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Volume 537: debated on Monday 19 December 2011

We come now to the motion relating to apprenticeships, and to move the motion I call the Minister for Further Education and Lifelong Learning—he may even have other elements within his arsenal—Mr John Hayes.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of apprenticeships.

Mr Speaker, the other element is skills—but my skills could never be as great as your own, I hasten to add.

The guitarist Chet Atkins once said:

“A long apprenticeship is the most logical way to success. The only alternative is overnight stardom, but I can’t give you a formula for that.”

Mr Speaker, you and I know, along with others, that long apprenticeships in public service can bear out the first part of that sentiment. On overnight stardom, I say only that the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), the new shadow Business Secretary, will no doubt enlighten us on some future occasion.

Mr Speaker, you and I have no wish for this debate to become an exercise in party political tergiversation alone. There is no need for unnecessary contumely, and no need for more criticism of Opposition Members than that which is necessary to, by contrast, highlight the extent of our achievements.

There are many on the Opposition Benchers whose commitment to apprenticeship training is deep and sincere, and I recognise that the previous Government did indeed invest in apprenticeships—certainly towards the end. It is also fair to point out that there was a rise of almost 50,000 in the number of apprentices aged over 25, so, despite some things that we have read recently, the growth in older apprentices is a trend change that has been taking place over a number of years.

Indeed, the previous Government recognised, as you will know Madam Deputy Speaker, in the Leitch report on skills, which they commissioned, that such growth in the skilling of older workers was essential to keep pace with our competitors by upskilling and reskilling the existing work force.

Above all, I know that Members on both sides of the House recognise that apprenticeship training is a sure way to success. The all-party group on further education, skills and lifelong learning recently called for the creation of a “Royal Society of Apprentices” as a means of raising the profile of what many of us believe is our most effective form of vocational training, and I will, I am pleased to tell the House today, take that proposal forward.

The Minister knows and is quite right that all Members are in favour of apprenticeships, but we are in favour of quality apprenticeships. When I was Chair of the Education and Skills Committee, I discovered that too many apprenticeships lasted only one year and very many did not lead to a secure job. There are now 1 million unemployed young people, and some of us believe that 6% of young people going into apprenticeships is not enough. We need new efforts to get more people apprenticeships now.

The hon. Gentleman has been a long-standing advocate of apprenticeships, and he rightly draws attention to previous Select Committee reports on the subject. He highlighted those reports in the Chamber on more than one occasion when I was present, and he is right in two particular respects: first, it is important that we focus apprenticeships on where they are of most value, and there is more evidence to suggest that they are of most value to young people between the ages of 16 and 24; and, secondly, it is important that we are relentless in our drive for quality. He is right, too, that as we increase the quantity of apprenticeships there will be a tension with quality, but I shall say a great deal more today about the steps that we have taken and the future steps that we propose to take to achieve just that ambition.

Having said that there is a broad measure of agreement, a point echoed by the hon. Gentleman, I should say, first, that the difference between us and the previous Government is that we have made apprenticeships the pivot around which the rest of the skills system turns. Secondly, we have made them fill a bigger space than ever before. Finally, we have put in place an unparalleled level of funding to support our single-minded aim to create more apprenticeships than modern Britain has ever seen. It is important to point out that that growth has not been only in traditional craft apprenticeships, but in the new crafts too—advanced engineering, IT, the creative industries and financial services.

Why, people might ask, do we put such an emphasis on apprenticeships? It is not just that apprenticeships work, although they do, or that an apprenticeship is probably the most widely recognised brand in the skills shop window, although it is; it is also about what apprenticeships symbolise—the passing on of skills from one generation to the next and the proof that that offers that learning by doing is just as demanding and praiseworthy as learning from a book. As William Morris said, all art and craft is

“the expression by man of his joy in labour”.

It is my ambition to dispel once and for all the myth that one can gain accomplishment only through academic prowess. The sense of worth that people gain through the work of their hands—through practical, technical and vocational skill—needs to be recognised, just as we recognise academic achievement.

It is that sense of apprenticeships as the embodiment of a continuum that guarantees their place at the heart of my vision for skills. I hope that, like me, hon. Members on both sides will welcome the provisional figures that show that, in the academic year that has just finished, nearly 443,000 people started an apprenticeship in England.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating HTP Training, an Isle of Wight apprenticeship provider, and its managing director Rachael Fidler? Most notable is its successful apprenticeship completion rate of 87%—significantly higher than the national average of 74%. Does my hon. Friend agree that none of that would have been possible without the Government’s help and support?

That is the kind of testing question and penetrating intervention that I expected during this debate. None the less, it was most welcome, and from a Member who never ceases to represent his constituents in the Isle of Wight with vigour, verve and absolute integrity. His support for apprenticeships has been critical in delivering the 100% increase in Isle of Wight apprenticeship numbers to which he has drawn the House’s attention.

Some of us sometimes try to get the Minister to be cross with us because he is always so polite and always strokes the feathers of everyone who asks him a question. However, I have to put it to him again: we all know that apprenticeships are something of a fig leaf for the Government. One million young people are unemployed and the Government keep pointing to what I call the fig leaf of apprenticeships.

Will the Minister stop weaving the myth that they are all three or four-year apprenticeships leading to secure jobs? What is the average length of an apprenticeship today? That is the crucial thing. I think that the Minister is going to have to say that it is about a year. Is that the truth? That is what the public want to know. What quality and length are the apprenticeships of which he is so proud?

The hon. Gentleman is renowned for his insight, and I had thought until today that he was equally renowned for his patience. I said that I would deal with quality and I assure him that I will also deal with the length of apprenticeships. I think he is right. Although there is no direct, guaranteed link between the length of an apprenticeship and its quality, there is a relationship. It is not a direct correlation, but it is a correlation none the less.

Today I will set out my demands for a minimum length for apprenticeships. That is perfectly reasonable. As I said, it is not a guarantee of quality, but it will certainly offer considerable assurance to the hon. Gentleman and others who, like me, are determined that quality should match quantity. The hon. Gentleman has, over many years, supported my view that technical education is critical not merely because it serves an economic function—because of its utility—but because of what it does for social mobility and social cohesion. Drawing on his patience and insight once again, I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait a few moments. I shall be speaking about the issue at considerable and eloquent length.

The figures that I cited show that numbers were up by more than half in the 2009-10 academic year. I want to make the point firmly that that includes an increase of about 10% in the number of apprentices under 19. I remind hon. Members that that Government achievement has been completed not merely because of our concentrated effort and the funding that we have put in place, although that is critical, but thanks to the work of further education colleges and other training providers, businesses coming forward and creating apprenticeship places, and learners and their families seizing the opportunity with both hands. The real credit lies with the learners, the training organisations and the businesses that allowed that expansion in the apprenticeship programme to take place.

SQI in Watford offers 10-week apprenticeship courses followed by 10-week placements. They lead to 85% of those taking part being in permanent employment. I do not think that the length of an apprenticeship is everything.

My hon. Friend has a lot to be pleased about in respect of apprenticeships; as he will know, in his constituency their number has grown by 98%. I did say that I did not think there was an exact correlation between quality and the length of a course, but I think there is a relationship. By setting down a marker about the minimum length of an apprenticeship, we will drive up quality. We will certainly reassure those who are genuinely committed to the apprenticeship programme, but have doubts about the tension between quality and quantity, that we are serious about standards. That matters.

I take my hon. Friend’s point. It may be possible, particularly for older learners with greater prior attainment, to top up skills—perhaps they are moving from a level 2 to a level 3 qualification, or they already have many of the skills necessary to gain their first level 2 qualification. None the less, I still think that length matters.

I should like to put the debate in context, Madam Deputy Speaker; you would expect me to do no less. The Government’s macro-economic policy is built on twin pillars—reducing the deficit and reshaping our economy to make it more sustainable. That second core aim is served by the apprenticeship programme, because it assists in recalibrating work force skills so that productivity rises and competitiveness grows. Britain’s future chance to prosper lies in a high-tech, high-skill economy and to prosper in that way we need a high-tech, high-skill work force.

The recent announcements of reform to the programme concentrated on three areas key to the programme’s continued expansion and success: how to get more employers involved in offering apprenticeships; how to ensure that apprenticeships continue to offer people, especially young people, a firm first step on the ladder that leads to fulfilling careers and further learning; and how we ensure that the money that we spend on apprenticeships has the greatest success.

In the end, apprenticeships are jobs and the programme is demand-led. That means that the growth depends on employers coming forward to make places available. In the current economic climate jobs are in short supply, notably for young people, so the record increase in apprenticeship numbers is remarkable. Hon. Members will join me in commending the 100,000 employers that are using apprenticeships to develop work force skills—helping their businesses, but also providing opportunities for people across this country to grow their skills and improve their prospects.

Our work to recruit more employers to our cause goes on. Only this morning, I was at No. 10 Downing street briefing major employers on what apprenticeships can do for them. They were as committed to spreading opportunity and to social justice as I am.

Our objective is to improve and strengthen the programme even further so that more individuals and employers can access the benefits of high-quality apprenticeships. Overall, employer ownership of vocational skills is the key to our approach. This ambition informs all our priorities in moving forward: first, by reducing bureaucracy to an absolute minimum, speeding up processes and boosting employer engagement; secondly, by safeguarding quality, raising standards, and enhancing the reputation of the apprenticeship brand; and thirdly, by focusing future growth where the returns and benefits are greatest, including growth sectors of the economy, small and medium-sized enterprises, young people and new employees.

SMEs tell us that they still face considerable hurdles in taking on apprentices, and we have taken a serious look at what we can do to help to remove the barriers that they face. This has rightly been raised on the Floor of the House by Members on both sides and in all parties. I can announce today that, first, we will bring reduce to one month the time it takes for an employer to advertise an apprenticeship vacancy, including identifying the provider and completing an agreement on a training package between the employer and the provider; and secondly, we will remove all health and safety requirements that go beyond what health and safety legislation requires. From 1 January, employers that meet the Health and Safety Executive’s requirements as set out in “Health and safety made simple” will be deemed to provide a satisfactory level of compliance. We will also work with the insurance industry to encourage an approach that is proportionate to risks, and with training providers to develop new service standards for supporting SMEs to be included in all contracts for apprenticeships delivered from March 2012.

In addition, we are committed, in a significant new pilot programme, to taking radical steps to give businesses direct access to up to £250 million of public funding for training and apprenticeships over two years. This pilot is a key part of the Government’s growth review. It will route funding directly to businesses, will be more efficient than current arrangements, and will give businesses real purchasing power in the schools marketplace to secure the support that they need.

I thank the Minister for his customary courtesy in giving way. I welcome the announcement about provider and employer engagement, and speeding that up, but will he clarify whether there are any restrictions regarding a member of a board of a provider company being precluded from being a member of a board of a user company?

The answer is that I do not know; in these circumstances, it is always right to be straightforward. Because I know that the hon. Gentleman takes these matters seriously and is committed to getting this right, as I am, I will take his point away and look at it. He is arguing that there might be a conflict of interest in terms of provider and employer, and he is right to say that there should be a proper separation. However, as he will know, it is often the case in large companies that the training wing of the company provides the pedagogy associated with an apprenticeship while the apprentice is engaged in the work-based training in the same company, though in a different part of it. I would qualify his query with that caveat. None the less, I will take another look at the subject and will be more than happy to respond to him directly.

The pilot that I described will involve employers being asked to demonstrate how public funding will be used to leverage private investment and commitment to raising skill levels in their sectors or supply chains. As we grow the apprenticeship scheme, it is very important to take advantage of the value chains associated with our major corporates—their supply chains and their distribution chains, where they exist. Typically, Governments have spent insufficient time considering how that might work in the light of the well-established nature of those relationships and the dependence of large organisations on myriad smaller companies, the fragility of which, by their very nature, is possibly injurious to the interests of those corporates.

For example, major suppliers in the automotive industry tend to have very large numbers of organisations with which they deal commercially in their locality, some of which are vital to the effectiveness of such large organisations. It is vital, in their interests and in ours, that we do more to ensure that those relationships allow us to grow the apprenticeship system within SMEs. It may be of value for large companies to absorb some of the bureaucracy and some of the cost, and certainly to absorb some of the management associated with seeding apprenticeships in their value chain. Bidding for the employer-led pilot will formally be launched in the new year.

Above all else, my advocacy of practical learning and my faith in apprenticeships are driven not by economic imperative—not merely by utility—but by social purpose. I said earlier that for too long the myth that only through academic accomplishment can a sense of worth be achieved has been perpetuated by those who themselves have travelled a gilded path to academia. Now it is time once again to recognise what Ruskin and Morris knew—that all those with practical tastes and talents, with technical vocational aptitudes, deserve their chance of glittering prizes too. This is not just because of the relationship between craft and beauty and, in turn, between beauty and truth, but because for society to cohere we must promote the common good through a shared appreciation of what each of can achieve. All feel valued when each feels valued. Given that inequality is the inevitable consequence for a free economy in a free society, only through social mobility can a communal sense of fairness be achieved. A society that is unequal and rigid is bound to be unable to secure the ties of shared identity, as invisible and yet as strong as the heartstrings of love.

The hon. Gentleman and I share a great admiration for the poet John Clare. I am still waiting for a quotation from John Clare, who lived very near his constituency.

May I bring the hon. Gentleman back to the false dichotomy that comes through insidiously in his honeyed words—namely, that there is one group of people going into academia and higher education and a more worthy group going into apprenticeships and more practical learning by doing? This September, 36% of people went into higher education and 6% went into apprenticeships; we want him to talk about the 58% who went in neither direction.

This is the season of good will, so I am pleading for good will from hon. Members in making short interventions. I remind everybody in the Chamber that this is a very heavily subscribed debate with a time limit on speeches that may, at this rate, have to be shortened for each speaker. In the interests of good will, perhaps we could make sure that all hon. Members get to speak tonight.

Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker; I must not allow my legendary generosity to prevent Members from contributing to this debate.

To the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) I say:

“I loved thee, though I told thee not,

Right earlily and long,

Thou wert my joy in every spot,

My theme in every song.”

That is by the people’s poet, John Clare. I believe that the hon. Gentleman saved John Clare’s home with the involvement of a social enterprise. We share a passion for the people’s poet, as we share a passion for the welfare and interests of the people. It is just a pity that I am in the people’s party and he is not.

With so many people currently not in employment, education or training, we must do more to extend the ladder of opportunity—the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. It is absolutely vital that in getting apprenticeships to fill a bigger space, we not only allow them to redefine our sense of what we understand as higher learning—I shall speak about that, too—but use them as a vehicle to allow for re-engagement of those who are currently unable to contribute in the way that we both want them to by getting a job, keeping a job, and progressing in a job. Through our access to apprenticeships programme, which we piloted as a result of my determination to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman described, I believe that we can provide just such a vehicle to get those who were failed by the system the first time around and who do not have sufficient prior attainment on to a level 2 course.

The drive for greater quantity must be matched by a determination that quality will grow in tandem. First, we will strengthen the English and maths requirements for apprentices who have not yet achieved a level 2 qualification. Those subjects remain essential for long-term employability and progression, so from the 2012-13 academic year all apprenticeship providers will be required to provide opportunities to support apprentices in progressing towards the achievement of level 2, GCSE or functional skills qualifications. They will be measured on their success in so doing.

Secondly, we will launch a rapid employer-led review of apprenticeship standards to identify best practice, ensure that every apprenticeship delivers the professionally recognised qualifications that employers need, and ensure that the Government are maximising the impact of public investment.

Does the Minister share my concern that the new requirement for maths and English to be part of the apprenticeship course might deter some of the NEETs—those who are not in education, employment or training—we are trying to get into apprenticeships from taking part in such schemes? Does he believe that we need additional support to help underachievers who do not have the required attainment in maths and English to achieve it so that they can get on to an apprenticeship scheme?

My hon. Friend will know that in his constituency of Burton, apprenticeship numbers have risen by 76%. He will know, too, that that rise is due to the excellent work of his local further education college, with which I have had regular dealings.

My hon. Friend is right to argue that it is important that we take account of those who do not have the prior attainment to get on to a level 2 qualification. That is precisely the point that I was making a few moments ago, when I spoke about pre-apprenticeship training. To be clear, I said that those achieving a level 2 qualification must meet the standards in maths and English. There is an absolutely proper argument that we need steps on the ladder before people get to level 2, to allow for the re-engagement of those who are currently not able to get a job.

Thirdly on quality, we will continue to raise quality through consumer empowerment and transparency by improving employer and learner access to objectives and comparable information on providers.

I can also announce today additional steps that I am taking to raise the bar of apprenticeship standards even higher and to root out poor quality where it exists. All apprenticeships should involve a rigorous period of learning and the practice of new skills. If the standards are sufficiently stretching and the expectations of competence high, I believe that a course should naturally extend over at least 12 months. That will be the expectation first for 16 to 18-year-old apprentices from August 2012, as new contracts to training providers are issued. I have asked the National Apprenticeship Service to assess the implications of extending that to apprentices of all ages, taking account of the fact that older apprentices typically have greater prior attainment, as has been said. That will also allow time for our raised expectations on English and maths standards to be achieved. I am mindful of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) in that regard.

Alongside that, I have asked the National Apprenticeship Service to work with the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils to tighten guidance for those who are developing apprenticeship frameworks to ensure that expectations on national standards and rigour are met, and to take action where frameworks are insufficiently stretching. In the current economic times, we must be more vigilant than ever to ensure that funding delivers value and is properly spent. I am mindful of the remarks of the Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. We must crack down when there is evidence that public money is not being spent properly. Action is in hand to review cases where there is concern. Our resolve is to ensure that every penny of public money delivers high-quality apprenticeships and to continue to weed out failure and weakness wherever they are found. I know that the Select Committee is about to launch an inquiry into apprenticeships. I will make the evidence available in my submissions to that inquiry, giving a clear timetable of action and details of the steps we intend to take to root out poor provision.

The Skills Funding Agency will tighten the contracts with colleges and other training providers to allow the immediate withdrawal of funding from provision where quality standards are not met. I am mindful of the comments of the former Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield.

Members are aware of the scale of the crisis in public spending that this Government inherited and of the sometimes painful measures that we have had to take to deal with that. The fact that even in these circumstances we have increased spending on apprenticeships is a clear demonstration of our belief in the economic and social value of this form of training, and in the talent and potential of our young people. On 17 November, we set out a clear commitment to focus growth where the returns are greatest, both in terms of age groups and sectors. For example, there is evidence that younger apprentices see the greatest benefits. We will expect the National Apprenticeship Service, employers and providers to focus their efforts on those groups. Accordingly, I am asking the National Apprenticeship Service to target more actively, through marketing and other operational levers, the learner groups, qualifications and sectors where apprenticeships deliver the greatest benefits.

In addition, to widen the effort to create more and better apprenticeship opportunities and to grow the programme among SMEs, from April 2012 we will offer up to 40,000 incentive payments of £1,500 for small employers who take on their first young apprentice. Sufficient funding was already available for next year to support at least 20,000 incentive payments in respect of apprenticeships for young people. An additional fund will be made available to support a further 20,000, meaning that in total there will be 40,000 incentive payments. The payments will be targeted to provide additional apprenticeship opportunities for young people who are ready for employment with small employers that have not been engaged with the programme previously.

I said at the beginning of my remarks that what distinguishes this Government from the previous one is that apprenticeships are at the heart—at the very core—of our approach to skills. We want to build a ladder of opportunity that stretches from re-engagement to the highest skilled levels, with apprenticeships filling a bigger space. We will redefine what we mean by higher learning. In future, our vision of higher learning will extend out from the university classroom or laboratory into the workplace. Because I want a vocational pathway as rigorous, accessible and progressive as the academic route, on 1 December we announced that £18.7 million from the higher apprenticeship fund will support the development of 19,000 new higher apprenticeships in key growth sectors, including construction, renewable energy, advanced engineering, insurance and financial services.

I am glad that my hon. Friend is setting out plans to increase higher apprenticeships, because for many young people that is a better route to successful employment than a university degree. For the benefit of the House, will he outline how many higher apprenticeships were created by the previous Government?

I do not want to be excessively critical of the previous Government. I made that clear at the outset. I said that I would not be more partisan than was necessary to illustrate the extent of our achievement.

In answer to my hon. Friend, let me point out that in 2008-09 there were fewer than 200 higher apprenticeships. With the announcements that have already been made and the relaunch of the higher apprenticeship fund in January for its next phase, I estimate that in this Parliament we will create 25,000 higher apprenticeship places. From 200 places to 25,000 is an extraordinary and remarkable achievement, for which the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, employers, learners and providers can take an immense amount of credit, and for which I can take just a little credit too.

I am very keen that the hon. Gentleman should get all the credit that he can. On that note, will he tell the House how many more young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed after the 18 months in which he has been in his role?

I wondered whether the hon. Gentleman might ask that question because I know of his genuine and deep-seated concern about these matters, so I had a look at the figures on NEETs over the period from 2000 to date. He will know that from 2004 the number of disengaged young people grew steadily, and that in the third quarter of 2009 it reached 925,000. He will understand that that is a structural problem that requires structural solutions, and that part of the solution is to recast how we train and educate young people and how we create opportunities of the type that I have described, so that we can not only re-engage them but allow them to progress.

The difference between our approach and that of the Labour Government—and, to be fair, previous Governments—is that for a time, apprenticeships may have been seen as a cul-de-sac rather than a highway. By creating the number of higher apprenticeships that I described, I am ensuring that there is a vocational pathway, so that far from being a cul-de-sac, apprenticeships are a route to higher learning that enables people to fulfil their potential. I am confident that our structural changes will help us to deal with a structural problem in a way that the last Government failed to do. I do not say that in an unnecessarily partisan way, but it is pretty surprising that even at a time when the economy was very strong, the number of young people not in education, employment or training remained persistently high and continued to grow.

Perhaps I can help by saying that in 1995-96, the number of young people starting an apprenticeship under the Conservative Government was a little over 20,000. The Tory Government did pump that up in their last few months and reached the amazing number of 65,000, but after 12 or 13 years of the last Labour Government, that number had increased to 280,000. I say that to be helpful to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid).

The hon. Gentleman is a former apprentice and is passionate about the subject, and on that basis I defer to his expertise and personal understanding of the subject. He will be as pleased as I am that apprenticeship numbers in his constituency have grown by 65%. I acknowledged at the outset that apprenticeship numbers grew under the last Government. Indeed, the former Prime Minister declared to the House in 2010 that there were 250,000 apprenticeships. Now there are nearly 440,000. That is the difference between Labour’s record and ours. I know that in the spirit of generosity that typifies all the hon. Gentleman does here, he will want to acknowledge that success when he speaks later.

The development of our new higher apprenticeships in key growth sectors, including construction, renewable energy, advanced engineering, insurance and financial services will allow about 250 employers, including Leyland Trucks, Unilever, TNT, Burberry and so on, to benefit from nationally accredited technical training delivered in the workplace. Higher apprenticeships have the potential to deliver higher-level skills tailored specifically to individual business requirements, and I am encouraged by the research produced at Greenwich university earlier this year showing that about 13% of apprentices progress into higher learning within four years of completing their apprenticeship. As I said a moment ago, we will deliver more than 25,000 higher apprenticeships in this Parliament.

There is much more that I could add to that catalogue of good news. I could wax even more lyrical about the scope and scale of our achievements, but I know that many Members want to speak and I am anxious not to impinge too much on their time. I know that when they speak, like those who have already intervened, they will want to reflect on how much has been achieved over recent months, not just in expanding the apprenticeship programme but in making it more responsive to the needs of employers and the aspirations of learners. Hon. Members will also be aware of how much remains to be done to ensure that we build on excellence, focus on quality, direct funding, link apprenticeships to growth and ensure that not only the macro-economic ambitions that I have set out but our social ambitions are achieved. That is the scale of what we want to achieve. We will be ever vigilant in raising standards and quality, cutting bureaucracy and prioritising areas in which returns and impact are greatest.

At a recent Business, Innovation and Skills questions, I asked all hon. Members who had not done so already to set an example by taking on an apprentice. Today, I ask for their engagement during national apprenticeship week, which starts on 7 February 2012.

To change our national prospects, we must change our view of what matters to each of us and all of us. Apprenticeships are an economic imperative, a social mission, a cultural crusade—such is the scope and scale of our ambitions. We want to reinvigorate practical, technical and vocational skills by reigniting the fire of learning. We want lives lit up by achievement, with a new generation of craftsmen shaping a bigger Britain and building a better future.

Order. Before I call the other Front-Bench speaker I inform Members, so that they can get ready, that as we are not making as much progress as we should, I am reducing the time limit for Back-Bench speakers to six minutes in order to get everybody in. I hope that is clear.

I know that in certain quarters—some of the more world-weary denizens of the 21st century—the Minister, for whom I have much respect and affection, is the subject of mild amusement because of how he manages to cover all times, all places and all poetry, and in particular because of how he invokes mediaeval guilds. I think that is extremely unfair, and I have a confession to make tonight: I, too, am a mediaevalist. In fact, a significant chunk of my education at Stockport grammar school was down to an apprentice made good, Sir Edmund Shaa, who was apprenticed as a goldsmith in 1450 and subsequently founded the school in 1487. His Latin motto was “Vincit qui patitur”, which very loosely translates as “You’ll get there if you stick at it”. Of course, that was what happened in that period for people such as Dick Whittington, who was of course apprenticed as a mercer. This is the time of year for pantomime, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I trust that you will forgive me for mentioning him. It also happened for Scrooge, who was not represented in Dickens’s novel as the Chancellor of the Exchequer but was an apprentice to Fezziwig, who was also a great model.

Apprenticeships were renewed by the trade union movement in this country in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was the skilled working class who took them up. My own father, who was apprenticed just before the second world war to Crossley Brothers, one of the best engineering companies in the north-west, was told by my grandfather that he had a job for life. However, as we well know, we have seen the decline of traditional industries over a long period. In the spirit of Christmas and non-partisanship, which the Minister mentioned, I will not ascribe that to any one particular Government, although Thatcherism comes to mind. We saw the meretricious pursuit of funny money and fluffy activity under the Thatcher Government—not that I would accuse the Minister of being either fluffy or funny. [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha.

By the 1990s, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) said, apprenticeships were on their knees, and it was the Labour Government who renewed them, as the Minister was gracious enough to acknowledge. Incidentally, that renewal did not come out of a focus group, and sadly it was not detailed on the great pledge card. It certainly did not come via Twitter, because we did not have the technology in those days. It came from a deep belief and a response to what we were being told in our heartlands about industrial decline, the failings and horrors of the youth training schemes and the low-skill, low-quality training that had taken place under the Conservatives before 1997.

We said that there must be a better way. That was why we revived manufacturing and gave it a sense of structure as we approached the millennium, and why we set up the national apprenticeship scheme and introduced national apprenticeships week. At the end of the day, it was also why it was the Labour Government who supported our successful bid to stage WorldSkills this October in London—I also pay tribute to the Minister and Members from across the House—and what a wonderful showcase for vocational activities in this country that was.

I do not need to remind the House—because the Minister has already generously done it for me—that we commissioned the Leitch report, that seminal report on our skills needs which has informed policy in all parts of the House. What it says about the direction of travel remains just as relevant, even though the economic situation has changed utterly from the period in which it was produced. Leitch ascribed to apprenticeships an important role to play in improving adult skill levels, as the Minister rightly said. That will only become more important as our demographic profile changes. However, we have to resist the temptation to label all in-work training as apprenticeships, thereby stretching the brand to breaking point. We also have to judge training schemes critically in their own right, and in preparation for this situation.

However, at a time of huge rises in youth unemployment and the number of NEETs, it is clear that the immediate challenge is to grasp the nettle and boost the number of apprenticeships available to those aged 16 to 24. The Government’s own head of the apprenticeship service warned only this summer about the chronic lack of places for interested school and college leavers. It is therefore not just a question of supply, or even money—although the Minister has been somewhat over-familiar with the figures, and I intend to return to where some of the money has come from. It is also about demand—demand in the workplace and demand from employers—and, crucially, confidence. Without confidence, the Government can produce as many schemes as they like, but they will face an uphill battle in successfully attracting the numbers. It is this Government’s failure to produce economic arguments or an economic strategy that will generate confidence that has contributed to many of the problems with which the hon. Gentleman has had to grapple.

However, I would like, if I may, to pose a further question for the House—one that goes to the heart of the future for apprenticeships. What are apprenticeships for? Do we see them as a means to expand someone’s existing skills competences, providing a traditional role, or as a means to give rigour to new and developing types of employment, such as in green and low-carbon areas? If so, we need to highlight the importance of adopting a collaborative approach in those areas between employers and training providers in designing frameworks that best fit those new competences. I know from talking to a successful construction business in my area—a company called Amion, which has a good track record in supporting employees from Blackpool to gain higher and further education qualifications as apprentices, both part time and full time—that expansive frameworks might not always be the answer for young people taking an apprenticeship or skills route to qualifications while working in a company. As for older workers, especially in construction or electrical activities, it might make more sense to have shorter, one or two-day bolt-ons to existing qualifications, which again highlights the need for frameworks to be flexible and adapt rapidly to new developments. In a labour market where the average person will be expected to change jobs a number of times in their lives, can a portfolio of skills be offered that will allow the budding apprentice the ability to cope with this new-found flexibility, as he or she progresses?

There is a lively and ongoing debate about the nature of apprenticeships—an issue to which the Government have rapidly been forced to turn because of some of the disquiet in recent months. That was apparent from a meeting in this House organised recently by FE Week, when more than 80 apprenticeship providers came to the Commons to voice their views and concerns about quality and overstretch in apprenticeships, which is something that we have also articulated via our parliamentary questions. As Peter Cobrin, the national education director of the website, argued:

“Is 12 weeks working in a catering establishment and coming up with a certificate—is that an apprenticeship? Or three years working in a engineering company—is that an apprenticeship? We haven’t got a handle around what it is.”

Alastair Thomson from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education talked about people who are already working for the employer and then being put on the programme. He said, “Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, but if the person who goes through an apprenticeship stays on the same job or does not get any pay rise—is that really a good use of public money? I’d suggest not.”

Those are issues that have been raised strongly, along with others, in connection with Elmfield Training, which made significant profits in delivering the apprenticeships framework. I have also written to David Way of the National Apprenticeship Service to voice my concern about those issues. I therefore welcome the Minister’s announcement today about curtailing apprenticeships that are shorter than a year. I also welcome all the other things he has said in that respect, but this House needs to remember that this comes on the back of a process of concerted pressure, 18 months into this Government’s period of office. I would say gently to the Minister that the devil is in the detail. I appreciate that he wanted to present a lot of the detail today, but when he was going through it so rapidly, talking about the sunny uplift, I was reminded of the old saying: “The faster they counted their honour, the faster we counted the spoons.” We will certainly be counting the spoons and holding the Government to account on these issues.

The Minister’s announcement will do nothing immediately to address the concerns about the quality and progression of apprenticeships for those in the crucial age range between 19 and 24, although the Minister said that he would look at that. After all, their futures are just as important to the economy and jobs as those in the younger range. We will therefore be pressing Ministers to ensure that apprenticeship standards and quality are maintained for all ages.

I do not want to intervene too frequently on the hon. Gentleman, because a lot of colleagues want to contribute, but he will know that the growth in apprenticeships for 19 to 24-year-olds over these two years—the first year of which his Government might take some credit for, because of the time lag in publishing the figures—has been around 60%. There has been considerable growth in apprenticeships for 19 to 24-year-olds. As for quality, he will also know that it was this Government who introduced both minimum contract values, to take out some of the smaller and less reliable providers, and apprenticeship standards, and that was in the beginning, not in response to any pressure from the Opposition.

No, I do not agree. I hear what the Minister has to say, and I accept that he and colleagues have made progress in that area. My point about 19 to 24-year-olds was not that the numbers had gone up, but that it is just as important to look at quality for that group as it is for 16 to 18-year-olds. Let me say rather gently—albeit excluding the Minister from culpability in this respect—that if the Government move in the same glacial fashion as they moved in other areas of quality and due diligence, such as with the regional growth fund, then we will have the opportunity to come back and quiz them further. However, knowing the Minister’s commitment in this area, his perspicacity, his ability to summon up armies of rhetoric—and, indeed, civil servants to do this job—I am sure that that will happen.

Let us create a landscape where we can continue to boost apprenticeship numbers. However, if we are going to do that, it is crucial to get the preparatory work right. That means a strong, solid system of careers advice for young people, to ensure not only that they are aware of the vocational opportunities available to them, but that they are given the skills to take them up. We support the principles behind the establishment of the all-age careers service, on which the Minister, while in opposition, and I, as a Back Bencher, agreed some time ago, as members of the all-party skills group. But the Ministers’ noble aspirations have been undermined by the chaos and confusion arising from the Department for Education’s arbitrary abolition of Connexions and the removal of a dedicated £200 million of support provision in schools. It is therefore not surprising that the president of the Institute of Career Guidance, Steve Higginbotham, went so far as to say:

“In reality, the National Careers Service is an illusion, and not a very imaginatively branded one either, and is a clear misrepresentation with regard to careers services for young people.”

A recent survey carried out by the Association of Colleges showed that only 7% of school pupils could name apprenticeships as a potential post-GCSE qualification. That illustrates the problem that still exists in some schools, in which the vocational route is not explained to pupils. Teachers and others need to have a much greater understanding of the role that apprenticeships can play in careers development and future job prospects. I fear, however, that the situation will not improve following the abolition of Connexions.

New initiatives such as the programme announced this week by the chief executive of the CBI to send mentors into schools to promote apprenticeships are to be welcomed. That announcement shows a welcome recognition that everyone needs to play their part, not just teachers. We must also ensure, however, that young people can afford to stay in education. Following the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, college enrolment data from the Association of Colleges show that numbers are down across the board. That has real implications, as many young people will miss out on the opportunity to gain the crucial pre-apprenticeship skills that they will need to take up a placement. If apprenticeships are to play an integral role, we must ensure that they are fit for purpose, and that they can match the expectations of the individuals who take up the placements with those of the employers who take those individuals on.

We need apprenticeship frameworks that allow progression for the individual; they must not just be there for their own sake. I know that the Minister shares that view, as it featured heavily in his “Skills for Sustainable Growth” document last year. Now, however, we need movement to match the aspiration. We need clear portability from apprenticeship frameworks, with qualifications that are pyramidal in shape, rather than horizontal. We need a process of continuous assessment and credit accumulation that builds up a broad competence, rather than just bite-sized chunks of training that do not add up to anything.

It is equally important, whatever the qualification route, that we do not force employers or apprentices into a false dichotomy between functional skills and skills for life. Enabling skills are important for gaining and keeping an apprenticeship, and subsequently a job, as well as a knowledge of specific skills. Both aspects need to be taken into account as we balance our skills needs in the years ahead.

We need clear, accessible pathways from higher-level apprenticeships into higher education. I want to point out that the choices relating to vocational and academic education should not be viewed as an either/or proposition. Perhaps the Minister should ask his colleague, the Minister for Universities and Science, the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), to get UCAS to consider recognising apprenticeship qualifications as part of its tariff-points system. For too long, complacency about the status quo and some minor snobbery in a minority of universities have hampered not only access but the interchange between the academic and vocational worlds. I welcome what the Government have said about the higher apprenticeship fund and the way in which it will be taken forward, but the key question is how those qualifications will be recognised and integrated into higher education progression.

How will this culture shift of which the Minister is so proud be delivered? The national apprenticeships service, which we set up when we were in government, is clearly set to lead from the front, but will it have the resources to deliver the expansion that the Government are talking about? Recent parliamentary questions have shown that the organisation has lost just under 100 staff in the course of the past year, at the very time that it is being asked to lead the delivery of more and more apprenticeships and to oversee the additional initiatives that the Government are pushing out, including those announced today. My own inquiries have shown that regional directors are now finding themselves further stretched by having to cover multiple areas of the country as well as delivering all the new initiatives that the Government are launching.

The Skills Funding Agency is responsible for all post-19 provision, but, crucially, the Department for Education still controls 16-to-18 provision and is arguably not showing the same commitment to apprenticeships and vocational education as Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have done. The problem with all this, and with the Minister’s dual role in the two Departments, is that it is sometimes hard to see who is leading whom.

We might also ask about the situation on the ground. Following the abolition of the regional development agencies, the Government have completely failed to link local and regional growth into their skills policies. That obviously includes apprenticeships. They have swept away the informal architecture that used to bring together the key players who were crucial to delivering apprenticeships locally, including further education, higher education and small and medium-sized enterprises.

I welcome what the Minister said today about the supply chain, but he merely echoed what we have been saying for more than a year. Why did a year have to be wasted before he came to the House to say these things? Why did we have to wait a year for the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to talk about the Government setting up a set of apprenticeship hubs in a number of city areas? The reason is that both Ministers were fettered by other Ministers, by the Chicago-based economists and by the people who think that they can deliver everything on the ground without any Government intervention, whom the Minister has on other occasions derided. Yes, it is good that the Government are looking at apprenticeship hubs, but who on the ground is going to deliver, arbitrate and energise demand? What about those outside the city regions? Are the second-tier towns, the seaside towns and the suburban and rural areas not entitled to an apprenticeship hub locally? We need those structures on the ground so that business demand can be recognised locally rather than being micro-managed from Whitehall, as happens now.

The situation is not helped by the cluttered environment that has developed in post-16 provision, with the creation of university technical colleges and the potential for free colleges and 16-to-19 academies alongside existing FE colleges. We can all see the results when apprenticeship schemes are run well; we have only to look at the demand for schemes run by BAE Systems, Jaguar Land Rover and Network Rail. I have also seen for myself the excellent work being done by British Gas to encourage more female apprentices, and the work done by the nuclear skills academy. All those schemes demonstrate the value of investing in training and skills for the long term—a point emphasised eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), the shadow Business Secretary, in his recent Bloomberg speech.

This brings us back to the age-old question: what is a good job? How do we match the fluid skills demands of the labour market with the life chances and skill sets of individuals? To boost apprenticeships, we will have to meet the challenge of winning over employers who are still sceptical about the some of the values that apprenticeships could bring. A recent British Chambers of Commerce skills survey showed that many employers were still not ready to engage with the programme. Only 20% of businesses surveyed across the board took on apprentices in 2010-11, with the figure set to drop to 15% in the coming year. The Federation of Small Businesses has rightly highlighted issues of complexity and red tape, which act as a deterrent to its members. So I welcome what the Minister has said today, although we shall have to wait to see the small print and to see how rapidly the proposals are put into practice.

I raised the problems of SME engagement in a debate in June, when I said that the Government needed urgently to consider tailoring apprenticeships better towards their needs. That means not just having financial incentives, which Ministers and others sometimes seem to think are enough, but structuring them to the daily cycle and the needs of SMEs’ work. We need to improve the levels of engagement between large companies and middle-ranked companies—identified only last week as key by the CBI director, Mr Cridland. They can play a vital role in boosting apprenticeships via supply chains.

Undeniable pride and dignity surround apprenticeships. That is why so many hon. Members have been able to recruit support for individual initiatives in their area. It has been the same in my area, and this summer I met apprenticeship award winners at Blackpool and the Fylde college in my constituency. My local paper, the Blackpool Gazette ran a successful campaign to create 100 apprenticeships in 100 days. In these sorts of processes, however, making connections and having middle men can be key. I learned that by talking to my FE college and to apprentices and the SMEs with whom they had bonded.

The Government have re-announced today—this is about the third time—the £250 million scheme to allow employers to bid directly for the training budget, but they need to be careful that the human resources element is not lost in hastily thought-out schemes that do not have safeguards and risk deadweight while funding for learning providers and colleges, which are already voicing their concerns, is top-sliced.

This October WorldSkills hit London, and team UK won 12 medals. I was delighted when by lobbying the Government I was able to play a small part as chair of the all-party skills group in tandem with others in the group in helping to bring that event to the UK. Young people with apprenticeships shone out, including Rachel Cooke from Blackpool and the Fylde, a BAE employer in my area. I agree with what the Minister said about the value of that. Labour Members have agreed with it for many years. Although I did not regret the changes made in the 1990s to the Labour party’s constitution in respect of clause IV, I did regret the removal of the words, to achieve

“for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry”

because that embodied and continues to embody an important part of our tradition and our aspiration. I believe it is crucial that apprenticeships should have and deserve to have this respect—not least because some of the organisations that promote them, such as City and Guilds, which has been with us since 1878, have become a byword for attaining qualifications, rather like Hoover has become a byword for vacuum cleaners. Apprenticeships now span both traditional types of occupation such as stone masonry and thatching offered by the National Trust and the new schemes in the green industry and everything that goes with them. Harsh words have been said about some elements of the service sector in connection with some of the shorter-term apprenticeships, but we have to recognise that the sector will be key in delivering future economic prosperity.

We need to build a bridge of values between the old and new apprenticeships. We need a 21st century offer that combines an appreciation of the traditional strength of apprenticeships with what they can offer for young people, for retraining and for returning to work, particularly for the women of today. All the structural changes and genuine enthusiasm for apprenticeships will be for nothing if we appear to have promised too much from apprenticeships as a one-stop shop for all training and skills and as the silver bullet to solve all this Government’s skills and employment problems. They will be for nothing if we allow the brand to be contaminated by questionable providers or overstretched by branding all forms of training as apprenticeships. They will be for nothing, too, if we do not provide frameworks that offer the flexibility and progression opportunities for a 21st century economy—ones that are able to adjust to changing domestic and international demands.

The Minister did not find time this evening to talk about one issue that looms on the horizon—further education loans, which anyone aged 24 and above, but not the traditional 25-plus division, will be able to take up. Apprenticeships will be a large part of that number; perhaps as many as 100,000 people will be obliged to take up these loans after Government support is wound down. The time scale for the Government to make detailed decisions after consultation is very short, and this is already causing major problems with colleges across the sector, while business groups have raised the concern that the additional bureaucracy in administering these loans could disengage them from the process. A big bang approach to student loans in further education, including for thousands of apprenticeships, is one thing in a time of plenty, but in a time of scarcity, it is quite different.

When we were in office, we revitalised and re-energised the apprenticeship programme. We put in place procedures to ensure that Government contracts such as Building Schools for the Future would take on apprenticeships, and we saw completion rates rise dramatically to their current rate of over 70%. While the Government have sensibly built on much of that inheritance, there are new challenges that they have not yet understood or that have been hampered by silos, divisions in government and a reluctance to understand how Government can shape and enable markets, which includes skills and apprenticeships. Despite all the press statements and all the re-announcements and the conferences, the adult training budget has been significantly cut. The previous Government had put more than £700 million into funding Train to Gain, but that money has not been allocated to apprenticeships. In effect, the Government have not increased the overall budget for training apprenticeships.

Any Government—whether it be this Government or the next Labour Government—will need to build on a strong legacy from the past by working tirelessly to help expand access to the apprenticeship programme, by engaging with SMEs and helping them to overcome the barriers they face and by making apprenticeships offer a clear route of progression, as I have described. We also need to use the enormous power of Government, which includes creating thousands of new apprenticeship opportunities by incentivising companies to bid for Government contracts over a million-pound threshold to offer apprenticeship schemes.

On that very point, I hope the shadow Minister will join me in congratulating the Mayor of London, who has indeed incentivised major contractors bidding for public projects by insisting that apprenticeships are part of the mix in their bid?

Given that I have talked about Scrooge and “A Christmas Carol”, let me say that Dickens would have described the Mayor of London as a phenomenon—possibly an infant one, I do not know. What I would say about the Mayor is that his trajectory in following this Government’s policies in a series of areas is rather interesting, but, secondly, I would say that we are delighted to welcome him to our big tent, as this is precisely what we have argued for a long time.

The Government have discarded the guidance we put in place to encourage this development, so what we want to know is whether the Minister will listen to the broad range of groups supporting this change. Will he go back to those churlish officials who keep putting problems in his way, and will he support the private Member’s Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) when it returns to the House next month? These are crucial issues. While he is at it, will the Minister discourage rather more churlish people such as the Minister for Housing and Local Government for describing apprenticeship requirements linked to public contracts as “ridiculous” and “counter-productive”?

The Government have had to face problems connected with further education loans, queries about ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—funding, active benefit restrictions and so forth. All that tells me is that we need to revisit the elephant in the room, which is how we develop a funding system that weighs properly and incentivises the contributions from the state, employers and individuals. That is a matter that Labour Members take very seriously, so we shall be looking at it in great detail in our policy review.

As we move forward, the world of work will no doubt continue to be epitomised by the rapid change we have seen in the last 10 to 15 years; moves towards hi-tech industries and demand for high-quality niche products will still be valid. Apprenticeships will have to adapt to the challenge of providing skills for jobs that do not yet exist. Apprenticeships will have to respond to the growing wish for people to buy experiences as well as products—hence my comments about the service sector—and that will have implications for the manufacturing-service balance. Our apprenticeship structure must be robust enough to support that evolution. Apprenticeships will also have a key role in the

“partnership between productive business and active government”

to which the shadow Business Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), referred recently.

Opposition Members, many of whose parents, grandparents and other antecedents were apprentices, fully intend to play their part in that process. We will continue to support the Government while they build on our achievements in a sensible fashion, but we will also continue to question them about the devil in the detail—always along the lines of “progression, progression, progression”. We shall be glad to have made a contribution to their learning curve.

It is a pleasure to follow the Minister and the shadow Minister, and I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate.

It is great news that the number of apprentices in Stevenage has risen by 73% over the last year, from 380 to 650. Those numbers are important, because they relate not just to training schemes but to apprenticeships that will lead to real jobs. I know that the Minister, like me, attended the WorldSkills event, in which 13 of our young people won medals. That showed that they were hungry for learning and achievement. We need to reduce the gap between skills and education to make it easier for employers to take on such young people. I supported the clause in the Bill that became the Education Act 2011 that increased the requirement to level 2—the equivalent of a GCSE A to C grade in maths and English—because it enables our young people to acquire the numeracy and literacy that will help them to gain real jobs at the end of their apprenticeships.

There has been some discussion about the quality of apprenticeships. My constituency contains a couple of manufacturing firms: MBDA, which builds complex weapons systems, and Astrium, which builds 25% of the world’s telecommunications satellites. Their boards are run by people who were apprentices 20 or 25 years ago, and they offer massive apprenticeship opportunities. MBDA recently won an award for being one of the best apprenticeship organisations in the country. The companies take on students aged 16 or 18, give them real jobs, and support their development and acquisition of skills. They even pay for their degrees so that they can make progress. I wonder whether the Minister would be prepared to meet representatives of one of those companies to discuss level 5 apprenticeships.

I thank the Minister.

My constituency also contains a couple of accountancy firms that are taking on 18-year-olds and training them to become accountants. They are not providing old-fashioned apprenticeships—jobs to keep young people going for six to 12 months—but are investing in their careers. Stevenage is in Hertfordshire, and is close to London. It takes 25 minutes to travel to King’s Cross on a fast train in the mornings, although it takes much longer in the evenings. The companies want young people because they become committed to them and stay for 20 or 25 years. They become partners in the accountancy firms, and become board members of the large multinational companies.

The Minister came to Stevenage and kindly opened the first welding skills college. It is the result of a fusion between North Hertfordshire college and Weldability Sif, whose inspirational founder is Adrian Hawkins. We are trying to develop a network of such colleges throughout the United Kingdom, which is short of 30,000 welders. The average age of a welder is over 55, and welders in the midlands are now being paid more than £100,000 a year. Welding gives people fantastic career opportunities. [Interruption.] Some of my hon. Friends are suggesting, from sedentary positions, that many of us should have gone into welding when we were younger.

There used to be an abundance of welders on the Clyde, in the area I represent, but there is no longer an abundance of them on the Clyde or, indeed, anywhere else in the country. Is that not because a Conservative Government ripped the heart out of the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde, and caused the loss of many welding apprenticeships?

That is an interesting point. As is clear from my accent, I do not have much knowledge of the Clyde, but I believe that more than 1 million manufacturing jobs were lost under the last Government.

The quality of apprenticeships depends on the quality of the colleges that provide the training. North Hertfordshire college has an inspirational leader, Fintan Donohue, who has been working very hard. I am grateful to the Department for Education for providing it with a studio school last week, one of 12 in the United Kingdom, which will focus on science and technology. That brings me back to MBDA and Astrium, whose apprentices specialise in those subjects. The headquarters of the Institution of Engineering Technology are in Stevenage, and it is very involved in the provision of engineering qualifications. We need more young apprentices gaining skills that will make firms want to employ them in real jobs.

Does my hon. Friend think that there is a role for local government? Shepway district council in my constituency runs a brokerage service enabling businesses with an interest in apprentices to contact the appropriate training providers.

I think that there is a role for everyone to take on as many apprentices as possible. Some young people are interested in academic careers, while others prefer to pursue a more hands-on route. My view is simple. I believe that all that young people really want is a job. They want a route map: they want to be told “If you take this path, you will find a job at the end of it.” The Minister has done a huge amount of work in that regard, both in opposition and in his present post. He has kindly given me one “yes” already, but I wonder whether he would be consider fully funding, for two years, the cost of apprenticeship training for people between 19 and 24. At present only 50% of the cost is funded, and full funding could greatly help NEETs—people who are not in education, employment or training.

Let me end with a quotation from the deputy principal of North Hertfordshire college, Signe Sutherland.

“The changes to the single adult budget have been excellent and we have managed to grow apprenticeships by 300% I the last 12 months. This equates to… an increase of apprenticeships in numbers 500 to 2,000 so with perseverance there are jobs are there”.

That is important news. The college is based in Stevenage, but it does a huge amount of work throughout Hertfordshire. I think it is integral to the apprenticeship offer that we focus on the simple fact that what is important is giving young people the skills that they need to obtain jobs.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to a spirit of bipartisanship in the debate, but I hope he will forgive me if I depart from it for a moment. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), I represent a city that was deeply scarred by the last Conservative Government’s assault on manufacturing industry in the 1980s. Thirty years on, we in Sheffield live with the legacy of the policies of that time.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is shocking that manufacturing declined faster under the last Government than it did under the Government of Mrs Thatcher?

I invite the hon. Gentleman to come to Sheffield to see the real consequences of Mrs Thatcher’s policy on steel and engineering in our city. Some 30 years on, we in Sheffield still live with the legacy of those policies: a lost generation who never made it into regular work and the social consequences of intergenerational unemployment. In the steel and engineering industries, apprenticeships were the route to highly skilled and well-regarded jobs that provided both a learning experience gained from respected role models in the workplace and experience of the discipline of working and of working as part of a team.

To revert to the spirit of bipartisanship, I am pleased that the Minister recognised the role the last Government played in restoring apprenticeships. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) pointed out, apprenticeship starts more than quadrupled between 1996-97 and 2009-10. I am deeply worried, however, that with youth unemployment now at more than 1 million, as in the 1980s, we again face the risk of there being a lost generation.

The Minister is an honourable man who is deeply committed to skills and apprenticeships, and he must therefore share our frustration that behind the Government’s rhetoric is a sorry picture in respect of apprenticeships. There is concern about the age profile of apprenticeships nationally, and that is certainly felt in my constituency. In 2010-11, just 150 people under the age of 19 started an apprenticeship, as against 200 people aged between 19 and 24 and 250 people aged 25 and over. Compared with the previous year, there has been a 27% decline in the number of apprenticeship starts for those under 19, as against an increase of 17% for those aged between 19 and 24 and a 313% increase for those over 25. In June, even the head of the Government’s apprenticeship service, Simon Waugh, had to admit that

“there is still a chronic lack of apprenticeship places for interested school and college leavers”.

Many people were shocked to discover that the growth in new apprenticeships under this Government has come in the 25-plus category. Astonishingly, the number of apprenticeships taken up by those aged over 60 increased tenfold between 2009-10 and 2010-11. What is the reason for that trend? There is concern that since the abolition of many of the training courses delivered under Train to Gain, there has been a rebranding of in-house training as apprenticeships. The Minister must address that issue.

I think the Minister will agree with me about the number of apprenticeships in small businesses. Only 8% of small businesses had taken on an apprentice in the past year according to a Federation of Small Businesses skills report in June. In October, the British Chambers of Commerce found that 53.7% of its members who were surveyed thought an apprenticeship was not relevant to their business or sector. The FSB backs that up in its report, saying that 46% of businesses did not think an apprentice was suitable for their business. That proportion increases to 60% for sole proprietors and 47% for micro-businesses. That perception must be challenged, because apprenticeships can play a valuable role in all sectors both in the workplace and in terms of gaining valuable skills.

I have been working on that issue with the British Chambers of Commerce, and that work has been reflected in early-day motion 2469, which has support on both sides of the House. It states that

“greater priority needs to be given to increasing the number of apprentices across the UK to provide essential career opportunities for young people”.

About 20% of small businesses cited each of the following three factors as major reasons for not taking on an apprentice: training time and general time constraints, costs, and the young people involved having no previous experience. The Government must consider how they might give better support to small businesses by disseminating information better to break down these perceptions and by providing the practical assistance that SMEs need.

I do not wish to plug my district council in Shepway again, but it has developed a service to local businesses who may want to share an apprentice rather than take one on full time, and that service addresses how the council might help with some of the transport costs as well. Good local creative thinking may help to solve some of the problems the hon. Gentleman is setting out.

I welcome such initiatives, while also recognising that many local authorities—such as mine in Sheffield, which is facing a 30% cut in funding over a four-year period—will have difficulty finding the money to launch such new initiatives. Assistance of that sort does need to be provided, however, and the Government might try to identify funds to support local authorities in taking initiatives such as that in Shepway.

We can also do more in our constituencies to work with small businesses, and I applaud the efforts of the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and other Members on both sides of the House in setting up the Parliamentary Academy. As employers, we are not dissimilar to SMEs. Our offices operate as micro-businesses, and we are busy, money is tight and we might never have taken on an apprentice before. I was pleased to take on an apprentice even before the Minister invited us to do so. A young woman called Rebecca is working in my office as an apprentice secretary, in partnership with Sheffield college. At the end of the year she will gain a level 2 BTEC in business and administration, by spending one day a week in the college and four days a week in my office, with regular visits from the work-based learning assessor. She will come out of the scheme with skills and experience enabling her to get a job, and she will have assisted the work of my office over this year. There is a lesson in that for all small businesses. I encourage other MPs to take a lead on this issue by employing apprentices.

I hope the Minister will also recognise that there is much more that we can do collectively and that his Government can do to advance the cause of apprenticeships. I hope he will respond in his closing remarks to the comments of the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), about the powerful role the Government can play in public procurement. It is unfortunate that this Government have backed away from some of the initiatives Labour took when we were in power, and I hope the Minister will recognise the opportunities that exist to use the role of government locally and nationally as consumer in order to bind companies to take on more apprentices.

Apprenticeships are one of the key tools we as a Government have at our disposal both to tackle youth unemployment and to skill our young people to serve the needs of industry both today and in the future, when there will be increasing demand and the country will need to be able to achieve the growth we all desire. I do not intend to ruin the positive ambience we are fostering with the Opposition this evening, but I must say that the last Government concentrated on higher education, sometimes at the expense of apprenticeships. That is not to say that higher education is not important; it is hugely important, but it is not all-important. The last Government did increase the number of apprenticeships, but it was by an average of 13,000 a year over eight years, whereas this coalition Government have raised it by 160,000 over one year alone.

I do not want to talk about the past, however. The past is past and today we face a new series of challenges. I therefore want to talk about what those challenges are, what the coalition Government are doing already, and what else we might do to develop this success story even more.

We do have a good story to tell. Provisional data for the full 2010-11 academic year show that apprentice starts increased by over 50%, to 442,700, with increases at all levels and stages, contrary to the assertions of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). There has also been a strong increase in completions, to 181,700. That is mirrored in my constituency of Solihull, where the increase is 53%.

We want the figures to rise even further and faster, but to achieve that we must identify the obstacles preventing employers from recruiting more apprentices. Red tape is a culprit, and I would give special prominence to health and safety red tape. Clearly, we cannot put young people at risk, but from this January employers and trainers will no longer have to comply with the additional health and safety requirements imposed by the Skills Funding Agency. Employers will have to comply only with the Health and Safety Executive’s requirements as set out in “Health and safety made simple”—if that is not a contradiction in terms.

Small businesses are obviously a key area that we need to target, as several hon. Members have said. The Federation of Small Businesses reports that only 8% of businesses surveyed had taken on apprentices last year but 28% said that they would do so if there were a wage subsidy. The FSB very much welcomes the incentive payment recently announced and says that

“initiatives like this will help the smallest of firms to take on young people.”

Would the hon. Lady recommend the initiative taken by Worcester city council? A small subsidy can, in some cases, make a big difference, so it is providing £500 to small businesses that take on their first apprentice.

I would definitely commend the hon. Gentleman’s local city council.

I also suggest that the payment of £1,500 should be available to as wide a range of businesses as possible. I would welcome greater clarity on how the money will be targeted and what the eligibility criteria will be. I would be grateful if the Minister elaborated on that in his remarks, particularly given that the FSB wishes to take advantage of this as quickly as possible. For small businesses that may not have the time and wherewithal to organise courses for their apprentices, the FSB would like the use of apprenticeship training agencies and group training associations to be expanded. The ATAs would employ the apprentice and lift the administrative burden for the small business, while GTAs enable employers to come together to offer the right training to meet their needs.

Other barriers that the Government should be addressing are outlined by the United Kingdom Electronics Alliance. It talks about schools and universities

“releasing students onto the jobs market without key life skills such as communication, practical problem solving, work ethic and an understanding of manufacturing and the role it plays in the economy.”

We are back to the “oily rag syndrome” of ignorance, where many young people have little idea of what manufacturing really is; a key area that we need to address is how to give kids an understanding of what exciting futures are out there, and these futures involve ingenuity, creativity, imaginative design, great job satisfaction and good money. We have to link schools up with companies while kids are at a formative stage, to open their eyes to the possibilities of what is out there and crying out for their skills and aptitudes. When these young people have a realistic idea of what the world of work is like, they will focus on the skills that the UKEA talks about.

The coalition Government are also doing some good things for higher apprenticeships. The higher apprenticeship fund will support the development of up to 25,000 new higher apprenticeships at levels 4 and 5, which compares with a figure of just 200 in 2008-09. The shadow Minister talks about achieving by hand or by brain, but surely the pinnacle of achievement in manufacturing comes about by hand and by brain.

The UKEA also suggested that a tax credit would “de-risk” the decision for companies willing to set up apprenticeship schemes and that we could introduce the idea of leaving money on the table if a company does not invest—this is a push-pull strategy. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views about using tax credits in that way. I could say more, Madam Deputy Speaker, but other colleagues wish to speak. Of course we need to do more, but we have made a pretty reasonable start.

In opening the debate, the Minister said that he has put apprenticeships at the heart of this Government’s policy, and I welcome that. Nobody would in any way decry the commitment to and passion for this issue. However, when someone makes such a bold assertion, they have to produce statistics to demonstrate that the Government are succeeding, and that is at the heart of the Government’s problem on this issue. The statistics may demonstrate a big increase in the number of apprenticeships, but if we drill down and look at what is behind the statistics, we find that it does not necessarily indicate a commensurate increase in skills or value for money. Comments have already been made about the huge increase in the number of post-24 apprenticeships and some of the poor-quality provision for 16 to 18-year-olds. I commend the Minister for his comments about trying to improve the quality of provision, but they are a tacit admission by the Government that their policies so far are not actually delivering what they are intended to deliver.

Talk about apprenticeships is good rhetoric, as it chimes with the Government’s assertion that we need to rebalance the economy, and it provides a justification for pointing out an alternative educational route for those denied access to higher education—that denial is what the Government’s higher education policies are likely to produce. Clearly what is available is not actually going to deliver the agenda that individuals need and the economy needs.

I must pose a rhetorical question: what actually comprises an apprenticeship? We can debate the definition, but this contains certain key elements. It must be a work-based course to improve skills and employability, and it should be undertaken over a sufficient period to be meaningful. At the end of the course, the apprentice should qualify for a position superior to the one that he or she had when they started the apprenticeship, either in the same company or another. The level of employment post-apprenticeship should be a measurement of the success of the apprenticeship. Most importantly, the individual who has undertaken the apprenticeship must believe that they have enhanced their skills as a result. Unfortunately, the evidence so far is that a great number who have taken the current apprenticeships do not feel that way and have not had opportunities open to them as a result.

I have evidence to suggest that young people recruited for 12-week apprenticeships have ended up doing only five weeks, with a significant element of that time taken up with stuffing envelopes. The Government have paid for that as an apprenticeship course, which poses serious questions about the value for money that we are getting, the experience that we are offering to young people and the damage to the apprenticeship brand that could arise from it.

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He seemed to suggest that the previous Government’s university access policy was delivering something superior and he seems to be denigrating the status of apprenticeships. Is not half the problem that people talk down apprenticeships, which denigrates their status—that status is very important in encouraging people to take up apprenticeships in place of going to university—and delivers an outcome that is no better?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman made that intervention, because it allows me to point out that under the previous Labour Government there was a huge increase in the number of people going to university, including a fourfold increase in the number going from my constituency, and there was also a fourfold increase in the number taking apprenticeships. By and large, we find that those apprenticeships were far superior to the those being classified as “apprenticeships” under this Government. As has been said on a number of occasions, the huge number of apprenticeships for over-24s is just a rebranding of the Train to Gain programme. They would not have been included in the previous Government’s statistics on apprenticeships, so to compare one with the other is not to compare like with like. I believe that in the retail sector more than 70% of those who get an apprenticeship level 2 qualification are in existing employment, so does that really meet the test of improved professional qualifications and employability? I doubt it.

The hon. Gentleman is the Chairman of the Select Committee and I know that he would not want to present a parody of what is happening. We are determined to deliver quality, but I cannot imagine that he is saying that apprenticeships should not be a vehicle for retraining and upskilling and improving the prospects for existing workers. If he was saying that, it would be an extraordinary claim.

I was not going to make that claim. In fact, the Minister raises an important point. I would not in any way decry the upskilling of existing workers, and Train to Gain was very successful in doing that, but whether we want to call it “apprenticeships” is debateable. Perhaps we do, perhaps we do not, but statistics cannot be traded with the previous Government’s apprenticeship statistics when such people were not included in them. That is my essential point. I am not decrying in any way the benefits of in-work training, but there is a genuine issue with measuring the enhanced employability of people who have undergone that training and the amount of money invested in it.

Let me consider the Government’s approach to the education maintenance allowance. One reason for scrapping it was the alleged deadweight cost of the fact that many young people would have taken courses irrespective of whether that allowance had been paid. The same sort of detailed scrutiny must take place of some of the post-24 training to ensure that we are not spending a vast sum of money—there is a lot of money involved—on providing people with training that they would have had anyway. A secondary issue is the fact that if we can retain the level of skills enhancement we have already and refocus some of the money that would be spent on it on other areas, we might well be able to enhance other apprenticeship provision in other areas, which is equally important.

I could go on for a very long time about this—[Interruption.] But not today. My Committee will carry out a detailed inquiry, but I conclude by saying that we should get away from the rhetoric of apprenticeships and talk about general skills. There are a range of skill packages for different groups of different ages and different skill levels and we must ensure that they are supported rather than talk all the time about apprenticeships—

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), and I shall try to keep the rhetoric to a minimum if I can. It is also a pleasure to speak in the debate.

Apprenticeships are the most ancient form of vocational training. In this country, they predate degrees and their formal existence dates from the middle ages. In places such as China, apprenticeships have been around for 1,000 years. Hon. Members will all be aware that Confucius explained why apprenticeships worked by saying, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”.

Last Friday evening, I had the good fortune to be invited to Selby abbey to present the annual Selby college awards. As the Minister will know, Selby college is an outstanding further education college in my constituency and I was thrilled to present awards to several apprentices who had excelled in their fields and who are now looking forward to embarking on their careers. The college plans rapidly to expand its apprenticeship scheme numbers in the forthcoming year, with ambitious plans to increase the programme by 300% by working closely with local and regional employers to help to train people with the skills they will need to join the working world. As well as making that commendable progress, the college is in touch with university partners to expand the range of degree programmes that students can take there.

Today, thousands of young people are benefiting from the excellent start to their working life that an apprenticeship can offer, but apprenticeships are open not only to the young. Hon. and right hon. Members might have seen reports in the media about current apprentices in their 60s and 70s, and a recent forecast published by the Government shows a large increase in the number of adult apprenticeships over the course of this Parliament. That offers hope for all of us who might be thrown out of this place in the future.

With Christmas spirit and a sense of fair play, I acknowledge that there is agreement on both sides of the House that apprenticeship training must be central to any Government’s approach to skills. I will go further and acknowledge that one of the achievements of the previous Administration was to bring about a significant expansion of the number of apprentices in training. I am delighted, however, that the coalition Government have taken apprenticeships to a new level, as cemented in the coalition agreement, which stated that the Government

“will seek ways to support the creation of apprenticeships, internships, work pairings, and college and workplace training places as part of our wider programme to get Britain working.”

This Conservative-led Government have more than fulfilled that promise and continue to do so with an extra 53,000 apprenticeship starts recorded during 2010-11.

We have seen a 54% increase in apprenticeship starts in 2010-11 compared with the figures for 2009-10, under the previous Government. Those figures could not be clearer. This has been a record year for apprenticeships, with the greatest proportional growth at level 3, the equivalent of A-level. The task now must surely be for the Government to continue to increase the number and range of apprenticeships on offer while, most importantly, improving their quality. I support the Government’s announcements on improving the quality of apprenticeships, particularly now that English and maths up to the standard of a good GCSE—level 2—will be available for all apprentices.

Madam Deputy Speaker, there is a great song—I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker. I had not realised that you had taken Madam Deputy Speaker’s place. There is a great song by an artist I have had the good fortune to have seen live, called Seasick Steve, which goes, “I started out with nothing and still have most of it left”. If we are to avoid that rather gloomy outcome, we must continue to improve the quality of apprenticeships.

In my constituency, Doosan Power Systems, a company that works in the energy sector, has had a successful apprenticeship programme in place for more than 40 years and employs 92 apprentices across the years between 16 and 18, with hopes of bringing in a further 62 next year. In Selby and Ainsty, we have seen an increase in apprenticeship numbers of 67% over the past year, from 510 to 850, and I hope that that figure continues to increase, with companies such as Doosan taking on more and more apprentices with the help and support of the Government.

May I take this opportunity to observe that in the north-east we have seen a rise from 535 to 860 engineering apprenticeships in the past year? Is it not the case that the sort of apprenticeships my hon. Friend is talking about and which the Minister is doing so much to deliver will provide the jobs and growth for the future that we so desperately need in our region?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is important that we have quality apprenticeships to ensure that they lead to proper jobs. I commend my hon. Friend; I am sure his input has gone a long way towards insuring that increase in apprenticeship numbers over the past year.

Further support can be offered through an increase in the funding support for apprentice work placements to cover non-productive employer costs such as travel, accommodation and supervision. I have spoken to employers in my constituency and found that another area where it is widely felt that greater Government support is necessary—I put this to the Minister—is in the current 50% reduction in funding for apprentices over the age of 18, an issue raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). Many firms and establishments do not allow workers under the age of 18 to enter their sites owing to the perceived high-risk nature of the work, which in turn limits the age of apprentices that companies will take on. If the age were raised to 19 before the drop in funding, it would encourage more employers to take on younger apprentices without the risk of not being able to utilise their skills fully on site.

An advanced economy needs people with advanced skills in order to grow, and we need to use all our talents. I am assured that this Government are committed to driving up the skill levels of the work force. Apprenticeships already make a tremendous contribution to society, but this Government intend and need to go further. The Government should ensure that apprenticeships are improved and expanded so that more individuals and businesses can benefit from the opportunities that they offer.

As we have heard, there is substantial consensus across the House that apprenticeships are a good thing. Both the previous Government and the present Government have supported and invested in the growth in apprenticeship numbers. Both the current Skills Minister and the shadow Skills Minister have excellent track records championing apprenticeships inside and outside Government. Many MPs are, like myself, employing apprentices, a practical, positive way of showing commitment to the apprenticeship route into employment.

Across the country there are excellent examples of first-class delivery of apprenticeship programmes. Two examples from my own constituency demonstrate how flexible the apprenticeship model is for apprentices and for businesses. North Lindsey college provides a wide range of excellent apprenticeship opportunities in partnership with a range of local companies. Humberside Engineering Training Association—HETA—whose general manager, Eric Collis, gave compelling evidence to the Education Committee, provides a range of high-quality apprenticeships in partnership with companies such as Tata Steel. It is a tribute to the quality of Tata Steel apprenticeships that they are heavily oversubscribed year on year. It is a tribute to Tata’s commitment to the development of its future work force that it is committed to maintaining its apprenticeship numbers even while it navigates the choppy waters that the steel industry currently faces worldwide.

So the apprenticeship brand is a strong one. Labour breathed fresh life into apprenticeships after they had been somewhat neglected. The number of apprenticeships rose from 65,000 in 1996-97 to 279,000 in 2009-10. The dedicated National Apprenticeship Service was set up to promote and expand apprenticeships. To their credit, the Government have built on this. However, most people think of apprenticeships as long courses focused on practical skills for young people.

Apprenticeships are now being supplied for a much wider range of skills and ages than previously, and vary in length. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but care needs to be taken with the branding, and vigilance should be maintained to ensure that apprenticeships are always used appropriately. We have heard some exchanges about that in the debate today. Vigilance needs to be maintained so that apprenticeships remain rigorous and of quality.

Most of the growth in apprenticeship numbers since the election has been in the 25-plus age group, and much of this has been achieved by the re-badging of Train to Gain numbers, so we need to be careful. With the rise in youth unemployment to record levels, it is important that renewed effort is put into building the number of apprenticeships for those under 25.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that most of the growth has been in that area and he is right to attribute that to the changing shape of apprenticeships. We are using them as the principal vehicle to upskill and reskill the existing work force, as well as the traditional route into employment through the acquisition of practical competences, but I know that he will want to acknowledge that the two-year change in young apprenticeships for people aged under 19 is around 28% or 29%, and that the biggest proportionate growth is at level 3, rather belying the argument that this is all about low level skills for older people.

I thank the Minister for his intervention. He is right to say that where there is success it needs to be celebrated. That must be built on. He is also right to recognise the diversity of the apprenticeship model, but everybody in the House is right to emphasise the importance of rigour and quality as we move forward. There is agreement across the House on these issues, but when qualifications change, it is a tricky time and must be managed carefully. I am sure that with his track record, the Minister will be doing his level best to ensure that that is the case.

We do not wish to see another lost generation. That is the risk because of the economic challenges that the country faces. One way of addressing the issue would be to boost under-25 apprenticeships by smart public procurement. We have heard that discussed this afternoon. But there are other ways of addressing the challenge. In his opening speech the Minister drew attention to certain barriers to the supply of apprenticeships, which he hopes to release to allow a greater supply.

The Federation of Master Builders notes that there has been a sharp decline in construction apprenticeships as a result of the economic challenges confronting the construction industry. It states in its report:

“Apprenticeships are so successful because they are employer led and the qualifications on offer are designed to equip the learner with the skills required by the industry. Employers are at the very heart of apprenticeships and so, in order to really make a difference, politicians must continue to make the businesses’ case for hiring an apprentice. This includes the continuation, or even expansion, of the apprenticeship incentive payment.”

As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), said, a discussion is needed about how to balance the costs and the incentives between the student, the employer and the state as we move forward.

Finally, I shall touch on information, advice and guidance, which is tricky at present. I know the Minister is concerned about that. Research by the Edge Foundation showed that most people know a lot more about academic qualifications than they do about apprenticeships. The emphasis in the school curriculum on the English baccalaureate risks distorting choices and aspirations. Young people must be given better information about apprenticeships in order to make informed decisions. This should include opportunities to meet current apprentices and visit colleges, training providers and employers, starting before they make subject choices at 14.

Better information is needed about the paths that apprentices can take once they have finished their apprenticeships. It is not well known that apprentices can progress to higher education, or that many are promoted to supervisory and management positions soon after completing their training. Edge’s 2009 survey of teachers revealed that more than half—56%—of the secondary school teachers surveyed rated their knowledge of apprenticeships as poor. We need to take action on information, advice and guidance. We need to be rigorous about quality as we move forward, and we need to look at the package of incentives available to stimulate the further progression of apprenticeships.

I should start by declaring an interest as a non-executive director of my family’s business, which has a long-established apprenticeship scheme.

Apprenticeships are a shining success in the first year and a half of the coalition Government. The figures paint a hugely pleasing picture, with the number of new apprenticeship starts in my constituency of Dudley South sharply up, as in most other parts of the country. In 2009-10 the number of new apprenticeship starts in Dudley South was 550, and in 2010-11 that number has grown to 910. That is a two thirds increase compared to 2009-10 and, more importantly, 360 more young people have been given access to the life-changing opportunities that an apprenticeship and skills for life provide.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime, so I would like to use this opportunity to thank all the employers in my constituency who have taken on apprentices, and especially those who have taken on apprentices for the first time recently. As the son of an apprentice, I make a commitment that any business in Dudley South employing apprentices that makes contact with me wanting a visit from their local Member of Parliament will get one, as I think it is absolutely right to celebrate the best in business.

I would like to make a special mention of the National Apprenticeship Service website, It has been re-developed and is now easier to use for both employers and apprenticeship candidates, so I congratulate the Minister on his Department’s effective use of communications technology. It is good to see the roll of honour there, giving deserved recognition to those businesses that are playing their part in training and developing our future work force.

Things are certainly heading in the right direction. In the academic year 2010-11, 442,700 people started apprenticeships—as the Minister has mentioned, a 58% increase on the number who started in the previous year. Much of this increase is due to more people aged 25 and over starting apprenticeships. The majority of people starting apprenticeships chose frameworks in the service sectors, such as business administration and retail, and a majority of apprenticeship starters were, for the first time ever, female. So apprenticeships are not just for school leavers, and are not just for the traditional industries, such as metal bashing, for which the black country is famous, but also for the service sector. This is particularly relevant to the Dudley borough, where Stourbridge college’s hospitality and retail academy is sponsored by Westfield, owners and operators of the Merry Hill shopping centre in Brierley Hill in my constituency.

The early figures are encouraging, but my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench are not complacent, and that is why the Government have introduced incentives to support up to 40,000 young apprentices in 2012-13. The Government will offer an incentive payment of up to £1,500 to small businesses, the final payment of which, quite rightly, will not be made until the apprenticeship has been completed and the apprentice has progressed to sustainable employment.

I recognise that money is tight at the moment, but will the Minister see what more he might be able to do on this incentive payment? For every £250 increment in the payment, there will be a huge increase in the number of employers willing to take on an additional or new apprentice. Further, will the Minister ask his Department to undertake some research, if it has not already done so, on the effects on take-up of increasing that payment offer to £1,750 or £2,000?

The British Chambers of Commerce published a recent report on apprenticeships that found that time, cost and inexperience were barriers to taking on apprentices. It also found that a fifth of firms with fewer than 10 employees, and also a fifth of those with between 10 and 50 employees, recruited an apprentice from 2010-11. That rose to over a third of companies with 100 to 249 employees, and to over a half of all companies with more than 250 employees.

The £1,500 maximum payment will clearly be important in incentivising small and micro businesses to take on apprentices, but the BCC is right also to identify time and inexperience as barriers. That is why I am pleased that the Government have responded by reducing red tape, ensuring that employers are able to advertise a vacancy within one month of deciding to take on an apprentice and have them ready to start work within three months, and removing all excess health and safety requirements for apprenticeships. In the new year, the Government will be enabling businesses to design, develop and purchase the apprenticeship and other training programmes that they need through a £250 million pilot fund.

In 2009, 30% of large employers with over 500 staff offered apprenticeships while only 5% of small businesses with two to four employees did so. This is precisely where we need to see the next increase in take-up coming from. Small and medium-sized enterprises account for almost half of the private sector in the UK, yet just 2% of small businesses employed apprentices in 2009. I generally do not like bandying statistics around, but that truly is a damning one. So this Government’s incentive payment to employers, along with the £250 million pilot fund and proposals to slash red tape, will clearly help to address this past failure. Like Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the BCC, I commend the Government for

“offering real help to firms and apprentices alike”.

One of those small business that I have talked to is in my constituency of Dudley South and it recently hosted me for a visit. The business, Generic Punching Systems in Netherton, has been helped by this Government to take on two apprentices. It is a family business with the managing director’s son and daughter working alongside their father in production and accounting roles. The other two employees are new apprentices. I commend GPS for investing in the future by taking on and training up new apprentices. My only concern however is that the managing director told me that he had not found it possible to employ apprentices through the local college system, and that is something that we need to be mindful of. Instead he uses his personal network within the area to identify willing and able candidates to be interviewed for apprenticeships. I commend the Government for their work thus far.

I welcome tonight’s debate on this very important instrument in tackling unemployment in Britain today, which promotes a highly trained, suitably qualified, sustainable work force. I think that I am one of the few parliamentarians who has been an apprentice. I was a brickie and I learned my trade through an indenture route. Many years later, I became a vocational training instructor. In addition, I have worked for the Learning and Skills Council and its predecessor organisation, and was responsible for delivering construction training in the Merseyside sub-region. Therefore, I have some limited understanding of the issue.

In modern times, many traditional occupational areas are still three-year, and in some cases four-year, apprenticeships, and are still seen as being a detailed introduction to a trade: a valuable period of on and off the job training to industry recognised standards. Apprenticeships should not be 16-week test drives, as some are today. This will result only in damage to the brand.

I must confess that I feel that some right hon. and hon. Members’ interpretation of apprenticeships is slightly different from mine. For me, some employers are still confused about the precise definition of an apprenticeship. I welcome the Minister’s comments tonight about ensuring that quality does not suffer through quantity.

Thanks to the cuts in career services such as Connexions, many youngsters starting out today will be reliant on parents, grandparents and teachers for career support and guidance, and will need to decide whether to say on at school, whether they can afford the tripling of tuition fees and go to university, or whether to try to get an apprenticeship. Very few people, apart perhaps from some Conservative Members, would advise a young person to pack in school at 16 to take part in a six-month apprenticeship. So let us incorporate the question of definition into today’s debate. All training programmes cannot simply be rebadged as apprenticeships or they will lose all credibility. They should at least include the NVQ qualification at levels 2 or 3, the technical certificate and the key skills element.

There are many on the Government Benches who will no doubt advocate their love for and devotion to apprenticeships, but who have no intention of taking on an apprentice themselves, or of encouraging their own children to complete one. In fact, many Members claim that apprenticeships are the be all and end all if you listen to some of them, but despite my minor misgivings at times about the last Labour Government’s emphasis on academic routes over vocational training, the last Tory Government nearly destroyed apprenticeships completely. We were down to about 20,000-odd in the year before their last year in power.

Any increase in apprenticeship numbers, as identified by the Minister earlier, is welcome—

Does my hon. Friend agree that the recently announced construction projects that the Government support are an ideal opportunity for the Government to stipulate that they should include a number of apprenticeships? In our part of the world, the council is working hard to ensure that there are apprenticeships on the Mersey gateway. Should not the Government stipulate that any construction project they support should have apprenticeships?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We tried to push the Government on that. The old rule of thumb used to be that for every £1 million-worth of procurement an apprentice was taken on. The Minister should seriously look again at that, because it is a way of stimulating demand for apprenticeships.

The point made earlier about 10-week programmes makes a mockery of the brand and looks like statistical gerrymandering to all those responsible for delivering quality apprenticeships. They are not what people out there believe to be apprenticeships; they are training programmes. They are very welcome in the vocational field, but they are not apprenticeships. While the Government take credit for all that they have done and for the current level of apprenticeships, many Members seem to forget that some current apprentices in traditional occupations started their apprenticeships under the Labour Government. For example, my beloved son is an apprentice electrician, which is a four-year programme. Perhaps I am being cynical, but the Government seem to be systematically rebranding work experience programmes as apprenticeships, and I genuinely hope that that is not the case.

The reason for my scepticism probably has something to do with a recent incident in my constituency of Liverpool, Walton. I keep questioning why the Government, who claim to be so dedicated to reducing unemployment and increasing apprenticeship numbers, allowed the National Construction Academy in Aintree to close its doors on their watch. Not only will the decision deny up to 80 young people each year the chance of accessing training via the centre, but Walton is unfortunately home to the sixth highest level of unemployment in the country.

The Minister will know that I have the greatest admiration for his undeniable appreciation of vocational routes into employment, but surely he must understand the relationship between public sector spending and private sector growth. Despite the coalition’s at times relentless desire to drive a wedge between the public and private sectors, the two are heavily interlinked and mutually co-reliant, as can be seen in the construction sector, for instance. As I have said on a number of occasions since becoming a Member of Parliament, the symbiotic relationship between the public and private sectors means that cutting one makes the other bleed. Needless to say, the construction sector is haemorrhaging badly at the moment and needs an urgent transfusion. The construction industry has a long history of taking on apprentices, but such programmes have now been savaged, with capital investment slashed—

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), a former apprentice, and I am grateful for being called to take part in the debate. As my hon. Friend the Minister said in his introductory remarks, apprenticeship places are central to the economic and social good not only of this country and our local communities, but of individuals.

Youth unemployment is of course a significant concern for every right hon. and hon. Member. Looking back at the history of youth unemployment, it is shocking to see that between May 1997 and May 2010 youth unemployment increased by around 42%, and of course that is still very much a challenge as we face the current debt and international economic crisis, but it is even more important that we focus on properly skilling people, particularly the young, through apprenticeship places, and that is rightly a central commitment of the coalition Government.

Much has been said this evening about national policy on apprenticeships, and I would like to talk about how translating that national policy at a local level is making a real difference in my constituency. I am delighted to report that in the past year the number of apprenticeship places in Crawley has risen by 70%, which is 20% above the national average. That is playing an important role, along with other measures introduced by the Government, such as the Work programme, to ensure that young people in particular can find routes into sustainable employment.

I pay tribute to Central Sussex college, particularly its principal, Dr Russell Strutt, for the work it is doing. It is engaging hundreds of local young people and more than 1,600 local businesses with apprenticeship places across the board, whether in construction, health and social care, business administration, warehousing, hair and beauty or other areas of our diverse economy. Unfortunately, unlike what the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) described earlier, the proportion of people from Crawley going on to higher education in 2009-10 was just 17%, which is woefully low. I therefore very much welcome what Central Sussex college is doing in working with the University of Brighton to link local young people to the first-class, global employers in my constituency, such as Thales UK, Varian Medical Systems and Boeing UK, but we need to concentrate on more than just a higher education offer.

I should like to celebrate the work of Dr Beri Hare in promoting engineering and manufacturing at Stroud college, because it is a great tribute to the college’s interest in young people and to the effective way in which it has delivered on ensuring first-class training.

Clearly, further education colleges and those who work so tirelessly in them are making a significant difference, whether in Stroud or in other parts of the country.

The further education sector is not the only one playing a significant role, and I pay tribute to some of my local employers, who are also playing an important role in increasing the number of apprenticeships. One, Virgin Atlantic, which is headquartered in my constituency, is offering 38 apprenticeships in the highly skilled industry of aircraft engineering, and, based on the record of apprenticeship places it offers, almost two thirds of its apprentices stay with the company for a long time, helping to grow that sector of the economy and bringing loyalty to such first-class companies.

Another company in my constituency, TradeSkills4U, the largest electrical apprenticeship organisation anywhere in the country, offers 4,000 places not just in Crawley, obviously, but in the wider country. It offers them not just to young people, either, but to many people who are at the midpoint of their careers and looking to retrain—particularly people leaving the armed services and looking to retrain, especially in solar power technology. I was delighted to help open its new premises on the Manor Royal industrial estate in my constituency earlier this year with Falklands veteran Simon Weston.

Eezehaul, a courier and package company in my constituency, offers apprentice places as well, but both employers cite the importance of literacy and numeracy as a bar to people taking up apprenticeships and as a burden on many companies, because they often have to provide the teaching that schools and parents should have provided a few years earlier. That is why I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Minister mention focused support for literacy and numeracy so that apprenticeships can grow further. That can help to grow our commercial sector, thus growing our economy and creating a greater number of jobs.

In the current economic climate for young people, this debate is very welcome. I speak with experience of apprenticeships, having spent the first four years of my working life as an apprentice and having had the good fortune to go on to discover a second career as a modern apprentice. That is why I have been engaging regularly with companies in Inverclyde, trying to encourage them to start thinking about increasing the number of apprenticeships or about starting an apprenticeship scheme.

Inverclyde is not as bad as some constituencies with youth unemployment, but that does not reflect what is happening in Scotland overall, nor in the UK as a whole. Youth unemployment has never been higher, and the statistics are frightening. Youth unemployment has risen to 1.027 million, the highest since records began in 1992, beating the previous record set only a month ago.

The young continue to bear the brunt of the lack of jobs in the UK, and many are thinking about emigration as a way out. Too many young lives are being wasted on the dole queue; long-term unemployed young people are the most vulnerable, with many trapped in a vicious cycle of joblessness, anxiety and depression. We desperately need to get our young people into training and apprenticeships. They need every chance to improve their skills to get them into good jobs.

The other week, I visited a project in my constituency in which young people are applying themselves to the renovation of community facilities and to learning new skills in the traditional trades of electrician, plumber and joiner. Those young people are determined to succeed; they are not sitting back on benefits. They ask only for the opportunity to learn the skills that they hope will get them employed as apprentices.

The Government need to do more to help our young people. They have dropped Labour’s guarantee of an apprenticeship place to young people who want one and they have failed to expand apprenticeship places for school and college leavers. The Government should be doing everything that they can to support opportunities, helping young people to improve their skills and get good jobs. Instead, they are leaving Britain’s youth on the dole queue, instead of taking constructive measures today. We need a highly skilled, highly educated work force to meet the challenges of tomorrow and compete with the advanced nations of the world. We need value added skills to compete with the economies of Brazil, India, China and other emerging nations in the world.

Apprenticeships are a valuable way of giving young people skills and training in jobs. They offer an on-the-job learning opportunity; they enable young people not only to learn about their chosen trade or profession, but to learn it on the spot and talk to colleagues who are already skilled and experienced in their particular area.

Apprenticeships can offer so much, and there is no reason why they should not be expanded to cover a wide variety of jobs and professions. We need to get Britain’s companies on board. The Government are cutting apprenticeships back when they are needed more than ever. It is so short sighted; the Government need to make more apprenticeship places available. Labour has a plan for our young people, even if Government Members do not. Any company wanting to provide goods or services to the public should be required to have an apprenticeship scheme before they can win a contract. My council in Inverclyde already does that, and to great benefit.

Labour’s jobs-for-contracts scheme would increase the number of apprenticeships by thousands and give immediate help to many of the 1 million unemployed under-25s. This simple idea—creating apprenticeship places through public procurement—would provide immediate help to alleviate youth unemployment. The Government spend £220 billion a year on goods and services from the private sector; from construction to business support services, the Government are the top single contractor in the UK. That means that they have a unique tool at their disposal to get young people into work. The Government should reverse their decision to abandon apprenticeships in Government procurement and instead do everything that they can to create new apprenticeships.

When Labour was in government, it rescued apprenticeships, increasing their status and nearly quadrupling the number of places from 75,000 in 1997 to 280,000 in the last year we were in government. Labour plans to repeat the bank bonus tax and use the funds to provide jobs and apprenticeships for young people, as well as for a temporary reversal of the VAT rise, would help kick-start our economy and provide the growth and jobs that we so urgently need.

Public money should always be used to maximise social and economic benefit. In 2009, the Labour Government drew up the Office of Government Commerce guidance, “Promoting skills through public procurement”. This Government have scrapped that, denying high-level apprenticeships in key industries for young people. Labour’s plans on apprenticeships would work for young people and get them into work. Getting our young people into apprenticeships is the best way to put Inverclyde, Scotland and the UK on the right course for the future.

It is a pleasure to take part in this very important debate.

Being unemployed is a terrifying experience that I went through a number of years ago. For me, that new year’s eve was not about looking forward to welcoming in the next year and everything that was hoped for, but about receiving my P45 and thinking what the prospect of unemployment would hold for me. During the time I was unemployed, I began to realise what work was really about. It is about more than earning money. Of course, that is a vital part of going to work, but it is also about self-worth, the reason for getting up in the morning to go and achieve things, and social interaction with the colleagues with whom one works. When I was unemployed, I found myself without any of those things. Money was scarce, and I had to make the choices between whether to put money aside for gas or for electricity—did I want to be warm or did I want to watch television? Those stark choices were very difficult. There was not much to do, either. I like to be busy and active and to have a purpose, and I dearly missed that daily contact with colleagues.

Of course, in this Chamber we all want to make party political points. I sometimes find it hard to listen to Labour Members talk about the youth unemployment statistics. One would think that this was a new phenomenon that had existed only during the past year. The fact is that it has been a growing problem for a good number of years, and we need to do everything we can to deal with it. It is simply not acceptable to see so many people out of work. It is not good for them, it is not good for the economy, and it is certainly not good for our society. The evidence is that this problem is not unique to the United Kingdom; we need only look at other countries such as Spain to see how difficult it is.

So how do we deal with the problem? There are many ways. For years, our education system has concentrated too much on those who go into academia. What about the rest? I never went to university—it might show, of course—but I was fortunate enough to find a job early on. I always had a sense that I had failed somehow because I had not gone to university. My brothers were in exactly the same position. They found themselves with young families and low incomes, and going out to retrain had a huge personal and financial cost for them, but they did it and I am very proud of them for that. Apprenticeships are a way of tackling youth unemployment. We often hear the older generation talk with real pride about the apprenticeships of the past helping people to learn new skills and develop a trade. One of the hurdles that we will have to cross is the immense snobbery that remains about people who decide to go into apprenticeships. We should be proud of those who make that choice.

The Government should be congratulated on getting off to a fantastic start. I have noticed that every Member has referred to the figures in their constituency, so I will carry on the tradition. I am proud that in Pudsey 460 people took part in apprenticeships in 2009-10, and that figure has gone up to 770 in 2010-11—a growth of 67%. That is hugely impressive, but it has not happened by accident. Despite dire public finances and tough public spending decisions, the Government have increased investment in this area, and that must be welcomed as a crucial policy that demonstrates a real desire to tackle the problem. Some of the schemes may be basic, but many people out there do not have the basic skills they need for a job, and it is important that we give them the opportunity to acquire them.

One of the companies in my constituency, Airedale International, is very successful, but its customers’ increasing demand for state-of-the-art products means that it needs highly skilled employees, and the managing director said to me during a recent visit that they are simply not available. The company has had to invest £250,000 in a new training and apprenticeship skills centre so that it can get the people that it needs to do the job.

I urge the Government to continue with this excellent policy to help young people and to continue to talk to industry to ensure that we have the skills that it needs so that ultimately we can create a competitive, skilled economy and hope for those whose futures might otherwise be bleak.

It is a privilege to stand here and speak about this issue.

Apprenticeships are very important in my constituency and across the whole of Northern Ireland. I want to look at two aspects—the position today in Northern Ireland and the help that we need from Government. When I think of Northern Ireland, I am always happy to highlight the good that we have, particularly in the education system. I believe that it has one of the finest education systems in the United Kingdom. The figures show that it produces superior GCSE and A-level grades and higher literacy and numeracy figures than the OECD average. We have enterprising people who want to work and businesses that want to expand, but they are restricted. There is no doubt that there are good prospects; the issue is turning them into reality for the people of the United Kingdom and of Northern Ireland. That reality is getting harder to achieve by the day when we are on the edge of a recession, looking into an uncertain future.

I accept that the Minister is totally committed to his strategy. However, when we are staring at the problem of 1 million-plus unemployed young people, where is the strategy to address that? What interaction has the Minister had with the devolved Administrations, particularly that in Northern Ireland? Is there a joint strategy that we can use to our mutual advantage?

Every day in my constituency, I see young people and indeed older people who need help with benefits issues. They tell me that they are desperate to get a job. I always feel inadequate because I am not able to point them towards a job opportunity, which should be just around the corner. I wish I could do that, but it is most definitely impossible.

My office took on an apprentice two years ago so that he could learn how the office worked alongside the other seven staff. It was a practical and physical way of learning. We worked with the college in our area to give that young boy the opportunity to develop his skills, experience and commitment. Work is also a reason to get up in the morning. It gets people into a pattern of discipline, which is good to have.

Tradesmen are one of the casualties in this area. Members have mentioned the construction industry. In the construction industry, like in many businesses, when it comes to job losses, the mantra is, “Last in, first out.” Unfortunately, that usually means that apprentices are the first out of the door, perhaps in the middle of a two or three-year apprenticeship. We have to address that issue.

Only 10% of companies in the UK employ apprentices, compared with about 25% in Germany and Austria. One developer who did very well during the building boom has now got to the stage where he does not take a bonus when a house is sold, but keeps it for his men and for the next house that the business builds. That means that he cannot take on apprentices. I believe that it is time for the Government to consider this issue.

Last week in this Chamber, we had a debate about unemployment. In an intervention, I suggested that businesses should be given an incentive to employ people aged between 16 and 24. The CBI has suggested that there should be a £1,500 grant and that the person’s national insurance contributions should be paid. That is a constructive suggestion that could enable people to employ apprentices when they could not otherwise do so. A small incentive from the Government could be just what is needed to make that happen.

I want to speak highly of the companies in my constituency of Strangford that already employ apprentices, such as Bombardier Shorts and John Huddleston Engineering. Those companies employ apprentices every year and they would employ more if the opportunity was there. Perhaps we need to consider that. There are not sufficient skills available to our indigenous companies to attract investment. We need apprenticeships in skilled labour, office admin, marketing, computer skills and many other areas. There are many issues that we need to address. I believe that Northern Ireland can be part of a UK strategy to give opportunities to young people.

I applaud the Government for tabling the motion, but it is not enough. We need a strategy and then its implementation to give hope and opportunity to young people.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this incredibly important debate. I have learned an enormous amount from just sitting and listening to the contributions. It is a huge tribute to the Government’s commitment to apprenticeships that in just 12 months we have witnessed an incredible increase of more than 50% in the number of apprenticeships across the country. As the Minister said, however, it is not just about the increase in numbers but about the quality and standard of apprenticeships. The greatest growth has been achieved in level 3 apprenticeships, which means that more young people than ever are gaining the equivalent of A-levels in their chosen field. That is very important in my constituency, which has a proud maritime and naval heritage and a great tradition of engineering skills.

It is always heartbreaking to see young people who, when the academic door is closed on them at quite an early age, are uninspired by the work choices available to them. At best they have unskilled work, and at worst a life not in education, employment or training. I would like to think that the apprenticeships that are on offer could raise their aspirations.

Such apprenticeships are right on our doorstep, because key employers such as EDF and Network Rail are helping to reinvigorate the national skills base through a major apprenticeship training centre run by Babcock at HMS Sultan in my constituency. At any one time, up to 400 young adults are carrying out apprenticeships there for vital engineering and technology jobs. The dedication and passion of the apprentices are immense, as they know that they are gaining high-level skills for significant and tangible job opportunities. Such apprenticeship programmes open up opportunities for all.

Remarkably, last year women made up the majority of apprenticeship starters for the first time. The story of one female apprentice, Alannah at HMS Sultan, is one example that illustrates what has happened. After just a few months at the centre she was described as an exceptional apprentice with a highly promising career ahead of her. With her apprenticeship at Southern Water offering experience in a broad range of engineering roles, it is clear why she finds her training so rewarding.

We must not pretend that the Government have achieved all they can for potential apprentices, including female apprentices. Alannah admits that she still experiences some prejudice in the male-dominated world of engineering, and more vitally recalls that she received no support or advice whatever at school about pursuing that route. The reality that her case illustrates is that many schools are simply not doing enough to promote apprenticeships. We must ensure that they are recognised and endorsed as a viable and exciting opportunity for young people. What better way of doing that than to get young apprentices into schools to talk about their experiences? Alannah says that she has been going to speak to kids in schools, and I ask the Minister whether more apprentices could be encouraged into schools. They are the best advert for what they are achieving.

The training offered at HMS Sultan totally belies the traditional and limited image that many young people and their teachers have of apprenticeships. Contrary to what Opposition Members have said today, apprentices there serve between 12 and 24 months of their three years’ training on site at HMS Collingwood, where they gain skills, tangible job opportunities and the joy of living away from home without the burden of university debts.

To build further on the successes of the past year, we must ensure that our schools and young people do not hold the damaging misconception that apprenticeships are second best. The breadth and diversity of the opportunities at HMS Sultan could put some university courses to shame, with the apprentices taking on fully functioning professional roles early on in their training.

There is also evidence throughout my constituency of how apprenticeships can build the resources of a community. At the new maritime skills centre, there are plans for an extensive apprenticeship programme, with talks currently ongoing with a company about the provision of apprentices for offshore wind farms. The potential for the students to gain high-level employment, and for employers to guarantee that their workers have the skills that they need, is immense. That is a real boost to the local economy.

Last year, Gosport saw more than 1,600 people start apprenticeships. I sincerely hope that that figure will grow and grow in the coming months and years, to the benefit of students, employers and the community. I also hope to encounter more girls like Alannah who are doing science, technology, engineering and maths-based apprenticeships throughout my constituency and getting the most from their fantastic opportunities.

I begin by directing colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and by congratulating Members of all parties on the quality of this evening’s debate. I read in a national newspaper over the weekend that MPs had all given themselves an extra holiday, and that we were skiving off and the Chamber was going to be deserted this evening. For that reason, I had written an hour-and-a-half speech, but I have been able to trim it somewhat. I intend not to take my full time, so that I can allow other colleagues to contribute to this important debate. I would particularly like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who made a thoughtful, articulate and caring speech about youth unemployment. As a northern, working-class lad who did not go to university, I am proud to be part of that club.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as a regular visitor to Burton, and to east Staffordshire, you will know that it is a thriving constituency. I am proud to say that I win the prize so far this evening, because I have had the biggest percentage increase in apprenticeships in my constituency, at a whopping 76%. The number of apprenticeships in my constituency has increased from 540 to 960. That represents young people being given the skills and the training they need to get back into work, and I am proud of what this coalition Government are achieving.

I was touched that the Minister, who is sadly no longer in his place—[Interruption.] I am told he is having his dinner. An army marches on its stomach—and the Minister can march a long way. He kindly mentioned Burton and South Derbyshire college, which is a fantastic provider of apprenticeships, training and education to young people in my constituency. We are desperate for the Minister to visit us so that he can see the good work that we are doing. The principal, Dawn Ward, is desperate to embrace the Minister and all that he wants to achieve in educating our young people. I hope that his office is taking note of that and will respond to our letters urging him to visit Burton and South Derbyshire college.

We all recognise that apprenticeships are a fantastic brand and that people understand what they do. They do what it says on the tin: they give young people experience of the workplace, and education and training to help them to develop their careers. I am concerned and nervous about some of the examples that we have heard from both sides of the Chamber this evening of short courses that do not really seem to stick to the ethos or the hard work done to develop the apprenticeships brand. I would urge the Minister to look into that. However, I am heartened by his assertion that apprenticeships should last 12 months.

I want to make a plea. Demand is outstripping supply. We all know of young people in our constituencies who want to get back into work or into an apprenticeship, but who cannot do so because not enough apprenticeships are available. I would urge the Minister and the Front-Bench team to consider extending the helpful £1,500 that is currently available to small and medium-sized businesses to larger businesses. It is true that larger businesses are more geared up to take apprentices, but if we want to get young people back into work, surely we should give them that opportunity in some of our biggest and finest companies across the globe.

Finally, I would like to make a plea on behalf of manufacturing, as a boy who grew up working for the family engineering business. Engineering and manufacturing are very important for our economy, with 12% of economic output and 54% of UK exports in manufacturing. We are often told that we cannot manufacture things because our production and work force costs are too high. However, Germany’s labour costs are 63% higher than the UK’s. We have the skills and the work force; we just have to train our young people to get involved in engineering and manufacturing, and sell our great British products across the globe.

I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), who rightly pointed out that although we are all supposed to be on holiday, attendance among hon. Members has been very good this evening because we realise how important this issue is. I thank the Minister very much for his earlier statement about apprenticeships and the fact that we are nearly doubling them. I shall give some figures from my constituency, although I cannot quite beat the percentage increase that my hon. Friend has seen in Burton. We had 580 apprenticeships last year, which is going up this year to 780—nearly 800—so we are going in completely the right direction.

I want to make a plea to the Minister. It is good that larger businesses are taking on apprentices, but some 50% of the private sector economy comprises small companies and micro-businesses, and they take on only about 2% of the apprentices throughout the country. It is important that we get that figure up. We must ensure that apprenticeship schemes are worth while, but we must also ensure that they are not so burdensome or beset by red tape and bureaucracy that small companies will not use them. Small companies and micro-businesses are personal concerns that someone has built up, and if a young person can work every day with the person running the company, that will be important not only for building the business but for building up a relationship that could lead to the business taking on an extra employee. It would therefore help tremendously if more small businesses could be persuaded to take on apprentices.

One of the biggest challenges that micro-businesses face is that of accessing information on providing an apprenticeship. In previous debates, I have called on the Minister to provide such information in the annual business rates mail-out, setting out just how easy it is to offer those opportunities, which are good for the business and good for the apprentice.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Individuals in small and micro-businesses usually work very hard and do not have much time to look through such information, and they certainly do not have anyone else to deal with that side of the administration. I am sure that the Minister will take that point on board, to ensure that such businesses have greater access to apprenticeship schemes.

In my constituency of Tiverton and Honiton, both those towns contain many little manufacturing and engineering businesses that are taking on apprentices, as do Axminster, Seaton and Cullompton. I was an unofficial apprentice; I was milking cows at 13. My father—God rest his soul—did not believe in paying anybody, and certainly not his own son. Seriously, though, agriculture nowadays has changed. Anyone who drives tractors will know that they light up like a Christmas tree. They are full of computers, and probably cost between £50,000 and £60,000. People need really good skills to be able to drive them. Similarly, the machinery used in engineering businesses is all computerised. Apprentices need greater skills now than ever before, and this is linked to education and to colleges. Petroc college in Tiverton, for example, is creating more and more links to apprenticeships. That needs to be done; colleges need to link into businesses in that way. Constituencies such as mine have a lot of agriculture and a lot of tourism. They also contain many eating establishments and other businesses that can build in apprenticeships to provide real skills and meaningful jobs.

I want to echo the comment from other Members. Bringing young people and older people—especially those who are not used to working—into apprenticeships and retraining can give them valuable experience of work. That is where small companies and micro-businesses can be useful, because one-to-one interaction between the employer and the apprentice will give the apprentice the confidence to carry on and build a career. It is a matter of giving people confidence and the ability to work.

My final point is on the youth schemes designed to help young people. There are 40,000 places on those schemes, and I hope that we will be able to find a bit more money, even in these difficult times, to fund a few more places. I think we all agree that we want to see all our young people in jobs. It is rather rich of the Labour party to knock what we are doing when we have doubled the number of apprenticeship schemes, and are now adding the youth schemes to help young people. We saw a rise in youth unemployment during Labour’s time in office. The Labour Government created a huge boom in the economy, only to create a huge bust afterwards. Youth unemployment rose during that time, and we are going to have to fight hard to get those people back into work and to get the apprenticeship schemes running so that we can give young people a great future.

Ten Members wish to speak and there are 40 minutes remaining. My maths suggests it is four minutes each. I would be grateful if Members would stick to that limit, which we will put on the clock.

It would be remiss of me not to add the votes of the Milton Keynes South jury to the league table of improvements in apprenticeship numbers, as we are up 70% over last year—not quite as good as for my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), but it compares favourably to a 58% national increase and a 44% regional increase. Clearly, good progress has been made in Milton Keynes.

I shall focus my remarks on a discussion I had at a dinner I recently had the great privilege to attend for the principals of further education colleges in the Thames valley. One issue that came out of the discussion was the hesitancy among employers at times to take on apprentices because of concerns about the cost and the bureaucracy involved. The measures outlined by the Minister—particularly the £1,500 incentive payment and the simplification of a lot of the bureaucracy—goes a long way to address those concerns, but more needs to be done.

Another interesting point that came out of the discussion was that Members of Parliament can play a huge role in encouraging employers to take part in these schemes. Individually and collectively, we all have a duty there. The evidence presented at the dinner showed that where MPs took a proactive lead in encouraging employers to take on apprentices, the results were very encouraging.

We have made good progress, but as I said, more needs to be done. I want to follow up the point ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew)—that we need to achieve a cultural shift in thinking about apprenticeships. There is still a snobbery about not going to university, so that taking an apprenticeship somehow appears as a lesser option. The problem often starts at school. Not every school is guilty, but too many careers advice services in schools focus on the academic route and not on the vocational route with apprenticeships or other training options. I believe that for the long-term health of the UK economy we need to move away from that and to value apprenticeships and the learning that goes with them.

A company in my constituency, Two Trees Photonics, is a start-up company with only a handful of employees. Its chief technical officer—whose name, Dr Christmas, is very seasonal—started off as an apprentice and gained all his academic qualifications through the apprenticeship route. He is now developing this cutting-edge technology, which is potentially transformational. There are examples like that, and it is the duty of companies, as the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said, to get into schools and open the eyes of young people to choosing that route. I encourage the new National Careers Service and note the statutory duty on schools to provide impartial and independent advice, which should go a long way to help us to develop this strategy.

In the few remaining seconds, I want to refer to University Centre Milton Keynes, which is pioneering innovative ways of delivering new products to meet skills needs in the nascent parts of the economy such as low-carbon and telemedicine. In my last nine seconds, I would like to add to the Minister’s lists of visits, already including to Stevenage and Burton; he should come to Milton Keynes to learn what UCMK and others can do.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in such an important debate.

Apprenticeships have been the bedrock of training in British Industry for generations, and anyone who cares about British Industry must, by extension, care about apprenticeships. I am very proud to say that I left school aged 15 and joined Thatcher’s youth training scheme. The YTS apprenticeship programme was the start of my career, and I believe that I would not be standing here today without it. That is testament to the flexibility in skills and career structure that the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) seems to seek. However, apprenticeships also benefit companies. According to the British Chambers of Commerce, 82% of companies offering apprenticeships say that they build long-term skills and capacity, as well as offering young people on-the-job training with small salaries to help them get by.

I take the view that the best ideas benefit everyone involved. Apprenticeships create stronger and more profitable companies, offer young people employment, and even regenerate communities by increasing skills and employability, and I am glad to observe that Members in all parts of the House agree on the fundamental premise that they are a good thing. Obviously there are disagreements on the detail, but that is to be expected. I was pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) say that he wanted to see 220 apprenticeship starts a year by 2013. I agree with him wholeheartedly, which is why I was also delighted to see that the Government have delivered more than twice that number this year. That represents real progress, and we should all applaud it. It is the result of a major new package of funding that will enable the budget for apprenticeships to rise by £250 million a year by 2014-2015.

We should bear in mind, however, that Government money and cross-party agreement are not what it takes to deliver apprenticeships, although it helps. The people who are meeting these ambitious targets are the companies and apprentices themselves: it is they who are making it happen. We must applaud their efforts loudly, and then ask ourselves how we can ensure that more companies and young people join in. As a former small business man myself, I fear that not enough small businesses are being encouraged to participate in schemes. Many fear that red tape, health and safety rules and inflexibility will leave them out of pocket. We must ensure that apprentices are seen as a real economic benefit to their companies.

I do not believe that small businesses can afford to risk losing money on apprenticeships in difficult climates such as this, and I think that the Government are right to offer £1,500 payments to companies that take on apprentices. In that way, we are offering security to the companies, and as the number of places expands, we will offer more of them to young people. I know from my time in small business that gestures like that help to reduce risk and enable companies to act.

We should be very proud of the achievements of our young people. We have a record number of apprenticeships, they are gender-balanced for the first time, and the number of apprentices over 25 is increasing. This is an issue on which the whole House agrees, which I think is borne out by the results that we have seen. Our young people are our future, and the business community has done us proud. As a former apprentice who is now a Member of Parliament, I commend what the Government are doing.

It is that time of the evening when we are almost reduced to “name, rank and serial number”. I shall say “Battersea 109%”, and get it out of the way.

I want to make two points in the short time available to me. I have already referred to the picture in London, in an intervention, but I want to say more about that, and also to say something about the gender breakdown in apprenticeships.

I strongly support the Government’s agenda for rebalancing the economy throughout the United Kingdom, but London is going great guns on apprenticeships, which are an incredibly important part of the UK’s economy. The number of apprenticeships in London increased by 99% between 2009-10 and 2010-11, which reflects the Mayor’s enthusiastic championing of them, and he has set the ambitious target of 100,000 apprenticeship starts by the end of 2012.

Members on both sides of the debate have talked about the way in which public procurement projects can be used. There is no doubt that the Mayor has used big public projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink to drive forward the apprenticeship agenda in London. I know that the Skills Minister has had conversations with the Mayor’s officials on the subject, and I shall be interested to hear his and other Ministers’ responses. I know that they are considering the matter. Given the large number of exciting public projects that were given the green light in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, this seems an appropriate time for them to comment.

I welcome what has been said about the gender rebalancing of the overall number of apprenticeships, but if we dig down into the 12 key sectors which represent about 60% of apprenticeship starts in 2009-10, we see that, as well as the problem of snobbery that some of my hon. Friends have mentioned, there is a problem of gender stereotyping.

I will not, but only for the sake of others who wish to speak. I do not wish to be discourteous.

To take a couple of extreme examples, in children’s care, learning and development, the breakdown is 4% men and 96% women, while in plumbing it is 98% men and 2% women. I chose plumbing as an example because in London plumbers can make a fortune at present, and I want women to have the opportunity to be in the high-wage jobs. I chose children’s care, learning and development because we in this House regularly debate the need for more male role models in children’s early years. That sort of gender imbalance in that important area of employment is clearly not right, just as it is also not right that we have a similar gender imbalance in primary school teaching.

While celebrating the overall gender balance across apprenticeship starts, we must use every opportunity—through the new National Careers Service, through visits to schools and firms, and through talking to young people—to encourage young people to look at the widest possible range of professions. It was very heartening to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) talk about the young apprentice she described. There are not enough similar examples. As we approach 2012, we must challenge the obvious stereotypes that still exist, and the apprenticeship programme provides us with a chance to challenge and tackle them.

I am very pleased to have a chance to speak in this debate, which is very timely given the recent focus on youth unemployment. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), I left school with few qualifications. I did not go to university, and I spent a wee while as an unemployed person. That is why I believe that apprenticeships are so important. They are a vital weapon in combating youth unemployment. We have all seen that the youth unemployment figures have risen to over 1 million for the first time. Opposition Members have, in their own charming way, tried to make out that the coalition Government somehow invented youth unemployment and that this problem appeared from nowhere on 11 May 2010. As ever, they display impressive amnesia about their own 13 years in office.

The truth is that youth unemployment sky-rocketed by 40% under Labour. That massive increase took place entirely after 2004. That fact must be greatly puzzling to many Opposition Members. For the largest part of that period, the UK enjoyed strong economic growth, so a lack of jobs cannot explain it; the “evil Tories” were not in office, so they cannot be blamed; and we all know that it could not possibly be the Labour party’s fault. So what could possibly have gone wrong?

The root causes of the unprecedented increase in youth unemployment are many and complex, and if we are to address the problem, we must consider them all carefully and take smart, targeted measures. It will not do just to repeat the vague mantra that “we need to invest in young people”. Many Opposition Members are fond of doing that, but although it might make them feel better, it does not achieve anything.

It is no coincidence that the dramatic increase in youth unemployment began in the same year that the European Union was enlarged to include eastern Europe. This was the biggest ever expansion in the history of the EU and, despite numerous warnings at the time, the Labour Government decided against having transitional immigration controls. The consequences have been significant. After all, how can a 16-year-old with a blank CV and no training compete in the jobs market alongside 30-something migrants with lengthy work experience? Why would employers take on the risk, costs and effort to train school leavers who have no way of demonstrating they are reliable, ahead of older migrants who are already trained and have a CV demonstrating a strong work ethic? That question illustrates why apprenticeships are absolutely essential in tackling youth employment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning on the passion and expertise he has brought to the job. The record number of people starting and completing apprenticeships is testament to his hard work. It makes me proud to support this Government, and I applaud the work they are doing on apprenticeships. I am delighted that the Government are going further, by making it even easier for businesses to take on apprentices by slashing red tape, creating cash incentives for small firms to take on apprentices for the first time, and giving businesses direct access to huge levels of public investment. Those are all very welcome measures.

Apprenticeships are not just important to the apprentices who benefit directly from them. They benefit everyone. They help ensure that our workforce is equipped with the necessary skills to enable us to compete in this era of globalisation. They are an essential ingredient in the Government’s efforts to rebalance the economy away from the City of London and towards manufacturing in places like Northwich and Runcorn. I am particularly delighted that in the past year there has been a 71% increase in new apprenticeships in my constituency.

All this progress is very encouraging, but there remains so much more to do. The challenge is to ensure that apprenticeships directly benefit those young people who are hardest to reach: those living in severely deprived areas, who may have grown up in a family where nobody has had work for several generations and whose opportunities have been far too limited for far too long. I know that the Government take that challenge seriously and are treating it as a priority. We need to drive up standards in all our schools, radically reform the welfare system, control immigration, cut red tape and rebalance our economy.

Thank you for inviting me to speak in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I shall begin by setting out the context to my remarks. I, like many on this side of the fence, did not go to university, and I have always felt slightly ashamed that I did not have the academic qualifications to do that. When I left school, I undertook 18 months of training to become a Conservative party agent and it taught me a set of very good practical skills that enabled me to develop a business and got me involved in community consultation and giving advice.

The one thing I am very concerned about is “aspiration”, which nobody has mentioned in the debate. How do we get these kids to want to do a job when they come out of school? We need to do much more in that area. My constituency, and Plymouth’s economy as a whole, has a low-skills and low-wage base. It most certainly does not have that sense of aspiration and many children need to be encouraged to try to find it. As all hon. Members will know, Plymouth is one of the homes of the Royal Navy, although it is declining; we have fewer people with those kinds of skills. I have to blame the Navy slightly for that, because in the days when the dockyard was under public ownership a big skills base was not actually encouraged; the Navy wanted all the bright boys and girls to go to work in the dockyards. So anybody who went to any of the grammar schools was encouraged to go there, and an entire culture accompanies that. The one good thing that has emerged is that Plymouth university is now one of the centres for marine science engineering, which has most certainly made us a global leader in developing that area.

I spoke to a number of employers and individuals in Plymouth over the weekend, including some who were trying to get back into work service personnel who had left the forces. They found it very difficult to get those personnel to use their qualifications in other areas. When we debate apprenticeships we must think about how we transfer skills.

Another point that many people have made to me is that some people who want to become apprentices cannot read and write to a suitable level, which is an enormous indictment. I am delighted that Babcock, which tells me it has 20,000 training apprenticeships each year, has decided to support and sponsor the university technical college. That is exactly the route that we need to take; we need to take children from the age of 14 to 18 to make sure that they have basic skills, so that when they eventually go into the workplace they know what they are going to do.

In the final seconds available to me, I wish to quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt:

“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

That is the job that we should be about.

I must compliment the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), on opening the debate with his usual eloquence. We in Lincolnshire know well his commitment to skills and apprenticeships. Hon. Members will be relieved to learn that the limited time available means that I am going to skip the statistics, but I must clock up the fact that in my constituency there has been a 47% increase year on year up to March. That is not in the premier league, but we would have readily accepted it had it been on offer when the coalition Government came to power.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), drew attention in his opening remarks to the abolition of the regional development agencies, the changes to the college structure and so on, as well as the fact that that might cause some disruption. In my Cleethorpes constituency, the transition has been remarkably smooth. The colleges and other organisations, such as social enterprises and the CATCH, or Centre for the Assessment of Technical Competence Humber, facility at Stallingborough, which is the chemical industry training establishment, have come together and are working remarkably well together.

It was interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) draw attention to the need to have appropriate skills to drive a tractor, which light up like the deck of Concorde these days. A business man in my constituency came to see me a few weeks ago and I must confess that I was rather cynical when he told me that he had been looking for a forklift driver but that there was none available as “they”, meaning all the various agencies, do not produce them any more. When I took my first job as an office junior in a printing works in Grimsby some 40 years ago, when one stepped out into the yard one put one’s life at risk with all the forklifts shooting one way and another, and that meeting made me ask whether private industry was contributing. If people want a forklift driver, is it all that difficult to go out and employ someone and to do the training themselves? I take note of what my hon. Friend said, however, and I recognise that life and qualifications are much more complex now. Perhaps we have created too complex a regime in that regard.

It has been fashionable for Government Members to say that they did not go to university. I went to university at the age of 48 to study politics, and look what happened to me.

I want to draw attention to the fact that the Government have recognised the problems of my area, creating two enterprise zones that have enormously encouraged local industry and enterprise. May I suggest, however, that more could be done to fund apprenticeships within enterprise zones, with perhaps some ring-fenced moneys to create a work force with the skills to last. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), I experienced redundancy. It is not pleasant and we must do everything we can to encourage and support our young people with the training and apprenticeships they need. I congratulate the Government on what they have achieved in the past 18 months.

What a pleasure it is to join this vital debate on one of my favourite subjects—apprenticeships. I start by paying tribute to the coalition Government and the Minister for rightly identifying apprenticeships as a crucial part of improving the nation’s skill base, helping business grow and providing the young with genuine future opportunities.

My constituency, Gloucester, is famous for making things, so I was an early convert to the concept and practice of apprenticeships. That is why I first spoke in this House to support the additional apprenticeships funded in the emergency Budget of May last year and urged the Minister even then to do more. That is why I recruited my own apprentice at the beginning of this year and am collating data on all Members to ensure that we hold the Minister to the generous promise he gave in a Westminster Hall debate to provide a reception for the first 100 apprentices employed by MPs. Let us hold him to that promise.

Today, the Minister highlighted his intention to fund higher apprenticeships in several sectors and I hope that inspires the insurance company, Ecclesiastical, which is headquartered in Gloucester, and banks such as the Co-op, which I hope will shortly take over the former Cheltenham & Gloucester branches, to join other sectors in taking on apprentices. The Minister also highlighted moves to incentivise SMEs to take on apprentices and I hope that they will respond. I believe that there is a challenge here, not in the funding, the will or the incentives—those are in place—but in business confidence and the time of very small businesses to absorb the details of new schemes.

My first recommendation to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), concerns the National Apprenticeship Service, which has done a fantastic job. I pay tribute to Gina Johnson of the NAS, who did a great job in Gloucestershire—I am sure her successor will do the same. The NAS has only one representative per county. I believe it needs to adopt some modern marketing techniques, such as having superb DVDs available on its website that can be shown by the Federation of Small Businesses and local chambers of trade and commerce to inspire the smallest employers to take on apprentices. I urge the Minister to consider that.

Secondly, all Members of the House could champion apprenticeship fairs in their constituency. I know the one that I helped to organise last year in Gloucestershire, which the Minister kindly came to, was incredibly positive and is part of the reason new start-up apprenticeships in our city doubled between 2009 and 2011 from 510 to 1,020. The fair contributed to the extraordinary increase across the county, where there are now more than 4,000 apprenticeships.

Thirdly, we are fortunate in Gloucester to have the extremely proactive Gloucestershire media and the local newspaper, The Citizen, which launched the 100 apprenticeships in 100 days campaign that has been widely copied around the United Kingdom. In 2012 it is launching the Gloucestershire apprenticeship awards. This happy event is taking place on my birthday and I hope very much to launch the MP for Gloucester’s female apprentice of the year award at that happy occasion. I urge other Members to consider doing likewise.

Fourthly, every local enterprise partnership should have a spokesperson for apprentices, as we do in Gloucester, in order to encourage employers to push the apprenticeship agenda forward and benefit from this growth opportunity. It can also encourage local content of public sector contracts, such as the one for the Gloucester academy, which is very important. Lastly, I urge all schools to bring their pupils to local apprenticeship fairs, recognising that the sky is the limit for apprenticeships and that this is a great way forward for many young people.

It is a pleasure to take part in a debate that has been wide ranging, informative and extremely useful. There has been much discussion about what an apprenticeship means. There is a consensus that it is a paid job of work that involves training both on and off the job, and that there must be an outcome that is a success in terms of employment, enhanced skills and re-entry to the work force.

Just before speaking, I was reminiscing in my mind about the experiences that my grandfather had as a manager of a labour exchange in south Wales in the middle of the last century, where it was his mission to try to match the skills that he found in the work force to jobs available out in the marketplace. The position has not really changed. Often there is still, sadly, too great a mismatch between the skills that are available and the jobs that are out there.

I have the pleasure and the honour of representing a town that is one of the driving forces of our national economy, Swindon, which is renowned for making things and for generating new investment, new ideas and new industry. In my constituency, South Swindon, I am proud to say that we have seen a 48% increase in the uptake of apprenticeships in the past year. That is very encouraging, but it is important to focus on the position of 16 to 24-year-olds, and especially 16 to 18-year-olds, who have particular difficulty, it seems, in accessing the workplace.

I am glad to say that locally, with the help of agencies in the private sector, we have been able to launch Plan 500. I had great pleasure in playing my part in helping to launch it last year with my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). It is supported by Swindon Strategic Economic Partnership and firms such as Nationwide and it has brought local businesses and the community together to create 500 opportunities for local young people, 16 to 18-year-olds in particular, involving apprenticeships, work experience and placements on mentoring schemes. I am glad to say that the figure now has exceeded 500 and the scheme continues.

I mention other types of work experience because I believe that access to apprenticeships is so important. Many young people do not have the skills to access and to benefit greatly from apprenticeships, which is why the Government’s access to apprenticeships programme is very important. It will work well if it is truly co-ordinated with the DWP’s Work programme, which is already delivering for people in my constituency, giving them the wherewithal they need to seek and already to obtain jobs.

The Government’s increase of £410 million by 2012 in spending on apprenticeships is testament to the passion that my hon. Friend the Minister shows for this subject. He is one of the last great romantics. He paints a broad canvas of an optimistic horizon, and he is right to do so.

Today in Swindon we had welcome news that Honda is to increase employment by 500 following on the production of the new Civic. I hope that that welcome Christmas present will yield further fruit in the form of apprenticeships and real employment for young people in my constituency.

I look to further progress being made in the years ahead to ensure that as many people as possible benefit from the opportunities that apprenticeships offer.

I am proud to be part of a Government who have seen the biggest boost ever in the number of apprenticeships. We have seen a rise of new apprenticeship starts of only 10% in my constituency, but that is partly because traditionally people from South East Cornwall have travelled across the Tamar to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) for training. That has gone on historically and it continues and grows.

I want to tell the House about one young lady from my constituency whom we have helped. Charlotte Rose is doing an apprenticeship learning school administration through first-hand experience at St Martin’s Church of England school in Liskeard. This apprenticeship was made possible only through the cash incentives that the Government announced in November, offering employers £1,500 if they had 50 employees or fewer. Charlotte told me that she had planned to go to university, but she saw this as an opportunity, and I applaud Charlotte and the school for making that possible.

On Friday, I visited the Grayhound project in my constituency, and I was delighted to see that at last, through the apprenticeship scheme, shipwrights and marine electricians are getting training. It is easy for a shipwright to find work as a carpenter on a building site, but a trained carpenter cannot work in a shipyard and become a shipwright. The same applies to marine electricians. These skills have been traditional throughout South East Cornwall and they have been lost. I am delighted to be part of a Government who are providing the training, facilities and employers for those lost trades to continue. That is why I applaud what the Government are doing today.

I commend the Government on demonstrating their commitment to supporting opportunity and job creation by prioritising the development of apprenticeship places. The fact that a record number of apprenticeship starts took place in 2010-11 is something to celebrate. For the record, in Witham we have had a 70% increase in the number of apprenticeship places over the past 12 months. I also praise Essex county council for its role in spearheading that. It has invested resources into apprenticeship places and is working with businesses to get young people into employment and training. That shows a clear dividing line between the failed policies of the last Labour Government and the positive steps taken by Ministers since May 2010.

Let us not forget Labour’s lack of ambition on apprenticeships as they sought to herd people through university in a very much one-size-fits-all approach to post-16 and post-18 education. We heard lectures earlier from the Opposition Benches, which are now deserted, but Opposition Members are in no position to give lectures on boosting economic growth or tackling unemployment because, as we heard in the debate, youth unemployment rose by over 40% under their watch. That is why the 400,000-plus new apprenticeship starts last year stand as a real tribute to the exceptional efforts of the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who has worked tirelessly to deliver rapid increases in the number of apprenticeship places being offered to young people and the unemployed across the country. They are new opportunities to develop skills, enhance their experience and progress into long-term employment.

I should declare an interest, as I was recently delighted to welcome the Minister to my constituency on a visit to see the outstanding work being undertaken by an organisation called Lota Training to secure apprenticeship places for young people. It specialises in apprenticeships places and works hard with many local businesses of all shapes and sizes. It is innovative and creative in looking at new ways of working with business and creating more opportunities. During his visit he heard about the good work Lota is doing and about the partnerships it is forging not only with local businesses, but with firms in the City of London and large international companies to provide opportunities across the country, which is to be commended.

In the minute remaining, I would like to refer to small businesses, because about 83% of local jobs in my constituency are in the private sector and in small and medium-sized businesses. That figure is about 15% higher than the national average. As you will know, Mr Speaker, Essex is a highly ambitious and entrepreneurial county that is full of small business people. There is no doubt that they are keen to create new jobs, but they have found it difficult to take on more apprentices over the past few years, which is why I welcome the positive measures that the Minister outlined today. I certainly look forward to seeing more of my local businesses thrive, prosper, grow and, importantly, provide many more opportunities to young people through apprenticeship schemes.

We have enjoyed a thoughtful debate this evening with contributions from both sides of the House that have stressed Members’ real concern, and interest in, apprenticeships and the need to raise the skills base among young people and the general population. In particular, I congratulate Members on both sides who have taken on apprentices, with your support, Mr Speaker, and hope that that will encourage others who have vacancies to divert them to that purpose. [Interruption.] I apologise to the House—I have a terrible cold and my throat keeps catching.

We heard some thoughtful contributions from Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked where the strategy was for linking youth unemployment to apprenticeships. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) spoke from personal experience about apprenticeships and warned about the impact of the cuts in the construction industry and the extent to which they might choke off opportunities for young people in that important sector. My hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) all made pleas for making better use of public procurement powers, which is a message I would also like the Minister to take away. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), who chairs the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and others mentioned their fears about the extent to which adult in-work training programmes are branded as apprenticeships—I will touch upon this in my contribution—in the context of the abolition of Train to Gain. Although in-work programmes offer important skills training to older people, they are not exactly what many of us consider to be apprenticeships.

When the Minister made his contribution at the start of the debate, he used poetry and spoke from the heart, and I genuinely believe that he has a passion for apprenticeships and for providing an alternative to the traditional academic and higher education route, particularly for young people. That message was reinforced by the overwhelming majority of contributions we heard this evening. That was at the heart of the report on 14 to 18-year-olds’ education by Professor Wolf, who stressed the importance of expanding the number of high-quality apprenticeships that offer genuine career progression to young people. We are all as one in saying that apprenticeships are of equal value and provide an alternative and equally important route for young people through post-16 education.

The Labour Government made substantial progress on that issue, as well as on increasing—quite rightly, and for which I make no apology—the number of young people who went into higher education. In the globalised economy in which we operate, it is absolutely essential that we do not tip the balance the other way and underplay the importance for many of our young people of a university education.

We quadrupled the number of apprenticeships to 279,000, and those who make much of the additional apprenticeships that the coalition Government have introduced have not stressed the context of the abolition of the future jobs fund, which was intended to provide 200,000 jobs for young people; the rise in youth unemployment, which is now at its highest level since comparable records began in 1992; or the rise, by 140,000, in the number of young people not in education, employment or training. The Minister spoke of the number of NEETs being 925,000 in 2009, but that figure now exceeds 1.1 million.

The additional apprenticeships that are being provided—and they are being provided; that is not in doubt—must therefore be seen in the context of the rise in demand and need, particularly among young people, and the abolition of the future jobs fund. Alongside that, young people have also borne the brunt of many other Government cuts, which have had an impact on their ability to access and make better use of skills and training. Those cuts range from the abolition of the education maintenance allowance to the scrapping of Connexions, access to face-to-face careers advice and youth work and mentoring services, which were also an important signpost for such skills and training.

Overall, as many Opposition Members have said, while the economy is flatlining employers and, especially, small employers are unlikely to respond with apprenticeships, employment or work training on the scale that we would like. A recent Federation of Small Businesses survey showed that only 8% of the small businesses surveyed had taken on an apprentice in the previous year, and that is a particular concern, because we know from labour force survey statistics that in the past more than half of apprenticeships were based in businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

We welcome the Government’s incentive scheme, which I hope will be effective, because it certainly needs to be in the economic context in which we operate, but I add my voice to those asking the Government to review as soon as possible the incentive payment’s concentration only on those businesses with fewer than 50 employees, as we also want to put a great deal of stress on the role of medium-sized organisations—those with between 50 and 149 employees—in creating employment.

The £1 billion youth jobs fund that the coalition is delivering via the Work programme is also a cause for concern, because it is unlikely to have any impact on the delivery of apprenticeships to young people, so I hope that it too will be reviewed. Money and effort are being concentrated on a Work programme, but we need to ensure that it delivers apprenticeships, too.

Almost all Opposition Members who spoke stressed that the growth in apprenticeships, of which Government Members have made so much, has not delivered for young people in the way it has for their older counterparts. That masks a genuinely worrying position for young people. In 2009, the final year of the Labour Government, 42% of apprenticeship starts went to those aged under 19; in 2010-11, that figure had fallen to 29%. In 2009, 41% of all starts went to 19 to 24-year-olds, and that figure had fallen to 31% last year. That is genuinely concerning. Given the crisis of youth unemployment, we need to make absolutely sure that the opportunities out there are going to young people who need them.

In the context of the abolition of Connexions and the reduction in funding and access to a face-to-face careers service, it is also important that the young people most in need of accessing apprenticeships have the knowledge and support to be able to do so. In the past few months, I have had extensive first-hand experience of working with young NEET children who need access to apprenticeships and training. They have so little ability to be guided to the opportunities that exist, and that is worrying. The issue of confidence among young people without good qualifications is critical; it is no good simply relying on access to the internet and telephone advice lines. Even for those who are able to use those, making that first contact requires a mentor—a guide and someone to advise them. Without that, I fear that those who most need support will be those least able to access it.

Members have spoken about pre-apprenticeship training, which I would also like to emphasise. About 10% of young people not in education, employment or training have been in that situation for a year or more. They are a core group about whom we should be most concerned. Such an experience, at that stage in life, can be absolutely devastating to a young person. As the Minister is aware, many of those young people have not got GCSE C grades in English and maths, in particular. The problem is that because there is such competition for the apprenticeships that now exist, particularly among young people who have been through a university education, young people without a GCSE find it very hard—in some cases, impossible—to get on the first rung of the apprenticeship ladder.

Although additional skills training within the apprenticeship programme is welcome, we need to make sure that we are not locking out some of the young people with particular needs. That issue has been raised with me by the apprenticeship training agencies, which are very concerned about the issue. It is particularly worrying because a young person who has perhaps done all right at GCSE, but not got a C grade in maths or English, will be required to retake before they even get on to the apprenticeship programme. That can be difficult and challenging.

I have been impressed with the work of my local regional apprenticeship training agency with young NEETs. Some of its outcomes are very impressive: 90% of its apprenticeship starts involve young people who are not in employment, education or training. All its apprenticeships starts are new placements, not conversions, and 99% of them are in the 16-to-24 year-old age group. However, there is a worry that the Government are not making such good use of the resources and skills that such agencies provide. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that client hosts of apprenticeship training agencies will be included as beneficiaries of the £1,500 apprentice incentive schemes. Will the Minister meet representatives from the new Confederation of Apprenticeship Training Agencies to discuss that?

In conclusion, we welcome an expansion of apprenticeships. Any good news, money or resources in the field are welcome and need to be supported. However, given the issue of access to the additional places, there is still a real risk that young people are being left on the shelf. We look to the Government not only to congratulate themselves on a higher number of apprenticeships overall but to address more effectively how to respond to the national emergency engulfing so many of our young people.

This has been a good-humoured and well attended debate at a time when the press would have us believe that we are all on beaches taking holidays. There has been a good degree of unanimity, and I thank hon. Members on both sides for some incisive and shockingly well informed contributions. The debate has also been competitive: people were competing not only over who had the greatest increase in apprenticeship numbers, but over how few qualifications they got at school, how early they left school and how they never got anywhere near university or any form of higher education. Some had also experienced redundancy; that is good practice for when election time comes.

This debate is a great tribute to the enormous amount of constituency experience that all hon. Members have spoken about regarding the projects in their own constituencies. That is what we are doing in the time we are not in this place, if only the media would pay some attention. It is really refreshing to see the whole House agree on the importance of the apprenticeship programme in offering a valued and valuable route for young people who want to work while getting training that can support their careers.

It is always difficult, Mr Speaker, as you know better than many, to follow my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, whose opening speech was steeped in, or positively intoxicated by, his perspicacity, his articulation, his sagacity and his commitment. He will no doubt be very pleased that during his short departure for the dinner hour, in which he is no apprentice, I agreed to a great number of visits to various constituencies, including that of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who will be more than delighted to take up the offer.

Let me make it clear that this Government are absolutely determined to make the apprenticeship programme as effective as possible for as many young people as possible. We want to expand the programme and drive up quality across the board. I take this opportunity to repeat my hon. Friend’s appeal in inviting hon. Members to take on their own apprentices and get involved in national apprenticeship week from 7 February.

Many employers and apprentices are telling us that young people are not receiving enough information in schools about vocational pathways in general, including apprenticeships, or that the information they do receive is not of a good enough quality. From September 2012, the Education Act 2011 will place a new duty on schools to secure access to independent, impartial careers guidance for pupils in school years 9 to 11. Subject to consultation, this will be extended down to year 8 and to young people aged 16 to 18 in schools and further education settings. Under the duty, careers guidance must be impartial, it must be provided in the best interests of the student, and it must offer information on all 16-to-18 education or training options. The new duty makes it a specific requirement to provide information on the benefits of apprenticeship options. I encourage anyone with a specific concern to contact my hon. Friend the Minister, along with any applications for visits, and bring it to his attention.

Given the quality of the contributions that we have heard, I will go through those rather than stick to the script. That always alarms officials, but let us give it a go. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), who had a 73% increase in apprenticeships in his constituency, talked about young people hungry to learn and achieve. His comments on the welding skills college demonstrated how well our colleges are responding to the new freedoms that we have given them and rising to the challenge in this respect.

The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) spoke about the low numbers of small businesses that have so far taken up apprenticeships. That was raised many times by hon. Members, and it is very important. In response to his point about public procurement, my hon. Friend the Minister has taken up that issue with gusto. He is introducing a kite mark for Government suppliers who have embraced the apprenticeship programme and is providing more information for Departments in their procurement programmes. In addition, ministerial champions are promoting apprenticeship in the context of public procurement campaigns. All those points were well made and, characteristically, my hon. Friend had already anticipated them.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who had a 53% increase in her apprenticeships locally, asked for details of the £1,500 bonus. Those will be forthcoming early in the new year; perhaps she, too, would like to book a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), who is Chairman of the Select Committee and who had a 64% increase in apprenticeships in his constituency, made the very good point that quality is the all-important factor. This must be about providing enhanced employability to those who have undertaken apprenticeships, but we must also get value for money. As for the legacy of Train to Gain, a 60% deadweight cost was attached to that programme, so we now have one that is much better value for money.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) has had a 67% increase in apprenticeships; the figures in his constituency speak for themselves. He spoke of the importance of getting good increases at level 3 and of good literacy and numeracy skills; that is why English and maths must be up to a good GCSE standard.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who has had a 55% increase in apprenticeships in his constituency, mentioned the parliamentary apprenticeship scheme and the importance of impartial, independent careers advice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), who has had a 67% increase in apprenticeships, offered himself as the Kelly visiting services for any company in his constituency that has taken on apprentices. He spoke with great experience as his own family business has long taken on apprenticeships, before it even became fashionable.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) grudgingly acknowledged the 65% increase in apprenticeships in his constituency. He, too, spoke from experience as somebody who has been an apprentice and who became an instructor. He again raised the important issue of procurement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) has had a 70% increase in apprenticeships. It was as though he was name-checking his Christmas card list of businesses, which he did with enormous aplomb and without notes. He mentioned Virgin Atlantic, which runs very worthwhile high-tech apprenticeship schemes in aircraft engineering in his constituency. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), another former apprentice, mentioned the determination of young people to succeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who has had a 67% increase in apprenticeships in his constituency, boasted that he had been unemployed. He spoke about the self-worth, values and socialising skills that such schemes give people. He reminded us that youth unemployment is not a new phenomenon, but that it started going up drastically from 2004.

In response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning assures me that he has been in constant talks with the devolved Administrations over these schemes. As the hon. Gentleman said in relation to educational achievements in Northern Ireland, there are things that we can learn from each other. We need to share and disseminate best practice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) made a very good point about the Babcock training centre. She also spoke about getting apprentices into schools to ensure that pupils know what apprenticeships are about. There is almost an apartheid system whereby one either goes to university or does not go to university. However, there are many worthwhile and often lucrative options in between. We need to ensure that our young people have those options before them as early as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) boasted that with a 68% increase in apprenticeships, he was the winner in the raffle of training opportunities. He was wrong, because my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) has had an increase of 109% in her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton also boasted that he had not been to university, but perhaps a little more maths experience would not go amiss. He, too, invited my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning to visit, because apparently the principal of Burton and South Derbyshire college is eager to embrace him. I hope that he has long arms and I warn him that my hon. Friend is not partial to continental kissing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) has had a 38% increase in apprenticeships in his part of the world. He spoke about SMEs and the low rate of take-up. That is something that we must get on to. He also talked about how high tech agriculture has become—this debate is not just limited to the traditional manufacturing industries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who has had a 71% increase in apprenticeships, mentioned what a strong role MPs have to play. I echo that. We can all do a good job of getting our local businesses to engage with this programme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris)—I am determined to get through all the hon. Members who spoke—has had an 81% increase in apprenticeships in his constituency. He made the important point that the inflexibility of health and safety constraints can be a deterrent to people getting more involved in the apprenticeships programme.

As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has had an increase of 109% and is the winner this evening. I confirm that my hon. Friend the Minister has been liaising with the deputy mayor on the programmes that she mentioned. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who I hope will also be the next Mayor of London, has thrown himself into the apprenticeships programme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) also boasted about leaving school early and not going to university. He reminded us that youth unemployment did not start under this Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), who has had a 41% increase in apprenticeships, rightly spoke about aspiration and how we need to take basic skills into the workplace.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who has had a 41% increase in apprenticeships, went to university at the age of 48 and studied politics. He did not tell us whether he passed, but he ended up here anyway. He made a practical point about enterprise zones and the funding of apprenticeships.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham)—plus 35%—is a trailblazer of the parliamentary apprenticeship scheme, and he mentioned practical measures such as apprenticeship fairs and DVDs to promote apprenticeships.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), who has had a 48% increase in apprenticeships, talked about the mismatch between skills and jobs, and again gave examples of great stuff that is going on. My hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray)—plus 10%— and for Witham (Priti Patel), with plus 68%, also gave good, practical examples. This has been an excellent debate, so well done—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).