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Apprentices (SMEs)

Volume 564: debated on Thursday 13 June 2013

7. What steps he is taking to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises take on more apprentices. (159358)

We have made it easier and quicker for small businesses to take on apprentices by simplifying the process for employers. We have introduced an apprenticeship grant for employers. The National Apprenticeship Service has a dedicated team to provide bespoke services for small businesses and we are implementing the key recommendations of the Jason Holt review.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. I, like many hon. Members, am dedicated to promoting apprenticeships in my constituency, particularly in small and medium-sized businesses, but they are often very busy and hard to reach, so it is difficult to get across the message about what is available. Ironically, they are often the firms that would most benefit from an apprentice. Will the Secretary of State outline the specific measures available to promote apprenticeships and any support the Department can give hon. Members in doing so?

May I first anticipate the House’s disappointment that I am answering this question, rather than my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock)? He is being a role model for our policy of shared parental leave and is currently nursing Humphrey Hancock, who was born a few days ago.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) has seen the benefits of the growth of apprenticeships, which is one of the Government’s big success stories. The number has grown from 500 at the beginning of this Government to 870 at the latest count. My hon. Friend is right that there are particular obstacles for small business, but companies with fewer than 200 employees already take 80% of all the apprenticeships in the country. We are trying to improve the service. One of the latest developments is the introduction of a website to make it much easier to access the NAS and its services.

I am sure the whole House will wish Humphrey a speedy recovery.

The Opposition are not at all disappointed that the Secretary of State has stepped into the breach. Although his Department has achieved some success on apprentices, the construction industry is still falling behind its own targets. If we are to get the investment programme under way, it is vital to increase it. Will the Secretary of State give that some attention and get cracking with it?

I will. Indeed, at the beginning of the week I chaired a meeting of the construction industry’s council, which we have put together. Its members acknowledged that skills were one of their key constraints, one of the problems being that the construction industry has been through a very deep, cyclical depression, which has had a major knock-on effect on skills. We are now working with it to boost skills, so that the upswing in the industry that we are beginning to see is not impeded by the shortage of key people.