Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Blackstone: We recognise that the country needs a substantial improvement in participation and achievement at every level of attainment, not only at level two. We are only too aware of the legacy left, I am afraid to say, by a failure to invest in our education. The amendments highlight that part of that legacy, indicating that nearly 900,000 people in the 19 to 25 age group in England do not have a level two qualification. There are well over 1 million such people in the United Kingdom as a whole.

We have already acted to improve performance towards all the national learning targets, supported by an unprecedented investment of public funding. Our

8 Feb 2000 : Column 572

target is for 85 per cent of 19 year-olds to attain level two. The attainment of that target is not only a task of the post-school world; schools also have a vital, if not a predominant, role to play in ensuring that pupils leave with the skills they need for the future. We expect the provision funded by the learning and skills council to build on the improvements now taking place in school standards.

The LSC will be required to give priority to the learning of 16 to 19 year-olds, fulfilling our commitment in the White Paper to give all 16 to 19 year-olds an entitlement to education and training, whether full-time or part-time, if they want it. In response to the concerns expressed by the Committee, we expect the additional resources that we are devoting to post-16 learning to allow access to learning for all those who need it. We are making the biggest ever investment in further education: £3.9 billion in 2001-02, compared with £3.1 billion in 1998-99--an extra £800 million.

In discharging its duties, the council must of course take into account the differing aptitudes and abilities of all the people for whom it has responsibility. The local LSCs will have discretion to secure the right balance and mix of post-19 provision in their area. Delivering progress towards the national targets will be an important part of their responsibilities. But to single out the needs of one group of adults and to give them priority over all adults would be wrong, although of course I have some sympathy with what lies behind the amendments. It would restrict the council's ability and discretion to make judgments about what may be the equally, and perhaps even more pressing, needs of other adults, including those with special needs or disabilities. The LSC must be able to exercise discretion.

Although we judged it right to make a distinction between provision for the 16 to 19 age group and adults in much the same way as the previous government's legislation, it is certainly not the case that we regard learning for adults as unimportant. I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said about 19 not being a complete cut-off age. Of course it is not; of course there are young people half-way through courses; and of course there are young people who for one reason or another need to catch up. However, for the sake of convenience, we need to have some clear understanding of what constitutes "young people" for the purposes of this Bill, and indeed for the purposes of the work of the LSC, as against adults.

We have already announced an enormous increase in resources available for adult learning in further education. In 1998-99 expenditure on adults in further education was £1.6 billion pounds. In 2001-02 it will be £2 billion. This will enable the number of further education students to increase by 650,000 by the academic year 2000-01, compared with 1997-98. We need to go further. We expect to widen participation substantially, and the major part of that expansion will be for adults. I do not accept that we are in any way undervaluing the learning needs of adults.

8 Feb 2000 : Column 573

The UFI, which is to be launched in the autumn, will provide adult learners with, we hope, even greater choice and flexibility. It will offer innovative ways of accessing and delivering provision and will be responsive to the needs and circumstances of many hundreds of thousands of learners. The LSC will work closely with the UFI to ensure a coherent approach to education and training for adults. No one should be in any doubt that the Government wish to embed lifelong learning into people's lives.

However, we must get things right for younger learners in the first place. The challenge at 16 to 19 cannot be underestimated. Noble Lords will no doubt be aware of the findings of the Social Exclusion Unit's report Bridging the Gap, but I want to highlight a few key findings. In the 16 to 19 age group we have still, regrettably, some of the lowest rates of participation in Europe. We have a sharper decline in participation from age 16 to age 18 than many countries in Europe. Young people who are not participating are at increased risk of being unemployed, becoming involved in drug abuse and having poor physical health. We are clear that the LSC's priority must be the 16 to 19 age group, and nothing must detract from that. Let us get this right and then we can focus the increasing resources we are devoting to adults into enhancing and developing higher level skills, not in tackling the results of earlier failure. If we can get it right, we will save on later expenditure. We will pick up the pieces from that failure and be able to invest more in developing adult skills.

I must also point out that extending the entitlement has substantial resource implications. Although it is attractive in many ways, that point must be taken into account. For young people alone the council will be spending the best part of £4 billion pounds on an age group that covers a two-year cohort. As I said, we have increased the resources for adults and will continue to do so. But with the best will in the world, no government could put on the face of the Bill a commitment of the type that is sought. It would be misleading and deceptive to make a provision that we could not deliver; and equally it would have been misleading for us not to have made clear in the Bill our policy priorities.

In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness will understand why I must resist her amendment and ask for it to be withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch: The noble Baroness said that it is important to have a definition of "young adult"--someone up to the age of 19 as set out in the Bill. But there is no rationale for that other than the use of the word "proper" in subsection (1) and the word "reasonable" in the first line of Clause 3. Otherwise it would not be necessary to define that at all. The noble Baroness has not referred to those two words and has not referred to the distinction which I asked to be made when I moved Amendment No. 25.

As far as I can see, there is not an open cheque for proper provision as set out in Clause 2, unless the Government say that proper provision means that proper provision will be made as long as the resources

8 Feb 2000 : Column 574

are used cost-effectively--but will be made whatever it costs. In Clause 3, which uses the word "reasonable", subsection (2) is very restrictive. It refers to,


    "taking account of the Council's resources".

Is the argument that for making proper provision the council does not have to take into account its resources and that in making reasonable provision the council does have to have regard to its resources?

In the real world any local authority or any local skills council trying to perform its duties under the Bill, even in the proper provision set out in Clause 2, will inevitably have to have regard to the resources allocated to it through the funding system. I am fascinated by the distinction between provision for under-19s and provision for post-19s and the distinction between "proper" and "reasonable".

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I thank the Minister for her reply. I, too, am somewhat disappointed by it. I had hoped that we would receive a clearer statement as to where we might be on the learning entitlement for 19 to 24 year-olds, although I understand the argument that at the moment the Government's priority lies with the younger age group. I also take in fully the points which the noble Baroness made in relation to the need to give priority to that age group and how badly we perform in international terms at that level. I very much hope that before long the Government will be able to say something more positive on this issue.

Baroness Blatch: I asked the Minister a question. I am waiting for a reply.

Baroness Blackstone: There is an issue here about entitlement. Clearly, once we have written on the face of the Bill an entitlement, there are major resource implications. In relation to "proper" and "reasonable" and the use of resources, later amendments refer to this issue. Perhaps I may deal with the matter when we reach them.

Baroness Blatch: I find that extraordinary because this is absolutely material and key to these amendments. The whole point of looking at the distinction between up to 19 and beyond 19 relates to these two words in the first lines of Clauses 2 and 3. That is entirely pertinent. I do not know to which amendments the noble Baroness refers. I am talking about Clauses 2 and 3, where two distinctive approaches are taken to providing education for pre-19 and post-19 year-olds. Clause 3 refers to the council being mindful of resources. I am arguing that, in the real world, even in making provision under Clause 2, any council will have to have regard to its resources. It is not a blank cheque policy.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page