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Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2015

More than 2.4 million apprenticeship starts have been delivered in England since May 2010, but we are now going even further. We are committed to 3 million more over the course of this Parliament and we will ensure that they deliver the skills that employers and the economy need for continued growth.

We need to fill 1 million more digital jobs by 2020, not to mention finding 1 million more technicians and engineers. In that context, I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree wholeheartedly with the Science and Technology Committee’s first report, published yesterday, which states that cuts to science and innovation spending are a false economy. That spending is an investment, not a state subsidy, and it creates jobs, increases productivity and attracts inward investment. It is essential for science, technology, maths and engineering—STEM—apprentices seeking innovative British employers.

I commend my hon. Friend for her leadership of the Science and Technology Committee. She is absolutely right to talk about the importance of science, innovation and digital skills. She will know that I made a speech yesterday to Innovate UK’s annual conference, in which I set out new plans to boost science and innovation capabilities.

There were 740 new apprentices in my constituency last year. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the hundreds of new apprentices, and confirm that he will continue to work to improve not only the quantity but the quality of apprenticeships?

I am delighted to congratulate those who have started their apprenticeships in my hon. Friend’s constituency. There has been a 45% increase in apprenticeships since 2010, and we have ensured that they are high-quality paid jobs that last at least 12 months. The whole House should acknowledge the incredible work that has been done by the Minister for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) on apprenticeships. He has focused not only on quality but on quantity.

Cobham, a company in Wimborne in my constituency, takes on between 12 and 18 new apprentices each year, and there have been just under 700 new apprenticeship starts in my constituency in the past 12 months. Businesses are responding to the call for new apprenticeships, but may I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that these apprenticeships really are worth while and high-skilled, so that those who undertake them will really benefit from them?

I am delighted to say that my hon. Friend’s constituency has had a 37% increase in apprenticeship starts since 2010. I know that he is very passionate about this, and that he has done much to promote apprenticeships. He is absolutely right to talk about the quality. Higher and degree apprenticeships are widening access to professions, giving young people new, well-respected routes to professional education at some of our best universities.

The Secretary of State talks a good game, but the fact is that apprenticeship starts have dropped in every single year since 2011-12. The ambition for 3 million new apprenticeship starts is commendable, but would he concede that, in the light of the uncertainty surrounding key policy aspects such as the apprenticeship levy, he is going to struggle to hit that target?

First, I must point out that there were more than 492,000 apprenticeship starts in 2014-15, which was up 50,000 on the previous year. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the apprenticeship levy, and I know that he and his Select Committee have done some work on this. I hope that he will acknowledge that that will be a way of ensuring proper funding for apprenticeships, not just for the quality but for the quantity too.

In Doncaster, we were absolutely delighted to secure one of the two sites for the national college for high speed rail, but the Government seem to be a bit lukewarm about that now. We want to get on with developing and expanding apprenticeship opportunities in the rail industry, so will the Secretary of State confirm that he still fully backs the site in Doncaster for the college?

I am happy to reassure the right hon. Lady that we are committed to the college. It is right that it should be in Doncaster, and it will make a big difference to skills in an important area for our future infrastructure.

What impact does the Secretary of State think cutting the funding for further education colleges by 40% might have on the availability and quality of apprenticeships?

I speak as someone who went to an FE college, and no one needs to tell me about their huge importance up and down the country. My priority is to make them stronger, and one way we are going to do that is through local area reviews, which will look at local need.

The video gaming industry contributes more than £3 billion to our economy and supports skilled jobs across the country, including in my constituency. Representatives of the industry tell me that the biggest barrier to growth is a lack of skills, yet there are no employee-led level 4 higher apprenticeships in video gaming, and the NextGen Skills Academy, which was working with employers to develop such an apprenticeship, is said to have lost its funding. We cannot allow the Government’s lack of a digital skills strategy to make it “game over” for Britain, so will the Secretary of State give me a guarantee now that the video gaming industry will get the apprenticeship standard that it needs? Yes or no?

The hon. Lady should be reassured, first, by the fact that I have met representatives of the video gaming industry on a number of occasions to discuss several issues, including skills. She will know that it is important that apprenticeships are employer-led, and it is up to any industry to come forward with proposals. We are already working with more than 1,000 employers on more than 140 apprenticeship programmes that they are helping to set up, and we will work with the video gaming industry, too.