on Social Mobility; I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, served on it. For young people who do not go to university, the complexity of the qualifications —the uncertainty about what that level 2 or 3 actually meant for you and what it gave you at an interview—was clearly so different from walking into an interview with your GCSE or A-level certificates. That is what, in terms of parity of esteem, all these changes are meant to change. Students should know, “When I get that qualification, it gives me that competency”, and they can walk into an interview and the employer will know that level 3.5 in, say, forklift truck driving on an oil rig has that competency. The currency is standard and gives parity of esteem to these qualifications. That is why, as we will discuss in a later group, the employers are in the lead as the employer representative body. That is the consistent DNA in the technical education system that we are trying to embed to give that parity of esteem, not just through saying this about FE and HE but through the technical qualifications being as easy to understand by students and employers as a GCSE certificate is at the moment.

I have a final point. The Bill does not exclude any particular level of qualification. The definition at the start is about technical education that is material to the skills, capabilities and assessments in that area. It is not limited in that regard. Obviously an LSIP could include the level 1 or 2 kind of qualifications; it is not limited. The limiting is the technical education section of what the providers in a local area would have due regard to when considering the local skills improvement plan.

I hope that provides a useful framework before I deal specifically with some of the amendments that noble Lords have tabled and explain to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that this is not half-baked. There is a reason why this is a framework to ensure local flexibility. We have not defined “local”. When we have done these trailblazers we have allowed the economic area to define itself, so we are really trying to get a balance here in terms of a structure and a framework to enable local areas to take ownership of their local plans.

I note the points made by my noble friend Lord Lucas concerning the LSIPs and the skills, capabilities or expertise required by potential students. I know the whole Committee will agree that post-16 education and training should meet the needs of students effectively, not only to secure meaningful employment but to ensure that they have essential skills for life more broadly.

I point out to noble Lords that Ofsted already considers whether the curriculum considers the needs of learners as part of its inspections of all post-16 FE providers. Many of the core skills and capabilities that students need to succeed in life are already well known and are consistent across the country—for example, literacy, numeracy, ICT and, sometimes, English language skills—so that students can function and integrate effectively into society. However, as I have outlined, the key technical skills that employers need can vary significantly across areas. They continually evolve to respond to new opportunities and challenges, and that is where the local skills improvement plan will make a valuable contribution.

By identifying the skills, capabilities and expertise required by employers in a specified area and, importantly, that may be required in future, which is specifically outlined in Clause 1(6)(b), a designated employer representative body will have clear evidence on the skills, capabilities and expertise that potential students will similarly require to help them secure good skilled jobs in the local area.

I reiterate that Clause 5 introduces a new duty on all institutions within the FE sector—namely, further education and sixth-form colleges and designated institutions—to keep all their provision under review to ensure that it is meeting local needs, including the needs of learners. At this point, to answer the point of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, there is no prescription in the Bill to say that 11 to 16 should not be teaching technical education. We have just said in Clause 4, in relation to the relevant providers being under a duty to co-operate, that at this stage we have not given that burden to schools. It is clear in Clause 4 that by regulation the Secretary of State can change that and make them one of the relevant providers that would then have a duty to co-operate.

Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking (Con)
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Will my noble friend give way?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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Sorry, no. On Amendment 2 from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in relation to potential employers, start-up businesses and the self-employed, I strongly agree with her on the importance of ensuring that employers’ voices are central to the local skills improvement plan. That is why it is clear in the Bill that, once designated, the employer representative body must draw on the views of employers operating within an area to inform a local skills improvement plan. The definition of “employer” is wide and the employer representative body can take into account any other evidence. That is broad in order to ensure that they have flexibility to include, of course, the needs of the self-employed in the local area.

To effectively fulfil the role of summarising the skills needs of local employers, the designated body will need to convene and draw on the views of employers that are not part of the ERB itself, as well as other relevant employer representative sector bodies and any other evidence. That will ensure that it is as easy as possible for employers, especially small employers, to navigate local skills systems, engage and have their voice heard.

Turning now to Amendments 11 and 81, from the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her expertise and her unstinting efforts to support those who have not yet achieved their grade 4 or above in English and maths. I hope she will be pleased to know that although the coronavirus has slightly delayed the work with MHCLG and DfE, a strategy in relation to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers will be published, we hope, later this year.

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Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister said that over 40 applications for LSIP trailblazers have been received by the department. Could she make them available for the Committee to see? It would be very helpful if, while we are considering the Bill, we could see what is going on in the real world. Could she also assure us that, when the selection of those trailblazers is made, they will not just go to areas that have Conservative MPs, reflecting the gerrymandering that took place with the towns Bill? There is a very acute concern that the funding that is available under the Bill is just going to places that are favoured with Conservative representation in the House of Commons, which would be par for the course for this Government.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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The successful ones will be announced later on this month. There are no plans—and I clarify that it is not our normal process—to release the applications of those who have not been successful. I will write to the noble Lord if I am wrong about that.

Lord Knight of Weymouth Portrait Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister did a noble job in trying to prevent us wanting to come back to these issues, but I am sure that we will on Report. I was particularly interested in the comment that she made about local areas defining themselves. Looking back at some of the places where I have lived, I am interested in what happens if no one wants you in their area. I was once mayor of Frome, which is right on the edge, and in the east, of Somerset. It is economically more in west Wiltshire: lots of young people might go and study at Trowbridge college, but they might go to Radstock college or Yeovil College. Frome is a wonderful place, but in those areas they might not want it. I used to represent Swanage, which is on the edge of the Bournemouth and Poole conurbation, but it is in Dorset, so it is in the wrong county, just as Frome is in relation to Wiltshire. I am interested in that area.

I am also interested in national colleges. There is a National College for Digital Skills in north London, a national college for the creatives in Purfleet and a National College for Nuclear in Cumbria and Somerset. Will they have to have regard to all of the local skills partnerships’ needs for their particular skills? If so, it is a bit of a nightmare for those colleges to go through all of them.

Finally, I ask the Minister whether she sees a move to a genuine all-age careers service? In particular, would the DWP have to refer people to it if they are coming through jobs schemes? With the National Careers Service and the extra money that the Chancellor agreed for it during the pandemic, we have seen that it is struggling to spend that money because DWP is not really aware that it exists and is not referring people over. On the Government’s thinking around all of this, which is critically important, with all of the deskilling that is going on in our economy, can she give us some assurance that they are properly working through what an effective all-age careers service that everyone will want to use will look like?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I was smiling at the noble Lord because I asked this precise question about a national plan. There is a balance here between not dictating from the centre, drawing a map and chopping things up and allowing economic areas to define themselves in our complex local geography. This has not been an issue with the trailblazers, but that was obviously a small number of areas—but, yes, we will ensure that there are no cracks between the areas and that every area will be covered by a local skills improvement plan.

As far as I am aware, there are no plans to change the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company, which have different roles. The noble Lord is correct that we obviously need to make sure that all of this is joined up. Previous noble Lords have asked me about how this will join up with people on universal credit—this is a work in progress, but I was pleased to learn from DWP Ministers that there have been some slight changes to UC to make sure that those people could take up the digital skills boot camps, for instance. So we are aware of the need, with all of this, to make sure that this is one system that is working together.

One of the issues that I spoke of in preparation for this is the need for the job coach to understand which job requires which level to get those competences. Everyone needs to be able to understand this. I am sure that a job coach would understand that to be a translator you need GCSE French—but, to be a crane driver, what do you need? So we get that currency of understanding for employers, learners and job or work coaches sitting in DWP, who can advise people on what qualification to go away and do. That will make sure that you have the competences to walk through the door at that interview, in the same way as you would in relation to GCSE French, as I have said.

I am afraid I do not have a specific answer for the noble Lord. I think he was referring to Ada college in Manchester and north London. I will write to the noble Lord on how national colleges will engage. Obviously, we are hoping that, under the duty in Clause 5, a provider will not just say “Well, I’m in this LSIP area”. If they are on the border, they should be looking dynamically at where their students come and travel from—so they may end up looking at what the provision and the LSIP are for a number of areas.

Baroness Whitaker Portrait Baroness Whitaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s response. I will read it carefully in Hansard. I may have missed something, but I think she said that there were no laid down qualification barriers to entry. I would be grateful if she would write to me about where in the Bill this is made clear, and whether the Bill says that there is scope for enabling access through whatever barriers are locally set.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, the point I was making was that the Bill does not mention being only at level 3, level 4 or level 2; it does not mention those levels. The only definition in the Bill in terms of the LSIP and relevant providers is around technical education. I will just get the definition; I might as well read from it. It refers to

“post-16 technical education or training that is material”.

For instance, in a sixth-form college, the entirety of its provision might not be relevant under its duty to co-operate with employer representative bodies. That is not linked to saying, “Technical education at level 4, 3, 2 or 1”. The Bill does not talk about that; it is just talking about technical education as defined in Clause 1.

Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for her encyclopaedic reply to this long debate. In general, I am encouraged, and I did not notice any point I raised that she did not address. I am particularly grateful to her for filling out the picture generally.

I will pick up a few points from the debate. I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, had it right when she referred to place. Place is very important. That importance seems to be becoming recognised within various areas of government. I was very pleased, for instance, by the structure of the levelling-up fund and the way it required a place to get together to decide what it wanted the money for, rather than the former system that applied down the coast, where a pier was imposed on Hastings by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and not tied into what the place wanted to do. That developing sense of place needs to find a way to be tied into local skills improvement plans. These organisations want to be talking to each other and moving in the same direction, by and large. I think that is what I mean by accountability. This should not be an organisation which just wanders off on its own and does not feel that it needs to have any relationship with the way that the place it is embedded in wants to go.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised the question of towns adding new areas of business. It is really difficult to see how that works in the structure which has been proposed. I will devote some time to thinking that through when I get a chance to read Hansard. I am conscious that in my own home town of Eastbourne, a conurbation of about 130,000 people has 50 places per annum for A-levels. That is ridiculous, but it seems really hard to change, to move and to draw attention to. I suspect that a town which needed to add a new area of business would find it similarly difficult to shift some of the structures that are being proposed here—but, as I say, I will look at that more carefully.

There is a question of how existing businesses realise they need new skills, which is a function that historically has been provided by the good awarding bodies. How that is going to flourish in the new system is going to be worth looking at.

Several noble Lords were looking at the structures of employers that the Government are proposing to work with. As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said, it is not easy to build good employer groups. That is why I very much support the call of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to include the mayors. They have a convening capability which will mean that the local businesses produce good people to be on the LSIPs. It will not be third-rate or fourth-rate people; it will be people who are at board level taking part in them. That will make an enormous difference to how well they perform.

Perhaps the noble Lord remembers the old sector skills partnerships, many of which did not work well because they were just too low level. The one that I liked, e-skills, which was a top-level one, the Government killed— but there we are. The nice thing about the structures proposed in this Bill is that they are—I hope, by and large—existing employer structures, which will mean that they have a resilience against falling out of favour with the Government and an ability to retain the relationships and ways of working they build up under this structure.

So, as I say, I am grateful to my noble friend for her answers. I will look at them in detail and I am so pleased to have the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, back on home turf and out of the dark world he has been inhabiting for these last few years. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, I have listened carefully to the many excellent contributions in this debate. Much has been said so I will self-edit as I speak, in much the same way as I used to five minutes before the bell rang at the end of the school day.

It is extremely disappointing that the Bill fails to link the Government’s goals on decarbonisation in energy, transport and buildings, sustainable land management and carbon sequestration. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, noted in her persuasive opening speech, there should be a cross-cutting skills strategy. It is worth repeating that there is currently not a single reference to climate considerations in the Bill. The needs of the education sector and industry are liable to change the skills of tomorrow, as mentioned in the previous debate, and cannot be put aside. Monumental changes are needed to include net zero and biodiversity at every level, and targets should be embedded in the LSIPs to provide sustainable jobs in future.

Our Amendment 36, which will come up in the next group, sets out conditions for ERBs, including the requirement to have regard to national strategies, including the decarbonisation strategy. Not only will those entering the labour force for the first time need to be prepared for green jobs—green jobs already exist, and they will exist much more in future—but many who currently work in fossil fuel sectors will need retraining. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said, everything needs to be done for the economy and the environment is a subset of the economy. Her point, among many others, regarding the need for repair skills was particularly apposite. My noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth’s amendments regarding education policy are extremely important in affirming our future behaviours.

Does the Minister agree that there should be a requirement for skills improvement plans to refer to national objectives on the green economy, including the net-zero targets, or associated sector-specific strategies, such as the industrial decarbonisation strategy, the transport decarbonisation strategy, the energy White Paper, the nature strategy and the heating and buildings strategy? I hope the Minister has taken note of the cross-party consensus on this issue and that she will be sympathetic to the thrust of the amendments and include references to climate considerations, net zero and biodiversity in the Bill.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I think there is a theme here, with the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asking about putting this in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was incredibly gracious when she referred to the nature of the Bill and the fact that it is, as I outlined, a framework to enable the flexibility that the employer representative body would need to make the local skills improvement plan.

As the Minister for COP 26 and for sustainability in the Department for Education, overseeing the department’s capital budget and with over 60,000 blocks within our school estate, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Oates, that it is a serious matter. On 10 June I had the pleasure of meeting the Climate Change Committee to talk through the department’s proposed strategy in relation to the net-zero target. I have also had the pleasure of meeting incredibly articulate young people from Mock COP, who made very clear to me their passion about what we should be doing at COP 26 and to reduce our emissions.

I assure the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Sheehan, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that there will not be a green gap in the guidance. I think that we are back to an agreement that this is an incredibly important priority. We have passed the legislation embedding this, but it is a case of whether it is placed in the Bill or is something that is for the guidance.

Before I address the specific amendments, I just want to outline for the noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Liddle, and my noble friend Lord Baker that the Skills and Productivity Board, which is the national specialist on our skills, will publish three analyses this year about three questions that were posed by the Secretary of State. The first considers the most significant skills shortages in England, and the board will consider net-zero skills shortages as part of that. Obviously, it is an independent board, so I do not know what the outcomes and recommendations will be, but we are looking specifically at what the skills gaps are.

In June 2019, the UK became the first major country to legislate for this net-zero target for carbon emissions by 2050, making it clear that a systems approach was needed to drive behaviour across all areas of the economy to guide decisions by citizens, businesses and investors. I think that we are back to that interesting legal question: once you have put it in that piece of legislation, what then flows in terms of legislation we are passing? But as I say, on the basis of this, the guidance will be very clear in relation to the net-zero target.

The Green Jobs Taskforce, which was launched in November 2020, is working in partnership with businesses, skills providers and unions to help the Government develop plans for new, long-term and good-quality green jobs by 2030, and advises what support is needed for the transitioning industries mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox.

I turn to the amendments, seven of which are closely related to Clause 1, concerning the local skills improvement plans, supporting the transition to a net-zero economy and biodiversity. These are from the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman, Lady Bennett and Lady Sheehan. Reference was made to the fact that there is now that biodiversity target which will also be in legislation, mirroring the net-zero target. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked whether the Secretary of State would approve an LSIP that was not compatible with net zero or biodiversity, and I will answer her straight on. The Secretary of State will want to be satisfied that the statutory guidance has been followed in the process of developing a plan to approve and publish it and, in developing LSIPs, statutory guidance will require ERBs—employer representative bodies—to have regard to skills needs relating to national priorities such as net zero and green jobs. I hope that I have answered directly that putting it in the guidance will not diminish the requirements there will be on the ERBs.

I can assure noble Lords that net zero, green technology and decarbonisation were common themes in the proposals that we received from the employer representative bodies seeking to lead our local skills improvement panel trailblazers. Again, we will be ensuring through the guidance that this remains the case for longer-term implementation. We are not seeing any lack of consideration of this in the initial pilots, but in developing the local skills improvement plan, the statutory guidance will require the ERBs to have regard to skills needs relating to these national priorities. The expectation is that the guidance issued by the Secretary of State under Clause 1 will reflect zero-carbon goals as businesses and employers respond to climate change and the biodiversity agenda. As I have outlined, the process for approval by the Secretary of State will very much be based on what has been taken into consideration and whether the statutory guidance has been followed. The presence of these targets within that is key.

Amendment 42, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, seeks to introduce the requirement for colleges to include considerations on reaching the UK’s net-zero target as part of the regular review. In regularly reviewing their provision in relation to local needs, colleges will play an active part in strengthening the alignment of their curriculum offer with skills needed and the job market in their local area. Over time, we expect the environment agenda to become an increasingly integral part of the curriculum offer, reflecting wider changes across the economy and society, including the changing skills needed by employers.

I turn to Amendment 52 in name of the noble Lord, Lord Knight. I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about our ambitious technical qualification reforms. He mentioned the commitment of the Institute for Apprenticeship and Technical Education—IfATE—to the UK’s biodiversity and climate change targets. That is why it has already embedded environmental and sustainability aims within its processes for developing and updating employer-led occupational standards. These are the standards on which apprenticeships, T-levels and higher technical qualifications are based, and on which a broad range of technical qualifications will be based in the future. Along with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the institute has identified the need for integrating sustainability across technical education to support us in achieving our commitments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, also referred to the sustainability framework developed by the institute, which sets out the key themes for employers across all sectors to consider when developing the occupational standards. It acts as a guide for those involved in the development of standards and ensures that when considering the knowledge, skills and behaviours required for any occupation, they have considered sustainability, net-zero carbon and the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, which include a goal on climate action. I reassure noble Lords that this really has been embedded and is perhaps another example of where primary legislation might not be the correct place.

I turn to the amendments in relation to initial teacher training. I assure noble Lords that specific steps are already being undertaken to ensure that teacher training programmes cover appropriate content, including specifically around sustainability. Our reform of FE teacher training is founded on new occupational standards for FE teaching, which we expect to be available for use in the next academic year. It has been developed with a group of employers across the sector, including colleges and other training providers. Again, we expect the standard to include a requirement for teachers to integrate sustainability into their teaching, including through modelling sustainable practices and promoting sustainable development principles in their subject specialism. Again, I hope that it will not be necessary to put that on the face of a piece of legislation when it is actually happening.

There was some disagreement among noble Lords in relation to Amendments 73 and 75 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, commented on the issue here. We would be putting a requirement on SMEs that is not placed on businesses in many other contexts. Perhaps more pertinently, the purpose of the list of registered providers —independent training providers, not those in FE—will be to protect learners and reduce the disruption to provision if a business fails. This was a matter for discussion in Your Lordships’ House during the passage of the Technical and Further Education Bill four years ago. I am pleased that we are now looking at this, but the singular purpose of the clause is to protect learners in the event of provider failure. It would not be appropriate to extend it to achieve a very different policy objective, which would not be consistent with the requirements for businesses in other contexts. As I set out earlier, however, we will continue to work with the sector to support its move towards embedding sustainability.

In conclusion, the Government recognise—of course we do—the important and vital issue of climate change and biodiversity, and we continue to work towards our target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The reforms set out in our Skills for Jobs White Paper and supported by this Bill will, I believe, help towards achieving that agenda. I hope I have answered many of the questions posed by noble Lords and that they are reassured. I therefore hope the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, will feel comfortable withdrawing her amendment, and that other noble Lords will not feel the need to call theirs when we reach them in the list.

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It is essential that MCAs, local authorities, FE colleges and universities are able to be part of producing local skills improvement plans. Denying them that right would not simply undermine the effectiveness of the plans but, as I said earlier, would make those plans unworkable. Unless the Minister and her Government relent, the Bill that she has characterised as a framework runs the risk of remaining just that.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions. I am optimistic about persuading the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, once again of the merit of the employer representative bodies being in charge of the local skills improvement plans.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Baker for his challenge, which was an important one. I can confirm to him that, particularly in my role as Minister for Women, I have heard from many unemployed women. I think I am not alone in your Lordships’ House in this: through such a thing as a pandemic, many of us do not just listen to the voices of unemployed people but in fact know unemployed people who are claiming universal credit. My noble friend raises an important challenge for us always to keep in mind.

I shall deal with one or two themes before I deal with the detail of the amendment, particularly the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. It is an interesting position to be in to be putting forward legislation for the Secretary of State to designate the power for an employer representative body to produce the local skills improvement plan. Clause 1(6) outlines that an LSIP

“draws on the views of employers operating within the specified area, and any other evidence, to summarise the skills, capabilities or expertise that are, or may in the future be, required in the specified area”.

That is the language that we have seen in technical education and occupational requirements for apprenticeships. The local skills improvement plans will set out the key changes needed for post-16 technical education training, as I have emphasised, and make it more responsive to employers’ needs, but this is not a complete economic plan nor a complete local strategy. In some ways it is a compliment that noble Lords have viewed this as more expansive than it actually is, but it merely sets out what the employer needs are in relation to technical education and, as I say, puts the duty of co-operation on relevant providers so that there is a dynamic relationship on the ground.

Relationships are the theme of employers and employer engagement. It is true that in the recent changes much has been asked of employers in relation to apprenticeships, and then we introduced T-levels; we had engagement from 250 employers on T-levels, and we should not underestimate that. I have to tweak the language of the noble Lord, Lord Watson: they are not always looking to their own needs. That is why we have gone for an employer representative body rather than, say, simply asking BAE Systems to do it for the local area around Barrow. There has to be a representative function, a point that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred to. It is important that these are representative bodies of employers, not just collaborations.

My noble friend Lord Baker does down his own work. On my visit to Ron Dearing UTC, I thought I was passing a shopping centre because the employers that pay to be part of that UTC are advertised around the side of the building. I met the CEOs of the businesses involved and they were solving their skills needs by getting directly involved in the UTC.

Obviously, we have heard from many employers about productivity and about the skills gaps that we have. There is good evidence on which we can base the fact that employer representative bodies—it will not always be a chamber of commerce, but that might be one of the bodies that puts itself forward—do want to solve these skills needs, and there is significant good will in relation to their involvement.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradley, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, raised the question of what the local area is. There is no agreed defined local government geography. I mean by that that there is no agreed defined standard across our country, and there is no single functional economic area—so we have allowed areas to define themselves. Having lived in Greater Manchester, I know that sometimes a whole area will want to define itself, but the freedom has been given. The areas for the trailblazers have not been dictated from the centre. We will publish their plans when they produce them, and they are informing the guidance. Another noble Lord asked that question. There is that freedom from the centre that says, “Tell us what your functional economic area is for the employer representative body and the local skills improvement plans”. As I outlined, most of the applications came with a letter—so we have not encountered the resistance from the mayoral combined authorities or local authorities in relation to the trailblazers that we have embarked on.

On the point about providers made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I would say that providers often have different perspectives, from FE colleges to higher education institutions to the ITPs. That is why we want all providers of post-16 training to be involved, but I fear, from some of the comments that noble Lords have made, that we will be back to what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, mentioned at Second Reading: having a cast of thousands.

On Amendments 5, 13, 14, 16, 23, 28, 29, 37 and 38, the relevant providers will play an important role, working with the employer representative bodies to develop these plans. We have not taken them out of the picture; the duty is there to co-operate. To answer the point from the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, we made it clear in the Skills for Jobs White Paper that mayoral combined authorities will be engaged in the development of local skills plans where they have a presence in the area. We expect employer representative bodies to engage with and build on the good skills-related work that local authorities and mayoral combined authorities are currently doing, including skills advisory panels. We will build on that work, but ERBs will be independent of government. If I am correct in the definition of LEPs, that is not their role—but there is currently a review and we will make clear the plans for that.

I emphasise again the limit of the LSIP—hence it is complemented in the Bill by the duty under Clause 5 for providers to look at their entire provision for local needs. I do not want to underplay it completely, but it has rather been taken to a level that it will not actually have in the Bill. It is to ensure that the skills are closely aligned to local labour markets, and employers are best placed to know that. Noble Lords will be encouraged to hear that this is not an amendment on which I will say that everything will be in the guidance and should not be in the Bill. We have a point of principle here that is the DNA running through our technical education changes about employers being the body that can assess needs. They will play a leading role and there will be duties on providers to engage with them. The premium we place on the ongoing direct and dynamic engagement between providers and employers is what we are trying to set up in this legislation.

Additionally, to discharge this new role effectively, the designated employer representative will need and want to work closely with MCAs and individual local authorities. There is a question of practicality as there will be a large number of providers and stakeholders, and indeed a number of local authorities, in any given local area with different perspectives on the key priorities. Giving them all a statutory role in developing the LSIP is much less practical than having a single designated employer representative body that can engage with all the relevant providers in a way that minimises burdens and brokers a plan.

This set of amendments includes placing a new duty on the designated ERBs to co-operate with relevant providers. However, that is not necessary since a designated body cannot discharge its role, as already set out in the legislation, without the co-operation of those providers.

Looking beyond the providers and employers, I think there is broad agreement that the views and priorities of key local stakeholders should be considered in developing these plans. That is why we want employer representative bodies to engage meaningfully with key local stakeholders, and we have made this clear with the trailblazers we are running this year. However, a rigid process—as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe mentioned—with a fixed set of local stakeholders could make it difficult to effectively plan, keep under review and keep up-to-date in an agile way within a timescale that is reasonably responsive to employers’ skills needs. Therefore, at this point we will use statutory guidance to set out the clear expectations on key stakeholders that employer representative bodies will need to engage. As I have said to noble Lords before, this will be informed by the trailblazers. If the designated employer representative body does not have regard to the guidance, the Secretary of State could decide not to approve and publish the plan and actually has a power to remove the designation.

On Amendment 31, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, challenged how representative the ERBs are. Again, they will be informed by a range of employer views. That is clear on the face of the Bill. The Secretary of State can designate a representative body only when satisfied that it is reasonably representative of employers operating within a specified area. I know there has been some interchange about reasonableness between the two Front Benches opposite, but that is obviously an objective criterion that is assessable on evidence. The Bill requires designated employer representative bodies to draw on the views of employers in the area and other evidence, so it is a very wide scope. To do this, they would need to talk to employers outside the body itself and other bodies present in the area, and we would put that in the guidance. A balanced judgment of what constitutes a “reasonably representative” employer representative body will be informed by suitable evidence, including, for instance, the extent to which characteristics of an employer representative body’s membership compares to the overall population of employers in the local area.

On the concerns of the noble Lords, Lord Watson, Lord Patel and Lord Curry, about SMEs, public sector employers and voluntary sector employers, of course MCAs are an employer, but they are not an employer representative body. They may also be a member of the chamber of commerce, like the local hospital might be. That is the distinction we have made. The term “employer” in Clause 4 is defined particularly widely as any

“person that engages, or intends to engage, an individual under … a contract of service or apprenticeship, or … a contract for services … for the purposes of a business, trade or profession”.

Therefore, it includes employers of all sizes, and public authorities and charitable institutions are also specifically mentioned. Of course, when the Secretary of State is designating the ERB, he is bound by the normal principles of public law to act rationally and fairly, and he will need to take into account a range of relevant, reliable and accurate information.

Amendment 36, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, would require LSIPs to have due regard to national and regional strategies, particularly in respect of decarbonisation. I think I have outlined a number of times to noble Lords that these will be expected to take into account various national strategies, particularly around the net-zero target, and that this will be within the guidance. Obviously, it is important to have regard to that in terms of the green workforce that we need in the future. But they should also draw on other evidence, and we expect that to include regional strategies.

To deal with the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Curry and Lord Patel, the Skills for Jobs White Paper has already made clear that we expect the local skills improvement plans to be informed by, and in turn inform, national skills priorities as highlighted by the Skills and Productivity Board. Specific strategies and associated priorities are likely to change and evolve over time, so we believe that describing them in guidance that can be regularly updated, rather than legislation, is the best way of future-proofing the Bill.

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for taking so much trouble to answer our questions. It is refreshing even if we do not like every answer. She said something very interesting: that the economic area could even be Greater Manchester. Could the proposed area be one that is supported by the combined mayoral authority in the Greater Manchester area or some other combined mayoral authority? Secondly, I do not think she answered my question. Could I see a specimen local skills improvement plan before we move to Report? That would be very helpful in feeling assured that the system was really going to work as intended.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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Yes, as I have said, in the process of bidding for the trailblazers, we have allowed local geographic areas to define themselves as the economic area. So, it could be the mayoral combined authority for Greater Manchester, or it might be that parts of the north of that area decide that they are going to be in an area with somewhere else. We have not prescribed that. We have allowed that local decision-making, and we are not dictating from the centre. We would be criticised if we were to do that. It is up to that geography to define itself. I will have to come back to my noble friend on a model plan. We will be publishing the trailblazer plans during that pilot, but I will write to my noble friend about any other model plan.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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My Lords, I thank all Members for their wise contributions and the Minister for her very detailed replies. I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, really put her finger on it when she said, “I am not confident we’ve got the relationships right.” This is not—and I look directly at the Minister—about those pesky politicians or those pushy colleges wanting to get their hands on the levers of provision. This is about making sure this works. We support the Bill, we want the Bill to be successful, and we want these plans to work. All the contributions that noble Lords have made indicate that we have reservations about the way these plans are going to be drawn up. I was taken with my noble friend Lady Garden’s comment about when she was at City and Guilds. It was trying to get employers to come forward and was asking, “What skills do you want?” They did not have a clue. If you think “We will just give a sop to consultation”, people will feel that they are not properly involved. At the beginning, we heard the noble Lord, Lord Patel, say it gives too much power to a small group. That feeling will be there, and people will not feel engaged and will not want this to be success. So, I hope that in Committee and on Report, the Minister will consider the wise words of Members and we can have a system—if that is the right phrase—that will deliver what we all want. That is really important, as is, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, said, that we have those proper checks and balances.

To finish, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, will be pleased that business and politicians can work together. Liverpool gave the freedom of the city to Terry Leahy. There you go: an arch-capitalist being lauded by the Lib Dem council at the time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for International Trade

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Baroness Berridge Excerpts
Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for the engagement that we have had since the first day of Committee. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, that this legislation is part of the FE sector having its moment and being rescued from often being described as the Cinderella of the sector.

I re-emphasise that the local skills improvement plans will not be master plans that specify in minute detail all the provision that is to be provided by every provider to every learner in the area. They are a vehicle to give employers a more central role in local skills systems by articulating a clear, evidence-based assessment of priority skills needs and working with providers to shape technical education to better meet those skills needs, which many noble Lords have outlined. They are about employers working hand in hand with providers and key local stakeholders, such as local and combined authorities and Jobcentre Plus, and they are about agreeing a limited number of priority changes that, if enacted, will make post-16 technical education and training more responsive to employers’ skills needs.

I would also like to take this moment to update the House that we have announced the local skills improvement plan trailblazers, literally within the last hour, and I will now outline them to noble Lords. In the north of England, we have Cumbria Chamber of Commerce covering Cumbria, Doncaster Chamber will cover Sheffield City Region, the North East England Chamber of Commerce will cover Tees Valley, and North & Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce will cover Lancashire. In the Midlands, East Midlands Chamber will cover Leicester and Leicestershire. In the south of England, GWE Business West will cover the west of England, Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce will cover Kent and Medway, and Sussex Chamber of Commerce will cover Sussex. In relation to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and others, if you look also at the strategic development pilots alongside those areas, you will see a multiplicity of providers, including FE colleges, institutes of technology and universities. By the very nature of those bids, we can see that there has been a great deal of co-ordination in these areas, with the support, where relevant, of the mayoral combined authority.

The next update to noble Lords deals with the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, made about how we prevent providers from just going for the easiest, lowest-cost qualifications. We have today announced the consultation on new funding and accountability arrangements to simplify the system and focus on outcomes rather than processes and to avoid this descent to the bottom. It will include proposals for how local skills improvement plans fit into the wider funding and accountability landscape. That is also part of the development. The trailblazers will, of course, start work very soon and I look forward to being able to share with noble Lords details of their early progress ahead of Report.

Amendment 8, which was moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, relates to broadening the duty on who should have regard to these plans; the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, also mentioned this. Clause 1 already provides for the duty to apply to the universities and sixth-form colleges mentioned in the amendment, and the large majority of post-16 technical education and training providers will be captured.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, raised a specific point about independent training providers; they are specifically outlined as a relevant provider within Clause 4, so they are covered. The Secretary of State will be able to lay regulations before Parliament to add local authority providers, 16-to-19 academies and schools to those already identified and subject to the duty.

Amendment 40A would require local authorities to distribute these local skills improvement plans to all schools that provide sixth-form education. The plans will be published by the Secretary of State and publicised to relevant bodies through appropriate communication channels. Obviously, designated employer representative bodies will have worked closely on the ground with the relevant providers, who should be aware of that. I have to say that, of the many criticisms the department has faced over the last 18 months, publicising guidance to the relevant people has not been one of them.

I hope that my remarks provide assurance to noble Lords on the approach we are taking to local skills improvement plans and access to them. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, will feel comfortable in withdrawing this amendment, and that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, will not feel the need to move his when it is reached.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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I agree with my noble friend Lord Liddle that local authorities and devolved Administrations are best placed to deal with local skills planning. I reiterate to the Minister that, if a whole education system approach is not taken to local skills planning, the system will be disjointed and will not be efficient or the best use of public money. I welcome the Minister’s announcement of the trailblazers pilot; I look forward to reading the reports of the projects and, indeed, the early progress reports. Therefore, although the Minister has outlined an amount of detail, I remain somewhat unconvinced. I will wait to see whether that joined-up progress takes place. However, with the approval of the House, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Watson of Invergowrie Portrait Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab)
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My Lords, we welcome the amendments and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, on reminding us of the bigger picture in skills development. Effectively, these amendments relate to the national skills strategy and seek to ensure that employers, colleges and universities adopt a far-sighted approach by planning to develop the skills and apprenticeships for the jobs of the future and, in doing so, help to shape a more secure and sustainable economy for the country. An employer representative body that did not follow that path should not last for long.

It is crucial that we maximise the power of the economy by delivering on genuine lifelong learning so that people can grasp the opportunity to reskill or upskill when they need it and as often as they need it. Equipping the workforce with new skills for the jobs of the future will help build job security, which in turn will bring sustainability and resilience back to the economy and public services, at the same time helping our high streets to reinvent themselves and, hopefully, begin to thrive again.

From green jobs in manufacturing electric vehicles and offshore wind turbines to fintech, digital media and film, there is a pressing need to grow modern industries to build a long-term economy that provides good-quality and well-paid jobs and is thus fit for the future I am sure that the Minister will be keen to tell noble Lords how the industrial decarbonisation strategy, launched earlier this year, would fit in to this future-proofing approach, which will be enhanced if the Government are willing to accept these modest but, I would say, important amendments. They are complemented by Amendment 85, which would require the Secretary of State to establish a panel to undertake a national strategic skills audit to be updated every three years. The Government's industrial decarbonisation strategy cannot exist in a vacuum. It must interact with the industrial strategy which, noble Lords may remember, was published in 2017, but seems to have been hidden in plain sight ever since, the green jobs task force, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, referred and the broader skills agenda into which the Bill will play.

In fairness to the Government—not something I am characterised by—the industrial strategy was indeed dusted down and updated as recently as January, setting out what are termed “grand challenges”, designed to put the UK at the forefront of the industries of the future and improving the country’s productivity.

That is all good, stirring stuff, and absolutely necessary because, as my noble friend Lord Knight highlighted last week, on our first day in Committee, we currently have a reactive skills system that is too often tortuously slow in responding to new demands, never mind anticipating them. A strategy formulated with an understanding of the need to embrace net-zero future jobs and skills would address that issue and, over time, could open up many more employment markets. I genuinely hope that that is a role that the industrial strategy will adopt, with a national skills strategy a key part of it.

My noble friend Lord Liddle rightly pointed to the lack of evidence that the Department for Education has a long-term vision. If there were one and it were cross-cutting in nature, a national skills strategy could benefit from a comprehensive assessment of our medium and long-term skills needs, with the goal of creating not simply secure employment but, in doing so, achieving the country’s climate change and biodiversity targets. I say to the Minister on these amendments: what is not to like?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for tabling these amendments. We completely agree with him and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that designated employer representative bodies should take into account evidence of future skills needs and national priorities as they develop their local skills improvement plan. Of course, much will be included in guidance, but each employer representative body will be expected to co-ordinate and collaborate with its neighbouring employer representative bodies in writing the local skills plan, and with others across England.

In relation to Amendment 15 and potential student needs, I draw noble Lords’ attention to Clause 1(6)(b), which many noble Lords mentioned. It states that a local skills improvement plan

“draws on the views of employers”.

I hope that that answers some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, on what is expected of the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce in reaching out to the big employers that he mentioned. The clause also talks about

“skills, capabilities or expertise that are, or may in the future be, required”.

Although the approval process for the Secretary of State is about whether the relevant people have been consulted, as I outlined to noble Lords, the Bill states that the plan must look at the future. I obviously cannot comment on whether individual plans will pass or fail the Secretary of State’s test, but it is here in the Bill that a plan must look to the future. The future outlined is obviously the “potential students” that are mentioned in Amendment 15. They were the subject of much discussion on the first day of Committee. I remain of the view that, by being focused on the needs of employers, the LSIPs will also, by virtue of this, include the needs of potential students in relation to jobs in their areas. The vision that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to is found within the White Paper that we launched earlier this year.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, I think, referred to other employment—it might relate to a skill that is needed for a neighbouring area. There is obviously the wider local needs duty under Clause 5. We are expecting that the trailblazer programmes will not only help to inform the guidance but help us to see how they engage with one another and the national skills priorities. The advice on national skills needs will clearly be part of the guidance. We have also previously discussed, both in this House and outside it, the role of the national Skills and Productivity Board, which will report later this year. This will enable each employer representative body to have access to its high-quality advice. The statutory guidance will highlight the types of evidence that they should have regard to.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, made reference to the flexibility that people need nowadays in terms of skilling and reskilling. Of course, that will be part of what we discuss later in Committee in relation to the lifelong loan entitlement. A lot of the additional support for young people that the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, mentioned is provided through Jobcentre Plus. People can sometimes be a bit sniffy about that, but what the work coaches are doing to make young people aware of the opportunities such as Kickstart is amazing. We have also given additional funding for apprenticeship starts in that group in particular and there has been an expansion of the traineeships. However, the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company obviously depend on the age of the person. We will also make those young people aware of that. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned the Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy, which, again, will be one of the national strategies that a good local skills improvement plan will look to.

Amendment 85 looks to set up a national strategic skills panel, particularly in relation to our targets on net zero and biodiversity. As mentioned, we have been busy in the department—we have launched the Green Jobs Taskforce, which I hope gives some reassurance to the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan and Lady Bennett, that we are looking at those recommendations now. The recommendations in relation to the response to the need for net zero and biodiversity were not just for government but also for business and the skills sector, as we extensively debated on day 1 of Committee.

On the points made by many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, there is a balance between a framework within a piece of legislation and having so much detail within it that the accusation can then be made, potentially rightly, that Whitehall is trying to fix all. There is a framework to try to set up the appropriate situation so that providers work with the employer representative bodies and that each local area works with the others and the national picture. I do not think that we should be more prescriptive than that. There is strategic development funding to deal with the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, on the capacity for these areas.

I hope that I have reassured noble Lords and that my noble friend Lord Lucas will feel comfortable to withdraw his amendment and not press the others when they are reached.

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Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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Amendment 30 requires that the Secretary of State must publish LSIPs and distribute them to schools and all post-16 education providers. However, there is little point in having a plan if no one is aware of its contents. Yet, despite the requirements for providers to have regard to LSIPs, the Bill is silent on how LSIPs will be published or disseminated. I know that the Minister responded that a model LSIP can be provided, but this amendment seeks a much wider and co-ordinated task. Does the Minister intend, as the amendment suggests, for the DfE to take responsibility for this? Does she agree that publishing all local skills improvement plans will allow for areas to draw on each other’s strategies? That would be particularly helpful for a complementary regional approach and would promote best practice. Or does she envisage that such responsibility will fall to ERBs? If so, can she advise whether they will have the resources and a dedicated budget for such a responsibility?

Perhaps the Government believe that the onus should be on providers themselves to track down where LSIPs have been published. If so, where should they look—to the chamber of commerce, or local authority websites? How does that fit with the lack of role of local authorities and mayoral combined authorities in the process? I hope that she can assure the House that there is indeed a plan for publication and distribution, and I further reiterate my noble friend Lord Liddle’s probing question around the role of the Secretary of State in relation to local plans.

I also speak in support of Amendment 27 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, which requires the Secretary of State to publish a response to each LSIP, including an action plan for how they will support areas to address their skills need. I agree with the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, about where the strategies approach will be developed, using LSIPs to feed into national strategies and creating the feedback loop that is so essential. It is very important, given that LSIPs will need to be responsive to national level strategies, and given the Secretary of State’s powers to intervene if they believe that providers are failing to adhere to LSIPs or not meeting local needs, as seen through the lens of local employers.

I further understand that the notion and definition of “local” has been much discussed during the passage of this Bill already—but I respectfully point out that it continues to be raised by noble Lords because of the still undefined nature of the link between local and national priorities. When I entered local government almost 20 years ago, I was reminded that all politics is local, and I came to recognise that most assuredly throughout my tenure. I would further add that local knowledge and experience is invaluable in feeding into the national strategic overview.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to be able to speak to this group of amendments relating to publication and response to local skills improvement plans. We expect them to be an important resource to inform decision-making by local providers, stakeholders and national policymakers.

On publication, in Clause 1(7) it is clear that a local skills improvement plan means one that has been

“approved and published by the Secretary of State”.

I presume that that will be on GOV.UK. I cannot prescribe that, but I do not think that we need to go into any further detail in relation to that, or to put such matters in the Bill. I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Young, about what we do and do not put in a Bill and what goes into statutory instruments—and then, of course, what is published in guidance.

Amendment 27 talks about how local skills improvement plans can inform national policy on skills. As outlined previously, we expect the plans to be informed by, and in turn inform, national skills priorities highlighted by the Skills and Productivity Board. This is envisaged to be a two-way relationship. In relation to the collaboration between employer representative bodies and the co-ordination point, which has been quite a theme throughout a number of amendments, the Secretary of State can set terms and conditions for the employer representative body and, should it be necessary, they can be used to mandate in the approval that they collaborate—but, obviously, one would hope that that will not be necessary.

On the point from the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, I hope that the trailblazers will reveal whether his doubts will materialise about whether the appropriate national skills priorities are taken into account.

On the approval process by the Secretary of State, it is not about the Secretary of State second-guessing the priorities and actions agreed by local areas but about ensuring that a robust process has been followed. In Clause 3, there are provisions that enable the Secretary of State to remove the designation if he sees fit: if terms and conditions have been broken, if the body is no longer impartial or reasonably representative or if it does not have regard to the guidance. Of course, when one talks about process, one normally thinks about judicial review—but, if a plan says that we are going to invest in coal mining in an area, for example, there might be a case for such a priority that is way outside. But it is a process that he will be looking at; he will not be second-guessing the choices and priorities decided by the employer representative body.

As I have said, we expect the LSIPs to complement the funding system reforms outlined in the Skills for Jobs White Paper. The consultation that I mentioned was launched today, aiming to give providers more autonomy to use government funding to meet the skills needs of local employers, including those articulated in LSIPs. We expect these plans to be a relevant factor for the Secretary of State to consider when making decisions about funding and support for local areas. Again, implicit in that is a co-ordination point as well.

Turning to Amendment 30, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, concerning the publication and distribution of LSIPs, I have mentioned Clause 1(7). The ERBs will lead the development of the plans, and the Secretary of State will approve and publish them. Obviously, if they are defective, there is the remedy I outlined for the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. They will be published on a website to ensure that relevant bodies across England can easily find and access them, and this will be publicised through appropriate communication channels. The department has good relationships with stakeholders, as I say.

I hope that my remarks in relation to these amendments have provided some reassurance to noble Lords. One noble Lord who requested a meeting—it may have been the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—in relation to these matters. Of course, I am happy to engage with any noble Lord to give further detail outside of Committee. I hope to be able to report to the House on the progress of the trailblazers, but they are not due to conclude until March 2022. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, will feel comfortable in withdrawing his amendment and that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, will not feel the need to move his when it is reached.

Lord Aberdare Portrait Lord Aberdare (CB)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken and the Minister for her response. This is a Bill whose aims I strongly support. It is absolutely focused in the right direction, and it has lots of great ideas in it. My occasional frustration is that I do not quite see how it is going to work in various aspects that have been raised by a number of noble Lords. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Young, that it may well make sense to answer a lot of these points in the guidance rather than in the Bill itself, but we do not have the guidance and we do not know what is going to be in it so all we can do is say “We want this to be dealt with somewhere” and keep asking how it is all going to work in practice. Having said all that, I live in considerable hope and expectation, and I am happy to withdraw my noble friend’s amendment.

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Lord Addington Portrait Lord Addington (LD)
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My Lords, this is one of those occasions where I thought I knew what I was going to say before the debate started, but I have changed my mind—or, at least, my words—considerably having listened. When the Minister replies to this, I feel that the audience behind her might be the most worrying. I suggest that when the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Baker, are saying “beware of this”, any sensible Minister would listen. I know the noble Baroness falls into that category.

The Minister has to pay attention to what has been said. Everybody here said, “We are not sure what you are doing yet”. T-levels may sound neat, but we do not quite know what they are. Are they doing something else? Are they a replacement? I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, who asked if they are replacing BTECs, which are an established way forward and allow flexibility, university entrance and other qualifications. That is the sort of thing we want, especially as we are giving more power to level 4 and 5 qualifications, which is overly due. Can we have some assurance that there is no government thinking that T-levels will be used to replace all this? They will simply not lead to these places; they cannot.

Other institutions with qualifications which are understood and known, such as City & Guilds—if I do not mention City & Guilds, I fear that my noble friend might well have a few words with me afterwards—will be saying, “Everybody knows what these are.” If you are going to bring in T-levels, do it slowly and make sure that you are adapting them to take over these functions. A one-off exam at this age cannot do what these do because they do wonderful and flexible things. A few employers cannot find their way around them, but others can. You could simplify them a little and not sweep them away to do something else.

I will not follow the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, into his very intellectual comments about the destruction of post-modernism because we have quite enough on our plates without thinking about the centre of Glasgow and its planning issues. But I hope that when the Minister answers she will say that we are not getting rid of all of these good and established things straightaway, just because we have a lovely new toy that sounded good when we first put it forward. T-levels, I am afraid, will have to earn their stripes. They may become something that replaces or works into the rest of it, but further education deals with a diverse range of subjects and paths. It will never be that straightforward. I look forward to the Minister’s response and do not envy her task.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, these amendments relate to the measures that support the implementation of the Government’s reforms to align the majority of technical qualifications to employer-led standards by 2030. To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, we are aiming here for all qualifications for learners to be of high quality and connected to those employer-led standards.

I was disappointed that the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, was not down to speak in this debate, because we had a very interesting discussion today where, as the noble Lord, Lord Flight, outlined, the key to what we are trying to do is to clarify the roles of a number of the institutions involved—IfATE, the OfS, which is relevant to the next amendment, Ofqual, the department and Ofsted.

We believe that the technical qualifications should cover the knowledge, skills and behaviours that are essential to an occupation. But the heart of the matter here, and one cause of the problems, is that although Ofqual accredits general qualifications such as A-levels and GCSEs, which are developed by awarding organisations, usually of the exam boards, in line with content set by government, the content of the majority of publicly funded technical qualifications is not specified or scrutinised centrally before the qualifications can be taught. That really is the nub of the problem here: Ofqual is not performing that function.

For parity of esteem, these reforms will bring the treatment of technical qualifications more in line with general qualifications. We have already done that process with T-levels, which were developed along with 250 employers to ensure that they met that standard. The content and employer-led standard then delivered, which could be by an FE college, is inspected and overseen by Ofsted. This process will raise the quality bar and deal with the issue of why we have, at level 3 and below, more than 12,000 qualifications, of which only about 800 are GCSE and A-level. As the Sainsbury review identified, we have had a proliferation of qualifications at that level, and many of them are currently created by the awarding organisations.

On the question of no one overseeing the content and it not being connected to an employer standard, we would not tolerate that in relation to GCSEs and A-levels, and someone needs to do that function. I have outlined the process for academic qualifications; the question then is who does that function. The institute currently manages the system of employer-led standards, and we believe it has the expertise to ensure that qualifications genuinely meet the skills of the economy, and the needs of learners and employers, and that it is right for the institute to lead this reform.

I explained some of these issues to noble Lords in the letter on 1 July. It is quite helpful that at the moment the position of chief regulator is being sorted out. Dr Jo Saxton, the Government’s preferred candidate, appeared last week in front of the Education Select Committee for the approval hearing, and was approved for the role. She was specifically asked about Ofqual and IfATE. She outlined that Ofqual will continue to play a key role with regulatory oversight of the standards of technical qualifications in live delivery, as it does currently. Ofqual and the institute are both needed as they contribute different and complementary sets of function and expertise. The two bodies will work together to assure, on Ofqual’s side, the consistency and reliability of assessment and awarding, as it does over the exam boards, and on the institute’s side the relevance to employers of the content of technical qualifications. When asked by the chair, she said:

“At its simplest, the curriculum side of it sits with IfATE. Once the curriculum has been agreed and approved to go forward, Ofqual’s job will be to make sure that any endpoint assessments and examinations continue to assess the curriculum that has been determined by IfATE and the employers and that receivers of the endpoint assessments and qualifications know that the awards they end up with accurately reflect what they know and can do. The relationship should work well. At its heart, it is essentially a separation between curriculum and regulation”.

I find that really helpful. That was the core purpose—she outlines why Ofqual was set up to be the regulator while the content of the curriculum was set out by the department.

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Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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My Lords, this amendment, so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raises an issue that engaged us at Second Reading—namely, the relationship between Ofqual and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education—and was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on a previous group. The matter of regulation is causing concern in the awarding sector, because it is not clear who has authority for end-point assessment for apprenticeships, and it is surely not desirable for there to be any confusion over which of these two bodies has most power, nor where the expertise lies.

The Minister tempted me to come in on the previous group and I nearly came in after her—but I knew I had the opportunity to speak on this group, so I thought I might as well save my thunder.

My noble friend Lord Addington referred to my connections with City & Guilds. I remember that it was the employers who set the curriculum, because they have always been involved with vocational workplace qualifications. Of course, there was heavy regulation of everything we did but, over many years, both BTEC and City & Guilds have developed a reputation for standards and quality. They are understood and trusted by employers, and BTEC has the added cachet that it is accepted by universities, in many cases, because of the academic rigour of its awards. Part of the work I did for many years at City & Guilds was talking to universities to see where they could accept City & Guilds vocational qualifications for their degree programmes. There were certainly some, in engineering and areas such as that, who were prepared to accept that people who had the right level of City & Guilds qualification had met the criteria for entry to a university programme. They are doing different things, by and large, so not many people went down that route, but it was possible. So this constant mention that employers are in control, as though it was something new, always concerns me, as it has been going on for over 100 years.

The noble Baroness also made a brief mention of copyright. I remember going through the Technical and Further Education Bill, which was cut short by the election, and having stunningly good amendments that were all of course dropped in the wash-up. The suggestion then was that the copyright of any of the awarding bodies would immediately be taken over by the Government. I objected strongly and said “You can’t do this. You can’t just assume the copyright of an organisation”. I got a phone call from the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, who asked me why I was objecting to his wonderful Bill. I said that it seemed to me outrageous that the Government could just take over the copyright of other organisations. He said, “Oh, I didn’t mean for that to happen at all”. I said, “Would you mind very much ringing up the department and telling them that?” I do not think he ever did, because nothing happened on it. But the issue of copyright is vital, because many awarding organisations earn income from the copyright of their qualifications.

Anyway, the noble Baroness very kindly sent us a chart of Ofqual and the institute, showing where they all were, and the complexity of it is absolutely mind-boggling—I am sure that a brighter soul than me would reckon that it is all very straightforward. The institute has responsibility for the curriculum, but Ofqual has end-point assessment. Ofqual provides advice to the institute with regard to the validity of technical education qualifications submitted for approval and the reliability of assessment, but the institute will be responsible for reviewing technical education qualifications to determine whether they continue to meet the criteria. This seems to be an incredibly complicated way of running these qualifications. However, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that it is obviously more appropriate that responsibility lies with Ofqual, which is an independent regulator, whereas IfATE is of course less independent, as a non-departmental public body.

We have no information about how IfATE’s approval fees would be regulated, how often the fees would be charged and how accurate the estimation costs are. Would the fees be per qualification, per sector, annually or for the lifetime of the qualification? That is not clear. There is a lot of obscurity around the setting up of these qualifications.

I find it very strange that, as has been mentioned, Ofqual has regulatory and approval responsibility for all vocational and technical qualifications apart from T-levels. I thought that T-levels were supposed to be the be-all and end-all of vocational qualifications, so why have they been split off into another body? I am afraid that I am a simple soul and I find this very complicated, so perhaps the Minister could enlighten us and clarify it all for us.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, the external quality assurance of apprenticeships’ end-point assessment is a vital tool in ensuring that all apprentices receive a robust, high-quality assessment. In this amendment, we are now dealing with what is an Ofqual function. Ofqual does not set any curriculum for A-levels or GCSEs and neither would it, in our view, be the appropriate body to set any content for any level 3 or level 2 technical qualifications. It oversees the assessment process, seeing whether grading is fair and examinations are being run properly.

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education introduced an external quality assurance framework in 2019 in order to bring consistency to the sector. Following this, the institute put the matter of external quality assurance out to public consultation between February and May last year. This resulted in the institute taking the decision that the EQA for most apprenticeship end-point assessments would transfer to Ofqual to bring further consistency and quality to the assessment of apprenticeships. This is Ofqual’s bread and butter: overseeing examinations.

There are a small number of exceptional standards—chartered surveyors, for instance—where an existing statutory regulator oversees entry to a profession. The best way to quality assure these standards is currently being worked through with those regulators. I would like to make it clear that the Office for Students must continue to provide EQA for integrated degree apprenticeships—because Ofqual does not have statutory jurisdiction over degrees and therefore cannot provide EQA for apprenticeships at that level.

I will specifically address the noble Lord’s suggestion that regulations under this proposed amendment must prohibit the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education from providing EQA. While the institute is stepping back from direct delivery of EQA, it is an employer-led organisation, working to develop apprenticeships that meet the needs of employers. It is right that it should continue to have responsibility for securing the quality assurance of apprenticeship assessment in order to retain an independent, impartial voice in the sector and to maintain clear focus on supporting employers to develop the right apprenticeship skills for the labour market.

Regarding the suggested six-month timing for the transfer proposed in the amendment, the pace of the EQA transition currently taking place from the institute and other EQA providers to Ofqual has been carefully planned to ensure the development of a balanced end-point assessment offer to continue to develop a high-quality apprenticeships system. The first phase of the transition is well under way and is focused on transferring the majority of standards that currently have the institute as the named EQA provider. This phase will conclude at the end of the year. The second phase is to transition to Ofqual the remaining standards that are externally quality assured by other EQA providers, excluding the standards that will be regulated by OfS and statutory regulators, as aforementioned. This will conclude at the end of September 2022.

The sector is made up of a great number of end-point assessment organisations of different sizes and natures, some covering single standards, some covering around 50 standards. To attempt to transition all these organisations and standards over to Ofqual in a six-month period would cause severe disruption in the sector and would negatively affect the apprentices’ experience. The proposed amendment would also place a great burden on universities, as under this amendment they would be required to be regulated by the OfS and Ofqual, rather than just by the OfS, as is currently the case. I hope I have set out that, as the successful transition of EQA is already under way, it would have a detrimental effect if we were to remove the institute from the process entirely.

In relation to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, on fees, any future approach that is developed will be proportionate and take account of the operational costs of institute approval in the reformed landscape. This may differ across qualification categories and levels.

On this basis, and with the explanations and reassurances I have given, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel comfortable to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for the further explanation. I will analyse it in greater detail when I read it in Hansard tomorrow. The point from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, about regulation being a matter of concern is absolutely correct. Indeed, employers have always been involved in qualifications. I am afraid that I am unsure of the background of many of my fellow Peers, but I can assure noble Lords of the quality standards of BTEC qualifications because I taught them for many years, alongside A-level qualifications, which are another quality qualification—I actually wrote A-level examination papers, as I was a principal examiner for the AQA examination board.

Nevertheless, the principle remains that we need responsibility and accountability. That is what Ofqual would give. I am sure we will return to this issue on Report, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, Amendment 74 probes the charging of fees in connection with entries on the list of relevant providers. The Bill would enable the Secretary of State to make regulations to provide for a list of post-16 education or training providers, including independent training providers.

We have no argument with the principle of introducing legislative measures to protect the interests of learners, and agree wholeheartedly that those who run providers on the proposed list of relevant providers should be “fit and proper persons”. But we are concerned that many of the provisions appear to be just piling costs upon ITP delivery without any consultation or rationale as to why they are necessary. Can the Minister explain why no such exercise has taken place and assure the Committee that meaningful consultations will take place before any new requirements for providers are introduced via regulations?

Under the proposals, any provider not on the approved list will not be granted funding agreements or be allowed to subcontract with another provider that is on the list, so this will not be an option going forward. Yet being on this list does not guarantee future financial sustainability, given that the Government admit that listing will have a “significant impact” on the costs of smaller providers because of the need to pay to join and the imposition of mandatory professional indemnity insurance, as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, in his Amendment 72.

If this is in response to concerns about provider failure, I too fail to see how enhanced liability insurance and more stringent entry registrations will have any impact or give protection to learners. Meanwhile, it risks destabilising the entire ITP sector at a time when the economy desperately needs more skilled staff as we emerge from the pandemic and as the effects of Brexit on the labour market are felt.

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers has also raised concerns about the practicality of this indemnity requirement, given that it is not aware that the insurance product that the Government may have in mind actually exists, despite such a requirement being written into primary legislation. I hope the Minister is able to address this in her response.

There is also understandable concern in the sector that increasing costs may be a backdoor way to reduce the number of ITPs in the market. Can the Minister confirm whether this is indeed the Government’s intention? If it is, I am concerned that such a policy could backfire spectacularly and have significant adverse consequences for learners and communities.

ITPs deliver three-quarters of all apprenticeship, traineeship and adult education budget programmes. While many are small, they provide crucial and valuable opportunities and bring much-needed responsiveness, innovation and competition to the skills training marketplace. Many ITPs are either specialist providers or serve areas out of easy reach of a local college—indeed, there are 1,186 towns but only 170 FE colleges in England. Does the Minister recognise that ITPs are very good at reaching out to small businesses in small towns and rural areas which do not have a local college, including the Chancellor’s Yorkshire constituency and some red wall areas? Does she agree that they have a major contribution to make to the Government’s levelling-up agenda?

I hope the Minister can provide some clarity on these issues and assure the House that independent training providers will be able to continue to provide value opportunities, which will be crucial to the country’s post-pandemic recovery.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for the agreement in principle that a list of independent training providers is a requirement, as I believe it was suggested in this House in previous legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, is correct: the core focus of the list is to protect learners and reduce the significant disruption to learners that provider failure can cause. We value highly the role of relevant providers, including independent training providers and in particular those small providers noble Lords have mentioned. We are not unduly negative at all about their role in providing a diverse and innovative learning offer. They provide a great deal of variety to many learners.

The provisions in Clause 18(7) include a requirement for a provider to have insurance for examples of conditions that may be specified in regulations that providers must meet in order to be on the list. In a similar way, subsection (10) gives examples of provisions that may be specified in regulations in connection with the keeping of the list, which would ultimately help deliver a well-functioning, transparent and fair scheme to all those involved.

We propose that the student support plans we envisage providers having will, subject to consultation—which I will mention further—follow the approach in the HE sector, where the Office for Students requires a statement of the level of risks to the continuation of study. We must remember this is study paid for by the taxpayer, and obviously it is in everybody’s interests that that course of study is completed.

I would like to allay the fears of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox: as the clauses require, we will consult on the conditions and provisions for being on the list, prior to making the first set of regulations, to help ensure that those conditions manage and mitigate the risk of disorderly exit. That consultation will allow us to fully take into account the views of those affected by the scheme, particularly the small providers noble Lords have outlined.

I turn to the specifics of the amendments. Amendment 72 is intended to ensure relevant providers will not be subject to further costs relating to obtaining insurance cover. The introduction of insurance, or an equivalent, may be useful in preventing or mitigating the risk of provider failure and assist with learner transfers at that point. If we were to introduce a condition in relation to insurance, the aim would be for learners to benefit from greater continuity of provision. Clause 18(9) allows different conditions to be applied for different descriptions of providers. It is not one size fits all. This would ensure that, where appropriate, we could make the scheme as flexible as possible.

Amendment 74 is intended to probe how the charging of fees in connection with entries on the list will be regulated. It is reasonable to expect that some fees may be necessary to recover the costs—I emphasise “costs”—of administering the list. It is important that we retain the ability to introduce fees if they are deemed necessary to run an effective and fiscally responsible scheme. I can, however, offer an assurance that this would be the sole purpose of any fees. They would be set to a reasonable level, with reasonable notice and with consideration of the impact on providers of all sizes. There would be no intention to make a profit at the expense of providers.

Regulations to create the list are subject to the affirmative procedure, so there will be further opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of any conditions or provisions specified. This includes regulations relating to any requirements for providers to have insurance or an equivalent, if proposed in the regulations following consultation, as well as any requirement to charge fees. If regulations setting out the basis for charging fees were to change again in the future, those amending regulations would also be subject to the affirmative procedure.

I therefore hope the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, will feel comfortable in withdrawing his amendment and that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, will not feel the need to move her amendment when it is reached.

Lord Aberdare Portrait Lord Aberdare (CB)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who made some good points, very strongly. I entirely agreed with her.

Despite the Minister’s hope, I am rather less comfortable with her response. This is going to have a very big impact, particularly on the smaller ITPs. The Minister talked about it being designed to avoid significant disruption to learners. What is this “significant disruption” and where are the examples? I have heard of two major cases, and a lot of others where nobody can produce any evidence at all, so I am not clear whether the problem being addressed justifies the scale of the sledgehammer being used to address it. I appreciate that the conditions in the Bill are examples, but the fact that they are there seems to make it very likely that they will turn up as conditions when the actual contracts get written. I would much rather see that left to the ESFA or the contracts, or whatever.

I think the Minister also mentioned that the approach was based on the higher education sector, but there is no comparison at all between a university and some of these small ITPs. It is just ludicrous to have the same sort of requirements placed on them as would be placed on a university. I very much hope that this consultation will be serious and deep, and taken great account of when it happens. I also hope that the fee will indeed be reasonable.

Before I withdraw my amendment, as the only Back-Bencher left standing I congratulate those on the Front Benches who remain in place, and particularly the two Ministers, on their efforts today, unhappy as I am with this final response. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for International Trade

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Baroness Berridge Excerpts
Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, Amendment 76A relates to intervention in FE college and sixth-form college corporations and designated institutions.

The measures that we set out in Clause 22, to which the amendment relates, will enable the Secretary of State to intervene where the education or training has failed adequately to meet local needs. It is, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, outlined, a new duty under Clause 5, and the corresponding change to the enforcement powers comes in response to putting that duty on local providers. This builds on the existing intervention powers under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 by enabling the Secretary of State to direct the governing body to restructure. This measure is part of a package of reforms, including the introduction of local skills improvement plans and the new duty under Clause 5. However, I can assure noble Lords that the statutory intervention powers are intended to be used only as a last resort—that is, when all other alternative courses of action have failed to secure the improvements necessary to deliver for local learners.

The amendment from my noble friend Lord Lucas seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State takes into account academic qualifications and other local provision when considering how well local needs have been met. I join the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in being fascinated by my noble friend’s descriptions of Eastbourne. I can confirm for him that, at East Sussex College, 118 students are enrolled on A-level courses as their core study course, which is more than 50 in each of the two years. He also mentioned Gildredge House, a free school with around 65 students on level 3 academic programmes. I understand that East Sussex College is undertaking on each of its campuses a review of the specialisms offer that it makes to ensure that it best fits with local needs, and that it is considering enrolment activity and the level of demand from young people.

The assessment we envisage under the Bill will therefore not be restricted to a particular type of provision. Although the Secretary of State must consider the priorities set out in any LSIP, this does not exclude other provisions that are relevant to local needs—including academic provision specifically—also being reflected in the assessment. If there is a failure to meet needs in a local area, there is a responsibility on all the providers serving that area to work together to agree the changes required to bring about improvement. Every college involved in meeting the needs in a local area should be accountable for how well those needs are met.

I hope that these brief remarks provide some reassurance to my noble friend, and I ask him to consider withdrawing his amendment.

Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that answer. I would be delighted to entertain her in Eastbourne for a day or two, particularly in this weather; I think she would enjoy it.

I understand that there are processes that are supposed to deliver what a local area wants, but they seem to be becoming ever more remote and fractured under the arrangements in this Bill. I remain unconvinced that what we are setting up in this Bill will deliver better provision than we have at the moment, but I will read my noble friend’s answer carefully and with interest. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Moved by
76B: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Relevant date for purposes of fee limit for certain higher education courses
In paragraph 3(3) of Schedule 2 to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (the fee limit where the provider has no access and participation plan), omit “before the calendar year”.”Member’s explanatory statement
Certain fee limits for academic years of higher education courses depend on whether the provider had a high level quality rating on a particular date. This new Clause changes that date to 1 January in the calendar year in which the academic year begins from 1 January in the previous calendar year.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I speak to government Amendments 76B and Amendment 101 in my name. They relate to the high-level quality rating, which is currently the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework, known as TEF, for providers without an approved access and participation plan.

Higher education providers with a TEF award currently benefit from an uplift to their fee limit, meaning they are able to charge a higher level than higher education providers without a TEF award. Despite the best efforts of noble Lords and the Government, there is an error in the legislation that could prevent a timely link between TEF awards and a provider’s fee limit. For example, currently, where a provider does not have an approved access and participation plan, whether the provider is entitled to the TEF fee uplift in any academic year is dependent on whether it had an award on 1 January in the calendar year before the relevant academic year. This means that a provider seeking to charge the TEF fee uplift in academic year 2022-23 would be able to do so based on an award in force in January 2021, rather than January 2022, which was the original intent of the legislation. This amendment will correct this and ensure a more timely link between fee limits and TEF, helping to further incentivise excellence in higher education. These amendments are of benefit to the institutions that I outlined.

Amendment 101 is a related consequential amendment to Clause 27, which sets out that the proposed new clause in Amendment 76B will come into force two months after Royal Assent. I beg to move.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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My Lords, in the previous group on Amendment 76A, the noble Baroness did not reply to my point about the international baccalaureate at all. I fully accept that she may not have the data I was after, but I would be grateful if she could put on record a commitment to write to me about it.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation of these amendments. From what she said, this appears to be a minor change to Schedule 2 to HERA. I gather it will apply only to providers that have a TEF award but not an access and participation plan, which therefore can charge only the basic fee plus a TEF supplement. The legislation currently says that they have to have held the TEF award on 1 January in the year before the course starts, but I presume it should have said on 1 January before the course starts. That is a good lesson to all of us on the importance of careful drafting. Although it went through in 2017, I am glad they have now been able to correct it.

I take this opportunity to ask the Minister a couple of quick questions. First, will any current providers be affected by this? I imagine that none will be, as the last TEF assessment exercise was in 2018-19. All TEF awards had been due to expire this summer, but were extended to 2023 to give the Government time to create a new TEF scheme and make assessments under it. I imagine that means that the only people who will be affected by this amendment, any time soon, are new providers applying for provisional TEF awards. Could she confirm that? Since that provisional award process has only just opened and the awards will not be confirmed until September, I imagine it will only affect courses starting in 2022, but it seems a sensible move.

We are now in the strange position of most providers having a TEF award but being told by the Office for Students not to advertise it, because the assessments that led to them are now out of date. This is a rather sad state of affairs for a system launched with such fanfare, so could the Minister take this opportunity to give the Committee a brief update on what is happening with TEF and when we can expect to see proposals for a new TEF system?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions, particularly the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and his thanks for this technical amendment to fix an error in the existing legislation. In relation to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, as far as I understand it, the most recent TEF assessments were from 2017-18. This is a change to make the legislation fit for purpose for when the new round of TEF is announced. I will write to her with any update of the course for the new TEF.

I had hoped, given that these amendments would not affect any underlying policies, that noble Lords would be able to support them but, in the circumstances, I beg the leave of the Committee to withdraw Amendment 76B.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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What about the IB?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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At least I am consistent in forgetting twice. I beg the noble Lord’s pardon. We have no intention not to fund the IB going forward, but I will write to him with the statistics.

Amendment 76B withdrawn.
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Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for stepping into the breach and introducing this amendment and thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I may try to fill in some of the gaps left by the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. I should say at the start that we fully support the outlawing of cheating services.

The Minister needs to address three questions: is there a problem, is it getting worse, and what is the right policy response? I think we now all agree there is a problem. We discussed this recently at the Second Reading of the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. In responding to that debate, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay—acknowledged the growing availability of cheating services and said that this

“puts vulnerable students at risk and threatens the reputation of our world-class higher education sector … it is reprehensible for essay mill companies to profit from a dishonest business that exploits young people’s anxiety and can undermine our world-class institutions.”

Yes, we have a problem. Is it growing? Again, yes, it is. The QAA believes there are now over 1,000 essay mills in operation.

In that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, told me that he had not read the paper by Lancaster and Cotarlan published this year in the International Journal for Educational Integrity. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has read it or that at least she has been given a summary in her brief. It cites the 2015 work by Ardid et al which found no difference in the results students got when they took exams in person or online, provided that both types of exams were supervised. But when students took an exam online and it was not supervised, they got higher marks. That raised the obvious question as to whether students were using contract cheating in online exams. Lancaster and Cotarlan took up the challenge raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and analysed how one website, Chegg, was used during the pandemic by students in five STEM subjects.

They found that students were using it to request answers to exam-style questions and that these could be put live and answered within the duration of an exam. The number of student requests posted for those five subjects increased by almost 200% between April and August last year compared with the same period the year before. Of course, that was exactly the time when many courses moved to being delivered and assessed online. They conclude that

“students are using Chegg for assessment and exam help frequently and in a way that is not considered permissible by universities.”

In 2016, the QAA said it that would approach the main search engine companies and ask them not to accept adverts for essay mills and to block them from search engines. That does not work. This week I did a search, and loads of them appeared. I visited the Chegg website today and it still says:

“Ask an expert anytime. Take a photo of your question and get an answer in as little as 30 mins.”

There is even a website which acts as a comparison site for essay mills. I went mystery shopping on one website before the Second Reading of the Private Member’s Bill, and last week I tried another one. This time round I priced up an undergraduate essay on Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, with three sources and Chicago referencing. With a new customer’s discount, I could have had 750 words in just three hours for £72. A full 2,500-word essay could be mine in 12 hours for £193. I did not even have to subscribe to find that out.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, is quite right: if I were a student and I succumbed to this, as well as risking my academic career, I could be putting myself at risk of being blackmailed. The HE blog has given examples of students who had problems either because they felt the quality of the work was not good enough or they got cold feet, and were told that if they did not pay the fee, and sometimes pay more money, the site would tell the university that they had used an essay mill.

We accept that we have a problem and that it is growing. What is the policy solution? In the past, Ministers have insisted that legislation was not needed, and they would get sector bodies to get tough and issue guidance and penalties. The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, said that the Government have been working with the HE sector and tech companies but concluded:

“Despite that work, cheating services remain prevalent.”

That takes us to legislation. It is now three years since 46 vice-chancellors wrote a joint letter calling for these websites to be banned. Meanwhile, other countries have banned essay mills, including New Zealand, South Africa and, most recently, Australia and Ireland.

On 25 June, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, mentioned emerging evidence from Ireland and Australia which

“suggests that those laws are deterring essay mills from providing services to students, and regulators there have reported that having the legislation has provided them with more tools to engage students, higher education providers and cheating services”.—[Official Report, 25/6/21; cols. 536-37.]

Can the Minister tell the Committee why the Government do not think British students deserve the same protection from being preyed on as students in those countries? Contract cheating is a growing problem which puts students at risk and threatens academic integrity. If it keeps growing, it will start to disadvantage students who will not cheat, and that is a problem for all of us. We need to know that our doctors, engineers and lawyers have qualified based on their own merits, not on those of strangers on the internet.

So when will the Government act? If the Minister does not like this amendment, fine: she can bring her own back on Report. But if she does not, how long will we have to wait for another legislative opportunity to deal with a problem which even Ministers acknowledge is real and growing? I look forward to hearing her reply.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for moving Amendment 77 on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. It would make it a criminal offence to provide or advertise academic cheating services in connection with post-16 education. I pay tribute to the tenacity and detail with which the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, has given your Lordships examples of the situation, which the Government accept is a growing problem. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, is obviously to be commended for his unstinting efforts to clamp down on essay mills, where unscrupulous online operators write assignments and other pieces of work for students for financial gain.

The Government have consistently made it clear that using these services is unacceptable. Research indicates that cheating services are prevalent, and the evidence suggests that higher education is the area of greatest risk. This is despite the Government working closely with the higher education sector to clamp down on the cheating services, and we have worked with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the National Union of Students and Universities UK to produce guidance for providers on how to combat contract cheating. On a specific point raised by several noble Lords, we have worked with the National Union of Students, which has also provided advice for students so that they are aware of the consequences of contract cheating, sending a clear message that these services are not legitimate.

The use of plagiarised assessments is, of course, unacceptable and, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, it devalues the hard work of those who succeed on their own merit, as well as potentially undermining the reputation of our world-class higher education sector.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, will know, that is why the Government welcomed the principles set out in the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill, at its Second Reading, and we agree that we should put an end to the scourge of essay mills.

However, the noble Lord’s amendment would make the provision and advertising of cheating services to all post-16 further education and higher education a criminal offence. Although we support the principles behind the amendment, there is little evidence to suggest that cheating services are a problem in post-16 and further education providers, as they are for higher education. We are therefore of the view that this Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for this important policy.

To note the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, the amendment lacks sufficient legal detail and precision to demonstrate how it would work in practice. We shall, however, be working with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on his Bill, which covers much of the same ground. It is important that, when we legislate in this area, we legislate correctly and make clear the implications for those who use these services. Sometimes, that can be a response of support for vulnerable students; but, in certain situations, that will be a sanction. We need to make clear, as the amendment does not, what will be the penalties for either advertising or being a service that offers cheating services, or essay mills, and what sanction will follow. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, will feel comfortable in withdrawing the amendment.

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Some education providers will always be happy to accept credits from another organisation where they are assured that these credits meet their own criteria, but we really do not need this in legislation. It must be left to each provider to decide whether it will accept the standards and credits of another body. I readily acknowledge that credit transfer could be useful and positive but I have no wish to see education providers compelled to accept credits from other bodies where they are inappropriate, dubious or extremely difficult to accommodate administratively—which is another aspect of this. Let us be happy for those organisations which do accept the standards and credits of others, but please do not put credit transfer into legislation.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the Noble Lord, Lord Watson, for tabling this amendment and have great sympathy with its purpose. The Government know that many learners need more flexible access to courses helping them to train, upskill or retrain alongside work, family and personal commitments, as both their circumstances and the economy change. We also recognise that the current lack of a systematic and widely used practice for building up credit across different providers is a key barrier to flexible lifelong learning.

The Bill will deliver that flexibility, underpinning the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee. This is part of our blueprint for a post-16 education system that will seek to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live or their background, can gain the skills they need to progress at any stage of their lives. We want people to be able to build up learning over their lifetime and have a real choice in how, where and when they study to acquire new life-changing skills. In particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, outlined, this will hopefully lead to an expansion of provision within further education colleges and other providers.

To enable flexibility, learners must, where appropriate, be able to accumulate and transfer credits between providers to build up to meaningful qualifications over time. The Bill and the government amendments tabled on the LLE provide the building blocks of a modular and potentially credit-based loan funding and fee limit system. It is precisely defining what a module is that will ensure consistency across the system.

We are working closely with the sector to understand current incentives and obstacles to credit transfer and recognition. Obviously, the system is not simple or straightforward, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, outlined. We intend to consult on the scope and policy of the lifelong loan entitlement. We will examine how to support easier and more frequent credit transfer between providers, working towards well-integrated and aligned higher and further education provision, with flexibility that enables students to move between settings to suit their needs.

It is important that we consult and engage closely on this to ensure that we build a system that works. The consultation will be later this year and it is important we get the detail right. Although higher education is a devolved matter, we are of course engaging with the devolved Administrations. It is important that any system in England provides consistency and works alongside the other three nations. We must not pre-determine the outcome of any consultation and pin the Government to a path that the sector and learners may tell us in consultation is not what is needed. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, will feel comfortable withdrawing his amendment.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie Portrait Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab)
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My Lords, I am not comfortable withdrawing my amendment, as the Minister suggests. The amendment has been rather too easily dismissed by the Minister and by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. I recognise the experience of the noble Baroness with City & Guilds, but I also recognise her experience as a Minister in the coalition Government—and that sounded very much like a ministerial speech. She was drawing on her experience of those years when she counselled against legislating in this respect.

There is a greater need to give people confidence when they are trying to provide what the Minister called building blocks for a degree or qualification, so they have a guarantee that there is somebody whom they can call on to make sure that they can use those effectively. I noticed that my noble friend Lord Adonis made the point about the degree apprenticeships. Many of us are a bit dubious about degree apprenticeships, but clearly they will have a role in this. He drew the line, and I think he was drawing the dots from a practical apprenticeship and moving it on bit by bit, perhaps banking some of the experience to go to do something else—perhaps raise a family—and then come back to it, ultimately with a degree. That is very important.

The way in which the Minister says that the Government will consult, as I understand it, meant only that they would consult on the scope of the lifelong loan entitlement. There has to be something specific on credit transfer. Like other noble Lords, I have had briefings from organisations in the sector which are very concerned and want to make sure that there is something of a solid nature on which they can build in future. I heard no mention of the international aspect, which was certainly raised with me by the QAA. It is concerned about the international reputation if we do not have a UK-wide structure that people in other countries can look at, understand and then have the confidence to come and use.

The Minister was saying that this was a bit premature and talked about another consultation. We will be inundated by consultations as a result of the Bill. As an aside, let me say that the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, mentioned earlier a consultation that concluded in September, and we have a consultation on initial teacher training in schools which concludes in August. When we have consultations, can we please not have them over the summer holidays? It may help officials, but it does not help those seeking to put together a response to consultation and it surely dilutes the amount of response received.

I hear what the Minister says, but I am not convinced. I shall come back on Report to try to tease out some of the arguments a bit further and invite her to respond in a bit more detail to the points that I put after she has had her chance, with her Ovaltine this evening and a copy of Hansard by her side, to consider them in greater detail.

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Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, I support Amendment 86 in the name of my noble friend Lord Touhig, which would grant the Secretary of State the power to allow sixth-form college corporations to convert to academies without losing their current statutory protections. It would secure the religious character of the Catholic sixth-form college when it converts and therefore enable dioceses to include these new sixth-form academies within their strategic planning of Catholic multi-academy trusts. It will be on very few occasions during the passage of this Bill that I will support the Secretary of State taking back power and centralising control, but this is one of those rare occasions.

The immense change in the education landscape brought about in the English education system by the Academies Act 2010 has required all schools and colleges to consider their future with the Government’s intention to move towards a fully academised system. We have no academies in Wales; we have comprehensive schools run by local authorities. I look forward immensely to the introduction of the dynamic new curriculum—the four areas of learning developed by teachers being introduced to all schools in Wales this September. However, we are talking about England.

While schools and FE colleges can become academies, the 14 Catholic sixth-form colleges in England are prohibited by the current legislation from planning strategically to secure their future. This is a result of the earlier academies legislation, as other noble Lords have mentioned, which failed at the time to address the unique legal structure of these 14 colleges. This amendment would grant Catholic sixth-form colleges the same academy opportunities that all other schools and colleges currently have to strategically plan their future. It is a good example of the unintended consequences of a Bill that is inadequately prepared to work in practice once enacted.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for bringing forward his amendment. Although it is always a pleasure to stand at the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Government, it is a double pleasure when—for I think the only occasion in the Bill—the issue falls within my ministerial responsibility. It is a pleasure to speak to it. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made reference to Harris Sixth Form; my old sixth-form sadly closed but was reopened a few years later as a 16-19 academy called Harington school, which is an outstanding school in Rutland.

There has been a really vibrant place in the system for sixth-form academies, but there has also been the situation which the amendment seeks to address: sixth-form colleges with a religious designation, if they were to convert to academies, would not retain that designation and would lose some of their religious character and associated freedoms. The Government are committed to supporting existing sixth-form colleges to convert to academy status. I am pleased that a significant proportion of sixth-form colleges have already taken this step and have made a strong contribution to strengthening the academies sector. It was a pleasure to meet Bill Watkin and James Kewin of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, who mentioned the situation with the other section of sixth-form colleges and expressed their desire to look at academisation.

We recognise that there are currently barriers preventing sixth-form colleges with a religious character from converting to academies. This is because it is not presently legally possible for 16-19 academies to have a religious designation, which is of course necessary for Catholic sixth-form colleges in order to retain their religious character around collective worship, RE, recruitment of staff and so on, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, outlined. At present, any sixth-form college with a religious character converting to an academy would lose that designation.

We remain keen to take action to facilitate all sixth-form colleges, including those with a designated religious character, to convert to academies. I know that existing Catholic designated sixth-form colleges are keen to join Catholic multi-academy trusts, and I am sure they would make an excellent contribution. We have received further communication from Bishop Marcus Stock, who is the lead Catholic bishop on education and supports the principle of allowing these Catholic sixth-form colleges to become academies. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, outlined, if there is any change in the law, it would ensure that other faith groups that establish 16-19 academies can designate them as having a religious character appropriate to them.

The Secretary of State for Education made clear, when speaking in the other place, that we would look at all legislative opportunities to see how this can best be done. We are committed to making this happen at the earliest opportunity. Sadly, however the amendment as drafted could have undesired effects, as it provides that any 16-19 academy so designated is a school in law. This will create legal uncertainty as to the status of 16-19 academies, which are expressly defined in legislation as not schools. A new power would be required to achieve what the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, wants from his amendment.

However, we none the less want to facilitate access to academy status for all sixth-form colleges that wish to convert by enabling the religious designation of 16-19 academies. While this amendment is not the vehicle for it, we remain supportive of the principle. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Touhig Portrait Lord Touhig (Lab) [V]
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I have observed the contributions of Members on a host of amendments in these last hours and pay tribute to everyone in the Committee for their hard work and commitment in making this a better Bill. I thank my noble friends Lord Adonis and Lady Wilcox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for their reasoned, informed and encouraging support. I am most grateful.

I hope the Minister might have something more to say as the Bill progresses. I assure her that, if she does, she will be on my Christmas card list. I await further developments and look forward to working with her and her officials to achieve what we all want from this legislation. I beg leave to withdraw.

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I realise that I am being difficult and looking for problems. That is kind of my job: I am in the Opposition, and perhaps I have been there too long. However, as always, the noble Lord is thinking creatively, and I will be very interested to hear what the Minister makes of his suggestions.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I shall first resist the temptation to respond to the noble Baroness’s comment that she has been in opposition too long. I pay tribute to all noble Lords who have outlined the role of the Student Loans Company. It has no statutory functions of its own but exists as the student loan delivery arm of the Secretary of State, exercising powers delegated by him or her. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, is correct that my noble friend Lord Willetts is suggesting a fundamental change of role for the Student Loans Company, whether as a post box, a communications agent or a marketing agent. While I thank my noble friend for his amendment, I do not believe it is necessary or wise.

The Government already publish a wide range of data, including earnings information by higher education provider and subject of study up to five years post graduation. It comes from the longitudinal education outcomes database, commonly known as LEO. The database has a wider coverage than the Student Loans Company, as it considers all graduates rather than just those who take out a student loan. Secure access to this data is granted to accredited researchers through the Office for National Statistics, to answer research questions. So while HE providers, although they do some of the best research themselves, cannot access LEO data to look at individual graduate outcomes, the data that is already published is sufficient to meet those research needs. On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, the LEO database holds data by subject, provider, gender and region—so it does provide good access.

In relation to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, obviously the data that I have outlined is only one factor in the value of a higher-education qualification. I hope that all noble Lords will agree that we see the value immensely of her education, and the roles that some people undertake for very modest salaries are incredibly valuable. We have seen that a lot during the pandemic.

The second part of my noble friend’s amendment includes a duty to facilitate universities’ communication with their graduates through the Student Loans Company, without passing on any personal data, unless a graduate has specifically opted out. I noticed the Member’s explanatory statement states:

“This amendment enables universities to use the SLC to communicate with their graduates to encourage greater uptake of lifelong learning opportunities.”

As I have outlined, the SLC is not really there to be used by the universities. It is there for the students and to ensure that there is proper finance. The Student Loans Company should hold data only on students who own or are repaying a loan, so not all graduates are captured. Again, the onus is on the graduate to ensure that the Student Loans Company has their most recent contact data after they complete their studies. It will not surprise noble Lords that, unfortunately, not all graduates do this.

To answer my noble friend’s question, are we really looking now to place a duty on SLC to chase down the graduates for contact information when it does not have it? Such a system, as outlined in the amendment, to facilitate communication between the universities and the Student Loans Company, unfortunately would incur up-front and ongoing costs, plus potential data implications, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, highlighted. The roles suggested would involve a considerable burden on the Student Loans Company. It is best left to universities to reach out to their alumni directly through existing communication channels. As I mentioned in relation to the Member’s explanatory statement, if the Student Loans Company were to take on a role of communicating about lifelong loan entitlements, would it be after just one university, or three institutions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, outlined? This is a considerable administrative, communication or marketing task that we would be asking of the SLC.

The final part of the amendment proposes facilitating the National Employment Savings Trust to communicate through the Student Loans Company, effectively encouraging students to consider saving into the NEST pension scheme once they get towards paying off their student loans. Automatic enrolment has achieved a quiet revolution through getting employees into the habit of pension savings, reversing the previous decline in workplace pension participation seen in the decade before the start of the reforms. As my noble friend Lord Willetts mentioned, it has succeeded in transforming pension saving for millions of workers. Since 2012, workplace pension participation rates for eligible employees aged 22 to 29 increased from 35% to 86% in 2019.

While encouraging graduates to work towards future financial resilience is right, the Government do not agree that this amendment is the right means to do so. A graduate or postgraduate would not be able to join the NEST pension scheme directly. NEST was established to support automatic enrolment and operates under a public service obligation to accept any employer who wishes to use the scheme to meet their automatic enrolment duties. Given that NEST is a workplace pension scheme, this means that most people typically would join through their employer but, in some cases such as self-employment, people can enrol themselves. In addition to operating under a public service obligation, NEST also receives a government loan to cover its running costs. This amendment would be seen as giving NEST an unfair advantage in a competitive pensions market. I am sorry to inform my noble friend Lord Willetts that this too would not be possible.

I have to say that I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that this would also take away from the core role. Like any organisation, the Student Loans Company has a limit on what it can deliver at any one time and there is already an ambitious reform programme, including the delivery of the lifelong loan entitlement, which I assure noble Lords will keep all those employees, mainly in Darlington, very busy over the next few years.

Laudable though the aims of this amendment are, the Government’s position is that changing the role of the SLC is not the vehicle to deliver this. It is unfortunately not a treasure trove, as my noble friend Lord Lucas outlined. I thank my noble friend Lord Willetts for his amendment but hope that, having considered these points, he will withdraw it.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for a very interesting debate. I particularly agree, of course, with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and my noble friend Lord Lucas. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, that—although it was fascinating to hear her personal biography, which is indeed a reminder that there is more to universities than subsequent earnings—there is nothing in this amendment that says that is the be-all and end-all of universities. It simply recognises that we have this organisation, the Student Loans Company, in place and that we have a problem, which I very much regret was not acknowledged by the Minister: most universities have no means of communicating with most of their graduates. That is a real barrier to the Government’s own objective of promoting lifelong learning, although there are other objectives as well and the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about mentoring seemed to me very relevant.

Meanwhile, a separate government agency is communicating with graduates—namely, the Student Loans Company. Of course it is correct that, at the moment, it is simply collecting money from them, but I do not see why that is not also an opportunity to do something additional. I am very much aware of the practical operational problems of the Student Loans Company, having wrestled with them myself for several years, but this request would be under ministerial guidance; Ministers and the Department for Education, together with the Student Loans Company, would have the ultimate say on what messages were communicated. It seems to me that the Minister is in danger of missing out on a really important opportunity to achieve one of her own objectives.

This is the kind of debate that we might have had about NHS data 15 or 20 years ago, when some Health Minister turned out to say, “No, it wouldn’t be acceptable for hospitals to communicate with people who have had appointments or been at the hospital”. The fact is that data and communication matter. We have to be imaginative in harnessing the opportunities that we have to communicate.

I very much regret the Minister’s approach. I will, of course, withdraw my amendment now, but I hope it might be possible to consider further ways in which some version of this thoroughly innocuous amendment can be used to achieve an objective that is shared across the House. It should be done only within the capacities of the Student Loans Company, and only for purposes of which Ministers approve but I think that, if Ministers do not take this chance, there will be a moment in the future when they say, “Why on earth didn’t we do this? It would have been so useful”. We could be providing universities with more information about their graduates; we could be enabling graduates to have more information about what their universities can do for them and what they can do for their university. In the light of the debate so far, however, I beg leave to withdraw this specific amendment now.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for International Trade

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Baroness Berridge Excerpts
Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, for introducing his amendment, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for her reflections—and for her courteous but quite unnecessary apology. The current arrangements for student loans are now quite complicated. A recent House of Commons Library brief gave a lovely timeline of all the changes from 1990, when the first loans were introduced for student support—then at just £420 a year. It then tracked the developments, as loans gradually replaced grants for maintenance, and there was a shift from mortgage-style loans to income-contingent repayment schemes. Then loans for fees started, and some maintenance grants came back.

The big shift came in 2012, when fees trebled and the current system was in put in place. The effect of this pattern showed up when I was chatting recently to a member of our small opposition staff team. She had compared notes with a couple of colleagues in the office, and realised that although the three of them had graduated not so many years apart, each had a different package of debt and repayments.

Part of the reason for the complexity is that the system has so many moving parts. A Government wanting to save money have a range of ways to do it. They can change the size of the original debt, as they did dramatically in 2012. They can change the repayment threshold, as they did in 2016, when they decided to stop tracking earnings and freeze the threshold until 2021—although that went down so badly that they changed it again, not just unfreezing the threshold but raising it to £25,000 from 2018. They can change the contribution period; indeed, Augar recommends raising it to 40 years. They can change the contribution rate. That is still 9% for undergraduate degrees, but loans for master’s programmes were introduced in 2016, and for PhDs in 2018. That rate could now go up to 15% of earnings above the threshold for postgrads. Or they could change the interest rates. Indeed, they are spoilt for choice here: they could change the rate while studying or the rate when repaying, or they could change one or both of the lower and upper thresholds. Each of those changes or combinations would have a different distributional effect.

I take it from his introduction that the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, wants a periodic systematic review, and he made his case for that. But does his amendment mean that changes could be made only then? I suspect that the answer to that might affect the Government’s interest in the idea.

One benefit of the systematic approach would be the opportunity to ensure that factual information about the impact of changes to the system was gathered and disseminated. Does the Minister agree that work is needed to ensure that the student loans system is widely understood? After all, if Governments are to make changes to student finance, it is vital that it is not done by sleight of hand, or by banking on the HE version of a fiscal drag. It is crucial that the differential impact on people with different likely lifetime earnings is made crystal clear. After all, if the state is advancing £17 billion a year to higher education students in England and the value of outstanding loans is some £160 billion this year, the least the Government owe the country is transparency, and a good public debate. Does the Minister agree?

Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Willetts, and for his thanks. It is a pleasure to engage with noble Lords. This is my first piece of legislation in your Lordships’ House, and I hope that this is the shape of things to come in terms of the tone and the reaction to this legislation.

With £19.1 billion paid out in student loans in the financial year 2020-21, and further increases forecast for future years, it is essential that the Government keep careful control of the student finance system. It is also important that they retain the ability to review and make changes to the student finance system as and when needed, without the potential delays, or the focus on process, that a requirement for a review every five years could impose. I appreciate my noble friend’s comments, but inadvertently, a process may, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, outlined, become constraining, even if it was introduced with the best of intentions.

We must ensure that the system can remain responsive to the needs of the labour market and the wider economy, and thus continue to deliver good value for students and the taxpayer. We agree that, as the noble Baroness said, there is a need for transparency. A wide range of data on student loans and repayments are regularly produced and made publicly available, which enables the Government, and other interested parties, to monitor the student loans system. These include regular publications from the Student Loans Company and the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, outlined, the Government have updated the student loan offer in recent years, with the introduction of several new loan products, including loans to support postgraduate and doctoral study, and we will continue to make changes as and when necessary. Through the Bill, the Government are also introducing a lifelong loan entitlement that will open up new routes for people to retrain and upskill flexibly throughout their lives.

In relation to some of the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, the fees cap of £9,250 is frozen for this year and the next academic year. She talked about the burden, and the responsibility, obviously, is to repay a loan, but 30 years is at the moment akin to many of the mortgage products available on the commercial market.

As the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, correctly predicted, I shall take this opportunity to remind noble Lords of the recommendations regarding higher education, including on student loans and graduate repayments, that were made by the independent panel appointed to provide input to the review of post-18 education and funding. The Government are carefully considering these recommendations before setting out a response to the review, along with the comprehensive spending review.

In conclusion, while I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend for the second time in recent days, I hope that my remarks have reassured him, as I know this has been an issue of concern to him for many years. I hope that he will feel comfortable in withdrawing his amendment.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con) [V]
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I am grateful to the Minister for her courtesy, as always. I do not think my score on the amendments that I have tabled to the Bill has been very high—and I will, of course, withdraw this amendment. However, I hope that it will be possible to come back and consider this matter further.

I shall comment briefly on what has been said. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, came to this from her own perspective, which was interesting. I much appreciated the fact that she too made the case for some kind of structure involving a review every five years. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the Minister, that there is nothing in the amendment that would stop specific changes at specific times. We have had a lot of those, and that may well carry on.

What I am trying to provide for is something more systematic every few years. I am trying to avoid the need for something like Augar—the setting up of a special inquiry—when it should just be natural that every five years we look at what has happened to graduate earnings, at how much of the graduate loan book is likely to be repaid, and at the terms of maintenance support, and we decide whether there should be any changes in the light of changing circumstances—or, indeed, changing political priorities. Providing that kind of health check on the system as a whole every five years would not deprive Ministers of power; it would actually provide an opportunity for a sensible wider public debate on a subject that is often seen as obscure and difficult but should not be because it is of such public interest.

As I said, I will not press the amendment to a vote today, but I hope that perhaps, over the summer, it might be possible to meet the Minister and consider with her not only this but some other amendments that I have tabled, in case we can find a way forward that takes account of the legitimate concerns that she has expressed. I also hope that she recognises that my amendments are aimed at improving the system in line with the Government’s own policy objectives.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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Just to say that I would be delighted to meet my noble friend at a convenient point.

Amendment 90 withdrawn.
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As part of a vision to secure the economy and build back Britain, Labour will also support job creation across the country, including 400,000 green jobs, while filling the 127,000 current vacancies in health and social care and 43,000 vacancies in education through improved training offers. We would take a different approach from the Government by building a secure economy that spreads prosperity across the UK. Britain’s foundations have been weakened and too many people not allowed the opportunity to achieve their potential. Swift changes are needed. The amendments put forward over the four days of this Committee stage would go some way to addressing the deficiencies, if this were a listening and responsible Government.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to further discuss our vision for lifelong learning. As part of the lifetime skills guarantee, and as I hope noble Lords are now aware, the lifelong loan entitlement will be introduced from 2025. It will provide individuals with a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education, to use over their lifetime. It will be available for modules and full courses of study at higher technical and degree levels, at levels 4 to 6, regardless of whether they are provided in colleges or universities. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, is reassured that this plan will provide flexibility. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that it will enable people to update and change their skill base across their lifetime.

While the sentiment of the amendment to develop lifelong learning is admirable and one the Government share, unfortunately the personal skills account policy would create significant fiscal and logistical challenges—so at this point I would advise the noble Lord, Lord Addington, not to place any bets on its acceptance. The amendment could disrupt our established loan support system to accommodate an additional system of grants. This would substantially increase the costs to the taxpayer, both in the cost of such grants themselves and in their administration.

The amendment suggests that a new body would be created to administer these learning accounts for every adult resident in England. This process would have to happen seven years before an individual could first make use of any funds at 25, and integration of these new accounts with the Student Loans Company’s existing operations would have significant costs and operational impacts. Moreover, there is an opportunity cost to the Government in depositing thousands of pounds into these accounts, only for them potentially to be left idle and waiting for an unknown point of use. This poses a strong contrast to our current loan support, which is available at the point of study.

To answer one of the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, we are all contributing to further and higher education, as what is called the RAB rate is currently 53p in the pound. That is what the Government end up paying for under the current student loan system that is not repaid by the student.

Finally, these significant changes to the basis of our student finance offer would risk delaying the rollout of the lifelong loan entitlement beyond 2025. I know that many noble Lords have sought to bring that date even earlier. As noble Lords will be aware, the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement was a key recommendation from the Independent Panel Report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, led by Sir Philip Augar. It was also endorsed by the Economic Affairs Committee of your Lordships' House. We want to ensure that the lifelong loan entitlement provides value for money to students, the education sector and the taxpayer. I am afraid this amendment is at odds with these aims. As such, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Storey—sorry, I meant the noble Lord, Lord Addington—will feel able to withdraw this amendment.

Lord Addington Portrait Lord Addington (LD)
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My Lords, I should now mention my noble friend Lady Garden, so that all three of us who have covered the Front Bench can be in on this one.

I am not surprised that the Government are not going down there. If I had any money on the Government accepting this, it would have been only on very long odds. However, we are getting a little clearer on what lifelong learning will mean under the Bill and under the current Government. We might want to dig further into the difference in approach here at a later stage of the Bill, but it is certainly something that we must look at all the options for. If the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, looks in our manifesto, she will see that the costings are there. I am sure that is a bit of light reading that she will embrace massively over the holiday.

Having been given that bit of assurance and saying that we will probably come back to this, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Moved by
91A: Clause 15, page 18, line 17, leave out “In section 83(1) of”
Member’s explanatory statement
This is consequential on the Minister’s second amendment at page 18, line 17.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I beg to move Government Amendment 91A and speak to Amendments 91B, 91C, 99C and 99D in my name. These are primarily aimed at amending Clause 15, which in turn amends the definition of “higher education course” in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, to make express provision for the regulation of modules and to make clear what a module of a higher education course is as distinct from a full course.

The current student finance system does not offer funding for modules, nor is there any fee maximum for such modules or a specific corresponding regulatory system. The lifelong loan entitlement will transform student finance by supporting more flexible and modular provision. This legislative change is needed to ensure that we can deliver modular provision. Taken with the amendments that we have previously laid, this clause makes specific provision for modules in Part 1 of HERA 2017, which relates to the regulatory regime under the Office for Students. The amendments also relieve higher education providers, the OfS and the designated quality body of certain additional burdens which would otherwise arise from the addition of the concept of modules under HERA. These relate to certain requirements to provide or publish information—for example, under Sections 9, 11 and 65 of that Act. We want to reduce bureaucratic burden on providers, and these changes will ensure that the introduction of funding for modules through the LLE will not add to this.

Clause 26 sets out the territorial extent of the provisions in the Bill. This is a standard clause for all legislation. In essence, and with minor technical exceptions, the LLE provisions extend to England and Wales but apply in relation to England, because we are making amendments to the English student finance system. Overall, these changes will help to pave the way for more flexible study and for greater parity between further and higher education. As noble Lords will be aware, we will be consulting on the detail and scope of the lifelong loan entitlement this year. Our commitment to supporting students through the LLE is a key consideration in the public consultation which we will launch in due course. This will include seeking views on specifics of our regulatory system.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I speak to Amendment 92 in my name and draw attention to my interests in the register, as chair of TES, the education software and information group, and of Access Creative College, an independent provider of training for the digital and creative industries.

Amendment 92 is a probing amendment, to test the Government’s ambitions for the lifelong loan entitlement and to probe their assumptions about what provision is worthy of funding under it. We do not yet have critical details on the LLE, for which the Bill provides the legislative underpinning. That will emerge only following the consultations that the Minister has just mentioned, and then in secondary legislation due in 2024, ahead of the LLE’s actual introduction in 2025. In theory, the combination of the LLE and the introduction of the system of modular funding that the Minister has just mentioned, for sub-degree chunks of study, will make it easier for adults and young people to access learning in a more flexible way, to space out their studies and to earn while they learn if they wish.

Since 2012-13, English HE students have been eligible for loans only if they are studying at an intensity of 25% or more of a full-time equivalent course and are following a full course for a specified qualification, hence students studying individual modules or shorter courses of less intensity have not been eligible for loans. This has been an important factor in the decline of part-time adult learners. The LLE will, in theory, help to address this problem—therefore so far, so good, and I very much welcome it.

However, there is real complexity involved in the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement, and a danger that theory and practice might diverge in crucial ways in certain respects. One of the main sources of danger is that the Treasury, partly out of its desire for quick savings from higher education in the spending review, may water down the promised skills revolution by insisting on retaining the so-called equivalent or lower qualification rule. Indeed, I expect that the Treasury will put up a valiant attempt to keep the ELQ rule whatever the consultations on the LLE say when they are eventually produced.

The traditional rationale for the ELQ restriction is that funding available for student support is finite and that it is necessary to put in place limits to ensure that all eligible students who wish to enter HE for the first time can do so. Accordingly, the ELQ rule prevents those studying a second HE course, at an equivalent or lower level, from receiving tuition fee loans or maintenance support for the course. For example, if you study classics for an undergraduate degree in your 20s at UCL, you could not then reskill in your 30s by undertaking a diploma in graphic design at UAL.

Restrictions apply even to those who previously followed privately funded courses which they self-financed. These ELQ restrictions seem complex and very unusual, when you look across the global HE landscape. For example, they do not exist in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, whose HE systems are quite similar to England’s. The obvious trouble is that the ELQ rule not only constrains student choice about how best to retrain if they already have a qualification but treats tertiary education—post-18 education—as a one-off event, rather than as part of a process of lifelong learning in a world in which people can expect to have multiple careers over their working lives. Keeping it will therefore make a nonsense of the entire lifelong loan entitlement.

My contention is that any savings which the Exchequer might make on the subsidy in the loan book from retaining it are outweighed by the broader economic costs incurred by making it so difficult for students to change subject and retrain for new careers. We need a serious economic impact analysis of the ELQ rule before we can consider the secondary legislation on the LLE. Indeed, since it was introduced in 2008, various Governments have already effectively acknowledged the flaws with the ELQ by peppering it with ever more complicated exceptions, such as those applying for medicine, dentistry, and initial teacher training. Part-time ELQ exemptions have been made for engineering, computer science and technology, extended to STEM courses in 2016-17. In 2018 further exceptions were made for nursing, midwifery, allied health professions, and so on.

ELQ restrictions were possibly appropriate for a restricted grant-based HE system, but, under the current loans-based system, they are anachronistic and antithetical to the broader objectives of the Government’s skills reforms. That is why the 2019 Augar report rightly recommended that the ELQ rules be scrapped entirely for those taking out loans for levels 4, 5 and 6—yet nothing has happened since.

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There are still many questions for the Government to answer. The policy paper that the Minister circulated to the noble Lords who participated in yesterday’s debate was helpful but, none the less, those questions remain outstanding. I look forward to hearing her response.
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords. I am feeling sympathy for my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott as I will deal first with the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on the Government’s amendments.

First, we need the flexibility outlined by the noble Baroness in relation to modules to ensure one of the purposes, which is that a module can be transferred from institution to institution. The noble Baroness used the analogy of Russian dolls; I tend to use the analogy of carriages on a train. A course may be three carriages, but you can pick up one of those carriages and do that course as a module. Obviously, we need to define what a module is; that will be part of the consultation. A fee cap will also attach to that module, to answer the noble Baroness’s question, and you can do that carriage without signing up to do all three carriages at the same time.

The consultation will inform the questions she asked about whether or how you prevent people doing carriage number one of the six different trains. The consultation will inform the decisions that need to be made and, as noble Lords are aware, there will be amendments on Report, which will further amend HERA to attach a fee cap limit to that module, as it is currently attached to an academic year.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised questions on the regulatory regime of the Office for Students. We will be working closely with the Office for Students on the interconnection with the student outcomes quality framework of starts, continuity and completion and how that will work when we have modular provision. We are aware of the two cogs that will need to work closely together, but there will still be year-long funding. The HE finance system that at the moment funds straightforward three-year degrees will need to be changed. The Office for Students takes a risk-based approach to its regulatory activity. We are going to work with it to make sure that the expectations on providers are clear. It already regulates the fee limit condition and is required to do so in a proportionate way.

On comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and other noble Lords, I have specifically been asking questions of officials, because I did not have the pleasure of working on HERA or any of the other legislation, and I respect that noble Lords are often experts on the legislative process and bring their scrutiny to bear. But I believe we are legislating in a similar way to how we did with HERA, in that much of the primary legislation is a framework that gives broad powers to the Secretary of State, and then there are approximately 300 pages of statutory instruments on higher education finance, at the moment, which your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity to scrutinise. I sometimes feel a little constrained, because there is a limit to what can be in primary legislation.

In relation to noble Lords’ amendments, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that of course we are listening, and assure my noble friend Lord Johnson that I will make sure that the Treasury has listened to many of his comments, which I think is where he addressed them.

On the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Johnson and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, as I mentioned, we intend to consult on the detail and scope of the LLE, including on aspects such as eligibility—I was asked whether we would get it all at once or whether there would be a transition, and that will be in the consultation—and whether restrictions on previous study should be amended to facilitate retraining and stimulate high-quality provision. The final policy design will be informed by consultation and engagement, which is a crucial aspect of ensuring that the transformation of the student finance system is done in a way that takes into account the needs of providers, learners and stakeholders and, as my noble friend Lord Johnson said, enables that process of learning over a lifetime.

As such, it is very important that this legislation does not pre-empt or prescribe any further decisions based on its outcome. Introducing the proposed changes in primary legislation is likely to prejudice the consultation, which is important to ensure that we listen to providers and all affected by it. I also highlight the purpose of the existing equivalent or lower qualification and previous study rules. We are building the LLE on to a system designed to support students pursuing either further or higher education but, at the same time, to share the cost to the taxpayer fairly. We want to ensure that the lifetime loan entitlement provides value for money to students.

Furthermore, regarding the aspects in the amendment on the mode of study, institution of study and both modular and full course pathways, I confirm that the LLE is intended to support greater flexibility in all those areas. As I set out initially, it will be available for modules at levels 4 to 6, regardless of whether they are provided in colleges or universities. Although I respect that my noble friend Lord Johnson is probing and obviously making comments to the Treasury in his amendment, I cannot help but ask what the effect would be of having these amendments in the Bill. At the moment, if the ELQ is prohibited in the manner proposed by the amendment, we would not, in consultation or further regulations, be able to stop somebody doing the same level 4 course four times, for instance. We do not want to rule out the option of having statutory instruments that allow us to do that.

My noble friend asked questions about the creative industries, of which he is a great advocate. All these flexibilities are aimed at opening up opportunities in growing sectors of the economy. We have talked about LSIPs and the Skills and Productivity Board, but I think I am correct in noting that his examples were related to HE creative industry courses. Our hope and expectation are that this will open up many courses in these sectors within FE, as well as HE, institutions.

We are Chancellor in agreement with Amendments 99 and 99B, from the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. We recognise that many or a disproportionate number of those students are within the FE sector. We want this to be flexible and expect that students who might particularly benefit are those with special educational needs and disabilities, or SLDD, as it was more accurately put by the right reverend Prelate.

I reassure noble Lords that our commitment to supporting FE students through the LLE is a key consideration, but we have yet to determine what form that support will take. I confirm to the right reverend Prelate that the SEND review includes further education; and to the noble Lord, Lord Watson—and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who has raised this away from the Chamber—that there are certain grants for SEND students in HE at the moment. What happens to those in relation to the LLE is also part of the consultation. I hope that noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will tell us what they believe to be the best of both worlds, both in your Lordships’ House and through the consultation—and of course I would be delighted to meet with him and the right reverend Prelate on the issue of special educational needs and disabilities.

On Amendment 94, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, our vision is for a four-year entitlement, as recommended in Augar. Beyond the significant and obvious potential for additional costs, I also highlight to noble Lords that six years of entitlement would enable students to complete one degree, then turn straight around and do another undergraduate three-year degree. As such, a six-year entitlement might inadvertently further embed full-time study for level 6 degrees as the default option, when it is not necessarily best for some students. We are trying to open up the provision to be more flexible.

It is worth noting that the current HE system, as my noble friend Lord Johnson outlined, funds courses that are part-time, with a minimum intensity of 25%. That part-time study may take place over several calendar years. Under the LLE, we would not wish to remove this flexibility. As such, part-time study would also be able to exceed four calendar years.

Amendments 96 and 99A on maintenance were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and my noble friend Lord Flight respectively. We agree wholeheartedly with the importance of ensuring that students are supported to succeed in their studies. It is part of our ambition to help students have the opportunity to choose the best course or modules to suit their needs, rather than the most advantageous funding system. The Bill already provides the necessary powers for maintenance support to be introduced as part of the LLE, if the decision is taken that it should be, following the consultation I have outlined. The consultation will inform the way maintenance loans and other forms of living costs support—which the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, was right to highlight—can be made available to students.

Amendment 97 is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and was supported in her speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss sharia-compliant student finance. Clause 14 already encompasses the possibility of sharia-compliant student finance under the LLE. This is encompassed by the term “alternative payments”, taken from the Secretary of State’s existing powers to make regulations introduced by Section 86 of HERA. As such, Amendment 97 would not give the Secretary of State any additional powers. Alongside our other priorities, we are carefully considering an alternative student finance product, compatible with Islamic finance principles, and have decided to align a decision on implementation with the outcome of the post-18 review of education and funding. We will provide an update on ASF when we conclude that review.

The Bill makes explicit provision for the funding of modules of courses, as well explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and will help create a more flexible system across both higher and further education. However, it does not set out changes to the rules of eligibility, maintenance support or other points of detail, which I argue are more appropriately a matter for regulations. As I have said, much more work is going to be done through the consultation. I will happily report back to noble Lords once the consultation is launched, and again once it has concluded and we have formulated our response.

In recognition of your Lordships’ contributions during this debate, and particularly the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, I beg leave to withdraw the amendments in my name. We will review and table them again on Report, alongside the other amendments we are already planning to table. I hope noble Lords will feel comfortable not moving their amendments when they are called.

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Lord Watson of Invergowrie Portrait Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab)
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I am perplexed because, in her response, the Minister said that she expected the announcement made yesterday by the Office for Students on funding for the arts and creative subjects would open up many more such courses. The report that I have received is that high-cost subsidy funding is to be cut by half, with effect from September this year. How on earth could that open up more courses? Universities are saying that they may even have to close down courses. Defunding cannot produce more courses, or have I misunderstood the noble Baroness?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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To clarify, the point that I was raising was in relation to FE courses. My noble friend Lord Johnson referred to existing courses in HE in terms of the creative industries. What we are hoping is, through this measure, to see a parity of esteem with FE. Obviously, FE delivers an enormous number of courses at the moment, but we would see an expansion of that provision in that sector as well. I just wanted to highlight that FE is also a main player in that sector. I was not referencing yesterday’s announcement. I am sorry for any confusion.

Amendment 91A withdrawn.