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Adult Apprenticeships

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 10 January 2008

We have announced that, for the first time, funding will be targeted specifically at expanding apprenticeships for adults aged over 25. That will mean 30,000 additional such apprenticeships costing £90 million over the next three years.

Unemployment among the over-25s—the very group at which adult apprenticeships are targeted—is double the national average in large areas of the north-east of England. Does my hon. Friend take that into consideration when allocating resources?

The north-east was the first area that I visited to look at apprenticeships. My hon. Friend is right that unemployment remains a problem in the north-east, certainly in his constituency. I want to reassure him that one of the criteria for ensuring that we get extra adult apprenticeships is linking them to the unemployed as a priority group.

Ministers have said that impartial advice on adult apprenticeships is available from learndirect and the next steps agency, which are both operated by the Learning and Skills Council. The difficulty is that the LSC is almost invisible in constituencies such as mine. What qualitative research is the Department undertaking to ascertain the LSC’s success at engaging with employers, especially small and medium-sized employers? All the Department’s laudable schemes will be as nothing if there is no connection between the LSC and local employers.

We must recognise that there has been an increase in apprenticeships, led by the Learning and Skills Council. However, we should also acknowledge that we set up the apprenticeship review precisely to consider issues about the national leadership and profile of apprenticeships and their relevance to medium-sized and smaller employers.

Ministerial questions and answers are often characterised by spin and bombast. I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary will answer a straightforward and short question. A few weeks ago, on 21 November, the Prime Minister said that there were 250,000 apprentices. Just before Christmas, as the Under-Secretary knows, official figures were released detailing whether apprenticeship figures had gone up or down. Do they show that the number of apprentices at level 2 and level 3 is greater or less than the number that the Prime Minister cited in November? I have the figures here, in case the Under-Secretary does not.

And the hon. Gentleman talks about bombast and spin! He knows that when we talk about apprentices, what is important as a statement of fact is the number of apprentices starting and then completing. Apprenticeships last for different periods across the country. They are not like university courses; they do not start in September and end three years later in June. They start at different times. I can confirm that the average number over the past three years is 250,000. I have to say that when we inherited apprenticeships in 1997, there was no inspection and the completion rate was less than 25 per cent. We therefore make no apology for ensuring quality and ensuring that some employers and providers are not in the system, which accounts for the drop most recently.