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Learning and Skills Bill [H.L.]

8.17 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 2.

Lord Haskel moved Amendment No. 31:

( ) training suitable to the requirements of employers as expressed by employers and through their training organisations").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 31 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 41. Amendment No. 31 relates to people under 19 and Amendment No. 41 relates to people over 19, but the subject of the two amendments is the same. Indeed, we touched upon this matter when we were debating Amendment No. 11.

I remind Members of the Committee that at Second Reading I welcomed this Bill as an important initiative to provide education and training at college and at

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work. During that debate many speakers, including the Minister, referred to the shortage of skills and education at work and how that was holding back our economy. Everyone agreed that training would make our companies more competitive and most of us agreed that this Bill would help.

Yet when we turn to look at the Bill, and the main duties of the learning and skills council, there is no recognition of that. Certainly the council is required to secure provision of proper facilities for education and training. Certainly the facilities have to be suitable to the requirements of people and, quite rightly, the Bill implies that the training belongs to the individuals, to the people being educated and trained.

The purpose is to provide people with the skills and education for personal development at leisure and work, for vocation and non-vocation. The council has to provide facilities for the skills that employers need. They have to be relevant. There can be expensive facilities for training engineers and technicians as well as less expensive ones for training, shall we say, hairdressers and journalists.

How best can we ensure that the facilities are relevant? It seems to me quite obvious. Surely it is to involve employers and their training organisations. The purpose of this amendment is to put that on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.

8.30 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: Improving the employability of young people and adults will be a major feature of our new arrangements. We recognise that the training needs of employers, including an adaptable workforce which has the capacity and opportunity to learn new skills, must influence the way in which the council exercises its main duties. We have made it clear that employers will have a major say on the council itself and its local arms, and that it must be responsive to the needs of employers. The local and national council planning arrangements, informed by RDAs, will need to take that on board.

Employers, therefore, will have plenty of opportunities to ensure that their voice is heard. In particular, national training organisations have already made proposals as to how they intend to form close, practical links with the national and local LSCs to help to ensure that their work is "earthed" in the sectoral training needs. I welcome and very much applaud their ideas.

However, employers have their own responsibilities for developing and training their employees in the workplace. There is a balance to be drawn between what should be funded by the state and what is the responsibility of employers. We need to recognise that. We welcome the contribution of employers, who spend very substantial amounts in this area.

We also have to look carefully at the actual effects of these amendments. They would make the council statutorily responsible for all employee training and then leave the judgment of what is necessary to employers and not the council. That goes too far. We

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expect employers to continue to be responsible for their own workforce training and not expect to substitute state funding for such activity.

For these reasons, I cannot support the amendments. However, I would like to consider an alternative way of reflecting the point that my noble friend Lord Haskel has made with these amendments. There is a good case for the Bill including a specific reference that the learning and skills council, in performing its duties, should take account of the skill needs of different sectors of employment. Such an amendment would also reflect the important role of NTOs which serve the needs of particular employment sectors. Many Members of the Committee have referred to the important role that they play. With the assurance that I will bring forward an appropriate amendment to reflect this point, I hope that my noble friend will agree to withdraw these amendments today.

Lord Haskel: I am grateful to my noble friend for suggesting that there will be specific reference to the skills and needs of different sectors. I look forward to seeing her amendment. I believe that it will do exactly the same as my amendment. I beg leave to withdraw that amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Tope moved Amendment No. 32:

    Page 2, line 8, leave out paragraph (b).

The noble Lord said: At Second Reading I drew attention to the differences between Clauses 2 and 3 and the weasel words "sufficient", "adequate" and "reasonable". I promised to come back to the matter and I now keep my promise. In moving this amendment, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 39, 43, 44 and 50. I believe that Amendment No. 42 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Boardman, is partly taken up by my Amendment No. 43. Nevertheless, I look forward to hearing his contribution if he wishes to make one.

As currently drafted, the distinction between Clauses 2 and 3 suggests that while provision for 16 to 18 year-olds should meet demand and be of the highest possible quality, that for adults should be dependent on the finances available to the council not only as regards quantity but also quality. Given the commitment to wider participation, it is a case of "never mind the quality, feel the width".

The volume may vary between provision for those aged between 16 and 19 years and those over 19, but it should always be of the highest quality for both. We reject the distinction between the two. The purpose of Amendment No. 50 in particular is to try to ensure that whatever the difference may have to be in quantity, the quality is adequate to meet the needs of individual learners.

We are also concerned about the definition of the word "reasonable" in Clause 3. Are the Government able to define it a little more clearly? Do they intend that the word should be backed by guidance as to what it means? For instance, the third report of the skills

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taskforce argues for an entitlement for 19 to 24 year-olds up to level three and for an entitlement for adults up to level two. In her report the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, argued for an entitlement to level three for all, recognising that that level is often the trigger to independent learning for adults.

It would be helpful if the Government identified an entitlement to level three for adults as an aspiration to be achieved over time. In the meantime it would certainly be helpful if they could identify minima for what is reasonable provision, without which their national target for participation by adults is unlikely to be achieved.

Currently there is a fifty-fold difference in range, volume and investment in adult learning between the best and the worst served areas. Without any guidance on what is reasonable, the situation is unlikely to change quickly enough to achieve the aspirations of the White Paper. I hope that the Minister will help us to understand the Government's understanding of the meaning of "reasonable". I beg to move.

Lord Boardman: I shall confine my remarks to Amendments Nos. 39 and 42. In Clause 2 there is provision for "proper facilities". In Clause 3 there is provision for "reasonable facilities". The distinction is rather stark. If we wish to establish lifelong learning we do not want to have a cut-off point where at the age of 19 a person moves from one grade to another. Obviously, the grade below that for the age of 19 will include many facilities which will not be available afterwards. We do not wish to proceed from one standard of judgment to a quite different one.

The meaning of the words "reasonable" and "proper" must have been debated many times in this Chamber. I do not know what the answers have been. However, it appears very strongly to me that proper facilities will be provided up to a certain age but after that they will just be reasonable, which is very unfortunate. There appears to be a conflict with the objective we all have to achieve lifelong learning and teaching.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: I wish to stress generally that I speak for all the Churches in giving strong support for the whole thrust of this Bill. Its major restructuring has been widely welcomed. As a bishop coming from the West Midlands, I particularly welcome the siting of the new council in Coventry.

It is important that the Bill engages the whole community. I shall be grateful to receive help from the noble Baroness on the meaning of "reasonable" and "proper" in Amendments Nos. 42 and 43. The concern behind this is that the Bill should engage--indeed, we are jealous for it to do so--with the whole community, if the Government are to achieve their objective. Therefore, it is imperative that every encouragement is given to the churches, voluntary organisations and faith communities within the local community. Without further guidance as to what the word "reasonable" means, there could perhaps be a danger of slippage and important partners in this whole process being missed.

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Being rooted in local communities, Churches and faith communities have long experience of the effectiveness of community work and this is well known. However, perhaps it is not so well known that the Churches ecumenically sponsor something called the "Churches' Further Education Beacon Award for Sustainable Community Development". We are delighted that the winning college, Dunstable (announced last November by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, at the annual conference in Harrogate of the Association of Colleges) had worked with the Churches in Luton and Dunstable to offer an innovative carpentry and joinery programme called, New Opportunities and Horizons (NOAH). This programme is a good example--there could be many others--and is attractive to a very wide cross-section of the local community. In this particular scheme, single parents, graduates, homeless people and people with learning difficulties were brought together through the programme in the process of developing new skills.

The Churches and other faith communities are glad to invest not only their physical plant, but also, as I said earlier when speaking of truancy workers in the Black Country, the energy and commitment of paid and voluntary workers in the community for capacity building. The evidence shows that much of this local activity, though sometimes small-scale, is highly effective in transforming people's life and performance. Therefore, guidance affirming the distinctive contribution of Churches, faith communities and voluntary organisations in developing neighbourhoods would be welcome to the constituency for which I speak. I wonder whether the Minister could help us with this by giving us guidance on this matter, which I have raised in connection with these amendments. I should stress that this is in the broad context of strong support for the Bill.

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