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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 16 October 2008

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Apprenticeships

1. What steps his Department is taking to support the provision of apprenticeships in the construction industry in the current economic situation. (227247)

Despite the current economic crisis, the most recent construction skills estimate was that there would be more than 40,000 new entrants to the industry every year. We are determined to maintain the highest possible numbers of apprentices in the sector, so we are looking at how we can use the power of Government contracts to increase the number of apprenticeship places. We have set up a clearing house, which has already placed two thirds of apprentices who risk losing their apprenticeships with a new employer or training provider, and convened a group of employers and trade unions to advise us on other practical steps that we can take to support the sector. I am clear that we must be prepared to consider new and radical ways of promoting and supporting apprenticeships in the current economic conditions.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. He will be aware that despite the economic crisis in the construction industry, there are still some good employers who spend money and time training their employees. However, they are being undermined by unregistered rogue employers who do not pay tax or insurance, thereby undermining the good employers and their businesses. Could my right hon. Friend therefore ensure that, all things being equal, Government procurement contracts are given only to those registered companies with a track record of investing in training?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know that in the £2.3 billion capital programme for further education colleges in England we have already made it clear that major new contracts will have to have a training agreement within them. I can assure him that I am discussing that message actively with colleagues across Government, so that we look into every area of Government procurement to see how it can be used to secure the maximum training and the maximum numbers of apprentices.

I am very supportive of the Government’s approach towards apprenticeships, and I think that I speak for my colleagues on the Front Bench when I say that. However, there is a concern, not only about construction apprenticeships, but about other apprenticeships. At the end of the last financial year, £284 million was taken out of the learning and skills budget, £128 million of which was given to higher education to support student grants. How does that attune with what the Secretary of State has said about trying to get more apprenticeships, to meet the target of 500,000 that Lord Leitch set and which the Government supported, and will that money go back to the Learning and Skills Council?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. We have made it clear through the Learning and Skills Council that we do not want any shortage of money to be a constraint on the number of apprenticeships and we have reinforced that in the past year. There are one or two examples at the local or regional level of people saying that there is no budget for apprenticeships. We have overruled that and made it clear that we will expand the financing going into apprenticeships to meet the demand that comes from employers. With regard to last year’s budget, the hon. Gentleman will know that £115 million of underspend last year, the first year of the Train to Gain programme, was reinvested in the further education and skills budget. However, I am more than happy to write to him and the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills to explain how that was done.

A substantial expansion of the newly restored rights of local authorities to build council housing linked to a requirement to take on apprenticeships would be a useful step forward. We have seen the number of apprentices double over 10 years and that is great, but 19 out of 20 employers still have no scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for that might be the paperwork associated with accessing public money for apprenticeships? The paperwork is quite substantial, ranging from the monitoring of quality assurance to retaining data on every apprenticeship for at least six years. Is there not a simpler way of approaching the matter?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I had quite a lively meeting in my office in July with a number of people from different parts of the apprenticeship system. The farce of people believing that they had to keep vocational qualification documents for six years in paper form for audit purposes is being dealt with, as is the fact that people could not get their accreditation online and had to use a paper-based process. Some of the accrediting bodies are already removing that practice from their procedures. So I can assure my hon. Friend that, whether we are talking about public sector apprenticeships—where the numbers are expanding rapidly—or more private sector apprenticeships, we are determined to deal with the bureaucracy that has been an inhibition in the past.

I have worked in the construction industry, and I have to say that I am quite encouraged by the Secretary of State’s remarks. There is no doubt, however, that further trained personnel—particularly craftsmen—are required in the industry, and there should be additional apprenticeships available. At the moment, the industry sucks in too many people from overseas to fill the positions that are vacant. Will the Secretary of State take seriously the points that have been made on both sides of the House on this question?

Yes, I will. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I never want us to be in a position where someone in this country loses a job that goes to somebody from another country—whether that person comes here to do the job or whether the job goes there—just on the basis that they do not have the necessary skills. I am determined to ensure that we do not ignore untapped talent in this country, resulting in people losing out. We will look at new ways of approaching the situation, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right to suggest that projects such as the Olympics, the major Crossrail programme and the Government’s public sector housing programme will all draw people into the industry, even though the private house building market is very slow at the moment. We will need to look at new ways of doing this, recognising that smaller companies might find it a little more difficult financially than it has been in the past. We will look at those new ways of ensuring that we have a supply of skilled labour.

Will the Secretary of State accept that there is an urgent need right across the United Kingdom to grant the skilled training of apprentices in the construction industry a higher professional qualification and recognition by society?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the question of qualification levels. I want as many apprentices as possible to get the level of advanced qualification that will give them the ability to work on any building site. The other thing that the Government will be doing a lot more of in the next year is promoting the apprenticeship to its real value in society, as a legitimate means of training. Apprenticeships had disappeared in 1997; few people started them, and very few of those people finished them. We have rescued apprenticeships, but we are still on the journey to restoring their rightful position as a mainstream option in the training and education system in this country. That is what we are determined to do.

It is good to be questioning the Secretary of State, rather than one of the two novices sitting either side of him—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] But I do not want to be ungenerous. In 2003, the Prime Minister promised that apprenticeship numbers would rise to 320,000. We know that, today, there are just 240,000, and that level 3 apprenticeships have been falling every year since 2000. If the Government are really serious about apprenticeships, will they adopt some of the policies outlined in our green paper? Those include equalising funding for people over 18 doing apprenticeships, providing a cash bonus of £2,000 per apprentice to small and medium-sized enterprises, and helping group training associations, which would again help smaller companies to take apprenticeships seriously and boost their numbers. The Conservatives believe in apprenticeships. Does the right hon. Gentleman, or is it just more fine words and failed policies?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has started in such a disgruntled way. A few points off the Conservatives’ lead in the opinion polls have obviously put him in a very bad mood indeed.

Let me deal with a few of the statistics, although not all of them. The hon. Gentleman really should not confuse the real progress that we have made with the long-term targets for apprenticeship numbers that we are determined to achieve. They were set out in the Leitch report and we are working towards them. Let us look at advanced apprenticeships. The number of people achieving that qualification—which is what matters—has more than doubled under this Government. Of course, there was a time when there were far fewer apprenticeships, they were all called level 3 and nobody completed them. That was the apprenticeship system under the previous Conservative Government. At that time, no public money was going into apprenticeships.

I was very glad that the policy on group training associations announced by the Conservatives during the summer mimicked directly the one that we had announced in January. I was also very glad that their support for wage compensation for small employers mimicked directly the policy already implemented by this Government. It is really quite ridiculous for the Conservatives to go through our policies, repeat them and then claim that that is evidence of their support for apprenticeships.

NEETs

2. How many young people were not in education, employment or training in the latest period for which figures are available. (227248)

The latest figures show that there were 730,000 young people aged 18 to 24 who were not in education, employment or training in England. Around 260,000 of those young adults have caring responsibilities and a further 78,000 have a disability or sickness. Since April this year, we have made it possible for 18-year-olds with a history of not being in employment, education or training to be fast-tracked through the new deal programme on a voluntary basis; and from April next year, early entry to the new deal will be mandatory for 18-year-olds who have been in the NEET category for six months. Since 1997, the Government have increased the numbers of young people active in work or education from 3.9 million to 4.7 million. Through the measures we have taken, we aim to continue that progress.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response, but notwithstanding the measures and results he referred to, one of the principal stains on this Government’s reputation is without question that during a decade of economic growth, rising employment and falling unemployment, hundreds of thousands of young people were allowed to fall through the net and effectively do nothing with their lives as they were not in education, not in training and not in the apprenticeships that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier. Now, at a time of economic hardship when jobs are being shed and the cupboards are bare, will the Secretary of State please tell us what measures he can bring to the table today that suggest that he knows how to bring down the number of NEETs at a time of economic difficulty?

First, at the risk of repeating myself, what was achieved in the decade of growth was a huge increase in the number of young people in education and employment and, of course, a dramatic reduction over the same period in long-term youth unemployment. The hon. Gentleman is right that, within the overall number of NEETs—it is a much smaller number than in the past—who do not have caring responsibilities, who are not out of work and bringing up their families, who are not among the 80,000 owning or buying their own homes and so living in households with significant incomes, there is a core of people about whom we remain worried.

I would say to Conservative Members, however, that opposition to increasing the participation age for training and work is the worst possible policy. The best way of ensuring that young people do not end up out of work, out of training and out of education is to ensure that, between 16 and 18, they are either in college or in work with training. I regret the fact that the Conservative party rejects the most practical measure that the Government are putting in place to deal with the issue in the longer term.

Second only to the Isles of Scilly, Wakefield has the second highest rate in the country of young people not in education, employment or training. With 11 per cent. of 16-year-olds classified as NEETs and just 22 per cent. progressing to higher education at 18, despite our excellent GCSE results, will my right hon. Friend sit down with me, Wakefield council and Wakefield college to discuss what can be done to stop that tragic waste of talent during the years before the secondary school age rises to 18?

I would be delighted to do so. I know that my hon. Friend is very keen on the development in her area of a stronger offer for higher education. Part of the challenge—it is only part of it—is to make sure that the aspirations of young people of talent and ability are raised to the highest possible level. In some parts of the country, local access to higher education is not as strong as it could be. The Higher Education Funding Council will shortly end its consultation on our new university challenge, which might be one of the issues that we should discuss for Wakefield. A number of other Members have a similar interest for their areas.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to look at The Daily Telegraph this morning? If so, he will have seen an excellent article by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), a former welfare Minister, in which he points out that the number of NEETs under this Labour Government is now at record levels and suggests that the new deal should be scrapped for having failed young people and that the money saved should be spent on better projects in order to deal with the forthcoming economic difficulties that the country faces.

I shall undoubtedly read the article with great interest. It is difficult for me to comment, given that I have not seen the article or the statistics that it contains, but I can say that some of the statistics that are currently in play are very misleading. I do not think it fair—[Interruption.] May I be allowed to make my point? I think that the hon. Lady will agree with me.

If, for example, a mother decides to stay at home looking after her children and to study part-time, she will appear as a NEET in some statistics, but I do not think that a mother who chooses to do that should be labelled as someone who is not doing something useful or active, and the same applies to others with caring responsibilities. We must accept that there is a much smaller but, yes, hard-core problem involving those who have dropped out of the system and are not engaged in education and training, but I believe that the higher level of conditionality on benefit and the much earlier intervention with young people—particularly those who have already been out of work for a couple of years before reaching the age of 18—is the way to go.

Those core principles are at the heart of the new deal, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is making very clear that much more active and much earlier intervention involving more young people is the key to ensuring that they do not stay outside the employment, training and education system for long periods.

Higher Education (Knowsley)

We are very encouraged by the interest in our new university challenge policy, and want to extend the benefits of higher education to more people and places. If any proposals are developed, in Knowsley or elsewhere, we shall be happy to meet delegations led by hon. Members to discuss them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that the collaboration involving Edge Hill university in Knowsley and efforts to provide more higher education opportunities at Knowsley community college will pave the way towards establishing a campus in Knowsley?

My right hon. Friend raised this matter with me during my first week in the job. He is absolutely right: the work between the further education college and the higher education college, and the establishment of a new university, are bound to promote regeneration and opportunities for both young people and adults in that part of the north-west. I am very keen to talk to my right hon. Friend further about any proposals. The decisions will of course be made by the HEFCE, but there is currently a great deal of enthusiasm across the country about new universities. That suggests that there is a lot of unmet need out there, which our policy is supporting.

Research Careers

The Government are currently looking at Professor Nigel Thrift's review of research careers in the UK, commissioned as part of the higher education debate launched earlier this year. We expect it to help in developing our approach to higher education and research careers in the longer term.

There has been a 100 per cent. pass rate in all science subjects among students at Woodham community technology college in my constituency. What is the Department doing to ensure that those young people’s fascination with science today turns into successful careers in science tomorrow?

I applaud the work being done in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which places the institution to which he referred among the very best in the country. He is absolutely right: encouraging an ability in and an enthusiasm for science among young people is key to the country’s success in the coming years, and we are working closely with our colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families to achieve that. It is important that young adult scientists are returning to schools, and we are supporting that through our science and engineering ambassadors throughout the country. It is also important that we are supporting young people in those key stem subjects—chemistry, physics and mathematics—with an extra £15 million of investment over the next year.

I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities in relation to science. Does he recognise the particular challenge involved in recruiting and retaining women in research careers? Given that they leave universities with high levels of debt, face a continuing pay gap and, indeed, publication gaps due to family commitments, and given that we are starting from a low base—especially in some areas—is there not a particular need for Government to give research councils and other employers the tools to enable us to do better by women in science? We need to retain their talents in research.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will, I hope, be aware of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) to ensure that women are represented in science and engineering. Indeed, I did some work about that with my hon. Friend in my previous role as Minster with responsibility for skills. The Government have provided direct funding, including pilot funding, to encourage women in those spheres. We are also working with training organisations and trade bodies, particularly in engineering and science, to support women in their careers, including when they are on career breaks because we recognise that when women who have been trained and have an extensive science background leave work to have children, they often come back into science employment at a lower grade, or are unable to regain the positions that they left. We want to support the work of those organisations and trade bodies to ensure that those women are pioneers within science.

Scientific Research

Earlier this year, when I addressed the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, I said that our ambition should be to go further than scientific literacy to a more mature relationship between the public, the media and scientists, where everyone understands each other. In particular, that means the public and the media maintaining the same healthy scepticism towards science that they do towards other information that they consume. We are currently consulting on a new vision for science and society, with a key strand focused on creating a society confident in the use of science. That will build on the good work that we already support such as funding the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre.

I thank the Minister for that response. One of the less welcome consequences of the UK’s success in scientific research has been the increase in the number of animal experiments being carried out year on year. I welcome the fact that his Department has increased funding to look at alternatives to the use of animals in research, but can he assure the House that, as we seek to promote and support our scientific research sector, we will also try to ensure that that research is conducted as ethically and humanely as possible?

Yes. I recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed, which are quite widely held across society. We believe that there is potential to make advances in science and to reduce animal use. Some recent scientific advances, including tissue engineering, stem cell research and imaging technologies, have that potential. She will be aware that the Government have funded the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, or NC3Rs as it is known, which is the first centre of its type in the world. The two research councils will give £12.8 million to that centre over the coming three years.

The Secretary of State will know that, in 2002, in a speech to the Royal Society, Tony Blair said:

“The benefits of science will only be realised through a renewed compact between science and society.”

The Secretary of State set out some recent things that the Government have done, but what did they do over that six-year period to renew that compact between science and society?

We did a number of things. The development of the sciencewise process meant that the Government increased not only their ability to consult with the public carefully and sensitively on controversial issues, but how to handle them. We were involved in encouraging the setting up of the science media centre, which is independent of Government, as it needs to be, and it has been critically important.

In some of the major issues, for example, the MMR vaccine case, one of the problems was that the media coverage lacked any independent source of scientific evidence. We all know that real damage was done by the way in which that issue was handled in the media. Since the science media centre has been in place, the quality of public debate has been much better. I refer hon. Members to the House’s recent discussions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, where the level of public and scientific understanding displayed was much higher. Therefore, I think that over a period of time a lot has been done by Government to improve things.

One of the ways that we have attempted to build public confidence in scientific research has been through the development of partnership with the business community. As we are facing an economic turndown, one of the areas that we must protect is that research; we must ensure that our companies are at the cutting edge of technology. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department going to do to ensure that companies do not see saving on investment in research and development as one of the ways to save money, so that we keep our companies and our country at the cutting edge?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In “Innovation Nation”, the White Paper we published in the spring, we recognised the importance of Government procurement in creating the markets for innovative products and services. We will shortly publish the first annual innovation report, and Departments are currently actively working on their procurement planning and on identifying how they will create a demand for innovative products. We have also revamped the small business research initiative, and Departments are now starting to offer new contracts to small start-up businesses for developing innovative technologies. One of the ways we can respond, therefore, is by making sure that Government procurement money is used in ways that reward research and encourage people to bring new products to market.

We were surprised to learn from The Guardian last Monday that, after 50 years of consistent Government policy in space research, the new Science Minister in the other place, who had been appointed on the previous working day, made a hasty multi-billion pound pledge to send UK astronauts into space. Does the Secretary of State agree with this policy U-turn, or is the new Science Minister speaking out of turn?

I am delighted to have Lord Drayson as a member of my team. His record both in business and in science as a Minister is outstanding. He made it clear in his interviews that his personal view, which he had expressed prior to being a Minister, was that we should join a manned space programme. The position of the Government, which he supports and understands, is that we have a review of—[Interruption.] We are currently setting out a review, and we established it for a good reason. Twenty years ago, Baroness Thatcher took the decision that this country should not participate in manned space flight. I have to say that I think that decision has stood the test of time, because while we were not participating in that programme we have become a world leader in satellite technology, robot-exploring devices and so forth. In the future, we will have to look at the issue of whether the opportunities that would come from participating in manned space flight now outweigh the other opportunities and costs of investment in other research areas. It is right that, 20 years on, we approach this with fresh minds, but there are no predetermined decisions.

Apprenticeships

The 2007-08 apprenticeships performance indicator of 75,000 framework completions has been met and exceeded early. with 112,000 people successfully completing an apprenticeship framework in 2006-07. Apprenticeship completion rates reached an all-time high in 2006-07 of 63 per cent. compared with 24 per cent. in 2001-02—and an effective rate of zero under the Tories. Apprenticeship starts have increased from 65,000 in 1996-97 to 184,000 in 2006-07. Expanding apprenticeships will play a key role in improving the nation’s skills base, and we plan to deliver more than 250,000 apprenticeship starts and 190,000 successful completions by 2020.

I welcome the Minister to his new job, and I wish him well in what is a very important responsibility. Following on from what was said on Questions 1 and 2, may I tell the Minister that many of the young people, and their families, in Southwark and Bermondsey would far rather they did apprenticeships than stay on at school to 16, let alone to 18? It is therefore important that we have good opportunities for work experience related to apprenticeships, and then good careers advice linked to real companies who are willing to take these young people on, if they are qualified to do the job. Can the Minister give me some assurance that there is a real—not a notional—opportunity for youngsters in construction and other industries who are clear about what they would like to do, but at present find it difficult to get the encouragement through their teenage years?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his gracious words of welcome. I had expected a few such words from my old friend from South Holland and The Deepings, who was in fact just mean to me before I even had a chance to stand up and reply, but I shall soldier on. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, of which the Government are cognisant. We have introduced junior apprenticeships to try to take the whole concept of apprenticeships down into school so as to introduce schoolchildren gently to the notion of what an apprenticeship is and how it works, and to put them on the pathway to one. A whole new framework of careers advice and guidance will be part of the new Bill that we hope will be forthcoming in the next few months.

I have looked up the figures and noted that the number of apprenticeship starts in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is quite low compared with the national figure. If he would like to come to talk to me about that at any point, I would be more than glad.

I too welcome my hon. Friend to his new post, and I certainly do not see him as a novice.

There are disproportionately more apprentices in England and Wales than in Scotland. Does my hon. Friend have any advice for the Scottish Government about how to rectify that unacceptable situation?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words of welcome. Indeed, if I am a novice, it is overnight success after seven and a half years on the Back Benches.

As for Scotland, far be it from me to advise the Scots, but if I were a Scot I would support John Park’s proposed apprenticeship Bill in the Scottish Parliament. I would consider issues such as why apprentices get paid £40 in Scotland compared with £95 in England, and why the Scots have put all the apprenticeship budget into three sectors and abandoned the rest. I would be looking for answers to those questions in the Labour MSP John Park’s Bill.

I congratulate the Minister on his promotion and on his new sartorial elegance, and I wish him every success in his important task. Does he agree that there is no more richly rewarding career than that of craftsman or craftswoman? We owe an enormous amount to the craftsmen of the past in the country. What are we doing to encourage young people to embrace a career in the crafts?

We have now reached a situation in which everyone is being nice to me, and I am very grateful for yet another hon. Gentleman’s kind and gracious words of welcome. I can say only that my sartorial efforts, such as they are, like the hon. Gentleman’s are not so much a new fad as antique.

The bulk of my answer is the same as it was to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is absolutely right to say that learning craft skills from an early age is a way to encourage and develop a sense of the value of learning a craft, and of building or making something. That starts in schools and, more than ever in the context of a massively expanded, high-quality apprenticeship programme, there are junior apprenticeships in school. Young people are doing, in old-fashioned terms, woodwork and metalwork and really getting a love for the materials and the craft.

7. What steps he is taking to increase the number of people successfully completing apprenticeship schemes. (227253)

The number of adults and young people completing apprenticeships has almost trebled since 2001. The Government’s document “World-class Apprenticeships” confirmed our commitment to making apprenticeships a high-quality option for both young people and adults and set out steps to increase the numbers of people successfully completing an apprenticeship.

In the summer we published the draft Apprenticeships Bill to drive and help sustain improvements in the quality of the programme. That will be complemented by an increase in apprenticeships funding to more than £1 billion by 2010-11. Expanding apprenticeships will play a key role in improving the nation’s skills base and we plan to deliver more than 250,000 apprenticeship starts and 190,000 completions by 2020.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post, and I welcome the news of the increase in apprenticeships and completions. However, particularly in the hospitality and catering trade, some apprentices leave because of maltreatment by employers. My constituent Rosario Guarneri, in conjunction with City college Brighton, has developed a ground-breaking apprenticeship scheme that will, hopefully, address those issues and others. Will the Minister or a member of his team meet my constituent to discuss the matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind personal words. The short answer to the end of her question is yes. The relevant Minister is the noble Lord Young, who I know is aware of this matter. He has agreed to meet the sector skills council, and has said he is very happy to meet her and her constituent. This sector is important: there are 14,500 starts made in the catering sector every year. In an apprenticeship, any mistreatment of employees by employers is unacceptable, and our new blueprint makes it very clear that a relationship of mutual respect between both parties is key. I am sure that Lord Young will do everything he can to ensure that this situation is rectified. My hon. Friend is a great champion of these matters and of her constituents, as we all know

I add my congratulations to the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon). I also congratulate the Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), on his elevation—we can say that he now truly is PC.

My concern is that, in the present economic climate, the number of completed apprenticeships will fall, because fewer apprenticeships will be offered. Can the Under-Secretary give the House the figures on those who, having completed apprenticeships, are offered full-time, permanent jobs?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words of welcome. I think that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) might be wishing he had been a little more gracious in the beginning.

Obviously, in economically straitened times there are pressures on this sector, just as there are everywhere. One of the things that we have done is to introduce, in the particularly pressed construction sector, a construction industry clearing house for apprenticeship places, so that as people are laid off, we can try to re-find such places for them. I do not have the specific figures on the placements that the hon. Lady wants, but I shall certainly write to her with them.

Is the Minister aware that Sheffield Forgemasters in south Yorkshire employs 70 apprentices, which is almost 10 per cent. of its total work force, and that the company has a record of taking on more than 90 per cent. of the apprentices who qualify? Does he agree that companies such as Sheffield Forgemasters are providing a best practice model for some of the bigger employers in the country in taking on apprentices?

I agree that Sheffield Forgemasters is an exemplary company. I know that my hon. Friend who is now Minister of State for Higher Education and Intellectual Property visited it when he was Skills Minister and was extraordinarily impressed by the outstanding work that he saw. I am thus happy to say from the Dispatch Box that the rest of the country should be looking to Sheffield Forgemasters for an example of how to do this brilliantly.

I am not going to be kind, because I expect Ministers to do a job. I want rights for apprentices who are working on building sites in England, because the way they are being treated is absolutely abominable. They are having to make themselves bogus self-employed. The situation is absolutely crazy—Siôn, sort it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I must say that it is not actually my job to sort it but that of Lord Young, and he will do so. As a former apprentice and a former senior trade union official with decades of experience, he is more than well qualified to sort it. My hon. Friend may know that we have set up a review involving the construction industry, the construction industry unions and the sector skills council. All the stakeholders are holding a review to examine exactly these kinds of issues and everything else that has an impact on the construction industry and apprenticeships at this difficult time. My answer is the same as it was to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow): any mistreatment, of any kind, including through low wages, needs to be dealt with, and is unacceptable.

Physics and Astronomy

8. What the Government’s policy is on the future of physics and astronomy teaching in universities. (227254)

Physics has been designated as a strategically important subject and we have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to work with others to increase and sustain both the demand for and supply of physics graduates. We are pleased that the number of physics and astronomy students has increased.

I know that the Minister will disagree, as I do, with those who say that it is engineers who create the wealth and that the scientists just spend it. We need the science to get the engineering going. In that respect, does the Minister believe we will see more science and innovation campuses, or will the current science funding settlement prevent that from happening?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a planned increase of 17 per cent. in our science budget over the next three years. Fantastic world-class science is being carried out across the country, and that is against a backdrop of increases in every subject in the number of students studying science at A-level. That is something to applaud and celebrate, as we can look forward to an increase in science and, as a consequence, in engineering in coming years.

I add my congratulations to both Ministers and wish them well in their new posts.

The future of physics and astronomy teaching in universities could be affected by the substantial problems with Icelandic and other offshore deposits. Will the Minister update the House on that potentially serious blow to our universities? In particular, £77 million has already been identified, but is the Minister aware of any further at-risk offshore deposits?

This is obviously a serious issue, but to put it in context I can say that the HEFC advises that front-line services and services to students will not be affected. We understand that 12 universities have placed money on deposit with Icelandic banks, and the total amount involved is £77 million. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that discussions are being held between the Treasury and Iceland on these matters.

Topical Questions

In these difficult economic times, we must obviously take every possible measure to assist those who may lose or worry about losing their jobs. One of the most effective things that we can do is enable them to refresh or update their skills, or to retrain. Yesterday, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I announced that we are making significant new money—£100 million—available over the next three years to support retraining and the development of new skills, so that people can move quickly back into employment.

In addition to the role that Jobcentre Plus personal advisers play in offering advice and support, I will take two further measures to ensure that advice and support on skills is available. First, learndirect will be able to offer one-to-one advice on careers, skills and retraining, and I will take further measures to promote that service. Secondly, I will work with further education colleges to ensure that they make every effort to offer appropriate advice on and support for skills training to those who may worry about losing their jobs. I will announce further measures in due course.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and, given the present economic climate, I am sure he appreciates the contribution that the west midlands makes to the British economy. More importantly, is he aware of the contribution made through research and development by the university of Coventry and the university of Warwick? They make a major contribution to the economy through innovation and research.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the important role played by universities in many different ways. The university of Warwick is one of the leading research-intensive universities, with much national and international research, and the university of Coventry has a powerful role to play in the local and regional economy. It is important that the role of both types of university is properly recognised in our higher education and innovation system.

May I press the Secretary of State on university applications? We recognise and welcome the increase in university applications for this year, but is the Secretary of State concerned about the sharp drop in UCAS applications so far for 2009? Will he confirm that at this time last year 196,000 applications had been received, while this year applications are down by more than 50,000, at 139,000? What explanation can the Minister offer the House for that dramatic 30 per cent. fall?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the figures that might be available at this time of year are figures from very early in the application process. There is always significant variation over the months. I do not see any reason to believe that the progress we have made on admissions and acceptances in recent years will not continue.

I worry about the policy put forward recently by the hon. Gentleman’s colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), which seemed to suggest a return to the Conservative policy of encouraging unfunded university expansion on a larger scale. That had disastrous effects on funding for students in the 1990s and I urge the Opposition not to pursue that policy.

We want to see more children with the A-levels that will enable them to go to university. May I press the Secretary of State further on the leaked UCAS document, which I have in front of me? It shows that applications to university are down very dramatically at this stage. They have gone down by 30 per cent. compared with this time last year. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that that is potentially an alarming development? It was a pity that he was so complacent in dismissing that important evidence. I invite the Secretary of State to write to me with an update on the figures for applications so far and an explanation of why he believes a 30 per cent. fall is not something that he regards as a worrying trend.

We will report publicly in the proper way, as we do every year when the UCAS figures come in. There is a regular cycle of reporting and we will report on those figures. I want to see a continuation of progress in university numbers in years to come, and I believe that our policies will lead to that. We will start in the fairly near future with the launch of the student finance campaign, which emphasises the benefits of the financial support that we have extended, having reintroduced grants since they were abolished under the Conservative Government. I believe that we will make the progress that the hon. Gentleman wants to see. A leaked document at a very early stage in the process is not a point from which to draw too many firm conclusions.

T5. Staff and students at local colleges have contacted me about the call of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning to restore the 1.5 million adult education course places lost by the further education sector and the communities that it serves since 2006. What do the Government plan to do about those lost places for local people and their FE colleges, given the clear social and economic benefits of adult education, in terms of universal access to basic skills, social inclusion and personal development? (227277)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I have come across the CALL campaign. It is clearly well meaning, but I think that it is misconceived. The overall investment in further education has increased massively and the only thing that has changed is the way in which the places are structured. We have moved towards a smaller number of higher-quality places with more of an impact on skills and employability. Simply to count numbers of places rather than thinking about the quality of learning does not make sense.

T2. Is it not the case that the university statistics show that most young people from our state schools who get the top grades are already going to our top universities? If we want to make sure that children from state schools are better represented at those top universities, is it not the case that we should fix the quality of schooling that they receive so that they get those top grades rather than beating up on top universities and their admissions procedures? (227274)

Nobody has been beating up on top universities. However, of course I responded when the chancellor of Oxford university launched an attack on Government policy and pretended that we were trying to turn the university into a social security office, because that is wrong. We want to make sure that schools identify and nurture talent and enable people to apply to the university that is right for them.

Any of our universities can be the right one for the right student. In the past year alone, more than 80 universities have become involved in academies and trust projects, because structural links between universities and schools are critically important. Many universities, though, recognise that they can do more, and just a couple of weeks ago nine of the most selective universities in this country told me that they wanted to find ways to guarantee that young people from schools that traditionally do not send children to selective universities have the chance to show what they can do. That will mean actively seeking out the best-performing students in some of those schools and offering them the chance to go on summer school exposure courses at the universities.

The answer is that we need all those measures: universities should look at their admissions procedures, but we also need to strengthen what is happening in some schools. I do not agree with those who want to rule out any of those options or say that it is either/or.

May I remind the House that, with topical questions, I am looking for brief replies and short and sharp questions?

T8. Having slept on the forceful arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) in last night’s Adjournment debate, will Ministers offer support for innovative research at universities? Sunderland university was mentioned last night, but I should like to add the university of Staffordshire, which has a campus in my constituency of Stafford. They make a great contribution to knowledge and wealth locally, regionally and nationally, so will Ministers favour the suggestion that 10 per cent. of the university research budget should go on specialist research of national significance? (227280)

I recognise the valuable research role played by many universities but I have doubts about the 10 per cent. levy idea, as it would have to operate irrespective of the quality of the research. This country has a number of universities in the top 10 for research—in the league tables of which we take no notice—because of the concentration of research investment. We want to support universities of the sort that my hon. Friend refers to, but we need to be careful not to undo things that are working well at the moment.

T3. The downturn in the housing industry means that some construction apprentices on my patch have lost their jobs. That is obviously a tragic waste of training, but the loss of their work placement also means that they are no longer able to continue their studies at their further education college. That is another waste of training, and I was wondering whether the Secretary of State could talk to the FE sector about safeguarding at least the FE element of apprenticeships. Could he also talk to the relevant skills council about setting up a brokerage system for transferring apprentices who have lost their jobs to employers who might be willing to take them on? In that way, the training that has already taken place would not be lost. (227275)

We set up a clearing house in August with precisely that purpose. To date, 400 young people have either been found new work placements with employers or been enabled to continue at college. I shall contact the hon. Gentleman to tell him how the system is operating, as it is designed to do precisely what he is quite rightly urging.

The Secretary of State is aware that discussions are taking place about the role of the expansion of higher education as a key driver in the regeneration of Blackpool. Will he therefore continue his discussions with colleagues in other Departments to ensure that that expansion takes place, as Blackpool needs the new students to boost both its economy and its skills base and to take the task force reports further?

My hon. Friend continues to champion the new university in Blackpool and sets it in the important context of regeneration in the area. I am pleased that the Department has been able to make some money available through the HEFC. I do know that the discussions to which she refers are continuing, and that they involve our colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s new ministerial colleagues to their positions. I look forward to constructive dialogue with them during the remainder of the Parliament.

In these difficult economic circumstances, employers will undoubtedly be seeking to trim their costs. Does the Secretary of State agree that one false economy would be to cut employer investment in education and training? What will the Government do to make it easier for employees to study part time, especially in higher education?

The hon. Gentleman will know that last year we made funding available through the HEFC for many thousands of co-funded part-time places. The number of courses has now exceeded the number that we planned for because the demand from universities has been so strong. So there is a real interest in universities and in business in funding part-time degrees on a new basis. That and other measures will help to sustain the investment that the hon. Gentleman rightly says is needed.

T4. Total student debt in this country is now about £22 billion. The average real student debt is about £33,000 after a three-year degree. One third of all students who have ever taken out a loan have not yet reached the threshold for repaying it. In the context of the current economic crisis and the fact that almost inevitably graduate unemployment will go up, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the future of those figures, and what contingencies does he have in place? (227276)

I remind the hon. Gentleman of two things. These are not like bank debts; they are income-contingent so if students do not achieve a level of earnings, they do not pay anything back. Secondly, the figures that he quotes take no account of the two-year time lag before the information gets on to the data system. More important, although people may start below the threshold for repayment in their first year of employment, typically the increase in earnings in the next two or three years is 37 per cent. So people do get jobs that repay the value of the degree for which they have studied.

I have noted that, although the hon. Gentleman and many of his colleagues fought the last election on a policy of opposing university fees, we have now been told by the Front-Bench spokesman that that policy is to be changed. So I—

While Loughborough university is rightly recognised for its sporting excellence—I congratulate many of those who are at Loughborough in the parade today—does the Minister recognise that Loughborough is at the heart of the energy technology institutes? This will bring jobs to the UK but also meet many of the demands that we shall hear later in the climate change statement. Will he ensure that the private-public sector partnership, which will spend more than £1 billion on research in this area is not lost in the current climate, in which research and development may be one of the first things that the private sector cuts? It is absolutely vital not just for the country but for Loughborough.

My hon. Friend is right. It is vital for the country; it will give us far more evidence on the benefits of energy renewables and help us to tackle climate change over the coming years. I congratulate Loughborough on being awarded the contracts. My hon. Friend should be reassured that that work will continue in the coming years.

T6. To return to the vexed problem of university deposits in Icelandic banks, can the Secretary of State answer two quick questions? What financial advice did his Department give to universities on their investments? Will he place in the Library a list of other dodgy offshore investments so that we can see the extent of the problem? (227278)

I will write to the right hon. Gentleman. I would be surprised if my Department had given any advice to universities on where to invest their money. Universities are autonomous bodies responsible for the management of their own affairs, including their investment policies. Nor is it for me as Secretary of State to produce a personal list of investments I would not like to put my money into; I think that that would cause something of a stir that would be unnecessary.

T7. Will the Secretary of State reconsider his approach to quality-related research funding? Although it is right that the most excellent research should receive a disproportionate share of that funding, surely a far more equitable distribution is possible so that institutions such as the university of Northampton benefit from the seedcorn investment. (227279)

It seems to me that the distribution of funding has to be determined by the quality of the research. The allocation system has changed to some extent to make sure that good research is not captured, but I am resistant to the idea of a simple, arbitrary, top-slicing of the distribution. The strength of our university system is built on rewarding quality, and I would hate to see that principle changed. That does not mean that we are not interested in how we support those universities that make a key contribution to their local and regional economy through different types of research and innovation activities.