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What Labour will do for TECs

The first stage in Labour's plans for training, local economic development and business support policy is complete. Conference has endorsed policies which a Labour government would follow, and stage two is to publish a paper describing the necessary institutions.

The paper will be eagerly awaited by the many public and private-sector bodies involved in local policy-making, including the much-maligned Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs). For these employer-led bodies are the creation of the Conservatives, and have a finger in every pie. Rumour has it that TECs can expect to survive the first two years of a Labour government, but beyond this there are no guarantees.

The instinct of many in the party is to distrust organisations with responsibility for more than Pounds 1.4 billion of public money, yet managed by boards where two-thirds of their members must be employers.

This tension between encouraging business involvement and lack of public accountability has caused confusion in Labour policy. For instance, TECs have responsibility for creating Lifelong Learning Fora (LLF) where stakeholders meet to set local versions of the foundation and lifetime learning targets. However, according to Labour's paper Lifelong Learning, LEAs will have the role of local catalyst to establish LLFs, as well as prepare Education Development Plans for pre and post-16 education and training.

By contrast, a more strategic role for TECs is envisaged in Labour's Plans for a Skills Revolution. The party is committed to enabling a million people to open an individual learning account based on a grant of Pounds 150 from the state and a personal stake of Pounds 25. But since TECs were the first to pilot learning accounts, it is commonly assumed that they will be the local agency.

The report also calls for a renewed push behind Investors in People. Given that TECs see the standard as their premier product for in-work training, it is again assumed that they will continue to play a major role in increasing the number of commitments, especially by small businesses.

However, to policy-makers in the TEC movement the inconsistency between the policy papers on lifelong learning and the skills revolution is easy to explain. An element within the Labour party believes that lifelong learning ends with higher education and has little to do with learning at work. Consequently, the key question is whether TECs or LEAs should have responsibility for preparing education and training plans from early years education through to workplace learning.

Even so, the real debate raging within the Labour party is whether TECs should have a role in local economic development or become skills agencies, with responsibility for modern apprenticeships, training unemployed adults and meeting the training needs of employers.

Although not official party policy, the recent Millan Report on renewing the regions is a good indicator of old Labour thinking. The report argues that TECs should lose their "enterprise" function, cease their role in economic development, and have no seat on Regional Development Agencies (RDAs).

A more probable outcome is that TECs will retain both their in-built employer majority and role in local enterprise. But once again, the central issue is whether they will keep strategic responsibility for the economic development of their local communities, or whether these functions will be undertaken by local arms of RDAs.

Clearly, it would be easy to characterise the debate over TECs as a conflict between old and new Labour.

But the issue runs deeper. At one level, the debate reflects a mistrust of employers working together to achieve public policy objectives. At another, it reflects a failure to appreciate the benefits of strong local employer organisations to a stakeholder economy.

Mark Corney is director of MC Consultancy which advises on education and training

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