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Work Placements

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

Since 1997, we have expanded the number of apprenticeships from 75,000 to about 250,000. In 2013, we aim to introduce an entitlement to an apprenticeship place for all 16 to 19-year-olds who meet the entry criteria, and our longer-term commitment is to increase the number of apprenticeships in England to 400,000.

May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to a survey by the excellent Building magazine which found that last year some 50,000 youngsters applied for 7,000 construction apprenticeships, and that number of placements was about 25 per cent. lower than in the previous year? Providing training places is only one part of what needs to be done; there must also be training placements in industry. Does the Secretary of State accept that that requires clients to insist on proper training on the job? What will his Department and other Departments do to insist on apprenticeship training on the jobs that they are paying for?

I must make it clear that the figure of 250,000 is for work-based apprenticeships, so it does not include the extra number of programme-led apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend raises an important point, however: in some sectors of the economy the need for apprenticeships and our capacity to fund them exceeds the number of employers willing to create them. Over the next few years we will significantly increase the resources available for apprenticeships in sectors such as construction and, possibly, some areas of engineering. We will need to engage with employers both directly ourselves and through the sector skills councils, because we as a Government do not want to be in the position of putting money on the table to fund apprenticeships without the employers being willing to match it. The offer is a substantial one, and we need to get across to employers the advantages of taking it up.

The economy of north Oxfordshire is almost entirely made up of vibrant small and medium-sized businesses. At a recent business breakfast in Bicester, I conducted a straw poll and found that not a single employer had yet heard of diplomas or what would be expected of them in terms of their involvement. The same point applies to apprenticeships. I have a simple question for the Secretary of State: who is meant to be going out and talking to employers, and signing them up and getting them involved in both apprenticeships and diplomas? If that does not happen, there will be a complete disconnect.

That is a very important question. At the moment, responsibility for that matter is led by the sector skills councils, as well as my Department, and we have enormous support from the private sector, particularly through the apprenticeship ambassadors network of senior employers. However, the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on a really important question—whether the apprenticeship programme as a whole needs a clearer focus and leadership. That issue was raised by the House of Lords report on apprenticeships, and we are looking at it and a number of other issues. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a couple of weeks ago that we want to reform the programme so that a young person who qualifies for an apprenticeship effectively has a credit—the value that we are prepared to pay to them to fund the apprenticeship—so it becomes clear to an employer that the value of taking on an apprenticeship might be £3,000, £5,000 or even £15,000. That will really encourage the small businesses that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

When Stafford college and I make joint presentations to employers about the “train to gain” initiative and apprenticeships, we find that we can stimulate greater interest among employers in providing places for apprentices. Will my right hon. Friend consider what more he can do personally to approach employers at a national level, and how he can make the best use of Members in approaching employers at a constituency level?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who, like a number of other Members, is very active at a local level in pushing training. My ministerial team has already committed itself to meeting representatives of every CBI region. We are about halfway through that programme, and we hope to undertake a similar exercise with the British Chambers of Commerce later this year and next. So at a personal level, we are trying to get out there to talk about “train to gain”, the skills pledge and apprenticeships in particular. However, my hon. Friend is right—an enormous amount of work can be done by Members at local level, and I shall certainly give consideration to writing to them setting out the practical actions that can be taken at local level to promote these important issues.

In answer to my parliamentary questions, the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that the number of advanced apprenticeships has fallen, but he has admitted that he does not know how many are provided by employers directly. He talks about the House of Lords report, which said that of the 130,000 businesses that the Prime Minister claims are providing apprenticeships, many are in fact private training providers. Yet in 2002, the Government agreed with their own advisory committee that apprenticeships should be employer-led, with training providers acting as agents providing support for work-based schemes, rather than providing the bulk of training. Five years on, the Government have failed to honour that agreement. Is that not because on apprenticeships, as with so much else, this Government are just bluff, bluster and blunder?

Let us just recall that some years ago—around the time, I think, that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was a senior economic adviser to the then Government—not a penny of public money went into apprenticeships and there were just a few tens of thousands of them. When we became the Government, there were just 75,000 apprenticeships; now there are 250,000 and, what is more, we are achieving higher completion rates than ever before, so I am happy to defend the Government’s record on apprenticeships. However, I want to ensure that apprentices receive uniformly high-quality training, based with employers, that provides a proper combination of work-based learning and the additional skills that a fully fledged apprenticeship needs to bring with it. If there are any parts of the system in which that is not so, we need to deal with that as we expand the programme.