The government has rowed back on comments made by the skills minister this week that questioned the value of skills devolution and sparked a furious reaction from a Conservative mayor.
Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, accused the skills minister Andrea Jenkyns of speaking against government policy by suggesting more monitoring and analysis is needed before agreeing to devolve any more funding.
On Monday night, Jenkyns told the Local Government Chronicle that she was “not a proponent of elected mayors” and said she wanted to see that adult education powers are “being well used first, before giving more [funding] away”.
Street, who has led the West Midlands Combined Authority as mayor since 2017, delivered a scathing response at the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday.
A clearly frustrated Street accused Jenkyns of going against government policy and suggested she should be spoken to by the party’s chief whip over the remarks.
Street was complaining about the Conservative party’s mixed messaging on devolution.
“We were in an upswing with the DfE when it was Nadhim Zahawi and we got everything we agreed. We were in a downswing when it was Gavin Williamson. That has got to stop from my party. They’re either committed as a government to [devolution] or they are not.
“So if I was the education secretary today, or indeed the chief whip, I would be taking Andrea Jenkyns behind the arras and telling her that she is speaking against government policy,” Street told a conference fringe meeting on Tuesday, organised by the think-tank Onward.
Jenkyns repeated her devo-sceptic views again on Tuesday.
Speaking at a conference fringe meeting titled ‘how do we bring apprenticeships to the areas that need them most’, Jenkyns argued that more work was needed to check on what and who mayors were targeting with their devolved skills budgets.
“How can we actually upskill our economy if we don’t look at [devolution]? Are our mayors actually doing justice to the skills agenda? I think we need to see some transparency really, where the money’s been spent. You know, we don’t want it spent for political reasons if it’s not ringfenced, we want it to go to the skills that are really needed in that area,” she said.
The West Midlands was one of the first mayoral combined authority areas to receive devolved powers over the adult education budget. Ever since then, Street has been making the case for even more devolved powers over education and skills.
The government’s flagship levelling up reforms include plans to give every area of the country control of its adult education budget. Existing combined authorities in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester are in live negotiations for “trailblazer” devolution deals with even greater powers.
And the first county deals, also involving elected mayors and adult education devolution, were recently agreed for York and North Yorkshire and the East Midlands.
Speaking to FE Week last month, the West Midlands Combined Authority said they were in negotiations for “greater influence over post-16 technical and vocational education and over careers, as well as joint working with DWP in shaping employment support”.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority is currently in negotiations for a similar deal.
Addressing Jenkyns’ remarks, Street said: “This is where the government have got to say: ‘No madam minister – you are wrong. The government policy is to do this’.”
A government spokesperson rowed back on Jenkyns’ comments in a statement to FE Week.
“We want to see more areas with high-profile, directly elected leaders who will be accountable to local people and act as a champion for their areas.
“Across the country directly elected mayors deliver for local communities, securing major investment, creating high wage jobs and boosting growth.
“Work continues at pace to deliver devolution deals.”
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, was equally surprised by Jenkyns’ comments.
Khan told FE Week: “I hope when Andrea Jenkyns speaks to officials, she will see the difference and the value we’ve added since we took on adult education in 2019.
“I’m hoping this was a mis-speak because otherwise it would be quite offensive to all those who voted for Andy Burnham, Andy Street and myself.”