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Skills and Apprenticeships: Funding

Volume 736: debated on Monday 17 July 2023

As I am sure everybody knows, I will never get tired of flying the flag for apprenticeships and skills. This Government are investing record levels of funding, with an additional £3.8 billion in skills over this Parliament. That includes an extra £1.6 billion for 16-to-19 education, and increasing investment in apprenticeships to £2.7 billion by 2024-25. That supports our commitment to create a world-leading skills system that is employer-focused, high quality, and fit for the future.

This Government’s schools, colleges and businesses around the country are working hard to show young people that going to university is not the only route to success, and there are now so many study options, which the RHA, the Federation of Small Businesses, and lots of Stroud businesses are talking to me about all the time. What is my right hon. Friend doing to reform the existing apprenticeship levy to work better for small businesses and students?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I am proud of all the work we have done on apprenticeships. We removed the limit on the number of apprentices that small businesses can take on, and we continue to pay 100% of training costs for the smallest employers, and allow levy payers to transfer 25% of their funds to support small and medium-sized enterprises. We spent 99.6% of the apprenticeship budget in 2021-22, which has helped to support 8,940 apprenticeship starts in my hon. Friend’s constituency since 2010. To continue that progress and ensure that everyone knows what apprenticeship opportunities are available, we are working with UCAS so that for the first time ever, young people will be able to use UCAS to search and apply for apprenticeships alongside degrees, making it easier for young people to find the right opportunity for them.

I thank the Secretary of State for visiting BAE Systems recently in Lancashire. Accrington and Rossendale College in my Hyndburn and Haslingden constituency has been successfully rolling out the T-level programme, but to ensure that young people in my constituency have the skills they need in areas such as technology and engineering, further capital investment is needed to ensure that it can continue to provide state-of-the-art facilities. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether there will be further waves of the T-level capital fund?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for joining me on that visit, which I think was eye-opening for both of us. The Nelson & Colne College group, which includes Accrington and Rossendale College in my hon. Friend’s constituency, has benefited from capital investment of more than £6 million since 2010, including funding to improve the condition of its estate and support the delivery of T-levels and technical education. Most recently, it benefited from further investment as one of our 108 T-level capital projects, working towards delivering engineering and manufacturing T-levels. We will continue to support the roll-out of T-levels.

The Secretary of State will know that levelling up is about not geography but opportunity, and what better opportunity can we give our young people than a first-class education? Southampton has put in a bid for a university technical college. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that she has seen our bid and will look favourably on it, and will she update the House on when we are likely to hear whether we have been successful?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuous campaigning on this subject. I do not know how many meetings we have had, but I see his passion to get a UTC in Southampton. I recently met Becky Smith, one of the fantastic former students of UTC Portsmouth, who is now a degree apprentice studying mechanical engineering at the University of Chichester in my constituency. She was full of praise for her time at UTC Portsmouth. We are currently considering the applications we have received. I have seen them all, and I have been through them in great detail in the latest free school wave, including Portsmouth’s bid for a new UTC in Southampton. We hope to announce the successful applications very soon.

Hospitality and tourism is an industry worth £3.5 billion a year to Cumbria, and it is our biggest employer. Apprenticeships are an important way into a career within that sector. The problem is that T-levels are a useful stepping stone into apprenticeships, yet the Government have again kicked into the long grass the T-level on catering, having already taken out the hospitality element of that. Will the Secretary of State meet me and representatives from Cumbria Tourism, so we can talk about how she can change that policy, and so that more young people can enter that important profession?

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. As he will know, I always have a laser-like focus on quality, and if the quality is not good enough then I will not release the apprenticeship, the apprenticeship standard or the T-level. Too often we have had low-quality qualifications in this country, and it is important that we work with a vast array of businesses to ensure that we get the quality system that they demand and that will be good for all our young people.

May I beg the Minister to pay attention to the fact that good apprenticeships and good training in any town and city must come from a blend of good universities—I think most of our universities are good—with local further education colleges? Will she take a leaf out of Tony Blair’s book, when he said in a recent important speech that what we need is more high-class universities and more polytechnics made up from the new former FE colleges?

As usual, we are ahead of the Opposition. We have already invested in 21 institutes of technology, which are where a group of colleges and universities work with employers in the area. They are a great addition to the landscape, along with all the other technical qualifications and skills training that we have introduced since 2010.

I welcome the funding made available to the space systems engineering degree apprenticeship and the opportunities that will provide young people in the UK’s growing space industry. What plans do Ministers have to fund similar apprenticeships in other emerging sectors?

It was a great pleasure to go to the space park in Leicester to launch the space systems engineering level 6 degree apprenticeship, on top of the level 4 space engineering apprenticeship, which I launched previously. There are many different routes into the space industry, which is important and something that we are good at in the UK. Any employers or employer groups wishing to develop an apprenticeship standard could work with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. We have worked with more than 5,000 employers in the past few years, and we have built more than 670 apprenticeship standards, none of which existed before we started the programme in 2012.

New research from the House of Commons Library has shown that the amount of the apprenticeship levy paid by employers that has been allocated to the apprenticeship budget has fallen from 89% in 2017 to just 77% in the most recent year. The truthful answer to the question from the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) is that the Secretary of State is doing nothing to reform the apprenticeship levy, as she believes it is working perfectly. Can the Minister confirm that any employer that, like the hon. Member for Stroud, wants greater flexibility in the levy should vote Labour in the next general election?

There is nothing that would make me give such drastic advice. The truth about the apprenticeship levy is that 99.6% of it will be spent this year. We can look in the rear view mirror, and there are some reports going back over time that show some underspend in the levy, but they are back over time. We are now spending 99.6% of the levy. Perhaps what the hon. Gentleman has not appreciated is that some of the funding goes to the devolved Governments.[Official Report, 20 July 2023, Vol. 736, c. 15MC.] If we examine the apprenticeship system in Wales and Scotland, it is not a patch on what we have introduced in England.