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Volume 510: debated on Thursday 3 June 2010

6. What steps his Department plans to take to support businesses seeking to offer apprenticeships. (772)

We will increase the number of apprenticeship places, and we are committed to improving the quality of apprenticeships to make them better suited to the needs of employers and learners. The Government’s decision to redeploy £150 million of our savings in 2010-11, creating an additional 50,000 places, demonstrates our commitment to high-quality, employer-owned apprenticeships.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Is he aware of the excellent Essex apprenticeship scheme that does so much for young people throughout the county? What steps will he take to replicate such schemes to ensure that apprenticeships are better championed to young people? Polling data from the organisation Edge show that just one in four teachers would recommend apprenticeships over higher education.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this is an extremely important aspect of helping to develop the careers of young people. It is worth putting it in context that the 50,000 additional places we are providing are on top of 250,000 that existed before—a 20% increase in one year. This is specifically directed at small and medium-sized businesses, which frequently do not get the benefit of apprenticeships. I am sure that the good practice in Essex will be emulated around the country.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box. Has he read the ERA Foundation’s report on the declining productive capability of our country? Does he accept that lively and proper apprenticeships will be an essential building block in facing the productive capacity changes that we need in our country? Will he remember that last time the Conservatives ruled this country, they got rid of apprenticeships? Will he have a free hand to build on the basis that we built on in the past 13 years?

This Government are expanding apprenticeships very rapidly in their first few days in office. Of course the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on his basic point that apprenticeships are not only good for the very many young people who would otherwise be unemployed, but good for the productivity of the economy.

May I ask the Secretary of State to give an assurance to manufacturing companies, particularly those such as Thamesteel in my constituency, which need to recruit people with high ability as apprentices, that the apprenticeships scheme that we are proposing will not be targeted only at people with less ability?

Indeed; the hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We are talking about the full range of skills in this regard. If he wishes to pursue his point in relation to his constituency, the National Apprenticeship Service is there to help him to steer the scheme in the right direction.

I warmly welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his position and welcome his apparent desire to carry on Labour’s outstanding record on growing apprenticeships. When I became the Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships, I thought I was being radical in appointing an apprentice to my private office, but I must admit that even I would not have been as brave as this Government and gone so far as to appoint an apprentice as the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Given the need to set a good example to business, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the numbers will be for this year on public sector starts for apprenticeships?

Of course we cannot give numbers for that, for the simple reason that it is an offer for businesses to take up. Many of them will be in the public sector, and many of them will be in the private sector. I will keep in touch with the hon. Gentleman and give him the information that he requires as it emerges.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend and his colleagues not only to their jobs but to their commitment to apprenticeships. May I ask him, in particular, to ensure that those involved in large-scale construction projects and large-scale transport projects take their full responsibility for apprenticeships and that all chambers of commerce are engaged in the process of spreading the word?

Yes, indeed; that is a very helpful point. I would merely stress that, by and large, very large companies do engage in substantial apprenticeship schemes for their own good reasons, and have the resources to do it. The particular expansion that we are engaged in is focused on small and medium-sized enterprises that lack the resources and the support to do that.