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Volume 549: debated on Thursday 6 September 2012

1. What assessment he has made of the level of satisfaction of participants and businesses with the apprenticeship system. (119391)

6. What assessment he has made of the level of satisfaction of participants and businesses with the apprenticeship system. (119396)

10. What assessment he has made of the level of satisfaction of participants and businesses with the apprenticeship system. (119400)

The Department recently completed the biggest ever survey of apprentices and their employers, which revealed the best ever satisfaction rates. Overall, almost 90% of apprentices were satisfied with their training. Employer satisfaction is also high: 88% are satisfied with the relevance of their training, and 80% remain committed to offering places.

I welcome the evidence from the Holt review that we need to do more to make apprenticeships accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises. I know from my own apprentices’ business and administration non-vocational qualifications that they are not all user-friendly to the smallest businesses, which are the driver of future jobs. Does the Secretary of State agree that employers in, for example, the Federation of Small Businesses should have more say in the content of courses and in the setting of a reassuring series of national standards?

I do agree, but let me preface my remarks by saying what a success story the apprenticeship programme is. Not only has there been a big increase in scale—more than 60% over the last two years—but there is a very high satisfaction rate. Let me also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the former Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes)—who has now moved on to higher things—and to welcome his excellent replacement, who is, indeed, part of an excellent BIS team.

The Holt study, which the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned, does acknowledge that there are barriers to SMEs’ access to the apprenticeship programme. We are trying to address them, most notably by channelling resources through employers rather than trainers: that will increasingly be the emphasis of the programme.

The Jason Holt reforms present great opportunities for the hospitality sector, which has considerable potential for employment export earnings and economic growth, but in which we need to drive productivity gains. As the quantity of apprenticeships continues to increase, how can we ensure that their quality keeps pace with it, or does better?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we need to maintain quality standards. I have asked Doug Richard, an entrepreneur with a background in this area, to give careful consideration to the quality issues and how we can shape the apprenticeship programme around genuine skills training, particularly at skill level 3 and above.

A great deal is happening in the hospitality sector. For instance, Hilton recently offered 100 new apprenticeship places. The Department will shortly hold a round-table discussion about the sector, and apprenticeships will be an important element of that.

The number of apprenticeship starts in Brighton and Hove was up by 83% last year, with many digital media businesses taking that important first step. Does the Secretary of State agree that that the digital media sector is an important part of the apprenticeship scheme?

Yes. Apprenticeships increasingly cover the service sector as well as the traditional manufacturing and construction sectors, and the digital sector is an important part of that. It depends on high technology and high skill levels, and as a result is absolutely crucial.

May I put it to the Secretary of State—as I did on the last occasion when I questioned him on this issue—that while the overall numbers are very good, there are certain problems in individual sectors such as the construction industry? If we do not ensure that the number of apprenticeships in that important sector is much greater than it is now, we shall find when the national infrastructure plan takes off, as it must eventually—indeed, with the new team behind it, it will no doubt do so in the very near future—that we do not have the apprenticeships and the manpower skills in the industry that would enable us to benefit from it.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The programme must be demand-led and business-led. When a sector is struggling, as the construction sector currently is, that affects the demand for training; but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the sector is well organised, with a levy system and a skills training board. We certainly want to see a substantial number of additional trained specialists in the construction sector, so that we do not have to rely on people coming from overseas to do the work, as we often have in the past.

Although the number of members of ethic minorities who are taking up apprenticeships is improving, there are still patterns of occupational segregation, and ethnic minorities are less likely to be represented in the industry sectors with the best long-term career prospects. What specific steps are the Government taking to ensure that members of ethnic minorities have the chance to take up the best possible apprenticeships?

I have not had that case made to me before. Certainly if there is some element of discrimination, that is unacceptable. I guess there might be a correlation with other patterns in the labour force, but I will undertake to see whether there is any evidence of there being a real problem that we need to address.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on all his new Ministers? I am delighted that he paid strong tribute to the former Further Education and Skills Minister, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). Given his commitment to vocational education and the personal warmth he brought to his task, he will, as I am sure his successor knows, be a hard act to follow.

We now know that over the past year the number of 16 to 18-year-olds starting apprenticeships went down in the south-west, the north-west and north-east England, yet the Secretary of State’s colleagues elsewhere in Government have so far ducked out of doing anything practical to implement Jason Holt’s excellent report to get more small businesses to take on those young people. Will the Secretary of State now change that course, with an active Government response to help small businesses to take on young people for the extra apprenticeships that we desperately need, given the failures to deliver growth by No. 11 Downing street?

The Jason Holt report was published just six days or so ago, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it has not yet been fully implemented. We are certainly going to be working on it, however. There clearly is an issue with 16 to 18-year-olds who need to have a ladder into apprenticeships rather than going straight into a demanding skill course associated with a job. We recognise that there is that transition issue, therefore, and I am working with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in particular on how we address it.