Skip to main content


Volume 496: debated on Wednesday 15 July 2009

I begin by making a declaration of interest. Some years ago, when I was 16 years old, I undertook an engineering apprenticeship. I will leave it to others to judge whether that was a good or bad thing for the rest of the country. However, it has left me with a strong commitment and belief that, for many young people, the format of an apprenticeship is the best way for them to secure their future careers.

I was prompted to seek this debate following the excellent achievements of Knowsley council’s apprenticeships scheme. However, this is also a question of national relevance, and it is within that framework that I want to conduct part of the debate. How do we ensure that we are prepared to thrive as a country when we come out of the economic downturn? Many things can be done to support industry through these difficult times, but one thing is absolutely certain: it is vital that we continue to build an appropriate skills base. If we cut training now, there will be long-term, detrimental consequences.

More than 130,000 businesses already offer apprenticeships in England alone, yet that number needs to rise considerably if the target of one in five young people undertaking apprenticeships is to be met. That sets a clear direction and message about the sort of country that we want to be: one with a highly skilled work force and a modern, vibrant economy. Of course, industry has a vital role to play, but without support from the Government, businesses will inevitably struggle to deliver.

Funding is required to ensure that appropriate training is readily available. It is very helpful that the Government fully cover the training costs of apprenticeship programmes for those aged between 16 and 18. Given the importance of having a strong skills base for the economy, I hope that that will continue, although difficult spending decisions will have to be made in the next few years. However, perhaps the most challenging aspect is ensuring that the right apprenticeships are available and matched to the most appropriate prospective apprentices. I welcome the Government’s Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, and I will return to that subject later.

I shall now focus on the role that local authorities can play, using Knowsley council as an example. The council leader, Councillor Ron Round, has taken a very active leadership role and encouraged an innovative approach to ensuring that potential apprentices have the right selection of skills for the businesses that might wish to take them on.

The Knowsley council 100 apprenticeships gateway project identifies what is called a talent pool of eligible young people who are keen to secure an apprenticeship. They are then matched up with local businesses and the cost of training is subsidised. During the project’s first year of operation, in 2008-09, some 55 gateway apprentices gained employment in 27 different companies. The sectors involved included accountancy, engineering, IT, business administration, hospitality, customer service and social care. Phase 2 of the programme was launched earlier this month, and more than 600 applicants and 106 prospective employers have already been identified. That has been achieved through a dedicated team that offers advice and guidance to businesses and prospective apprentices.

The team, which is led by Knowsley community college and works alongside local subcontractor partners, has increased overall college apprenticeship framework success rates by 11 per cent. to 70 per cent. in 2007-08. The Minister will know that that is significantly higher than the overall success rate for apprenticeship providers across Merseyside and that it is also above the 63 per cent. national average—a rate that has grown from below 40 per cent. since the apprenticeship scheme was nationally relaunched.

Programmes are offered in 10 key occupational sectors at level 2 and in nine sectors at level 3. In total, they have reached more than 850 apprentices during the current year. By working together in partnership, they ensure that both businesses and apprentices make the most of the excellent opportunities that are available. Of course, Knowsley is not alone among local authorities in implementing policies to support local people and combat unemployment. Nearly five out of six councils have set targets to reduce the number of 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training, some 83 per cent. have targets to improve residents’ skills and 89 per cent. have at least one target on increasing employment.

Despite those achievements and the accompanying commitment that goes with them, there is cause for concern. With the disbanding of the national Connexions service, local authorities now have responsibility for information, advice and guidance services for young people in England. It has been well reported that some councils have taken that on board and are well prepared for those responsibilities, but some services have been decimated by cuts and are now patchy to say the least. That service provision affects the quality of information and advice available to students in many secondary schools, and it is clear that, in some cases, the necessary advice and information simply is not getting through to students. I am particularly concerned that students need to know about the advantages that apprenticeships can offer, because, if they do not, the chances are that they will be less likely to pursue that option. Will my hon. Friend the Minister give an assurance that the situation is being properly monitored and that action will be taken to rectify matters where there is a less than adequate service?

From 2010, with the disbanding of the Learning and Skills Council, local authorities will be responsible for commissioning apprenticeship provision for 16 to 18-year-olds in their areas. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is working with the Local Government Association’s React team to ensure that there is a smooth transition, but while colleges and sixth forms may feature strongly on the radar of local councils, some of the work-based learning providers that deliver the bulk of training for apprenticeships have a lower profile.

Will the Minister update us on what steps are being taken to ensure that all councils are aware that they have a responsibility to promote apprenticeships equally with other post-16 learning options and that, in the pursuit of best value in commissioning arrangements, work-based learning providers are invited to tender for the delivery of apprenticeship training alongside other providers? I have reason to believe that some employers—for example, one person who is able to offer some training as a provider—are often at a disadvantage in comparison with larger organisations, which are in a better position to tender. Such training may make a small contribution, but it may also be significant, and it might be worth the Minister looking into how that situation works.

It is important to remember that real apprenticeships include a contract of employment with a local employer and that young people value those contracts. Work-based learning providers, by definition, have very close links to local businesses. Local authorities across the country should look at the case studies that are available, particularly that provided by Knowsley council, and consider whether they would benefit from implementing a similar approach.

I have mentioned the snappily titled Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is currently completing its remaining stages in another place. It includes measures to establish the Young People’s Learning Agency, which is intended to support local authorities. I hope that that agency will look at what Knowsley is doing and perhaps use it as a model for other areas.

I support the proposals to give all suitably qualified young people the right to an apprenticeship by 2013 and to give a more general right to workers to ask for time off to train. How such measures are implemented will be crucial to their success. As well as the right to an apprenticeship, it is vital that such opportunities are relevant and well-matched. Again, the lesson from Knowsley is that that can be achieved through effective partnership working across all the parties concerned.

I started by saying that I have reason to be grateful for the older version of the apprenticeship scheme, and I do. I hope that future generations of former apprentices will be able to stand in the House in 20 or 30 years’ time and say how grateful they are for the apprenticeship that they had.

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) on securing the debate, and thank him for all the work that he does, for his dedication and for the way he has spoken this afternoon. I think that we agree that this is the most important cause of all—enabling young people to fulfil their potential and be given the skills that they need to climb as high as their hard work and talents will take them. I congratulate him on showing such keen interest in apprenticeships and in local government.

During his membership of this House, my right hon. Friend has made himself an expert on skills and training, as befits a former teacher and someone who served an apprenticeship early in his career. His enthusiasm for a discussion about the role of local authorities in promoting apprenticeships provides a welcome opportunity to consider the good work and progress that councils around the country are making and the work that is being done by various Departments. I join him in paying tribute to the superb work of Knowsley council in introducing apprenticeships and expanding opportunities for young people in its area. I shall return to that issue later.

As my right hon. Friend has indicated, the Government are committed to building on the solid foundation of apprenticeships that we have laid in the past 12 years by increasing the number of apprenticeships available to young people and adults. In 1996, the number of people starting apprenticeships was just 65,000; by 2007, that number had increased to about 225,000, which was a 22 per cent. increase on the number in the previous year. The Government have helped more than 2 million people to start an apprenticeship, and we aim to have delivered more than 250,000 apprenticeship starts each year by 2020. To support that commitment, the Prime Minister announced a £140 million package in January to deliver an additional 35,000 apprenticeships this year, building on the £1 billion that has already been invested. He was right to say that investing strongly in apprenticeships will help not only those young people, but the country’s competitiveness, and it will extend opportunities to people who face redundancy.

We all know that the only way we will attract the jobs and businesses on which our country’s prosperity will depend is by showing investors that we have the skills that they need, and that the only way businesses will be able to compete is with highly skilled workers who will enable them to innovate more, exploit new technologies and capitalise on new ways of working to boost productivity, open up new markets and win new customers. We all know that if we do not adopt that approach, we will be much more vulnerable to competition from the countries and economies that do.

If anyone needs convincing about that, they should remember the two most important facts from Lord Leitch’s report on skills: seven out of 10 people who will make up the work force in 2020 have already left school, and, by then, there will be only 600,000 jobs that require no qualifications, compared with 3.5 million before the recession.

Therefore, it is crucial that my Department and other Departments work closely with employers to ensure that Britain has a work force with the skills and capabilities to meet our future challenges. Through our ongoing relationship with the Local Government Association, we have demonstrated to local government that it is vital in promoting and delivering more apprenticeships. The public sector and, within that, local authorities, have a crucial role to play. As an employer, the public sector supports around one in five of the work force. It is important, when everyone is facing the challenges of the recession, that we support people with jobs, skills, and training.

At least 21,000 of the extra 35,000 apprenticeship places that we have announced will come from the public sector. We are doing that because apprenticeships are a key route to building the national skills base and, at a time of economic downturn, it is vital that we continue to invest in people and their skills for the longer term. Apprenticeships offer employers important benefits, as my right hon. Friend said. Investing in a work force who have the right skills and experience to help a business develop and grow is an investment for employers as well, as they are less reliant on buying in temporary support.

To help to increase the number of employers offering apprenticeships, the Government have worked alongside local authorities and businesses. Our investment of £1 billion supports apprentices in all sectors. It enables young people in particular to increase their earning potential. An apprentice obtaining a level 2 qualification will go on to earn around £65,000 more over their lifetime than those who have not trained, and individuals with an advanced apprenticeship will go on to earn, on average, £100,000 more.

To ensure that more young people can access these opportunities, we are introducing legislation in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill which, for the first time, will put the apprenticeship programme on a statutory basis with other qualifications, as my right hon. Friend indicated.

It is important that a place on an apprenticeship programme is available to all young people who are suitably prepared and qualified for the programme by 2013. As we make apprenticeships a mainstream option available to all 16 to 18-year-olds, we will invest in training for older learners as well.

As my right hon. Friend set out so well, local authorities have a vital role to play in promoting apprenticeships in their communities and among local employers. I am happy to give him the assurances that he sought. I shall ensure that we write to him with more details about the monitoring arrangements and the encouragement that is being given to local authorities to promote and deliver apprenticeships in their area. I can tell him that there is considerable support and enthusiasm from local government for working with businesses in the local economy to generate new apprenticeships, but also, as employers themselves, for creating apprenticeships in the delivery of local public services. The LGA has announced a challenging ambition to increase apprenticeships in councils from 7,500 to 15,000 to help to deliver the target of an additional 21,000 apprenticeships in the public sector.

I join my right hon. Friend in paying a particular tribute to the work of Knowsley council, and I thank him for everything that he has done to support it. He spoke in detail about what Knowsley has been doing, but, on behalf of the Government, I would like to place on the record our admiration for everything that it has achieved. As he said, its innovative and pioneering programme has secured employment and training opportunities for more than 100 of Knowsley’s young people, and at a great pace. It is the first programme of its kind in the area, and a great example of how local authorities are working to support the Government’s agenda to increase apprenticeships and skills in communities. The council leader, Ron Round, whose vision it was to recruit 100 apprentices with local employers in less than 100 days, has set a benchmark for Knowlsey’s work and an example for other local authorities to follow. I am confident in saying that none of that would have happened if it had not been for the support of my right hon. Friend.

I was also pleased to learn from the new National Apprenticeship Service that in the Knowsley and Sefton areas more than 2,000 active apprentices are currently developing key skills in sectors such as construction, business administration, hairdressing and customer services. Again, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for working with employers in his area to encourage them to take up and provide apprenticeship places for local young people.

By providing key links with local businesses, Knowlsey council is creating opportunities to employ some of the brightest and best young people in the borough, and by developing partnerships and working with businesses, local education bodies and employment partners such as Jobcentre Plus, Knowlsey is helping to generate employment, as my right hon. Friend said.

We want similar work elsewhere in the public sector. In the pre-Budget report, we committed to using the Government’s buying power to promote apprenticeships. In letting contracts for construction projects, Government Departments and their agencies will now for the first time consider making it a requirement that successful contractors involved in public sector delivery have apprentices as an identified proportion of their work force.

Extending the principle beyond central Government, the then Secretaries of State for the Departments for Innovation, Universities and Skills and for Communities and Local Government wrote to local authorities on 2 June to encourage councils and public sector employers to promote skills and apprenticeships through the £42 billion a year that they invest. Not only are we putting in place procedures to use the central Government procurement process to encourage companies, including small and medium-sized enterprises, with access to Government-funded contracts to offer apprenticeships, but we are working effectively with local authorities to support them in using their spending power to increase opportunities for apprenticeships. In the guidance, “Promoting skills through public procurement”, which was published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Office of Government Commerce in April, we have set out how skills and training requirements can be legally embedded across all stages of the procurement process, from identification of need through to the way in which contracts are managed. We are now working with local authorities to raise awareness, spread good practice and identify areas where there is scope for local authorities to do more.

We want local authorities, with the assistance of regional development agencies, sub-regional partnerships and regional improvement and efficiency partnerships, to respond to the challenge set by the “New Opportunities: Fair chances for the future” White Paper and by the Houghton review to embed skills development and apprenticeships at a local level. To that end, we are encouraging local authorities and city regions to make their own commitments on skills through public procurement, which will help them to deliver their local authority agreement and multi-area agreement.

Apparently I have been appointed the new champion for apprenticeships in the DCLG. I take a keen interest in ensuring that we promote the benefits of apprenticeships to local authorities and to the communities that they serve. We are committed to supporting around a dozen apprentices within our own departmental work force. I am also keen to develop new ways that my Department, working closely with the LGA, can encourage and support local government in helping to get more people into apprenticeships. We will work with local authorities to ensure that there are linkages between LAA and MAA targets, that we engage young people who are currently not in employment, education or training, and that apprenticeships are fully understood and taken up by them.

We will also use our relationship with our agencies and delivery partners to promote apprenticeships. The Homes and Communities Agency, for example, has given a commitment that all construction work procured by Government Departments and their agencies should, where feasible, include a requirement for successful contractors to have apprentices as an identified proportion of their work force. That commitment is a high priority for the HCA, given the current economic climate, the high levels of unemployment of young people and the need for a skilled work force to sustain the required number of housing developments.

Economic downturns have historically been particularly severe on industries such as construction, but through our pledge to increase social housing, we have increased the opportunity to invest in construction apprenticeships. We would like more councils to follow the example of the award-winning partnership between Sheffield city council and the Kier Group, which has generated more than 1,000 employment and training opportunities since 2003. We would like more councils to contribute to developing those relevant and vital skills. To assist them in retaining and investing in the sector, ConstructionSkills is helping to match displaced apprentices to employers. More than 700 apprentices have been retained in the sector and are continuing to develop their skills.

Across the English regions, we have made up to £185 million available to RIEPs to work with local authorities and strategic partners in each region to support improvement and efficiency in the delivery of services. In the case of Capital Ambition and the London-based RIEPs, for example, we are supporting boroughs to increase the number of apprentices directly employed by them. Apprenticeships or other youth training schemes are now running in 95 per cent. of London boroughs. Therefore, not only is there now an increase in the proportion of young people working in London local authorities, but there is an increase in those people’s career opportunities and the authorities are contributing to the achievement of their targets.

The working neighbourhood fund is also making a contribution in helping to build capacity to deliver more apprenticeships. Knowsley council is a prime example in that regard, because it is investing £1.5 million of its working neighbourhood funding in supporting employers.

Despite the progress, we recognise there is more to do. With the National Apprenticeship Service operational since April, we are beginning to deliver tailored support and services to employers and local authorities across the regions. New technology, such as the National Apprenticeship Service’s online vacancy matching service, is increasingly making it easier to recruit people into apprenticeships. By working in partnership with local businesses, local authorities will continue, as in the example of Knowsley, to turn ambitions for more apprentices into real opportunities for local people.

In conclusion, I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that the Government have done a huge amount to promote apprenticeships and to recognise the vital role that local government has to develop them still further. I hope that I have demonstrated the Government’s belief that the role of local authorities is crucial in improving the skills of the communities that they serve. We have already provided local authorities with greater financial support, a clear ambition and a compelling vision; we have established the National Apprenticeship Service to help people through these difficult economic times; and we will do all that we can through our own recruitment and procurement programmes to provide people with the skills and opportunities to come through the recession stronger. We are doing all that because we know how important driving up skills and knowledge and boosting innovation and productivity are for individual people, the communities they live in and for our economy as a whole. These are great challenges, but the prize of transforming our economy by using those skills to make companies more successful and to bring new businesses to places such as Knowsley, creating new jobs and generating more wealth and prosperity, is greater still.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.