HC Deb 27 June 2000 vol 352 cc863-79
Mr. Clappison

I beg to move amendment No. 105, in page 85, leave out lines 20 and 21.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has rightly made known our concern about some of the Bill's provisions and their effect on sixth forms. I intend to be brief, but let me make it clear that we regard it as an issue of great importance. We certainly share the objective that we should deal with any institution for 16 to 18-year-olds that fails to provide a good education for its pupils and fails to help them to realise their ambitions and fulfil their aspirations.

There are clearly problems with the definition of inadequate sixth forms. It is confined to school sixth forms. It does not include the other types of institutions, notwithstanding the fact that school sixth forms have a better record of providing good GCSE results earlier on and better academic A-level results than other types of providers.

The definition of inadequate sixth forms is wholly unsatisfactory, and the amendment is designed to put it right. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether it will succeed in that purpose unless I have the attention of the Under-Secretary of State, who will not hear the problem that I shall outline if he does not listen.

A school's sixth form is said to be inadequate if the school is failing or likely to fail to give pupils over compulsory school age an acceptable standard of education, or … the school has significant weaknesses in one of more areas of its activities for pupils over compulsory school age. We have problems with that definition. We think that it is not clear or comprehensive, especially in respect of paragraph (b), which refers to "significant weaknesses" of schools. It is clear from that that a school may not be failing, or likely to fail, to give an acceptable level of sixth form education, but it could still fall foul of paragraph (b) because of "significant weaknesses". We need to know what are these "significant weaknesses", which are covered by paragraph (b) but not by (a).

Is the Minister able to tell us what these "significant weaknesses" might be? For example, might they relate to a school that provides a limited range of subjects, or to a school that has small classes in its sixth forms, even though the school is providing a good or adequate level of education? This is of particular interest to rural sixth forms, because they seem to be under the most pressure from the combined effects of the schedule, which gives more powers of intervention to learning and skills councils to close school sixth forms, and of earlier provisions that relate to funding.

The Government are taking more and more powers to intervene in respect of sixth forms. Earlier, the Secretary of State said that interventions should be in inverse proportion to success, but successful institutions are having more and more intervention brought to bear against them. If they are to face closure through being described as inadequate, we must have a better definition of what amounts to an inadequate sixth form than the Government have given us.

Mr. Ian Bruce

The amendment draws attention to an extraordinary situation. I think that the Minister, who is a fair-minded man, will understand what is likely to happen if lines 20 and 21 remain in the Bill. As a fair-minded man, I think he will say that deleting the words would not damage the purpose behind the provision.

There are very successful sixth forms in my constituency. Yet—I hope that this will not be a headline in the Dorset Echo tomorrow—each one of those sixth forms could be classed as inadequate under the definition in the schedule. They all, and the sixth form college that provides sixth forms—although I do not think that it is covered by the provision—have significant weaknesses in one or more areas of their activities for pupils over compulsory school age. I am sure that each of the head teachers would say that, under that definition, they are trying to do things that they need to do better. They have to have more pupils, more resources or whatever. They are building up certain areas of their sixth form, and they may find that it is failing to meet expected standards in some areas.

All the sixth forms have been started since the inception of our sixth form college, as schools have decided to build up their own sixth forms. The success of the education offered to children in those schools has been improved by the introduction of a sixth form. However, when a sixth form is introduced and is in the process of being built up, it is, by common consent, inadequate—in terms of the range of subjects available, class sizes and so on.

Imagine a school inspector carrying out a normal Ofsted inspection and asking himself how he should define the situation regarding the sixth form. On reading the definition in schedule 7, he will have to tell the school that he is sorry, but he has to write in his report that the sixth form is inadequate. That would be the death of sixth forms that were just starting to build up a reputation—no one would want to attend them, so they would have no chance of developing.

No one would quarrel with the definition of "inadequate" set out in paragraph 1(2)(a)—that a school has an inadequate sixth form if the school is failing or likely to fail to give pupils over compulsory school-age an acceptable standard of education. Clearly, that is the test of whether the individuals currently in the sixth form will receive an adequate post-16 education. On occasion, when a particular department is not doing well, the school decides to close the department and not offer those subjects to its post-16 students; those students can then go to another school in the area or to the sixth form college to study the subject. However, that is not a reason for including paragraph 1(2)(a) in a statutory definition of an inadequate sixth form.

The Minister is a fair-minded man and I am sure that he is convinced by our argument. So that we can reach Third Reading and have a proper debate on it, I am sure that he will accept our sensible amendment.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I share my hon. Friends' concern. For some time, we have suspected that Ministers have a hidden agenda to reduce the number of sixth forms in secondary schools. Ministers believe that sixth forms cost too much and give some schools an advantage over others, despite the fact that when the Select Committee on Education and Employment considered the issue a couple of years ago, it found that there was very little difference in funding for sixth forms in schools and those in colleges.

My concern about the two lines identified in the amendment, on which my hon. Friends have not touched, is that the scope of a school's sixth form may be reduced to those subjects in which the head teacher and governors are absolutely confident that performance and delivery are beyond question. As a result, the variety of courses that A-level students seek might be denied them, not because the school wants to restrict their choice, but because it fears that the quality of provision in certain subjects might not quite pass muster when the inspector comes to call; and that, because of that single failing in that single subject, the future of the whole sixth form in that school will be jeopardised. That will be the effect of the schedule as drafted.

The definition encompasses not courses but "activities". One of the activities undertaken by school sixth forms is the provision of advice on university admissions. From the views expressed by Ministers in recent weeks, we know that they think that sixth forms throughout the country are failing their students in terms of the advice they give them on access to university. Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, was quoted in The Independent earlier this week as saying that there's far too low a proportion of those from low socio-economic groups applying to go to university. I agree. One of the reasons may be that those pupils are not getting the right advice from their schools. The solution is not to close down the sixth forms, but to bolster them.

As a result of the provision, the curriculum that those sixth forms offer will become even narrower in future, and many of them will fear that, because of their weakness in that respect, they are at risk of being closed down across the board. On such flimsy grounds, the Government could come in and reorganise sixth form provision in many parts of the country.

12.30 am
Mr. Bruce

My hon. Friend reminds me that the Government say that sixth forms must take pupils over 16 from lower socio-economic groups and get them through A-level. Even a brilliant sixth form where all the pupils were doing well could still be classed as inadequate because pupils were not staying on. The sixth form would therefore be failing in an activity that the Government expected it to undertake.

Mr. St. Aubyn

My hon. Friend touches on the reason why the word "activities", which is ill defined, is so wrong. It is surely up to the governors, the head teacher and the parents to decide what sort of school they want. We believe that it is their choice. It is not for some Government Minister to go round the country ticking one box and crossing another, deciding which schools are allowed to survive and which schools he or she will close down.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

When I raised the matter on Second Reading, my remarks were greeted with derision on the Government Benches. I drew to the attention of the House the importance of sixth forms in providing sixth-formers with an opportunity to exercise administrative responsibility over their juniors, and the benefits of that to sixth-formers. That was regarded by Labour Members as so unfashionable as to be derisory.

In my capacity as a Territorial Army officer responsible for the recruitment of further officers, it is my experience that pupils who have had this opportunity and responsibility often stand head and shoulders above their peers who have not had the same responsibility. That is an important function of sixth forms. To what extent does the ability to offer sixth-formers the opportunity to exercise administrative responsibilities over the rest of the school feature in the Minister's definition of adequacy?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Michael Wills)

I am glad that the Opposition share our objective that every student should receive an acceptable standard of education. However, most of what I have heard has been an alarmist attempt to whip up fears—I know that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) will be fascinated by what I am saying—about an agenda that does not exist.

I shall immediately answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). The definition of "inadequate" is consistent with the statutory definitions of schools requiring special measures and schools with serious weaknesses. A sixth form or an LEA-maintained 16-to-19 institution will be found inadequate if it is failing or likely to fail to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education, or if it has significant weaknesses in one or more areas of its activities for pupils.

That judgment will be made on the basis only of the quality of education that a school provides for its sixth form pupils. We will work with the chief inspector to develop detailed criteria that take account of the common post-16 inspection framework. Those criteria will be published.

For serious weaknesses to be identified in a whole-school inspection report can have equally serious consequences for a school. As with the judgment that a school requires special measures, a judgment of serious weaknesses will trigger the LEA's powers to intervene by appointing additional governors and suspending delegation of the school's budget. If the necessary improvements are not then made, the school is likely to be judged as requiring special measures at its next inspection, which would trigger the Secretary of State's powers to direct that the school be closed.

Mr. Ian Bruce


Mr. Wills

I shall not give way, because I want to make progress and I am absolutely confident that when the Opposition have heard the power of my arguments they will feel impelled to withdraw their amendment.

We resist the amendment because it would narrow the definition of "inadequate" to sixth forms that are failing. But removing the possibility of closure for sixth forms with serious weaknesses would not be in the interests of students. They should be assured of high-quality provision wherever they choose to learn. Let us be clear in this respect: serious weaknesses are just what they say, not just minor problems about which anyone can afford to be complacent.

We shall also resist the amendment because it would cut across the careful way in which we are providing in the Bill for consistent inspection arrangements across post-16 learning, with similar standards applied to schools and colleges. If those arrangements are to be successful in encouraging improvements, rigorous follow-up arrangements must be in place; and where any provider of post-16 education is not meeting the standards that students have a right to expect, it must make the necessary improvements or face the possible consequences. The Bill therefore contains provisions for the LSC and the CETW to intervene in colleges where students are not being offered the quality of education to which they are entitled. It is therefore entirely right that the councils should have parallel powers where 16 to 19 provision in schools is not of adequate quality.

Schools will not be left to struggle alone with the vital task of improvement. Local education authorities have a responsibility to help schools draw up and implement their post-inspection action plans, and, where appropriate, diocesan bodies should also provide support. These proposals are about safeguarding high quality. As we have made consistently clear in Committee and again tonight, we have no agenda for removing sixth forms and reducing choice for 16 to 19-year-olds. The hon. Member for Maidenhead keeps bringing up this subject. I hope that she is listening to what I am saying.

Many sixth forms are achieving high standards and excellent examination results, and we want more of them. We have made it very clear that schools that are providing high-quality education for their sixth form pupils have nothing to fear from the proposals in schedule 7, and it would not be right for sixth forms with serious weaknesses to be in that same secure position. As I have already set out, they will have three important safeguards.

Mrs. May


Mr. Wills

I will not give way, because the hon. Lady will be persuaded by the time I finish.

Sixth forms with serious weaknesses will be allowed a reasonable time to put things right after a first adverse inspection report. The crucial judgments about quality will be made by independent inspectors; and, finally, the statutory decision-making process will enable all the relevant issues to be fully aired.

We have made it consistently clear that our aim is that all post-16 provision will be of high quality. Our proposals for inadequate sixth forms are consistent with that aim, and with the principle that intervention should be in inverse proportion to success. I hope that the hon. Member for Hertsmere will therefore be persuaded to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Clappison

I am afraid that the situation remains as unsatisfactory as it was before the Minister spoke. He referred throughout to "serious weaknesses". I respectfully draw his attention to the fact that that is not the terminology used in paragraph (2)(b), which refers to "significant weaknesses".

The Minister was not able to give us an example of what a serious weakness might be. He said that serious weaknesses meant serious weaknesses, but could not give us a single example of a serious weakness that fell outside subparagraph (a) but came within subparagraph (b). It is no use the Minister's saying that it is related to education provision, because if it were it would fall under subparagraph (a), which concerns giving an acceptable standard of education. Nor did the Minister answer the point quite properly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) that subparagraph (b) refers not only to school lessons or the curriculum but to activities, which makes it much broader and widens the scope for finding that a school has a significant weakness.

Mr. Ian Bruce


Mr. Clappison

I will give way, but before my hon. Friend intervenes, I should like to make the point that the Minister also failed, interestingly, to deal with the point that I made about whether a limited number of subjects or small classes would amount to significant weaknesses.

Mr. Bruce

I tried to intervene on the Minister. Doubtless he will jump to his feet and explain the point if my hon. Friend cannot do so. The Minister clearly suggested that the powers are exactly the same as those that already exist to deal with failing schools. If that is the case, why are sixth forms singled out by the terrible phrase "inadequate sixth forms"? Why is the closure of sixth forms, rather than the school, mentioned?

Mr. Clappison

I am sure that my hon. Friend's anxieties are shared by many hon. Members who have heard what the Minister has said—or failed to say—tonight in response to the problem. The worries remain. I am dissatisfied, but, in view of the need to make progress and the lateness of the hour, I do not propose to press the amendment to a vote. However, genuine anxieties remain.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Remaining Government amendments and new clauses agreed to.

Order for Third Reading read.

12.41 am
Mr. Wicks

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

At the end of a concert in Japan, the great lifelong learner and songwriter Mr. Bob Dylan observed that it was the time of hour when we had to run. Some of us were born to run, so it is therefore important that we keep the debate brief.

I believe that the Bill is a measure for a new century. The way in which we invest in the skills of our people and take seriously the concept of lifelong learning will determine Britain's economic future. The way in which we determine our sense of community and fairness is equally important for some of us. We are considering not only economics but social inclusion. We are setting up new structures to help the young to pursue workplace development and further education, and to promote adult and community education.

12.42 am
Mr. Boswell

I begin by briefly commenting on the Government's strange pendulum management of their business. Yesterday, the business was so thin, bland and non-controversial that we were sent home by tea time. Today, substantial matters are being discussed well past midnight.

The Opposition remain concerned about the Bill for the reasons that we set out in our reasoned amendment on Second Reading. Above all, we are worried about the centralisation of power and the risk of bureaucracy. It is not that the Minister is an arrogant man; his look of injured innocence if anyone seeks to assert that puts me off making such a claim. However, the dynamics of the position or, more sinisterly, those shadowy educational theorists who lurk in the wings of education policy but occasionally find themselves centre stage, may wrench matters in a direction that Parliament has now empowered them to take. An example could be the unresolved threat to close down sixth forms or, to put it in industrial relations terms, progressively and constructively to dismiss them, not so much necessarily by deeming them inadequate as simply by gradually starving them of funding.

The Ministers who served on the Standing Committee are certainly not lacking in personal charm, and I concede that they have sought to set out their stall as a reasonable case when the details of the Bill are being considered. Only today, however, in the discussion on the disposition of training and enterprise council assets, we had an example of the mask slipping. However much Ministers may claim to be acting in defence of the public purse and, as ever, with reasonableness, there will be those—and they will not all be twisters or people trying to take away Government assets—who will feel that their services and contribution have not been acknowledged, and that the Government's means of thanking them is to rig the course and create an inequitable solution on the disposition of assets.

I come down from the high horse of principle to a more practical level in my closing remarks on our concerns about the Bill. If nothing else, Ministers have, in one Bill and at one time, set themselves the task of introducing a single framework for post-16 education and a parallel connection strategy, both of which involve the schools sector and many other providers. That is, as Sir Humphrey Appleby would no doubt have commented, "Extremely courageous, Minister."

The policy, and the Bill that has been derived from it, are increasingly seen to be assembled in kit form, before our very eyes, in Committee and in the House. Only today, a new version of the transition planning document thumped on to my desk. That process will continue as the consultations continue, until vesting day next April and long afterwards. This is a policy of continuous experiment, if not necessarily of continuous improvement.

Until this late hour, and this last gasp, we have continued to seek from Ministers, and even occasionally to receive from them, assurances. After our deliberations tonight, one final hurdle remains in another place, and after that we will leave this over-sold, over-ambitious and under-achieving Bill with some trepidation. We cast it forth to await the consequences that have not been foreseen and, more widely, the judgment of events.

12.47 am
Mr. Willis

We have spent nearly nine hours on the Bill, and of that, 15 minutes have related to its substance. From the Opposition, we have had sex, selection, division and privilege, which are key areas for a Tory Opposition, but nothing about the substance of what we should be here to discuss—educational provision for 16 to 19-year-olds and adults, which is desperately under-represented, desperately under-resourced and desperately in need of support.

Anybody who read the skills taskforce report this week will be aware of the disgraceful skills situation among the adult population. The Small Business Service estimates that billions of pounds are lost because we do not have a work force with the skills to carry out the necessary tasks. Yet we have spent nine hours obsessing about sex, selection, division and privilege.

The social exclusion unit report, "Bridging the Gap", was a graphic reminder that 170,000 16 to 19-year-olds leave school with no qualifications, no hope and no nothing, but they have not been mentioned in the nine hours that we have spent discussing sex, selection, division and privilege.

As we end our consideration of the Bill, there is great sadness because this should have been a ground-breaking Bill. We sought a unified structure in post-16 lifelong learning, education and training. In 1992–93, the Tories created a marketplace. That was their answer to the problem: drive down costs and increase numbers. Everything would take its place. It has not. In reality, the Bill is a disappointment. Members on both sides of the House will share that disappointment. It has retained the narrow provision on the 16 to 19 age group. It has not extended its horizons beyond that, yet there is a classic need to address the underskilling of the adult population.

The Bill does absolutely nothing for small business, which was looking to the Bill to allow it to tap into a network to upskill our people. There is little in that regard. It has decimated the careers service into a Connexions service. We hope that that will be highly successful, but it is at the expense of an adult careers service and of careers services for people who achieve more than five A to Cs. The Bill has created a new bureaucracy that may or may not be more successful than previous ones. Through the back door, it has brought in city academies.

At midnight, I spent a few minutes doing a television programme, on which the official Opposition said that, when the Bill hit another place, all the problems in the House of Commons and previously in another place in terms of sex, grammar schools and selection would simply be regurgitated to kill off the Bill. If that happens, it will leave in limbo the TEC movement, the Further Education Funding Council and the whole of the reorganisation. The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and her colleagues must not allow that to happen. Despite our differences, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches feel that there is enough merit in the Bill to give it its Third Reading and to support its passage back to another place.

12.52 am
Mr. Brooke

I was not able to be present at the conclusion of the Standing Committee because I was making a speech in the Second Reading debate on the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill. Therefore, I say briefly what I would have said then.

The Government had a certain choice of Ministers to put on the Bill. I will remark neutrally that I think that they chose extremely well. The three Ministers who served on the Bill served the legislation, the Committee, the Government and, indeed, Parliament well. As I said when we debated the sittings motion originally, our side necessarily had fewer resources and had less to choose from, but we were admirably served in the leadership of the official Opposition by my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison).

In Committee, I enjoyed all the observations by the Liberal Democrats and by Government Back Benchers. Lest I sound like the dodo in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", handing round prizes to everyone, let me say a final word about the Bill—something that came up from time to time in Committee. The Government had assured us that it was a bottom up Bill, not a top down one. My only regret about our time in Committee and about the Bill as a whole is that the Government never sought in Committee or, indeed, on Report to justify the claims that they made for it.

12.53 am
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, having since late last year been a member of the Education Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Education and Employment. I was surprised to find that the Select Committee had not published a report on the Bill—a lamentable omission—but, before my time, it published a report on further education, which, extraordinarily, the Bill seems flatly to contradict.

In the 11 months since I was elected to the House, I have it made it my priority to visit as many schools as possible in my constituency and to listen to parents, pupils, teachers, governors and the various youth groups and youth councils which are active and doing an admirable job in my constituency. In those many meetings, we have often discussed the basic proposals in the Bill as they have been progressively revealed to us. What they have been saying seems to be at odds with what the Government claim they have been listening to.

My constituents have the fortune of living in Cheshire, a relatively high standard education area compared with England as a whole. It has a relatively good take-up rate for 16 to 18-year-olds to pursue their education seriously. The questions are, first, "What do the Government think they are doing by trying to encourage parents to vote to scrap grammar schools?" As there are none in Cheshire, they look across the county border to Trafford and say, "Isn't this just another example of the Government's determination to level down and stamp on excellence rather than celebrating it and drawing upon it?" That cause has no finer advocate than my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). Other questions that are asked include, "Why do the Government want to get rid of the TECs?"; "What will happen to the jobs in those TECs?"; and "Is my sixth form safe?"

If the Government really intend to introduce new sex education guidelines, why are they so embarrassed to promote marriage? If they are so keen to establish city academies in inner-city areas, why are they so grudging in their recognition of the involvement of the private sector in education? What is the Connexions service really going to deliver for the Winsford youth council? Surely all young people require access to guidance in an unpatronising way tailored to their individual circumstances.

The Bill does not address those straightforward questions from my constituents. I hope that the Minister will address them in his reply to the debate, given that the Government rejected amendments that would have answered each and every one.

There is a consistent thread in the Government's approach to the Bill—their lack of trust in those who have the front-line knowledge and expertise to deliver their objectives. That lack of trust is fuelled by their difficulty with the concept of competition—and even that word. As has been demonstrated, it is best to draw on the excellence of grammar schools and encourage other schools to compete, rather than threatening them with the Damoclean sword of repeated ballots. Surely the right approach would have been for the Government to take advantage of that excellence to drive up standards by competition rather than to hide behind the word collaboration, resulting in a cloud of bureaucracy and the inability for anyone to accept responsibility and accountability.

My concern, along with those expressed by my Front-Bench colleagues, is that the Bill started with fine aims, as peddled by the Government, but has lamentably failed by creating the potential for obfuscation, bureaucracy and centralisation, where it would have been far better for the Government to have trusted in the local delivery of the very services that they seek to promote in the spirit of competition, which would level standards up, rather than one of collaboration which, over time, will have a levelling down effect.

12.57 am
Mr. Swayne

When we considered the Bill on Second Reading, I thought that it attached to training a bureaucracy that would have been worthy of collective farming. However, it had two redeeming features: it provided a measure of protection for the teaching of the importance of marriage and, arguably, it put an end to the class warfare in respect of grammar schools. Both those redeeming features have been removed from the Bill during its passage through the House, so I could not support it on Second Reading and I certainly cannot support it now.

I apply to the Bill what I call the Ringwood school test. Ringwood school in my constituency was a comprehensive school that was transformed by the experience of becoming grant maintained. One of the elements of its transformation was its acquisition, in the teeth of opposition, of a sixth form. It is now a thriving and, most importantly, a growing sixth form. My question about the Bill—the Ringwood school test—is what does the Bill do for that school. My estimate is that it does nothing. Indeed, it threatens the existence of that sixth form. The only assurance that we have been able to get from Ministers during the passage of the Bill is that the funding of that sixth form will not shrink. That is a growing sixth form, and we need an assurance that the funding will grow with it. We have not had it and that is reason enough to vote against the Bill.

1 am

Mr. Brady

I would hesitate to support any Bill that failed the Ringwood school test, the new and important threshold that any piece of education legislation should pass.

Members of the Committee enjoyed a civilised discussion, and I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) regarding the politeness of Ministers during the Committee. I am sorry that that attitude did not continue this evening. On occasion, Ministers have been bad-tempered and reluctant to be drawn on the detail of some of their proposals. They have also been reluctant to justify the implications of what they are doing, particularly in regard to city academies.

When the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said that there was centralisation and bureaucracy and that the careers service was being decimated, I was sure that the Liberal Democrats would try their hand at opposition for a while. However, the hon. Gentleman reverted to type by saying that he would encourage his party, as usual, to support the Government.

There are serious flaws in the Bill. Some of the difficulties that remain regarding the replacement of TECs by learning and skills councils are a concern. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) pointed out, the removal of some aspects of the Bill is also a cause for regret. We should have had an opportunity this evening to improve on the botched job that the Government made of previous legislation regarding the future of grammar schools. It is a cause for regret that, having seen that their policy in that area was palpably failing, the Government were reluctant to look at how to reform the legislation to remove the uncertainty and the threat hanging over some of the best schools in the country.

I regret that the Government have not been prepared to listen; to think a bit more; and to argue more cogently for the policies that they are pursuing. The Bill could have been so much better and it is a source of regret that it is not.

1.3 am

Mr. St. Aubyn

I appreciated the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), although it would have been easier to hear them if there had not been so many conversations being carried out by Labour Members. I hope that they will do the House a courtesy and hear the Bill out in silence. If they have so little respect for the Bill, perhaps none of us should let it go through. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. There is a great deal of background noise in the Chamber. It is late in the evening, so let us listen to the hon. Gentleman, as a courtesy.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Was that all right for the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. St. Aubyn

That was delightful; I could not have asked for anything more.

The Select Committee on Education and Employment looked at the matter a couple of years ago, and I remember a very different Liberal Democrat Member from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Labour Members concurred that the further education system had been working well and that the Further Education Funding Council was a success. The report found that its formula was well understood and we heard again and again that the last thing that the colleges wanted was another reorganisation or change in the rules that would mean a new layer of bureaucracy, administration, time and expense while they got to grips with a new system.

I do not think that the Bill ushers in anything like the new era depicted by the Minister. It is primarily an attempt to rebrand an approach to further education developed by the previous Conservative Government. Under that approach, further education colleges were taken away from the dead hand of local education authorities and given their freedom. That freedom came with a framework of standards and fair funding that enabled colleges to deliver many more courses to many more people at a far more attractive cost to the taxpayer.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough talked about obsessions. He and his party, and many Labour Members, are obsessed with the amount of money going into further education. Conservative Members are focused on what comes out the other end—the massive increase in the numbers who went through further education as a result of the previous Government's reforms.

I elicited a series of parliamentary answers from the Minister in which he revealed that the numbers going through further education in the first few years of this Government had fallen by 189,000 full-time equivalents. That number is equivalent to the 500,000 people who would have gone through courses if the rate of achievement attained by the previous Government had been sustained. At the same time, as I have pointed out in other debates, the number of vacancies in the economy now totals more than 1 million. That is the highest level for more than 10 years, and represents exactly the sort of cost pressure on wages and demand for employees that could well lead to boom and bust.

That wage-cost inflation is a direct result of the Government's failure to deliver, through the further education system, sufficient numbers of people with the right training for the jobs on offer. There is nothing in the Bill that answers that problem. On the contrary: at a time when education systems around the world are trying to become less political and include the dynamism of the private sector, this Bill represents a retrograde step. It brings back more political control over colleges and their links with local businesses.

The TEC in my area has been singled out for praise in previous Select Committee reports for the way it works in partnership with colleges and local businesses. It is having great difficulty in persuading business people to carry on giving of their time under the new skills councils system. Many such people remain to be convinced that their voices will still be heard, and that the business approach that is so vital in this area will continue to carry the weight that it deserves.

City academies are another example of the Government picking up a good Conservative idea. I am delighted at that, although it has taken them a long time to acknowledge the success that the previous Government achieved. The Government are rebranding the idea, and widening slightly the terms of reference of the academies, but they have given no clue as to how they will get more useful members of the private sector involved.

The Government take the unfortunate view that the private sector is some sort of milch cow that will add extra resources to the education process. There is no appreciation of the role that it can play in developing new ideas and the sort of stronger management that will deliver a better school system.

The Government are too obsessed with the amount of money going into education and not obsessed enough with how those resources can lead to better results, higher standards and an increase in the number of people gaining qualifications in the excellent range of colleges inherited as part of the previous Government's golden legacy.

1.11 am
Mr. Ian Bruce

I had the good fortune in my first Parliament to serve on the Select Committee on Employment. It was interesting to see the transformation of view among Labour colleagues on the Committee about TECs being a good thing. When the previous Government abolished the Manpower Services Commission, which was a great employer in the Secretary of State's constituency, the TECs were at first universally condemned by the Labour party. Realising that those bodies were doing an extremely good job, however, Labour became wedded to the idea of co-operating with them, and trade unions became involved.

The Government are obsessed with modernising—as they describe it—everything in sight, particularly when it comes to anything created by the previous Government that was successful in improving training. Therefore, the Government have to rebrand the TECs and come up with a new proposal.

I am the first to acknowledge that when we introduced TECs, there was a lot of bureaucracy. The Treasury, in particular, wanted to re-audit the figures three or four times, whereas in a normal business, people would just get on with it. Abolishing the TECs and going through the rigmarole of removing their assets and creating a new body with new assets and employment rights means that the bureaucracy that had to be dealt with in the previous scheme must be dealt with all over again.

Many people from other countries came to the United Kingdom to discover how we cured the British disease and reinvigorated our work force. Ministers consistently tell us how unemployment has gone down—and it has. Yet it appears from what they say that all the changes made under the previous Government that led to the creation of jobs and the training that people have had within companies, colleges and universities can be dismissed as though nothing has happened.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who I understand earned his living as a professional in the educational establishment before coming to this place, told us what an awful job he had done. I do not agree with him—I think that he probably did a very good job. I am grateful to all those in my constituency who develop training and enterprise.

I am particularly concerned about sixth forms. There is an interesting situation in my constituency. When the grammar school was abolished, a sixth-form college was created in the further education college. It was the only sixth-form college in the Weymouth and Portland area of my constituency. Local schools decided that it would be a good idea to have sixth forms as well, which led to the college complaining about the amount of money being given to schools for sixth forms. The college wanted equality of funding.

The Government announced that they would provide equality of funding and the college rejoiced. Indeed, I congratulated the Government—it just shows how foolish one can be. We now know what that equality of funding means. The Government looked at the cost of sixth forms in further education colleges or other sixth-form colleges and realised that they could get the same provision for the same price through schools. They then froze the amount that schools will receive. The Bill contains mechanisms to abolish sixth forms, so as they become more inadequate because the funding has been frozen, the Government can then decide to abolish them.

When I challenged the Under-Secretary of State for Wales about unemployment, he produced the standard line that is no doubt produced by all the spin doctors and the people in Millbank tower. I shall explain why the Bill needed to do something about the failure of the new deal. The hon. Gentleman was probably looking at the figure of 115,000 two years ago for the long-term unemployed. He looks at those claimant figures now and he probably says, "Look, only 45,000 claimants." However, the new deal statistics, which are produced for us constituency by constituency across the entire country, show that in addition to the 45,000 who are classified as long-term unemployed, who are on the gateway, 65,000—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has gone a long way from the Bill. This is a Third Reading debate and he should return to that subject.

Mr. Bruce

I am sorry to have gone on at some length, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I could just finish the last two figures—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has finished what he was saying on that matter. He should deal with Third Reading and then sit down.

Mr. Bruce

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry that I will have to give the Minister a seminar outside this place. Clearly, he has been misinformed by his own statistics.

The Government claim that unemployment is down, and it is, but not on the long-term side. They have said that they are looking to train people and to develop new ways of training. I would not for one moment suggest that, as an economy develops, one can simply set systems in aspic, but with companies crying out for employees and having more vacancies than there are people to fill them, the Bill should have ensured that they would train their own staff. It should have done more to get employers involved in the training councils.

The previous Labour Government had one very successful feature—they introduced the Open university, which is universally acknowledged as a way for people to take responsibility for their own training. The more we can get individuals to do that the better.

Many of us congratulated the Government on the university for industry, which we thought would be another pillar of the Bill. In fact, the UFI has become a UFO: no one has seen it: it has disappeared.

We are looking to see what the Government intend to do. The Bill is a wasted opportunity. It is very long, but, frankly, it was a waste of the Government's time and it was certainly a waste of an opportunity to help people to get the training and skills that they deserve.

1.18 am
Mr. Hayes

I do not want to detain the House unduly, but I wish to return briefly to the city academies. They have been broadly welcomed—Conservative Members certainly welcome them because they build on the fine tradition of the city technology colleges and specialist schools, which are so greatly revered by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.

However, the many criticisms of city technology colleges and specialist schools remain unanswered in respect of the city academies. I refer to three matters. The first is the precise status—the nature—of these new schools. I hope that when the Secretary of State sums up he will confirm that, to all intents and purposes, they will be private schools. The second matter is their relationship with other schools within their area. The great criticism of specialist schools and CTCs was the impact that they would have on neighbourhood schools. We want to know, and we have not heard it yet, what obligations city academies will have towards other local schools; what responsibilities they will have for school places and numbers; and about their possible impact on neighbourhood schools in those respects.

Thirdly, precision is required in respect of the funders of the city academies. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) referred to that. However, he did not mention the transfer of assets. When that matter was discussed in Committee, there was a lack of clarity.

I feel that we certainly need from the Secretary of State an assurance about the nature of the transfer of assets and about who those assets will ultimately belong to if they are transferred back to a private body and might become involved in a city academy. I suspect that, without that clarity—although I am sure it will be forthcoming from the Secretary of State—it will be very difficult for Members on either side of the House to vote for Third Reading.

1.20 am
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

All the remarks of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) were dealt with in the first two hours of this afternoon when he was not present, and had I known that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) was going to go on at such length at this time of the morning, I would personally have carried 78 people to the polls in 1997.

My friends know that I am totally in favour of timetabling all major Bills, and tonight's antics merely reinforce the argument that that is the most sensible thing that we could do in modernising this place for a 21st-century legislature.

I want to thank hon. Members for being here at this time of the morning and for supporting Third Reading, and to reinforce the very generous words of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who was kind enough, on the last Standing Committee on which he will serve before he retires, to pay tribute to the Ministers who served in Committee, who did a sterling job. I thank them and the Whips for what they did on that Committee.

The judge and jury of the Bill will be those who, in years to come, benefit from it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.