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Apprenticeships (England)

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 29 November 2007

In the light of the difficulties that arose yesterday—no time limit was imposed when there appeared to be a paucity of speakers, but when the debate began there was suddenly a sufficiency of speakers, creating a difficulty on the time limit situation—more careful examination of the Standing Order suggests that while the announcement of a time limit would ideally be made earlier in the day when, under perfect circumstances, all hon. Members who wish to speak in a debate have let Mr. Speaker know of their desire, it is still possible for one to be announced at the start of a debate. I realise that this gives no notice to Back Benchers, but it may be wise under the circumstances for me to impose a time limit of 10 minutes on Back-Bench speeches. I hope that we shall thereby be able to have a complete debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of future prospects for apprenticeships in England.

The Government are determined to build on the foundations laid over the past 10 years to accelerate the growth of apprenticeships over the next decade.

Does the Minister share my surprise that this debate is a topical debate, notwithstanding the fact that no Member of the House applied for it to be the topical debate for this week?

I think that what is available for our young people by way of vocational qualifications, employment, education and training is topical in families and schools up and down country. I also think that the debate is topical given that the Prime Minister has made announcements on apprenticeships in the past few days. On that basis, I am pleased to be in the House to make this statement.

On the matter of topicality, will the Minister join me in congratulating the apprentices of Babcock Marine, to whom I hope to present some awards tonight and who are the first such to graduate since the company was taken over? They have a great interest in knowing that the future of apprenticeships is secure, unlike during the 1990s, when there were no apprenticeships at the dockyard, the biggest employer in the west country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course I congratulate the young people in her constituency on all that they have achieved.

I start with a quotation from Sir Terry Leahy, the chief executive of Tesco:

“I am a huge fan of apprenticeships because I have seen what they can do for individuals and also what they have done for my business.”

Many top business leaders in this country share that conviction. It has been my great privilege over the past few months to travel the country visiting employers and apprenticeships, from meeting sheet metal workers in Huddersfield and seeing the recent launch of the media apprenticeships with the BBC in Manchester to seeing apprenticeships last week in Birmingham and talking to electricians in that area this week. Apprenticeships are vital and employers say that they are important to their productivity.

I accept the popularity of apprenticeships among employers. Does the Minister accept, however, that they are not popular enough among employees, given that only about 40 per cent. of people complete their apprenticeship? If we could be much more rigorous in defining what constitutes an apprenticeship, they would become more popular, by which I mean that more than 50 per cent. of people would complete them.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong: the completion rate for apprenticeships is now 63 per cent. It has gone up from the dire situation in which there was little or no inspection for apprenticeships and in which less than a quarter of them were completed. When the hon. Gentleman speaks to employers, he will find that they say that there are always many more young people than they can provide apprenticeships for.

Order. It is easier if the Minister can make a quick decision as to whom among these many Members he wishes to call. Perhaps Mr. Hayes would like to intervene on him first, and Mr. Sheridan later.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Minister is right to say that the number of completions has risen from a very low base. Will he give us some comparative data? What, for example, is the completion rate for apprenticeships in Germany?

The hon. Gentleman will know that Germany has a long-standing position on apprenticeships relative to the rest of the world. He will also know that we have been building apprenticeships up, given that there were only 75,000 in this country in 1997. He is not comparing like with like, because in the end, apprenticeships depend on investment from the Government and on employers being willing to take them up on that basis. That had not been the case here in the past.

The Minister referred earlier to the BBC. This ambitious plan applies only to England, and not to Scotland. How will that impact on Government Departments, public bodies such as the BBC, and Ministry of Defence establishments in which people wish to apply for an apprenticeship?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He will know that we are in constant dialogue on this matter; I have spoken several times to my opposite number in Scotland. This is a devolved issue, but across the UK we can all share the desire to see an increase in the number of apprenticeships. I shall talk later about the fact that there is huge scope to increase apprenticeships in the public sector. That will include the armed services as well as the BBC and others.

I should like to make some progress before I give way again.

I should like to put on record the success of our British world skills team in Shizuoka, Japan, just a few weeks ago. We came 11th out of 46, and we won four medals and nine medallions of excellence. I pay tribute to Gary Tuddenham, who won the cabinet-making gold medal for this country. Of course, he was an apprentice. I also recognise that many hon. Members were apprentices, including Mr. Speaker, who was a sheet metal working apprentice. I hope that all hon. Members will support the drive to increase apprenticeships. That should be a cross-party desire.

Apprenticeships contribute to the development of a fairer, more inclusive society. In a fast-changing world, they help people to acquire the skills that will secure a better future for themselves and their children. In that sense, the economic rationale for them is clear. More than that, however, I believe that their ethos contributes strongly to people’s personal development. In my maiden speech, I argued that we must invest in people’s souls as well as in their skills. Apprenticeships do more than equip people for work; they equip them for life.

To be an apprentice is to be mentored, to learn through real-life experience and to build relationships with those who have something to pass on. Apprenticeships provide the structure, direction and routine that are sometimes missing from the lives of young people. At a time when people worry about the shortage of role models for young people, and about the risk that young men, in particular, will drift into gangs, the positive relationships that an apprenticeship provides can clearly work wonders.

Does the Minister agree that the kind of apprenticeships that he is describing, which are work based and have a mentor with the specific skill that the apprentice is being trained in, are by far the most popular, and the most likely to lead to employment? What percentage of all apprenticeships are work based?

We are talking about an increase of 250,000 apprenticeships at this time, and they are work based. I suspect that behind the hon. Lady’s question is the idea of programme apprenticeships, of which there are more than 24,000. Those apprenticeships are important as well, and I would encourage Opposition Members to look carefully at them before condemning them. There is a group of young people who do not yet quite meet the standard necessary to take up an apprenticeship. The opportunity to do a programme apprenticeship for a year, often based in a college, will often enable them to get to a place where they can take up an apprenticeship, so they are worth while. They are not included within our overall figures.

The hon. Gentleman must be straightforward about this. When Professor Alison Fuller gave evidence to the House of Lords inquiry into apprenticeships recently, she said that many apprenticeships had

“zero involvement from the employer”.

Was she telling the truth?

As I have said, there are 24,580 programme apprenticeships, which are college based and provide young people with a route into apprenticeships. In that figure is included young apprenticeships—for young people in schools—and pre-apprenticeships, which prepare young people for taking up an apprenticeship. Business and industry are saying that they want to be in schools so that they can expose young people below the age of 16 to those sectors. That is all worth while, notwithstanding our desire to grow apprenticeships.

On the question of popularity, I should like to tell the House that young people in my constituency have benefited from a 95 per cent. increase in the number of apprenticeships in the past 12 months. That is very significant; it is one of the highest rates in the country. Does the Minister think that there might be a role for apprenticeships in dealing with some of the issues that we have just been considering in the statement on the future of Remploy factories? Will he comment on the possibility of providing apprenticeships for some of the younger disabled people who are currently working in Remploy factories? Also, does he think that the present rate of take-up of apprenticeships would be as easy to continue if there were no increase in the participation age in education and training to 18 years? The Opposition are arguing for no change—

Order. Interventions should be short at all times, but especially in topical debates. The Minister’s time is being taken up.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on that contribution. I share his praise for everyone in the learning and training sector in his constituency for getting the rate up. He is absolutely right: following the Leitch report, my Department and the Department for Work and Pensions have the key job of looking again at employability and skills together. That must include programmes and appropriate apprenticeships for those with disabilities, and we will continue to do that. If I may, I will answer his last question later in my speech.

I went through an apprenticeship scheme in the 1960s, along with 250 other colleagues. We were there to supply fitters, electricians, blacksmiths and welders to the mines of south-east Northumberland. Before we even set foot in the workplace, we had a year’s full-time education and training. That is a good model to continue for the future.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes the case better than anyone for the benefit of vocational training in schools as well as in the workplace.

Alongside the new diplomas, apprenticeships will give a real quality choice for young people and adults who want to learn. Whether they are taking a full-time diploma in college or an apprenticeship while at work, the future of vocational learning is, on that basis, a bright one. Apprenticeships will make a major contribution when we raise the school and training leaving age to 18 so that all young people can stay in education and training and work towards gaining the skills they need to progress into either higher education or employment.

In July we published “World Class Skills,” setting out how we plan to improve the skills of our people in order to compete successfully in the world economy. Apprenticeships are a major part of our strategy and we are committed to providing 400,000 apprenticeship places in England as our contribution to the overall aim of having 500,000 apprenticeships in the UK by 2020.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in order to fill our skills gap, we need to take very seriously the potential of young women in our society? What concrete steps will he take, together with his colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, to ensure that all our careers advisers and those in a position to offer advice to young people offer a full range of opportunities, particularly to young women, and to encourage them to think about taking apprenticeships in areas that they would not traditionally consider as suitable for them?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution. She is right that if young people are to take up apprenticeships, they need the right advice and guidance in schools. Legislation published today and the forthcoming education and skills Bill show that we—along with Connexions and independent advice and guidance counsellors—are trying to ensure that there is a standard across the country and that women in particular can gain access to that advice. I would also say to my hon. Friend that it is important that our sector skills councils are there, driving this agenda in their respective sectors. I was very pleased to see that Construction Skills is absolutely determined through its sector skill agreement to see more women take up opportunities in construction. We are seeing more women coming forward in that sector, although often a bit later, which is why adult apprenticeships are so important in order to allow people to take up those opportunities. That issue cuts to the heart of the apprenticeship review.

What are the Government going to do about the fact that many young people do not have the necessary English and maths even to achieve a level 2 apprenticeship qualification?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that a key component of apprenticeships is basic skills within the context of apprenticeships. We also hope to come forward with plans to develop functional skills within the context of our review, so that we can continue to develop skills in vocational training, whether it be through the diploma or apprenticeships.

There are currently around 250,000 apprentices. When we came to power, the figure had dropped alarmingly to barely 75,000. The country's proud tradition of apprenticeship had almost been wiped out by the previous Government; we were determined to reverse that, and we have done so. More than 130,000 employers already offer apprenticeships. We have also had great success in increasing the quality of apprenticeships.

Talking about the opportunities for employers to participate in providing more apprenticeships, does the Minister agree that one measure of the success of developing sites for the Olympics, for the Thames Gateway and for many other regeneration programmes will be the number of apprenticeship opportunities created by them and how they add to the skills base of this country’s work force?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was at the Olympic site a few months ago and was pleased to be able to announce an extra £5 million from the Learning and Skills Council precisely to ensure that young people and adults can secure apprenticeships and benefit from the need to acquire the necessary skills in their particular areas. Indeed, I met some young people who had gained apprenticeships in carpentry and joinery in preparation for the Olympics. My hon. Friend has thus raised a very good point. We also needed to improve the quality of apprenticeships, which we have done by ensuring quality inspection and by seeing poorer providers moved out of the system.

The comprehensive spending review has provided us with more funds to invest in apprenticeships. The total funding for adult skills and apprenticeships will rise to a record £5.3 billion a year by 2011. The Learning and Skills Council budget for the next three years has set aside enough funds to increase the number of apprenticeships in England in line with what the Prime Minister has said.

I am not giving way because I am running out of time.

Increasing the number of apprenticeships will not be an easy task. To give just one example, in London alone, despite the cohort of 100,000 young people, there are only about 5,000 apprenticeships. Indeed north London, which includes my own constituency, has the lowest proportion of apprenticeships in the country. We have set up a review in order to meet employers’ needs, to look again at the bureaucracy associated with apprenticeships and to assess important issues of equality and diversity as apprenticeships are taken forward. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already set out the fact that we need a matching service; following pilots, we will bring it forward.

The essential key to our ambition is to grow the number of apprenticeships—not just for the sake of charity, but because it is beneficial to the country, beneficial to business, beneficial to the young people who take up these opportunities and because it goes to the heart of what community is. It is all about passing learning and skills on to the next generation so that we can be a powerhouse in the world into the future.

Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House of the tight rules that apply to Front-Bench speeches. They have one minute added for every intervention up to 10 or up to six in the case of the Liberal Democrat spokesman. If Back Benchers take all those opportunities, they will be reducing the number of Members who can speak in the debate by about three.

It is for that reason, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I will not take many interventions, as I do not want to deprive Back Benchers of their chance to speak.

We welcome the Government’s announcement of a draft Bill on apprenticeships in this parliamentary Session. Frankly, however, if the Prime Minister were serving an apprenticeship on leadership, the report on his progress so far would suggest that he had neither the aptitude nor the skills for the job. Nevertheless, we support the aspiration of increasing the number of apprentices in training, but let us be clear that these announcements follow 10 years of the Government’s failing to develop an attractive pathway for vocational learning.

I have to say that we have heard so much of all these aspirations before. Back in 1997, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer talked about the significance and importance of apprenticeships. In his 1998 Budget speech, he said that he needed to deal with the skills shortages that were holding back our economy. He said much the same in 1999—that we needed to make a “quantum leap” in skills. In 2001, he spoke again of our duty to invest in skills—and so on and so forth. Yet, as the Government’s own report on skills, commissioned by the then Chancellor and completed by Lord Leitch, said, after 10 years of Labour Government, Britain is suffering from a fundamental skills shortage—some would call it a skills crisis—which is having a dramatic effect on our competitiveness.

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who is a very important man.

That is very kind. I think I am right in saying that there are sectors and age ranges where the drop-out rate is as high as 60 per cent. Does my hon. Friend believe that we could deal with it if we were much more rigorous about what constituted an apprenticeship and what accreditation was provided or might not that start to constrain some of the available opportunities?

My hon. Friend, with his usual perspicacity, has hit on the very nub of the weakness in the Minister’s argument. He is right in two respects. The Minister shakes his head, but he is wrong to do so. He knows that completion rates in, for instance, retail and health care are well below average: indeed, fewer than 50 per cent. of apprentices in those areas complete their apprenticeships.

My hon. Friend is also right in suggesting that what the Government have done over those 10 years is re-badge a whole batch of training which, while worth while of its kind, is not what most people regard as an apprenticeship. In the eyes of most members of the public and, indeed, most Members of Parliament, an apprentice is an eager young learner acquiring, at the side of an experienced craftsman, a key competence that is likely to increase his or her employability and to fill a market need. Sadly, many apprenticeships do not now meet that definition, as I shall explain in my short but stimulating peroration.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his very good definition of apprenticeship. Could he find any models of master-craftsman Ministers in the Government to whom all the struggling Ministers could look? I am rather challenged to think who might fulfil that role.

I do not want to digress, but I think that most of the mentors might be drawn from the ranks of former senior Ministers on our side of the Chamber, although I do not want to flatter my right hon. Friend unduly.

I am most grateful.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is taking an historical perspective. Does he agree that one of the reasons why there was such a serious decline in training and apprenticeships is the massive de-industrialisation that took place during the Conservative years, along with the widespread privatisation of the public sector, which used to provide tens of thousands of apprenticeships for our people? Does he also agree that we can now expand the public sector and develop direct employment as a basis for further training and apprenticeships in the future?

The hon. Gentleman has a noble record of concern and knowledge in this field. I know that he is committed to the principle of apprenticeships that teach and test real competences, but I have no intention of debating the ancient history which I know is his preoccupation. What can be truthfully said is that Governments of all political persuasions, and parties in this Chamber of all colours, have a key responsibility to ensure that those young people and others who engage in apprenticeships study matters that increase their employability. That should be the acid test of apprenticeships. When someone signs up as an apprentice, the least that we owe that person is to ensure that when he or she has completed the course successfully, he or she will be employable. If we do not do so we shall be cheating apprentices, and cheating employers as well.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend did not return to the past, because I am, perhaps, one of the few people in the Chamber who have taken people on and given them what I think we would call an apprenticeship. The key to it was that they worked in the business, went away for professional training, and were given a job at the end of it. Some actually became directors of my company. That is what apprenticeship is about: it is not about some fuzzy training that does not involve any part in the business.

I too was a business man, although altogether less distinguished than my hon. Friend. Like him, I found that training of that kind was both efficacious for business and right for the people being trained. It gives people a sense of accomplishment based on the recognition that they have gained something of use in terms of their future employability.

When I embarked on my description of apprenticeships, the Minister began to look disappointed. I do not want to disappoint him in turn, but he is not half as disappointed as the young people aged between 16 and 24—more than a million of them—who are not in education, employment or training, and he is not half as disappointed as those of us here, in all parties, who regard the fact that that number has grown by 15 per cent. since his party came to office as one of the biggest indictments of the Government over the past 10 years. So many shattered dreams; so many broken lives. Reducing the number of NEETs depends on making training more attractive to both potential learners and potential employers.

I do not want to make what I think should be a cross-party debate too partisan, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have reduced long-term unemployment and scrapped the youth training scheme which left many of my contemporaries on the dole for months and years on end. I would add that rounding up the figures to include students on gap years does the hon. Gentleman’s case little service.

The Minister really must learn to be more precise about numbers. The 15 per cent. figure that I gave is based on exactly the same measurement as was used in 1997. It included gap-year students then, and it includes them now. It is true that not every single one of those NEETs is a hapless and helpless young person desperately seeking a job or training, but I estimate that a very large proportion of those 1 million young people fall into that category, and that is not good enough. It is not good enough for the Government, and it is not good enough for the House. We all have a responsibility, and I share the view that this is something that we should all take very seriously indeed.

My hon. Friend has spoken of the skills crisis. Has he thought about the fact that a number of skills—particularly creative skills such as thatching and gold-leaf signage—are in danger of dying out? He will recall that when York Minster burnt down, the whole country had to be scoured to find enough stonemasons and wood-carvers. Those may be creative skills that do not occur to some young people, but could be offered to them at careers advice level.

My hon. Friend has heard me speak many times about the need to elevate craft, and to recognise that the accomplishments delivered through the acquisition of craft skills are not only important in terms of the difference that they make to individual lives but important to all our lives, for the very reasons that she gave. I hope that—in the non-partisan way that the Minister described—the debate will stimulate a real recognition of the significance and value of craft: the beginning of an understanding that it is not only academic prowess that matters, and that for millions of individual Britons, and for the whole of Britain, craft skills count.

We fear that imposing a target of the kind described by the Minister for the number of apprenticeships—a target that owes more to the desire to make a political impact than to the measurement of economic need—will cause apprenticeship numbers to grow at the expense of quality. Moreover, we fear that that has been the case over the past 10 years. Earlier I defined most people’s understanding of an apprenticeship as the teaching and testing of real craft competences, but the reality has become very different. Many apprenticeships are virtual affairs. As the adult learning inspectorate warned in its final days—and in the light of its warning, it is perhaps no surprise that it was abolished—

“some apprentices can potentially achieve the full requirements of the apprenticeship framework without having to set foot in a workplace”.

I have already mentioned the evidence given to the inquiry carried out recently by the House of Lords, which suggested that many apprenticeships featured

“zero involvement from the employer”.

The inquiry was also told that in reality apprenticeships could mean simulated work-based provision rather than training in a real workplace. The Government may claim that the number of apprenticeships has increased since 1997, but, as the House of Lords inquiry reported,

“most of this increase has been as a result of converting government-supported programmes of work-based learning into apprenticeship.”

All that training is below level 3—the accepted level of apprenticeship before 1997—and the reality is that much has been a glorified rebranding exercise.

That is not to say that some—much, indeed—of this training does not have value. I acknowledge what the Under-Secretary said: it might be good—or virtuous, even—to provide training that allows people, particularly NEETs, to gain their first experience of such education and to return to learning. After all, many such people have been cheated the first time round, because of the paucity of their experience at school.

As the Minister for Schools and Learners is present, we should, perhaps, remind him yet again that according to written parliamentary answers more than 40,000 young people a year leave school functionally illiterate and/or innumerate. If that remains the case, it will be unsurprising if many drift into unemployment. The fact that the Under-Secretary claimed in response to an earlier intervention that one of the purposes of apprenticeships is to provide basic skills is proof that apprenticeships have been re-branded. That is nothing like the original concept of apprenticeship—which I should add, for the Under-Secretary’s benefit, is rooted in our past as well as Germany’s.

Just for the record, it is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that what I said was that basic skills are a component of all apprenticeships.

Yes, but the Under-Secretary must not give the impression that that is the place where most people should acquire their basic skills. I have two small sons—both of them are lovely and, to be frank, I would rather be with them now than here in the Chamber. I would be furious if either of them could not learn to read, write and count by the time they left primary school, still less secondary school. Barring very special conditions or special needs, no child should leave school at 16 functionally illiterate and innumerate. The acquisition of those skills at school should be the entitlement of every parent and child.

May I ask the hon. Gentleman how furious he was in 1997, when 100,000 fewer children were leaving primary school with the required level of literacy and numeracy?

I can remember very little from 1997, apart from the triumphant victory the Conservatives achieved in South Holland and The Deepings.

To call training that is not a legitimate or real apprenticeship by that name risks diluting the brand—a brand which, as the Under-Secretary said, is universally respected and understood. To do so is not fair to employers and cheats learners.

My hon. Friend is making a good point about how apprenticeships should not primarily be about remedial teaching of English and maths skills. Is it not the case that because they are going that way, we now have more level 2 and fewer level 3 apprenticeships, whereas we need more at level 3?

I am coming on to that very point, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for reminding me that I need to do so swiftly.

As has been implied, the problems I refer to have been exacerbated by the programme-led apprenticeships that were introduced in 2003, which enable apprentices to begin their training at a college or training provider even though they have yet to secure a work placement. A survey by the adult learning inspectorate found that colleges were to told to rebrand learners as apprentices simply because they were working towards qualifications which were also part of the apprenticeship framework. Overnight, the number of apprentices increased by more than 30,000, yet only 3,000 of them actually progressed to a full apprenticeship with a work placement. That was sleight of hand, and it diverted attention from a fact that has been raised: fewer people are currently studying for traditional work-based apprenticeships at level 3 than when Labour came to power.

The Government’s own figures—[Interruption.] It appears that the Under-Secretary is looking aside for guidance from his officials. I suspect, however, that he knows very well that the Office for National Statistics figures—I am happy to give them to him before the wind-up, if he wishes—show that the number of level 3 apprenticeships has fallen by 34,000 since the turn of the decade. A graph in a House of Lords report—[Interruption]—which my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has to hand, confirms those data, and it is neither fair nor reasonable to pretend that the growth in level 2 numbers compensates for that fundamental weakness at level 3. Lord Leitch identified it in his comprehensive report, the House of Lords report identified it, and the Government’s own answers to written questions confirm it.

Is it not manifestly obvious that some of the people who some years ago would have been doing an apprenticeship are now going on to university, which indicates rising levels of achievement? Secondly, how does the hon. Gentleman expect to get more people in apprenticeships at level 3 without boosting the number on apprenticeships at level 2?

The hon. Gentleman is trying to help his Front-Bench colleague, but I do not think that that is the argument that the Under-Secretary was making.

I think that the hon. Gentleman would confirm that there were 75,000 apprenticeships in 1997. I can tell him that there are now more than 98,000 level 3 apprenticeships. It is axiomatic that there are more level 3 apprenticeships under this Government than there were under the previous Administration.

Well, the Under-Secretary can trade figures with me, but I have to hand the figures for the last year for which reliable data are available, from the House of Lords report published earlier this year. They show a steady decline in the number of level 3 apprenticeships since 2000. I am happy to let the Under-Secretary have these figures, and he can examine them before he sums up the debate.

The truth of the matter is that the Under-Secretary knows in his heart that there has been a trade-off between level 2 and level 3 training. The lack of employer engagement and the different degrees of genuine practical experience help to account for vastly different outcomes between Britain and other countries with established apprenticeship systems.

I mentioned earlier that Germany had a higher completion rate. The figure that the Under-Secretary was reluctant to give us is that in Germany 79 per cent. of apprentices complete their training. In countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, offers of apprenticeships enable individual firms to signal skills needs to young people—

In view of the number of Members wishing to speak in the debate, I will endeavour to keep my remarks much briefer than the 10 minutes allocated to me.

Let me first highlight the relevance and topicality of apprenticeships. Hardly a single conversation passes between me and my constituents about the regeneration work in, and needs of, Stoke-on-Trent without the issue of apprentices being mentioned. This is an extremely important debate, and I am delighted to be taking part in it.

I was saddened and disappointed by the contribution of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). I feel very sorry for the almost 2,000 young people in Stoke-on-Trent alone who have completed their apprenticeships over the past four years. To listen to Opposition Members, one would think that they were worth nothing. I resent that on behalf of those young people, because I think those qualifications are extremely valuable, and I look forward to their having fantastic careers and futures.

There is a huge opportunity for my constituency, the wider city of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire, and I am delighted that my Front-Bench colleagues are taking through the proposals to widen and expand the scope for apprenticeships. Whether in construction or IT, health care or new growth areas—such as those that are climate change-related, or to do with new technologies or logistics, which is a strong and growing sector in north Staffordshire—there are great opportunities for young people to get involved and learn many skills that will be of practical use to them in future. To take one example, the logistics industry makes use of a wide range of skills, from those of an HGV driver to those of a picker/packer.

Many young people tell me that they have paper qualifications but they really need practical experience. That is why apprenticeships are so valuable in providing opportunities. Much comment has been made about the need to bring in workers from other countries to take some highly skilled jobs, and it is incumbent on the Government and on employers to ensure that home-grown talent is trained and given every opportunity to take up such jobs. We need to embrace workers who come to contribute their skills to this country, but that must be alongside the utilisation of the potential and skills of our young people.

One of the barriers to apprenticeships is the size of some businesses. For example, many of the firms involved in construction in Stoke-on-Trent are one-man operations—I use the term advisedly because most of them are exactly that.

I should declare an interest in that I served an apprenticeship in the construction industry. Does my hon. Friend agree that the massive skills gap in the construction industry was caused in large part by the Government encouraging construction industry tradesmen to become self-employed on 714 or SE60 certificates in the 1980s and 1990s? That meant that there was no longer any incentive, or indeed finance, to take on apprentices.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The “white van man” phenomenon and self-employment were good in terms of ensuring that we have an enterprise culture, but it is difficult for such small businesses to offer apprenticeships to young people. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to continue to pay close attention to these matters. I hope that he will ensure that those very small firms get the support—and, where necessary, financial help—to enable them to give young people opportunities to learn crucial skills.

The need for such skills is evident in north Staffordshire. Thanks to the Government, a new hospital is being built in Stoke-on-Trent. We are having a few difficulties with the building schools for the future programme at the moment, but I hope that we will soon see some brand new schools and the refurbishment of existing schools, as part of that £200 million programme. A brand new oncology department and maternity unit are also being built in the area.

We are also one of the nine housing market renewal pathfinder areas, and the renew programme has already brought £67.5 million of Government-backed money into north Staffordshire. That investment has levered in many millions more in additional private sector funding to rebuild and refurbish houses in the area. In the construction industry alone, many job opportunities are being created and it is important that they give rise to apprenticeships, so that young people can get involved and make a fantastic contribution to their communities—where they will be able to see the fruits of their labour—as well as learning valuable skills for the future.

I apologise to other employers in Stoke-on-Trent about whom I will not have a chance to speak, but the developer at Weston Heights—formerly known as Coalville—has engaged local young people on apprenticeships, and it is fantastic to see them engaged in building their own communities. That is to be celebrated.

I hope that when my hon. Friend winds up, he will talk about pay for apprenticeships. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned “ancient history”, and it is amazing how anything that happened more than 10 years ago is given that description. Under previous Administrations, young people on apprenticeships were often glorified tea-boys and girls, and paid accordingly. The national minimum wage certainly did not exist.

We need to persuade business to take on apprentices, not to force them. It is important to take the business community with us, and most of it does see the value in apprentices. However, we should perhaps apply a little force when the Government are letting contracts, when it should be a condition that local people be offered apprenticeships and given the opportunity to make a contribution. The contracts should include minimum numbers for such jobs.

Indeed, but colleagues would suffer injury if I were to give way and thus take longer than appropriate.

I mentioned the importance of apprenticeships in providing experience to add to the skills gained in education. Given the Government’s intention to increase the leaving age for education—in its widest sense—to 18, it is important to have a wide range of opportunities in place, so that young people have a choice post-16. NEETs have been mentioned, and apprenticeships must be at the heart of the opportunities offered to young people.

Under this Government, apprenticeships have flourished, are flourishing and, I hope, will flourish. It is a great shame that the Opposition have missed the opportunity to support and applaud the Government’s work in overturning the previous paucity of provision. We should all get behind these proposals.

I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), but it is a genuine pleasure to me to take part in the debate. I hope that my first opportunity to speak from the Front Bench on this issue will be a positive experience. I shall stick to the remit of the future prospects for apprenticeships in England. There are concerns, and as a representative of an Opposition party, I shall voice those concerns, but I hope to do so constructively, because it is important—as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) said—to send a strong message on this issue.

As a representative of a Welsh constituency, I realise that this is an English debate, although 100,000 of the 500,000 Government target will presumably be Welsh or Scottish apprenticeships. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about his liaison with the devolved Administrations, especially in Wales.

I do not doubt the target or the need, but I wish to raise some practical concerns. First, and fundamental, is the need to get employers positively engaged in apprenticeships and other work-based training. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East, it was revealed that there are 1 million businesses with one or more employees in England, but only 130,000 employers actively participate in the scheme. That needs to increase dramatically. I am reminded that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) asked the Minister last week who would be responsible for selling the need for apprenticeships to small and medium-sized enterprises.

That is a crucial issue. At present, only 13 per cent. of businesses are involved in apprenticeships, and there is a particular need to consider small businesses. Yesterday, there was a debate in Westminster Hall about further education in south Yorkshire. In that region, there is a shortfall of suitably sized businesses. Like many of my colleagues, I represent a rural constituency. How are we to involve companies in those areas? There are particular challenges in rural areas.

Funding for apprenticeships for the over-25s is significantly lower than for the under-19s. Leitch said that 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force will already have completed their compulsory education, so there is a pressing need for reskilling and upskilling—not only for young people, but for people who need to re-engage with new skills. We need to look into the message the funding regime sends people who have already fallen through cracks in the education system. They need to be confidently involved, which is why independent careers advice is so important for them.

After the last big expansion of the apprenticeship programme, completion rates fell. In 2001-02 they went down to 24 per cent., although they have significantly increased since. I applaud the increase but there is still a long way to go, and it requires proper active engagement with employers.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Can he explain, in the Liberal view, what should be the role of regional government in England in apprenticeship schemes?

I was about to refer to regionalism. Not just regional government but local government has a responsibility in these matters. There is a case for local and regional government to be more involved; they offer apprenticeships to 14 to 19-year-olds, and such schemes should be expanded so that we can build on some of the recommendations in the Lyons report about moulding educational programmes to local need, which is important.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that under the previous Government there were no apprenticeships, except in local government? The trade union movement undertook massive agitation for the reinstatement of apprenticeships.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation, which relates to a general point about public sector participation. When the Prime Minister made his speech in October, he talked of the need for more apprenticeships in the public sector—in local authorities, in the health service, in Whitehall, perhaps even in this place. We could follow the model of the Ministry of Defence, which has had some success in that regard.

New apprenticeships need to be more employer-based. I take the Minister’s point about people who may be struggling to reach a level 3 apprenticeship. As a former teacher, I am sensitive to the need to remember that apprenticeship is an individualised process. We sometimes get embroiled in an array of targets, but we are talking about individual people, so an individualised approach to learning and apprenticeships is fundamental. I will not lament programme-based apprenticeships, because the future has to lie with employer-based schemes, and we look forward to them.

Some points have been raised by charities. In light of the plans of the Department for Work and Pensions to get people off incapacity benefit, Barnardo’s pointed out that we need to help people with disabilities to take up supported apprenticeships. That is a resonant point in view of the statement we heard earlier. The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who is no longer in the Chamber, made the important point that we need to debunk some of the stereotypes about women in apprenticeships.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that in some areas of employment, notably retail, hospitality and the service industry, which seem to attract more women as employees, there is often no wage benefit after someone has completed an apprenticeship?

I cannot go into great detail on that point, but I very much concur with what the hon. Lady says.

In the Prime Minister’s speech on 31 October he announced a UCAS-style matching scheme. That proposal gets to the nub of the challenge facing the Government and all parties. Such a scheme would match young people with apprenticeships in every area, which is a huge challenge given the realm of sectors involved. The Association of Colleges has cited some sectors, such as electrical installation and telecoms, where if that matching process is to be a reality a huge amount of work will have to be undertaken to engage employers. We heard earlier, and during questions last week, about the challenges facing the building sector.

Demand for apprenticeships outstrips supply by a factor of 10, so if the UCAS-style model is to be valid for young people, there must be some equity. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we can sell these ideas. In a Westminster Hall debate, I referred to the need to sell the idea of apprenticeships to employers and schools. It is a huge agenda. Who will be responsible for it? Will it be the Learning and Skills Council or local government? It is essential that we get the message across.

I offer the House an example of a pioneering scheme from my constituency. Llwyn yr Eos school in Penparcau near Aberystwyth has established a young artisans club—children aged between seven and nine are involved in simple carpentry and joinery work. If we can do something like that for youngsters of that age, we have to achieve it further along the education system.

I am positive, but I am sceptical about targets. We need to see the substance that will result from the review in January and the Bill. The Liberal Democrats look forward with some enthusiasm to taking part in that debate—not uncritically, but recognising that it is fundamental if the targets identified by Leitch are to be realised.

Order. We have 30 minutes left, which will allow only three speakers if everyone sticks to the 10-minute rule. I do not want to micro-manage the debate any further, so I hope that Members will recognise the fact that others want to make a contribution.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Conscious of your comments, I shall try to stick to five minutes to enable my colleagues to contribute.

I am lucky enough to represent the city in which I was born and brought up—a city dominated by the naval dockyard, which has provided high-quality skilled jobs for Portsmouth people for centuries. I remember as a child seeing traffic coming to a standstill at outmuster time as thousands of dockyard workers exited the gates on their bicycles. When I was at school, the pinnacle of every young lad’s ambition—it was overwhelmingly lads—was to pass the dockyard entrance exam, get their apprenticeship and learn their trade, secure in the knowledge that with those skills they would be set up for life. As a result, Portsmouth did not have a large culture of going on to higher academic education.

Unfortunately, during the 1980s and 1990s—those long, depressing years of Tory rule, when the economy foundered and public funding was cut relentlessly—slowly but surely those apprenticeships died out. The dockyard was run down and later generations had no opportunity to learn a trade. As there was no family history of higher education, young people left school at 16 to be dumped on the scrapheap of the dole queue with no prospect of work, so more children were brought up living in poverty with neither parent in work.

It is no wonder that in my constituency, when this Government took office in 1997, there was generational unemployment, lack of aspiration, poor educational results and poor health. Like me, the people of my constituency have not forgotten who was responsible, even though the Conservatives have reinvented themselves and seem to have selective memories. It is important to remember that we cannot solve 18 years of neglect overnight. Two generations of unemployment, poverty and lack of aspiration take a long time to turn around.

In the past 10 years, Labour’s massive investment in public services has delivered real improvements. In Portsmouth, we have seen huge improvements in educational attainment since 1997. Back then, only 25 per cent. of young people got five good GCSEs. We have now doubled that to 50 per cent., but that is not good enough because it means that half our young people are still missing out. The issue is not just about qualifications; it is about boosting confidence and self-esteem so that young people believe that they can achieve, and can go on to further and higher education.

I wholeheartedly support raising the education participation age to 18 and I am saddened, but not entirely surprised, that the Conservative party opposes our plans. The Conservatives did nothing to raise aspirations for ordinary working class kids when they were in power, so why should they be any different now? Raising the education participation age to 18 is not about forcing young people to stay on at school. Training is the key word. Building on the Leitch review of skills, we are not simply saying that all young people must continue studying academically for another two years. I want vocational skills to be accorded the same respect as academic skills, and I want those skills to be nurtured in a proper training workplace environment, as part of a modern, structured apprenticeship. Apprenticeships can be a route to high-level professional skills. For example, the Association of Accounting Technicians offers a vocational route to entry into professional accounting qualifications.

I am concerned about others having time to make speeches, but given that my hon. Friend probably will not get to make a speech, I shall give way.

I am most grateful. My hon. Friend is talking about the way in which training should take place. Will she acknowledge that, for the chemical process industry, a general science GCSE is not acceptable? We have to teach physics, chemistry and maths if we are to have apprentices with the qualities that the industry requires.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The teaching of science is important. If people do not get those science qualifications, they will not have the skills to compete in the global marketplace. We have to look at how those subjects are being taught in schools, to make them relevant and to get young people interested in science-based subjects at a much earlier age.

We have to harness talent and work towards developing world-class skills. Raising the age at which individuals leave education or training is vital, not just as a message of individual economic prosperity for people, but as a tool of social justice, to ensure that in families that have suffered generations of unemployment, young people have the chance to succeed. It is also good for the British economy. As I said, we face ever-increasing globalisation, and ever-increasing competition from places such as China and the United States, so it is more vital than ever that we have a highly skilled, well-educated work force.

That is also important for the social glue that binds our communities together. A family in which the parents have had access to good quality training and skills, and have aspirations for the future for themselves and their children, is a family in which the parents will be good role models for their children so that generational unemployment is replaced by generational aspiration.

I am still slightly bemused as to why this subject was regarded by the Leader of the House as the hot topic of the week. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was on the right lines when he said that perhaps the Government want to point out that the fact that the Prime Minister has had a 10-year apprenticeship does not necessarily mean that he is any good at the job at the end of it. There certainly seems to be evidence that if the current fundraiser for the Labour party had had an apprenticeship, he might have realised that what he was doing, which he thought was lawful, was actually unlawful.

May I help my hon. Friend with his confusion about why this subject has been chosen for today’s debate? Could the decision relate in any way to the fact that the Prime Minister gave a speech last Monday on climate change, and the hot topic for the debate on the subsequent Thursday was climate change? This Monday, the Prime Minister spoke on skills and apprenticeships, and this Thursday we are debating them.

Order. May I help both hon. Gentlemen? Such limited time as there is ought to be devoted strictly to the topic that is before the House.

Absolutely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is why I am going to start off with a dictionary definition of an apprentice, which is very much in tune with what my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings has been saying. The New Oxford Dictionary of English, second edition, 2003, defines an apprentice as:

“A person who is learning a trade from a skilled employer having agreed to work for a fixed period at low wages”.

That is what the general public understands by “an apprentice”. To be an apprentice is a privilege and a good thing. There are a host of families—thousands of families—who hope that they will be able to get their children into apprenticeships.

The Government, however, have devalued the word “apprentice” so that it is no longer the subject of pride. Indeed, if we allow an apprentice to be regarded as somebody who has not even got the basic skills in maths and English, we are in danger of reaching a stage at which a young person who says that they are an apprentice will be looked down on, instead of looked up to, as has traditionally been the case.

I will not, because we are all trying to make as much progress as possible.

The Government have devalued the currency of apprenticeships. To force businesses—this is what seems to be in the pipeline—to take on people who do not even have basic elementary skills in maths and English as apprentices will damage the competitiveness of our economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, in 1997, there were 75,000 apprentices. They were genuine apprentices. They had already attained level 2 qualifications and were aspiring to level 3 equivalent qualifications. The comparable figure today is 98,000. Let us compare 75,000 with 98,000.

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that completion rates in 1997 were poor and that it was important to increase level 2 apprenticeships so that young people could progress to level 3 apprenticeships, as well as to increase level 3 apprenticeships for young people who could move into an advanced apprenticeship straight away? We are talking about both, not either/or.

It is obviously important to raise the skills of all our young people. However, I am concerned that the Government have dumbed down the apprenticeship process.

It is important that we button down this point. Despite the Minister’s assertions, which are ill judged, it is clear that the number of level 3 apprenticeships has declined since 2000. The truth is that we have traded level 3 for level 2, as my hon. Friend said. That is not fair to learners and it is not right for employers. The Minister should acknowledge that, as I hope my hon. Friend will make clear.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the Prime Minister starts citing figures, why does he not compare the 75,000 figure in 1997 with the 98,000 figure now? I concede that there are now more apprenticeships than in 1997. However, between 1997 and 2000, the number rose higher than it is now. Since about 2000, the number of level 3 equivalent apprenticeships has declined. The change is going in the wrong direction.

It is absolutely clear from the figures that the Minister—I am sure that this is not deliberate, or at least I hope so—is not comparing like with like. He compared a figure of 75,000 for 1996-97 with one of more than 250,000 today. However, those figures relate to completely different things, so I hope that he will set the record straight in his winding-up speech.

I think that we have done that for the Minister. We have put the spotlight on this issue. We must make it clear that when the Government talk about apprenticeships, they are talking about something of a much lower grade than when the Opposition were in government.

My hon. Friend’s comments about maths and English qualifications are absolutely right. Does he agree that an exception could be made for students who have been in special education, who might take a bit longer to acquire necessary skills in an apprenticeship, but could become extremely reliable employees who would not get bored and tend to take days off by pretending to be ill?

I am with my hon. Friend absolutely on that. That was why I thought that yesterday’s threat by the Prime Minister of imposing minimum wage legislation on apprentices’ employers was a damaging development. The dictionary definition of “apprentice” that I cited makes it clear that an implicit aspect of being an apprentice is taking a lower wage to reflect a lack of experience and skills. There is a partnership between an employer and an apprentice under which the apprentice agrees to learn and work on the job, and the employer gives his time freely. Obviously, however, the employer cannot afford to give the apprentice the full wage that he would pay to someone who was fully qualified.

I will not give way again.

In reply to Question 10 during yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, which was asked by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), the Prime Minister seemed to be saying that he was thinking of extending the minimum wage legislation into the area of apprenticeships. However, that would be extremely damaging to the job prospects of those who aspire to become apprentices.

I am keen to ensure that more people in this country want to take on skills, especially in manufacturing. However, we will not achieve that aim if we start pretending that the role of employers is to prop up the failures of the state education system. About £50,000 of taxpayers’ money has been invested in the education of each child leaving school at the age of 16. The Government are now saying that because so much of that money has been wasted on those pupils who have not learned what they should have been learning in school, or have not been taught properly—those who have missed out on their right to learn—we will give another £3,000 per pupil to try to make all the difference post-16. That is not a solution; it is a sticking plaster over a problem that has become much worse under this Government.

I will not.

We all agree with the concept that apprenticeships are a good thing, but the way in which the Government have redefined them will ultimately prove to be the downfall of proper apprenticeships and will create a disincentive for people to take on apprenticeships and try to reach the level 3 A-level equivalent. Some people with an aptitude for manual trades might not be able to take academic A-levels, but be able to take on a good apprenticeship, for example in some of the aerospace firms that operate successfully in my constituency. Those firms are looking out for really good-quality applicants to become apprentices, such as people who might have been able to go to university, but choose instead to go into a trade in such a manufacturing industry. Indeed, the firms prefer to take people with the right aptitude and qualities straight from school because they find that those people are able to understand and work on the job to a much greater extent than those who have graduated from university, who are not necessarily so much in touch with reality.

I think that employers in my constituency want good quality placements for apprentices, especially in manufacturing. They do not like the idea of a new Bill that will centralise, control and redefine the concept of apprenticeships, while effectively putting a big burden on employers.

I take on board my hon. Friend’s point about micro-management and supply-side measures, but does he acknowledge that it is important to redefine apprenticeships to ensure that they are mentored and workplace-based, and does he agree that it is important that they deliver real competences; that group training associations might be helpful in that regard for smaller businesses; and that we need an all-age career service to advise young people on how to achieve apprenticeships that are in line with their aptitudes?

I have no disagreement with the points that my hon. Friend makes.

Let me make a suggestion. I am not sure whether it is yet the policy of my colleagues on the Front Bench, and it is certainly not yet Government policy. Incentivising young people to take apprenticeships is vital, and we know that the level of remuneration is critical to that, but there is no point in forcing employers to pay more than the economic rate; if we do, in the end they will not offer the apprenticeships. My suggestion is that the Government should offer national insurance credits to people in genuine apprenticeships. They would not have to pay national insurance contributions so long as they were in an apprenticeship. Also, people in genuine apprenticeships, particularly level 3 equivalent apprenticeships, should have an additional tax allowance before they have to start paying tax. What those young people are interested in is take-home pay—the money in their pocket at the end of the week. Instead of forcing employers to pay more, through higher wages and imposing the minimum wage, the Government, to help incentivise apprenticeships, should reduce the tax burden on those young people, who are the future of our country.

Finally, I was depressed to read a previous debate, in respect of an intervention in which my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings asked whether the taxpayer incentives in apprenticeship schemes should apply only to British citizens. I would have thought that that was vital, because we have limited resources; they should go to British apprentices, rather than to those from foreign countries.

As chairman of the all-party skills group and a member of the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills, which hopes to scrutinise the apprenticeship reform Bill, I think that today’s debate is extremely topical. I am extremely proud of the Government’s record and achievements on the subject. Those Opposition Members who came to snipe, not speak, should be ashamed of themselves.

In the brief time available to me, I want to make two or three key points. There has been a lot of discussion in the debate about the nature, structure, and other aspects of apprenticeships. We need to look at the structure of apprenticeships and the progression process; that is clear from research that is being conducted and from the round table discussions held in the House at the beginning of the month, in which the Minister and I took part with a range of people from the sector. The London figures that he quoted amplify that point.

There is no getting away from the fact that completion rates are improving. They have gone from 24 per cent. in 2001 to 62 per cent. today, but we need to look carefully and clearly at whether we need to do something about the structure of apprenticeships, particularly for those people who are coming back to reskill. We have to consider whether a greater combination of on-work activity and apprenticeship activity, and perhaps a modular approach in some cases, will increase completion rates. That is important. It is particularly important for women who are coming back into the sector to reskill, and who may need time out for caring and other duties.

Does my hon. Friend accept that some apprenticeships are of very good quality? I can give examples from my constituency, where there is an excellent partnership between Durham community business college and a further education college; they have a centre of excellence. Those good quality apprenticeships are responsible for pushing up completion rates from 707 two years ago to more than 1,300 now. That is why we should be supporting and extending apprenticeships.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and she makes the point well that the co-operation of universities and others is key to what we need to do. We also need a culture change at an earlier stage in schools, because without the right sort of careers guidance, if the right attitudes are not inculcated in schools and without the involvement of hands-on advisers from businesses and organisations, people will not take up apprenticeships later. This is a whole-school and whole-area option.

In the various announcements that we heard from the Secretary of State on Monday, I was impressed by his focus on an all-age solution. Adult apprenticeships, particularly in the area of re-skilling, where we know there is a demographic gap, are key. We must get that right. We must review advice and guidance. I look forward to seeing how the Government take forward the ambitious ideas for a personal career and advancement scheme.

In my constituency in Blackpool, we have a large number of small and medium-sized businesses. The Government’s involvement and support are critical, so I welcome the £90 million announced on Monday. My further education college, for example, has a virtual restaurant—it serves food, and for training purposes the structure is exactly the same as that of an ordinary restaurant. That is the sort of on-the-job work that is necessary. If we are to achieve the improvements that we want in Blackpool as part of our regeneration programmes, such an approach is important, as is investment in the public sector. I agree with the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) of a requirement on firms taking public sector contracts. We may need some age-proofing requirements as well.

In conclusion, the debate is timely. It is right that the Government should take the time to examine the structure of apprenticeships and how we define and run them. It is also right that the Government should take no lessons from the Opposition, with honourable exceptions. I would exempt my hon. Friend—he is a friend—the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who has done sterling work in the all-party group. There is no comparison between the record of the present Government and the record of Opposition. The fact that their spokespeople—the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), for example—downgrade, snipe at and criticise the vocational measures that we are introducing underlines the point.

I hope we can agree that the debate has been topical and interesting. I pay tribute to my Lib Dem colleague, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), and to all my hon. Friends. We are all agreed about the importance of apprenticeships to the country and to young people and their families.

It is a shame that Conservative Members were not prepared to move on from the position that we inherited in 1997, when apprenticeships were at an all-time low and the only offer for young people not able to take up an apprenticeship or go to university was the failed youth training scheme. None of them was prepared to mention that.

I shall deal with some of the points that hon. Members raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) spoke about small businesses and how we could encourage more of them to offer apprenticeships. He is right to say that our review should examine that point carefully. I was up in Birmingham last week, where the Birmingham electrical training unit is acting as a hub for small businesses in that area and providing apprenticeships in those small businesses. We may well develop that model further.

Will my hon. Friend visit the north-east and the north-east chemical industries cluster? Those small industries together produce an excellent training apprenticeship at level 3. It would be a great pleasure for him to visit. More than 90 per cent. of the youngsters who join the scheme end their apprenticeship brilliantly.

The north-east was the first area that I visited in this ministerial post. I am happy to return, particularly following the announcement of the new skills academies for the processing industries in that area.

The Minister will not go to Scotland, because it lies outside his remit. However, he will be aware that the Commission for Employment and Skills applies to Scotland. Will he undertake to convey his positive impression of apprenticeships to the Scottish National party Administration, who have put a freeze on apprenticeships?

I am aware of that freeze. I talk to my opposite number in Scotland all the time about skills issues and the benefit of apprenticeships. The Government are not alone in talking about apprenticeships. When the Opposition condemn apprenticeships, they should remember that companies such as British Telecom, British Gas, Tesco, Rolls-Royce, BMW, Ford, BAE Systems and Toyota all support apprenticeships, which are fundamental to this country. Those industries, businesses and companies are testimony to the expansion that we have made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South has mentioned pay. Following the apprenticeship review, we will refer the matter to the Low Pay Commission again.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry)—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to Temporary Standing Order (Topical debates).