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Volume 542: debated on Thursday 15 March 2012

The Government have prioritised apprenticeships. As a consequence, final figures show that in the full 2010-11 academic year there were 457,200 apprenticeship starts, an increase of 63.5% over the previous year. Over the past two years, the number of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds has increased by a third and that for 19 to 24- year-olds has increased by two thirds.

May I commend the Secretary of State most warmly for what he and his Department have done on apprenticeships? In particular, may I shower praise on the absent Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who has driven this programme forward? The number of apprenticeships in my constituency has increased by almost two thirds in the past year, so will the Secretary of State ensure that some of the pre-work training—for instance, at the British Racing School, where I joined an apprenticeship scheme on the gallops—can continue under the new scheme being set up?

I am happy to be showered with praise by the hon. Gentleman, and I entirely share his appreciation of the work done by the absent skills Minister. Indeed, there has been praise from a more independent source than either of us: I believe that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has, rather unusually, acknowledged the considerable contribution we make through our apprenticeship programme. I am not aware of the anomaly that the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) points out, but it is an important one and I promise to investigate it.

The Secretary of State knows that Labour Members like apprenticeships and welcome anything that expands genuine, good apprenticeships. But the fact is that if we are to end this inter-generational worklessness in our country, we need a new culture where nobody expects to go into unemployment at least until they are 25—that is the way to go. To change the culture, people need to be in training, education or work—no alternative.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I do not disagree with a word he says. The culture is changing; there is a great appetite in business to take on apprentices and among young people to apply for apprenticeships. I am sure that everybody in the House agrees that apprenticeships are important—we are actually doing something about them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of apprenticeships in Harlow has increased in the past year by 76%? Is he also aware that we have a very strong bid for a university technical school in Harlow? Does he not agree that university technical schools will put young people on the conveyor belt to apprenticeships?

Yes, I do agree, and we need to acknowledge the contribution that Lord Baker has made. He worked on this idea for a long time before it became fashionable, and it is now being implemented. It is extremely popular with young people and with employers, and the Government are getting behind it with financial support.

I recently visited a number of apprentices in my constituency in apprenticeship week, and I commend the work of Hackney community college in this respect. Interestingly, the apprentices were doing training courses, but a lot of them had no real prospect of a job at the end of their apprenticeship. What can the Secretary of State say about the Government’s plans to convert apprenticeships into long-term employment for these young people?

The whole point about apprenticeships is that they are training for people in work, which is why they are attractive to employers and to people who apply for them. The normal practice is that people are in work, they upgrade their skills and they proceed. The overall economic benefit to the economy was recently spelt out by the National Audit Office: for every £1 of taxpayers’ money that goes in, the overall economy derives a benefit of at least £18.

3. What steps he is taking to enable small and medium-sized companies to offer high-quality apprenticeships to young adults. (100020)

We are making it easier and quicker for small and medium-sized companies to take on an apprentice by simplifying and speeding up the process for employers. Additionally, we are making available up to 40,000 incentive payments of £1,500 to help small employers recruit their first 16 to 24-year-old apprentice. A small and medium-sized enterprise review is under way to identify further ways of engaging SMEs in high-quality apprenticeships.

Although the apprenticeship grant for employers initiative is welcome in my constituency, where there are many SMEs, does the Secretary of State agree that the scheme would have even more impact if the rule prohibiting the participation of companies that have taken on apprentices in the past three years was relaxed?

I understand the frustration of employers who have a good record on apprenticeships and feel that they are penalised in such a way. If we had unlimited money, we would meet the hon. Gentleman’s expectations, but the scheme that I have described is restricted to new companies that are taking on apprentices for the first time. It has to be that way for financial reasons, but I would have hoped that companies with a good record in apprenticeships will have seen the benefit of them and will offer them for good commercial reasons.

Terrible youth unemployment figures were released from my constituency yesterday. Companies continue to tell me that they cannot get banks to lend them money. What representations has the Secretary of State made to his colleague, the Chancellor? He promises to ensure that more money is available for small businesses, but what representations is he making to ensure that more money is available so that such businesses can take on more apprentices?

The Chancellor and I discuss this problem constantly because it is a real issue for SMEs. As a result of the Merlin agreement last year, there was a significant increase in lending to small-scale enterprises beyond what they would otherwise have had. I recognise that it is a continuing issue and I am sure the Chancellor will have some ideas in the Budget about how to extend it further.