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House of Lords Hansard
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20 February 2018
Volume 789

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not put off taking up apprenticeship scheme places.

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as patron of YMCA Fairthorne, Hampshire.

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My Lords, ensuring that apprenticeships are accessible to people from all backgrounds is a priority for this Government. Our funding policy recognises where additional support is necessary through extra funding. We have launched a new partnership with five major cities in England to drive up apprenticeships among under-represented groups. In addition, our careers strategy will mean that young people will have a better understanding of the world of work, including apprenticeships, to help to decide their future careers.

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I thank the Minister for his Answer. However, a major concern is that disadvantaged students who rely on benefits lose that entitlement when they take up apprenticeships. My colleagues at the national YMCA tell me that 50% of young people say that their apprenticeship salary does not enable them to afford basic living costs. What action are the Government taking to address issues in the benefits framework which adversely affect the ability of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to successfully complete their apprenticeships?

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My Lords, one of the core principles of an apprenticeship is that it is a genuine job, and it is treated accordingly in the benefits system. Therefore, a young person on an apprenticeship will receive at least the national minimum wage, which will increase to £3.70 per hour for apprenticeships from this April. The Low Pay Commission estimates that up to 34,000 apprenticeships will benefit from that. However, for apprentices claiming benefits in their own right, financial support is available for those on low incomes and young people may be able to claim universal credit or tax credits to help with living costs. As the House will know, universal credit is an in-work benefit, so those young claimants in work on low wages, including apprentices under contract, can continue to claim support for housing.

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My Lords, I know from experience that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may need extra help and support to enable them to take up, and make a success of, apprenticeships: for example, in areas such as travel, dress, punctuality and behaviour at work. What are the Government doing to support employers, particularly smaller employers, to enable them to provide that kind of support?

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There are a number of initiatives. For example, the DfE and the Department for Transport are looking at ways to ease young apprentices’ travel from home to work. That could take the form of providing extra money or practical ways of getting them to work. It is important that young apprentices are not put off taking up this great opportunity to get a good start in life.

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My Lords, are the Government aware of the scepticism I have encountered when talking to people in Yorkshire involved in this area over whether the new apprenticeship scheme really will be used to encourage 18 year-old school leavers to take up new apprenticeships as their first job rather than companies using it to upskill those they already employ? Can the noble Viscount assure us that the Government will make every effort to develop links with schools to ensure that children are helped to make the transition to work, particularly in areas such as the construction industry where skills are in desperately short supply?

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The noble Lord is correct: in Britain we desperately need to grow certain skills ourselves. Encouraging employers to go into schools is very much work in progress. The Careers & Enterprise Company has pushed for employers to go into schools to talk to young people about opportunities. Linked to that, the traineeships, which the noble Lord will know about, provide quality training for thousands of young people who need to develop initial skills to help them into the pipeline of getting into apprenticeships and on into a meaningful career.

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My Lords, does the Minister accept that if we are no longer in the single market and under the European Union requirement for the free movement of labour, there will be much greater incentive for employers to increase the number, and improve the quality, of the apprenticeships they offer to our disadvantaged young people?

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The noble Lord is absolutely right: that is why we are putting so much effort into developing our own apprenticeships. The Institute for Apprenticeships is looking particularly at setting high standards to ensure that employers have the right people on board and that this country has the necessary skills to ensure that we can stand on our own two feet after Brexit.

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My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the shortage of apprentices in the engineering sector, due, sadly, to a lack of encouragement on the part of their secondary schools? I speak as a former chairman of the Engineering Training Authority.

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That may well be the case, but, as I said already, there are several initiatives with employers going into schools, to ensure that schools can push further to encourage apprentices. It is important to create parity of esteem between apprentices and those going along the academic path. A lot of work needs to be done. There are advertisements on the radio at the moment—I heard one on my way in last night—and a full marketing or promotional campaign is going on.

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My Lords, when the Prime Minister announced her review yesterday, she called for parity of esteem between academic and technical routes, to create what she called,

“a system of tertiary education that works for all our young people”.

That is certainly a worthwhile objective. Yet, bizarrely, the Department for Work and Pensions does not class apprenticeships as approved education or training, which leads to the sort of problems outlined by the right reverend Prelate in his Question. Can the Minister envisage a situation in which a 16 year-old goes to his or her parents and says, “I’m considering an apprenticeship or going to further or higher education, and in one of those cases you will lose my child benefit and your tax credits”? It is not difficult to see what road the parents will usher him or her down. To deal with this structural barrier, will the Minister speak to his colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions to get them to understand that there will have to be some change if a level playing field is to be created for apprenticeships?

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The Government are doing an enormous amount to encourage apprenticeships for all, and in particular for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The noble Lord mentioned parental input, but it is a joined-up effort of parental input plus schools, led by our own careers strategy. As the noble Lord will know, schools have a mandatory obligation to give proper careers guidance to young people. It is very important indeed that we raise the level of advice that is given to young people on careers.