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Volume 526: debated on Thursday 31 March 2011

Last week, this Government announced a new £75 million programme of training and other targeted support focused specifically on small and medium-sized enterprises to help them access advanced and higher-level apprenticeships. We also announced on Monday that we will be working to reduce bureaucracy for SMEs, making it easier for them to take on those new apprentices.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Silverstone motorsport college on its outstanding Ofsted report and on the fact that 50% of its motorsport technicians get apprenticeships in this high-tech, innovative industry? What more can he do to support increasing apprenticeships in this area?

In anticipation of my hon. Friend’s question, and because I know of her passionate interest in and advocacy of this subject, I have asked the National Apprenticeship Service to take further the work that I know she wants to be completed on offering a new motor race technician qualification. We will do that work, because we understand the points she makes, the value of that industry and its importance to our whole country.

I strongly welcome plans to expand the apprenticeships scheme further. The biggest barrier to the participation of small businesses is the lack of information, so will my hon. Friend consider moves to include promotional material in the annual business rates mailing?

That is a most welcome suggestion. I am perhaps known for my understatement, rather than my overstatement, but I do not think we can speak too loudly or clearly about apprenticeships, and that information is vital if we are to engage the businesses to create the prosperity we seek and build the opportunities we want.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the scale of the challenge facing the automotive industry, with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers saying that we need at least 10,000 apprenticeships a year for the United Kingdom to be at the forefront of the electric vehicle industrial revolution that is about to occur?

Yes, indeed. We recently announced that we are going to work with all the interested parties in the industry to bring about the kind of technological advance to which my hon. Friend refers. This is a real potential area for growth and we are determined, with the industry, to make that growth happen.

The Minister will know that we are all in favour of apprenticeships these days—we welcome the coalition to the cause—but the fact is that this is all something of a fig leaf, given that all the other education policies seem to be falling apart. Higher education is in meltdown, but all we hear about is apprenticeships and the university technical colleges. This is a fig leaf covering up the lack of policy across the whole education and skills debate.

I would hardly plead guilty for my advocacy of the causes that the hon. Gentleman highlights, but I can assure him that this is part of a coherent and holistic approach that means that everyone will get their chance of glittering prizes.

The Minister will know that the number of apprenticeships in this country was just 65,000 in 1996. It has increased to nearly 280,000 now, but young people face worse unemployment than ever and growth is down. He will not set a target for the number of apprenticeships, but what will he do if the number falls back?

The hon. Lady rightly identifies that apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship training can provide an important vehicle to bring people from disengagement to engagement. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has cemented the work done in the Budget to create those extra apprenticeships for people moving from the very circumstances the hon. Lady describes to the skills and success they deserve.

The Government’s flagship policy on employment and small businesses is the national insurance holiday for all companies outside London and the south-east. We heard only yesterday from Treasury officials that that has created only thousands of jobs, so is it time to go back to the drawing board on this policy?

I learned long ago never to pitch above my pay grade or outside my purview, and I rather suspect that that question might be both.