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Government Procurement

Volume 592: debated on Thursday 12 February 2015

5. If he will take steps to increase apprenticeship places and support small businesses through greater use of Government procurement. (907600)

Under the industrial strategy, we encourage a long-term approach to procurement, including apprenticeships and other forms of training.

May I point out, with respect, that the Labour Government used spending on public procurement to boost apprenticeship opportunities, especially in the case of big projects such as Crossrail and the London Olympics? Given that the European Union procurement rules do not prevent that, will the Secretary of State explain why Ministers are not supporting Labour’s plans to use public procurement to create new apprenticeship opportunities?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that under the last Government the numbers of apprenticeship starts was half the number that we have seen in the current Parliament, and that these are also significantly longer and higher-level apprenticeships. As for procurement, if companies can build in apprenticeships—which we encourage them to do—that is of course desirable, but it is a very crude mechanism which adds to the barriers facing small business and the cost to the Government. The experience of trying to build conditionality into section 106 agreements suggests that many companies regard the process as token, and do not invest in sustainable apprenticeships.

I recently visited Mathias & Sons, a work clothing manufacturer in my constituency. It is hoping to secure the contract to provide clothing for workers at the Hinkley Point C development. What can the Government do to ensure that important small businesses like that obtain contracts for such huge developments?

I believe that congratulations are due to the hon. Lady, who has become engaged—perhaps this morning, but certainly recently.

As for procurement and Hinkley Point, the leading contractors have committed themselves to a substantial UK content, and we hope that that extends to apprenticeships. We are endeavouring to frame the pre-qualification questionnaires in such as way that apprenticeship training is encouraged in UK procurement.

Big projects such as Crossrail and HS2 are UK-wide. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that businesses throughout the UK, including small businesses, have an opportunity to benefit from the procurement and Government spending that is associated with that type of work?

I gather that senior politicians, including me, have been queuing to go down into Crossrail to admire its progress. One of Crossrail’s key achievements is to substantially advance apprenticeships and, above all, UK content; there is a wide distribution throughout the UK. If we can replicate the experience of Crossrail with other big infrastructure projects, that would be an admirable step forward.

Student Loans

More students entered university this year than ever before in our history, with the biggest rise coming from the poorest areas. Universities will see their teaching resources grow from around £8 billion in 2011 to around £10 billion next year. Graduates are earning 40% more than non-graduates. The taxpayer gets £300,000 extra in tax receipts alone over the average graduate’s career. All this is why the OECD said last month:

“England has got it right on paying for higher education. Among all available approaches, the UK offers still the most…sustainable approach to university finance.”

In a recent parliamentary debate, the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), who I am delighted to see in his place, said that the system needed some tweaking. The public need to know what tweaking the Government have in mind. If the Conservatives are in power after the election—[Interruption.] I know it is unlikely but if that is the case will the Minister guarantee that there will be no increase in the fee cap, no decrease in the loan repayment threshold and no change in the interest rate on loans?

Our universities need to benefit from the confidence and stability that our reforms have introduced. I am perfectly happy with all the arrangements that we have. The uncertainty comes from the Labour party’s proposals, about which the university vice-chancellors are deeply concerned. They said that they would mean

“cuts to universities that would damage the economy, affect the quality of students’ education, and set back work on widening access to higher education”.

At a time when confidence is needed, the Labour party is proposing chaos.

Actually, the UCAS figures published recently show that there are 7,000 fewer British applicants to our universities than there were in 2011. Figures from the Library show that we are wasting and writing off £1 in every £2 that we invest in the higher education system, and our students will not pay back their debts until they are in their 50s. We are educating fewer of our young people and we are wasting more of our money.

The Chancellor forecast that there would be 60,000 extra students this year, yet the UCAS data show that there are only 12,000 extra applicants for this September. Does the Minister want to explain to the House why, if his system is so good, he has just missed his growth target by an incredible 80%?

That is total nonsense. We have more students than ever before in this country. We have been able to take the cap off the number of students able to go to university, a historic decision that implements the recommendation of the Robins report of over 50 years ago. In terms of putting people off going to university, the big concern of the vice-chancellors is that the Labour party’s proposals would specifically damage the prospects of poorer students and risk the quality of education for all. It is time that the right hon. Gentleman, who has failed to come up with a policy for all this time, said, weeks before the election, what Labour’s policy on higher education is.