Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill: Second Reading

My Lords, I welcome this Bill, which covers so many issues of great importance, but I aim to raise issues which I feel are salient.

Apprenticeships are crucial to preparing our nation’s workforce for the competitive global market. My understanding of an apprenticeship is that it provides a route to building technical skills that are relevant to the requirements of industry through practical learning. It appears that apprenticeships have been serving alternative purposes, such as helping individuals to achieve basic numeracy and literacy. These skills should be provided in schools and community learning centres, but certainly not as part of apprenticeships. As a result, the definition of an apprenticeship has become distorted, which has resulted in the reluctance of a number of employers to sponsor them. It is therefore important for us to consider legislation on apprenticeships and allied subjects.

I welcome Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the Bill, as I share the belief that an employer needs to promote the training of staff, which will maintain and enhance their standards. This will provide the staff with satisfaction and assist in making our businesses and industries more productive. Professional bodies, employers, individuals and government all have a role to play in the provision of these skills.

I have been a visiting lecturer on insurance and financial services, and I am the chairman of an insurance broking organisation. As an employer, I have fully supported the training of our employees and giving them every assistance. I therefore endorse the provisions in the Bill pertaining to these matters. For us to maintain our premium position in the world in financial services, we need to ensure that the knowledge and expertise of our staff are continuously kept at a high level.

I avidly support Clause 41, as it requires local education authorities to encourage school leavers to remain in education after the age of 16, and I register my support for the measures in the Bill that give employees the right to request leave to train or study. This provision will benefit our economy and, thus, our society as a whole. I should like further education colleges to be given greater freedom to determine their own destinies. They have proven to be vital institutions in the quest to encourage post-16 and adult learning.

I welcome the provisions to improve the academic prospects of young people in custody. Although I am in favour of new Section 562B(3) of the Education Act 1996, to be inserted under Clause 49, I am concerned about its use in practice. It would place the onus on the local authority where a young offender was resident prior to being taken into custody to make educational provisions for them during and after their period of detention. One can argue that new subsection (3) provides local authorities with reasons to abstain from fulfilling this duty. Young offenders will find it increasingly difficult to integrate back into society if these powers of omission are enforced.

I also welcome Clauses 188, 189 and 190, which will support the implementation of the recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in his report. Clause 188 will ensure that child safety and protection remain the central priorities for all children’s service authorities. It will provide children with additional protection as all local authorities will be bound by this clause to meet all safeguarding targets. I would be grateful if the Minister would elaborate on these targets. Clause 189 requires all local authorities to appoint two members of the general public to all local safeguarding children boards, which would promote transparency and guarantee civic contribution in the general scrutiny of the boards’ proceedings.

It is crucial that all stakeholders in society are encouraged to put themselves forward in order to reinforce the idea that child protection is not the duty of only a select few but all of us. Clause 190 will ensure that all local safeguarding children boards publish annual reports about their efforts to provide child safety and welfare in their communities. The requirement that these reports may be submitted to respective children’s trusts is welcome as it will provide efficient scrutiny. This clause can be strengthened further by ensuring that all serious case reviews are published. We must do everything in our power to prevent the tragic suffering that befell Baby Peter and Victoria Climbié in their short lives.

In order for these clauses to have the desired effect, action must be taken to tackle the disproportionate number of cases allocated to each social worker. Social workers have a central role in ensuring that children and the most vulnerable members of society are protected. It is only fair that they receive adequate training and resources to enable them to fulfil these duties. A serious problem exists concerning the recruitment and retention of social workers, and these difficulties have had an impact on their ability to carry out their jobs effectively.

The shortage of apprenticeship places in Britain can be attributed to the overwhelming administrative and fiscal burdens inflicted on companies. The Learning and Skills Council has presided over the bureaucratic delivery of apprenticeships. The errors of the apprenticeship system can be attributed to the Government’s decision to abandon the modern apprenticeship model introduced by John Major’s Government in response to the decline of apprenticeships sponsored by employers. The main feature of the modern apprenticeship was that it resulted in a level 3 qualification, which was equivalent to an A-Level. Although the Learning and Skills Council has categorically failed to achieve its goals, it is highly unlikely that scrapping it, as advocated in this Bill, in favour of creating three organisations will reduce bureaucracy. If the Government believe that taking these steps will reduce bureaucracy, why were they unable to state in the other place that the number of staff employed by the new bodies would not surpass the current number of people employed by the LSC? I should like to express my dissatisfaction at the number of bodies and quangos being created.

Clause 235 gives teachers the authority to search students for weapons, knives, drugs, alcohol or stolen goods provided the teacher is of the same gender as the student and is supervised by another teacher of the same sex. This requirement will be difficult to satisfy in primary schools because of the limited number of male teachers and the fact that the police may have to be contacted before a search can commence. This is highly impractical and may prevent officers from carrying out more urgent duties. The Bill does not provide any protection to teachers who have false allegations made against them. Teachers do a tremendously difficult job and legislation should support them in their role. I fear that a lack of adequate protection could deter individuals from entering the teaching profession.

This Government were elected on the pledge that they would prioritise education. After 12 years in government, the facts speak for themselves: 40 per cent of children enter secondary school with difficulty in reading, writing and numeracy. The system has failed the most disadvantaged children: 50 per cent of them are unable to achieve a single A* to C grade at GCSE. The number of school leavers without a job or work placement has risen to 860,000, 5 million adults are illiterate and 17 million struggle with basic literacy. This Bill must undoubtedly be strengthened during its passage through this Chamber to ensure that the systematic failure to support the most vulnerable members of society is properly addressed.