Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Amber Rudd.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. Along with my hon. Friends the Members for Braintree (Mr Newmark) and for Redcar (Ian Swales) and the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), and with the support of others, I asked the Backbench Business Committee to support a debate on youth employment. I am grateful to the Committee for its support.
The subject of this debate is not unemployment but employment. We want this debate to be a positive one. We would like to promote what we can do in our constituencies to help get young people into work. Many hon. Members run jobs fairs, information campaigns, apprenticeship drives, work experience programmes and much more in their constituencies. This debate is an opportunity to celebrate the success of those programmes and share the ideas behind them so that hon. Members can perhaps return to their constituencies during the summer recess with the opportunity to do more to help local young people. I am grateful to the Million Jobs campaign, which has supported this debate, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree will speak more about it.
First, I will briefly set out the national picture, and then I will share an example of my own. We will have the latest monthly employment figures tomorrow, but as of today, employment is at 30.5 million, which is up 345,000 on the quarter and represents a huge rise in the number of jobs created in the private sector. The net rise in employment over four years is 1.69 million. Unemployment is at 2.6 million, which is down on the quarter and over a four-year period. Long-term unemployment is down 108,000 on the year.
Youth unemployment is also down. Some 3.4 million 18 to 24-year-olds were in employment in the last three months, an increase on the previous year. In the same period, 677,000 people aged 18 to 24 were unemployed, a fall of 11.5% from the previous year. Of course, those studying are included in the figure covering unemployment, so not all of those 677,000 are necessarily seeking a job. Expressed as a percentage, our national unemployment rate is currently 16.5%.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I would not have intervened so early, but as she is mentioning figures and good news, I wonder whether she has noted that in Warwick and Leamington, youth unemployment has fallen by 67% since April 2010? That is obviously good news, but we need to do more. Does she agree that we should do whatever we can to encourage businesses to work more closely with our schools and colleges in terms of mentoring, work experience and careers advice to help give our young people an even better start in finding a job?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend on that point. He has helpfully set up the point about co-operation that I wish to emphasise in this debate.
Our national youth unemployment rate has hovered under 20% for much of the last four years; if we look across Europe, we see that our young people are significantly better off than, for example, those in Spain, where about half of young people cannot find work. They are also better off than those in Uganda, where I have just had the privilege of meeting young leaders from nine countries through the Democrat Union of Africa. I learned there that youth unemployment in Uganda is the highest in Africa; the African Development Bank says that it could be as high as 83%. Uganda also has the world’s largest percentage of young people under 30, at 78% of the entire population.
Youth unemployment is a blight for any nation, but most of all it is a blight on every young person who has a hope, a dream and something to offer. Those are not numbers; they are real people. It is a sapping experience to seek work and not get it. Unemployment is a crying shame for those who want to put education to good use and an appalling burden for those who want to work hard and get on without falling back on benefits.
I was one of the first MPs to hire, train and retain an apprentice. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good way we can make an individual difference? Does she also agree that the statistics show that, for example, every single one of the 29 constituencies in the north-east shows an increase in the number of apprenticeship starts compared with the year 2010? The minimum rise is 60%; the maximum, in Bishop Auckland, is 143%.
I welcome those figures. My hon. Friend does well to point out how important apprenticeships are, and I congratulate him on offering one to a young person.
National policy, which the Minister will set out in more detail, ranges across the radical expansion of apprenticeships to the package of measures under the Youth Contract, which include incentives for employers to take on young people. Many organisations in the third sector also contribute enormously to encouraging young people throughout the country, some by means of formal contracts with the state. Campaign groups such as The Found Generation add to that. The Found Generation is youth-led and aims to tackle Britain’s youth unemployment and prevent a lost generation. It has recently published a report entitled “Practical Solutions to UK Youth Unemployment”, which I commend to hon. Members.
I will also mention briefly a couple of commissions with which I am involved. I chair the National Youth Agency’s commission into youth and enterprise, which is currently researching and surveying how we can all back young people to start out on their own.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. On youth enterprise, does she agree that schemes such as Young Enterprise have inspired many students over the years? However, it is vital to get entrepreneurs into schools. The entrepreneur Neil Westwood, who founded Magic Whiteboard and got funding from “Dragons’ Den”, goes into local schools in Worcester to give talks and inspire young people about what they can achieve by setting out on their own. Does she agree that that is a good model for others to consider?
I certainly do. It is incredibly important to have good role models available for young people. After all, by 2018 there will be more entrepreneurs in our labour market than public sector workers. Self-employment, entrepreneurship and micro-business are an exciting tectonic shift in our economy, and I am confident, from what I have seen with my own eyes, that young people will be at its heart.
I also contributed, as a commissioner, to the Industry and Parliament Trust’s recent report on youth skills. Local and regional policy is beginning to emerge through local enterprise partnerships. I particularly commend the detailed work done on skills by my LEP, New Anglia.
Policy is one thing, but local success does not rely on policy. It needs good leadership and a will to succeed, and it needs business, the community and parliamentarians to work together to help young people. I offer the example of Norwich for Jobs, a project that I founded. We set out in January 2015 to halve our city’s youth unemployment in two years. That meant reducing the rate of jobseeker’s allowance claimants from 2,000 down to 1,000. I am delighted to report that we have virtually achieved that, early. We expect new figures tomorrow to show that the youth unemployment rate in our city has dipped under 1,000. We have done it by asking businesses in our city to pledge to take on a young person. They sign a formal pledge and commit to a number of opportunities that they can provide over the months to come. We then connect young people with those opportunities through the jobcentre.
Essentially, we have focused the city community on a common goal. We have tried to provide a common platform for the many organisations that help young people in Norwich, and sought to work together to share intelligence and get young people into work with the employers who are making that commitment. In order to do that, I brought together a steering group, to which I pay tribute. It included Jobcentre Plus, City College Norwich, Norfolk chamber of commerce, the regional media group Archant—it runs information about the campaign in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press—and scores of employers, led by Howes Percival, a local law firm. The employers that have signed up range from tiny firms such as our one-man-band plumber, who is now a two-person band with an apprentice who does his books and social media, to large local firms such as the independent Norwich retailer Jarrold, which took on the 1,000th young person in our scheme.
National and international chains have got involved too, including Marks and Spencer and KLM Engineering. In all cases, we are seeking additionality, to use the technical term—the extra jobs or opportunities that those firms could pledge on top of their existing programmes. All those firms know the benefit of taking on a young person. They are securing the future of their business and helping the community at the same time.
We count against the Office for National Statistics figures every month, using a measure of the young people attending Norwich jobcentre. That allows us to cover the travel-to-work area. We track the paid opportunities that are offered—jobs and apprenticeships—but we also encourage the soft opportunities such as work experience and mentoring. So far, there has been a commitment to provide 1,098 jobs and apprenticeships, with 1,032 young people going into paid work as a result. I stress that we believe in good faith that this activity is all additional, because we are counting against the opportunities offered. We also know that the total Norwich register has dropped and we review on-flow and off-flow every month.
We have had the benefit of a superb employers’ panel, as well as a young people’s panel, to advise us, and we will work closely in the months ahead with our partners’ panel, which is made up of all the organisations that are often more specialist in terms of getting harder-to-help young people into work. We have enjoyed praise from His Royal Highness Prince Edward, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, Ministers and the Bishop of Norwich. We know that we have achieved a good thing but we are not complacent because there is so much more to do.
I will sum up my contribution, to allow other hon. Members to contribute. Youth unemployment is one of the most important social and economic issues of our time, and we can do things about it locally. This process is about the many individuals who are looking for the job they ardently need in order to secure that all-important first chance to take home a pay packet and to gain experience. Their families, their communities, local businesses and parliamentarians can step up to help. Although we want this debate to touch on education, welfare and enterprise policies, we hope that it will focus on constituency best practice, including pop-up job shops, social networks and local campaigns. We hope that hon. Members will share the good work being done in their locality and learn from others, so that each hon. Member leaves with a set of actions for the summer recess when the latest school, college and university leavers look for their own place in the world of which they can be proud.
It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Crausby.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this important debate on youth employment, but it would be remiss of me if I did not commence my speech by highlighting the unemployment figure for young people in this country. Starting their adult life unemployed is not what we want for our young people, but more than 800,000 young people across the UK aged between 16 and 24 were unemployed in the first quarter of this year. That is a worrying statistic, not only because it reads badly, but because it is worrying for the young people themselves and their parents. For the first time in generations, parents from all types of background fear that their children will do worse than them.
We know what we need to do. If we truly want to get our young people into work, we need a highly skilled work force that will enable us to compete with the emerging nations of China and India, as well as advanced industrial nations such as the United States and Germany. What we need is a long-term plan for jobs. We also need to focus on the skills agenda and do more to help the 50% of young people who do not go to university. I never went to university. It could be said I was lucky, going straight into the world of employment on leaving school, but when I left school, finding work was not about luck; there was a plan in place for jobs. In my area of the country, when the school gates opened on the last day of the summer term, other gates in the various sectors involved with the shipyard industries also opened and a transfer took place. Skills were gained and young people had a choice about what they wanted to be in their future career. That that does not happen today.
We know that in the past in my area of the country, we tended to put all our eggs in the one basket—heavy industries. We did the same in the 1980s, replicating the process with the electronics industries. We filled the gap created by the decline of the heavy industries with these “sunrise” industries. Throughout the history of both the heavy industries and the electronics industry, we innovated, pushed the design boundaries and found new markets. With ships, we redesigned them and took them to a new level, replacing many items on the ships with new, cutting-edge design. We did the same in the electronics industry. Without the work done in my area of the country, people would not have the phone in their pocket—if we had not pushed processors and improved them, including pioneering the use of surface-mounted multi-layer technology—but somehow that innovative desire to create new markets and so create new employment evaded us in the following years.
I will focus on Scotland for a moment, because we outperform the UK on youth employment and youth activity rates. Scotland has a higher youth employment rate and a lower youth inactivity rate than the UK as a whole, but we are never complacent. This process is about focusing on what matters, which is employment for our young people.
The best possible start to someone’s adult life is employment, whether that comes after leaving school at 16 or after leaving university. The hopes and aspirations of our young lie in finding work.
Indeed, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that fall. I will tell him exactly how we achieved it. Inverclyde outperforms most areas in Scotland because we punch above our weight. We have done that by pulling together resources from many organisations and put in place an Inverclyde Alliance focused on what matters—employment—with a youth employment action plan at the heart of its work. We are pleased to point to the fact that 94% of our school leavers reach a positive destination, so only a single-figure percentage do not reach one. With additional services, the programme provides an end-to-end employability service that is not just about placing a young person with an employer and hoping for the best; it is about continuous engagement with the employer and the young person. What does the young person need to enhance their skills? What do they need to keep them in employment, or to help them to look for other employment at the end of their term of placement? We ask the business, “Where are you going with your business? Where will you take it to in the next year or so? Can this young person come with you, if they have the required skills, and what skills do you identify that the young person needs to retain the position within your company?”
Of course, in Inverclyde we have continued with the future jobs fund. Obviously, the British Government felt that they did not want to retain the fund across the country, but it works and it has been working for us. In addition, we have made a successful bid to the Scottish Government for additional European funding, allowing 170 additional wage incentive packages that have enabled local companies to recruit even more young people. A total of 52 employers have been engaged, creating a total of 58 posts for our young people during the last year.
This year in Inverclyde, my Labour council allocated substantial additional funding for employability measures for young people. That has resulted in an additional 50 placements with employers across Inverclyde, because Labour in Inverclyde has been focused on what matters—employment, not separation. Our young people believe in having more choices and more chances. I hope you will forgive me, Mr Crausby, for briefly saying that that is why I believe they will vote in September to stay with the UK.
I will also touch on an entrepreneurial programme that we have put in place. The Recruit programme is based upon “The Apprentice”, with young people looking to be hired rather than fired. Many tasks are set up and the young people step up to the mark, proving to many employers that they have the entrepreneurial spark and can be innovative in what they have been tasked to do. However, as I said before, we are never complacent and there are still 72,000 unemployed young people in Scotland, which is unacceptable. We need to get on and reduce that figure.
We desperately need to get our young people into training and apprenticeships. Young people need every chance to improve their skills if they are to get good jobs. Speaking as a former apprentice, I know the value of apprenticeship training. My apprenticeship took four years, but I suspect the period required to learn skills can be reduced in the modern era. However, it should not be reduced to the period or level of work experience, which some people would like to see apprenticeships reduced to. In Inverclyde, we now have around 600 modern apprenticeships, which can offer so much, and there is no reason why apprenticeships should not be expanded to cover a wide variety of jobs and professions. Employment is an essential part of life and without it, especially for our young people, the future will be bleak, because our young people must be our future. We need to plan for jobs and industry, looking to the future business markets and, yes, manufacturing can again prosper across this country. As I said in my maiden speech, everyone has the right to work.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this important debate. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie). He is right: it is unacceptable that any young person is unemployed. It is the duty of any and every Government to ensure that they do everything possible to get young people back into work. As a father of five children between the ages of 16 and 25, I am well aware, like all parents, of the importance of ensuring that every young person in our society has an opportunity to get a foothold on the employment ladder, so that they can make a contribution to our society. Almost every young person I meet wants a job; they want to work and they do indeed want to make a contribution, and this Government are doing everything possible to help our young people back into work.
I recently ran a successful jobs fair in Braintree, and I thank all the businesses that have been doing what they can to cut youth unemployment and take on a young person from our community. Youth unemployment in Braintree fell from 6.3% in May 2010 to 3.8% in May 2014. That trend has been repeated throughout the country, with youth unemployment falling in almost every constituency, so the Government have done much to combat this problem.
After the last election, the previous Government having left some 1 million young people unemployed, I helped to co-found the Million Jobs campaign. Last year, we drafted a manifesto to tackle the problem of youth unemployment, which set out five steps the Government could take to reduce youth unemployment. They included abolishing national insurance payments by employers of young people; educating school pupils about the apprenticeship opportunities available to them; encouraging firms to invest in young people through employment; removing of barriers preventing employers giving honest constructive feedback to applicants; and, finally, giving every unemployed young person a mentor. In the 2013 autumn statement, the Chancellor adopted the first of our manifesto recommendations by abolishing the jobs tax for any person under the age of 21. At this point, I pay tribute to and thank Lottie Dexter, the director of the Million Jobs campaign, for her tireless effort and leadership.
The Government have introduced a number of other policies over the past four years to tackle youth unemployment. Recently, they implemented the £1 billion Youth Contract, which will create 500,000 new job opportunities for young people by supporting employers and work experience placements financially. Indeed, many of the young people we represent in this House already benefit hugely from the Youth Contract and will continue to in future. Furthermore, the Deputy Prime Minister announced in July 2013 that eight core English cities outside London would be able to bid for a share of £50 million to help young people into work through the Youth Contract.
Apprenticeship schemes have been hugely beneficial in decreasing unemployment of young people, while providing a welcome boost to the national economy. I pay tribute to my Essex colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for his sterling efforts promoting the scheme. The Government have taken steps to create a greater number of apprenticeships that are applicable to the current workplace. For example, a £25 million higher apprenticeship fund has been introduced to support up to 10,000 degree-level apprenticeships in sectors such aerospace and renewable energy technologies. Today, there are more than twice the number of apprenticeship schemes available to young people as there were in 2010, enabling more than 1.8 million young people to enter the workplace. In Braintree, I have witnessed this at first hand: the number of my constituents entering an apprenticeship has increased by almost 140% since 2010.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on launching the Million Jobs campaign. We have heard great things this morning about apprenticeships—I have an apprentice—jobs fairs and the formal commitment of our hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North, and so on. Does he agree that two ongoing measures will make a difference: the introduction of direct payments to employers, rather than through training colleges, for apprenticeships; and the removal of the loan system for funding apprentices over 24, which will help reduce total unemployment?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government are reducing the barriers in order to help young people into work. That is the thrust of the two points he made.
It is important that we continue to promote these new opportunities in schools across the country in order to move towards a more vocational education system. In 2010, a study by the economist Alison Wolf found that 350,000 16 to 19-year-olds were in line to receive unfortunately poorly respected qualifications that had little value in the employment market. Replacing low vocational qualifications with new tech levels that will drive up educational standards is another step the Government are taking to prepare young people for work in the future.
Wage incentives for employers have also been put in place to stimulate demand for working young people. Now, any employer that gives a young person who has been on benefits for six months a job could potentially receive up to £2,275, and the Government have also ensured that payments of £2,200 are available to providers who take on 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in education, employment, training or are from disadvantaged backgrounds. That has provided the long-needed encouragement for employers to begin proactively to seek out the young unemployed and ultimately give them a foot on the employment ladder. The Government have also introduced the new enterprise allowance, which has given young unemployed people with great ideas the opportunity and means to start their own businesses and work their own way out of unemployment. Under the last Labour Government, the number of NEETs increased by a third and youth unemployment overall increased by 40% between May 1997 and May 2010. Thanks to the work of this Government, the total number of 16 to 18-year-old NEETs is the lowest in a decade, while the implementation of a pre-apprenticeship training programme called “traineeship” will ensure even the most vulnerable young people have full access to employment opportunities. That has already positively affected both the voluntary and the community sectors and is particularly aiding young people who are currently not in education, employment or training.
This Government have acted on the calls from the public to reduce youth unemployment by using a variety of policies in combination, and although there is still much to be done, there is clear evidence that the Government are succeeding in addressing the issue of youth unemployment and that their long-term economic plan is delivering for young people, not just in Braintree but up and down the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate. She has shown herself to be extremely interested in this issue, both in her constituency and in her work in Parliament. Indeed, she recently became vice-chair of the all-party group on youth unemployment, which I chair.
The hon. Lady emphasised, in her opening remarks, that this debate is titled “Youth Employment”, not “Youth Unemployment”. I share that willingness to be positive and mine will be largely a positive speech, but when I established the all-party group, it was not without thought that I chose to call it the all-party group on youth unemployment, because this is still a huge problem in our country and we need to look at issues around unemployment as well. It is not just a matter of creating jobs, although that is, of course, the most important part. There are significant issues about why our young people are not in work or, indeed, not in education or training. That deserves to be considered—without wanting to be negative, as I said.
As the hon. Lady said, this debate comes before the publication tomorrow by the Office for National Statistics of the monthly unemployment figures. I am sure I speak for everyone in this room in wanting those figures to improve further, particularly for our young people. Although unemployment is coming down generally and for our young people, my reading of the figures is that it is decreasing three times slower for young people compared with the population as a whole.
Of course I do. Government Members have been constantly making that point to Opposition Members as if we do not welcome that. Of course I welcome any drop in unemployment figures—I am doing what I can in my constituency to make that happen—but I do not want to see any complacency, because we still have a huge number of unemployed people in this country. The figures are coming down, but, particularly for young people, not nearly quickly enough.
Of course there is no complacency, and one young person not in education, employment or training is one too many, but on whether youth unemployment is falling faster than overall unemployment, will the hon. Lady note that in her constituency the claimant count is down 21.6% since 2010 overall and down 26.8% among 18 to 24-year-olds, which contradicts her analysis?
Of course. I was going to come on to that point, but I appreciate that interventions have led me to it now. I welcome that decrease, but the figures are not yet at the levels seen before the downturn. I appreciate that the figures are below what they were when the Government took office, but they are not where they should be. As the Minister said, one young person unemployed is one person too many. We should talk about the issues and how we get every single person back to work.
In 2012—I appreciate that the figures have moved on, but it is the last full year for which we have figures—youth unemployment cost the Exchequer £4.8 billion. It is estimated that it cost the economy £10.7 billion in lost output, so the Government need to look at this issue. To be clear, the £4.8 billion is more than the Budget forecast for oil and gas revenue to the Government in 2014-15. Youth unemployment is costing the Government huge amounts, so it makes economic sense to get young people back to work as soon as possible. In my constituency—Government Members seem to have good knowledge of the figures for my constituency; they are well prepared this morning—youth unemployment is still at 8.5%, which is higher than the rate for Scotland and for the UK as a whole. Although it is lower than when the Government came to power, it is still nowhere near the level it was before the financial crisis.
Unemployment in Scotland has gone down, but the total number of JSA claimants in Scotland is 140,000, which is the same as the population of Dundee. As it is in the rest of the UK, the youth unemployment rate in Scotland is almost double the adult unemployment rate. I accept Government Members’ claim that it has gone down, but I worry about complacency, which cannot be acceptable when such a huge number of young people are unable to pursue their dreams and aspirations after so many years of austerity. The all-party group on youth unemployment, which I mentioned in my opening remarks, recently disclosed that the dole queue of young people in the UK, were they all to stand in a line, would reach from Edinburgh to London.
Youth is sometimes seen as an afterthought when we discuss employment, which should not be the case. Young people should be our first thought in tackling unemployment. We know from the research into long-term unemployment that its effect on young people can be not just immediate, but can scar for life. It can leave long-term issues that stay with that person throughout their life, be it in the workplace or at home.
As I have said in private meetings, youth unemployment is often seen as a political football. The debate is always a bit heated because there are Government Members who really want to tackle youth unemployment and have the same aims as us, but who have different views on how to tackle it. I could say that some of their views are right and some are wrong, but the point is that we have the same aim.
Although I said I would never start an all-party group, having seen how many there were when I became a parliamentarian four years ago, I was shocked that there was not an all-party group looking at youth unemployment. We need that vehicle for cross-party discussions on what is an extremely important issue that successive Governments have not tackled completely, so I am glad the group exists. Since its creation, we have worked with the National Union of Students on its inquiry into youth underemployment. We have met Ministers, shadow Ministers and representatives from the third sector and trade unions, which are also working on this issue. Over the summer we intend to draft a report in the hope that we can persuade all the parties to propose high-quality, sensible polices to tackle the issue when they draft their manifestos for next year’s general election.
In setting up the all-party group, I felt it was important to look at youth unemployment and youth as a whole, but it is important that we take away from the debate the point that not all young people are the same. Often, they are spoken about as a homogenous group who all have the same unemployment issues, but they are not the same. The hon. Member for Norwich North and I spoke last week at an event in Parliament launching the youth-friendly badge, which will allow businesses to show that they are helping young people get back to work. The event was chaired by an extremely capable young lady called Shakira. She impressed me, and I am sure she impressed the hon. Lady. Shakira has become a youth ambassador for the scheme, and she told us a bit about herself during her remarks. I noted a definite reaction in the room when she happened to mention that she was a mother, and that is not the first time I have seen that. At one of the all-party group’s events, a young man who spoke about employment issues mentioned that he was a dad. I do not think the reaction was judgmental; it was one of surprise.
We seem to put young people and youth unemployment in a box. We have made the huge mistake of sometimes speaking about them as a homogenous group, but the facts are that some young people are parents, some care for sick relatives, some are disabled, some have mental health issues, some have left school with few or no qualifications, some are graduates, some live in urban deprived zones and some live in rural areas. Any policy that the Government create has to look at a solution that can be tailored to meet the needs of all young people. In the same way, different areas of the country are not the same, and businesses are not the same. Will the Minister tell us exactly how the Government are moving forward in creating a solution to youth unemployment that is not one size fits all?
I want to speak about the benefits of work experience, how the Government’s policies have worked so far and how they might move forward. I am aware that as part of the Youth Contract, the Government offer work experience to young people, but my understanding is that it is not offered until 13 weeks after a claim has started. I hope the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but why does it have to take 13 weeks before a young person is offered work experience? Surely it could be offered earlier. Part of the reason for that might be the lack of work experience roles available to the young people jobcentres aim to serve. In my local area, the jobcentre is struggling to provide the number of work experience placements that are needed, and I will come on to that.
Jobcentre work experience has been tainted by mandatory work activity. I appreciate that mandatory work activity is a different policy from work experience for young people, but the bad press has caused harm and reduced the number of businesses that want to give work experience. Mandatory work activity appeared to be a punishment, rather than a programme designed to get people back to work.
I take the opportunity to congratulate those companies that are offering work experience—as mentioned in recent press stories—including Barclays, which the all-party group has met with. Barclays has offered lots of placements to young people, which are invaluable in gaining workplace experience, confidence and skills. Such placements, however, are not easy to come by, as I know from my area. Some employers have told me that that is because they have not been asked before, and others have blamed the bad publicity about the mandatory work activity scheme.
Alongside that has been coverage of wealthy, connected young people who are able to get internships more easily than others, while some cannot afford to take them up—a perfect media class storm. That upsets me because, as a young person, I benefited greatly from a work experience placement in a Member of Parliament’s office. I managed to do it by working part time and taking on a part-time placement. Unpaid work experience does not have to be exploitative, but it does have to be extremely well managed.
To be clear, wherever exploitation exists it has to be stamped out. Work experience has to be high quality and voluntary. Internships and work experience placements should be paid where possible, and if not, modified in order to reach out to young people from all backgrounds. I am therefore starting a scheme in my constituency—as I am happy to hear other Members are doing—involving high-quality and voluntary placements that reaches out to not only large but small businesses. We will write to more than 400 businesses in my constituency over the summer, asking them to take part. The scheme is supported by a trade union, and we are working with a local Jobcentre Plus office. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to improve access for all young people to good-quality work experience? What are jobcentres doing to reach out to local small businesses, as well as large ones, to create such placements?
I want to touch on the work of my local council in North Lanarkshire, but I was also pleased to hear about the work of Inverclyde council from my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie). Labour-led North Lanarkshire council has created North Lanarkshire’s Working, which I highly recommend that the Minister look at, if he has not already done so—it is easily googleable. The scheme offers local businesses a 50% salary subsidy for six months when they take on someone unemployed. It is primarily but not solely focused on young people. It is working extraordinarily well, not only creating new, sustainable jobs but offering additional support to businesses, which is allowing them to grow. Is the Minister looking at local authority examples of such support for business growth? North Lanarkshire’s Working is creating permanent jobs that otherwise would not have existed.
I have concerns about apprentices and the recent cuts at the national Skills Funding Agency, which were reported only a few days ago in the Telegraph. I understand that there will be a 47% reduction in staff, including those working on the National Apprenticeship Service. Will the Minister confirm those figures? Why are almost half those staff being cut, when the Government’s rhetoric talks about improving and growing the apprenticeship scheme?
Lots of figures have been bandied about today, as usual when we are talking about employment and youth unemployment. They are often confusing because they come from different data, such as the claimant count or young people who are NEETs. One of the figures adding to the confusion is the number of young people who are sanctioned: more 18 to 24-year-olds are sanctioned than other unemployed people. I appreciate that that is not part of the Minister’s responsibilities, but I ask him to ask the relevant Department why more young people are sanctioned than those in other groups. I also ask that he gets his colleagues to address the point that people sanctioned long term are unlikely to go back to the jobcentre and sign on, so they are not included in the claimant figures.
Young people in my constituency and throughout the United Kingdom need more action to be taken to reduce youth unemployment. I hope to hear what the Minister will do to increase skills, employability and quality of life for our young people. Will he address the points I have made in his closing remarks, and take the relevant ones back to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate from the Backbench Business Committee. I commend the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), for not only her speech, but her work on behalf of the all-party group.
Underemployment of young people is a scourge; it is clearly bad for the individuals, but it is also bad for the country in many ways. Social disaffection is bound to occur when large numbers of people are under- employed; we see that in countries such as Spain, where unemployment rates for young people have reached figures like 50%.
Is it surprising that people feel socially disaffected when society seems not to want them? In areas such as mine, that feeling can start even before being underemployed, because a person’s prospects can look poor from a much younger age, which affects how they approach education. We have to sort that out for many reasons, one of which is the economic capacity of the country, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts said. That is an issue in my area. When I was elected, 1,135 people aged 18 to 24 were unemployed; others were kept out of the numbers in various ways, so the real figure was huge. I am pleased to say that that the youth unemployment figure has been reducing quickly; it has gone down by 36% in the past 12 months. I checked the figures, and only about 30 constituencies in the country have seen a bigger fall in the past year. That is because the Government are doing a lot to help the north-east. The local enterprise partnership in particular is focusing on bringing jobs to the area, and on helping young people.
Many schemes are going on, but I commend the Government on what they have done about work experience. When I was campaigning in 2010, I met a young man who was caught in a classic Catch-22: he had been offered work experience at the nearby chemicals site through a contact, but he was unable to take it, because he could not afford to lose the benefits. I am pleased that the Government have freed the system up so that young people may take work experience when it is offered to them and not be caught in a bind.
The Youth Contract is having success. I visited my local provider, Pertemps, to discuss how it was getting on with the Youth Contract. To my surprise, I found that lack of opportunities was not its biggest problem; transport for young people was the biggest problem. The Government need to look a lot harder at how young people can get to the opportunities that might be available. If for work experience we are offering people low amounts of money, or sometimes no money, how do we expect them to get to the workplace if they come from homes with insufficient funds? That needs to be looked at.
The Government have had massive success with apprenticeships. I have an apprentice, Jordan Brimble, an outstanding young lady who is developing quickly in my office. She is an apprentice business administration person, not an apprentice MP—not yet, but one day perhaps. Apprenticeships have doubled in number in my constituency. Since I was elected, more than 5,000 people have started an apprenticeship contract in my constituency.
Another reason for the fall in youth unemployment is the fall in overall unemployment. In the Tees valley we have seen a fall of more than 7,000 people in the past 12 months—in seven constituencies alone. A lot is going on, including a lot of improvement, but we have issues, one of which might be described as employability. Any employer will say that there is a problem with hard skills—particularly in science and technology, but also in other areas—as well as soft skills. I talked to my local council about its scheme for taking on young people, and it has to train some of those young people even in the very soft skills of getting out of bed in the morning, getting to work on time or understanding that they have to do what their boss tells them to do. That prompts the question: what on earth has been going on in their previous 15 years plus of education? It is important to ask employers what they see—not that we should educate people simply to be employed, but it ought to be very much a part of the equation.
We also need to get young people interested in the right things. I was at an apprenticeships event just last week and heard a story about Aston Martin. It had presented a fantastic display to young people about its products and the cars it makes—a very exciting world of fast cars and engineering. There were 200 young people in the room, and at the end of the presentation they were asked, “How many people want to come and work for Aston Martin?” Nobody put their hand up. Aston Martin’s management, unsurprisingly, is saying, “How can we operate in the UK if nobody wants to come and work for us?” That goes back to the question of what skills we are teaching people and what we are getting people interested in from an early age.
I have my own story. Two weeks ago, I was living the dream as an MP when I got to open a new crematorium. I have a stone memorial on the side of a crematorium now, long before I am dead. The people at the crematorium told me that there are four jobs there, and they had 500 applications for those jobs. That afternoon, I went to a company that has just won the Queen’s award for exports. It makes some really innovative measuring products, cameras and other things that can be used for gas and oil measurements on oil rigs. It is making a fortune and yet cannot find enough people to assemble the cameras and work in its small factory. Five hundred people want to work in a crematorium but no one wants to assemble hi-tech equipment for oil rigs. I do wonder what our system is producing. Are we telling young people the right story about what the future holds?
I go around all the employers in my area trying to encourage them to take on young people and train them. I do that for their own future; it is a hard-nosed economic decision. Sometimes we see employers on TV saying, “My growth is limited because I can’t get skilled people.” My answer to that is always, “What are you doing about it, then? There is an economic case for you to do something about it.” It is a sad fact that only 10% of employers today take on apprentices.
I pay tribute to George Ritchie of Sembcorp in my constituency for driving the Tees Valley apprenticeship programme. That programme sits above employers, in recognition of the fact that because there was such a decline in heavy industry a lot of employers had effectively stopped training. Now, however, there is a lot of growth and inward investment, and the programme looks to see who will train the thousands of young people required for the new opportunities that are coming, and replace the thousands of people who will be retiring from those industries in the next 10 years. The Tees Valley apprenticeship programme has been having success in that, and has been backed by the Government, for which I thank the Minister and the Government.
What more should the Government do? As a Liberal Democrat I did not think I would ever use the word “Stalinist” in a speech in Parliament, but I think we have to get a bit more Stalinist about the skills that we teach young people. The market in education is simply not producing skilled people in the proportions that the country needs. For example, I understand that Darlington college trains 100 hairdressers a year. I do not know a lot about Darlington, but does it really need 100 hairdressers a year? Meanwhile lots of businesses in the local area simply cannot find the skilled people they need. The Government should keep on finding ways to steer the market—let us put it that way—to educate people and educators to produce what the country needs in the future.
There are lots of stories of that kind. Aerospace companies are affected; my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) has talked about how a company in his constituency had to turn away work for 300 people for 15 years because it got only four applications for the 300 jobs. Again, that is a massive skills problem.
The Government should be much more rigorous about why we need immigration to this country. This is not about being anti-immigration, but about making sure that people born and brought up in this country are ready for the jobs on offer. We need an inventory of the skills that we are lacking that mean we need immigration for various jobs. My particular hobby-horse when it comes to this issue is the NHS. We all know the NHS would fall over without immigration, but what has it been doing about training people over the past 20 years or so? Redcar and Cleveland college in my constituency used to have a course called “pre-nursing”, which led on to nursing, but the local NHS stopped training nurses, so the course now has to be called “introduction to nursing”, because the NHS finds it far cheaper to import nurses from the Philippines, South Africa and various other places. We need to address that scandal and expose how much of that is going on—how many people come to this country simply because we have not trained our own people properly?
We need to encourage employers to take on trainees. In certain sectors—the oil and gas sectors spring to mind—employers seem pathologically not to want to train their workers and simply go out and poach each other’s workers; that is why pay levels are so high. In those sectors, we may need to bring back training boards. A few still exist, but training levies have largely gone. However, if we cannot get industries and sectors to invest sufficiently in their own training we may need to force them to do so.
Finally, we should continue to spend Government money in this area and make full use of the European money that is available for skills, particularly in places such as the Tees valley, which are classed as intermediate areas. Those areas have a lot of European social fund money directed towards young people in particular.
Speaking for my own area, there has been a lot of progress and a lot of good things are going on, but there are still 705 young people aged 18 to 24 claiming jobseeker’s allowance, and that is 705 too many.
I am grateful for being called in this debate, Mr Crausby—particularly as I was not here at the start of it, for which I am sorry—to talk for a few minutes about unemployment and the employment of young people.
In a recent survey by the University and College Union of 16 to 24-year-old NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—36% said that they believed that they would never get a job, and 40% that they did not feel part of society; 33% suffered from depression and less than half felt in control of how their life would turn out. Another survey by the Children’s Society said that the unhappiest people are 14 and 15-year-olds. A report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said that a lack of youth services was failing children and young people in the UK.
Young people often feel very vulnerable and are finding it difficult to not only get into work but even think about being ready for work. We know that unemployment figures for young people are down; however, we have not taken into account the number of young people who are on workfare or are sanctioned.
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman continues to make that sort of intervention whenever a Labour Member is talking about the issues with unemployment. If he listens to what I am about to say, he might learn that I do not believe that the figures are totally true and accurate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) said a short while ago, young people are the group who are sanctioned most, and when they are sanctioned they disappear from the unemployment register. For instance, I have a volunteer working in my office who got so disheartened by sanctions and how he was being treated that he now does not sign on at all because he can no longer cope with the system.
We also have young people on workfare. They are not in employment—they are not getting paid for the work they are doing—but they also disappear from the unemployment figures. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) might be interested to know that in my constituency, any young people signing on for universal credit—that is what is happening for young people in my area now—do not exist in the unemployment figures, because universal credit is not currently connected into those figures. People who want to stand up and say that unemployment is down in my constituency should realise that the figure is not accurate.
I accept that there are more jobs, but one difficulty—I have asked the Secretary of State about this on a number of occasions—is that we do not know the quality of those jobs. We do not know how many involve workfare, zero-hours contracts or unpaid work, and we do not know how many are taken by people who are desperately underemployed and working just a few hours a week when they clearly want full-time jobs.
In the few minutes I have, however, I want to talk about the things we need to do on youth unemployment. One big issue employers and young people talk to me about is the lack of careers education. Where we have cut careers services down to the bare bones, young people do not necessarily get good careers education. The young people I talk to who are in apprenticeships—particularly those working for MBDA, which offers a high-level apprenticeship programme—say they were actively discouraged in their schools from taking up apprenticeships and are not given a full range of information about the jobs on offer. Clearly, therefore, we have a real issue on apprenticeship education.
Work experience should be mandatory. Three out of four employers do not work with young people at all—they do not give them work, work experience or apprenticeships. We need to expand the pool of employers who are prepared to give young people an opportunity. The great value of work experience is that it gives young people a notion of what the workplace is actually like; it encourages them to think about what exams they need to do and what they want to do with their future. Indeed, as a result of work experience, young people sometimes say, “I never want to go into the job I’m doing on work experience.” Work experience therefore often gives young people a rounded view, although I do not think that one or two weeks’ work experience in year 11 is enough; employers should interact much more with education. Some of the best employers in my constituency regularly go into schools and interact with young people; they talk to them about their future and give them a bit of hands-on practice in areas such as engineering.
Another crucial point is support. For 10 years starting in the ’80s, I worked with unemployed young people. We set up a youth co-operative for them, which gave them not only the support they needed, but education and training. Part of that was about young people setting up their own businesses. Not many of those businesses succeeded, but the young people who had attempted to set one up did then find jobs working for somebody else, because they had the experience to do so. Given that 33% of NEETs suffer from depression, we need to see how we can support young people with their education, attitudes and work-readiness. We can build confidence and self-esteem so that they can compete for the jobs that do exist.
I am concerned about the Government’s proposals to introduce fees for the training part of apprenticeships. We are trying to encourage small employers to take on apprentices—that is where the growth in apprenticeships will be—so putting barriers in the way of people taking on apprentices is the wrong thing to do.
I recently held a business event in my constituency. One of the major things employers said was that they wanted apprenticeships to be more responsive to employers, because a one-size-fits-all approach did not really work. They wanted to be much more involved in designing the training that takes place alongside apprenticeships, and to have a say in what happened on apprenticeship programmes for young people.
On the skills agenda, some of the things that have happened in education recently are taking people towards a 1950s and 1960s education agenda. Employers tell me they want young people to do technical subjects. They do not care what the subject is, but they need young people to develop their brains in different ways and to do things more with their hands so that they are ready to take up employment opportunities.
Employers also talk about life skills. They say they need young people to come to them work-ready in many ways. That means young people should have some notion of how the world works, how they fit into the world and how to behave, as well as some notion of financial education and other life skills.
My final point comes back to the issue of connecting employers to education. We need to do far more to enable employers and young people to meet each other and talk about what is going on in the world of work, so that young people can take their place in it.
It is a delight to debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate and on the way she advanced her arguments: she did not do so in a particularly partisan way, and I do not intend to advance mine in a partisan way either. The issues we all face are significant, and engaging in a battle over statistics does politicians in general no favours—I say that to the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). Before he intervenes to say what the unemployment statistics in my constituency are, let me say that I am fully aware of them.
They have improved dramatically, which is thanks largely to the Welsh Assembly Government and very little to the Government in Westminster—if we are going to get partisan.
There have been some important contributions to the debate. It is an enormous shame that we have lost the Minister who was here at the beginning. I gather he has gone off to Downing street, and we will discover later whether he has been promoted as much as he would like, but I wish him well. I say gently to the Government that it is naughty not only to shift responsibility for answering the debate, which was originally intended for the DWP, to another Department, but then, when we are three quarters of the way through, to hoik the Minister off to get some new employment—taking him out of a debate on those affected by youth unemployment when he does not look old enough to be out of that category. I have not even mentioned the Minister who is about to reply, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).
On that point, I will spare the Minister’s blushes by saying that we all think young people should be in Government positions. However, I should also note that Backbench Business Committee officials asked me which Ministry I would prefer to respond to the debate, and I said it would be helpful for a Minister from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to reply, because the debate is about employment, not unemployment.
Well, the Minister for Employment is in the Department for Work and Pensions. Be that as it may, let us get on to the matter in hand.
The truth is that the economy is improving and Opposition Members are as delighted about that as Government Members. I say that because many Opposition Members represent seats where what this country has suffered economically over the past few years is felt even more aggressively and painfully than it is in seats represented by Government Members. I know there are pockets of deprivation in every constituency in the land, but the honest truth is that many Opposition Members deal weekly and daily with multiple levels of deprivation, some historical and some new, so we know the pain. We are therefore delighted that the economy is improving, although I sometimes feel quite angry, and I think my constituents do too, when the Government seem complacent about the situation we are in.
The truth of the matter is that we still have the highest ever number of people in part-time employment who would like to be in full-time employment, many of them women. That is a significant challenge, because the issue then is how people in work pay the bills. Under this Government, for the first time ever the problem is that the majority of those living in poverty are people in work. That must be a cause of shame for all of us. Youth unemployment is still stubbornly high. I fully accept that the numbers have fallen, and they have fallen in my constituency. However, they reached an absolute peak last September, and there is still a considerable way to go. I will talk about that a little more later.
I am glad that we have a flexible labour market, but I often worry that the flexibility is all on the part of those who are employed, and that the employer can sometimes exploit that to such a degree that there is unfairness in the market. That means that whether someone is on a zero-hours contract without wanting to be, or is on an exclusive zero-hours contract, or does not have enough hours because the number they are given depends entirely on whether they get on with the boss rather than on a contract, their working conditions will be kept pretty miserable—let alone the problems of low pay.
At the moment some 853,000 young people aged 24 or under are unemployed. Although the figures have fallen, the ratio of young unemployed people to adult unemployed people is considerably higher in this country than for all our competitors. In the UK there are 3.6 young unemployed people for every unemployed adult; in the EU as a whole there are 2.4 and in Germany just 1.6 unemployed young people to every unemployed adult. Many hon. Members cite Spain and Greece, where youth unemployment is high, but we should not underestimate the problem in this country.
As several of my hon. Friends have mentioned—not least my hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) who chairs the all-party group on youth unemployment—the recession in the UK has hit the young hardest. All the economic statistics show that they have had a harder time of it than anyone else, and today, although I do not suppose that anyone will notice because the great reshuffle will obscure it all, prices are still rising 2.5 times faster than wages. That has a dramatic effect on people who are on low wages, because they spend a far higher percentage of their wages on the basics of life such as eating and heating. In the past five years, the employment rate has fallen faster among 20-year-olds than any other age group. Real pay has also fallen fastest for the young. We must factor in housing costs and the state of the housing market. They were part of the problem in Spain and Greece: the housing market fell apart, contributing to high youth unemployment. Because of the cost of housing, young people have problems with personal social mobility and moving from parts of the country with no employment to places where there is employment.
We should never forget how those things affect people, including their long-term health. A young person who has been out of work for more than six months is twice as likely as anyone else to be taking antidepressants, and anyone who is out of work for six months or longer is six times more likely to have a mental health problem of some kind, which might make it difficult for them to get back into the labour market. People move further and further from the labour market. One of the most depressing statistics that I saw this year was from the Prince’s Trust Macquarie youth index, which suggested that 750,000 young people in this country said they had nothing to live for.
I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I have very little time and it is more important that we listen to the Minister than that people listen to me, or, frankly, to him.
I want to say something about regional variations. My hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde and for Airdrie and Shotts are right to say that in areas formerly dominated entirely by one heavy industry, the issues are writ large. Whether the industry was mining, steel or shipbuilding the long-term effects are the same. A community of that kind would have had perhaps 100,000 people—nearly all men—employed in a job that they could start straight from school, perhaps at 14 or 15, with no further qualifications. Such communities had to move on to a world where women are just as likely as men to be employed, where some technical or academic qualifications are necessary, and where people may have to travel to work. I pay tribute to communities that have managed that without violence in the past 100 years, because in many parts of the world similar transitions have been far more difficult.
Conservative Members sometimes misunderstand or do not see the real difficulties faced by a young person growing up in a place such as Inverclyde, Airdrie or my constituency. In my constituency, the majority of people own their own homes and there is not much of a rental market, and what there is is in poor condition. There may be 70 applicants for every available job. Young people could move to other parts of the country, but they would have to meet housing costs, and if they are under 25, they will have no help with that whatsoever. They will be in an area where they had few social connections and little family support. People all too often underestimate the difficulties that young people face.
What should we be doing? The most important thing for my constituency has been the fact that when the coalition Government abolished the future jobs fund in England, without being even prepared to publish the document that they claimed proved that the fund was a waste of money, the Scottish and Welsh Governments decided to start new, similar schemes. As a result, 16,000 young people in Wales have been given jobs through Jobs Growth Wales, which means that they get a first chance when many young people never have a first chance at all. They have 25 to 40 hours a week on at least the minimum wage. It is really encouraging that 80% of those jobs are in the private sector, so the scheme is not simply extending the public sector; and 80% of people who have been in those jobs have been able to remain in them after the subsidy from the Welsh Assembly Government ends, which is a real sign of success. I deeply hope that at the next general election when we form the Government—I am sure that whenever we form the Government we will do this—we will have precisely that system across the whole country, so that every young person has a guarantee of a job and a chance to start off in the market.
We need to do far more about vocational skills, which is why we support the idea of a technical baccalaureate. The hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) pointed out the problem with apprenticeships, namely that only one in 10 employers have an apprentice. Two thirds of the apprenticeships available in the UK would not stand the test against apprenticeships in other countries. We believe that all apprenticeships should go up to qualification level 3. We also think that every firm that wants a major Government contract should offer apprenticeships to young people, and that that should be enforced. We also believe that young people must be given the skills to get into work, which is why we would create a youth allowance, similar to jobseeker’s allowance, to ensure that young people are in learning.
I have a few questions for the Minister, which I hope she will be able to answer. If she cannot answer them, I hope that someone else from another Department will be able to do so, and I hope that she will take responsibility for making sure that we get the answers. She will know—or she may not—that in Wales, we still have the education maintenance allowance. Universal credit, which is being rolled out slowly and perhaps surely, or perhaps uncertainly, until 2017, will affect those who receive EMA. How will EMA be considered under universal credit? Will it be assessed as part of income or not? Will it be assessed as income to the family or to the young person?
The Government last year commissioned Sir Jeremy Heywood to produce a report on young people and employment. We are still waiting for the report to be published. When will that happen? As the Minister knows, we are more than halfway through the Youth Contract scheme. Several hon. Members have preached to us about how wonderful the Youth Contract is, but so far only 6% of the anticipated wage incentive payments have been made. That is £10,030 out of a projected £160,000. That suggests that it was a monumental failure rather than a monumental success. I am delighted about the 6%, but the scheme, frankly, is not working. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.
I have two more questions. One is about work experience. Why are people not allowed to start work experience for 13 weeks? Finally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts pointed out, why has the number of staff working on apprenticeships been so dramatically cut?
It is a pleasure, Mr Crausby, to serve under your chairmanship. I appreciate your flexibility in recognising the rather unusual circumstances of this debate, following the change of Minister part way through. I thank hon. Members for their understanding. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) has been called away to a meeting at No. 10, and I was delighted to step in and respond to this debate.
Youth employment is hugely important to Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as it is to colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and across the Government. We need all parts of the Government to work together on the issue and not least with MPs across the House. Many of the contributions I have heard, and those made before I arrived, have been made with the intention of solving some of the issues.
I wholeheartedly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate and her important focus on employment rather than unemployment. We want to focus on that because it is the outcome we want to achieve. Her Norwich for Jobs campaign has ensured that there is an improvement in the situation for young people in her constituency. We have heard from many hon. Members about the schemes they have been involved in in their constituencies. The support of constituency MPs is particularly important as, for example, are MPs who have taken on apprentices in their own offices. We have heard a good series of examples of how MPs can make a difference in their own way to the situation in their constituencies.
We heard from hon. Members about schemes and initiatives whereby business people go into schools to offer insights into the world of work and enterprise. That is particularly valuable for young people. We have heard about challenges to people from more deprived areas and backgrounds. It was striking that when I went to the health day at a private school in my constituency, the pool of individuals available included neuroscientists who happened to be the parents of one of the children there, for example. In other areas, it may be more difficult to get a wide variety of people who are personally connected to the school to come in and offer career insights. Programmes such as Inspiring the Future are important in linking people who are happy to give an hour or two of their time once a year to speak about their job to local schools that do not necessarily have those contacts. Just last Friday, I took part in an event in a school in Islington for the Inspiring Women part of that campaign to ensure that young girls have a wide variety of role models presented to them to open up their aspirations.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) raised the important point about supporting people who do not want to go to university. It is wonderful when people go to university and gain the education it offers, but it is not right for everyone and that is one reason why the Government’s support for apprenticeships has been so important in ensuring genuine options for young people, so they can choose the right path for them. I wholeheartedly agree with him that what matters is employment, not separation. It is a shame that in Scotland over the past couple of years, the Scottish Government have not been able to focus strongly on such issues because they have been distracted by the referendum.
My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) made the important point that almost all young people want to work. It is important to hold on to that in the face of some negative media stories about young people and how they are presented in our society.
My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) also mentioned his experience of having an apprentice in his office. His support for the business community in the north-east and providing jobs has been second to none. He will be greatly missed following his decision to stand down from this place, as will his work in supporting jobs in Redcar and the surrounding areas. He was right to raise the issues of employability and skills, and he contrasted the huge appetite for jobs at the crematorium compared with jobs with manufacturers of oil rig equipment.
The Perkins review highlighted the challenges we face in recruiting enough skilled engineers to ensure that our economy can grow in the way we want it to. I understand why my hon. Friend entreated us to become rather more Stalinist regarding the skills we need. I am not sure that is the word I would reach for, but employers have told us that basic skills such as English and maths need to be prioritised. That is why the curriculum is being strengthened and we are ensuring that all young people up to the age of 18 must study maths and English to at least GCSE grade C.
General employability is not just about paper qualifications but perhaps more about attitudes and basic behaviour, such as going to work, turning up promptly and being reliable. Traineeships have been introduced in response to that. They offer high-quality work experience, as well as support with English and maths skills and preparation-for-work training. They help young people who are not quite ready for work to get the experience, confidence and skills they need to be ready. That programme is already growing quickly; more than 7,400 trainees have started since August.
The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) asked a variety of questions. She said, importantly, that the approach cannot be one size fits all, because every young person is different and has a different set of challenges to overcome. That is why the range of available initiatives allows people to choose a route specific to the issues they face. We have apprenticeships and wage incentives for people who are already able to work. For those who are close to the labour market, we have the sector-based work academies. There are traineeships for those who want to work but perhaps do not have the experience and qualifications, and there is work experience and training for others.
I agree with the hon. Lady that promoting work experience is important. We already have tens of thousands of work experience, work trial and sector-based work academy places, and of course the traineeships will increase that figure because they include substantial work experience placement. The links between business, employers and schools are hugely important because as well as providing career insights, they can often lead to good-quality work experience placements with local employers and may ultimately lead to work.
The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) made some rather negative remarks about the work experience programme, referring to some of it as workfare. I fundamentally disagree. It is absolutely right, indeed vital, that young people are able to get work experience while they are still being supported by the benefits system, so that they can get into work. That was not handled right under the previous Labour Government—those claiming unemployment benefit or JSA who wanted to increase their skills and get work experience, so that they could get a job, had their benefits stopped. That created a trap that this Government’s commitment to work experience is helping young people out of.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady. Work experience needs to be a quality experience that benefits the person undertaking it.
I apologise to those whose questions I have been unable to answer. I do not know who the next Minister for Skills and Enterprise is likely to be, but I am sure they will be determined to continue the Government’s good work on apprenticeships and the wide range of interventions to support young people into employment. They will also doubtless be more than keen to ensure that any of the points I have been unable to respond to will be answered in writing. Indeed, I will ensure that that happens.
We have achieved a lot, but there is agreement across the House that we should not be complacent. There are still young people out there who have hopes and ambitions and deserve to get that first step on the career ladder. This Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that we give them the skills and support to be able to do so.