Zahawi makes plea to peers to leave the skills bill alone

A process informally known as 'ping pong' is set to take place

A process informally known as 'ping pong' is set to take place

The education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has warned members of the House of Lords against changing the skills and post-16 education bill again.

The bill passed its report and third reading stages in the House of Commons on Monday, clearing the way for it to become law.

Before that can happen, though, a process informally known as “ping pong” takes place, in which the bill goes back to the Lords to consider the changes made in the Commons, and then back to the Commons to consider changes made by the Lords.

In a letter sent to members of the House of Lords on Wednesday, Zahawi said he is “extremely proud of the bill” and makes a plea to peers not to make any more changes.

“We have made a significant number of improvements to the bill, and to policy more generally, in response to important issues raised by your Lordships. Our focus now must be for the bill to pass through parliament and to start implementing these important measures,” Zahawi writes.

Because the Conservative Party does not have a majority in the House of Lords, it’s much easier to find a majority to amend legislation. This is why, earlier in the parliamentary process, Lords were able to make a host of changes to the skills bill, only for them all to be removed by MPs further down the line.

Lords amendments included delaying the government’s plans to defund some level 3 qualifications, changing universal credit conditionality rules, bolstering careers guidance rules and bringing in rules on who should be involved in local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) – but these were all stripped out by MPs.

Ping pong

Several members of the House of Lords spoke to FE Week this week to indicate that they are actively considering using the “ping pong” process to bring back some of those changes.

For example, the government rejected changes that would require FE providers, local authorities and combined authorities to be involved in the development of LSIPs.

In his letter to peers, Zahawi writes: “I will commit my officials to engage with stakeholders, including the Local Government Association, the Greater London Authority, mayoral combined authorities and the Association of Colleges, and ensure that I am satisfied their views have been fully considered in the development of [LSIP] statutory guidance.”

Responding to a Lords amendment that would prevent universal credit claimants losing benefits by taking part in education and training, Zahawi says this would “create significant financial cost by widening eligibility for universal credit. The Commons has voted to remove this clause, and it would be inappropriate for the House of Lords to introduce a measure which impacts on public spending.”

Back to the Commons

Backbench Conservative MP Peter Aldous, who is also chair of the all-party parliamentary group for further education, received cross-party support in Monday’s debate for his amendment which would require the secretary of state to review universal credit conditionality rules which he says are a “barrier” to unemployed and low-earning people accessing further education.

Skills minister Alex Burghart rejected Aldous’s plea, stating that existing flexibilities were sufficient and challenging MPs to provide examples of courses that claimants cannot access because of the rules.

Harlow MP and education select committee chair Robert Halfon tabled three amendments; however, he didn’t move them to a vote. This is a common tactic by backbench MPs from a governing party – to have issues raised in order to receive verbal assurances from ministers without upsetting party whips.

Halfon’s amendments included adding provisions for prisoner apprenticeships to the bill, which are now being developed.

In a passionate speech about careers guidance, Halfon tabled a popular amendment to enhance the Baker Clause – a law requiring schools to provide advice and guidance on the full range of FE and apprenticeships options.

He said the clause “has not been implemented properly” and that it “grieves” him that schools are not providing good advice about apprenticeships.

Responding, skills minister Alex Burghart said that he “expects schools to take note” of the new unit for future skills, which he says will provide schools with the data that shows the positive outcomes of apprenticeships and technical education.

“I am trusting the government to move some way on his,” Halfon said.

Should the Lords proceed to change the bill again, it’s extremely likely that the government will once again use its majority to remove any more changes.

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