MP support for skills bill amendments is encouraging

25 Feb 2022, 6:00

Not accepting two amendments is a missed opportunity by the government, but there is cause for hope, writes Peter Aldous

Readers will be all too aware of the significance of the Skills & Post-16 Education Bill and the wider skills reform agenda, and the impact it will have on colleges across the country.

It’s a bill I very much welcome – especially the focus it places on the central role that colleges have in improving economic growth and in creating opportunities that will redress long-standing regional inequalities.

But, while it points in the right direction, there are areas where it needs to be improved if it is going to meet its ambitions. That is why I tabled two amendments ahead of the report stage and third reading debates in the House of Commons on Monday.

One amendment would have required the government to conduct a review of barriers that universal credit claimants face in accessing education and training.

The other would have seen colleges formally recognised as co-constructors of local skills improvement plans (LSIPs).

In relation to the first amendment, I believe that modest changes to the way the current welfare system operates would help remove rigid and complex rules around studying and claiming universal credit at the same time.

My amendment called for a review on the conditionality rules that prevent too many people from being able to get the skills they need to gain more meaningful and sustainable employment.

I’ve discussed this in some detail with Alex Burghart, the skills minister and Mims Davies, the employment minister.

During the debate, minster Burghart was keen to set out the various government initiatives in this space and why he believes a review isn’t necessary.

The government is not yet convinced, so I did not feel it worthwhile to push this to a vote – but I was very encouraged by the number of MPs, both fellow Conservative backbenchers and those across the house, who spoke fervently in support.

My modest request for a review would provide a deeper understanding of why the system is not working, and a deeper understanding of lessons from the important recent developments government has led, including skills bootcamps and the recently announced pathfinder pilots set out in the levelling-up white paper. I’ll continue to work across the house and with the sector on this issue.

My second amendment aimed to ensure that there is a genuine partnership between employers and colleges when it comes to writing LSIPs.

Colleges have a unique insight into their local areas and are central to delivering on plans – and they have a key role to play in interpreting the diverse and at times contradictory demands of employers. It’s important then that they share responsibility for developing and delivering on local plans, and that this role is set out on the face of the bill.

College leaders in the LSIP trailblazer pilot areas recently set out strongly how they can be strengthened, and their support for my amendment. This would build on the government’s previous concession that mayoral combined authorities should have a formal role in this process.

Government, however, does not believe that this needs to be extended in the bill, arguing instead that this will be an important element of the statutory guidance.

The government can – and should – send a clear message to colleges that they are valued partners in this process, and will never be passive recipients of plans written up by others.

The government should send a clear message to colleges that they are valued partners

Ultimately, the government chose not to accept any of the amendments I and others tabled, which I do fear is a missed opportunity.

However, I am not disheartened. What I heard on Monday was colleagues across the house speaking passionately about the role of colleges in meeting the many challenges our country faces.

And I heard a government that accepts that more needs to be done, even if they are reluctant to make legislative commitments at this stage.

I’m sure peers will again press the government on these important issues. I’m hopeful that government will listen and we conclude the legislative process with a bill that truly delivers for people, communities and employers.

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