Fourth day of Committee Stage – Skills and Post-16 Education Bill
6th August 2021
On Thursday 22 July, the House of Lords held its fourth and final day of Committee Stage for the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. We watched the debate and have summarised they key points below. We have also written summaries of the first three days of the committee and provided some background information on the legislative process, which you may find helpful.
We have spent the last few weeks working with Peers across all parties to support them to table amendments to the legislation and to ensure cross-party support on a number of issues. You can find out our list of areas where we think the Bill can be strengthened here - this includes a list of the tabled amendments that we broadly support and align to these key areas. The Committee Stage is now complete and the Bill will move onto the Report Stage when Peers return from the summer recess in September.
What was discussed during the Debate?
On the final day of committee, 17 Peers spoke and the amendments discussed focussed on the following issues:
- The lifelong loan entitlement and maintenance support.
- Ensuring there is a review of the student loans system every five years.
- Removing restrictions on accessing education and training for universal credit claimants.
- Drawing out the Government’s plans to introduce a long-term funding settlement for FE.
- Putting a duty on the Secretary of State to provide a means to assess local skills gaps.
- Introducing universal ‘skills wallets’.
There were also amendments brought forward by the Government which will allow them to deliver more modular provision, as set out in the plans for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE).
The Lifelong Loan Entitlement and maintenance support
There were a number of amendments tabled relating to how the LLE would work in practice. Lord Johnson put forward his probing amendment, which aimed to test the Government’s ambitions for the LLE and seek clarity on what courses would be worthy of funding under it. He also expressed his concerns around whether the Treasury may water down the proposals by insisting on retaining the so-called ‘equivalent or lower qualification rule’ and highlighted the importance of not forgetting the creative industries in the reforms. Lord Flight then spoke about the need to extend the system of loans and means-tested grants to support adults to be able to live while in relevant education and training. We have been working hard to ensure that maintenance support features in the debate so were pleased to work with Lord Flight on this.
The Bishop of Durham spoke about his amendment which seeks to address the discrepancy between the range and funding available to SEND students (principally those in school settings or specialist institutions, and those applicable to students in FE) and to harmonise best practice across the FE and HE sectors. Lord Watson spoke about the potential of the LLE to support adults to upskill and retrain but expressed his frustration that “we still know far too little about the specific design features of the LLE and how it will work in practice”, and outlined the various Labour amendments that sought to strengthen it.
Ensuring there is a review of the student loans system every five years
This amendment, tabled by Lord Willets, aimed to ensure that there is a regular review of the student loan system so that any problems can be identified and solved, by providing a framework so that the system can be reviewed and updated systematically. He said this would enable the system to take account of things such as wider economic scenarios. Baroness Bennett spoke in favour of this, as did Baroness Sherlock who questioned the Minister on whether the student loans system is sufficiently understood. Responding for the Government, Baroness Berridge said the ability to review and make changes to the student finance system as and when needed would be restrained by a mandatory five-year review process and so the Government would not be including this in the Bill.
Removing restrictions on accessing education and training for universal credit claimants.
This amendment, tabled by the Bishop of Durham, aimed to remove the restriction that those “receiving education” cannot claim Universal Credit, which currently blocks some of the most disadvantaged from benefitting from learning opportunities. It aimed to probe how the Government plans to incentivise take-up of training programmes, and to draw out how cross-departmental working can be made more effective in transforming learning and skills. This is an issue that we have been calling on the Government to address recently, and was a recommendation in our recent Let Them Learn report.
During his speech, he explained how the welfare system is a major barrier to upskilling or retraining for many people out of work, and why this amendment was needed. Similar amendments were tabled by Lib Dem Peers Baroness Janke and Lord Storey, and a number of other Peers. In her response, Government Minister Baroness Penn outlined the various pieces of work the Government was already doing in this area, including the six-month trial period extension to the flexibility offered by universal credit conditionality announced in April, to ensure the benefit system supports learners.
Drawing out the Government’s plans to introduce a long-term funding settlement for FE
This was a probing amendment, brought forward by the Bishop of Durham, which aimed to draw out the Government’s plans to introduce a longer-term funding settlement for further education. A properly funded sector is of course something that we are always campaigning on and urging the Government to address, so we were pleased to be able to work with the Bishop and others on this amendment. In his speech, he highlighted how longer-term strategic investment has been called for by the Education Select Committee, in the White Paper, and in the Augar report. Several other Peers spoke in favour of this amendment, including Labour spokesperson Baroness Wilcox who said that delivering on the agenda “will require redressing the long-standing underinvestment of the college sector in the upcoming comprehensive spending review with serious long-term funding—otherwise it will simply not be deliverable”. In her response, Baroness Peen outlined the funding that the Government has put in the sector recently and said that funding beyond 2021-22 will be considered as part of the wider spending review later this year. We’re already working on our submission for that review and will keep you updated on what we’ll be asking for.
Putting a duty on the Secretary of State to provide a means to assess local skills gaps
This amendment, brought forward by Green Party Peer Baroness Bennett, aims to ensure that within two months of the Act passing, the Secretary of State will prepare and lay before Parliament a means to assess local skills gaps for non-academic skills. During her speech, Baroness Bennett described her amendment as “a small gesture towards making the Bill about something more comprehensive: skills for life”. Those skills include parenting, budgeting, mental and physical first aid, and financial management. Speaking in support of the amendment, Labour’s Lord Watson said that as well as life skills, Local Skills Improvement Plns (LSIPs) should consider the role played by the creative industries locally. In her response, Baroness Penn outlined the work the Government is already doing to support people to gain the skills mentioned in the amendment and acknowledged the work that colleges and other FE sector institutions already do to meet the wider needs of their communities and learners.
Tabled by Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Addington, this amendment provides for individual “skills wallets” for people to pay for education and training courses throughout their lifetime. This would include the Government making a payment of £4,000 when an individual turns 25 and then two further payments of £3,000 when an individual turns 40 and 55. This amendment built on a commitment made by the Liberal Democrats in their 2019 manifesto. Labour spokesperson Baroness Wilcox outlined the party’s alternative approach; a job promise which would guarantee training, education, or employment opportunities for young people who have been out of work, education or training for six months.
In her response, Baroness Berridge outlined the Government’s vision for lifelong learning, including the lifetime skills guarantee and the LLE. She also argued that the ‘skills wallet’ policy proposed by the amendment would create “significant fiscal and logistical challenges” and was not going to be adopted by the Government.
Government amendments on modular provision
The Government also brought forward amendments on the Bill which would make provision for the regulation of modules, and to make clear what a module of a higher education course is as distinct from a full course. On this, Baroness Berridge highlighted that the current student finance system does not offer funding for modules, nor is there any fee maximum for such modules or a specific corresponding regulatory system. She outlined how the LLE seeks to amend student finance by supporting more flexible and modular provision.
Reflection on Committee Stage and next steps
This was the fourth and final day of the committee stage and Parliament is now on recess. We have been really encouraged by the quality of the debate over the past couple of weeks - many peers have been highlighting the fantastic work that is being done in colleges across the country, while acknowledging that the skills reform agenda is necessary. We’ve also heard a lot of peers calling for increased funding for the sector, which is really helpful, particularly ahead of the spending review in the autumn.
Peers were engaging with the details of the bill, and we have been working hard to ensure that amendments were tabled on all the key areas that we felt needed strengthening, and on other issues which were absent. Frustratingly, but not altogether unsurprisingly, the Government’s response to many of these amendments - particularly those on clarifying the role, responsibilities and accountabilities of LSIPs & ERBs - was not to disagree, but to say that the Bill is a framework and that they don’t want to be too prescriptive, and that the detail will be in the statutory guidance. We believe, like many peers, that detail on these issues does need to be set out in the Bill itself in order to give those bodies, and colleges, clarity on their purpose, and we will keep working to try to achieve that.
When Parliament returns in September, the Bill will go through report stage in the Lords, which is an opportunity for Peers to raise outstanding concerns and build support for proposed changes that were discussed during committee. We’ll keep working with groups of Peers from all parties on the key areas where the Government might be willing to offer concessions, and where we think there is sufficient cross-party support to push through amendments at a vote. Your support will be vital in engaging in with MPs when the Bill arrives in the Commons – we’ll keep you updated on all further developments.