I and my Ministers regularly meet a number of representatives of the small firms sector, such as the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Engineering Employers Federation. As I said a few moments ago, we are embarking on a programme of meetings with representatives of the CBI regions to push “train to gain”, the skills pledge and apprenticeships in particular.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman recognises the role of small businesses; incidentally, I am very glad that he has been appointed Secretary of State, because he will do an absolutely first-class job. However, can he confirm that figures from his own Department reveal that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs—has gone up from 154,000 in 1997 to a staggering 206,000 in 2006? Is that figure not an absolute disgrace and an indictment of his Government?
Everyone recognises the challenge of those young people who are not in education, employment or training; the most recent figures for 16 and 17-year-olds are actually down, which is welcome. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families set out a number of measures on 5 November to strengthen our current work. In particular, we will ensure, through Connexions and other means, that we do not lose track of young people who drop out of the system and that there are no artificial barriers, time delays and so on to bringing young people back into training when we can encourage them back.
The hon. Gentleman will perhaps share my disappointment that his party is opposed to the aim of raising the participation age for these young people so that each of these 16 and 17-year-olds is either in work with training or in education. Given his concern about these issues, I hope that he will speak to his Front-Bench team and persuade them to change their policy.
Given the Secretary of State’s previous answer, I think that he has missed the point. Under the previous Conservative Government, when I was in business we took on young people and trained them on the job. They went away for academic education once a week and obtained a qualification at the end. That is because they wanted to be there, rather than because they were forced to be there. Was not the Conservative Government’s approach better?
No, because what went hand in hand with the Conservative Government’s approach was huge numbers of long-term young unemployed people who were out of work year after year. The new deal has achieved an end to that long-term youth unemployment. There is an issue to address concerning young people who are in and out of work. Too many young people are not engaged in education, work or training, but what we are doing, both in the short term and by raising the participation age, is the best way of ensuring that that group of young people does not slip through the system. Because we will introduce diplomas and strengthen the apprenticeship system, the offer in place for young people will be of higher quality than we have been able to provide in the past. That is the attraction that will keep them in the system.