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Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

6. What recent discussions he has had with the president of the Confederation of British Industry on apprenticeships. (205665)

My right hon. Friend has not met Martin Broughton, the president of the CBI, recently, but, on two occasions last month, he met other leaders and officials of the CBI such as Richard Lambert, the director general.

During those meetings, did the CBI express the view that I firmly hold that whether a business is large or small, there is a big gulf between the Government, and what they are trying to do, and the businesses that are trying to offer apprenticeships? What is his Department doing to bring the two sides together to enable the best possible use to be made of the apprenticeships being offered?

The answer is, no it did not. It welcomed the Government’s review of apprenticeships and our commitment to asking big employers to overtrain. It also welcomed our commitment to direct payments for some employers and to establishing group training associations for smaller small and medium-sized enterprises. It is trying to work with the Government to increase employer engagement so that more apprentices come forward. I am pleased that, in the hon. Lady’s area, where 2,300 young people have started apprenticeships, there will be an increase of 500 next year.

But, in practice, even in an area such as Slough, which is one of the most productive towns in the country, young people starting apprenticeships find it hard to get the employment placements that they require. They do the college-based parts of their courses, but I regularly get desperate letters from mums and young people saying, “Although I’ve written hundreds of letters to employers, I can’t get a placement.” What more can the Government do to ensure that ambitious young people get the chance to train?

My hon. Friend is right to identify those profound issues. I was pleased to be in her constituency with young apprentices a few weeks ago. I hope that she and other hon. Members on both sides of the House will be pleased that, for the first time, the cohort of young people going into apprenticeships will have a matching service. Before then, there was a matching service for young people who wanted to go university, but there was no service to connect vacancies and employers with young people who wanted apprenticeships. That will make a big difference in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

It is important to do as much as we can to help smaller businesses to offer apprenticeships, particularly by helping with the training framework and fostering the required relationship between those businesses and further education providers. That means that we must do all we can to encourage group training associations along a hub and spoke model, with providers and bigger employers acting as a spoke into smaller employers that can provide more apprenticeships. We have had a good response to our consultation, and I hope that that will make a big difference in her constituency in coming months.

I am a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which is investigating the impact of shipbuilding in Scotland. I am delighted to report to the House that record numbers of apprentices have been employed in Fife and Glasgow since the days when the Conservatives were in power. Will the Minister assure me and those apprentices that we will do all we can to ensure that, when they complete their training, jobs will be available to them?

I will continue to do all that I can by working with our colleagues across the border to ensure that we maximise potential for young people. However, Labour Members are disappointed that our colleagues in the Scottish National party continue to ration apprenticeships, and that they seem to be looking to downgrade them in Scotland.

It is common to think of apprentices as young school leavers, but, last Friday, when Stafford college and I jointly hosted a Train to Gain seminar for local businesses, manufacturing employers expressed a desire to engage people of different ages as apprentices. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the help that is available to young apprentices is also available to older workers who want to be apprentices?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that we are also talking about adult apprentices over the age of 25, and we are committed to seeing their numbers grow. This will particularly help women returners, who often want to come into non-traditional areas and to be productive in the wider economy. I am really pleased to hear that my hon. Friend held that seminar for employers in his constituency, and I hope that other hon. Members will take up that initiative. Train to Gain is a programme with more than £1 billion in funding up to 2010-11. That money is there for employers to subsidise training, and, alongside that, the growth of adult apprenticeships is key.