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Apprenticeships

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 16 October 2008

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.