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Volume 715: debated on Monday 7 December 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many people started apprenticeships in 2008-09; and how many in 2006-07.

My Lords, provisional data published in October show that there were a record 234,000 apprenticeship starts in the 2008-09 academic year, compared with 184,400 in 2006-07—and a miserable 65,000 in 1996-97, before this Government took over. That represents the highest number of apprenticeship starts and achievements ever in an academic year. When final data are returned by providers, we expect apprenticeship start figures for 2008-09 to rise by approximately 2 per cent to 3 per cent.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. But is it not the case that, in the last quarter of 2008-09, the number of people starting an apprenticeship plummeted by 20,000, or 36 per cent, on the same quarter in the previous year? The Government boast of moves to promote apprenticeships, including new apprenticeship training agencies and group training associations, but those will provide only 14,000 places over three years. Is that not a drop in the ocean compared with a fall of 20,000 in no more than three months?

My Lords, I am informed that the figures that I have given you for 2008-09 are correct, and they show an increase of approximately 2 per cent to 3 per cent. We believe that our record on apprenticeships is second to none and that we rescued a system that was dying on its feet. We are spending more on this than we have ever spent before. We are also determined to recruit more within the public sector; we have, as the noble Lord knows, set ourselves an ambitious target of something like 21,000. We are making significant progress. I am not in a position yet to announce the figures, but we are driving hard and have ministerial champions in each department. I am confident that they will make a significant contribution.

My Lords, although the House will welcome the number of apprenticeships recently announced by the Minister in traditional areas such as manufacturing, what steps, if any, are being taken to create apprenticeship opportunities in rural areas and communities?

To reassure my noble friend, we have a number of schemes to try to drive up the number of apprenticeships. I instance group training associations. We have invested another £10 million to encourage the creation of those organisations, where small and medium-sized employers can shelter under that umbrella and encourage the creation of more apprenticeship opportunities. Generally, the drive for apprenticeships around the country is being led by the National Apprenticeship Service, which came live last April, but it is the cumulative result of a number of government initiatives to drive up apprenticeships that will ensure that we create more of them in rural areas.

My Lords, with the enactment of the apprenticeships Bill, there is concern that there will be a requirement for prescribed standards—in particular, for off-workplace training. Does the Minister agree that we need to listen to employers and businesses to meet their concerns and to ensure that the apprenticeship schemes meet their particular requirements, which can be special in many cases?

I agree with the noble Lord that we should. We have created what we believe to be a demand-led system. We have created the sector skills councils which, as I am sure the noble Lord knows, are employer-led. We Ofsted-inspect the learning scheme. We believe that we have taken every precaution. If he has specific examples where he feels that the system is failing, I would welcome the opportunity to examine them, because we want to ensure that our training schemes deliver value for money.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the relevant engineering sector skills council. How many of the apprenticeships to which the Minister has referred are in the engineering sector, which is so important to our economy?

I will have to write to the noble Lord to give him the precise number but, in the area of his concern—which we are addressing, because we share it—we have identified the new skills strategy. It sets out a new ambition for a modern class of technicians to secure our economic future and to drive growth. We will create up to 35,000 extra advanced apprenticeship opportunities for 19 to 30 year-olds over the next two years, and many of those will be in the engineering area, so we are addressing that.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the 1950s, I served a five-year apprenticeship, which delayed by three years my National Service, which I then served in the Air Force? Secondly, does he believe that the Government should have been encouraging apprenticeships 10 years ago, not two years ago?

I thank my noble friend for that information. I believe that we have been encouraging apprenticeships for more than 10 years now. As I pointed out in my opening remarks, the scheme we inherited was dying on its feet: there were only 65,000 apprentices and only just over a quarter were completing their apprenticeship. If we wind the clock forward 10 years, we now have more than a quarter of a million apprentices, and more than two-thirds are completing their apprenticeship. That sounds like a Government who are focused, concentrating and, more importantly, delivering on apprenticeships.

Why are the Government cutting back on the number of adult apprenticeships when, in a demand-led system, there is excess demand for adult apprenticeships, whereas it is quite difficult to find employers willing to take those aged under 19?

As the noble Baroness knows from our many exchanges on the apprenticeships Bill—what a pleasure to meet her again—last year was a record year for adult apprenticeships. There were about 27,000. We will not reach that figure this year, but we will still see a significant number of adult apprenticeships. We want to ensure that we get extra value for money from colleges and to encourage the most efficient. As she will know, we are very focused on 16 to 18 year-olds, and I know that she shares a similar concern. It is a question of balance. We certainly have not abandoned the old apprenticeships, because they also make a significant contribution in reskilling and retraining.