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Volume 590: debated on Thursday 8 January 2015

We have achieved our ambition of 2 million new apprenticeships since 2010. The apprenticeship grant for employers is helping smaller business to take on new apprentices. From April 2016, employers will not be required to pay employer national insurance contributions for apprentices under the age of 25.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the nearly 800 people in my constituency who started an apprenticeship last year? However, it is not just about quantity; it is also about quality. What steps is he taking to raise quality as well as quantity?

I am delighted to congratulate those who started apprenticeships in my hon. Friend’s constituency this year. There has been a 40% increase since 2009-10 in the number of people starting apprenticeships in his constituency. They are higher-quality apprenticeships than those that existed under the previous Government. They have to last at least 12 months, and they have to be a real job with a real employer. That is a key part of the economic plan that is improving conditions for young people in his constituency.

The most recent figures show a fall in the number of apprenticeship starts in the north-east. What explanation can the Minister offer for that concerning trend and what does he intend to do about it?

The previous Government created a great number of Mickey Mouse apprenticeships in order to massage the figures. There were apprenticeships for which people did not need an employer, and apprenticeships that lasted way less than 12 months. Under this Government, there is substantial growth in real apprenticeships—those that last more than 12 months and that give people real skills that will improve their earnings. That is why the number of people not in education, employment or training is lower than it has ever been.

The Government should be congratulated on what they have achieved with regard to apprenticeships, but the Minister will be aware that in rural and economically challenged areas such as mine in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, it is quite difficult to advance apprenticeships, particularly in small and micro-businesses. What will the Government do to ensure that small and micro-businesses can enjoy this success?

It is incredibly important that apprenticeships are created not just by the largest employers who obviously have the resources and capacity to engage with the scheme. That is why we introduced the apprenticeship grant for employers, which is specifically focused on small businesses and pays them £1,500 for the first new apprenticeships that they create. We are also looking at ways of making it easier for small businesses to get the Government’s money and to decide with whom they want to work as a training provider. But it is critical—only about 10% of employers are creating apprenticeships; if we could just double that, we could more than double the number of apprenticeships.

Should we not give the Minister the opportunity to withdraw his unfortunate remarks about Mickey Mouse apprenticeships, which really are very disrespectful to all those who worked hard and did a good job in important apprenticeships in the years to which he was referring? Is it not true that most of the increase under this Government, which Members from all parts of the House welcome, has taken place not among 16 to 18-year-olds but in the 20-year-olds-plus group, and we now need apprenticeships that will encourage the younger group into them?

It gives me great pleasure to disagree with literally everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. I certainly will not withdraw my suggestion that the last Government was conning young people. An apprenticeship that lasted less than 12 months and did not even have an employer was a fraud on them, because it was not preparing them for a life of work or giving them relevant skills. It is a bit strange for the Opposition to suggest that nobody over the age of 24 deserves any investment in new skills or any chance to acquire a new ability. I welcome the fact that people over the age of 24 are taking up apprenticeships more than ever before.

One of the benefits of the real apprenticeships that the Government have brought in is that they provide long-term avenues into work. I recently visited a small business in Worcester that was taking on its 13th apprentice. Every single apprentice that had been through had been given a full-time job by that business. But there is still a challenge in persuading careers advisers that apprenticeships provide real value. What can my hon. Friend do to encourage them to support apprenticeships more generally?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is often careers advisers and teachers who, perhaps for the best reasons in the world, just do not understand the opportunities out there in apprenticeships, or the fact that someone can now get a degree through an apprenticeship or rise to almost any position in the senior management of a company. It is no longer about a young lad under the bonnet of a car; it can still be that, but it can also be about a young woman who has just got a first-class degree at BAE Systems through a higher apprenticeship. We are trying to get that message out in every way we can.

This Government have contrived to create a country where this generation of young people is now the first generation for a century to be poorer than the generation before them. Young people now face an unemployment queue that is three quarters of a million long; graduates now face £44,000-worth of debt; and from figures published by BIS before Christmas, we learned that the number of apprenticeships for the under-24s has not gone up but down. Social mobility in this country is in reverse, and we need more apprenticeships for young people, not fewer. The Opposition have an ambition that by 2025 as many people should be going into an apprenticeship as are going to university. Is that an ambition that the Minister will match?

What I hope to hear from the right hon. Gentleman is whether that pledge, which we have costed on a reasonable basis, received the approval of the shadow Chancellor. My understanding is that the shadow Chancellor has not approved the approximately £700 million of extra spending, entirely unexplained, that it would cost to support that ambition. The Government are very clear what our ambition is. We will create 3 million new apprenticeships in the life of the next Parliament. Those apprenticeships will be for all people who would benefit from them. Unlike the Labour party and the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), we do not discriminate against people over the age of 24.