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Government Skills Strategy

Volume 521: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2011

[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

First, I would like to register an interest. I have an apprentice in my office who is paid partly by a local businessman, Mr Dean Barclay, and partly by Essex council.

One good thing about skills and apprenticeships is that they are not a party political football. We may sometimes disagree on the right approach, but all sides of the House want to see more jobs for young people and an internationally competitive Britain. As a new MP, I know that many hon. Members care deeply about the problems of youth unemployment, and there are many others who know more about that issue than me.

However, when one looks at the manifestos, initiatives, Whitehall targets and, crucially, the Budget Red Books from the past 20 years, there is a clear conclusion—for decades, the focus has been university, university, university. Let me be clear: I am not anti-university. I was lucky enough to study at Exeter university, which I would recommend to any student. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) is present. He was at Exeter university at the same time.

The massive expansion in higher education has left us with problems. First, the poorest have not really benefited. The representation and likelihood of success at university remain highest among young people with wealthier parents, and lowest among those from deprived neighbourhoods. Young people from our poorest housing estates are still the most likely to drop out, take one gap year after another, defer enrolment, and switch, repeat or continually restart their course. Secondly, there is a skills deficit. For years, construction has represented about 10% of our GDP, but we have consistently imported much of that labour from Europe. We have created a rootless, undereducated and jobless generation of graduates who do not always have the right skills for our growth industries.

Finally, there is a NEET problem. Despite the efforts of the previous Government, the number of young people who are not in employment, education or training rose year after year. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of NEETs aged between 16 and 24 steadily increased from about 600,000 to more than 1 million. That was not a temporary blip due to the recession; it was a structural problem that got worse and worse. Research by Edge, the vocational skills organisation, shows that two out of every five teachers push A-levels as being the best route to university, and believe that vocational routes are a risk because they rule out university altogether. The research shows that apprenticeships are seen by many parents as a second-class option or a B-grade back-up for young people who cannot handle—or cannot be bothered with—writing essays. I believe that apprenticeships are a forceful answer to the problems of social mobility, our skills deficit and the rising NEET population.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and offer apologies to the Chair. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is sitting today and I must leave early to attend that. He mentioned the needs of young people. Does he agree that, although we can have Government strategies and 50,000 new apprenticeships, or whatever, we must also have universities and FE colleges that provide the right courses? There is no point in someone going for an NVQ in politics if they are going to be a mechanic. We need a cocktail of measures, and our universities and FE colleges must provide the right courses to benefit young people as we go into the economic revival. That will certainly help industry.

The hon. Gentleman has said in 20 seconds what I will say in about 20 minutes. I agree with him entirely and that is an essential part of the skills strategy. It is no good having courses and apprenticeships if they do not provide what business and industry need.

Thank you, Mr Hood. I have had more success in this Chamber than I did downstairs. In my opinion, it is critical that people are signposted towards the right kind of course—that is certainly the feeling I have found in my constituency. We need to increase the range of skills and the number of people interested in learning those skills, and we need businesses to support that thereafter. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Like me, he has a passion for apprenticeships and skills. I do not want to ruin the excitement and anticipation of my speech, but I am sure that he will be in full agreement with my later remarks.

I welcome the Government’s skills strategy document. I pressed for this debate, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for allowing it. However, we must tackle two fundamental problems. First, apprenticeships must be a better route to university. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we must change the culture in which apprenticeships are regarded and increase the prestige in which they are held.

Pessimists today look at the rapid industrial growth of the so-called BRIC economies, and the fact that even Brazil might have its own space programme, although we do not. Many people worry that Britain is in decline, and see only an endless series of eurozone bail-outs, shrinking British tax revenues and our slow but inevitable slippage down the international league tables in skills and education.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be cheerful. To paraphrase Golda Meir, “Pessimism is a luxury that no politician should allow himself.” The independent Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that our economy will grow in real terms in each year of this Parliament, and there is growing consensus that vocational skills and apprenticeships will play a big part in that. We see a shift in attitude in the passion of the new crop of MPs for vocational qualifications. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has just entered the Chamber. He gave a very good speech in a debate on that subject last year. We also see the commitment of the Minister and his team.

In 2011 we need, above all, growth, jobs, confidence and young people doing training that will provide them with opportunities for the future. Apprenticeships are about not only economic utility but social justice, and I have always believed that if we give young people independence, a work ethic and the chance to improve their lives, we give them freedom. I do not argue for more apprenticeships and better skills because of economic reasons; I argue on grounds of social justice.

Margaret Thatcher is not often remembered for her views on skills and vocational qualifications, but she said:

“A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master—these are the British inheritance. They are the essence of a free economy... and on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.”

That, in a nutshell, is why for me, apprenticeships must be at the core of our education system. Young people deserve the chance of economic freedom as much as everyone else.

In the Government’s paper, we see that most forcefully in the plans to make all vocational training free at the point of access, with costs repayable only when people are earning a decent salary. That will help young people of course, but more significantly it will open up apprenticeships to single parents, back-to-work mums, jobless adults, the homeless, and ex-offenders who want to go straight. Those people may have huge potential, but often cannot afford the fees to retrain. They deserve the chance of economic freedom, too.

At the same time, not everything in the garden is rosy. As the Government’s skills strategy paper points out,

“Our working age population is less skilled than that of France, Germany and the US and this contributes to the UK being at least 15% less productive than those countries.”

That is why the Government’s new focus on apprenticeships and their expansion of adult apprenticeships by up to 75,000 is essential. That will lead to 200,000 people starting an apprenticeship each year by 2013-14—numbers that are beginning to approach the scale of A-levels. The Minister’s plans to enhance the level 3 apprenticeship by classing it as “technician level” will also help to boost its prestige. That is especially true if people know that they can become an apprentice not just in a trade, but in finance, media, hospitality, business and even politics.

The apprentice in my Westminster office, Andy Huckle, who is sitting right behind me in the Public Gallery, is combining a year in the House of Commons with a level 3 course in business administration, which is like an entry-level MBA.

My sincerest apologies, Mr Hood; I was not aware of that.

My apprentice is a great example of my next point, which is that apprenticeships can be well suited to academic students, who can go on to achieve at university. He is now applying for degree courses to start next year and hopes to study history at the university of East Anglia. That is why I welcome the Government’s intention to create “clear progression routes” from level 3 to level 4 and higher education. That will give people like my apprentice a chance to see a busy workplace, to make things happen in the real world and to get money in their pockets, without having to abandon all hope of taking part in the pub crawls, protests at Westminster and student politics that so enrich university life.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and I agree with the thrust of what he is saying. Does he agree that there must be a thoroughgoing effort with employers, taking account of the needs of employers, in order successfully to establish more apprenticeships? In my constituency, we have the excellent example of apprenticeships at BMW, which encapsulate the sort of progression route that he mentions. Indeed, the demand to get on those apprenticeships is terrific, with the number of applicants greatly exceeding the number of places. Is it not the case that we need more such employers offering those opportunities, which will benefit them as well as the economy and those who are taken on?

The right hon. Gentleman has a lot of experience in these matters; indeed, his experience is far greater than mine. I agree with him. There are two sides of the coin, and this push will not work unless businesses are incentivised and encouraged in more ways than one to set up apprenticeship schemes and to do the things that he describes.

Like the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and championing apprentices in this Parliament. It is very nice to see his own apprentice here. Could I just ask—

Order. I am assuming that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) heard what I said to the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) when he made reference to an apprentice in the Public Gallery. It was not in order for him to do that, and nor is it in order for the hon. Member for Gloucester.

Thank you, Mr Hood. Does my hon. Friend agree that a terrific opportunity is coming up in only a few weeks’ time, in national apprenticeship week, for employers to show their commitment, as he rightly says, to offering both economic opportunity and social justice to the young unemployed in our country by participating in that initiative? Does he also agree that what is being done in Gloucestershire, where we have the Gloucestershire apprenticeship fair, which will feature a keynote speech by the Minister responsible for apprentices, is exactly the sort of thing that should be happening throughout the country?

Yes. What my hon. Friend has just said, and particularly the fact that he has managed to secure the Minister responsible for apprentices for the event in his constituency, shows exactly why he is such a champion of apprentices. Something has come through to my office about MPs becoming apprentices for a day, and I hope very much to be able to do that during apprenticeship week.

I should also mention that my apprentice is partly funded by a local business man, who employs eight apprentices and 13 ex-apprentices in his construction firm. He wanted to support us because he was an apprentice many years ago. He is a real example of the social capital that can be built when employers take apprenticeships seriously, as the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said.

The philosophical heart of the Government’s paper is that the world is too complex to be planned and delivered centrally. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will, I hope, welcome the new freedoms that the Government are devolving to further education colleges, with the simplification of budget lines and the reductions in audits and form-filling. Harlow college used to receive umpteen different ring-fenced types of funding for adult learners, all of which had to be monitored, with no flexibility to move funding between them. Now, there will be a single funding line for adults. It will be a much simplified system, with less paperwork.

At the same time, the quicker the Government can move to do the same for funding for 16 to 18-year-olds, the better. Harlow college at one time had 50 separate funding lines for 16 to 18-year-olds, all requiring separate reporting, which is bureaucratic insanity.

Possibly the greatest freedom that the Government are giving FE colleges—I am very excited about this—is the chance to bid for and run university technical colleges. The Minister is working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and with a former Education Secretary, Lord Baker, on their roll-out across the country. Like the old institutions that taught technical skills, although they will not be seen as second grade, university technical colleges will combine English, maths, information and communications technology and business skills with specialist subjects that require technical equipment—for example, engineering, product design, construction and environmental services. They will be part of the Government’s massive expansion in academies and, crucially, a conveyor belt to level 3 and 4 apprenticeships and higher education. As a major structural reform, university technical colleges tackle head-on the problems of low prestige and poor routes to university from which apprenticeships are suffering.

I have met several times Lord Baker and representatives of Essex and Harlow councils, Harlow college, Anglia Ruskin university and Pearson UK about the prospect of a UTC in Harlow. Lord Baker has visited Harlow college himself—as has the Minister—to try to bring that into being. Only last week, the Minister reminded us that Harlow college

“is an exemplar in so many ways.”—[Official Report, 13 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 411.]

Under the principal, Colin Hindmarch, the college has been transformed from being at the lower end of the league tables to being nationally competitive. Indeed, it is rapidly becoming one of the best colleges in England. In terms of value added—how much a student improves between starting and finishing their course—it is one of the best places to study in the UK. I am delighted to tell hon. Members today that Pearson UK—a national firm based in Harlow—is examining how it could support the college’s bid for a UTC in Harlow, perhaps with an application later this year.

The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has argued that we have not really decided as a nation whether we want American levels of taxation or European levels of public services, but increasingly I think that that is a false choice. When the private sector makes a voluntary contribution to enhance a public service, it can result in the best of both worlds. As the Government’s strategy paper states, the cost of training

“should ultimately be shared between employers, individuals and the state to reflect the benefit each receives.”

So long as there is no barrier to access, such as up-front fees for courses inherited by the Government, sharing the cost is fair, as it recognises that education is both a private and a public good.

I clearly support the Government’s strategy on skills, but I believe that further steps need to be taken. I recently met apprenticeship organisations, from livery companies to UK Skills and from the Association of Colleges to Edge, each of which represents a different part of the jigsaw of occasional qualifications. We discussed the idea of establishing a national society of apprenticeships, even a royal society, similar to the Law Society or the British Medical Association—or, better still, the Royal College of Surgeons. I tabled early-day motion 587 in support of that notion and raised the proposal in Parliament. A society with membership benefits such as high-street discounts and social events would dramatically increase the prestige and culture of apprenticeships. The Minister will be aware that I have been holding discussions with relevant groups, businesses and student organisations for a number of months, and I hope that we and the Government will be making an announcement in the near future.

Secondly, last week I spoke to the Minister about the pioneering wage-subsidy scheme run by Essex county council, and asked whether the Government would consider encouraging other local authorities to roll it out.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. He has hit upon a poignant matter: the incentivisation, if that is the proper word, of young people to go into apprenticeships. There needs to be some financial reward or incentive. In my constituency, 15 or 20 young people may start an apprenticeship course, perhaps at an FE college, but only five will finish it because the finance is not there. It is difficult to get companies to sponsor apprentices in the current economic climate.

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Part of the problem with people who want to do apprenticeships is that they cannot afford to do so. I am lucky that the apprentice in my office lives with his family; it would be much harder if he did not, as the apprentice wage is just under £100 a week. That is why we need a royal society of apprenticeships. That is why I am working with student organisations and others to bring about an incentive scheme. If we change the culture and prestige of apprenticeships, there will be a genuine substantial financial incentive for people to become apprentices. Another big problem relates to single parents wanting to do apprenticeships. The Essex county council scheme is specifically directed at such low-income groups, and it needs to be replicated.

I believe strongly that companies tendering for Government contracts should include a clause in their agreements that will boost apprenticeships. I suggested that Essex county council should consider including such a clause for its major construction projects. Today, I received confirmation that it is committed to making that happen; all who tender for major construction works with Essex county council will need to have an apprentice. That is an important step.

I turn to the question of EMA reform. A debate on the subject is taking place in the main Chamber as we speak, but I wish to discuss the matter with the Minister. A central aspect of further education is the affordability of studying, and getting young people not only to start but to finish their courses. I support reform of the educational maintenance allowance, as I accept that there are flaws in the current system. However, certain factors might affect students and apprentices, particularly those from deprived backgrounds. I shall use my local college as an example.

Nearly two thirds of learners at Harlow college receive the EMA, and 80% of them receive the full £30 a week. The college estimates that between 300 and 400 learners at Harlow—about 10% to 15%—depend on the EMA for lunch and dinner and for travelling to college. Those learners are the most vulnerable, from the poorest housing estates. The next tier is made up of a further 300 to 400 learners, another 10% or 15%, who are not the very poorest but are still from deprived backgrounds—people who strive and work hard. Without the EMA, they would need part-time jobs to increase their income significantly, but given the job market today that is not easy.

Harlow college is not stuck in the past, and it welcomes reform. It is not reactionary and does not represent what Tony Blair once described as the forces of conservatism. Whatever system we put in place, however, we must recognise the different financial positions of those two groups. I have discussed with the principal of Harlow college making the EMA, or a centrally administered college fund, dependent on improvement rather than attendance. It is something that he supports. We believe that learners should earn their money not simply by showing up, but by being punctual, behaving well, working hard and making good progress. As with apprenticeships, it would teach young people the work ethic. For level 3 courses, there are several value-added measures, including the key stage 5 achievement and attainment tables, that can be used at the end of a course to measure the success of tying EMA funds to achievement.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. He makes a good point. We could have a separate debate about the EMA; indeed, one is going on at the moment. He understands well the circumstances of the students and apprentices at his college. Does he believe that, under the Government’s proposals, there will be enough in the discretionary fund to incentivise and reward students, as he advocates?

I cannot answer that question because we do not yet know what the grant will be. I support reform of the system, but I want to ensure that those about whom I have spoken are not disadvantaged. As soon as I know what the grant will be, I shall be able to give a better answer.

Harlow College monitors the progress of learners every day on all the measures that I described earlier—attendance, punctuality, behaviour, work done and progress made. The Minister has a genuine passion and feeling for vocational education, and I hope that he will discuss the matter with his colleagues when considering reform.

The self-reliance, freedom and maturity that come from earning one’s own money are not to be underestimated. We have many reasons to be cheerful about the economy, and the Government’s skills strategy is a critical first step towards restoring the centuries-old British tradition of vocational training and manual craft. University technical colleges will accelerate the Minister’s efforts to improve the prestige and status of apprenticeships and to strengthen the routes from apprenticeships into higher education—especially if, as I hope, we have such a college Harlow. As I said, that is important for social justice, because apprenticeships are our best hope against the compounding problems of stalled social mobility, our skills deficit and our rising NEET population.

I sincerely hope that we can make progress in creating a society of apprentices, nudging other councils into adopting Essex county council’s pioneering wage-subsidy scheme, and creating an EMA system that supports the poorest and the most deserving. We must reward determination. One of my favourite books is “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. Although David starts off life being treated very badly by Mr Murdstone, he later finds an apprenticeship with a solicitor. Towards the end of the book, he says:

“I was not dispirited now. My whole manner of thinking was changed. What I had to do was to turn the painful discipline of my younger days to account by going to work with a resolute and steady heart.”

It was David Copperfield’s apprenticeship that transformed his life and circumstances. I know that that is what the Minister intends for our apprentices, and I look forward to his reply.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on his excellent contribution and the Government on their skills strategy, which is an excellent piece of work. Clearly, if we are to get this country back on its feet, apprenticeships will be key. They will generate private sector jobs, particularly in manufacturing and industry, which will create wealth, so I really welcome this strategy. The fact that we are creating 50,000 new apprenticeships for young people, using, in part, some £50 million from the Train to Gain fund is good news. Moreover, we will put some £605 million into creating 75,000 apprenticeships for adults. That is an area that has not been given the funding or attention that it deserves, so I really appreciate the investment.

My hon. Friend talked about the challenge of creating apprenticeships that are valued, and that goes hand in hand with making manufacturing jobs, or any job that requires the use of one’s hands as well as one’s brain, valued in this community. In Germany, those involved in such industries are well respected, and we must bring that view here. I agree with my hon. Friend that bodies should be created to help build some pride in the idea of being an apprentice. I ask the Minister to think of a way in which we can regenerate some value in the word “technician”. Those of us who have been lucky enough to go to university can call ourselves graduates, which is an incredibly valuable term. It would be good if we could make the word “technician” resonate in the same way.

The Government are looking to raise the baseline for apprenticeships. At the moment, we have NVQ level 2, which is the basic apprenticeship scheme, NVQ level 3, which is the advanced apprenticeship scheme and NVQ level 4, which is the higher apprenticeship scheme. The Government plan to make the advanced level the new baseline, which is an excellent idea. That will help people to aspire to something higher and enable employers to see how much we value the scheme.

Research has shown that those who take on apprenticeships do better economically than those who do not. An advanced apprentice is likely to earn £105,000 more over a lifetime than a colleague with a lower qualification, so there is a definite win for the individual who makes that investment.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) talked about some apprentices starting courses and not completing them. I am heartened to find that the apprentice success rate is on the increase. The latest figures that I have seen put the success rate at 70.9%, which, in the grand scheme of things, is not bad at all. In my constituency of Newton Abbot, we have a history of manufacturing. Originally, Newton Abbot was at the heart of the railway industry. When that fell away in the 1950s, a number of individuals were taken on at Centrax, which has been the hub of engineering and manufacturing in my constituency. I am pleased to say that the organisation has attracted a number of other businesses to the area. Getting apprenticeships working well in the area should help more engineering businesses—some of them will be very small—to establish and develop in the area.

I am following the hon. Lady’s remarks with interest. She referred earlier to the shift of more apprenticeships to the higher levels. Has she seen the Association of Colleges briefing for this debate, which points out that such a shift is not as simple as it might appear, because the time commitment and the cost increase for both the apprentice and the employer? Moreover, it found that there was less demand from employers for apprenticeships at the higher level. Does that not reinforce the point that I made earlier that there must be a thorough dialogue and engagement with employers, with incentives where appropriate, to ensure that they take advantage of the scope to expand the higher level apprenticeships?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is crucial that we get employers as engaged in the process as the potential apprentices. A private sector vocational organisation in my constituency is an excellent example of that. Before finding the apprentices, it makes contact with local businesses to explain the opportunities offered by the scheme and to create those apprenticeships. That sort of proactive approach is invaluable. The more of that we can do, the better off we will be.

The real value of the apprenticeship scheme is that it will give young people an alternative. Not everyone is suited to an academic career. Many NEETs in our society feel that there is no real alternative. Nationally, we have more than 1 million NEETs, which is far too high. In Devon, within which my constituency sits, there are 1,190 NEETs between the ages of 16 and 18 —5.7% of the youngsters—which is a huge waste. Research shows that the cost to the taxpayer is substantial—around £97,000 over a lifetime. Some people put the cost as high as £300,000 because of the associated benefits, which is a huge price to pay both financially and socially. Therefore, this must be the right way forward.

To get the apprenticeship programme working well, we must look at the linked-in skills training that is on offer and establish the link between training colleges and sixth forms. Will the Minister tell us what sort of grant might be available to those skills colleges, because, at the moment, that is an area that lacks clarity? A number of training organisations and colleges in my constituency have questioned me on the matter. They ask what the picture will be when the Train to Gain programme slowly begins to evaporate. They are particularly concerned that grants will be as available to the smaller organisations as they are to the larger organisations. I am interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that particular front.

As I have said, it is important to get employers to play their part and to incentivise them, as the college I referred to earlier is doing. We want our colleges literally to go out on the streets and find those young people. I have been very impressed by South Devon college, which does just that. There are parts of Newton Abbot where young people with no education, training or job congregate. Individuals go to those places to talk to young people about what might be possible. That is absolutely the right way forward, and I welcome it.

The hon. Lady talks about actively targeting young people on the streets, but does she agree that some groups—I am sure things are the same in my constituency as they are in hers—are also actively involved in mentoring young people? Many young people feel helpless when it comes to getting the vocational training that might help them to get employment—they feel completely disempowered. If these groups get out there, they can target young people, help them, sit alongside them and bring them into the mainstream to ensure that they get essential qualifications.

That is a prime example of the big society. We are in a good position to achieve exactly what he has indicated. We are all in this together, and there is a lot that we can do together.

While we are on that point, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow has mentioned his concern about the withdrawal of the EMA. I share his view that the old system did not work terribly well, but I also share his concern that there needs to be something to help young people. I am pleased that the new fund will be made available, but the real challenge is the transition and ensuring that nobody falls down the gap. One of the things that I have been doing locally in my constituency is trying to help deal with that gap. I have been working with colleges and voluntary charities that provide local transport and asking them whether we can find a way to work together and get young people to college. I am pleased to say that I have received positive responses from local transport charities. That is exactly where we should be going and what we should be doing.

Perhaps I can leave the Minister with a second and final question, which is about real challenge that we face in deprived rural areas, of which Newton Abbot is undoubtedly one. The cost of living in Newton Abbot is very high, partly because of the distances involved in getting around the constituency and, as hon. Members are well aware, because of the huge water bills. However, we also have very low salary levels. The challenges that my hon. Friend has mentioned are particularly acute in rural areas. I appreciate that we are in difficult times and that we must be careful to get value for every penny we spend, but I wonder whether particular consideration can be given to helping youngsters in rural communities access the apprenticeships and training that they need.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this enormously important debate.

In my interventions, I stressed the critical importance of engaging employers, and I hope that the Minister will tell us how we will do that. It would also be helpful if he were to say in his concluding remarks how he sees the skills strategy in the context of the local economic partnerships and what scope there will be to take a strategic overview of local needs. Given the nature of my constituency, I have always been interested in that. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) has mentioned the status of technicians, and their status in our world-leading universities in Oxford and in related scientific research institutions in Oxfordshire is critical. There are concerns whether there will be a supply of suitably qualified people to fill the vacancies when a lump of people retire at a particular time in the future. That is precisely the sort of issue on which a local economic partnership should be able to take a strategic view on an area basis.

I want to mention something that has not been touched on so far. The proposal that those on inactive benefits will no longer receive reductions in their course fees was not included in the skills consultation document published last summer. As I understand it, such people will have to meet 50% of the cost of courses, other than on courses for basic literacy and numeracy. Colleges are worried at the effect that that will have on participation among lone parents, those on incapacity benefit and others.

I have particular concerns about Ruskin college in my constituency. The college runs a number of short courses that attract a significant number of people who are presently in receipt of inactive benefits. Many are older learners, lone parents, carers, people on disability benefits, people who have suffered alcohol and drug dependency problems or mental ill health, and homeless people with no registered address. Most such students on short courses are unlikely to be in a position to pay fees.

For many of these students, going on a course is a step in re-establishing their self-esteem and acquiring useful skills that will enable them to progress further. Ruskin college has mentioned to me an example involving a woman who had a total mid-life crisis and mental breakdown. She saw the Ruskin college brochure in hospital and did free short courses with the college, benefiting from the full fee remission. She went on to get two degrees and she is now a college lecturer, probably helping with the skills drive that we are all so keen to sustain.

How does the Minister see the configuration that is coming forward addressing the needs of such people? Given that it will take time to put the Government’s new proposals in place, does it really make sense to end fee remission for those in receipt of benefits before other provision is put in place? This issue will affect a lot of people across the country, as well as at Ruskin and other colleges in my constituency. I would be grateful if the Minister were specifically to address that point.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate. I also congratulate him on his clear and evident pride in his local college and on the work that he is already doing in Parliament to promote issues relating to apprenticeships. We have had a thoughtful and inclusive debate, which has not been rabidly partisan. I want to continue in that way, but I nevertheless want to pick out some of the implications and unintended consequences of the Government’s skills strategy, which gives Labour Members real concern.

I want briefly to comment on what the hon. Gentleman has said. He has discussed skills deficits, particularly in construction, and the NEETs problem. It is fair to say that none of us in any party and, for that matter, none of the experts has a magic wand to deal with that problem. We can argue about the rights and wrongs and about the needs behind the Government’s current economic policies, and we will, but I merely say—I invite the Minister to touch on this—that it is inevitable that those policies will sharpen the challenge that we face and increase the number of people in the category that we are talking about, at least in the short term. For example, we have seen that with some of the rises in unemployment. We also need to be careful that changes in administration within skills policy, and related issues in the Minister’s portfolio, do not, however well-intentioned, unintentionally exacerbate the problems of NEETs, because of their speed and the lack of a proper transition period.

It is particularly interesting that the hon. Member for Harlow has discussed access to loans, which other hon. Members have also mentioned. I want to touch on how the process will pan out, and put one or two questions to the Minister. At this point, all I want to say is that some people who have been mentioned, such as older people and single mothers, are, because of their backgrounds, precisely the ones who will need most nurturing and support in entering the process. As I have said before and will continue to say, the Government, or certain people in the Government—not least Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers—are keen on the concept of nudging people. We all nudge people, sometimes inadvertently on the tube, but it is highly relevant to the debate on the Government’s skills strategy to point out that sometimes—again, I am not imputing malevolence of plan or thought—the net effect of policies is to nudge people away from things, as well as to nudge people towards them.

It is interesting that the hon. Members for Harlow and for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) have raised concerns about the EMA. I congratulate them on referring to practicalities such as transport and support equipment. Those issues have, of course, been taken up by individuals and colleges. The same concerns have been expressed to me at the colleges in my constituency, Blackpool sixth-form college and Blackpool and the Fylde college, and they also show up in surveys conducted by the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group. If the Minister and I were not here in delightful surroundings under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, we would undoubtedly be in the main Chamber listening to the arguments about the Government’s current position on the EMA. What I took from the remarks of the hon. Members for Harlow and for Newton Abbot, as well as from other interventions, were concerns not only about the change itself, but about the process of change and the transition period. The Minister will want to comment and reflect on those remarks.

The hon. Member for Harlow has discussed university technical colleges, a concept with which I, like him, am familiar. Lord Baker bent my ear on the subject in my previous incarnation as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on skills, as he has successfully bent the ears of many others. Lord Baker is, like me, a historian, and he feels strongly that it is a matter of completing unfulfilled business from the Education Act 1944. The only thing that I say—again, I invite the Minister to make observations on this point—is that it is laudable and entirely desirable that there is a renewed emphasis on how best to provide vocational education to the 14-to-19 range and on the mechanisms for doing so. However, the problem is that the field is now getting crowded. There are proposals for university technical colleges, and there are long-standing proposals for studio schools, which the Secretary of State for Education warmly endorsed at the recent launch of the first tranche. I declare an interest in the sense that the local authority in Blackpool is strongly bidding for a studio school. Of course, the Prime Minister also made observations only a few days ago about the concept of free schools for 16 to 19-year-olds.

I make no comment on some of the ideological conflicts that may arise in that context; I merely point out that if there is a market including UTCs, studio schools and free schools for 16 to 19-year-olds, there will have to be a lot of careful adjustment and thought about the implications for sixth-form and further education colleges. I hesitate to use the words “Maoist and chaotic” in that context, because they have, of course, already been used, rather tellingly, to describe the way in which the Government—sadly, this involves the Minister’s Department—are proceeding with local enterprise partnerships. However, I want to stress the importance of not getting into a mess over a plethora of options in the relevant area. The last thing that any of us wants is for the new-found enthusiasm in all parties for the strengthening of vocational education to be dissipated by arguments about structure.

I want to reinforce my hon. Friend’s argument. Is it not crucial that the core mission and function of further education colleges, and their ability to deliver it, should be buttressed, supported and enhanced? That should include such issues as inequality in funding per student, as between FE and schools. The previous Government started to narrow that discrepancy, but it should be removed altogether.

My right hon. Friend is right on that point. I shall spare the Minister’s blushes, but he has committed to continuing that process. Indeed, he emphasised that point from the floor when questions were raised about it at the conference of the Association of Colleges in Birmingham in November. The devil is in the detail, and the questions of how the aim is to be achieved within funding regimes through the Skills Funding Agency and how it relates to other possible views within the Government must be resolved. I have no doubt about the Minister’s personal commitment to proceeding with that aim, but my right hon. Friend has made a valid and important point.

The hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) have made valuable interventions. They both made the important point that we should view apprenticeships, training and outreach work not only as economic activity but as a vital activity for social cohesion. I am particularly interested and impressed by what the hon. Member for Newton Abbot has said about the activities of her college in going out on to the street and trying, in the words of the Good Book, to compel them to come in.

There is a broader underlying issue, with which all of us have fought in recent years. It concerns not only the fundamental mission of further education colleges or apprenticeships, but how and where that mission is carried out. Some of the most valuable work that has been done via the splendid Blackpool and the Fylde college in my constituency has been done not on the main campus sites but in a city learning centre adjacent to one of the main housing estates. In reality, particularly in areas where people may be juggling two or three different types of job or responsibility, which is particularly true of women, the siting of, and immediacy of access to, training and further education matter a great deal. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot has discussed her constituency, and I am sure that what I have described is as true in rural constituencies as some urban ones, if not more so. Even in my constituency, some people on the estate who benefited from outreach courses would not have found it easy to get on a bus and travel 2 or 3 miles to take standard college classes. I entirely agree with what the hon. Lady has said, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board in developing future policy with colleges.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) has made valid and crucial points about how the skills strategy will fit with local enterprise partnerships, and I will return to that issue later. He made other key points that the Minister needs to respond to. The first is the concern that he expressed about skills shortages. That concern might seem perverse at a time when—let me put it bluntly—the demand for skills in the current economic situation is certainly not uniformly high. However, the truth is that even with modest growth generally and in certain areas in particular, because of the reasons that he gave, demographic changes will affect particular skill groups. We know from the Leitch report and various other things that we face a significant demographic challenge in the next five to 10 years, because the cohort of younger people available for skills training will reduce sharply. Of course, that will put even more emphasis on some of the points to which my right hon. Friend has referred. The comments that we have heard about skills shortages are significant.

I turn, with some gravity, to the Government’s skills strategy, on which I want the Minister to comment. Picking up my previous point about my right hon. Friend’s speech, the introduction of tuition fee-style loans for all those taking level 3 qualifications and the part-funding for a first level 2 qualification will seriously hit the strategy for retraining and reskilling older workers, if they are not handled carefully.

Questions have been put to the Department for Education and Skills and to the Minister himself about how much, under the current circumstances, colleges can be expected to charge when they increase fees for courses. I accept that we do not live, pace one or two things that have been said about the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in a Stalinist “plan and provide” world. However, we need to have a little more assurance about the sums of money that people will have to borrow to fulfil a mainstream apprenticeship course. In an article in The Guardian at the end of last year, the Minister referred to a sum of about £9,000 over that period of study, but it would be helpful if he were to comment on the modelling by which the Government made that assessment.

Of course, if there is a potential impact of increasing fees, in terms of reducing enrolment, it will come at a time when colleges face a 25% reduction in the further education resource grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills during the spending review period. Ministers have said that that reduction is nowhere near the “grim reaper” that has descended on the higher education sector, which is perfectly true. Nevertheless, that reduction and the potential impact of axing the EMA—both the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group have said that axing the EMA will have a significant impact on the number of people applying to college—mean that FE colleges may find themselves under real pressure as a result of Government decisions.

The Government have said that they want to get people back into work—how could we not want to get people back into work? However, the issue of how the Government expect to do that if they are going to remove the support for course fees from anyone who is not on active benefits is a live one. Even those claiming active benefits over the age of 24 will have to take out tuition fee-style loans to take level 3 courses. I have an open question, not a rhetorical one, about that issue; what incentive will there be for those people to take out a sizeable loan when there is no guaranteed income stream to repay it?

As has already been said and as—I am afraid—is the case with so many things that this Government are doing, they are in danger of wielding several sticks before offering a number of carrots. The fees for some level 2 and level 3 courses will be introduced as early as 2011-12 and the fees for the majority of those courses will be introduced in 2012-13. However, the Government say in their own statistics, which accompany the skills strategy, that they do not envisage the new loan structure being in place in full until 2013-14. That is one of the points that the Association of Colleges has raised in its briefing note to Members for today’s debate. However, the Association of Colleges has also raised the separate issue of the impact of the restrictions relating to benefits entitlement, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East has also raised. The Minister will know, because it was the subject of a question and answer session that he participated in at the Association of Colleges conference in Birmingham in November, that that issue is of great concern to colleges.

We support the Government’s aim to help more people off welfare and into work, and we understand the desire to focus efforts on those receiving active benefits. However, I remind the Minister that on a number of occasions he and I have talked about the importance of enabling skills to the life chances of people. There are real concerns, particularly in relation to some of the impacts of the restrictions on employment and support allowance, that, as I said earlier, people might find themselves being “nudged” away from participation in education and training rather than being “nudged” towards it.

Like me, hon. Members may find it curious that the Government preach localism, but that their new skills strategy effectively gives the power to set these plans nationally to the Skills Funding Agency. When we were in government, we talked about the crucial role that regional development agencies can play in this field. I also note, having heard the favourable comments that the hon. Member for Harlow made about the college in his own constituency, that Harlow recently opened a new £9.3 million university centre for higher education. Of course, that project, like the project in my constituency at Blackpool and the Fylde college, was partially funded by grants from the RDA. I am not here to argue the case for RDAs, but now that they have gone there appears to many people, including myself, to be a black hole in the connectivity of support for the successor bodies to the RDAs, including local enterprise partnerships.

Many business groups, including the British Chambers of Commerce, have commented on that lack of co-ordination between those in charge of skills policy and local enterprise partnerships. I remind the Minister that his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government did not even put local enterprise partnerships in the Localism Bill when they introduced it, and they have resolutely refused, or at least been unwilling, to talk about establishing links in that respect.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his measured and thoughtful remarks. Regarding RDAs, although it was welcome that part of the money for the college in my constituency came from the local RDA, at the end of the day that money is taxpayers’ money. That money does not necessarily have to pass through the RDA to reach Harlow college or Harlow; it could easily go through local councils or through the other mechanisms that he has mentioned. The support that Harlow college received is not necessarily a case for the RDA.

I was merely making an observation, and I was not saying that the RDA is the only mechanism by which this money can be redistributed. Of course, there were also other grants that contributed to the college. I was making the point that the RDA is a mechanism that supported that type of college development. Not only is the current level of economic activity across the country failing to replicate that support, but we do not even have secure promises about how local enterprise partnerships themselves will be supported and funded, so that they can provide similar support or access funding from the private sector. That is one of my concerns.

Finally and briefly, I turn to the issue of apprenticeships. The Government have been keen to trumpet the success of apprenticeships and their ambitions for them. I yield to no one in my delight that the Minister has made so many strong points about apprenticeships. However, we must remember that the pledge that there will be an extra 75,000 apprenticeship places applies only to adult apprenticeships. At a time when youth unemployment remains high and the Government have chosen to end schemes such as the future jobs fund and our September guarantee of a college place, training or a job for all those aged between 18 and 24, one must wonder what capacity there will be in business to provide these extra apprenticeship opportunities. Indeed, Members have touched on that issue in the debate today. Just as one can nudge people away from things as well as nudging them towards them, we need to take into account push and pull factors. It seems to me that no amount of ministerial criticism of Train to Gain can take away from the fact that axing the scheme leaves a serious gap in work-based training provision.

Finally, the Government are rightly putting an emphasis on level 3 money going in, but there is still a massive demand across the country for level 2 apprenticeships in leisure, tourism, catering and other applied service industries, and it is vitally important that they are not neglected. They need to ensure that they provide what employers want from apprenticeships, as opposed to what might fit their own agenda for the sector, however noble their intentions.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hood, to serve under your chairmanship, even more so as it is the first time, and it is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden). While the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) was making his erudite interventions, I was thinking about what Chesterton said about Oxford:

“a place for humanising those who might otherwise be tyrants or even experts.”

It would be altogether more convenient if the person shadowing me were a tyrant or a fool, but unfortunately the hon. Gentleman is neither, which actually, on balance is a cause more of joy than sorrow.

It is also a pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate. I know how enthusiastic he is about the subject, and he rightly championed the work of Harlow college, kindly mentioning that I visited the college with him. He has illustrated his commitment to apprenticeships by taking on an apprentice himself, and I invite many other colleagues, including Ministers and shadow Ministers, to follow his example.

An even greater pleasure than serving under you, Mr Hood—and that pleasure is almost inestimable—is to be able to discuss the Government’s skills strategy, albeit in a short debate. I will endeavour both to talk about that, and to pick up the points that have been made by a variety of speakers today.

The skills strategy had its inception shortly after we came to government. As soon as I became Minister, we ran a considerable consultation—over the summer—and we engaged providers, employers and learners, with colleges obviously central to the process. We have now published the strategy, and I have copies here for anyone who would like one—shorter summaries for those with less patience and longer versions for those with more.

The genesis of the strategy dates to when, in opposition, I was able to study these matters over many years, and I had many discussions with the hon. Member for Blackpool South when he was running the all-party group on skills. I do not think that there is much of a gap between our views on the issues. It would be wrong to exaggerate the consensus, but I do go with Wilde in that arguments

“are always vulgar, and often convincing.”

So we do not want to have more of an argument than we need to, and there is certainly some unity of view as to the aim. I suppose that that is because we both broadly buy the analysis of the Leitch report, that an advanced economy needs ever-advancing skills, and that we are falling short in that regard. I shall say more about that in a moment or so.

The report mentions many other things, including, as has been mentioned, the need to upskill and reskill the existing work force as well as to train young people who enter the labour market. It makes particular recommendations on intermediate and higher-level skills, an area in which we are failing to do as well as we must if we are to maintain competitiveness. I am pleased to say—confirm, perhaps—that what is at the heart of that analysis is also very much the Government’s view, which is that skills have a direct relationship with productivity and therefore competitiveness. That is, I suppose, a matter of opinion, but I take it almost as an a priori assumption. I say that as though the case must be made only because some people would still argue a counter-view that labour-market flexibility and a much more fluid system for skills can work in a modern economy, but I take the contrary view that as we invest in skills the economy shapes around that investment. My perspective is, I think, reflected in the previous Government’s assumptions, and largely by Leitch.

It would be remiss of me not to say, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South was kind enough to point out, that we debate all of this in very difficult circumstances, but what is interesting about the strategy is that it would have been necessary irrespective of the changed and challenging financial situation. It had its genesis long before we came to government, long before we knew quite what size of deficit we would face and, indeed, long before we had devised a method for dealing with that deficit. The strategic change—the rethink about the skills we need and about how we will deliver them—preceded the advent of the economic strategy, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the consultation that I described earlier preceded the comprehensive spending review negotiations which, of course, shaped the amount of money that the two Departments in which I am a Minister have to spend.

Without wanting to be unnecessarily partisan, I must say just a little about the previous Government’s record. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not mind a short partisan section in a speech that will otherwise be wonderfully and refreshingly non-partisan. The previous Government did get some of this badly wrong, not in ambition—as I have described—and not even in their analysis of the problem, but in the solution. There were two fundamental problems with their approach. Although they spoke the language of a demand-driven system, it was just that—mere words. The system that was constructed was centrally driven, built around targets and extraordinarily byzantine in structure. It was hard to navigate and inaccessible, bamboozling learners and demoralising employers. The result—a centrally driven, target-orientated, micro-managed system for the funding and management of skills—could never be sufficiently dynamic, or sufficiently responsive to the changing needs of a changing economy. Lord Leitch drew our attention to that, and Members on both sides have reflected an understanding of it in what they have said today.

I could say things that were altogether more colourful—in fact, I have such things in front of me—but why would I do that? I have said enough about the previous Government’s strategy, except for this suffix: the best thing that they did was to appoint the hon. Member for Blackpool South as the shadow spokesman on this matter when they came into opposition. There the flattery stops. Actually, it was meant as a compliment, not as flattery.

Perhaps partly as a result of the previous Government’s strategy, we remain mediocre on skills compared with other OECD countries, ranking 17th out of the 30 member countries on the proportion of our population qualified to level 2 or above. To any impartial observer, and by any independent analysis, it is absolutely clear that our further education and skills system requires not merely reform but rebirth, the effects of which would need to be felt by employers, individuals and training providers. The change that is most needed is one of perspective, as identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, when he spoke in elegiac terms about the need to elevate practical learning, a point supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and other Members. We have to understand that practical accomplishment can afford the same kind of status as academic achievement, because it confers both worth and purpose, which has economic value, and also because it changes lives by changing life chances.

The pride that people take in the practical skills that they acquire makes them stand tall. As they do so, they gain a different kind of recognition among their fellows. That was once widely understood. The case was richly argued by Ruskin—who was referred to in a different context; I will return to that—and William Morris, but it had scarcely been made with elegance and conviction until I started to make it a few years ago, when it gained some elegance and a lot of conviction. Changing the perception of practical learning is critical to encouraging people to acquire the skills that we need to drive our economy forward. It is a social and cultural matter as well as an economic one, being about aesthetics as well as utility. Rather apologetically, we usually debate skills as a matter of utility. I suppose that that is understandable—they are partly about utility, after all—but let us debate them differently, making the change in perception that I described.

I will now deal with the essence of the skills strategy and its many aims, which we published on 16 November last year. Its main premise is that skills are essential if we are to return to sustainable growth, build more inclusive communities and achieve greater social mobility. To do so, the Government must be prepared to devolve real power, along with the objective information that will allow people to use the system, to those who can benefit most from it, and especially to employers and individuals. We want to give them authority and power to drive the system. We want a more learner-driven, employer-focused, demand-driven skills system.

I will discuss the three critical elements of that and deal with some of the points that hon. Members have raised. First, we must ensure that colleges and training providers have the freedom and flexibility to respond to learner demand and employer need. The coherence that must accompany that requires a proper settlement in respect of relationships with other agencies, including local enterprise partnerships. I will take away the points that have been made about that and consider them. It certainly requires consistency and coherence in respect of school provision. As hon. Members will know, Professor Alison Wolf is carrying out a review of vocational education, which must marry with the strategy if it is to make a useful contribution to Government thinking.

The hon. Member for Blackpool South was right that there must be some consistency in the narrative about studio schools and university technical colleges. I am an enthusiast of UTCs. I think that Kenneth Baker has hit on an idea for which time has come; it is the completion of the unfinished work of Rab Butler. I see it in those ambitious terms. UTCs can play a valuable role in providing a vocational pathway that matches in clarity and progressive quality the academic route that many of us took.

I acknowledge the questions and points raised by hon. Members, and I accept the need for consistency and coherence, but central to what we will do is freeing providers and colleges from much of the bureaucracy that has hampered them and prevented them from being as good as they can be. There is immense human capital in the further education sector; it is the unheralded triumph of our education system. Both learners and teachers in FE deserve more praise than they have ever received. I am proud to put that on record. In the education Bill that we will be introducing shortly as a continuation of what I have announced in Government, we will strip away some of what the previous Government did—I am trying to use gentle words—to confuse the system and burden FE providers.

Secondly, there must be a changed role for individuals. Individual learners need more information, which is why we will introduce an all-ages careers service to provide them with good, empirical and independent information about the results of the courses that they choose and the subsequent careers to which they are likely to lead. As well, it was right that we began to ask who pays for what. Such questions are challenging, but I was determined that there should be no question of abridging people’s entitlement to basic skills in any way.

However, in higher skills, beyond the age of 24, individuals should make some contribution, on a par with what we expect of higher education students. They will be able to take out income-contingent loans on the same no up-front cost basis as HE students, at highly competitive rates. The hon. Member for Blackpool South asked about numbers and mentioned the figure of £9,000. He will know that it is difficult to come to a definitive answer, as apprenticeship frameworks cost different amounts. However, I do not think that it is unreasonable to mention an average of about £7,500. Compared with a degree, given what my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot said about the income premium likely to result from an apprenticeship—it is roughly equivalent to a degree—an apprenticeship represents pretty good value for money.

Thirdly, on apprenticeships, we have allocated £250 million for 75,000 more apprenticeships during the spending review period. The hon. Member for Blackpool South asked about apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds. I confirm that the Department for Education will provide extra investment to grow their numbers substantially too. It is my ambition while I am Minister to top 350,000 apprenticeships in this country, and the longer I am the Minister, the more apprenticeships we will have. Records are hard to compare because historically, the way that we have counted apprenticeships has been somewhat different, but it is probably true to say that the most that we have ever had in Britain was 400,000.

Is the Minister not showing symptoms of the target-driven culture that he was decrying a few minutes ago?

That is the trouble with people associated with Oxford; they are just clever. That was the expression not of a target but of an ambition. How could my ambitions ever be described as anything so crude as a target?

The final element of the strategy is a link to employers. As well as being learner-driven, the system must be sensitive to the role of employers in ensuring that what is taught and tested matches employer need, therefore making people more employable and feeding the growth that we all want. To do so, we must move away from what I described as the slightly confused spatial arrangements made by the previous Government with regional development agencies and others—some of them did perfectly good work, of course, but they were heading in basically the wrong direction—towards a more sectorally driven system. I have asked the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, under the chairmanship of Charlie Mayfield, to consider becoming employer-facing, so that we can engage employers in ensuring that the system delivers what we want.

I believe that we can build a skills system that makes Britain prosperous, delivers individual opportunity on an unprecedented scale and contributes to social mobility, social cohesion and justice. As the Minister, I will do all that I can to make that so, for it is what is right for our people, our nation and our future.