Clause 3

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:45 am ar 2 Rhagfyr 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Removal of designations

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Clause 3 is an important accountability mechanism, which gives the Secretary of State the ability to remove an employer representative body’s designation in certain conditions. Hopefully, that will not be required, but we need to be clear on when such circumstances may arise, and ensure there is a process—

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

On a point of order, Mr Efford. I do not think we have dealt with new clause 3. Did we?

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Llafur, Eltham

The new clauses are dealt with at the end of the proceeding. So we will deal with all of the new clauses and any votes then. You will move new clause 3 formally at that stage and we will vote on it.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

As I was saying, we need to be clear when such circumstances may arise and ensure that there is a process for taking appropriate action, which will be through a published notice.

The ability to remove a designation is needed for a range of important reasons, for example in the event that an employer representative body does not comply with the term or condition of their designation, or does not have regard to relevant guidance on carrying out their role. This clause helps to ensure that the employer representative body designated for an area remains representative, and capable of delivering and keeping under review a local skills improvement plan in an effective and impartial manner.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

This clause is obviously necessary, given the votes that have taken place already. It outlines the circumstances in which the Secretary of State can remove the designation of an employer representative body.

It would be useful to get clarification from the Minister about the reasons why the Secretary of State would look to replace an employer representative body, such as the performance of that body; any representations made by anyone within the body, be it further education colleges or other institutions; representations by other employer representative bodies that perhaps did not consider that the body was being consistent or was properly declaring interest; or any other criteria that might require an employer representative body to be replaced.

The other real concern is that the Secretary of State has awarded himself huge powers. He will be the person who will decide who to appoint; he will be the person who approves the local plan; therefore, he becomes the person who decides whether it is right policy for Bishop Auckland, or for Bishop Stortford, or for anywhere in the country—the Secretary of State is the man who decides whether or not a plan is the right one. If he then decides, “Oh, well, I don’t really like this plan”, or, “I don’t like the way the employer representative body is carrying out its business”, he can choose to get rid of the employer representative body as well.

The Secretary of State is taking a lot of powers under the guise of devolution to set policy in individual local areas. Although we understand the purpose of the clause and do not intend to vote against it, it would be useful to hear from the Minister a little more about the criteria that will be used. It is also important for these employer representative bodies to have clarity and that it is not just a case of, “Look, if you annoy the Secretary of State, he might get rid of you”, and that instead we have a proper process and proper criteria.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Llafur, Denton and Reddish

We have to legislate for the worst case scenarios as well as for the best case scenarios. Given that there is little democratic oversight, particularly outside areas with metro Mayors, in this whole process, does my hon. Friend think that we perhaps need parliamentary scrutiny of any decision that the Secretary of State makes in respect of who the representative bodies are and are not at any one particular time?

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

That is an important point. Obviously part of my hon. Friend’s constituency comes within the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. He and his colleagues in the Greater Manchester area have a very strong sense of the priorities for their local area. They might have worked very closely with an employer representative body and come up with a plan that they liked. However, the Secretary of State might not like that plan and might decide, “Well, I’m overruling that”’; the Secretary of State is sat there in Stratford-on-Avon, but he thinks he knows better than my hon. Friend what Greater Manchester needs. Some kind of process that just explains on what basis the Secretary of State will make these decisions would be very valuable.

This reminds me of what was happening around the time of the second coronavirus lockdown, when we know that the Government and the Secretary of State were very angry with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, for not complying with their strict demands and edicts. If it was an employer representative body that was angering the Secretary of State, goodness knows whether or not he would cite this clause and say, “Well, we’ll have to get rid of you, because you haven’t done what we said”.

When the Secretary of State awards himself such powers—and we understand that there is a need to put in place a clause to replace ERBs, on occasion—some kind of parliamentary scrutiny is needed of those concerns and the desire to remove the designation.

It would be useful to hear more from the Minister about how that process will take place. Who will be able to make representations around the replacement of an ERB? What weight will be given to the representations of alternative employer representative bodies, FE colleges and independent training providers? The worry is that the plans may mean that independent providers that play an important role in individual sectors are overlooked and are not seen within the employer representative bodies or the local skills improvements plans. Who will be able to make representations on all that, and what level of scrutiny will there be? Those are important questions, and we look forward to the Minister assuring us on those matters.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 12:00, 2 Rhagfyr 2021

I have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Chesterfield, and I refer him to clause 3. The Secretary of State will set out terms and conditions for each employer representative body, and those terms and conditions will be public. Statutory guidance to govern how employer representative bodies behave will also be public. In the event that a Secretary of State wishes to remove the designation of an ERB, he or she will have to do so in writing. Under the terms of clause 3(3)(a), he or she will have to

“include reasons for the removal of the designation”.

Obviously, the Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament. I imagine that there would be further urgent questions on the matter, and that Select Committees might want to look into it. I believe that our mechanisms for parliamentary accountability are sound and good—particularly when they are overseen by noble Chairs such as yourself, Mr Efford. With that, I resume my seat.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.