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Volume 523: debated on Thursday 17 February 2011

All our Christmases have come together.

Provisional data show that there were 119,800 apprenticeship starts in the first quarter of the 2010-11 academic year. That good news confirms that employers are recognising the value of apprenticeships to building growth and competitiveness. The Government are committed to increasing the budget for apprenticeships to over £1.4 billion in the 2011-12 financial year.

As part of the recent apprenticeships week, the National Apprenticeship Service launched a 100-day campaign in Reading. By the end of the first day alone, 28 pledges of places and a further 19 expressions of interest had been received from local employers. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Reading’s employers, Reading borough council, the Reading Post and other local organisations on supporting that excellent initiative and demonstrating what can be achieved when business and Government work together?

I do indeed congratulate them, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing the matter to the House’s attention. I did a little research: the event was attended by 51 employers and resulted in 29 apprenticeship pledges just on the day. My goodness, we are reminded of Virgil: “They can because they think they can.”

I recently visited Brentford football club community sports trust as part of apprenticeship week and have also written to more than 600 businesses to encourage them to take up apprenticeship places and take on more apprentices. What other advice would my hon. Friend give businesses to encourage them to provide more apprenticeships?

Businesses need to know that they will recoup their investment rapidly, with even the most expensive apprenticeships paying back in less than three years. Apprenticeships have a real link to productivity and to competitiveness. May I just say that Brentford football club had a very good result on Saturday, when they drew with Milton Keynes Dons?

Chester FC was also successful last Saturday, winning 5-0; I was fortunate enough to be there. It is a community-run and owned football club, which recently launched an apprenticeship scheme employing 21 16-year-olds on sports management courses. What is the Minister doing to encourage other big society organisations to get involved with apprenticeships?

We are involved in an unprecedented campaign to promote the value of apprenticeships. Last week—apprenticeship week—450 events were held throughout the country. I met learners, employers and providers. Apprenticeships are top of the agenda for all those groups.

Last Friday, I visited the Just Learning day nursery in my constituency to see at first hand the benefits of apprenticeships for young people and employers. I was pleased to meet apprentice Jade Vale and manager Tracey Tomlinson, who were very positive about the apprenticeship scheme. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that people can progress to the higher level of apprenticeships to meet the needs of employers?

My hon. Friend is right. The previous Government’s Leitch report made it absolutely clear that we need to boost intermediate and higher level skills as our economy becomes more advanced. I am working with the sector skills councils and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to develop more high-level frameworks. The numbers doubled in the past year, but we must do more. Apprenticeships are critical to the nation’s growth and prosperity.

I recently visited Medway youth club, a local charity in my constituency that helps young people get into work and into apprenticeships, and it very much welcomes the Government’s apprenticeship scheme. However, it would like to see more assistance being given to small businesses, and guidance for setting up apprenticeships.

It is a little known fact, but none the less one that I want to draw to the House’s attention, that 78% of apprentices are employed in small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy. I started in a small business, which got bigger as a result, and small businesses are essential if we are to make apprenticeships sing.

Last Friday, I spoke to several employers in Eastbourne, and their view was that a grant to the providers of apprenticeships would act as a huge incentive and make a huge difference to take-up and completion. Although I appreciate that tough current fiscal conditions mean that any money has be found elsewhere, does the Minister agree that, for small employers in my constituency and throughout the country, a small cash incentive for small and medium-sized enterprises will lead to a dramatic rise in the take-up of apprenticeships?

We are committing substantial funds to apprenticeships and, indeed, those funds will be targeted at the firms that most need support to take on apprentices and build their skills. My hon. Friend is right to say that these are tough times, but we are always open to proposals made by this House and representative bodies of the kind that he describes.

I am sure that the House will welcome the emphasis on apprenticeships, which shows the Government carrying on the work that we did. However, does the Minister not think it is shocking that, in figures given to me this morning by his colleague the Secretary of State, the Government have confirmed the true picture that there will be 529,000 fewer adult learners being funded by the Government in two years’ time? Does not that show that the emphasis on apprenticeships is being paid for by cutting opportunity elsewhere? How does that prepare people for today’s labour market?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks of opportunity, but it was Baroness Thatcher who said that if your only opportunity is to be equal, you have no opportunity. What he and his colleagues left us with was a dull, egalitarian mediocrity. We are going to drive up standards and skills, and drive growth and prosperity.

We just heard from the Minister that more needs to be done about apprenticeships. Indeed, he wrote to all hon. Members encouraging us to take on an apprentice in our offices. Why then are the Government removing the requirement for apprenticeship places on Government public investment programmes?

The work that we are doing on public sector apprenticeships, in this place and elsewhere, continues. Indeed, I met a shadow Minister—one of her parliamentary colleagues—to talk about apprenticeships and public procurement. The hon. Lady is right—we do need to drive public sector apprenticeships and we do need to lead by example.

Last Friday, I saw a group of young people who were learning on the job in the cultural quarter programme, which is led by the Royal Opera House and participated in by the Victoria and Albert museum and other cultural organisations in London. Thirty-four young people are on that programme, but it is funded by the future jobs fund, so it is about to run out. I invited those young people to come to the House to tell Members of Parliament what they have learned from this programme and how they have encouraged other young people to start careers in the cultural industries. Will the Minister come and listen to what they have to say about the difference that the future jobs fund has made to them?

As you know, Mr Speaker, the future jobs fund is not within my ministerial purview—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Well, never pitch above your pay grade or outside your purview. I will of course meet the young people and the hon. Lady and listen to what they have to say.

I have just returned from a fact-finding mission to Dusseldorf and Berlin with the Welsh Affairs Committee. Is the Minister aware that all German businesses are required to join a local chamber of commerce and the regional chamber of commerce, and that those organisations are required to provide comprehensive apprenticeships, tailored to the industrial needs of that region? Will he consider that approach so that we have apprenticeships that are comprehensive and grounded in the real business earth of this country?

We can learn a lot from the example of other countries. Germany is often held up as a shining example of apprenticeships, and France has also made immense progress with apprenticeships over the last quarter of a century. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the link to local businesses and chambers of commerce and, as ever, he makes a thoughtful contribution to our affairs. I will certainly take another look at the issue to see what can be done to borrow that kind of good practice.

Yesterday, I met a number of apprentices at the excellent Fosters bakery in Barnsley, and we welcome any moves to build on Labour’s record, which rescued apprenticeships from 65,000 starts in 1997 to 279,000 last year. Will the Minister confirm four simple facts? Will he confirm that, at a time of rising youth unemployment, this Government have dropped Labour’s guarantee of an apprenticeship for every young person who wants one? Will he confirm that, at a time of rising adult unemployment, this Government plan to cut the total number of adults who get publicly funded training by 500,000 a year? Will he confirm that his Government have dropped Labour’s policy of saying that those who get public money for social housing must provide construction apprenticeships? And will he confirm that he now plans to make adult apprentices pay between £5,000 and £9,000 for the right to do an apprenticeship?

Trying to deal with four questions is a bit like being at the Woolworth’s pick ’n mix. I will deal with the first one only. The apprenticeship offer that we are enshrining in law means very plainly that everyone who secures an apprenticeship place will be funded—not the permissive, meaningless offer that prevailed under the last Government. The right hon. Gentleman should know better.

I am very sorry, but what the Minister has said is not true. If he says that every apprenticeship place will be funded, will he confirm that for adult apprenticeships—those aged over 24—they, not the Government, will have to pay the cost of their training? Is that not the truth about this world? On the one hand, those who have little money are asked to pay for the cost of their own training, while, as the Daily Mail put it, at the “black and white” party the Tory party—fundraisers, millionaire Tory supporters—paid £3,000 to buy internships at top finance companies. The Minister has one world for himself and his friends and for those families who can pay, and a completely different world for others.

On the night of the “black and white” party, I was at my desk working, actually, and then I had a half of mild at a working men’s club.

The truth is that, in a very tough spending round, we guaranteed funding for young people, boosted funding for 16 to 18-year-olds and boosted funding for adult apprenticeships, and we are seeing real growth. The right hon. Gentleman is right: people over 24 will borrow to invest in their future, but my goodness, the repayments are income-contingent, there are no up-front payments and, as he knows, it is real value for money.