Peter Aldous supports the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill and urges the Government to accept his amendment that would set in place a review of universal credit conditions in order to make it easier for people on universal credit to access education and training and improve their chances in the workplace.
I welcome the Bill because it provides the means to address problems that have hung over the UK for far too long and to meet future challenges. It has been closely scrutinised, both in this Chamber and in the other place. Some amendments have been made that the Government have accepted, but there is still room for improvement.
I urge the Minister to take on board new clauses 2 and 3, which are in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and new clause 4, which is in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore). I would also be grateful if the Minister gave full consideration to new clause 5 and amendment 2, which are in my name. New clause 5 would enable people who are trapped in low-paid, insecure roles with limited progression opportunities to acquire the skills to progress into well-paid, secure and rewarding jobs, thereby delivering levelling up and eliminating the productivity gap that has been part of the UK economy for far too long.
The Bill points in very much the right direction, but if it is to deliver, it must address five issues. First, as the Local Government Association and the CBI both highlight, it must adopt a place-based approach. Secondly, we need inclusivity. While local skills improvement plans will be employer-driven, they must involve all local partners. My amendment 2 provides for LSIPs to be developed in partnership with local further education providers. That approach is supported by EngineeringUK. Other partners, such as local government, local enterprise partnerships and universities, must also be included.
Thirdly, we need co-ordination. EngineeringUK highlights the need for the Government to set out how the steps that they have taken in the Bill will be co-ordinated with the levelling-up and net zero agendas. That leads on to the fourth issue: the need to urgently step up training for low-carbon jobs. The Green Alliance emphasises the need for an integrated skills programme to be developed with individuals, institutions and industry. That can be achieved if the Government accept new clause 4, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood. Finally, the Bill’s potential will not be realised without proper investment. The funding announced in the comprehensive spending review in the autumn was welcome, but it should be viewed as only a start.
My new clause 5, which is supported by the Local Government Association, requests that the Government carry out a review of universal credit conditionality
“to ensure greater flexibility for potential students in receipt of universal credit to take up appropriate training that will better equip them for employment.”
I am grateful to the Minister and to his ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), for corresponding with me and meeting me to discuss the matter.
With the welcome reduction in the universal credit taper rate, announced in the autumn Budget, and with the more recent Way to Work initiative, the Government have placed much emphasis on the importance of making work pay and on the current high level of job vacancies. I support those measures, but unfortunately many people are at some distance from the workplace and are not able to take advantage of those opportunities. However, many of them will be able to do so if the universal credit conditions are reformed so that they can more readily access education and training.
The barriers to education and training that need to be addressed are numerous. There are excessive and inconsistent restrictions on study hours. The current approach is too short-term. The skills bootcamps initiative is welcome but only temporary, and creates instability and complexity in a system that can be challenging for learners and colleges to navigate.
A review is needed. Too many people who are unemployed are not being directed to advice and training that could get them into a good job, because there is a disconnected system and there are conflicting incentives across education and welfare. More needs to be done to understand the impact of the current welfare system on unemployed people’s access to education and training. The cost of taking no action is fewer people in stable and meaningful jobs, slower economic growth and, ultimately, bigger tax burdens.
I can perhaps understand the Government’s reluctance to accept a large raft of amendments, but I am not asking for the earth. What new clause 5 seeks is a review of a system that is not working at present. The end result, currently, is that the UK economy suffers and many people are denied the opportunity to better their lives. We owe it to them to remove these barriers.