HL Deb 10 February 2000 vol 609 cc898-908

(" .—(1) The Council—

  1. (a) must make and publish a plan for each of its financial years;
  2. 899
  3. (b) may make and publish such other plans as it thinks fit.

(2) A plan for the Council's first financial year must be published as soon as is reasonably practicable after the year starts.

(3) A plan for any subsequent financial year of the Council must be published before the year starts.

(4) A plan for a financial year must include—

  1. (a) proposals as to how the Council intends to achieve in the financial year any objectives which should be achieved in the year in conformity with directions of the National Assembly or with conditions imposed under section 46;
  2. (b) the Council's financial proposals for the year, and in particular proposals as to how it plans to keep to its budget for the year.").

The noble Lord said: The proposed new clause replicates Clause 15 in the English part of the Bill. Clause 15 states that the LSC, must make and publish a plan for each of its financial years".

It goes on to specify the detailed requirement. I believe that this is a sound clause and that it should apply also to the Welsh council. It may be argued that the substance of the clause can be included in the remit given by the National Assembly to the council, but we have no certainty that it will be so included. We have an opportunity here and now to put the requirement for an annual plan on the face of the Bill. I believe that that is where it belongs. It is so fundamental a requirement that it seems to me to belong to the sphere of primary legislation rather than a remit which, of course, can enlarge on the contents of the clause. Needless to say, careful planning is all important in the sphere of education and training and I am sure that we should highlight the need for it. I beg to move.


Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

As regards the planning and strategic regime of the CETW, the National Assembly has made it clear that it will set out its requirements on these matters in the remit letter to the new council for Wales. We are aware of the significant interest of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in the devolution settlement and of the impact that the Government of Wales Act has made on Wales.

We should all welcome the opportunity that devolution has given to Wales to choose its own direction to a considerable extent in post-16 education and training. The intention of the National Assembly to deal with the planning and strategic functions of the CETW through its remit letter is a very good example of that. I hope that the noble Lord will agree and will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. It is a moot point whether this is a matter which should be put on the face of the Bill as a requirement or included, as I have suggested, in the remit to be given to the council. I do not feel disposed to argue strongly one way or the other.

I should have spoken also to Amendment No. 168. What I said about planning applied equally to strategy. Again, I have adapted Clause 16—some might say that I cribbed unashamedly so that it is applicable to Welsh circumstances. It seems to me that the formulation by the council of a strategy for the exercise of its functions and to achieve its objectives is fundamental and belongs, as I have said, to primary legislation. I am not against giving latitude, as I have stressed, to the National Assembly, but there is ample scope for flexibility after the basic principles have been laid down.

I noticed in reading the debate of the plenary session of the National Assembly on 1st February that some Assembly Members for Wales wanted something different. Vive la différence seemed to be the call of the day. I say yes to different treatment when that is clearly beneficial to Wales, but not difference for its own sake.

I cannot see the Welsh council being effective in attaining its objectives without a strategy. Indeed, it will be lost without one and the education and training of young people will suffer. I reiterate that the requirement should be written into the Bill. I believe that as legislators we would be failing in our duty if we did not include it as a requirement.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I apologise to the noble Lord. I understood that he was speaking to both amendments together. My earlier reply still holds.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

I draw attention to one matter contained in the report of the post-16 education and training committee of the National Assembly for Wales. It states that, The primary legislation establishing the National Council should be drafted in such a way as to allow the National Assembly to retain discretion and flexibility". Surely it is in the fields of finance and strategy that that flexibility will be exercised.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

I have no doubt that a great deal of flexibility will be exercised, but what we are talking about and seeking to insert into the Bill are fundamental requirements that a strategy be produced and annual plans. I can only reiterate that I believe that that belongs to the area of primary legislation. The Government clearly do not share my view.

I may return to this point at a later stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 168 and 168A not moved.]

Clause 39 [Research and information]:

[Amendments Nos. 169 and 170 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 171 and 172: Page 16, line 37, leave out ("or advice") and insert (", advice or guidance"). Page 16, line 37, at end insert ("(including employment)").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 39, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 40 [Persons with learning difficulties]:

[Amendment No. 173 not moved.]

Clause 40 agreed to.

Clauses 41 to 45 agreed to.

Schedule 5 [Committees (Wales)]:

Lord Roberts of Conwy moved Amendment No. 174: Page 64, line 35, leave out ("may") and insert ("must").

The noble Lord said: This is an important amendment, small as it may seem. It seeks to make the establishment of regional committees obligatory. Those of your Lordships who know Wales well know of its diversity within, and how different west Wales is from the south-east, which in turn is a world apart from north Wales. Powys and mid-Wales, too, as an area, is unique in character.

Fixing the boundaries of these regions is always a vexatious problem, but some progress has been made. Since the passing of the Government of Wales Act 1998, and as a result of the efforts of the Welsh Development Agency, the regions are reasonably well defined.

I understand that it may well be the intention of the National Assembly to establish four committees, coterminous with the regions of the Welsh Development Agency. That decision will be heavily debated—the sub-division of Wales is always controversial—and I should like to spare the Assembly some of that discussion by making regional committees, at least, obligatory. There are other important matters to consider and we and the Assembly must move on.

The committees that may be set up—which I believe must be established if the whole of Wales is to participate in this scheme—will be purely advisory and very different from the English local councils, which will have executive functions. There are those in Wales—especially those who have had experience of the TECs—who argue that the Welsh regional committees should be similarly constituted. As advisory bodies, they say, the Welsh committees will simply be talking shops. Employers and business people, whose support is vital, will be reluctant to participate in such committees.

This, of course, begs the question of how the national council will operate at regional and local level. I understand that there will be some 15 of what are described as community consortia for education and training—almost one for every local authority; we have 22 local authorities—but they will not have any real power either. That will be retained by the national council, which will operate through its regional offices and which will fund training providers direct.

Is this the real scheme of things? If that is the case, it is not reflected in the Bill except by its absence. In other words, there is no description in the Bill of how the scheme will work in practice or the mechanism by which the council's functions will be exercised on the ground. That contrasts with the position as regards England, which is at least much clearer.

I must confess to a fear that Wales and its council will fall between two stools: the advisory regional committees on the one hand and the equally powerless community consortia on the other. As a first step towards clarification and establishing a firm structure, I propose that the duty to establish the regional committees be written into the Bill. In that event, the rest of the schedule will apply. It will save the Assembly a great deal of time and enable it to get on with its business.

I am glad to say that the CBI at least is supportive. Its latest parliamentary brief states that: Meeting skill needs in the regions of Wales will require a similar or greater level of local flexibility as in England. Wales will lose out if there is not a level playing field in this regard. To this end Welsh business and CBI Wales are keen to see strong regional committees in Wales which can take the lead in identifying and meeting labour market needs. Schedule 5 para 1 states only that these 'may' be created, not that they should be. The CBI would welcome a change to this point from 'may' to 'shall'"—

I cannot go with it all the way; I have put in "must"— together with clarification about the powers and flexibility which these committees will have".

Amendment No. 175 seeks that a young people's learning committee and an adult learning committee should be established. The requirement to form such committees is written into Schedule 3 in the section of the Bill relating to England, where it is stated that the council must establish a young people's learning committee and an adult learning committee. Why is it thought that such committees are a must in England but do not merit even a mention in Wales? I am sure that the Welsh council could form such committees under its general powers, but that is not a complete answer.

Furthermore, the functions of the two committees are investigative and advisory in the main. The areas of youth and adult learning both require—as we heard in earlier debates—persistent investigation with a view to smooth and effective delivery and development. We do not have all the answers. I speak from my personal experience as a Minister in the Welsh Office deeply interested in those fields and the difficult problems that they posed in my time. I am sure many of those problems are still extant. I should like those committees, which are the keys to future development, to be written into the Bill.

Amendment No. 176 relates again to the issue of the size of regional committees. Local councils in England will have between 12 and 16 members, compared with the Welsh regional committee's eight, including the chairman. I am not sure what the justification is for that disparity. Of course, they are not strictly comparable; the Welsh committees are advisory rather than executive. Nevertheless, it may be argued that, being advisory, they should be drawn from a wide range of interested bodies to ensure that their advice is soundly based.

The four TECs that they replace have an average of 15 members each, which I gather from Annex A to the "Public Bodies 1999" document. Although again they are not strictly comparable, all the TECs being locally based companies with employer led boards, there are similarities.

The bodies that will have a claim to membership are those I listed when we were discussing the composition of the main council—employers, sixth form heads, teachers, local authorities, FE colleges and higher education institutions, the CBI, the TUC, the Welsh Development Agency, and so on. Those bodies do not easily lend themselves to duplicate membership to the extent that they can be limited to a totality of eight. It is unwise to attempt that limitation. It will only result in criticism of the exclusion of some obvious claimants to membership. So I think the Government would be well advised to accept the amendment.

Amendment No. 177 again requires that: not fewer than four … shall have business or commercial experience".

It has to be said that there is a great deal of disaffection in Wales in the business community. I think it has been underestimated by the Government. It arises in part from the abolition of the TECs, but also business does not agree with the educational-institutional public sector bias implicit in the Bill.

One businessman told me that the National Assembly was distinctly "business unfriendly". I do not think that the Assembly should enjoy that reputation. I suspect that it can be attributed to some extent to the fact that few Assembly members have business experience and a high percentage come from the public sector.

To be fair, many of the Assembly's documents, including the report by the Assembly's Post-16 Education and Training Committee, stress the importance of, The participation of business at all levels in the new arrangements to give a national, regional and local perspective on the skills needed to generate substantial improvements in wealth creation in Wales".

That is an excellent statement. I could not have expressed it better myself. It is the first of the committee's key principles. But for some reason it is not reflected in the Welsh parts of the Bill. We should put that right. Amendment No. 177 gives us the opportunity to do so.

The CBI would like the requirement for 40 per cent business and commercial representation to apply to the regional committees as well as the Welsh national council. However, I think that a share of four out of a total complement of 12 would go some way towards meeting the wishes of employers in Wales. I strongly recommend that the Government listen to these pleas and give them some consideration. Otherwise, I fear that they will not secure business and employer support for the Bill's contents. I beg to move.

12.15 a.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

I recognise and defer to the enormous experience that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, has had in the Welsh Office. He was indeed the anchor-man of the Welsh Office for so many years. I am sure that no Minister of State has ever had greater experience of the workings of the Welsh Office during his time. However, there is a danger that some of his proposals run along the lines that, "if England's got it, Wales should have it as well in primary legislation". I really do not think that that is necessary.

The particular issue of regional tiers of the national council was described by the Post-16 Education and Training Committee as one of the key issues upon which it had to decide, and it deliberated long and hard before reaching its final conclusions on the subject. The Assembly Secretary had himself proposed four regional boards with boundaries coterminous with the Assembly's regional committees, the regional economic fora and the existing TECs. The views that the committee received from the CBI, the Council for the Welsh TECs and so on favoured business-led regional arms of CETW with boundaries coterminous with those of the economic development fora.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, is right to point out that there is a business view. On the other hand, the view of public servants in the education sector was that, although they supported a regional tier with an advisory role, it would dilute the model and considerably increase the administrative burden. Consequently, after considerable discussion—of the kind that has not taken place over the proposals for England—the committee came down in favour of a model which approached that proposed by the Government in this Bill. No greater cross-party consideration and reception of submissions could be envisaged than has happened with the principles that lie behind the drafting of this Bill. I support the Bill as it is and oppose these amendments.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I believe that the fundamental principle which needs to be tackled here is that devolution leads to a process, well described by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, in which there is a joint approach and co-operation in a democratic family partnership. It cannot be paternalistic. There is a danger that the detail of the amendments to which the noble Lord draws attention tonight will move away from partnership and towards imposition. That would be resented by the Assembly, in our view quite rightly.

There has been considerable debate in Wales about the arrangements for the CETW's regional committees. Following the account by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, in the plenary debate on 1st February the National Assembly made clear its expectation of the new council to establish a committee for each of the four regions within Wales. The National Assembly, with the support of the cross-party Post-16 Education and Training Committee, made it equally clear that its strong preference was that the new council should have a permissive power rather than a duty with regard to the setting up of committees. That is what we have provided should happen.

Amendment No. 175 seeks to place a further duty on the CETW to establish two further committees, one for young people and the other for adults. As the noble Lord recognises, that would impose the same sub-structure in Wales as in England, but the issues, policies and needs of Wales are distinct from England's. It would be preferable to give discretion to CETW on this matter, as we have provided in the Bill. As to the minimum number of members required for a regional committee of the CETW and its composition, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, seeks to raise the number from eight to 12, at least four of whom should come from the business or commercial sector. The National Assembly considered that and believed that a minimum of eight members would be sufficient to ensure efficient operation. Members will be appointed on the basis of having the right experience, knowledge and skills for the job, rather than whether they come from the education, business or commercial sector. In saying this, the National Assembly recognises the key input of the business sector and has pledged that each regional committee will have a chairman with a solid business background.

Forgive me, at this late hour, a small anecdote. During the late Lord Joseph's time as Secretary of State, he visited a tertiary college in Lancashire. He greeted the person who chaired that body with the words, "Who do you represent?" The Conservative county councillor replied, "I'm an employer; I am a trainer; I am a local authority member; I am a member of a voluntary organisation; I come from your Party; I am the parent o Ftwo daughters at the college; my wife is a student and I am a student at night. Which hat would you like me to say I am wearing?"

Amendments Nos. 178 and 179 would remove the National Assembly's control over the locus of the CETW's regional committees. Since the regional committees will ultimately be accountable to the National Assembly, it is essential that the National Assembly has a clear and real say in what they do. I hope, in the light of this reply, and the experience I have recounted, that the noble Lord will feel confident to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

Perhaps I may begin by simply saying to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that my approach to these issues is not to say that if England some of these clauses Wales must have them too. It is rather that I wish to know quite clearly why they do not apply to Wales.

I have to be quite clear in my understanding of how this Bill is going to work in practice in Wales. We are familiar with the English situation—the national council and the power of the local councils—but quite clearly in Wales all the real power is going to be concentrated in the national council. The regional committees, if they come into existence, will be purely advisory. So this justifies my earlier remark that there is even more centralisation of power in Wales under the system proposed in this Bill than there is in England. We do not have the regional equivalents of the English local councils.

Therefore, I would be grateful, before I beg leave to withdraw this amendment, if the Minister could confirm my belief that that is the way the national council will work—through local offices and taking advice only from regional committees.

Baroness Farringdon of Ribbleton

I think the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, is again describing a different process. The framework of accountability and responsibility for making this system work will be determined by the Assembly. That is the result of devolution, and we believe it to be right.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 175 to 179 not moved.]

Lord Roberts of Conwy moved Amendment No. 180: Page 65, line 12, at end insert ("including community consortia for education and training").

The noble Lord said: This amendment contains the first reference to community consortia for education and training. These are the local bodies which have featured prominently in the Education and Training Action Group's report in Wales. It pre-dates the Assembly, and of course the proposal is also featured in the Assembly's Post-16 Education and Training Committee deliberations.

The report of that committee, itself welcomed and approved by the full Assembly on 1st February—as we have heard—endorses the concept of local consortia and urges the Assembly Secretary to produce a framework for their establishment. It is common knowledge that around 15 will be established in Wales. They will comprise local providers, including further education colleges, local authority school sixth forms, private training providers, Welsh medium secondary schools, voluntary organisations engaged in post-16 learning and other partners in adult and higher education.

The report goes on to say that, The community consortia should be non statutory".

Yet they can be "charged by the CETW"—the Council for Education and Training in Wales—to prepare proposals for the delivery of quality post-16 education and training provision relevant to the needs of its area in return for public moneys.

I am somewhat mystified as to why such bodies should be non-statutory when they will be in receipt of public funds and will be charged with specific duties by the council. Clearly they will be important bodies and I believe that at least they deserve a mention somewhere in the Bill. If the amendment is carried, it will not in any way inhibit the National Assembly or the council. The council will specify functions and appoint members and, if the community consortia are to receive public moneys, they will of course be subject to the usual constraints.

As I said earlier, perhaps the whole structure of community consortia, regional committees and the national council is something of a facade and the real work will be done under the auspices of the Skills Wales Task Force, another body which does not appear in the Bill. I should be grateful for a little clarification on these points and a statement of how the framework will deliver its objectives. I realise that the amendment itself is imperfect and that the new words might be better placed after "Council" in the preceding line. However, I think that the thrust of the amendment is clear enough. I beg to move.

12.30 a.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has said, Amendment No. 180 would bring local community consortia for education and training within the scope of the CETW's powers in relation to its committees other than regional committees. However, local consortia will not be part of the CETW. They will be voluntary partnerships of education and training providers, employers and others, which will help plan the delivery of post-16 learning in their areas. The distinct components of the consortia will have equal status and will be funded directly by the CETW.

The CETW will be tasked by the National Assembly with deciding the actual size, boundaries and composition of community consortia, but it is the National Assembly's intention that no single interest will dominate. Community consortia partners, including employers and voluntary sector representatives, will together plan the provision for their local areas.

The task force will advise on the practical measures which can be taken to ease skills shortages, to improve the extent and quality of learning in the workplace and to ensure that providers of education and training are responsive to the skills needs of employers and individuals. I hope that, with these reassurances, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation. I am beginning to see rather more clearly how this Bill will work in Wales. We know that the community consortia are already in existence in certain areas, and it is clearly intended that they should multiply. However, as the Minister has explained on more than one occasion, the real responsibility for the implementation of the Bill will rest with the Assembly. I certainly wish it well in that task. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before one o'clock.