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Commons Chamber

Volume 499: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2009

House of Commons

Wednesday 11 November 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Pensioner Poverty

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on steps to address pensioner poverty in Wales. (298039)

Government policies since 1997 have significantly reduced pensioner poverty in Wales, and across the United Kingdom. Working closely with the Welsh Assembly Government, our policies will continue to reduce pensioner poverty and promote dignity in later life.

I found living on the basic state pension just for one week, last week, extremely difficult. According to AXA research, 64 per cent. of people expect to rely on the state pension entirely for their retirement, which will result in double the number of pensioners in Wales living in poverty by 2033. Will the Minister work with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Welsh Assembly Government to raise the state pension to lift 200,000 people out of poverty in Wales?

With all due respect, what the hon. Lady has to remember is the tremendous amount of work that has been done by this Government to raise pensioners out of poverty and to help the poorest pensioners. Incidentally, I read the article in The Western Mail that includes quotations from her, and I must tell her that the poorest pensioners are not on £95 a week. Not one pensioner is on less than £130 a week. In addition, they get free prescriptions for drugs and free eye tests, there are free TV licences for the over-75s and there is free bus travel and dentistry for the over-60s. A lot of work is being done, and that good work will continue.

I am sure that many of the pensioners in need in Wales will have worked a lifetime in heavy industry, and at this stage in their lives, when they need money, they would welcome the sort of compensation for pleural plaques that those in Scotland and Northern Ireland will receive. Will the Minister make representations to other Whitehall Departments to ensure that this anomaly is kicked out?

I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, and of course, I recognise what terrible diseases pleural plaques represent; constituents of mine have suffered from them. He can be certain that the Government will do everything legally possible to help those people.


2. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on the state of the Welsh economy. (298040)

4. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on the state of the Welsh economy. (298042)

I have regular such discussions. The bold, decisive and radical action that we have taken together over the past 12 months has ensured that this recession has not turned into a depression.

Construction output is falling at about twice the national average in Wales. What can the Government do about that?

What we would not do is what the Conservative party would do, which is cut public investment. We have invested and we are continuing to invest £20 billion, some of which is coming into Wales, in construction and other infrastructure projects in order to fill the gap left by the private sector’s inability to invest, given the worldwide financial crisis. Those are the polices that the Government are following and we will continue to follow them, despite the criticism by the Opposition.

The three contenders for Rhodri Morgan’s job appear to have only one idea between them for the economic recovery of Wales, which is tapping into Welsh universities. Although that is important, does the Secretary of State think it is a sufficiently comprehensive approach to the Welsh economy, or an example of Labour’s inadequate response to Wales in a recession?

I realise that the hon. Gentleman has had to be briefed by somebody for this question, but it was pretty poor briefing. The truth is that the three excellent quality candidates—they are some of the highest calibre politicians in Wales—standing for the leadership of Welsh Labour are all committed to programmes such as ReAct, which seeks to support people who lose their jobs, and ProAct, which seeks to support people so that they do not lose their jobs, all of which are publicly funded by the Welsh Assembly Government. Those policies would come under severe threat if the Conservatives won the next election, because they are committed to massive public spending cuts in Wales.

Employment prospects in my constituency and throughout south Wales would be greatly enhanced if the Corus Margam new mine were to proceed. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that the Wales Office, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of Energy and Climate Change work together to ensure that all the practical assistance that can be made available to Corus is made available, so that the 35 million tonnes of excellent coking coal in the Margam area is made available?

I will certainly do as my hon. Friend asks, and I commend him for his action in support of the workers there. The project is very exciting: the idea is to create a Margam deep mine that will produce the coking coal that Corus needs, creating 500 highly skilled and well-paid jobs in the process. We have set up a taskforce, together with the Welsh Assembly Government and other relevant Whitehall Departments, to try to take forward this exciting project for sustainable coal production and for the sustainability of Corus’s Port Talbot steelworks, which make such a massive contribution to the Welsh economy and the British economy as a whole.

Now that planning permission has been granted for the defence technical college at St. Athan—at seven times the size of the millennium stadium, it is the largest development of its type ever in Wales—what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of this, the largest vocational training centre in the United Kingdom, on the Welsh economy?

It will have an enormous impact on the Welsh economy, and I commend my hon. Friend for his hard work in seeking to take that forward. On Remembrance day, we might ask the Opposition parties whether they will give an absolute commitment to support the project—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I am answering. This will create the best and most highly skilled armed force training anywhere in the world. It is a world-class facility that will put our soldiers in a better position than any other military force across the world, and it needs all-party support. Perhaps the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) will give that support.

The number of net job losses in Wales announced today represents 20 times the number lost in Lehman Brothers in London. If that is the case, why have manufacturing companies in Wales received just a fraction of the support that the Government have invested in the bail-out of the City of London?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would commend Welsh businesses and manufacturers on the fact that we are outperforming the UK average for exports, and the fact that employment in Wales is still 90,000 higher than it was when Labour came to power. Of course, manufacturing across the world has suffered as a result of the global financial crisis. That is why he ought to support the Government in the investment that we are continuing to take forward to support businesses and the economy, and to ensure that the recovery is sustained and that we return to the growth that we saw for 10 years under the Labour Government before the credit crunch.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in January 1993, at the depth of the last Tory recession, the claimant count in Wales stood at 140,000? Last month in Wales, after the most sustained and deep global recession, it stood at only 78,000. Does not that show that the package that the Government and the Welsh Assembly Government have put together of a fiscal stimulus, bringing forward public investment, was absolutely the right policy, and that yet again the Opposition got it wrong?

Order. The Secretary of State will, I know, focus his answer on the policy of the Government, not that of the Opposition.

I will be happy to do so, Mr. Speaker, not least because we have policies that are working, unlike the policies that so dismally failed Wales in the 1990s and 1980s. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) said, we have learned the lessons from the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. That is why we are investing, and it is vital for the Opposition parties to unite with us to continue to take forward that investment, instead of proposing sometimes savage cuts in the Welsh budget that will hit not just health and education but support for the economy, too. That would hit jobs. For all the difficulties with unemployment, unemployment is still significantly lower than it was during the 1980s and 1990s, because of this Government’s action.

On Armistice day, I want to pay tribute to all our servicemen and servicewomen from Wales, and in particular to the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh, currently serving in Afghanistan. We are for ever in their debt and safer because of their sacrifice, their bravery and their dedication. They can count on the support of all of us in this House.

As a new nuclear power station at Wylfa would provide much-needed quality jobs in an area devastated by the closure of Anglesey Aluminium, I am pleased to endorse the Secretary of State’s welcome for the project. However, what discussions has he had with the First Minister in the Assembly, who has contradicted him and is opposing any new nuclear build in Wales?

I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to our soldiers, especially on Remembrance day. As for the nuclear power project on Anglesey, Wylfa B, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has lobbied me hard on this. We are working together to ensure that we can take it forward. I am very pleased that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has prioritised it, and I know that the Welsh Assembly Government candidates standing for the Labour leadership, and therefore for the First Minister’s position, have all supported the Wylfa B project. I shall continue to work with them, whoever is elected, to take that forward.

But there is a real problem with the Secretary of State’s party’s position. He is supporting Wylfa but the First Minister is against it. I admit that Mr. Jones—the frontrunner to succeed the First Minister—is in favour, but the Labour Assembly Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing, Jane Davidson, is against it and wants a public inquiry. Are not these dangerously mixed messages to be sending out over such an important project for the Welsh economy?

No, not at all, because the decision is taken by the UK Government. It has not just my backing but that of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Prime Minister, and it also has the redoubtable backing of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn. We intend to take the project forward in the future, and I am sure that when we do, it will have the backing of the Welsh Assembly Government. I would like the hon. Lady, instead of giving us mixed messages on the defence training college and other crucial projects in Wales that need Government support, to join me in backing them.

Social Care Green Paper

3. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the implications of the social care Green Paper for people in Wales. (298041)

As my right hon. Friend is aware, the Government are carrying out a detailed consultation on the social care Green Paper. The Government’s aim is nothing less than the creation of a national care service, and where there is overlap with the Welsh Assembly Government there will be full co-operation.

As my hon. Friend knows, 17 per cent. of people in my constituency are on incapacity benefit—one of the highest percentages of disabled people in the UK. Many people are concerned that the proposed changes will threaten their allowances. Will he assure them that they will not be worse off under the proposals?

The whole issue of the reform of the welfare state is extremely topical, and incapacity benefit is one element of that. I know that a number of hon. Members are concerned about attendance allowance, but there is an important principle that needs to be stated. Whatever the outcome of the consultation, people receiving attendance allowance at the time of reform will receive an equivalent level of support and protection under any new system. We will make changes to attendance allowance only if we can support people’s care needs better in the new system. That is our objective.

The Minister talks about consultation, but I asked his colleague the Secretary of State for Health the other day about what consultation was being undertaken. There was full consultation in England, but in Wales there was only some consultation with unnamed Assembly officials. Is he satisfied with that, when the very future of attendance allowance and disability living allowance for older and severely disabled people is probably in jeopardy?

The national care service will encompass all parts of the UK. Detailed consultation is taking place in all parts of the UK, and in the next week or so I will meet Gwenda Thomas, the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services. We will talk about what consultation there can be in Wales, how the ideas of the Welsh Assembly Government can be fed into our deliberations, and how we can make sure that we are all pulling together in the same direction for the benefit of the people of Wales.

When my hon. Friend has those discussions, will he please raise the concerns of my blind constituents about whether they will continue to receive disability living allowance when they reach the age of 65?

The Government have already ruled out incorporation of disability living allowance for the under-65s. However, I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes and I will make sure that her comment is fed into the representations and discussions that take place.

The Minister will be aware of the consternation that the consultation has caused in Wales and throughout the UK. It is becoming much clearer that the Government will not have the opportunity to act on the consultation before the election, and that they are highly unlikely to have the opportunity to do so after it. Will the hon. Gentleman therefore talk to his colleagues and ensure that the consultation is scrapped? In doing that, he would give some comfort to vulnerable people in Wales.

With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that we can scrap the consultation, which is vital if we are to tackle one of the biggest social issues of our time. We cannot pretend that these issues will go away: they cannot go away, and Labour Members are determined to get the policy right. That is why we are having the consultation. It is fundamentally central to our approach, because we believe in helping people to live in dignity in their own homes—unlike the Opposition, who would rather shift people into residential care homes.

Welsh Defence League

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the activities of the Welsh Defence League. (298043)

Both the Home Secretary and I are strongly opposed to the racist, fascist policies of the Welsh Defence League, and I commend the Welsh people who united so effectively to drive that vile group out of our communities.

Following the empty threat from that phantom organisation, was it not marvellous to see the way that Newport Christians, Muslims, Jews and political parties united in a magnificent vigil and demonstration that proved once again the marvellous record of racial harmony and solidarity in our city?

I agree; it was fantastic that the whole leadership of the people of Newport combined to say that we do not want such a nasty, racist and poisonous influence in our community. It is worth reminding the House that some of the individuals who lead the Welsh Defence League and its equivalent—the English Defence League—have serious criminal convictions for violence and other nefarious activities. They are not the sort of political groups that we want anywhere in our communities in Wales.

I fully endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), because when faced with the vile threat of the form of racism that the Welsh Defence League is peddling, we in Swansea were united: myself, other politicians and citizens in Swansea stood firm against that and said quite clearly, “We don’t want it here. We are a community, and we’ll stand together with everyone in the community.” Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating those people who stood together?

I will happily do so; my hon. Friend, too, was right there on the front line, saying on behalf of the people of Swansea whom she represents that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said at the time, the presence of the Welsh Defence League in Swansea is not welcome, and that we will continue to campaign hard not only to drive those groups out of our communities but to deal with the problems of housing and job insecurity that they seek to exploit on behalf of their vile beliefs. [Interruption.]

Order. There are still far too many private conversations taking place on both sides of the Chamber. I understand that right hon. and hon. Members are keenly anticipating Prime Minister’s questions, but this is a very solemn day in the national calendar, and I appeal to Members to behave in a way that reflects credit on the House.

Offender Management

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on offender management in Wales. (298044)

The Secretary of State and I regularly hold such meetings. For example, I recently met the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) to discuss the importance of a new prison in north Wales that would have a positive impact on offender manager in that area, by enabling prisoners to remain close to their families—a proven factor in reducing reoffending.

Does the Minister accept that the number of prisoners from north Wales would have to treble to meet the Ministry of Justice criteria for building a new prison there?

I understand from the hon. Lady’s comments that she is against a new prison in north Wales. There is a strong case for such a prison. One of the central factors is, of course, that it would not only serve north Wales, or Wales as a whole, but receive prisoners from the north-west of England, so its catchment area would be far wider.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the success made in Wales in tackling offending by women—in particular, the success of the Women’s Turnaround Project, based in Cardiff, which aims to stop women reoffending and going to prison? Will he congratulate that project?

I am aware of that project and the excellent work that takes place. The needs of women prisoners must be at the very top of our agenda, and I am pleased to say that they certainly are.

May I first associate myself fully with the words of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan)? On offender management, does the Minister realise that the £24 million cut in the probation service budget for England and Wales means that over 90 per cent. of newly qualified probation officers in Wales will not be offered a job? In his next routine meeting with the Ministry of Justice, will he show his concern about that terrible statistic?

It is important that we have a modernisation agenda and ensure that the probation service is as effective as possible—I believe that that is happening—and I welcome the fact that, as I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is to serve on an inquiry panel that has been recently set up by the Howard League for Penal Reform. I am sure that he would agree that we must ensure that a disproportionately large number of ex-service personnel do not enter our prisons.

The Minister will be aware that in its report on prisons in Wales, the Welsh Affairs Committee was unanimous in its support for a new prison in north Wales. Equally, we were disappointed that the Caernarfon site was deemed not suitable. Does the Minister agree that we need to build a consensus across the local authorities to identify suitable sites, because the economic benefit of a new prison will be immense in terms of jobs?

My hon. Friend is correct. There will be an enormous economic benefit to the area that is fortunate enough to have a new prison. I am pleased that my hon. Friend had a successful meeting yesterday with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. There is a common agenda that we can work on and take forward.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), will the Minister consider the case of Dyfed Powys probation service, where only one of seven trained individuals has been given a full-time job, and six have been given temporary contracts until next March? What assurance can the Minister give us about funding after next March?

That very much depends on what happens when the general election comes, and the result of that general election. One thing we can be certain about: if the Conservative party gets into power, we will see catastrophic cuts in the Prison Service, the probation service and elsewhere. That is the stark choice that we face.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), the Ministry of Justice has made it clear that it is looking for a number of 1,500-place prisons, and that they should be located in the areas from which the most prisoners come. Since only some 650 prisoners in the entire system come from north Wales, is there not a concern that the exercise that the Ministry is conducting may be a cosmetic one? Will the Minister and the Secretary of State use their good offices to ensure that the Ministry of Justice is fully aware of the pressing need for a new prison in north Wales?

I find the logic somewhat perverse. The early part of the hon. Gentleman’s comments came across to me as an argument against a prison in north Wales. But it is very important that we all pull together; we have the same argument. We recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said, that there is an economic case to be made for a prison in north Wales. There is also a need to ensure that prisoners from north Wales who speak Welsh are actively catered for.

Future Jobs Fund

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effects on levels of employment in Wales of the future jobs fund. (298046)

The £1 billion future jobs fund is already creating 4,200 jobs where they are most needed in Wales. Nearly 1,500 jobs will be created in Carmarthenshire and Swansea alone, helping many of my hon. Friend’s young constituents to find jobs.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Carmarthenshire Training on its success on securing a good cross-section of employment opportunities from private sector, third sector and county council employers, and encourage it in its future bid for another 190 jobs? Will he do everything he can to encourage other council departments and employers to provide similar opportunities?

Yes, I am happy to congratulate Carmarthenshire on an excellent bid, which I was delighted to announce recently. I also join my hon. Friend in saying that we need more top-quality bids. That is why I have written to fellow Members of Parliament in Wales saying, “Please encourage your county councils and training providers to come forward with vital job schemes, because young people who lose jobs or who have never worked, as we saw in the 1980s and1990s, may never work in their lives. We must make sure that we provide them with the support now to get them into work.” [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I shall try to raise my decibel level for you. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in times of economic downturn, what the public are looking for is the helping hand of Government intervention, such as the future jobs fund, city strategy and “Fit for Work” initiatives. What they do not want is laissez-faire, let the recession—

I think you will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, that my hon. Friend has helped to spearhead one of the most successful job creation projects in his town of Rhyll. It is based on a city strategy project, which has won an important scheme under the future jobs fund. That is exactly the point that he makes. We need a Government not who will cut spending, but who will continue to invest to make sure that we recover from the recession and move forward into growth. Cuts policies will not achieve that.

Training and Employment

8. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to promote training and employment in Wales. (298047)

Safeguarding jobs and improving access to training is, of course, a priority. In Wales, economic summits have led to an additional £20 million to support apprenticeships and the Welsh Assembly Government budget provides for a further £20.5 million to deliver education and training for the young people hit hardest by the recession.

Unemployment in Wales is rising faster than anywhere in the United Kingdom, while manufacturing capacity and output is going in the opposite direction. May I suggest to the Minister that he examine the small to medium-sized business sector, because such companies are best able to get finance and take on people who are properly trained, and best fitted to assist with the very high unemployment rates in Wales?

The situation in Wales is nowhere near as bad as it was in the 1980s and 1990s when the hon. Lady’s party was in power; that is something that the people of Wales will never forget. Moreover, people recognise that we are on the side of the people. We are introducing measures that are having a material impact on people’s lives and on the Welsh economy. The people of Wales appreciate that. If a different party were in power, the people of Wales would certainly regret it.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Today is the first Armistice day we have commemorated since the last surviving members of our armed forces who fought in the first world war passed from our midst. The whole House will want to pay our tribute to them and our tribute to the succeeding generations of our men and women who have paid the full price for our freedom. Today we also pay a special tribute to the outstanding work across the generations of the Royal British Legion.

The whole House will also wish to join me in expressing our profound condolences to the families, the friends and the colleagues of those members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Today we mourn, from 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, Warrant Officer Class 1 Regimental Sergeant Major Darren Chant, Sergeant Matthew Telford and Guardsman James Major; from the Royal Military Police, Acting Corporal Steven Boote and Corporal Nicholas Webster-Smith; from 3rd Battalion the Rifles, Acting Serjeant Phillip Scott; from 2nd Battalion the Rifles, Rifleman Philip Allen; and from 4th Battalion the Rifles, Rifleman Samuel Bassett. As we remember them, and the debt that we owe them, we remember and honour the courage and the selflessness of all our armed forces now serving in Afghanistan. Each day we can be extraordinarily proud of their professionalism, their dedication and their bravery.

I am sure that the whole House will want to associate itself with the Prime Minister’s condolences and, on this Armistice day, to express our gratitude to all the brave men and women who have died in the service of our nation over the years. But we also have to think of those military personnel who are currently serving. Therefore, what is my right hon. Friend doing to make sure that our troops have enough of the right equipment, and can he tell us when we can expect the decision from our American allies about their troop deployment in Afghanistan?

We are the first country to have agreed to send additional troops for the next stage of the mission in Afghanistan, and we are seeking to persuade other countries to join us in this. I have an assurance from the chiefs of staff that every one of our armed forces who serve in Afghanistan are and will be fully equipped.

I have also talked to President Obama, and I expect him to announce in a few days what his numbers for Afghanistan will be. At the same time, I am talking to President Karzai to make sure that large numbers of Afghan troops are recruited who are able to be trained by the British forces. Our strategy is to train up the Afghan forces so that they are in a position to take responsibility for their country.

As for equipment, the extra money that we are spending means that there are more vehicles in the field and more helicopters going into the field. As I have said, I have an assurance from the chiefs of our forces that every serving member of our armed forces who goes to Afghanistan will be not only fully trained but fully equipped for the job.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Serjeant Phillip Scott, Rifleman Philip Allen, Rifleman Samuel Bassett, Warrant Officer Class 1 Darren Chant, Sergeant Matthew Telford, Guardsman James Major, Corporal Steven Boote and Corporal Nicholas Webster-Smith. As the Prime Minister said, on this Armistice day we should remember all those servicemen and women who have given their lives in the service of our country. Their sacrifice must never be forgotten.

I join the Prime Minister in praising the work of the Royal British Legion. All of us know from our constituency surgeries that it is one of the most effective organisations for looking after the families and those who have served, and everyone in this House, I know, will want to pay it a tribute today.

Today, the youth unemployment rate has reached a record high in our country. Almost 1 million young people—that is one in five—cannot find work. The Prime Minister once promised “to abolish youth unemployment”. Does he accept that he has failed?

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman allows us to discuss today employment opportunities for young people, because we are the Government who introduced this summer, knowing the problems that young people faced, the summer school leavers’ guarantee. It has meant that tens of thousands of young people are now able to be in education or training or in work, where otherwise they would be unemployed. That was opposed by the Conservative party.

We have also made it clear that young people who are 18 to 24 will get help, if they are unemployed, to get back to work, and already 95,000 young people are getting the help that is necessary, so that soon they will have the training and work that is necessary for them to get back to work. I have to say about the youth unemployment figures that the right hon. Gentleman quotes that 250,000 of that number are full-time students looking for part-time work, and they are not fully unemployed. No Government in Europe are doing more to help young people who are out of work.

The Prime Minister is living in a parallel universe. The figures announced today are that there are 943,000 young people who cannot find work in our country. He talks about other European countries; the whole of Germany has 537,000 young people unemployed, and France has 765,000. We, I repeat, have 943,000. He said:

“Our plan is nothing less than to abolish youth unemployment.”

Anyone must accept that he has failed. He also promised full employment. In fact, unemployment is up by almost 500,000 since he came to power. He promised that no young person should spend years without a job. In fact, the number of young people unemployed for more than a year has gone up by 50 per cent. Does he accept that on any of these yardsticks—youth unemployment, total unemployment, the amount of time young people are unemployed—he has failed?

No; there are 700,000 more young people in work than in 1997. Nothing that the right hon. Gentleman can say can change the fact that there are more people in full-time education and in work under this Government than there were when we took over. As for youth unemployment, he knows perfectly well that the rate of youth unemployment in Spain is 40 per cent and that the rate in Ireland is nearly 30 per cent. What we have tried to do, facing a situation in which young people face the prospect of unemployment, is to give them jobs, but every measure has been opposed by the Opposition. They opposed our summer school leavers’ guarantee. They opposed the new deal efforts for 18 to 24-year-olds and want to abolish the new deal in its entirety. They oppose education maintenance allowances. Nothing that they would do would make unemployment lower; it would make unemployment higher.

As ever, the Prime Minister is completely wrong. Our plan to get Britain working will help more people and help them more quickly, and it is fully funded, because we have taken tough decisions about the deficit. The Prime Minister ought to know about it—after all, it was drawn up by David Freud, who was his welfare guru, one of the many people who have left the bunker and come to work for us. [Interruption.]

Is it not the case that the state of the public finances is so bad that the Government are planning deep cuts in every Department, including those responsible for helping the unemployed?

Let me say that we have put £1 billion into the future jobs fund to provide 100,000 jobs for young people, with another 50,000 in areas of high unemployment. I simply ask the right hon. Gentleman, does he support our measure or not?

We have set out schemes far greater than anything that the Prime Minister has come up with. If we want to spend a little time on the Prime Minister’s schemes, what about the mortgage rescue scheme, which was meant to help thousands? How many has it helped? Just 16 families. What about the capital for enterprise fund? It was meant to transform British businesses. How many has it helped? Just five. What about the asset-backed securities guarantee? How many assets has it backed? None—zero. The Prime Minister says that he is investing money, but I have here a leaked memo from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. [Interruption.] They do not want to listen. It is 11 pages, and the Prime Minister has got a copy, too—it was sent to Peter Mandelson, so it must be important. It calls for a cut in apprenticeship rates of 10 per cent., a cut in the adult learning budget of 10 per cent. and a cut in development loans of 50 per cent. Does that leaked memo not tell us that, far from the Prime Minister’s mantra about investment, he is planning cuts, because of the mess he has made of our finances?

Every time we mention policy, he loses it. The right hon. Gentleman cannot answer the question about whether he supports the measures that we are taking now to help young people back into work. As for his claims about mortgages, all the forecasts were that repossessions would be at the level of the 1990s, but they are half that level. The reason the mortgage rescue support scheme has not had a lot of people on it is that it has not had to be used, because we have helped them in other ways. The scheme was the fall-back option if we could not help people in other ways. Every time that the right hon. Gentleman tries to talk about policy, he does not have a clue about what is happening.

The fact is that the Prime Minister’s policies are not working. The people who have lost out are the 943,000 young people who have lost their jobs under his Government. He has given us the deepest and longest recession since the war and the fastest rising unemployment. Why cannot he admit—[Interruption.]

Order. Government Back Benchers are far too excitable. They must calm down. We want to get some Back Benchers in on these exchanges.

They know they have got a party leader who has lost it. Why cannot the Prime Minister admit what everybody knows to be true—that the Government are having to make cuts? Let me read to him what the Chancellor of the Exchequer says about him:

“I am trying to talk sense into that man. He just doesn’t get it—going on about ‘Tory cuts’ is not going to make an impact on the electorate… The voters aren’t stupid—they know how bad the economic situation is”.

Will the Prime Minister finally acknowledge that he is planning cuts in departmental spending next year, 2010?

Once again, not one policy from the Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman says that we are cutting apprenticeships, but we are increasing them. He says that we are cutting opportunities for young people, when 10,000 more young people went to university this year. He says that we are trying to cut opportunities for people who are unemployed, when we are giving them more opportunities. He was wrong on the recession, wrong on every aspect of bank restructuring, wrong about helping home owners and wrong about helping people into jobs. He is now wrong about youth unemployment and everything affecting young people. He is wrong about every policy on the economy.

This Prime Minister told us, “No more boom and bust”, yet he presided over the biggest boom and the biggest bust; he told us that we were the best prepared for the recession, yet, unlike others, we are still in recession. He has given us the fastest rising unemployment and the biggest bust. Take the official figures for public spending, take off what you are planning to spend on unemployment benefit and on debt, and departmental spending is being cut by 0.7 per cent. The Prime Minister asks about policy; we have said what we would do about public sector pay and pensions. We have the courage of our convictions; the Prime Minister has neither courage nor convictions.

The right hon. Gentleman gave a cast-iron commitment on Europe, and what happened to that? He gave a cast-iron commitment last week to the national health service, and what is going to happen to that? He is giving a cast-iron commitment on what he will do for young people, but he cannot match what we are doing for young people now. He opposes Sure Start, he opposes education maintenance allowance, he opposes child tax credits, he opposes the new deal and he opposes everything that will get young people back to work. The Conservatives were responsible for the highest level of unemployment this country has seen, and they would put us back to that if ever they were given the chance. That is why people want a Labour Government that is working.

On Sunday, the family of 18-year-old Jimmy Major paraded through the streets of Cleethorpes to attend a Remembrance day service; a couple of miles away in Grimsby, the family of Matthew Telford were doing the same; and yesterday the families were at Wootton Bassett for the return of their sons. Given this loss and the loss through the generations, on this, Armistice day, does my right hon. Friend share the concern expressed by 200 Members of this House at the desecration and vandalism of war memorials to the fallen? Will he meet me and other Back Benchers to see what we can do to ensure that that never happens again?

I echo exactly what my hon. Friend has said about the way that different communities in this country have come out in support of, and to honour, those people who are heroes to them and to us, who have given their lives serving in Afghanistan. What happened yesterday at Wootton Bassett and what is happening in the towns and villages where the servicemen who died come from is, again, an outstanding tribute of the British people to our armed forces.

I think it is important that we never forget the sacrifices that have been made. That is why it is important that the war memorials are kept up to the standard that is necessary. That is why we have made funding available for the upkeep of memorials—£1.5 million since 2005—and other additional money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but of course I will meet my hon. Friend and any Members who are concerned about the state of war memorials in their communities. It is absolutely crucial to the future of our nation that we never forget the service of those who died to make us free.

I am sure that most people will recognise the genuine sincerity, as always, of the sympathy and condolence that the Prime Minister expressed on all our behalves to the family and friends of those who tragically lost their lives, not only in Afghanistan, but in previous conflicts. I, of course, add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Warrant Officer Class 1 Darren Chant, Sergeant Matthew Telford, Guardsman James Major, Acting Corporal Steven Boote and Corporal Nicholas Webster-Smith, who were killed in that terrible incident last week, and to the families and friends of Serjeant Phillip Scott, Rifleman Philip Allen and Rifleman Samuel John Bassett, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan this week.

How is it possible, in the middle of a recession, with unemployment at 2.5 million and rising, that this Government—a Labour Government—should be planning to change local housing allowance rules to take £15 a week from some of the poorest people in Britain?

This Government have done more to take people out of poverty than any Government, and we have taken people out of poverty by giving them tax credits and improved housing benefits. I do not believe that the figures that the right hon. Gentleman has given me are accurate. This is a Labour Government who want to help people into work and help people who are in work.

That response beggars belief—they are the Prime Minister’s figures. How would he feel if he was on £80 a week and the Government came along and said, “We’re going to take £15 of that away”? This is going to hit up to 300,000 of the poorest people in this country and it will not save the Treasury any money. It took him months to do the right thing—the U-turn—on the 10p tax rate fiasco. Will he now look at this measure, stop it, and stop it now? Will he do that—yes or no?

This is the man who talked about savage cuts in public services. What we are trying to do is to reform housing benefit in a way that helps those who are most in need. What we are also trying to do is to use our resources to help those who are unemployed get back into work. If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about proposals on housing benefit, he is talking about proposals for consultation—no decision has been made.

Despite the robust rejection that he received from the United States, may I congratulate the Prime Minister on his attempt to advocate the case for an international application of the Tobin tax on speculative capital transactions? At a time when nation states are manifestly failing to meet the funding obligations that they have made on the eradication of poverty, the delivery of food security and climate change mitigation, will he go back to the international community and again make the case that we should tackle speculators, if we are to deliver the programmes that will save the planet and transform the prospects for our future?

This is a first: it is the first time that my hon. Friend has supported my economic policy. Even though the Leader of the Opposition opposes this, we will have to face up to the social responsibility of the banking system. We will have to face up to the responsibilities that financial institutions have at a global level, in a situation in which we have global financial markets and not national financial markets. Therefore, we will have to consider measures that bring the financial institutions in line with the values that are held by the vast majority of people round the world. That means that we will have to consider an insurance fee against banks collapsing and our having to pick up the bill. We have to look at contingent capital liabilities and whether there should be a resolution fund in case of crises to resolve or a financial levy, such as has been discussed before. These measures are now on the table and have to be discussed. I make no apology for putting them on the agenda: in the long run, it is the only way that we can solve the problem of the social responsibility of world banking to the community.

Q2. A year ago today, we heard the verdict in the baby Peter case and started to understand the horrors behind that tragically short life. Ministers rightly said that it should never happen again. Today the Local Government Association has produced a report showing that 60 per cent. of local authorities are struggling to retain and recruit key child protection social workers. We know how demoralised the profession is—social workers are shackled to computers and spend 80 per cent. of their time on bureaucratic procedures. Why should vulnerable children in this country today feel any safer than they did two years ago with the death of baby Peter, or nine and a half years ago with the death of Victoria Climbié in equally tragic circumstances? (299023)

As a result of the tragedy of baby P and the action that we took in Haringey to change the whole management of the services there, we also set up the inquiry by Lord Laming, who looked at all the issues related to the assessment and proper care of children. Our determination to ensure that children are protected from harm is enshrined in the recommendations of his report. We confirmed that changes that had been recommended by Lord Laming will be made. We have accepted and implemented all his recommendations, and that is the basis on which we want to ensure that vulnerable children across the country are protected. I believe that there is wide support in the House for the recommendations of that report, and we are implementing them.

Q3. As the number of people progressing into very old age increases, the Prime Minister will agree that it is necessary to take measures to protect them properly, unlike—unfortunately—many Tory and Lib Dem councils, which are closing care homes and evicting very elderly people, such as 106-year-old Mrs. Louisa Watts in my constituency. She loves her— (299024)

Order. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that we cannot have an essay: we need a question with a question mark.

She is hanging on against all the legal measures being taken by the council, and I ask the Prime Minister if he will make room in the Queen’s Speech for a measure that will properly protect very old people in our country. In the meantime, will he ask the Secretary of State to look into her case particularly?

We are publishing a national care strategy to help those people who are in need of help in old people’s homes, as well as those who receive help in the community. I urge my hon. Friend to be part of the consultation so that we can agree on the right legislative measures, so that every old person has the dignity and security that they want in retirement. Having heard of the case of Louisa Watts and her friends at the care home, I hope that the council will reconsider and accept the generous offer that is being made to it to keep Louisa Watts and her friends in their home for another year.

Q4. Is the Prime Minister comfortable with the fact that nine of his ex-ministerial colleagues have written to him to say that his proposals to scrap tax relief on child care are wrong and immensely damaging to working women? (299025)

We have said—I repeated this yesterday to a meeting and again this morning—that nobody who is receiving tax relief for child care vouchers will lose it. That assurance, which I make here and which was made yesterday as well, is one that people will welcome. At the same time, we want to expand nursery care for two-year-olds and create a situation in which nursery education runs into primary and secondary education from two to 18. However, no Government have done more to advance and support child care in our country, and we shall continue to do so in the next few months.

Q5. My constituent Jean Edwards died recently after falling ill in Turkey. Her family have received a bill for £100,000 for the private care that she received. The travel insurance did not materialise. Will the Prime Minister look at a report out soon by the Law Commission recommending reforms to the insurance industry across the insurance spectrum? It is providing a draft Bill, and it would be interesting if that were looked at in future legislation. (299027)

First, I send my condolences to the family and friends of Jean Edwards, my hon. Friend’s constituent, who tragically fell seriously ill in Turkey and shortly after died. The Law Commission is looking at this matter now. It is an important area in protecting the consumer, and he is right to raise it as an issue that has to be dealt with in future laws. We will consider the Law Commission’s proposals very thoroughly and with other priorities for legislation at the right time. However, I commend him for raising this important matter where a change of law is obviously needed.

Q6. We have seen our normal weekly clash. Would it be nice to have all the party leaders on the same political platform at the next general election by having, at the same time, a referendum on European Union membership? After all, that would release the poison, and relieve the distortion, that this unanswered question puts into British politics. (299028)

The real Tory party speaks! The Leader of the Opposition made a cast-iron commitment to hold a referendum. What faith can the public have in any promise that he makes now?

Q7. The news today of the biggest rise in the number of people in employment for 18 months is good. However, in my constituency there have been many job losses, particularly in the steel industry. One company told me that the greatest help that it has received has come from the effects of the fiscal stimulus, public sector investment in building and infrastructure, and training. As we begin to see an improvement in the economy, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to support manufacturing? (299029)

I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend that the help that we have been able to give to small businesses, as well as low interest rates, have been vital in helping the Grimsby economy and all economies in this country. I also remind him that 200,000 businesses, including those in Scunthorpe and Grimsby, have benefited from the help that we have given. That would not have been possible, if we had followed the ideas of the Opposition.

On 1 October, the European Commission served notice on the United Kingdom Government that they are in breach of European law for failing to pay disability living allowance and other exportable benefits to expatriate UK citizens. Will the Prime Minister now give the order so that these elderly and frail men and women, some of whom have served in our armed forces, get the money that they need and deserve?

Q8. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent discovery in Staffordshire of the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. Will he give his backing to a plan to create in the region a Saxon tourist trail and support the Tamworth Herald campaign to bring this gold to be displayed in the ancient Saxon capital of the kingdom of Mercia—the town of Tamworth? (299030)

My hon. Friend makes a very strong case for the gold going to Tamworth, but the British Museum is concerned to ensure that it remains in the west midlands and available for people to see, if not use.

I met Corporal Steven Boote in Aldershot shortly before he deployed with the Royal Military Police, together with two of his colleagues. Yesterday I received an e-mail from one of those colleagues, in which he expressed his devastation at the loss of his colleague Corporal Boote, but also said, “We are winning in the job we are doing out here.” Will the Prime Minister please ensure that he and his Government get that positive message across to the media and the British people about what our fantastic troops are doing out in the field as we speak?

I say and say again that we are so proud of the work that our troops do in Afghanistan—they are committed; they are brave; they are utterly professional. What we have to do is show people, first, why we are in Afghanistan—that there is a chain of terror that comes from the Pakistan-Afghan mountains that could threaten the streets of London. Then we have to show people that, with the great commitment, energy and expertise of our armed forces, we have a plan to ensure that the Afghans can take more control of their own affairs, so that over time our troops can come home. I applaud the extreme bravery of every member of our armed forces in Afghanistan, particularly in the most difficult circumstances, where three quarters of deaths are due to explosive devices.

Q9. A recent survey for the Commonwealth Fund of 10,000 physicians in 11 developed nations said that the NHS offers the best primary health care in the world. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to explain to the House that the NHS is safe in this Government’s hands, but would never be safe in the hands of the Opposition? (299031)

Yesterday we were able to say that personal guarantees will be made to patients and families from the NHS that they will receive cancer treatment if necessary within two weeks by seeing a consultant, that they will receive hospital operations if these are needed within 18 weeks and that they will have GPs available in the evenings and at weekends. That is how a modern health service must work, ensuring that personal services are available to every person in the country. It is unfortunate that those guarantees, which we are prepared to make, the Opposition oppose.

Q10. The Prime Minister will know that there are about 1.3 million carers, who do the most fantastic job looking after people, often 24/7. This year £50 million was allocated by the Prime Minister to support respite care, but only 10 per cent. of that has been spent. In my primary care trust area, £365,000 is available, but only £3,600 has been spent. What will he do to ensure that carers get the respite that they need and not simply another headline? (299032)

First, let me thank the 6 million carers in our country for the work that they do, often under the most extreme pressure to help and be at the side of their relatives. We are determined to do more over time to help all carers, ensuring that their pension arrangements are better and that they have the respite care that the hon. Gentleman talked about. We have set aside the money; I want to see it spent. It is a necessary means by which we can support the energy of carers, who need time off, and therefore need respite care to be available. I will ensure that I look at the facts that he has given me.

Skills for Growth

Order. May I just ask right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly? We have an important statement and I know that Members will wish to hear it.

I wish to repeat a statement made by my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on our policies for skills and their role in our future economic growth.

An active Government approach to equipping the country for globalisation means ensuring that we have the skills that underwrite the industries and jobs of the future. That means skills for the high-tech, low-carbon, more high-value-added sectors that drive the growth that underwrites everything else that we want to achieve as a society. These skills are becoming more sophisticated and even more vital.

I also start from the position that skills in our society must always be an individual’s ladder up. That is why the skills system needs to mesh with our university system. We need schools and colleges to make a strong vocational offer, which will lead to a clear vocational route from apprenticeship to technician to foundation degree and beyond.

Equipping unemployed people with the skills that they need to get jobs in key sectors will be essential to a strong recovery. Let us remember that by equipping more of the domestic population with the right skills to compete for jobs, we help employers to become less reliant on migrant labour. Addressing these skills challenges has been the focus of our skills strategy in recent years, and it remains the foundation on which our new policies build.

We recognise that skills have historically been an area of British competitive weakness. Since 1997, we have made real progress in tackling the economic and social scandal of adult illiteracy and innumeracy. We will not abandon our promise of basic skills for all. We have eradicated much of the poor quality that blighted our further education system. We have transformed work place training through Train to Gain, which has trained more than 1 million employees and helped them to get on in work. We have revived apprenticeships, which were allowed to wither away in the ’80s and ’90s. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is before the House today, will ensure that this progress is sustained.

This skills strategy builds on the progress made. It reflects some important decisions and marks a radical shift in the balance of our skills priorities. It reflects the world we find ourselves in: a world where higher level skills have never been more important to our growth, and where the skills challenge has to be tackled within more constrained resources. So we have made some difficult choices. The crisis help that we targeted to help to counter the effects of the recession will progressively be refocused on the skills that we need for a sustained recovery.

We have taken three key decisions. First, we will change the focus of our skills system so that a new premium is put on higher skills, especially the technician skills that are the foundation of high-tech, low-carbon industry. Secondly, we will empower learners through more choice and better information to drive up the quality of the system through skills accounts. Thirdly, we will dramatically reduce the number of publicly supported bodies delivering skills policy, working with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to reduce them by more than 30. These choices will target public investment on the most relevant skills for the future, at the highest possible levels of quality and marketability.

The first of these decisions reflects the need for a new focus on the skills that we need in the laboratory, the high-tech factory and the computer facility. We will create a new, modern class of technicians—something that has long been identified as a gap in our labour market. To build this technician class, we will further expand the apprenticeship system by creating 35,000 new advanced places for those aged 19 to 30 over the next two years.

The aim of creating this technician class will also be aided by the new generation of university technical colleges whose creation we are supporting. To turn these apprenticeships into potential ladders to university, from 2011 all apprenticeship frameworks at levels 3 and 4 will be required to have UCAS tariff points, just as A-levels do, so that holders can apply for, and make their way into, university. We will also commit to the recommendation from the panel on fair access to the professions that we create an apprenticeship scholarship fund that will provide one-off bursaries of up to £1,000 for 1,000 apprentices entering higher education every year.

We will take a more strategic approach to the skills that we fund. That means prioritising strategic skills in key industries such as advanced manufacturing, low-carbon, digital technologies and biosciences, and in important growth sectors such as health care. Our decisions in the next bidding round of the national skills academies programme will reflect these core national priorities.

The second of our decisions is to increase the power of learners to drive up quality in the skills training sector by giving them more choice over where and when they train, and better information on how to exercise that choice. To give effect to that greater choice, we will set up new skills accounts, which will enable students to shop around for training, backed by good information on how well different courses and colleges can meet their needs.

Critically, we are going to more than treble the number of public and private institutions where accounts can be used to over 1,500—not only creating new options for learners, but creating a big incentive for providers to design courses that attract students.

The further education sector has made significant strides in improving the quality of its provision over the last decade. Many of our colleges are performing at world-class levels, and overall success rates have increased by over 40 per cent. in the last 10 years. We will build on this by providing progressively greater autonomy to colleges that demonstrate teaching excellence, but also by cutting funding to low-priority and poorly provided courses. We will invest in the courses that employers judge are in line with their needs and requirements.

Finally, we have decided to simplify the organisational clutter of public bodies delivering skills policy. We welcome the recommendation of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to reduce the number of separate publicly funded agencies by over 30 and will work with it and others to make that happen. Our new model will make the regional development agencies responsible for leading the regional skills strategy in each area, working in partnership with local authorities and others.

This skills strategy shares its fundamental challenge with our recent higher education framework. They must equip our people to prosper in a globalised knowledge economy. They must contribute to our return to sustained and sustainable growth. The goal of this strategy is a skills system defined not simply by targets based on achieved qualifications, but by “real world” outcomes—relevant quality skills with real market value. It will be driven by the realities of a changing global economy—by demand from the British businesses and individuals who have to prosper in that economy. The clearer the demand, the better the system will work.

Our expectations of business will rise. We will strengthen the role of employer-led sector skills councils and business-led regional development agencies in shaping an excellent supply of courses and training, designed in direct response to local and national employer needs, but we will also expect businesses to make a greater contribution to the funding of skills training for their work force. We need a culture in which all employers take the view that the skills of their staff are one of the best investments they can make.

Our ambition is that, thanks in large part to the innovations in this strategy, three quarters of people should participate in higher education or complete an advanced apprenticeship or equivalent technician-level course by the age of 30. This strategy empowers the further education system above all to compete to meet the needs of businesses and learners. That will put further education where it belongs—right at the heart of the knowledge economy, at the heart of our recovery and our future prosperity.

There is much in this statement that the Opposition welcome. We welcome what the Minister has said about ensuring that practical apprenticeships get UCAS points—something that we specifically proposed in our Green Paper last year. We welcome the proposal on scholarships for apprentices to go on to university—something that I proposed in my party conference speech in 2008. We welcome what the Minister has said about shifting back towards advanced apprenticeships at A-level equivalent. We also welcome the praise that the Minister rightly gave to the performance of our further education colleges and hope that he means what he says about simplifying the very complicated burdens that they face at the moment.

I have several questions about the statement. First, can the Minister explain why we should believe what he says about simplifying the system? The Order Paper shows that after this statement the House is to consider the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which will give some of the responsibilities of the Learning and Skills Council to local education authorities. Because the Government do not really trust LEAs, there is to be a new Young Person’s Learning Agency whose job is to supervise those authorities. Then there is a separate National Apprenticeship Service and also a Skills Funding Agency or SFA. In fact, when it comes to simplification, this Government’s policy is SFA—by which, of course, I mean the Skills Funding Agency! So why should we believe the Minister when he says he simplifying? He is actually making life far more complicated. Will he take the opportunity at this late stage to introduce amendments to the Bill to reverse those complexities?

The Minister said that apprenticeships had been revived under this Government. Will he confirm that what has really happened is that level 2 courses that did not previously count as apprenticeships have been redefined, and that training for people at level 3 is actually at a lower level than it was 10 years ago?

The Minister referred to the importance of replacing migrant workers with better-skilled British workers. We were relieved that he avoided crude BNP slogans such as “British jobs for British workers”. We understood the point that he was making: that he thought that a measure of the success of his skills strategy would be a reduced dependency on migrant workers. Will he confirm that since the Government came to office, 1.4 million of the 1.7 million new jobs—more than 80 per cent.—have gone to migrant workers? What, according to the very benchmark that he has offered the House today, does that tell us about his skills strategy?

Will the Minister confirm that whatever he may say today, in public, about what he is doing for skills and training, separately—in private, within the Department—a very different policy is unfolding? Will he confirm that he was one of the recipients of the paper dated 12 October entitled “Skills Investment Strategy 2010-11”, which shows how the Department is proposing to save up to £350 million on some of the very initiatives that he has been talking about today? Will he confirm the validity of the ready reckoner helpfully contained in the internal document, according to which:

“Removing £100m in the 2010-11 financial year, proportionately across the different levels and funding routes then we would lose a total 133,000 learners from the baseline”?

Will he confirm that every £100 million of cuts that he is proposing will mean the loss of an extra 133,000 learner places, and that if he raises the full £350 million of savings, a third of a million learners will lose out?

In his statement, the Minister talked about the rolling out of skills accounts. Will he confirm that the private document that he has received from his advisers in the Department states:

“we can still… achieve the target £100m by reducing the funding originally planned for the Adult Advancement and Careers Service and by delaying the roll out of Skills Accounts”?

How can we take the Government seriously on skills or any other subject when they say one thing to the House, while privately preparing a completely different strategy?

Let me begin by graciously welcoming the hon. Gentleman’s gracious welcome for the parts of the statement with which he agreed, on UCAS points and a greater emphasis on level 3 apprenticeships. He praised our further education sector, so perhaps it would be unfair of me to point out that the contrast between the state and quality of our further education sector today and its state and quality when his party was in power could not be greater. It was flat on its back. Not a single penny went into renewing the sector towards the end of that period, whereas we have renewed it substantially.

The hon. Gentleman talked of simplification. It is true that almost everyone who examines this arena agrees that we need a simpler, less cluttered system. He talked of the changes that we propose. Those changes will get rid of nine regional skills bodies, so we are reducing the number of bodies in this territory. The hon. Gentleman talked of events outside the House. I think I am right in saying that he has not been entirely beating the drum with sector skills councils, arguing that their number should be reduced.

Let me now turn to the hon. Gentleman’s final point about a story that appeared in the newspapers in recent days. The information contained in the great secret document he waved was actually announced in this House in the Budget some months ago, and in case anyone had not noticed it in the Budget, the then Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), wrote to the Learning and Skills Council earlier this year setting out the kind of savings we were looking for. We are not cutting apprenticeship numbers. This is old news; it was announced in this House, and it was communicated to the LSC.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about funding, let me ask him whether he will match our commitment to keep up spending on renewing the FE estate. He has not committed to that. Will he confirm that he will abolish the Train to Gain budget entirely? He talks to us about funding, yet he will not match the funding commitment that we have made because we want to increase opportunity and because we recognise the necessity of a high-quality skills system both for individuals and our economic future.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State has come to the House today to make a statement on this announcement, in stark contrast to his colleague, the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, who on Monday made a written statement on the long-awaited fees review, which has angered thousands of students throughout the country, including about 100 presidents of student unions, who are gathered upstairs in Committee Room 11 at present—and I hope to speak to them shortly.

We thought we had had the Government’s vision for skills—the 2020 vision for skills—three years ago in the Leitch report, but the world has, of course, changed completely since then: the United Kingdom economy has experienced six quarters of contraction, and unemployment has increased again today, particularly for young people, among whom unemployment has risen by 15,000. The unemployment rate among 16 to 24-year-olds is 19.8 per cent., which is a far greater proportion than for the population as a whole. Young people have borne the brunt of this recession. Many of them are graduates who had never expected to be in this situation, but the vast bulk are those with skills up to, or including, level 2, thus compounding the long-entrenched problem of those not in education, employment or training.

We need emergency measures to deal with the recession, as well as a long-term vision for the future of our economy. Does the Minister agree that it is simply ludicrous to expect young unemployed people under 24 to have to wait up to 12 months for what he himself described as “crisis help”? It is a pretty strange crisis if they have to wait 12 months for help. Instead, my party has proposed a 90-day guarantee.

We welcome some of the announcements in the statement. We certainly welcome—I am sure it is a welcome that will be echoed by employers around the country—any proposal to rationalise the quangos that proliferate in the entire skills labyrinth. The most common complaint I hear from all the employers I meet is that they find the skills labyrinth bewildering to negotiate. Does the Minister not agree that sector skills councils ought to be the organisations in the driving seat in respect of saying what are the skills needs of their industry, rather than the RDAs, as seems to be the case under the Government’s preferred model?

If any headline comes out of this statement, I guess it will be yet another target: that 75 per cent. of those aged under 30 should attain either a higher education qualification or an advanced apprenticeship. After 12 years of targets, I wonder whether we need another one in the fag-end period of this Government. Perhaps this is intended to obscure the fact that they will fail to meet the 50 per cent. target for participation in higher education by 2010.

The statement referred to new university technical colleges. The Government’s further education capital programme has been a complete fiasco, so I imagine this does not mean there will be new build. Will the Minister therefore confirm what these new university technical colleges will actually be? Will they be just a rebadging of existing FE provision? FE colleges will also be quite alarmed by the Minister’s comment that there will be cuts in what he calls low-priority courses. Will he define what a low-priority course is, or at least give an example of one, from the Dispatch Box today?

Much of the emphasis in the statement and in the report is on formal provision, but does the Minister agree that there is an important role to be played not only by further education and by government but by social enterprise and charities? I have been impressed by the work done by Fairbridge in my constituency and by the Bristol foyer. Often, that informal provision can lead people, particularly those not in education, employment or training, back into formal learning. We will agree—I am sure that there will be a broad consensus on this—that the future needs of this country will be high-tech and low-carbon, but does he agree that in order to get young people to take the relevant courses, they need good, well resourced and independent advice and guidance from the age of 13 right through their education and their working lives? It is not clear to me that the resources are in place to deliver that. The report is all about long-term vision, but I suspect that the tragedy for the Government is that they are not going to be there to deliver it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He attacks our 50 per cent. target, but his party does not even support a 50 per cent. target. In fact, its document states:

“We reject the simplistic 50 per cent. participation target set by the Government”.

He may wish to put a cap on aspiration and ambition, but Labour Members do not. We want to see everyone achieve their potential, which is why we broadened that ambition today by saying that we want not only to expand participation in higher education but to do more on this technician class of apprenticeships and equivalent qualifications, where Britain has been historically weak compared with other countries.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned youth unemployment. Of course unemployment, including youth unemployment, has increased in the recession, but Labour Members will never say that that is a price worth paying. We know the damage it does to families and communities, which is why we have put £5 billion into helping unemployed people get back to work. A particular emphasis for us is on preventing long-term youth unemployment. Even though unemployment has increased, the level of long-term youth unemployment of a year or more is some 80 per cent. lower than it was before this Government came into power. The contrast in the response to this recession compared with the responses to previous ones is that we are not content simply to pay people benefits and leave them there. We want to create second chances for people, which is what this £5 billion investment is focused on doing.

The hon. Gentleman criticised my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, but I remind him that my right hon. Friend made a statement on the higher education framework in this House just last week, so we have not lacked reporting to the House on this issue. The hon. Gentleman says that he is going to speak to a lobby later, and I am sure he will be outlining his policy on fees in detail to them—it will be interesting for the rest of us to find out what Lib Dem policy on this is.

The hon. Gentleman rightly praises the role of the third sector in this arena. The Government, too, praise its role, because these organisations do a fantastic job. Last week, I visited a wonderful project run by the Prince’s Trust, and other bodies, such as Mencap, Nacro and Rathbone, all do excellent work. Here is the difficult truth: they require Government support to do it. We fund those organisations to the tune of £353 million; the money goes to more than 400 third sector organisations, helping people to expand their opportunities. What we will not do is reduce third sector help in this area to these organisations raising their own money with no Government help. We will not make opportunity dependent on flag day. We will work with the third sector and back it with resources.

I congratulate the Government on much of this statement. It is pleasing to hear that individual accounts are back after an eight-year gap, and the statement contains some other interesting things relating to apprenticeships and much else. My first caveat is that the churn in organisations puts off many people, such as employers. These people have for years invested their time and trouble in running these organisations, just to see them rationalised, changed and abolished. Secondly, there is a bit of a naive belief running through this report that the employers’ assessment of what we need in the labour market is always right. It is not always right and other players are often more accurate.

I know that hon. Friend has great authority and knowledge of these matters and I listened to what he said with great care and respect. He is right to say that there is an emphasis on the skills system meeting the needs of employers. We do not apologise for that—we are entering a world of rapid change with the shift to a low carbon economy and we have to ensure that employers get the skills that they need from the system. The emphasis on skills accounts empowers the individual, too, and by expanding the number of institutions where skills accounts can be used and, critically, by providing high-quality information to the individual learner we not only meet the needs of the employer, but expand opportunity for the individual. It is critical that the skills system does both those things.

May I welcome the Minister’s announcement of a reduction in the number of skills bodies, which the Opposition have been advocating for some time? Now that he finally accepts the need for a reduction, will he explain why his Government allowed so many to flourish in the first place?

The system has evolved over time and it is quite right that we should take a look at it now and say that, as it has developed, there is a need to make the system simpler for people to use. It is quite right that we should face up to that and reform the system in exactly the way that we have set out.

My right hon. Friend is familiar with many of the big manufacturing issues in my constituency, but he might not be so familiar with some of the retail related issues. Is he aware that Marks and Spencer, which is about to make its biggest investment for about 18 years in this country—it will invest in 150,000 square feet of new retail in my constituency—is attracted by, among other things, the brilliant partnership between the FE sector and retail? The creation of a retail academy has transformed the life chances of many people from the poorest estates in my constituency.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He mentions Marks and Spencer, one of our leading companies, and the work with the retail skills academy. The partnership between the best of our FE colleges and businesses is now of a far higher quality than it was before, and that is what we want to see. We want FE colleges to be properly plugged in to the local and regional skills needs of the communities that they serve. When they are plugged in in that way, we can meet the two objectives that I have talked about and enhance life chances and opportunities for individual learners while contributing to our future economic growth.

We seek no additional funding for these changes. As I have said, we will target some of the help that we have used during the recession at funding, for example, the level 3 apprenticeships. That might mean providing less full funding of repeat qualifications in Train to Gain, which we have allowed during the recession, and using that funding to fund the technician apprenticeships that we believe will contribute significantly to our economic recovery as we come out of the recession.

May I welcome this statement and, in particular, the Minister’s words about the development of skills accounts? Does he agree that the two essential elements of that development are an extension of the number and range of providers and the passage of information, control, power and, above all, choice to the would-be consumers—that is, the trainees? These are the very elements that have driven an increased and enhanced performance in the health service. Does he expect the same sort of improvements in education and training?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. He is right that the proposals on skills accounts expand the number of providers through which those accounts can be used. They also extend choice, information and power to the learner. There are few things as powerful as an individual user of a system who is empowered to make choices about how and where they learn. My right hon. Friend, when he was a member of the Government, was a champion of the kind of public service reform that empowered individuals. I can assure him that precisely the same philosophy is reflected in this paper today.

May I add my thanks for what will be a very interesting report? In particular, I should like to thank the Minister for picking up many of the issues raised by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee in the wake of the Leitch report, and I echo his comment about individual skills accounts. However, in an act of friendship, I say to him that one of the real beneficiaries in the current unemployment situation—and 750,00 18 to 24-year olds unemployed is something that no party can accept as tolerable—is the Department for Work and Pensions, to which a significant amount of money has been diverted. Has he had conversations with colleagues in the DWP about whether 18 to 24-year olds without level 2 or 3 qualifications can have access to full-time courses in FE colleges and keep their jobseeker’s allowance while they do? That would give them at least the same recognition as is given to full-time higher education students going to university.

I say, gently and in a good spirit, to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who has done well out of me today, that in future the abridged rather than the “War and Peace” version will suffice.

I will take your advice, Mr. Speaker. I am very happy to pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee, which does its work in a considered, serious and committed way. In the abridged version, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we work closely with our colleagues in the DWP to make sure that our policies in these areas are lined up together and that we are doing both of the things to which I have referred throughout—enhancing opportunity for individuals, and contributing to our economy even in these difficult times when unemployment is rising.

Coming from Blackpool, where we have a fantastic FE college with a new HE centre, I was delighted to hear what the Minister had to say about skills needing to mesh with the university system. What he said about skills accounts and the apprentice UCAS tariff points should go some way towards achieving that, but what more can he do to nudge some of those recalcitrant university vice-chancellors who are very quick to get out the begging bowl and ask for increased fees and so on, but who are not so quick to sign up to a very important agenda and admit those with apprenticeships and diplomas to their universities?

I would hope that the whole higher education system is committed to access and to providing enhanced opportunities for people from all backgrounds, but we know that that has not happened in some areas. The report led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), for example, pointed out that hardly any apprentices go on to higher education. That is one reason why we have backed the recommendation in that report to create a scholarship for up to 1,000 people to go on to higher education each year. We do not want the traditional academic and vocational divide that means the two sides never meet. We want a ladder of opportunity for people of all backgrounds, and that should include the most talented apprentices getting the chance to go on to higher education in a way that many young people from other backgrounds take for granted.

As the shadow Minister responsible for further education when the scale of the individual learning accounts fiasco became clear, may I remind the Minister of one reason for the failure? That was that the drive to meet the targets meant that there were not sufficient checks on providers to ensure that they delivered the goods. Can he assure the House that that problem has been covered, and that we will not see the scale of disaster that we saw a few years ago?

Two critical things are needed to make skills accounts work and to avoid the problems that happened last time, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The first is proper accreditation for the providers, which we have built into the paper and which will ensure that we have good, high-quality providers giving a high-quality range of choice to individuals. The second thing is to have good information for individual learners, and I refer him to work done by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. The commission has produced a good traffic light system along the lines of food labelling—

Yes, the system is shown on page 62 of the document. It covers things such as earning potential, the quality of the course and the employability that people will have as a result. If empowerment and choice are to work as we want, high-quality information of that kind for individuals is essential. Both of the conditions that I have set out are met in the report.

The statement will be very warmly welcomed in East Berkshire college, which is one of those colleges that have so improved in recent years. As a result, I hope that it might forgive me, because it looks as though business will prevent me from attending its award ceremony. I particularly recognise the proposal for advanced apprenticeships in the biopharmaceutical industry. The Minister will know that I have pressed that issue for some time on behalf of biopharmaceutical companies in Slough, and if that proposal can be rolled out swiftly, it will be helpful to that very powerful and important part of our economy.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) talked about the importance of the retail industry, but another sector where Britain enjoys enormous strengths that we want to keep and build on is the pharmaceutical industry. That is precisely why it is right for us not only to create a target—a new objective—but to back it up with hard cash for 30,000 new level 3 apprenticeships, thus creating precisely the kind of technical skills in the technician level that are valuable to pharmaceutical companies, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).

Crompton Technology in Banbury is a high-tech, low-carbon and value-added business. It needs to recruit more than 200 modern technicians just to fulfil its existing business plan. It recently advertised for just 10 people. Notwithstanding receiving 130 responses, it could not fill any of the places because the applicants did not have the right level of skills. Will the Minister spare me just 10 minutes sometime in the near future to discuss how we can fast-track technician training at the local technical college, so that as many as possible of those 200 jobs can go to local unemployed people, rather than going overseas?

In my time as a Minister, I do not think that I have ever refused a meeting with a Member of any party in the House, and I am not about to start doing so now. Of course, I am happy to see the hon. Gentleman, but such skills shortages show precisely the need for the policies that we are outlining today. The kind of low-carbon company that he mentioned needs the level 3 skills. That is why we are putting more emphasis on them. They are precisely the kind of skills that will be needed as we come out of the recession and try to support businesses that will contribute to economic growth in the future.

I welcome the acknowledgement of the importance of higher skills to deliver a knowledge economy. What discussions has my right hon. Friend therefore had with the universities, which will deliver not just the science and technology courses that he is talking about, but a variety of other courses that can also contribute to the agenda that he is laying out for us today?

We are in regular dialogue with the universities. The participation rates in higher education have increased hugely since the Government came to power. I think that I am right in saying that some 300,000 more students are now in higher education, compared with when the previous Government were in power, and to support that progress, we have supported the funding of an extra 10,000 places this academic year.

Much of this matter is, of course, devolved. I welcome the fact that the Minister is emulating aspects of the system adopted in Scotland two years ago, but on the UK matter, can he tell us how industry-wide sectors, such as the excellent one for training in the oil and gas industry, will come into the strategy? In particular, will he help them to move on into the low-carbon industry, where many of the skills are equally applicable?

I heartily agree that low-carbon skills are essential for the future. Therefore, I cannot for the life of me understand why the Scottish National party-led Administration in Scotland do not support the need for a new generation of nuclear power stations to contribute to that, with all the jobs and skills that that would entail. The hon. Gentleman talks the talk, but he will not walk the walk. Labour Members want the population in Scotland to have access to the same high-quality jobs and skills that that transition to low carbon will create as people have in England.

No one would disagree with what my right hon. Friend said about high-value skills, individual empowerment or helping the youth unemployed, but I know that he is aware that there is another group—a hard-to-reach group of people who have been unemployed for a long time and struggle with basic levels of skills in numeracy and literacy. They are what some people describe as the underclass. It is important that we engage with this group, help them to acquire the basic skills that they need to get back into work and encourage them to do so. What does my right hon. Friend intend to do about that?

This Government have helped 6 million people get better skills for life in recent years. I agree that taking that first step is essential, and nothing that we suggest in the paper will detract from that. We also say in the paper that we want to place great emphasis on the technician level, which will be the real driver of economic growth in the future. I do not believe there is a choice between the kind of life-enhancing opportunity that my hon. Friend describes, and economic growth and the need for a technician level of skills that we emphasise in the paper.

Will the Minister intervene and ensure that the new vocational centre for Castle Point, which I first raised and campaigned for in 1991 and which is now finally supported by Essex county council, is funded and goes ahead?

The wisest course of action for me is to consider that issue, discuss it with my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, and write to the hon. Gentleman.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s new commitment to local authorities having an enhanced role in the system of apprentice training and, hopefully, in training for technicians. Will he agree to meet Councillor Ron Round, the Labour leader of Knowsley council, to look at the possible lessons that can be learned from the excellent apprenticeship scheme that he has been leading in Knowsley?

This statement is fast filling my diary, but I am happy to accede to the request made by my right hon. Friend.

The Minister spoke about the knowledge economy and the need to shape the courses to local businesses. However, is he aware that this will have a pretty hollow ring in west Norfolk, where the college of West Anglia has had its Learning and Skills Council capital programme cancelled, thus depriving it of the promised move to a new state of the art campus? Does he accept that businesses in west Norfolk and the knowledge economy in particular have been let down by his Department?

I take exception to Opposition Members attacking our record on capital spending in further education. Let me give the hon. Gentleman the facts: 700 projects in 300 colleges worth £2.7 billion in expenditure. Contrast that with the amount in the last year that his party was in power: no projects, no colleges, not a single penny.

I see that my right hon. Friend wants to simplify the organisational clutter of public bodies delivering skills policy. Will he look at what has happened to Renishaw and Delphi in my constituency, where we put in place some very exciting skills training for those on short-time working? That has taken place, but it has not been at anything like the level that some of us would have liked. Will he look into that to see if this is a good learning point so that it can help future skills policy?

I am happy to look at the constituency example that my hon. Friend cites. We made the Train to Gain budget more flexible during the recession by allowing it to be used for shorter courses and also for repeat qualifications, but we are making it very clear that in a world of constrained resources, looking to the future, we will want to focus that budget more readily on areas of future economic growth, and to use some of it to fund the level 3 technician apprenticeships that I have spoken about today.

Given the reference in the statement to the skills accounts and the fact that students will be encouraged to shop around for colleges and courses, does my right hon. Friend agree that my constituents could be disadvantaged if we cannot find a way of retrieving the capital spend for the Stoke on Trent further education college? Will he work with me to try and find a solution so that we have proper facilities in-house locally?

I know that my hon. Friend is a strong campaigner for her city and the college there. I remind her of the figure that I quoted a moment ago: we have spent some £2.7 billion on renewing the further education estate. I do not believe that her constituents will be disadvantaged by greater power and choice. It is good to give people greater power and choice—to let them drive the system, provided that the providers are properly accredited and that people have good, high-quality information. We are determined to ensure that those two conditions are met.

This statement heralds a welcome refocusing of activity. Does my right hon. Friend accept, however, that creating new places for science, technology and engineering is only half the equation—the other half is getting kids to want to fill those places? That will happen only when society holds these professions in greater esteem and we do more to inspire children in these subjects. How do the Government intend to fill that half of the equation?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I regularly visit engineering companies in my constituency, where people tell me that they have good, sometimes well-paid jobs, but they feel that young people have a distorted image of engineering, manufacturing and so on. In conjunction with the Engineering Employers Federation, we have set up an organisation, co-funded by the manufacturing industries, called Manufacturing Insight. Its task is to get out, get into schools and inspire young people with the powerful vision of a country that makes things and the careers that go with that. The policies that we have outlined today will help to equip people for those careers in the future.

As a member of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, I am proud to hear what the Minister said about the support that he is giving to industry in ensuring that it has apprentices for the future. A lot of what he said is for the long term. Leyland Trucks—in Leyland, as one would expect from the name—will benefit through its hybrid truck from the grants and support that can be given to such companies. Will he look to ensure that that support will be there? We should also ensure that we keep people in the workplace, and have another look at a short-time working subsidy for the short term to back up what he said for the long term.

I certainly agree with the first half of what my hon. Friend said. That is why the Government, working with colleagues in the Department for Transport and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, have a low-carbon industrial strategy, part of which is designed to ensure that Britain is a leading player in low-carbon transport, be it hybrid or electric vehicles. Countries have a simple choice: they either buy these technologies from elsewhere or make an effort to be manufacturers of those technologies. We very much want to take the latter route.

I welcome the focus on training for low-carbon economies and technologies, which is very much the future. My right hon. Friend talked about the regional development agencies having a strategic role in terms of training. Can he assure me that that would allow them to take a strategic approach in relation to funding from the European Union, Government grants and private sector grants in order to develop centres of low-carbon technology, as I believe that the Humber bank could become?

If we think back to the first industrial revolution, much of it was driven by energy resources—coal, steam, gas and oil. Those resources fuelled and funded the technologies of the 20th century. We stand on the brink of a second industrial revolution, which is the shift to low carbon. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of this. The role of RDAs is to work with local authorities, educational resources and employers in their area to fashion a regional strategy that meets the needs locally and regionally. That is a powerful vision, it is something that I believe they will be good at, and it is backed by the document that we have produced today.

Bill Presented

Waste Recycling (End Use Register) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. David Drew presented a Bill to require certain authorities to maintain a register of the destination of recycled materials; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 165).

Mobile Network Roaming Capabilities

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a duty on mobile network operators to introduce automatic roaming capabilities between mobile telephone networks in the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes.

Just about every Member of the House has a mobile phone, some more than one. Imagine, Mr. Speaker, if yours stopped working, and if the lights and buttons still functioned but you could not access the internet, send an SMS or make a phone call. Now imagine that the person sitting next to you could use all the functions of their mobile phone to the fullest. How frustrating would it be to know that your phone had ceased to function while others were working perfectly? That is the problem facing many people in this country daily, particularly in my constituency.

Mobile phones are as common today as landline phones, and in some cases they may be the only form of communication that a person has. The good people at Ofcom have data that show that more than 80 per cent. of people in the United Kingdom use mobile phones in conjunction with their landline phone, and 12 per cent. only have a mobile phone. It is therefore expected that our mobile phones can send and receive signals with little or no interruption.

In London, quality mobile phone coverage is expected. To lose coverage for any length of time is deemed unacceptable. In fact, just a one-hour loss of 3G voice coverage on the O2 network in London last month warranted media attention. Now there are plans to extend mobile coverage to the underground, as it has been in cities such as Stockholm.

Surely, with the growth of mobile phone networks, we should also have an expectation of an expansion of the mobile network over the entire United Kingdom. The Bill would bring about a duty on mobile phone providers to allow roaming between networks within the UK, which is a variation of a system that is currently practised in the United States and does not need the building of any more costly physical infrastructure. It just needs better use of what is already there.

The Bill would benefit the entire UK mobile network. Although mobile coverage lost for an hour in London is a serious enough problem for the media, rural constituencies often rely totally on the strength of a mobile signal. People in my constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar are exposed to failures of the network more than most, because of the remoteness of the isles. Gale-force winds may damage a transmitter or mast, and when that goes down one mobile network signal may deactivate while another is still working. My constituents therefore ask why they cannot use the strongest working signal.

Recently in Carloway, on the Isle of Lewis in my constituency, there was a period of more than five weeks without mobile coverage. That means that people who depend predominantly on mobile networks, such as volunteer first responders, could not make calls or help to co-ordinate emergency services. Those people provide first aid when needed and direct ambulance services to an incident site. In my constituency, it could take an hour or more to get an ambulance to a house, but a first responder could be there within minutes provided that they could receive emergency calls. The problem was exacerbated beyond the original delay when a dispute arose between Orange and the landowners of the mast. Most of the people affected in Carloway have landline coverage, but as well as the inconvenience of losing their mobile coverage, they still had to pay their monthly tariff for a service that they did not receive. Businesses that relied on mobile services were unable to operate at full efficiency.

That is not the only case of extreme coverage loss in my area. In the past two years, my constituents went without mobile coverage in September 2008 when Vodafone coverage was lost for two weeks; in June 2009 for two weeks; in July 2009 for one week; and, most recently, for more than five weeks when Orange coverage was lost between September and November. That is just on the island of Lewis, and other islanders and people in other areas of the constituency have similar stories to tell.

The problem could be alleviated in many instances if people could roam to a functioning network. That would also help the coverage and the amount of calls made, which would surely increase, and the companies’ revenue would also increase if they co-operated and improved their geographical patchwork rather than having people inconvenienced and out of contact.

Indeed, perhaps mobile phones have been an unheralded facilitator of modern economic growth. An oft-quoted 2005 study from the London Business School found that when 10 or more out of 100 people in developing countries start using cell phones, gross domestic product rises by 0.59 per cent. per capita. Some studies have found even higher rises in GDP. Thus, as well as convenience, we should appreciate the economic benefits to areas that probably need them most, not only overseas but in this country.

Many people all over the UK will have experienced being cut off during calls as they enter blackspots. The Bill would reduce that phenomenon markedly by allowing people to piggyback on to another network. Of course, networks deserve praise because they have delivered great benefits and convenience to people’s lives. They, too, in credit crunch times have cost restrictions. They are innovative in bringing 3G to people’s homes through broadband connections of more than 1 megabit, although at a cost. Happily, T-Mobile tells me that it has great coverage up the entire A9—the spine of Scotland. Good stuff indeed.

Public policy through Ofcom wants five competing networks. There is some work on network consolidation, but clearly not enough, or I would not be standing here. I know people who have two mobile phones because their mobility is such that no one mobile network can serve their needs. Surely that contradicts the idea of mobile telephony. Contacting and texting those people is difficult because one has to send two messages and, invariably when one phones, they are in the area served by their second mobile phone. I think that that is known as sod’s law.

I am not sure where that leaves aims for a Digital Britain. The Home Office paper, “Protecting the public in a changing communications environment”, would better serve the public by enabling roaming than by some of the other activities planned for e-mails and such like.

Now, a burden is placed on the consumer to find the ability to access more than one network. Consumers sometimes have to purchase more than one SIM card—or, indeed, more than one phone. Surely that is a highly inefficient way of delivering a service to the public. Why should consumers have to buy more than one SIM card or phone to get the maximum coverage for a mobile service that already exists?

It is not the first time that such a Bill has been introduced. Last year, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) presented a similar measure. If the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells—a south-eastern English constituency with far better 2G and 3G coverage than mine—has similar concerns to those of my rural island constituency, it shows the vastness of the problem.

The measure is surely in the best interests of the consumer and the industry. Allowing consumers to roam automatically is tantamount to free advertising. If one discovers that one’s contracted network is constantly down and one finds oneself on the strongest network, it would be prudent to move contracts. The best providers would thereby receive the most customers, and customers would have access to the best service. Surely that is an incentive to industry not to take its customers for granted. I wonder whether the status quo is too cosy for the mobile companies.

The market often needs a legislative push to work for rural customers and improve the service for urban customers. As has been said previously, we can get money free of charge from cash points operated by different banks because they benefit the customer and the industry. Surely we should expect the same from our mobile network. We hear much these days about fiscal stimulus, but it is phone stimulus that Parliament must give the country and the people.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. Angus MacNeil, Angus Robertson, Mr. Alistair Carmichael, Mark Durkan, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, Pete Wishart, Mr. Mike Weir, Andrew George, Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Stephen Hepburn, David Davis, Greg Clark and Michael Fabricant present the Bill.

Mr. Angus MacNeil accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 166).

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning bill (Programme) (no.2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 23 February 2009 (Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill (Programme)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.

Subsequent stages

2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Kevin Brennan.)

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

I draw the attention of the House to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendments 48, 87, 91, 105, 119 and 177.

Before Clause 1

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments 2 to 33, 39, 75, 76, 83 to 85, 87 to 112, 114, 158, 160, 161, 165, 166, 169 and 173.

Let me take this opportunity to thank hon. Members in all parts of the House for their contribution to the Bill so far. I am sure that to many hon. Members in the Chamber the Bill will seem like an old friend, having started its journey in this House back in February. It has been away for a long holiday and has now come back, perhaps a little fatter than before—changes were made to the Bill in the other place—but in pretty good shape as a result.

In response to the views expressed in both Houses, Lords amendments 1 and 2 provide a clear definition of what it means to complete an apprenticeship in England and Wales respectively. We have ensured that employed status is a key element of an apprenticeship. Where the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers propose to allow some flexibility, we have ensured that the regulations setting out the alternative completion conditions will be subject to affirmative resolution.

The clauses dealing with the contents of the specification of apprenticeship standards in England and Wales now include explicit requirements for an apprenticeship framework not only to include both on-the-job and off-the-job training, but to specify relevant occupational competences and technical knowledge. Under the relevant new clauses, together with Lords amendments 4, 6 and 7, we have removed the provision for English and Welsh apprenticeship agreements. That means that if a person enters into an apprenticeship agreement in connection with either an English or a Welsh framework, regardless of where they work, they will be issued with a certificate in England or Wales respectively, provided that they meet the requirements.

We have already made a clear commitment to the House that framework-issuing authorities will be the sector skills councils and other sectoral bodies. To provide further assurance to such bodies, amendment 8 removes the power of the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency to designate a person to issue frameworks generally, which we no longer consider necessary.

I thank the Minister for paying tribute to the assiduous and sagacious contribution that the Opposition have made to our considerations.

How will the reduction in the number of sector skills councils, which is widely rumoured to be the Government’s preference, affect their role in this regard?

Not only is that reduction widely rumoured to be the Government’s preference, but there has just been a statement to the House outlining that very policy. As usual, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you want to keep something a secret, announce it in the House of Commons—I have always found that to be a useful way of going about things. That reduction, which was announced in the White Paper that was published earlier today, has to be made in conjunction and collaboration with employers. The White Paper makes it clear that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills will work with the sector skills councils to bring about that sharp reduction in the number of sector skills councils, which is a response to what employers tell us about the complexity of the skills system.

What the White Paper says—I have it here—is that the number of sector skills councils will be reduced to nine. The rumour is that the Government have rather less regard than the Opposition for sector skills councils, and that there may be further reductions, in both their capacity and budget. We would resist that hotly. However, given that we know from the leaked report that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition spoke about earlier that there are plans for swingeing cuts, we want an absolute assurance that those cuts will not affect sector skills councils or their capacity to deal with the matters that the Minister has just outlined.

The hon. Gentleman should not listen to too many rumours. The figure of nine is nowhere to be found, and will certainly not be found in that document. The figures for savings in the document to which he referred were announced to the House in the Budget back in March, proving my point that if you want to keep something a secret, Madam Deputy Speaker, you should announce it to the House of Commons. However, I had better get back to the Bill before somebody notices that we have strayed from the Lords amendments that we are considering.

Lords amendments 9, 10, 13 and 14 provide that a framework may be issued only if the issuing authority is satisfied that it meets the specification for apprenticeship standards. We have made it clear that we would expect the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency to consult widely with employers and their representatives on the draft specification for apprenticeship standards for England. Indeed, much of that consultation has already taken place, in anticipation of the Bill’s becoming law. However, in response to concerns expressed in the other place, Lords amendments 16 and 17 place a duty on the chief executive to consult on the specification for apprenticeship standards for England with representatives of employers, further education institutions and other providers of training, as well as those persons designated to issue frameworks and any other persons specified in regulations.

In Committee in the other place, concerns were raised about some of the terms used in the Bill. Lords amendments 82 to 85, 87 to 94 and 99 to 110 replace the term “scheme” with “offer” throughout the Bill. Lords amendment 89 reflects the fact that young people are entitled to elect for the apprenticeship offer, although the amendment does not alter the substance of the offer itself.

Concerns were also expressed about the use of the term “principal” qualification to represent the course of training for the competence element, which is a framework requirement. It was not our intention to imply a hierarchy of qualifications within an apprenticeship framework. It is our view that what makes an apprenticeship unique, compared with other learning pathways, is the combination of vocational, technical and key skills qualifications, along with the mix of off-the-job learning and on-the-job application and the refinement of skills. The intention is made clearer in the Bill by Lords amendments 11, 15, 21, 26, 28, 29 and 30 to 33, all of which replace “principal” with “competencies” in describing the qualification for England and Wales.

In Committee in both Houses there was considerable debate about the need for greater flexibility of access to the apprenticeship offer for people with learning difficulties and disabilities, and, indeed, to apprenticeships more generally. Lords amendments 91 and 105 make changes to the apprenticeship offer qualifying criteria to address those concerns. Lords amendment 91 provides the flexibility to extend the apprenticeship offer to young people with disabilities, who might take longer to become ready to start an apprenticeship, up to the age of 25. Lords amendment 105 will enable young people with disabilities who might find it difficult to achieve the entry qualifications to provide alternative evidence that they are ready to embark on an apprenticeship. We are committed to working with the Special Education Consortium, with Skill, and with other groups with an interest in young people with disabilities, to ensure that the regulations strike the right balance between ensuring that as broad a range of young people as possible can take advantage of the apprenticeship offer and ensuring that standards are maintained.

Lords amendments 106 and 107 require the Secretary of State to consult Ofqual about the level of the qualifications that he intends to use in specifying and amending requirements for the apprenticeship offer. The original clause on careers education was interpreted by some as requiring schools to give pupils information about apprenticeships only when the person giving the advice thought it appropriate. The new clause inserted by Lords amendment 158 explicitly states that pupils must receive information on

“options available in respect of 16-18 education or training, and…apprenticeships.”

Lords amendment 114 makes explicit our expectation that everyone who successfully completes an apprenticeship at level 2 should also be able to aspire to achieve a level 3. It places a duty on the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency to promote that progression. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is not in his place at the moment, will particularly welcome that measure. I should like to thank him and other members of the Skills Commission for their work and for the report, “Progression through apprenticeships”, which came out in March. We welcome the report, and I will shortly write to my hon. Friend and his co-chair with the Government’s response to the commission’s recommendations. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) in that regard.

There was strength of feeling about the importance of engaging employers in apprenticeships, and amendments 16 and 17 make it explicit that representatives of employers, further education colleges and other training providers must be consulted on the specification of apprenticeship standards for England.

Amendment 160 makes regulations that deal with the Secretary of State’s power to specify apprenticeship sectors, subject to annulment by a resolution of either House of Parliament. That amendment was made on the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which recommended that the power be subject to the negative resolution procedure rather than to no procedure.

Finally, amendment 173 was made in Committee in the Lords to give effect to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s recommendations on which of the regulation powers should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It makes the changes necessary by amending section 236 on orders and regulations of the Employment Rights Act 1996, as it is under that Act that the time to train regulations will be made. The Committee wished to see a higher level of parliamentary scrutiny applied to the following powers: in section 63D(2)(b), a power to specify any further conditions that an application must satisfy in order to qualify as an application under section 63D; in section 63D(6)(a), a power to specify any conditions about the duration of employment that an employee must satisfy in order to qualify for the right; in section 63D(7)(f), a power to specify further categories of people who may not make an application; and in section 63F(7)(j), a power to specify further permissible grounds of refusal. We are happy to follow the Committee’s recommendations in that regard.

This is an historic Bill—the first Bill of its kind dealing with apprenticeships for more than 200 years. It follows on from the Statute of Artificers back in the 16th century, which, among other things, made provision that apprentices should not be allowed to drink beer on a Friday night. That is one amendment that we have not had from the House of Lords, but I commend the Bill and urge the House to agree to Lords amendment 1.

It is a great pleasure to return to these matters. As the Minister said, it has been a long journey, but not an entirely unhappy one. The Bill has certainly been improved by consideration in Committee here and more especially in the other place. It is the Lords’ views on these matters, of course, that we are considering today.

I press the Minister on the issue of sector skills councils, which formed an important part of his opening remarks. I think that a real difference is emerging between those who see a sectoral approach to the management and funding of skills as pivotal and those who prefer the role of the regional development agencies, which are given new life and new power in the White Paper published today. I think that the tension in the end is not a happy one. We want more power given to sector skills councils in respect of the matters we are considering. We view them as pivotal, as I said, to the funding and management of skills. I am not sure that the Government have a coherent view of the relationship between those sector councils and the regions that have been given new powers.

When we debated these matters earlier in the Bill’s progress, we proposed an amendment to specify a definition of apprenticeships, which included the following components: agreement with employers to train a person using the practices, equipment and personnel of his or her enterprise in so doing; a mixture of on and off-the-job training; and training designed to lead to generally recognised levels of proficiency in a trade, profession or occupation.

The Minister will know that when those matters were taken up in the Lords, there was a Division, which the Government lost. The amendment that we are considering in respect of the definition of apprenticeship is a result of that Division and the subsequent concessions made by the Government to the case put by Opposition Members. I do not want to crow about that, which I think would be unworthy—and, actually, a little vulgar, which is something that I would certainly not want to be described as. None the less, it has to be said that—grudgingly, hesitantly, falteringly—the Government have moved to the position articulated all those months ago by both Conservative and, in fairness, Liberal Democrat spokesmen, and, indeed, supported by Members of the other place of all political persuasions, so the Government have finally conceded that we do indeed need a definition of an apprenticeship.

Why, it may be asked, is that so important? Let me answer that rhetorical question. It is important because the apprenticeship brand matters. Unless we define an apprenticeship, there is a real prospect that that brand will be diluted. It is essential for people to know what an apprenticeship comprises—important to employers, important to potential apprentices, and important to wider society. People need to know that an apprenticeship confers real competences which lead to greater employability. That is why a definition of apprenticeship is so critical. That is precisely what the Lords argued, and it is in part what is said in the Government amendment that we are considering, which emanates from the Lords. However, we remain concerned about the provision in the amendment for “alternative… completion conditions”. We are a little anxious that that may prove to be a loophole allowing the devising and delivery of apprenticeships that do not contain the core components that I described earlier.

Let me say at the outset that I do not in any way underestimate the role or significance of pre-apprenticeship training. I know that many organisations, some of which were mentioned in the House earlier today, do excellent work in providing people with the skills that are necessary before they move on to a full apprenticeship, and I pay tribute to that work. I do not think that there is much difference between us and the Government in that regard. We do, however, seek an assurance from the Government that the provision does not constitute a loophole, and that it will not be used liberally or permissively to undo the good work attempted in the rest of the amendment.

We accept the Government’s position that alternative completion conditions may be used to allow pre-apprenticeships for up to six months, but it is not possible to complete a full apprenticeship in that way. Surely the six months count only if a proper apprenticeship follows them. We are pleased that the Government have conceded the need to insert a duty to consult employers on those drawing up draft apprenticeship specifications. The standards that employers will set will be critical to the success of those apprenticeships, for the reasons that I cited earlier relating to both the competences that they deliver and people’s faith in the brand.

In the other place, Lord De Mauley said:

“The Government trumpeted the arrival of this Bill, saying that it would bring in a statutory entitlement to an apprenticeship for 16 to 18 year-olds. A definition of that entitlement therefore seemed, to us and many others, crucial. Apprentices, employers, employees and the wider public need absolute clarity about what this entails and what the qualification means. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, said in Committee in June, the Bill is not just about creating more apprenticeships but about ensuring that they remain a respected brand, with people feeling that they are being given a real career opportunity and delivered a quality experience.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 November 2009; Vol. 714, c. 17-18.]

In 2006, the Adult Learning Inspectorate warned:

““Some apprentices can potentially achieve the full requirements of the apprenticeship framework without having to set foot in a workplace”.

I raised the point in the House at more or less that time, and, although Ministers are shaking their heads, I think that it was feared across the Chamber that unless we strengthened the definition of apprenticeships—unless we retained what might be called the sovereignty of the brand—employers, learners and the wider public would lose faith in apprenticeships. We have made some progress, therefore. We welcome the additional clarification supplied by the amendments, as it was necessary.

I shall make one further contextual point, because we need to nail once and for all the misunderstanding—that is a parliamentary way of putting it—about apprenticeship numbers. This issue was debated again in the House today, at Prime Minister’s questions. The number of level 3 apprenticeships has not grown; it has fallen. The number of apprenticeships as a whole has grown, but the number of starts at all levels is, as it were, struggling, as the Government know.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about context. Will he acknowledge that the number of apprenticeships at that level is on the rise, and would he also like to tell us what the completion rate was when his party was in power compared with what that rate is now? I can help him on that second question; the current rate is almost double.

As the Minister knows, I am both straightforward and generous, and I have said on the record in the House that progress has been made on completions. However, in a similar spirit of straightforwardness—and even, perhaps, of a little generosity—the Minister might acknowledge that the number of level 3 apprenticeships has not met Government targets and has come nowhere near what the Prime Minister has repeatedly predicted, both as Chancellor and in his current role. That has inevitably led to doubts about the effectiveness of the Government’s policy on level 3 apprenticeships. This is not a matter of partisan contention; it is simply a matter of fact. However, we must now move on, as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would chide us if we did not because we are straying from the subjects we should be debating.

I need to say a few words about the amendments that deal with careers advice for apprenticeships. We originally proposed an amendment that was intended to ensure that schools provide information about apprenticeships as a key route to a particular occupation or trade alongside other education and training options for 16 to 18-year-olds. Government amendment 158 does not make it necessary for young people in schools to be informed specifically about the value of apprenticeships as a route to a skilled job, and there is a great danger that pupils who would find such advice valuable will not receive it. It is vital that we improve careers advice.

The hon. Gentleman talked about a spirit of generosity. Will he therefore be a little more generous to the Government in the context of this amendment? The value and comprehensiveness of the advice that is given is dependent on the authority and wisdom of the provider, rather than on an amendment in Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman has a distinguished record as the chairman of the all-party group on skills, and he is a diligent and knowledgeable speaker and thinker on these subjects. I do not wish to embarrass him by creating a gap between his position and that of his Front-Bench colleagues, but he is not unsympathetic to the Conservative policy of an all-age careers service with a presence in every school and college and also a high street presence, sitting alongside Connexions. Certainly, that is the impression I have got from him informally, when discussing these matters over a number of years. I think that we ask too much of teachers when we expect them to be both good teachers and good careers advisers, and that we need to re-professionalise the careers service in the way I have just described—and, to be frank, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman and I are far apart on that.

My reason for holding this opinion is that, as the Government know, the polling evidence suggests that teachers are struggling to give advice on vocational routes, even when many young people would welcome such advice. In 2008, a YouGov poll on the issue revealed that only 24 per cent. of teachers felt that apprenticeships were a good alternative to A-levels. Interestingly, by contrast, 55 per cent. of employers and 52 per cent. of young people themselves thought that they were a good option. It is essential that pupils get the best possible advice and the most detailed and accurate information on both academic options and vocational routes. We were pleased that the Government accepted our argument on that point, to the degree in which this amendment deals with those matters—I hope that that is sufficiently generous for the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden).

Lord De Mauley has done a splendid job in the other place in attempting to improve this Bill, and I pay tribute to his sterling work. He argued:

“The Government propose amendments to the Education Act that would ensure that the provision of a programme of careers education includes information on education, training and apprenticeships.”

However—I should say to the hon. Gentleman that this is why I added a caveat to my welcome—he went on to say:

“They have not, however, taken the opportunity to make statutory and effective changes to the careers education system. As things stand, in about two-thirds of schools in England, careers advice is given by teachers with no professional qualification in the field. Further advice may come from the Connexions service, which replaced the careers service in 2001.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 November 2009; Vol. 714, c. 44.]

As this House knows, Connexions is a service that must provide advice on all manner and means of subjects—lifestyle issues, as well as careers. Again, I think we ask rather too much of Connexions advisers when we ask them to be authorities on every kind of career and also able to advise on drugs, sexual health and all sorts of other pertinent matters. A decline in the quality of advice, particularly about vocational options, seems to be the result of that change in 2001, and it must be dealt with promptly and decisively.

I should add at this point, because it is relevant to this amendment, that it is vital that we establish a clear and seductive vocational pathway that matches the well-established and transparent academic path which so many of us followed. Most of the people in this Chamber will have done GCSEs—the older among us will have done O-levels—then A-levels and then a degree, and perhaps then a further degree. The clarity of that option means that many take it who, given other advice, might perfectly properly, because of their tastes and aptitudes, take a vocational pathway. That pathway is altogether less clear and perhaps, as a result, less accessible. Our determination in all these matters is to create just that kind of clear, accessible pathway and proper advice on it.

Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned that creating such an attractive vocational pathway would be undermined by his party’s policy of excluding all vocational qualifications from the league tables? Would that not create a false incentive for people not to be encouraged to take vocational qualifications?

I do not want to digress, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I can see in your benevolent but stern eye that you thought that I might do so.

I shall simply say to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) in all such matters, and he tells me that “they will not be excluded”—quote, unquote. [Interruption.] We must move on. The amendments to clause 30 deal with certification. [Interruption.]

Order. Perhaps both Front-Bench teams will now come to order so that Mr. Hayes may continue his contribution.

I am immensely grateful for your benevolence, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton will have his chance to speak later. [Interruption.] Much later, actually.

The amendments relating to certification address concerns raised by Lord Layard that the Bill introduced the perception of a possible hierarchy of qualifications where “occupational competencies”—national vocational qualifications—were seen as more important than the demonstration of technical knowledge. The Government amendments remove that perception, so that it is obvious that the two component parts of an apprenticeship are seen as being of equal weight and as equal conditions of completion. We welcome the further moves that the Government have made in this regard. Throughout the Bill’s passage through both this House and the other place we have constantly called for further definition and clarification as to the composition and requirements of an apprenticeship.

That brings us back to the issue of reinforcing the brand in the eyes of all those concerned. Fundamentally, we need to ensure that what is taught and tested delivers real competences that match economic need and add to the individual’s employability. That is the bottom line of an apprenticeship; indeed, it is what most people think that an apprenticeship should be in all cases. That seems to me to be relatively straightforward. The issues about certification are closely linked to the amendments on the other matters that I have raised—those on advice and guidance and on definition.

In summary on this group of amendments, because I know that we have a lot to consider and that other Members will be eager to contribute to the debate, they are important because apprenticeships are important. The Opposition see them at the heart of a policy to meet the nation’s skills needs and to provide opportunities to thousands—indeed, to hundreds of thousands—of our citizens. You will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you take a keen interest in these matters, that the Opposition hope to create 100,000 new apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship training places each year. You will not be surprised to hear that we are pleased that grudgingly, falteringly and rather slowly, but none the less essentially in the right spirit, the Government have moved a little closer to the common-sense position of the Conservative party.

In speaking about Lords amendments 31 and 158, I want to follow the spirit of the speech made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who expressed his concern about the implications of the lack of support for apprenticeships and other career routes in school, although I must tell him gently that I think that he is slightly missing the point. I welcome the amendments because they go with the grain of what the Government are trying to do and not against it. The Government have, in their previous statements and in the statement this afternoon, rated information, advice and guidance very highly.

It is important to have the amendments on the record. It seems to me that there is a slight misunderstanding of, or mismatch in, what we expect to be provided in schools. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said that we sometimes expect too much of teachers in this respect, and I suggest that one of the reasons why is that hitherto we have not provided structures for or enough focus on what information is to be given to students in schools and colleges.

The Government’s policies and the amendments provide much greater flexibility for the provision of that information. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to refer to statistics that suggest that non-academic routes and qualifications are sometimes not as highly recommended to students by teachers and by careers advisers in schools as they should be. He quoted the YouGov poll and he will also be aware, as will my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, of the Sutton Trust’s findings in this respect, which also showed a rather concerning low level of support for and endorsement of apprenticeship routes in schools. There is a job to be done there, but we need also to have a step change in the way in which we look at the provision of information, advice and guidance in schools.

The National Skills Forum and its associate parliamentary all-party skills group, which I have the honour of chairing, have produced two reports on the issue of information, advice and guidance. One was called “Inspiration and Aspiration” and it dealt centrally with information, advice and guidance. The other was produced earlier this year: it looked at the provision of information, advice and guidance in the context of women, especially young ones, and challenged some of the stereotypes. Again, I pay tribute to how the Government have engaged with both reports, as they have taken up positively many of the recommendations.

The amendments would make the provision of information, advice and guidance a duty, but that would not necessarily give teachers or careers advisers a raft of new tasks. What we need to understand is that more and more young people want to get information, advice and guidance online, and from people who have recently attended their own schools or colleges and then gone on into a particular sector. They want to hear from people with long experience in a particular field, and they also want to leave their educational institutions to get some on-site experience and training.

If the amendments are interpreted as generously as I would wish, they would provide a step change in that regard. It was very clear from the evidence that we took on the National Skills Forum reports, and especially the one on the gender skills gap, that experience is very important for young women in their 20s. For example, British Gas has been very successful in encouraging young women to join its work force and take up apprenticeships. That sort of hands-on experience is very valuable.

I hope that the amendments will not cause careers advisers and teachers to groan and say, “This is another lot of things we have to gen up on.” They play a central role in schools and colleges and although they are not the sole providers of advice and information, they are certainly the prime enablers in that respect.

I shall not delay the hon. Gentleman, but I am familiar with both of the reports from the all-party group. In fact, I was a witness for both. He made a point about older learners and, as he said, the report on women emphasises the importance of making training opportunities available to women in their 20s. He will be as shocked as I am, therefore, to hear of the leaked Government document that suggests that funding for adult apprenticeships—just the sort of people to whom he has referred—is to be cut by 10 per cent.

I bow to your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is straying off the point. I think that the Minister gave a very full and robust response to that charge earlier.

In conclusion, I very much welcome the amendments, but I hope that they will be the beginning of the journey and not the end. We must make it very clear that a 21st century structure for the provision of the best information, advice and guidance to young people in schools and colleges can be achieved in a number of ways, and not just in one way.

I would like to begin by welcoming the Minister to our proceedings on this Bill. Two different Departments were responsible for the Bill when we began our progress with it through the House of Commons, but since then not only has there been a complete transformation of the ministerial team, but a completely new ministry has been created. In fact, I think that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is the sole survivor of the joint Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Department for Children, Schools and Families ministerial team. Of course, if the rumours are true, he wanted to move somewhere else as well.

I should like to thank our colleagues in the House of Lords who have considered the Bill at great length in Committee because it is much improved from how we left it at the end of our proceedings. I thank my Liberal Democrat colleagues—Baroness Walmsley, Baroness Garden and, in particular, Baroness Sharp of Guildford, who has spoken for my party for many years on higher education and skills and who is now stepping down from her Front-Bench role. When summing up for the Government in the House of Lords last night on Third Reading, Baroness Morgan of Drefelin was generous in her tributes to my colleagues and mentioned the staff who back them up, and, in that respect, I should like to mention Tim Oliver.

The Lords gave the Bill serious consideration. It is rather disappointing that we have rather truncated proceedings today—just three hours to consider more than 200 amendments—and that is one of the reasons why I will try to be brief in my remarks.

I welcome three areas in the improved Bill—first, Lords amendment 16, which recognises that other people should be involved in developing the apprenticeship framework. Including the sector skills councils and further education colleges in the discussions leading to a framework was the subject of many amendments in Committee in the Commons, but those amendments were stoutly resisted. It is welcome that the Government now recognise that sector skills councils, as representatives of employers who know their industries in depth, have a crucial role to play. They, rather than regional development agencies, should be the drivers of speaking up for employers. I welcome the fact that other private sector providers will be involved also.

I welcome the assurances that were given in another place that full consideration will be given to ensuring that there is a good pathway for young people and adults who suffer from disabilities, to ensure that apprenticeships are genuinely open to all. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) spoke about those matters in Committee.

I want to concentrate on the subject that the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) made the centrepiece of his speech: the information, advice and guidance given to young people as part of their educational journey. Clause 35 as we considered it only allowed for the providers of information, advice and guidance—most likely to be teachers in their schools—to consider what they felt was in the best interests of the young people in their charge and did not require them specifically to mention the opportunity of taking up an apprenticeship place. That was certainly resisted not only by me, but by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). If that provision has been withdrawn and the expectation is that, as he said, apprenticeships and vocational training will be advocated by the providers of information, advice and guidance, that is certainly a welcome step forward.

As the hon. Member for Blackpool, South rightly said, information, advice and guidance must be aspirational if it is to achieve its purpose. He specifically mentioned women. Like him, I played a part in the all-party skills group report as well. We must ensure that people from all walks of life participate in apprenticeships in future. It is not right that only 2 per cent. of the people on engineering apprenticeships are women. Equally, it is not right that only about 2 per cent. of the people who take up a children and young people teaching apprenticeship are men. Both those gender imbalances need to be challenged.

It is also right that the information, advice and guidance must say that a vocational pathway is an attractive career option for young people. I have heard so many times, not just in Bristol but cited elsewhere as well—I do not think that it is an apocryphal story—about a teacher taking a group of young people around a high-tech factory and saying that it was important that her young charges saw it because, if they did not work hard, that is where they would end up. Unfortunately, some attitudes to vocational training need to be challenged, and the Bill will now at least contribute to challenging some of those long-entrenched views.

It is important that the providers of information, advice and guidance make it clear that an apprenticeship can be an end in itself, and a good one. I am slightly worried about a dislocation in Government thinking. We are still digesting the contents of the skills White Paper that was launched a couple of hours ago. There was much concentration in that report on a pathway from an apprenticeship to higher education. We must not assume that higher education is the ultimate aspiration that everyone should try to achieve. An advanced apprenticeship could be a satisfying career pathway for young people.

I thank the hon. Members who contributed to this interesting debate from which we learned new things. Thanks to the intervention from the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), we learned that the Conservative Opposition will publish the vocational results in a separate league table. Presumably they will—

May I put the Minister out of his misery? What we want to do—what our policy says we would like to do—is to have as much information as possible made available to parents about the results that a school produces. Whatever those qualifications are, they should be published by the school to give parents the maximum information.

Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is a relevance, as I shall show in a moment.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) made a new distinction between “what we want” and “what our policy says we want”. We all know what he means—that there will be one league table for the academic results, which in his eyes will be the equivalent of the premiership, and another league table, which will be the equivalent of the Vauxhall conference, because there is no commitment to parity of esteem for vocational education from the Opposition. That is what the Bill and the amendments are about.

In his usual entertaining and eloquent way, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) told us his position and welcomed many of the amendments, as I did in my opening remarks. He tried, in typical and understandable fashion, to open up a false dichotomy or distinction between the Government’s position on sector skills councils and regional development agencies. Both are important. It was important for the hon. Gentleman to make his point because he wants to cut regional development agencies, despite the huge multiplier effect that they have on local economies, as has been shown by research. He wants to cut them away, if he ever gets the opportunity to do so.

We recognise that both are important in the skills agenda. Regional skills strategies will reflect the relevant national and sectoral priorities, and regional development agencies will work with sector skills councils, employers, local authorities and others to ensure that those sectoral priorities are articulated. There is no dilution of commitment by the Government to the sector skills councils, which we helped to set up and with which we work closely.

I will not go into the hon. Gentleman’s anxious desire yet again to wave his so-called secret document, except to remind the House that it was agreed as part of this year’s Budget that we would be seeking the savings outlined in the document to which he refers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in his previous role as Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, wrote publicly to the Learning and Skills Council in May this year outlining that.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings referred to level 3 apprenticeships. The expansion of those apprenticeships announced in the White Paper earlier this afternoon was widely welcomed across the House. In recent years, the proportion of level 3 apprenticeship starts has remained at about 30 per cent., increasing to 32 per cent. in 2007-08 and 34 per cent. in 2008-09. In fact, they are at an all-time high because the number of apprenticeships has been growing generally, so I think that the hon. Gentleman and I will have to agree to disagree on that.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the alternative completion conditions constituted a loophole in terms of the standard of apprenticeships. The regulations will set down the criteria for alternative completion conditions, and they will require affirmative resolutions in both Houses. I can assure him that those conditions do not create a loophole. Those conditions are necessary in order to ensure, for example, that apprentices who are made redundant may complete their apprenticeship on an unpaid basis, and to deliver pre-apprenticeship contract periods for young people on third sector schemes— mentioned in the House earlier this afternoon—provided by organisations such as Barnardo’s and Rathbone. Indeed, those conditions were included in the Bill very much at the request of organisations that engage in that kind of pre-apprenticeship training. I hope that those remarks have reassured him.

While the Minister is in the mood to give assurances, can he finally wrap up the matter of sector skills councils? The amendments, reinforced by some of the remarks in the White Paper—although I feel that there is a contradiction between the RDAs and SSCs in this respect—make it clear that sector skills councils will play a critical role in approving qualifications. How can that be squared with the rationalisation of their number given their diverse range of responsibilities and the very wide range of those qualifications?

I am confident that, as we speak, sector skills councils and employer-led organisations are working together to rationalise their number because they themselves recognise that there are too many bodies and that there is therefore a need for such rationalisation. They do not want Government to specify a particular number, and we have not done so, for the very reason that there should be an employer-led approach. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomes a decluttering of the skills system, particularly where it is employer-led, as in this case, and given that it has been recommended by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and that employers are working together to bring this about in a manner that makes sense for the economy and for those industries and sectors. He is right to point out that the amendments strengthen and clarify the role of sector skills councils in relation to apprenticeship frameworks.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned careers and information advice and guidance, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden). A careers profession taskforce is to be established, and it will report in 2010. Careers education and statutory guidance for schools, including comprehensive information and advice on apprenticeships, will be part of that, and adherence will be inspected by Ofsted. There will be a full-scale review of the requirements of careers specialists and the Teacher Development Agency in relation to resources and professional development for all teachers. We are creating a new adult advancement and careers service, working in partnership with Jobcentre Plus. Once that is up and running, then we will, in 2011, consider the effectiveness of those arrangements for joint working and whether any further changes are needed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South made an extremely thoughtful and interesting contribution about information, advice and guidance, reminding us that this is not about putting extra burdens on teaching professionals. He also reminded us about the ways that young people these days like to access and experience information, advice and guidance on careers. His contribution was extremely helpful.

Before the Minister sits down, will he say a word about amendments 84 to 86—those recommended by Lord Layard?