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Apprenticeships: Government Support

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for apprenticeships.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Parents always want the best for their children, and parents across south Bristol are no different. Like families the length and breadth of the country, we want our children to succeed and have opportunities to thrive. We want kids to have the best possible start in life because we know that when that happens, their life chances for the years to follow are transformed for the better.

Under this Government, young people are being let down. A lack of investment in capital and social terms is not only harming opportunities for them, but blocking a vital pipeline that helps power everything from the NHS to business and research and development. The Government’s approach to apprenticeships is a case study in the very real damage that can be caused by Government inaction and indifference.

During my time in the NHS, I became convinced that to grow and develop our NHS, we needed to secure new ways of bringing talent and skill into the workforce. We need to use every route open to us and freshly chart some new ones to ensure that those who want to start a career in the NHS are not just able to find one, but actively encouraged to do so in a way that best suits them.

I represent communities in south Bristol that include thousands of young people with talent, ideas and passion, but many are among the least likely in the country to go to university. They need pathways that can lead them to a secure job and a rewarding career, just as our institutions and industry desperately need the skills and capabilities young people bring to the workforce. Apprenticeships can and should be an equally attractive option for those who seek a career but choose not to pursue a university degree.

The hon. Lady rightly says that young people often find the choice between an apprenticeship and a university degree challenging and compelling. Does she agree that a greater promotion of level 3 advanced apprenticeships could be a good compromise, because they lead to good qualifications in their own right or to a degree apprenticeship?

I agree that degree apprenticeships are a good thing. I am more concerned about levels 2 and 3 in my constituency, but I recently spoke to graduates at the University of Exeter about health and care. I was very proud to go down there before Christmas and promote some of the great work that the university is doing on that programme. I am certainly in favour of that, but I am concerned about levels 2 and 3.

In the health and social care sectors, we need to confront the scope and scale of the challenges faced by the NHS. Five years ago, as a fairly new MP, I said that if the Government want to increase the NHS workforce, nursing apprenticeships must be a major line for new recruits.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the value of apprenticeships to the NHS. I asked the Government a question about how much was unspent from the NHS apprenticeship levy fund and I was told that that data is not held. Undoubtedly, millions and millions of pounds are sat unspent in NHS funds and are being sent back to the Treasury because of the lack of a functioning apprenticeship programme.

That is a subject worthy of a debate on its own. I spoke to one of the Minister’s predecessors, who was a nurse at one point, about that very problem. It is a thorny issue, but it is surmountable. We now have 130,000 vacancies. It is woeful and shameful, but this is preventable, as it is for sectors beyond the NHS. For example, if we are serious about tackling the climate crisis with high-skilled green jobs, we must cultivate the talents and skills of everyone to reach net zero. We cannot rely on those with a degree; we need more people. We need our education system to work for everyone and give people the options and pathways that work for them. Right now, it does not.

Apprenticeships give people things they need for a career in a way that no other path of study does. All of us are here today because we agree with the fundamental premise that they are flexible, agile, rooted in the real world and earned by experience. Each year, I am proud to run my own annual apprenticeships fair. A bit of a plug: my South Bristol Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair will take place next month at the South Bristol Skills Academy, which helps people in the area to match their ambitions and experiences with the needs of local businesses.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate and for plugging her skills fair. I want to say a big thank you: diolch yn fawr. I held Anglesey skills day here in Westminster and businesses from all over Anglesey, including Babcock, Holyhead Marine and Mona Lifting, came to support it, and there were lots of apprentices from across the island. Does she agree that apprenticeships can be a key way of giving our young people the life skills with which to succeed?

I do. The fairs are uplifting experiences, and I am sorry that I missed the hon. Lady’s fair. Young people and businesses are so passionate about them, and I look forward to my seventh next year. It will bring together those businesses, particularly small businesses, that are desperately seeking new workers. In a prosperous city such as Bristol, it should not be so hard to match the desire and needs of businesses with the ambitions of local people. The Government need to get a grip and develop a proper plan to make apprenticeships work.

I know that the Minister has championed apprenticeships from his very first speech in Parliament, and that he is as passionate about the subject as I am. He was kind enough to visit my Bristol South constituency in 2019. I take him at his word that he wants to see more apprenticeships made available to more people, but he is the eighth person to be the responsible Minister in the last 12 years. The brief that has been merged, renamed, repackaged and passed around, I think, 13 times in the same period. His Government simply have not done enough over the last 12 years; the lack of focus has been matched only by the lack of funding. Despite what we in this room think, apprenticeships are the perennial afterthought. They are passed around in ministerial red boxes like a game of educational pass the parcel. I know that the Minister is happy to be left holding the prize, but that cannot of itself make up for the neglect that the sector has suffered under successive Governments for more than a decade. I am glad that he is in his place for the debate, but he knows that the Government need to do more. As he will have heard in his time as Chair of the Education Committee, employers report increasing skills shortages and decreasing numbers of young people leaving education with the skills businesses need. The Government have no plan to address that.

For all the Chancellor’s talk of skills, it is clear that under the Conservative Government there has been a marked decline in apprenticeship starts over the last 10 years. As a result, there will be thousands of young people whose talent has been squandered. I see that in my own constituency: 1,250 people started an apprenticeship in Bristol South in 2011, but by 2019-20, that figure had dropped by 40%. It is not just in south Bristol. Before the pandemic, apprenticeship starts were down 28% across the country for under-19s, and £330 million of unspent levy was sent back to the Treasury. Only one in five of the promised 100,000 new apprenticeships were delivered. According to Department for Education figures for the 2021-22 academic year, apprenticeship starts are down again by 4.8% compared with 2018-19, and the number successfully completing their apprenticeships has plummeted by 31.5%. Something is clearly very wrong.

Answers from the Minister’s own Department show that the number of young people not in education, employment or training is also going up. This is a pattern of failure over a period of time, and after 12 years the Government are clearly to blame. That is not a surprise to the Minister; he is aware of all the problems and challenges from the evidence given to the Select Committee. He has also heard the cries from businesses about the apprenticeship levy. Smaller businesses say that the new system has

“added to the barriers, complexity and cost of recruiting and training staff.”

Larger businesses report that,

“the inflexibility of the system has made it difficult to spend their levy funds…leaving less money available to pay for the training people need.”

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) said, that is also writ large in the health service. As well intentioned as the levy is—we are all very keen to support it and make it work—it is clearly now broken. There are too few apprenticeships available and too few small businesses, which are the basis of my constituency, participating. Crucially, there are nowhere near enough level 2 or level 3 apprenticeships on offer.

I appreciate the work that has been done to improve the flexibility of the transfer system, which is a point that I raised with the then Minister in 2021. However, the numbers speak for themselves, and we should be terrified by what they are telling us. Some 12 months before the levy came into operation, 564,800 learners started an apprenticeship. A year later, that number had fallen by over 200,000. In the last academic year, the start rate was even lower. The figures are shameful. Some 200,000 potentially life-changing opportunities for young people—each one a real person with a real contribution to make— no longer exist. They are the people we see at apprenticeship fairs and the families we talk to in our surgeries. The story is even grimmer when we drill down and see 100,000 young people dropping out of courses each year.

The evidence shows that a growing proportion of apprenticeships are now being undertaken by older people, with businesses using their levy funds to train staff who are already qualified or established in their careers. That may be good, but it is not what the levy was designed for and does not help a young person to get that vital first foot on the employment ladder. It is not just young people who face difficulty as a result of the decisions of the Government. When the Minister was Chair of the Education Committee, it pointed out that:

“More needs to be done to support adult learners with special educational needs and disabilities”.

Again, I could not agree more.

The Minister will know that supported internships and apprenticeships are a crucial piece of the puzzle when helping learners with SEND to access work, but, to quote the Education Committee,

“these opportunities are limited, and support funding is insufficient.”

What did the Government plan to do about the crisis affecting apprenticeships? They set a target to have 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 in the 2015 Queen’s Speech—my first Queen’s Speech as a Member of Parliament. However, we know that apprenticeship starts have declined by over 40% since 2010. As with so many of the Government’s targets, I am not sure that that will ever be met.

The Government’s decision to put aside apprenticeships in the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 suggests that they have all but given up on apprenticeships, and it tells me that the Government have a woeful lack of ambition for our children and young people. It was a missed opportunity for a Government who have consistently failed to match the rhetoric with action. I know that the Minister is an advocate of degree apprenticeships, which combine paid work with part-time study—we also heard about that from the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak)—and I was proud to talk to students in Exeter recently. I was deeply impressed by their tenacity and ambition. The Education Committee highlighted that degree apprenticeships are crucial for boosting productivity and widening access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I am listening intently to the hon. Lady’s structured analysis of the current situation, although I do not agree with all of it. I want to highlight the example of EnergyAce, a business in my constituency. It is a family firm that designs and manufactures innovative products that help firms use smaller amounts of electricity. Young people in that business are going to the University of Central Lancashire to do degree apprenticeships, to increase the productivity of the business and to upskill small and medium-sized enterprises, which we know are vital for growth in the economy. They were particularly grateful for the opening up of opportunities to upskill their workforce. They are still relatively young—you and I, Mr Hollobone, would probably think they are quite young people. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is really important that, while we make sure there are quality places in apprenticeships, we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater on degree apprenticeships and the contribution they have to make to growth in the SME sector?

I agree that degree apprenticeships have their place, but that is not what the levy was for. As I have heard regularly in the debates I have attended in the seven years for which I have been in this place, our concern is for the small and medium-sized enterprises in our constituencies that are finding the subject really difficult to navigate. My constituents, who are among the least likely in the country to go to university, need level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships to help them up the ladder—I am particularly keen on the ladder. I do not want to throw any babies out with any bathwater—I am not sure where the bathwater and the baby come into the debate—but we cannot lose one for the sight of another, and a Government who were ambitious for apprenticeships would be able to do both. The implementation of lower-level apprenticeships has just been too slow. In my constituency, they are often for people who have been let down by the education system and who need to reach the first rung on the ladder.

We have had some other things that I have tried to support, such as the kickstart campaign—I do not know what has happened to that—and I am looking forward to seeing the results of the fire it up campaign. The Minister will know that I try to support all schemes, regardless of party politics. I want whatever works, and I will try to make anything work. We need to turn the tide on the catalogue of failures that have become so synonymous with the Government’s strategies for apprenticeships. I am not overly confident, but I am hopeful that we can do something better. I am obviously more hopeful about the next Labour Government, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield will outline our approach.

We cannot level up without skilling up. Transforming the failed apprenticeship levy and creating what we have called a growth and skills levy will give businesses the flexibility they need to train their workforce and create opportunities that will drive growth across every region of our country and in every sector of our economy. I am sure my hon. Friend would not mind if the Government stole that idea—they can crack on with that if they would like to. We want to unlock Britain’s potential, and people need a solid foundation in education and a chance to succeed to do that.

Having security at work and investing in apprenticeships and training opportunities enables people who want the chance to reskill, all of which will help people into high-quality jobs. What we talk about as a green prosperity plan—again, pinch it—will create a million good jobs in industries and businesses in all parts of the country, underpinned by new apprenticeships in the technology sector that will be vital in meeting our net zero commitments. That is the new building in my constituency that the Minister came to see. That is what we want to be looking at: the jobs of the future.

It is clear that the potential for improving our apprenticeship system in the UK is huge. I continue to hope that is the case. I hope that through the debate, apprenticeships are given the prominence they deserve and the help they need, and I hope the Minister will use his time to confirm that even as the eighth Minister at the tail end of a Government fast running out of ideas and time, he will ensure a proper focus on skills and apprenticeships within the Government to ensure our country and our economy have the skills for the future.

Can the Minister outline the immediate actions he and his officials will take to drastically improve the quality of apprenticeships and curb that terrible drop-out rate? I sincerely wish to hear how the long-awaited review of the levy is going and what actions the Government will take. I am sure he will agree, as the former Chair of the Select Committee, that more funding is needed for supported apprenticeships and special educational needs and disabilities. Perhaps he can use his appearance today to surprise us all. Given his personal support for degree apprenticeships, can he outline what the Government will do to ensure faster implementation of the programme? Finally, it would make me very happy if the Minister were to announce, here and now, the use of apprenticeships to increase the NHS workforce.

The legacy of the Government is not good. Amidst the wreckage, good ideas remain and with good people like the Minister, who have a genuine belief in the transformative nature of apprenticeships, I hope we can move forward so that no other young person has their future scuppered for, frankly, no good reason.

The debate can last until 5.30 pm. There are seven Members standing, six of whom have had the courtesy to inform the Chair that they wish to speak. To get everybody in, there will be a time limit of three and a half minutes with no interventions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on securing this important debate.

I am proud to stand here as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships. I am even prouder to stand here and say that I am the employer of not one, but two fantastic apprentices in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Jess is about to sit her exams—only next month. I will not wish her the best of luck because I always believe that if someone does the hard work, they will pass the test. She has certainly done the work, so I am sure the test will go through. Then Mya will start with me on 1 February. Jess was 17 years old and Mya is 18 years old. This is a fantastic opportunity for young people to get that important level 3 qualification when they did not feel college was the right option and wanted to earn and learn.

I cannot agree more with the hon. Member for Bristol South on the point about the fact that although degree apprenticeships are important, we also need that ladder of opportunity—I know the Minister was keen on that phrase when I served with him on the Education Select Committee—and we need to offer those level 2 and 3 opportunities, particularly in areas of deprivation where there are people who may not have a formal qualification. In Stoke-on-Trent North, 12% of my workforce do not have any qualifications at all, which is 8% higher than the national average. Level 2 is the first rung on that ladder.

We should do everything we can to accelerate all the way up degree apprenticeships, but we have to build people’s confidence and self-esteem and build people up with the skills to go through the courses at the different stages so they are equipped and ready. It is a bit like when I was in teaching, with the grandmother effect: it is all very well making sure we are supportive and help in every way we can, but if we undermine that process, that could be a problem.

In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke we have had 13,240 apprenticeships start up since May 2020. I want to congratulate Stoke-on-Trent College for its fantastic work. I partner with the college when it comes to my apprentices. It will also deliver T-levels from the start of this year, alongside the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College, which was an early up-taker of the digital T-levels that began in 2020, with 55 students to date.

Ultimately, there are things that need to happen. We have seen that drop in level 2 take-up, which some recent reports suggest is at 60%—the last was from March 2021. We need to address and work with our local colleges on that. I am delighted that we will see Ofsted inspecting training providers and holding them accountable for the quality of training. EDSK said that the lack of quality training throughout their apprenticeship forces out half of those who drop out. We need to make sure that employers are being held accountable for their work.

When I see £3.3 billion in the levy pot being returned to Treasury, it does not half make me shudder. That £3.3 billion could be invested not just in young people but in older people as well, and not only in upskilling the current workforce, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) pointed out, but in making sure young people get that opportunity too.

We need much more flexibility with the levy pot. I am not asking to simply open it up, but for us to allow employers to use a small percentage of it to invest in mileage, training or administrative staff to undertake what can be a bureaucratic process, and for an amount to be ringfenced specifically for young people. Apprenticeships are the best way to level up our great country, and I hope to see how the Government will develop them to make that happen.

I will call Jim Shannon, who has kindly informed me that he will take an intervention. By law, the time limit has to increase by a minute, so could the hon. Gentleman please finish his speech a minute early?

I asked permission, Mr Hollobone, in order to allow my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) the chance to speak.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on leading the debate. Not long ago, I spoke in this Chamber in a Backbench Business debate on labour skills and shortages to highlight the importance of a sustainable and efficient apprenticeship programme for young people across the UK, so I am in full support of having more Government funding for apprenticeships, as the hon. Lady mentioned. I believe apprentices should be valued for their work, along with being paid equally and fairly.

It is always encouraging to see young people wanting to take up a skill, whether in mechanics, plumbing, the food industry or electrics. They are willing to devote their time, despite not receiving a great wage, to advance their skills and learn in combination with courses at technical college, such as the one in Newtownards, which is well used.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the unit being built in Coleraine, the £40 million Northern Regional College, will offer that type of facility? Such colleges are much needed, particularly in areas of high deprivation.

I certainly do agree. My hon. Friend and I both have colleges in our constituencies that do marvellous work, and we want to commend them. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. This Minister understands the issues very well and brings a wealth of willingness into his answers.

A constituent, who was recently in my office with his grandfather, took up an apprenticeship with a motor parts company. He was due to be paid by the employer to attend college one day a week, but he was never paid for that day. He has now been told by the Labour Relations Agency that he has no basis to claim that money back as he left the company more than three months ago. My constituent was unaware of that as it was not in his contract and, to this day, has not received the money he was owed for his one day a week at the technical college. What sort of employer would take that money off him? It is a clear example of young people doing their best to learn a trade and adapt to the world of work, but not getting their fair chance.

UKHospitality got in touch with me about those issues ahead of the debate. It states that reconsidering the working of the apprenticeship levy would help to ease the staffing crisis, benefiting employers, employees and the wider community. I support apprenticeships as a means of recruitment, retention and boosting productivity. It is important to acknowledge that some young people do not see university or further education as a way to advance themselves, but they do see the skills that could be learned through an apprenticeship. I sit on the board of governors for Glastry College. Some students come through who will never be educational achievers; they were always going to be guys who could do apprenticeships, boys who could get their hands dirty and make things happen. We have to look after them. The debate is about that and the hon. Member for Bristol South deserves great credit for bringing it forward, as I am sure many hon. Members will say.

In conclusion, such people would rather learn a trade and dive straight into the world of work and our education system should encourage that. I know the Minister agrees, as he has always said that in response my questions. Schools should offer pupils more support on the options they have, and that should start with us in Parliament giving our schools the funding and opportunities to do that.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on securing this particularly important debate. The Government have invested, and continue to invest, a lot of money in apprenticeships, as is clear from the increase in funding to £2.7 billion until 2024-25. It is also clear that the demand for apprenticeships has increased, with an 8.6% rise.

I am here to make the case for land-based colleges and land-based apprenticeships. I am afraid that, in the wider debate, they are not always prioritised. We know that full well in West Dorset, where I have Kingston Maurward College, one of the best land-based colleges in the country. It serves very well not only West Dorset but Dorset more widely. While there has been an increase in funding overall, I am afraid that is not quite happening for land-based colleges in the way I would like it to.

For example, the stockperson apprenticeship for those who look after animals—particularly cattle—was previously funded at £10,000 per apprentice per annum. It was removed by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and replaced by the general farm worker apprenticeship, but funded at half the price—£5,000. It does not take a genius to work out that that is pushing finances into a very difficult place, especially when 20% of the £5,000 is reserved until the scheme is completed. That has meant that, in the last couple of weeks, Kingston Maurward College has terminated the apprenticeship. Frankly, that has been devastating to the farming community in my constituency and the surrounding area.

I am conscious of the limited time I have to speak, but I hope the Minister will take the point away and hear loud and clear that land-based colleges are important—even more so given the need to produce food here and to achieve sustainability. It is not acceptable that we have seen a whole course of apprenticeships close. I hope the Minister will see what else he can do. As it stands, it is not just this past year that has finished; the course has been terminated. It is my absolute mission to return that course to Kingston Maurward College, and I hope that the Minister will support me in doing so.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for bringing this debate alive with such passion and insight. I am especially pleased to speak because this subject is close to my heart, as I know it is for Members across the Chamber, regardless of our political affiliations. Way back in the past, I was a careers adviser and a Connexions manager, and this was something I always drove forward in the communities I worked in, to ensure that young people made an impartial and realistic careers decision about the plethora of things available to them.

Sadly, I fear that there is still a stigma about apprenticeships, and it is our job collectively to tackle that, whether under this Government or those of tomorrow. There has been an over-emphasis on academia and university for a considerable number of years, and under successive Governments—I will not just pin the blame on the current Government. That has meant lost opportunities for young people, and it has certainly reduced the skills base in our country, our communities and our economy.

The answers are staring us in the face, in the form of the models that some of our European neighbours, including Germany and Austria, have employed over a considerable number of years. I am pleased to say that some of that learning has been implemented by both the current Government and past Governments. I welcome level 3, level 4 and level 5 advanced apprenticeships, and giving working class children and young people the opportunity not to come out of university with an incredible amount of debt but to get real, skilled apprenticeships in industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South said, where there is a significant weakness is with level 2 apprenticeships. As the Minister knows, there is a huge underspend of close to £2 billion from the levy. The levy is a very good idea in principle, but that money should be focused on level 2 provision.

For some time now, employers have been calling out for some flexibility with the levy. The Government have moved slightly forward in that area, but nowhere near enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), Labour’s Front-Bench representative in this debate, has proposed a levy that is about apprenticeships and skills. The Minister should steal that idea—it is a good idea and it would be a sensible thing to do. That levy would drive forward opportunities for young people, particularly those from low-income backgrounds who may not actually want to go to university—there has been far too much emphasis on that—and it would be good for those young people, for our communities and for our economy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on securing this important debate.

Apprenticeships are a vital part of building our skills base, and they are a success, bringing huge benefits to industry and to people completing their education. Some 860 people in my constituency of Meon Valley started an apprenticeship last year, and I have met many of them in my work with businesses of all sizes. I have always been impressed by their drive and commitment, and I want more young people to access that career route. We are fortunate to have great employers in and around my constituency taking on apprentices, such as Safran Helicopter Engines and BAE Systems, and recruiters such as Alderwood and Gattaca that are working hard to help employers plug their skills gaps. Those gaps are real, and I hear about them from employers of all sizes.

My big concern is to ensure that the apprenticeship levy is spent in the right way, and that smaller companies can benefit. We want businesses to see training and apprenticeships as an investment, not a cost. The cumulative underspend in levy funding since 2019 is over £2 billion. That is mostly made up of some very big numbers from previous years; last year, the underspend was around £11 million. However, I know from talking to small and medium-sized enterprises that those companies are not aware of how the apprenticeship levy can help them—yet it is those smaller companies that are having to work hardest to recruit skilled staff.

As we get close to spending the entire budget, we will need to make sure that we are prioritising the right kinds of apprenticeships. It is fine to use levy funding to support higher-level qualifications such as masters of business administration at Cranfield University, but young people starting out in industry also need good access to opportunities to learn key skills. I am pleased by the Government’s support for apprenticeships through initiatives such as the DFE’s unit for future skills, which has started to analyse and share data on skills gaps and opportunities. What gets measured gets done, so I hope that leads to a big boost in the number of apprenticeships.

In particular, I hope that support for science, technology, engineering and maths careers will be boosted by a new university technical college in the Solent region. I know that the DFE is looking at that, with a bid from UTC Portsmouth for a new UTC in Southampton. Many students in Meon Valley are looking for a UTC place, and it is the excellence of the UTC in Portsmouth and its partnership with industry that drives that demand. We need more of that kind of capacity for young people, to open up careers for them and fill the gaps in skills. At present, 50% of leavers from UTC Portsmouth go on to apprenticeships, so we need to expand that model. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we are going to expand the apprenticeship programme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for securing the debate. I want to use it as an opportunity to champion and sing the praises of people who have been involved in delivering apprenticeships in my constituency. As others have said, for too long, young people felt that the only way into a high-paying, high-skilled job was to get an academic qualification. We have been able to change that message, and I hear from constituents that they now understand the issue better.

Thanks to the collective efforts of all those involved, some of whom I will mention, more than 12,000 people in Crewe and Nantwich have begun an apprenticeship since 2010. I want particularly to pick up and pay tribute to some of the comments that have been made about the importance of UTCs, because the ladder of skills really should start pre-apprenticeships. Having a technical college in my constituency means that young people learn from early on that hands-on, technical qualifications are a route forward that builds into an apprenticeship. I am delighted that the UTC has expanded recently. I am always encouraging young people in the area, who perhaps do not want to make the change because it is mid-year and mid-way through their secondary school time, to do so, because I know from speaking to young people who go to the UTC what a great change it is for them, and it builds towards apprenticeships for them.

Another important provider locally is South Cheshire College, which I am pleased to say was recently awarded Institute of Technology status, with additional funding, which will enhance its role. I am delighted that I have an apprentice in my office—I know that other Members do too—who comes from South Cheshire College. The college has a whole variety of apprenticeships, which support young people and employers in the local area. There are some really fantastic employers delivering apprenticeships locally, including Bentley, which is not only a sponsor of the UTC but has its own apprenticeships. I have had the pleasure of meeting it, at first virtually during lockdown. Hearing individuals’ stories makes us realise that it can be just a momentary thing that gets them on track for an apprenticeship. I remember one young girl in particular talking about just seeing a poster about apprenticeships in the library at school, which got her thinking about doing one. The apprentices at Alstom will soon be working on the bogies for HS2; that contract has been awarded in Crewe. They are another fantastic example of the opportunities that apprenticeships can bring to people.

Like other Members, I have been told by some employers about difficulties with flexibility on apprenticeships. If anyone is well placed to take forward the feedback that we have heard today, it is the Minister, who we all know has a long track record of supporting apprenticeships.

I will finish by highlighting a few fantastic ambassadors for apprenticeships. These are the finalists for apprentice of the year in the South Cheshire Chamber of Commerce business awards: Connor Smith from South Cheshire College; Mia Jennings from Everybody Health & Leisure; Matilda Turner from Mental Health Charter; Kathryn Bennett from Mid Cheshire Hospitals; Adam Simcock from WR Partners; and, last but not least, the winner of the category, Joshua Hallam, who was an apprentice with Amplo Group. All those individuals are fantastic ambassadors for what one can get out of life by choosing an apprenticeship. I encourage as many people as possible to think about that as a way forward for them and their family members.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for securing this debate on apprenticeships, although she will not mind me saying that she paints a picture that I do not entirely recognise. It is a great pleasure to be here with two colleagues—one of whom is the Minister—who employ their own apprentices, as I do. It will be interesting to hear from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), how many Labour MPs employ their own apprentices. As he knows so well from the tennis court, there is a difference between talking a good game and playing one.

Let me pay tribute to the 14,000 apprentices who have started or completed—most have completed—an apprenticeship in Gloucester since 2010. That is a run rate almost three times the pace of the previous Labour Government, and it reflects new apprenticeships at places such as the cathedral’s masons’ shop, Punchline magazine, the Robinswood golf club, Hazlewoods accountants, GCHQ and many other employers, who frankly never had the opportunity to take apprentices before 2010, since when the scope has been hugely widened. In addition, our NHS acute hospitals trust has taken on almost 100 nursing associates for higher apprenticeships since nursing associate qualifications were introduced by this Government.

As I have hinted, apprenticeships are not an abstract affair for me. I asked the Government to increase their new commitment to additional apprenticeships in May 2010, before making my maiden speech—those were the first words I spoke in Parliament. I hired my first apprentice later that year, and I have done so every year since. I pay tribute to all of them: my first, Laura Pearsall—now Brooker—became the youngest ever Gloucester City Council councillor at 21; Aisha has become a team leader in the Home Office; Katie works with our mental health trust; and others work with a charity and the county council. My current apprentice, Mia, is South West Apprentice Ambassador Network apprentice ambassador of the year. All have done great work for our city and my constituents in Gloucester, while getting a level 3 in business admin—precisely the issue that the hon. Member for Bristol South is focused on. In the run-up to National Apprenticeship Week, I commend the opportunity to colleagues on both sides of the House.

I have a few quick suggestions for the Minister, with whom I have worked on apprenticeships for almost 13 years. Schools need to invite back more alumni who are apprentices to give their current pupils an idea of what apprenticeships are all about. There are some really good general training providers, such as Gloucestershire College, and great specialist providers, such as Gloucestershire Engineering Training. We MPs need to work with all of them and to persuade smaller companies that apprenticeships are not a bureaucratic affair but an investment, as others have rightly pointed out.

The apprenticeship levy has been much discussed today. It works for many, but not for all. There are some specialist courses that have not been structured as apprenticeships; for example, spectacle-makers’ qualifications have been, but those for construction and timber merchants have not yet been. There is also a real demand for cyber apprenticeships, but a shortage of teachers. Will the Government consider working more closely with the National Cyber Security Centre on how we can find more people to teach artificial intelligence and cyber apprenticeships?

As we come, at the end of this year, to the conversion of the first ever department store in Britain—a former Debenhams—into the University of Gloucestershire’s new city campus, will my right hon. Friend the Minister consider coming to Gloucester in early 2024 to visit our nursing associate higher apprentices?

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

As others have done, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on securing this debate. It is obviously on an issue that is of tremendous importance to a lot of us, and with National Apprenticeship Week approaching in early February, the timing could not be better.

Labour believes that apprenticeships are the gold standard in skills development, and we would seek to increase both the number and the quality of apprenticeship opportunities under a future Labour Government, as well as promoting apprenticeships to students, workers, parents and employers

I always say that the greatest advocates for apprenticeship opportunities are apprentices themselves. When I meet them, they often say how grateful they are for their opportunity and how glad they are that they have taken the apprenticeship path. However, I also often reflect, as other hon. Members have already done today, on how little apprenticeships seem to be talked about in schools, so it is important that we make sure everyone knows that these opportunities are there.

In the last year, I have visited outstanding independent providers, such as Remit Training in Derby, where I saw its superb automotive academy, and I have also seen the construction academy at Skills People Group in Rotherham. In addition, I have been pleased to see excellent provision at further education colleges.

As many other Members have said, apprenticeships are vital for social mobility and are genuinely transformative. We recognise the important role that apprentices play and want to see more young people having the opportunity to take an apprenticeship.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South spoke about the importance of public sector apprenticeships. As I said a minute ago, there is far too little focus on a strategic opportunity that exists, particularly within our health sector but across the public sector, to expand the usage of the apprenticeship levy within that sector. She also spoke about how difficult it is for local businesses to become involved in offering apprenticeships. I am told by some of the apprenticeship providers that as much as 50% of their budget is spent not on teaching the apprenticeship but on administering it, which is a crazy system.

Many Government Members are keen to suggest that colleagues in Europe are overly bureaucratic. Let me tell them that there is not a single bureaucrat in Brussels who could have imagined the barriers that have been placed in front of apprenticeships here.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South also reflected on the fact that the Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for whom my hon. Friend and I both have great respect—is the eighth different Skills Minister in the past 13 years. Indeed, he is the fourth that I have the privilege of shadowing in the three short years that I have been in my current role. My hon. Friend also spoke powerfully about the fact that too much of the apprenticeship levy is being spent at levels 6 and 7, which is a theme I will return to.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about young people who do not see university as being for them, and he is absolutely right in that regard. However, it is important that we do not see apprenticeships as a second-class option. Apprenticeships are a great opportunity for straight-A students as well as for those who have other talents. Although he is absolutely right that we should always promote that alternative to university, it is very important that we do not see it as a second-rate option.

The hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) referred the Government’s involvement in apprenticeships and the fact that the number of people doing apprenticeships is lower than it was before the introduction of the levy. He also spoke powerfully about the bureaucratic barriers to land-based apprenticeships and the importance of them in his constituency.

I do not think I quite said that there was a decrease in the demand for apprenticeships or the actual apprenticeships taking place. I just want to correct the hon. Gentleman on that point. Funding for land-based apprenticeships had reduced to the extent to which the schemes were no longer viable.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. He has corrected me on what he said, but it is none the less the case that fewer apprenticeships are now being provided across the board than before the introduction of the levy. Whether he said it or not, it was none the less factually correct.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) reflected, as he has done previously, on his own history as a careers adviser. He knows the importance of independent face-to-face careers guidance, which is one reason why the Labour party has made that such a priority. Other Members reflected on the fact that businesses and other apprenticeship suppliers are unable to get into schools. That is why, during the passage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, we were keen to see the Baker clause introduced in another place. That would have meant that each student had three opportunities to see the alternatives to going to school sixth form. We think that independent careers guidance will play a really important role in that.

The hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) said that many small businesses cannot access the levy. She is absolutely right. When the apprenticeship levy was introduced, an increased fund came in from the levy payers, but at the same time the Government massively reduced the amount they spent on apprenticeships. The result was that those that do not pay the levy are shut out. The Government are now allowing major businesses that pay the levy to donate some of their levy funds to their suppliers and others on a charitable basis, but it needs to be much more strategic than that.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) spoke about the importance of pre-apprenticeship vocational opportunities. He is absolutely right. Labour will look to push the skills and growth levy towards traineeship and pre-apprenticeship opportunities, and allow businesses to use their levy in that way.

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) was characteristically optimistic. He dismissed the fact that there are fewer apprenticeships than before. He said he has met employers who speak positively about apprenticeship opportunities, and he is absolutely right. He said that many employers never had the opportunity to offer apprenticeships before, but the reality is that the funding for apprenticeships was there. The Government have a different way of approaching it. We think there are many failings with that, and we are not alone on that. He also asked about how many Labour MPs employ apprentices. I do, and I am informed that my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale does too, but I am afraid I have not done an audit beyond that. He spoke about the importance of businesses and suppliers getting into schools.

I want to give the Minister enough time to wind up, but I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene very quickly.

That is kind of the hon. Gentleman. I mentioned all those organisations because those apprenticeships did not exist until we introduced the specific categories for them—accountancy, stonemasonry and all the rest of it. They did not exist before 2010.

Okay. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification.

Britain is not alone in having a skills or apprenticeship levy, but the way we handle it is quite unique. As a result, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of entry-level apprenticeship opportunities. Research by the London Progression Collaboration shows that since 2014-15, entry-level apprenticeships have fallen by 72%, and the fall in apprenticeships for under-19s has been as much as 59%, depriving many of those at greatest risk of falling into poverty from the opportunity at the beginning of their careers to get an apprenticeship.

The latest figures show that £3.3 billion in levy funds have been returned to the Treasury in the last three years. It is not only a scandal, but a huge act of collective self-harm. It is no wonder that the CIPD said:

“Apprenticeship Levy has failed on every measure and will undermine investment in skills and economic recovery without significant reform”.

I meet so many small business owners who would be keen to take on an apprentice, but are put off by the lack of available support and the bureaucracy.

There is a stark contrast between this Government’s approach and the approach of the Labour Government in Wales. My colleagues in Wales have led the way in creating apprenticeship opportunities, ringfencing an additional £18 million of funding to be invested in apprenticeships in the coming financial year. In a recent report, the renowned think-tank EDSK argued for the need to expand the traineeship programme to promote the supply of entry-level opportunities and clear progression routes into genuinely high-quality apprenticeships. After the Government’s recent announcements, which set out that they are seeking to reduce the number of traineeships —I have spoken today to an employer who told me that they will have to abandon traineeships because of the Government’s current change—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had 10 minutes; the Minister needs at least 10 minutes to respond, so he needs to draw his remarks to a close pretty soon.

I was just coming to the crescendo, Mr Hollobone. As I say, those from small towns or villages are less likely to find apprenticeships available. Those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to be able to access an apprenticeship.

In conclusion, a Labour Government will take a fresh approach. We will ensure that all funds allocated for skills are spent on skills and that apprenticeships are promoted to all and recognised as outstanding opportunities for young people, with more SMEs supported to offer them and more colleges equipped to teach them.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) who spoke thoughtfully. I obviously do not agree with everything she said, and I will set out why in my remarks, but I was pleased when in my last iteration—I do not know if she was including me as one of the eight Ministers from when I was last in this post—I went with her to the City of Bristol College’s South Bristol Skills Academy. It was a wonderful visit. She is a true champion of apprenticeships and I pay tribute to her. I was glad to hear that this debate was taking place.

The hon. Member set out a bleak picture, which I do not think was fair. We have had over 5 million apprentices since 2010. We know that 92% of those who complete their apprenticeships go on to a job or further training. The amount of apprenticeship starts increased by 8.6% last year. Of course, it did go down during the covid years and she talked very importantly about level 2 and 3. Of all starts in 2021-22, 70% were at level 2 and 3.

She also asked about social justice. She will know that we offer a £1,000 bursary for care leavers. If employers with fewer than 50 employees employ a young person, they get £1,000 and we pay all the training costs. We pay 95% of the training costs of all small businesses anyway.

She talked about healthcare apprentices. There are 65 standards in health and 20 in nursing. There is now a complete apprentice pathway from entry to postgraduate and advanced clinical practice in nursing. There are 82 health and science apprenticeship standards and we are working very closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to try to improve those. It is always difficult when different professions measure qualifications in different ways, but I am proud that we have nursing degree apprentices. I am proud that we have policing degree apprentices.

On her point about degree apprentices, I disagree with her a little, because they are my two favourite words in the English language. We saw an increase of 47,000 degree apprenticeships last year—I think over 140,000 since they were introduced in 2014-15. I think that they answer a lot of problems. They deal with the loan problem for disadvantaged students, they mean students can earn while they learn and they build the prestige of skills, which is incredibly important. She mentioned the University of Exeter, which was my old university. One of the proudest things I have ever done as an MP was go to back to that university, which is in the Russell Group, and speak at its degree apprenticeships ceremony. I am very glad that she went there.

I will briefly respond to some of my colleagues who have spoken today. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) always speaks passionately about this subject. To be clear on the levy funding, of course there have been underspends in the past, but in 2021-22, 99.6% of the levy budget was spent. That point is important because it was raised by a number of other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also spoke passionately about the subject. He talked about careers. He will know that we strengthened the Baker clause. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), also talked about that. I fought for it as a Back Bencher and as Chair of the Education Committee. Students will now have six encounters—two a year—with key apprentice organisations. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) also spoke about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) spoke about land-based colleges. I am a passionate supporter of land colleges. I went to one in my area near Enfield a few years ago, and I hope to go to many more in my job. I know he wants me to visit his land college, and I would be delighted to. I will consider the things he said, but I have already asked officials to look at the issue. I know he was trying to get in at Education questions earlier. Can he leave it with me to try to get officials to work with the college to deal with some of the funding issues?

The Minister will recognise that in constituencies such as mine in Suffolk, one in seven jobs are linked to the land economy, agriculture, food and drink or the supply chain. Apprenticeships linked to the land economy are particularly important. Although we have seen an uplift more generally in Suffolk in the number of apprenticeships available, that has not been the case for the land economy. I have raised that with his predecessors in similar debates. They promised they would go away and look at it, and nothing has really happened. I would be grateful if the Minister wrote to us at some point to outline what steps he is trying to take to bring about that step change in apprenticeship opportunities in the land economy.

I was talking about land colleges with officials earlier in the week. I am also of the view that they have an important part in green skills, net zero and all those areas. I promise to go back and work with officials on land colleges to find out the situation across the country, not just in Dorset or in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I will come back to him. I cannot promise policy solutions straight away, but I will do my best to take it back and deal with it. I hope that my hon. Friend is satisfied with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), with his new, much deserved honour, talked about digital skills and cyber-warfare. There are huge amounts going on with that, and huge amounts of new standards. The new institutes of technology are being rolled out around the country. There will be 21 institutes all together; there are 12 already. We are investing £290 million. Many of them will deal with the kind of digital skills that he was talking about.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale talked about the levy underspend. I repeat that we spent 99.6% of our levy. He is also passionate about careers—I am completely with him on that—and we have talked about that previously in the House. To my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, I repeat that 70% of apprentices in the past year were level 2 and level 3. She knows that I am supportive of UTCs. They are the responsibility of Baroness Barran, but I will do all that I can to support them. My hon. Friend talked about STEM; I think there are over 300 STEM apprentice standards.

I think that I have answered most of my colleagues. My passion is improving quality, which is incredibly important. We moved from frameworks to standards to ensure that an apprenticeship was a proper profession and was recognised by employers. We created an employer-led system, which is working. Ofsted will inspect every single provider by 2025. We have also asked every apprentice provider to register as an apprenticeship training providers. We now have much more intervention with employers, providers and apprentices, whom we support all the way through to ensure that we increase quality.

On careers, I mentioned the Baker clause, but we also have a scheme called apprenticeship support and knowledge in schools and colleges—the ASK programme. That has gone to 685,000 students last year, and it is supported by £3.2 million of funding. We are trying to do everything possible. Transforming careers in our country will be the thing that increases starts. I am doing a lot of work in the Department on how we do careers. I mentioned the 92% of apprentices who go into work or further training.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) on all his award winners. We are also making the levy more flexible, with flexi-job apprenticeships. We are spending a separate £8 million on degree apprenticeships, and I mentioned disadvantage. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South on her apprentice fair. I have my apprentice fair in Harlow on Friday, and I hope that every Member here and across the House takes part in National Apprentice Week so that we can ensure that every young person and adult has a chance of climb the apprentice skills ladder of opportunity.

It has been an enjoyable debate. As ever, we learn so much from each other’s constituencies: about the variety of land-based apprenticeships, which I do not have many of, about towns and cities, and about Northern Ireland. There were helpful comments about training providers, which we did not get a chance to talk to, getting rid of stigma and so on, all of which I agree with.

In painting my picture, I got all my statistics from the Department for Education’s website, the Library and so on. That is the picture, and we need to own it before we try to improve it. I want properly resourced and well-managed apprenticeships. I see them as a silver bullet that does not simply resolve the practical problems but makes a lasting, positive difference to apprentices and the places in which they work. That is what we want to see. I need the Government to do better, and I hope that some of the contributions to today’s debate will start us on that journey. I wish everyone good luck with their apprenticeship fairs; everyone needs to come to mine in Bristol South in February.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Government support for apprenticeships.

Sitting adjourned.