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Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I draw the attention of the House to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendments 48, 87, 91, 105, 119 and 177.

Before Clause 1

4.50 pm

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments 2 to 33, 39, 75, 76, 83 to 85, 87 to 112, 114, 158, 160, 161, 165, 166, 169 and 173.

Kevin Brennan: Let me take this opportunity to thank hon. Members in all parts of the House for their contribution to the Bill so far. I am sure that to many hon. Members in the Chamber the Bill will seem like an old friend, having started its journey in this House back in February. It has been away for a long holiday and has now come back, perhaps a little fatter than before-changes were made to the Bill in the other place-but in pretty good shape as a result.

In response to the views expressed in both Houses, Lords amendments 1 and 2 provide a clear definition of what it means to complete an apprenticeship in England and Wales respectively. We have ensured that employed status is a key element of an apprenticeship. Where the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers propose to allow some flexibility, we have ensured that the regulations setting out the alternative completion conditions will be subject to affirmative resolution.

The clauses dealing with the contents of the specification of apprenticeship standards in England and Wales now include explicit requirements for an apprenticeship framework not only to include both on-the-job and off-the-job training, but to specify relevant occupational competences and technical knowledge. Under the relevant new clauses, together with Lords amendments 4, 6 and 7, we have removed the provision for English and Welsh apprenticeship agreements. That means that if a person enters into an apprenticeship agreement in connection with either an English or a Welsh framework, regardless of where they work, they will be issued with a certificate in England or Wales respectively, provided that they meet the requirements.

We have already made a clear commitment to the House that framework-issuing authorities will be the sector skills councils and other sectoral bodies. To provide further assurance to such bodies, amendment 8 removes the power of the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency to designate a person to issue frameworks generally, which we no longer consider necessary.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I thank the Minister for paying tribute to the assiduous and sagacious contribution that the Opposition have made to our considerations.

How will the reduction in the number of sector skills councils, which is widely rumoured to be the Government's preference, affect their role in this regard?

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Kevin Brennan: Not only is that reduction widely rumoured to be the Government's preference, but there has just been a statement to the House outlining that very policy. As usual, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you want to keep something a secret, announce it in the House of Commons-I have always found that to be a useful way of going about things. That reduction, which was announced in the White Paper that was published earlier today, has to be made in conjunction and collaboration with employers. The White Paper makes it clear that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills will work with the sector skills councils to bring about that sharp reduction in the number of sector skills councils, which is a response to what employers tell us about the complexity of the skills system.

Mr. Hayes: What the White Paper says-I have it here-is that the number of sector skills councils will be reduced to nine. The rumour is that the Government have rather less regard than the Opposition for sector skills councils, and that there may be further reductions, in both their capacity and budget. We would resist that hotly. However, given that we know from the leaked report that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition spoke about earlier that there are plans for swingeing cuts, we want an absolute assurance that those cuts will not affect sector skills councils or their capacity to deal with the matters that the Minister has just outlined.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman should not listen to too many rumours. The figure of nine is nowhere to be found, and will certainly not be found in that document. The figures for savings in the document to which he referred were announced to the House in the Budget back in March, proving my point that if you want to keep something a secret, Madam Deputy Speaker, you should announce it to the House of Commons. However, I had better get back to the Bill before somebody notices that we have strayed from the Lords amendments that we are considering.

Lords amendments 9, 10, 13 and 14 provide that a framework may be issued only if the issuing authority is satisfied that it meets the specification for apprenticeship standards. We have made it clear that we would expect the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency to consult widely with employers and their representatives on the draft specification for apprenticeship standards for England. Indeed, much of that consultation has already taken place, in anticipation of the Bill's becoming law. However, in response to concerns expressed in the other place, Lords amendments 16 and 17 place a duty on the chief executive to consult on the specification for apprenticeship standards for England with representatives of employers, further education institutions and other providers of training, as well as those persons designated to issue frameworks and any other persons specified in regulations.

In Committee in the other place, concerns were raised about some of the terms used in the Bill. Lords amendments 82 to 85, 87 to 94 and 99 to 110 replace the term "scheme" with "offer" throughout the Bill. Lords amendment 89 reflects the fact that young people are entitled to elect for the apprenticeship offer, although the amendment does not alter the substance of the offer itself.

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Concerns were also expressed about the use of the term "principal" qualification to represent the course of training for the competence element, which is a framework requirement. It was not our intention to imply a hierarchy of qualifications within an apprenticeship framework. It is our view that what makes an apprenticeship unique, compared with other learning pathways, is the combination of vocational, technical and key skills qualifications, along with the mix of off-the-job learning and on-the-job application and the refinement of skills. The intention is made clearer in the Bill by Lords amendments 11, 15, 21, 26, 28, 29 and 30 to 33, all of which replace "principal" with "competencies" in describing the qualification for England and Wales.

In Committee in both Houses there was considerable debate about the need for greater flexibility of access to the apprenticeship offer for people with learning difficulties and disabilities, and, indeed, to apprenticeships more generally. Lords amendments 91 and 105 make changes to the apprenticeship offer qualifying criteria to address those concerns. Lords amendment 91 provides the flexibility to extend the apprenticeship offer to young people with disabilities, who might take longer to become ready to start an apprenticeship, up to the age of 25. Lords amendment 105 will enable young people with disabilities who might find it difficult to achieve the entry qualifications to provide alternative evidence that they are ready to embark on an apprenticeship. We are committed to working with the Special Education Consortium, with Skill, and with other groups with an interest in young people with disabilities, to ensure that the regulations strike the right balance between ensuring that as broad a range of young people as possible can take advantage of the apprenticeship offer and ensuring that standards are maintained.

Lords amendments 106 and 107 require the Secretary of State to consult Ofqual about the level of the qualifications that he intends to use in specifying and amending requirements for the apprenticeship offer. The original clause on careers education was interpreted by some as requiring schools to give pupils information about apprenticeships only when the person giving the advice thought it appropriate. The new clause inserted by Lords amendment 158 explicitly states that pupils must receive information on

Lords amendment 114 makes explicit our expectation that everyone who successfully completes an apprenticeship at level 2 should also be able to aspire to achieve a level 3. It places a duty on the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency to promote that progression. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is not in his place at the moment, will particularly welcome that measure. I should like to thank him and other members of the Skills Commission for their work and for the report, "Progression through apprenticeships", which came out in March. We welcome the report, and I will shortly write to my hon. Friend and his co-chair with the Government's response to the commission's recommendations. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) in that regard.

There was strength of feeling about the importance of engaging employers in apprenticeships, and amendments 16 and 17 make it explicit that representatives of employers,
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further education colleges and other training providers must be consulted on the specification of apprenticeship standards for England.

5 pm

Amendment 160 makes regulations that deal with the Secretary of State's power to specify apprenticeship sectors, subject to annulment by a resolution of either House of Parliament. That amendment was made on the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which recommended that the power be subject to the negative resolution procedure rather than to no procedure.

Finally, amendment 173 was made in Committee in the Lords to give effect to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee's recommendations on which of the regulation powers should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It makes the changes necessary by amending section 236 on orders and regulations of the Employment Rights Act 1996, as it is under that Act that the time to train regulations will be made. The Committee wished to see a higher level of parliamentary scrutiny applied to the following powers: in section 63D(2)(b), a power to specify any further conditions that an application must satisfy in order to qualify as an application under section 63D; in section 63D(6)(a), a power to specify any conditions about the duration of employment that an employee must satisfy in order to qualify for the right; in section 63D(7)(f), a power to specify further categories of people who may not make an application; and in section 63F(7)(j), a power to specify further permissible grounds of refusal. We are happy to follow the Committee's recommendations in that regard.

This is an historic Bill-the first Bill of its kind dealing with apprenticeships for more than 200 years. It follows on from the Statute of Artificers back in the 16th century, which, among other things, made provision that apprentices should not be allowed to drink beer on a Friday night. That is one amendment that we have not had from the House of Lords, but I commend the Bill and urge the House to agree to Lords amendment 1.

Mr. Hayes: It is a great pleasure to return to these matters. As the Minister said, it has been a long journey, but not an entirely unhappy one. The Bill has certainly been improved by consideration in Committee here and more especially in the other place. It is the Lords' views on these matters, of course, that we are considering today.

I press the Minister on the issue of sector skills councils, which formed an important part of his opening remarks. I think that a real difference is emerging between those who see a sectoral approach to the management and funding of skills as pivotal and those who prefer the role of the regional development agencies, which are given new life and new power in the White Paper published today. I think that the tension in the end is not a happy one. We want more power given to sector skills councils in respect of the matters we are considering. We view them as pivotal, as I said, to the funding and management of skills. I am not sure that the Government have a coherent view of the relationship between those sector councils and the regions that have been given new powers.

When we debated these matters earlier in the Bill's progress, we proposed an amendment to specify a definition
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of apprenticeships, which included the following components: agreement with employers to train a person using the practices, equipment and personnel of his or her enterprise in so doing; a mixture of on and off-the-job training; and training designed to lead to generally recognised levels of proficiency in a trade, profession or occupation.

The Minister will know that when those matters were taken up in the Lords, there was a Division, which the Government lost. The amendment that we are considering in respect of the definition of apprenticeship is a result of that Division and the subsequent concessions made by the Government to the case put by Opposition Members. I do not want to crow about that, which I think would be unworthy-and, actually, a little vulgar, which is something that I would certainly not want to be described as. None the less, it has to be said that-grudgingly, hesitantly, falteringly-the Government have moved to the position articulated all those months ago by both Conservative and, in fairness, Liberal Democrat spokesmen, and, indeed, supported by Members of the other place of all political persuasions, so the Government have finally conceded that we do indeed need a definition of an apprenticeship.

Why, it may be asked, is that so important? Let me answer that rhetorical question. It is important because the apprenticeship brand matters. Unless we define an apprenticeship, there is a real prospect that that brand will be diluted. It is essential for people to know what an apprenticeship comprises-important to employers, important to potential apprentices, and important to wider society. People need to know that an apprenticeship confers real competences which lead to greater employability. That is why a definition of apprenticeship is so critical. That is precisely what the Lords argued, and it is in part what is said in the Government amendment that we are considering, which emanates from the Lords. However, we remain concerned about the provision in the amendment for "alternative... completion conditions". We are a little anxious that that may prove to be a loophole allowing the devising and delivery of apprenticeships that do not contain the core components that I described earlier.

Let me say at the outset that I do not in any way underestimate the role or significance of pre-apprenticeship training. I know that many organisations, some of which were mentioned in the House earlier today, do excellent work in providing people with the skills that are necessary before they move on to a full apprenticeship, and I pay tribute to that work. I do not think that there is much difference between us and the Government in that regard. We do, however, seek an assurance from the Government that the provision does not constitute a loophole, and that it will not be used liberally or permissively to undo the good work attempted in the rest of the amendment.

We accept the Government's position that alternative completion conditions may be used to allow pre-apprenticeships for up to six months, but it is not possible to complete a full apprenticeship in that way. Surely the six months count only if a proper apprenticeship follows them. We are pleased that the Government have conceded the need to insert a duty to consult employers on those drawing up draft apprenticeship specifications.
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The standards that employers will set will be critical to the success of those apprenticeships, for the reasons that I cited earlier relating to both the competences that they deliver and people's faith in the brand.

In the other place, Lord De Mauley said:

In 2006, the Adult Learning Inspectorate warned:

I raised the point in the House at more or less that time, and, although Ministers are shaking their heads, I think that it was feared across the Chamber that unless we strengthened the definition of apprenticeships-unless we retained what might be called the sovereignty of the brand-employers, learners and the wider public would lose faith in apprenticeships. We have made some progress, therefore. We welcome the additional clarification supplied by the amendments, as it was necessary.

I shall make one further contextual point, because we need to nail once and for all the misunderstanding-that is a parliamentary way of putting it-about apprenticeship numbers. This issue was debated again in the House today, at Prime Minister's questions. The number of level 3 apprenticeships has not grown; it has fallen. The number of apprenticeships as a whole has grown, but the number of starts at all levels is, as it were, struggling, as the Government know.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman is talking about context. Will he acknowledge that the number of apprenticeships at that level is on the rise, and would he also like to tell us what the completion rate was when his party was in power compared with what that rate is now? I can help him on that second question; the current rate is almost double.

Mr. Hayes: As the Minister knows, I am both straightforward and generous, and I have said on the record in the House that progress has been made on completions. However, in a similar spirit of straightforwardness-and even, perhaps, of a little generosity-the Minister might acknowledge that the number of level 3 apprenticeships has not met Government targets and has come nowhere near what the Prime Minister has repeatedly predicted, both as Chancellor and in his current role. That has inevitably led to doubts about the effectiveness of the Government's policy on level 3 apprenticeships. This is not a matter of partisan contention; it is simply a matter of fact. However, we must now move on, as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would chide us if we did not because we are straying from the subjects we should be debating.

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