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Volume 552: debated on Monday 29 October 2012

1. What steps he is taking to increase the quality and availability of apprenticeships for 16 to 18 year-olds. (124975)

There is growing consensus that, alongside the overall increase in apprenticeships under this Government, we must enhance their quality and make them more employer-focused. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who ensured that an apprenticeship normally lasts longer than a year, and is a real job. To enhance availability, we are simplifying apprenticeships, and the National Apprenticeship Service will in future focus more of its resources on engaging with employers.

Is it not a fact that a lot of those apprenticeships are nothing but a scam? They allow employers to change the name on a job, call them apprenticeships and dodge paying the minimum wage. What is the value of an apprenticeship making sandwiches or packing shelves in a card shop?

I am a great supporter of apprenticeships across the economy. As the economy has changed over the past few decades, apprenticeships are in the service sector and insurance as well as in engineering and high-value areas. I am sure the hon. Gentleman, like me, is looking forward to the review by Doug Richard into the future of apprenticeships, because we must ensure that quality is at the heart of the apprenticeship offer.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the number of apprenticeships has gone up by 76% in the past year in Harlow? Far from making sandwiches, many of the apprentices have gone on to full-time jobs.

I am in favour of sandwiches and in favour of people who learn skills in apprenticeships in all sorts of different sectors. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who held a jobs fair last week. I will be copying what he did in my constituency. I hope he, like me, will go to the meeting on Wednesday to discuss what Members on both sides of the House can do to promote apprenticeships in their area.

I welcome the Minister to his post. He has large shoes to fill because his predecessor was a passionate advocate for the brief, but I am sure he will do splendidly. Unfortunately, however, recent figures show a 2% drop in the number of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds for 2011-12. Given the concerns that we share about long-term youth unemployment and the number of young people not in employment, education or training, does that figure show that the Government are failing in their own terms?

On the contrary, not only is youth unemployment on the latest figures falling—thankfully—but in the last year, we have moved to make apprenticeships higher quality. For instance, 11,000 apprenticeships had no job attached. Is it not far better to have high-quality apprenticeships and sell them to employers to ensure that as many as possible engage, so that we can get the numbers and the quality going up at the same time?

I, too, welcome the Minister to his position and wish him well in taking over the work his predecessor carried out so admirably. In tightening up the rules on quality, the Government have borne down on some questionable practices. However, they have also tightened up on sub-contracting and sub-sub-contracting to providers. In some areas, particularly rural and peripheral ones, some of those providers are the only providers of such courses. Will he ensure that, where that quality can be guaranteed, those arrangements can continue?