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In winding up the debate, the Deputy Leader of the House reaffirmed:

It has become apparent in the past few days that consultation did not take place about today’s debate. Indeed, the Leader of the House confirmed yesterday to the Modernisation Committee that no requests were submitted to her for today’s debate, while the usual channels submitted two questions.

My point is simply that the Standing Order contains no indication that the Leader of the House is responsible for the choice of subject rather than its announcement. In fact, the Standing Order does not even state that she is responsible for announcing the subject. Would you be kind enough to ask Mr. Speaker, as the guardian of Standing Orders, to invite the Leader of the House to visit him to discuss the proper manner in which Standing Order No. 24A, which was passed on 25 October, should be implemented?

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have some sympathy with the idea that Back Benchers should have some say in the subjects for the topical debates. However, surely there should be some formal structure for determining the will of Back Benchers, rather than simply having a group of Members turn up at business questions and hijack it for some political purpose. That will do the
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House and the country no service and we need to formalise the process so that Back Benchers have some input into it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I said on the occasion of the first topical debate that we were on something of a voyage of discovery. We certainly have not finished travelling yet. Topical debates are an experiment and the Standing Order to which hon. Members referred is possibly open to more than one interpretation. It states:

That is perhaps capable of interpretation in more than one manner. It depends on the emphasis one places on “may” and “indicate”.

The House has decided on the experiment. It is perhaps a pity—I say that as a reflection, not a reproof—that more hon. Members were not in the House when the Modernisation Committee’s report was debated. Many matters were covered and clearly not everyone was au fait with the implications of what was being done.

I am sure that Mr. Speaker has heard the earlier exchanges, as has the Leader of the House, and that they will read what has just been said in the Official Report. However, I am sure that minds are not closed to examination of the way in which the experiment should develop. It is not cast in stone. The Leader of the House is currently “indicating” and, hopefully, in view of what has been said, more consultation will take place about the final choice that is made. However, at the moment, as the Standing Order is written, it appears to be a rightful decision for her. I hope that that is helpful.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose—

Sir Patrick Cormack rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Perhaps Sir Patrick wishes to pursue the point.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for your invitation and for your comments. However, from what I saw and from what you said, there appears to be no obligation on the Leader of the House to make the choice. I believe that it would fulfil the requirements of hon. Members of all parties if the choice were delegated from the usual channels and the House either vested the responsibility in Mr. Speaker or held a ballot.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has put that on the record and I am sure that those matters will be further considered. Other aspects of the topical debate may also need to be considered as we proceed.

Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During business questions, the Leader of the House made a number of assertions that on reflection she may wish to withdraw. The matter relates to a potential breach by the Leader of House, and possibly also by the Prime Minister, in respect of a resolution of the House of 17 November 1998.

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The position is that the European Scrutiny Committee has been clear in calling for a substantive debate on the reform treaty before its signing by the Prime Minister in mid-December. That has also been backed up by early-day motion 426, tabled by the Chairman of the Committee and others, including me, which has been corrected, with the word “ratify” being supplanted by the word “signing”.

The situation in respect of that resolution is unprecedented since at least 1972. In a nutshell, the position is that:

which includes the Prime Minister—

or in the European Council

The resolution also says that reference to an agreement to a proposal includes an agreement to a programme, plan or recommendation for European Community legislation, as well as a political agreement.

I should be grateful for a written formal ruling, I presume from Mr. Speaker himself, with respect to this question and to paragraphs (3) and (4) of the resolution, which deal with the basis on which the Minister may give agreement. It is not necessary for me to go through them in detail, but there are provisions that give the Minister the right to give agreement in certain circumstances with which I think the Prime Minister would find it impossible to comply. In those circumstances, I should be grateful if we could have a formal ruling on the matter, which goes to the heart of the manner in which the Government have produced the treaty and are proposing to sign it and how the United Kingdom is to be governed, and raises matters that are reminiscent of the difficulties that arose as far back as the 17th century, when we had similar problems to do with how this country was to be governed.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish this matter were taken seriously, because the last report from the Cabinet Office about breaches of scrutiny showed that not one breach of scrutiny in the last quarter was deliberate—in other words, a Minister knowing that they would breach a scrutiny reserve and doing so in contempt of our Committee. It would be terrible if the Prime Minister went to the next European Council and signed the reform treaty when there was a scrutiny reserve on it. The matter is easily dealt with, because it would mean a debate, I hope on the Floor of the House, on the reform treaty before the Prime Minister gets into that embarrassing situation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am not sure that I can help the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) on what happened in the 17th century, or that he would expect me to be able to do that today. Paragraph (4) of the resolution to which he referred allows Ministers to give agreement prior to the conclusion of the process of scrutiny for “special reasons” and provides that Ministers should explain those reasons “at the first opportunity”. That is the procedural cover for the situation. It is a matter of political judgment as to how
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important a measure is in a particular instance. That is not something on which the Chair can rule, but as the Standing Orders are written, it is possible in those circumstances for a Minister to agree the particular matter.

Mr. Cash: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I deliberately did not go into the particular point that you raised because I thought it could be dealt with at a later stage. However, in the light of what you have just said, I still request a formal ruling from the Speaker on the subject, because the provisions contained on page 947 of “Erskine May” elaborate on your point as follows:

I think that it would be impossible for the Prime Minister to discharge his duties under those criteria.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to draw the Chair into a political argument on that particular point. It still is a matter of interpretation on the words that he uses as to whether the Minister, be it the Prime Minister or any other Minister of the Crown, believes that something is of sufficient importance. That is a matter of interpretation and it will be a matter of political debate. However, Mr. Speaker’s attention will be drawn to this exchange. If the matter needs to be clarified or refined beyond what I have said in trying to assist the hon. Gentleman, Mr. Speaker will communicate with him.

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Topical Debate

Apprenticeships (England)

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): In the light of the difficulties that arose yesterday—no time limit was imposed when there appeared to be a paucity of speakers, but when the debate began there was suddenly a sufficiency of speakers, creating a difficulty on the time limit situation—more careful examination of the Standing Order suggests that while the announcement of a time limit would ideally be made earlier in the day when, under perfect circumstances, all hon. Members who wish to speak in a debate have let Mr. Speaker know of their desire, it is still possible for one to be announced at the start of a debate. I realise that this gives no notice to Back Benchers, but it may be wise under the circumstances for me to impose a time limit of 10 minutes on Back-Bench speeches. I hope that we shall thereby be able to have a complete debate.

1.26 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): I beg to move,

The Government are determined to build on the foundations laid over the past 10 years to accelerate the growth of apprenticeships over the next decade.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does the Minister share my surprise that this debate is a topical debate, notwithstanding the fact that no Member of the House applied for it to be the topical debate for this week?

Mr. Lammy: I think that what is available for our young people by way of vocational qualifications, employment, education and training is topical in families and schools up and down country. I also think that the debate is topical given that the Prime Minister has made announcements on apprenticeships in the past few days. On that basis, I am pleased to be in the House to make this statement.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): On the matter of topicality, will the Minister join me in congratulating the apprentices of Babcock Marine, to whom I hope to present some awards tonight and who are the first such to graduate since the company was taken over? They have a great interest in knowing that the future of apprenticeships is secure, unlike during the 1990s, when there were no apprenticeships at the dockyard, the biggest employer in the west country.

Mr. Lammy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course I congratulate the young people in her constituency on all that they have achieved.

I start with a quotation from Sir Terry Leahy, the chief executive of Tesco:

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Many top business leaders in this country share that conviction. It has been my great privilege over the past few months to travel the country visiting employers and apprenticeships, from meeting sheet metal workers in Huddersfield and seeing the recent launch of the media apprenticeships with the BBC in Manchester to seeing apprenticeships last week in Birmingham and talking to electricians in that area this week. Apprenticeships are vital and employers say that they are important to their productivity.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I accept the popularity of apprenticeships among employers. Does the Minister accept, however, that they are not popular enough among employees, given that only about 40 per cent. of people complete their apprenticeship? If we could be much more rigorous in defining what constitutes an apprenticeship, they would become more popular, by which I mean that more than 50 per cent. of people would complete them.

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman is wrong: the completion rate for apprenticeships is now 63 per cent. It has gone up from the dire situation in which there was little or no inspection for apprenticeships and in which less than a quarter of them were completed. When the hon. Gentleman speaks to employers, he will find that they say that there are always many more young people than they can provide apprenticeships for.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab) rose—

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab) rose—

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is easier if the Minister can make a quick decision as to whom among these many Members he wishes to call. Perhaps Mr. Hayes would like to intervene on him first, and Mr. Sheridan later.

Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Minister is right to say that the number of completions has risen from a very low base. Will he give us some comparative data? What, for example, is the completion rate for apprenticeships in Germany?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman will know that Germany has a long-standing position on apprenticeships relative to the rest of the world. He will also know that we have been building apprenticeships up, given that there were only 75,000 in this country in 1997. He is not comparing like with like, because in the end, apprenticeships depend on investment from the Government and on employers being willing to take them up on that basis. That had not been the case here in the past.

Jim Sheridan: The Minister referred earlier to the BBC. This ambitious plan applies only to England, and not to Scotland. How will that impact on Government Departments, public bodies such as the BBC, and Ministry of Defence establishments in which people wish to apply for an apprenticeship?

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Mr. Lammy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He will know that we are in constant dialogue on this matter; I have spoken several times to my opposite number in Scotland. This is a devolved issue, but across the UK we can all share the desire to see an increase in the number of apprenticeships. I shall talk later about the fact that there is huge scope to increase apprenticeships in the public sector. That will include the armed services as well as the BBC and others.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Chaytor rose—

Mr. Lammy: I should like to make some progress before I give way again.

I should like to put on record the success of our British world skills team in Shizuoka, Japan, just a few weeks ago. We came 11th out of 46, and we won four medals and nine medallions of excellence. I pay tribute to Gary Tuddenham, who won the cabinet-making gold medal for this country. Of course, he was an apprentice. I also recognise that many hon. Members were apprentices, including Mr. Speaker, who was a sheet metal working apprentice. I hope that all hon. Members will support the drive to increase apprenticeships. That should be a cross-party desire.

Apprenticeships contribute to the development of a fairer, more inclusive society. In a fast-changing world, they help people to acquire the skills that will secure a better future for themselves and their children. In that sense, the economic rationale for them is clear. More than that, however, I believe that their ethos contributes strongly to people’s personal development. In my maiden speech, I argued that we must invest in people’s souls as well as in their skills. Apprenticeships do more than equip people for work; they equip them for life.

To be an apprentice is to be mentored, to learn through real-life experience and to build relationships with those who have something to pass on. Apprenticeships provide the structure, direction and routine that are sometimes missing from the lives of young people. At a time when people worry about the shortage of role models for young people, and about the risk that young men, in particular, will drift into gangs, the positive relationships that an apprenticeship provides can clearly work wonders.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the kind of apprenticeships that he is describing, which are work based and have a mentor with the specific skill that the apprentice is being trained in, are by far the most popular, and the most likely to lead to employment? What percentage of all apprenticeships are work based?

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