Employer-led skills bodies must be open to scrutiny

Conservative ministers have had to defend against Labour questions around new powers for employers in directing provision

Conservative ministers have had to defend against Labour questions around new powers for employers in directing provision

3 Dec 2021, 9:57

skills

As we reported last week, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is now in the hands of the bill committee – a group of 17 MPs selected along party lines. That means, unlike in the Lords, the government has a majority.

Bill committees have an important job, but you won’t see clips of them on the news or even video broadcast on the parliament website. That’s because it’s the committee’s job to get in amongst the detail of the bill, so debates tend to be more technical. Great for FE wonks, not so great for broadcast news coverage.

The main players this week were skills minister Alex Burghart, and the shadow skills minister, Toby Perkins. You only usually see these two cross swords briefly at the despatch box in the chamber of the House of Commons during education questions, but they had nine hours scheduled to spend together this week.

ERBs will be held to account, says skills minister

The government, as expected, used their majority on the committee to reverse the changes made to the bill in the House of Lords. But they also had to respond to “probing amendments”. These are amendments made by the opposition not necessarily to appear in the bill, but to force the government to give more detail, clarity or explanation on something.

A big part of the bill is giving powers to designated employer representative bodies (ERBs) to develop local skills improvement plans (LSIPs). Labour had multiple attack lines; that ERBs lack duties to work in partnership with providers and local authorities (particularly in non devolved areas) and that they lack requirements concerning transparency that should come with such an important role.

Their amendments, albeit unsuccessful, did require the minister to make a number of commitments on what will follow by way of statutory guidance. In other words, the government didn’t want to accept a change to the legislation, but they will in effect use other means to tell ERBs who they should engage with when putting LSIPs together.

Statutory measures around transparency, proposed by Labour, were also defeated.

The opposition highlighted that chambers of commerce are exempt from freedom of information requests as they are private entities, and that there is currently no requirement for them to publish declarations of interests written in to the bill.

skills
Alex Burghart

Again – the government wasn’t budging, although Burghart, maintaining his view that ERBs aren’t always going to be chambers of commerce (despite all eight trailblazers being so), did say that every ERB will be held to account against the terms of their designation, which the secretary of state can enforce and amend.

If that was the case – surely the trailblazer process was a perfect opportunity to test the effectiveness of those alternative ERB models?

And surely Labour has a point on transparency. The skills bill will give ERBs enormous responsibility and influence over public education funding in their area. Ministers must guarantee that agreements between DfE and every ERB are published in full and that they require ERBs to operate transparently and in line with public service principles.

Little sign of ministers listening during the debates

MPs also covered apprenticeships and level 3 qualifications this week. Labour raised concerns about the decline of younger and lower level apprenticeships, so wanted
a review of the levy in the bill. The opposition also made the case that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education is conflicted by being the body responsible for promoting T Levels at the same time as approving withdrawal of other level 3 qualifications.

Again, the government had their way and the bill wasn’t changed.

The sector was lifted recently by the new education secretary’s “I am listening” mantra. But there has been little sign of that in the skills bill debates so far. Concerns about ERB effectiveness and transparency were written off as “unnecessary”. Requirements for LSIPs to contribute to inclusive local economies and to work to close the disability employment gap were talked down by the government and relegated from legislation to statutory guidance.

The bill committee will conclude next week. It’s expected that popular lines added in the Lords to flex universal credit conditionality, and to boost the Baker clause, will also be removed.

Organisations that have submitted written evidence to the bill committee are:

• Central YMCA

• The WEA

• London Institutes for Adult Learning

• Association of Colleges

• The Open University

• Engineering UK

Local Government Association

• Birkbeck, University of London

• Right to Learn

• University of Salford

• Universities UK

• Pearson UK

• Right to Learn

• Course Hero

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