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Volume 523: debated on Monday 14 February 2011

The Department continues to be actively supportive of the apprenticeship programme and believes that it represents excellent value for taxpayers’ money and helps people progress in their career. There are 316 people currently working towards the qualification in the Department. Last year, we adapted our recruitment processes to target young unemployed people without work experience and created 23 apprenticeships in our corporate IT directorate.

The Minister will be aware of the great work done by the last Government, which led to that programme of bringing young apprentices in, and rescued apprenticeships from withering on the vine. Will he commit the Department to carrying on the work that I undertook as apprenticeships Minister, along with people such as Lord Knight of Weymouth—as he is now—to ensure that young people, and not just those in work, are recruited to the Department and given apprenticeship opportunities?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. One of the sad things about the previous Administration was that they never actually supported the number of apprenticeships that they announced. We intend to make a difference and to deliver more apprenticeships—we have announced an extra 50,000 already this year. I can give a clear commitment that the Department will continue to support the apprenticeship programme, both practically and through our relationship with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

I have been written to by a 16-year-old who has done the right thing by taking an apprenticeship, but having done so, she has found that her family’s benefits have been reduced by £90 a week. Will the universal credit address such discrepancies and this discrimination against those who want to work and take up apprenticeships?

My hon. Friend highlights the chaos that we inherited in the benefits system that can lead to perverse incentives that often mean that work does not pay. The universal credit is designed to ensure that work always pays. I would be interested to meet my hon. Friend to talk about her constituent’s case, so that I may understand more clearly what has gone wrong, but we are clear that work must always pay.

The recession has now been over for a year. Unemployment should now be falling, and the whole House is worried that it is in fact rising, especially among young people. One of the ways in which we tackled that was with the “Backing Young Britain” campaign, which created thousands of job opportunities for young people, including apprenticeships and internships. One of those schemes was a paid internship in the private offices of every Minister in the Department. Is that scheme still in place?

As I have said, we already have 300 apprenticeships throughout the Department and we intend to continue to deliver that support to apprentices. We inherited from the previous Government a collection of programmes that simply were not working. The future jobs fund, for example, cost twice as much as apprenticeships. We believe that expanding the number of apprenticeships—50,000 extra this year and 75,000 extra by the end of the Parliament, plus additional apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds—will move us to the place we should be, and out of the mess that we inherited from the previous Government.

I am grateful for that answer and I will try to decipher it later.

I was interested to hear the Minister talk about how he is now using the Department’s resources wisely. At some point, he will no doubt tell us why in December his Department spent more on stationery than it did on employment zones or access to work programmes. I wonder whether that is part of an innovative new approach that includes getting more people into study by cutting education maintenance allowances and getting more young people into work by cutting the future jobs fund. I see now that the Conservative party is piloting new ways of helping young people get into internships, by auctioning them for £5,000 a time to Tory party donors. Did the right hon. Gentleman choke on his pudding when the auctioneer’s hammer came down, and when will this worthwhile scheme go nationwide?

I will not take any lessons on spending from a previous Administration who spent money like there was no tomorrow. We were shocked to discover how the Department for Work and Pensions under the previous Administration spent money as if there were no limits. This Administration have removed the absurd restrictions on work experience that meant that young people lost their benefits if they did more than two weeks’ work experience. We have changed that and are actively finding experience opportunities for young people, not standing in their way and preventing them from accessing those opportunities.