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Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend has heard me speak many times about the need to elevate craft, and to recognise that the accomplishments delivered through
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the acquisition of craft skills are not only important in terms of the difference that they make to individual lives but important to all our lives, for the very reasons that she gave. I hope that—in the non-partisan way that the Minister described—the debate will stimulate a real recognition of the significance and value of craft: the beginning of an understanding that it is not only academic prowess that matters, and that for millions of individual Britons, and for the whole of Britain, craft skills count.

We fear that imposing a target of the kind described by the Minister for the number of apprenticeships—a target that owes more to the desire to make a political impact than to the measurement of economic need—will cause apprenticeship numbers to grow at the expense of quality. Moreover, we fear that that has been the case over the past 10 years. Earlier I defined most people’s understanding of an apprenticeship as the teaching and testing of real craft competences, but the reality has become very different. Many apprenticeships are virtual affairs. As the adult learning inspectorate warned in its final days—and in the light of its warning, it is perhaps no surprise that it was abolished—

I have already mentioned the evidence given to the inquiry carried out recently by the House of Lords, which suggested that many apprenticeships featured

The inquiry was also told that in reality apprenticeships could mean simulated work-based provision rather than training in a real workplace. The Government may claim that the number of apprenticeships has increased since 1997, but, as the House of Lords inquiry reported,

All that training is below level 3—the accepted level of apprenticeship before 1997—and the reality is that much has been a glorified rebranding exercise.

That is not to say that some—much, indeed—of this training does not have value. I acknowledge what the Under-Secretary said: it might be good—or virtuous, even—to provide training that allows people, particularly NEETs, to gain their first experience of such education and to return to learning. After all, many such people have been cheated the first time round, because of the paucity of their experience at school.

As the Minister for Schools and Learners is present, we should, perhaps, remind him yet again that according to written parliamentary answers more than 40,000 young people a year leave school functionally illiterate and/or innumerate. If that remains the case, it will be unsurprising if many drift into unemployment. The fact that the Under-Secretary claimed in response to an earlier intervention that one of the purposes of apprenticeships is to provide basic skills is proof that apprenticeships have been re-branded. That is nothing like the original concept of apprenticeship—which I should add, for the Under-Secretary’s benefit, is rooted in our past as well as Germany’s.

Mr. Lammy: Just for the record, it is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that what I said was that basic skills are a component of all apprenticeships.

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Mr. Hayes: Yes, but the Under-Secretary must not give the impression that that is the place where most people should acquire their basic skills. I have two small sons—both of them are lovely and, to be frank, I would rather be with them now than here in the Chamber. I would be furious if either of them could not learn to read, write and count by the time they left primary school, still less secondary school. Barring very special conditions or special needs, no child should leave school at 16 functionally illiterate and innumerate. The acquisition of those skills at school should be the entitlement of every parent and child.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight) rose—

Mr. Hayes: The Minister knows that very well, and I shall give way to him.

Jim Knight: May I ask the hon. Gentleman how furious he was in 1997, when 100,000 fewer children were leaving primary school with the required level of literacy and numeracy?

Mr. Hayes: I can remember very little from 1997, apart from the triumphant victory the Conservatives achieved in South Holland and The Deepings.

To call training that is not a legitimate or real apprenticeship by that name risks diluting the brand—a brand which, as the Under-Secretary said, is universally respected and understood. To do so is not fair to employers and cheats learners.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend is making a good point about how apprenticeships should not primarily be about remedial teaching of English and maths skills. Is it not the case that because they are going that way, we now have more level 2 and fewer level 3 apprenticeships, whereas we need more at level 3?

Mr. Hayes: I am coming on to that very point, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for reminding me that I need to do so swiftly.

As has been implied, the problems I refer to have been exacerbated by the programme-led apprenticeships that were introduced in 2003, which enable apprentices to begin their training at a college or training provider even though they have yet to secure a work placement. A survey by the adult learning inspectorate found that colleges were to told to rebrand learners as apprentices simply because they were working towards qualifications which were also part of the apprenticeship framework. Overnight, the number of apprentices increased by more than 30,000, yet only 3,000 of them actually progressed to a full apprenticeship with a work placement. That was sleight of hand, and it diverted attention from a fact that has been raised: fewer people are currently studying for traditional work-based apprenticeships at level 3 than when Labour came to power.

The Government’s own figures— [Interruption.] It appears that the Under-Secretary is looking aside for guidance from his officials. I suspect, however, that he knows very well that the Office for National Statistics figures—I am happy to give them to him before the wind-up, if he wishes—show that the number of level 3 apprenticeships has fallen by 34,000 since the turn of
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the decade. A graph in a House of Lords report— [Interruption]—which my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has to hand, confirms those data, and it is neither fair nor reasonable to pretend that the growth in level 2 numbers compensates for that fundamental weakness at level 3. Lord Leitch identified it in his comprehensive report, the House of Lords report identified it, and the Government’s own answers to written questions confirm it.

Mr. Chaytor: Is it not manifestly obvious that some of the people who some years ago would have been doing an apprenticeship are now going on to university, which indicates rising levels of achievement? Secondly, how does the hon. Gentleman expect to get more people in apprenticeships at level 3 without boosting the number on apprenticeships at level 2?

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman is trying to help his Front-Bench colleague, but I do not think that that is the argument that the Under-Secretary was making.

Mr. Lammy: I think that the hon. Gentleman would confirm that there were 75,000 apprenticeships in 1997. I can tell him that there are now more than 98,000 level 3 apprenticeships. It is axiomatic that there are more level 3 apprenticeships under this Government than there were under the previous Administration.

Mr. Hayes: Well, the Under-Secretary can trade figures with me, but I have to hand the figures for the last year for which reliable data are available, from the House of Lords report published earlier this year. They show a steady decline in the number of level 3 apprenticeships since 2000. I am happy to let the Under-Secretary have these figures, and he can examine them before he sums up the debate.

The truth of the matter is that the Under-Secretary knows in his heart that there has been a trade-off between level 2 and level 3 training. The lack of employer engagement and the different degrees of genuine practical experience help to account for vastly different outcomes between Britain and other countries with established apprenticeship systems.

I mentioned earlier that Germany had a higher completion rate. The figure that the Under-Secretary was reluctant to give us is that in Germany 79 per cent. of apprentices complete their training. In countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, offers of apprenticeships enable individual firms to signal skills needs to young people—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Robert Flello.

2.7 pm

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): In view of the number of Members wishing to speak in the debate, I will endeavour to keep my remarks much briefer than the 10 minutes allocated to me.

Let me first highlight the relevance and topicality of apprenticeships. Hardly a single conversation passes between me and my constituents about the regeneration work in, and needs of, Stoke-on-Trent without the issue
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of apprentices being mentioned. This is an extremely important debate, and I am delighted to be taking part in it.

I was saddened and disappointed by the contribution of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). I feel very sorry for the almost 2,000 young people in Stoke-on-Trent alone who have completed their apprenticeships over the past four years. To listen to Opposition Members, one would think that they were worth nothing. I resent that on behalf of those young people, because I think those qualifications are extremely valuable, and I look forward to their having fantastic careers and futures.

There is a huge opportunity for my constituency, the wider city of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire, and I am delighted that my Front-Bench colleagues are taking through the proposals to widen and expand the scope for apprenticeships. Whether in construction or IT, health care or new growth areas—such as those that are climate change-related, or to do with new technologies or logistics, which is a strong and growing sector in north Staffordshire—there are great opportunities for young people to get involved and learn many skills that will be of practical use to them in future. To take one example, the logistics industry makes use of a wide range of skills, from those of an HGV driver to those of a picker/packer.

Many young people tell me that they have paper qualifications but they really need practical experience. That is why apprenticeships are so valuable in providing opportunities. Much comment has been made about the need to bring in workers from other countries to take some highly skilled jobs, and it is incumbent on the Government and on employers to ensure that home-grown talent is trained and given every opportunity to take up such jobs. We need to embrace workers who come to contribute their skills to this country, but that must be alongside the utilisation of the potential and skills of our young people.

One of the barriers to apprenticeships is the size of some businesses. For example, many of the firms involved in construction in Stoke-on-Trent are one-man operations—I use the term advisedly because most of them are exactly that.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I should declare an interest in that I served an apprenticeship in the construction industry. Does my hon. Friend agree that the massive skills gap in the construction industry was caused in large part by the Government encouraging construction industry tradesmen to become self-employed on 714 or SE60 certificates in the 1980s and 1990s? That meant that there was no longer any incentive, or indeed finance, to take on apprentices.

Mr. Flello: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The “white van man” phenomenon and self-employment were good in terms of ensuring that we have an enterprise culture, but it is difficult for such small businesses to offer apprenticeships to young people. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to continue to pay close attention to these matters. I hope that he will ensure that those very small firms get the support—and, where necessary, financial help—to enable them to give young people opportunities to learn crucial skills.

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The need for such skills is evident in north Staffordshire. Thanks to the Government, a new hospital is being built in Stoke-on-Trent. We are having a few difficulties with the building schools for the future programme at the moment, but I hope that we will soon see some brand new schools and the refurbishment of existing schools, as part of that £200 million programme. A brand new oncology department and maternity unit are also being built in the area.

We are also one of the nine housing market renewal pathfinder areas, and the renew programme has already brought £67.5 million of Government-backed money into north Staffordshire. That investment has levered in many millions more in additional private sector funding to rebuild and refurbish houses in the area. In the construction industry alone, many job opportunities are being created and it is important that they give rise to apprenticeships, so that young people can get involved and make a fantastic contribution to their communities—where they will be able to see the fruits of their labour—as well as learning valuable skills for the future.

I apologise to other employers in Stoke-on-Trent about whom I will not have a chance to speak, but the developer at Weston Heights—formerly known as Coalville—has engaged local young people on apprenticeships, and it is fantastic to see them engaged in building their own communities. That is to be celebrated.

I hope that when my hon. Friend winds up, he will talk about pay for apprenticeships. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned “ancient history”, and it is amazing how anything that happened more than 10 years ago is given that description. Under previous Administrations, young people on apprenticeships were often glorified tea-boys and girls, and paid accordingly. The national minimum wage certainly did not exist.

We need to persuade business to take on apprentices, not to force them. It is important to take the business community with us, and most of it does see the value in apprentices. However, we should perhaps apply a little force when the Government are letting contracts, when it should be a condition that local people be offered apprenticeships and given the opportunity to make a contribution. The contracts should include minimum numbers for such jobs.

Mr. Redwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Flello: No, because time is ticking on—

Mr. Redwood: You get injury time.

Mr. Flello: Indeed, but colleagues would suffer injury if I were to give way and thus take longer than appropriate.

I mentioned the importance of apprenticeships in providing experience to add to the skills gained in education. Given the Government’s intention to increase the leaving age for education—in its widest sense—to 18, it is important to have a wide range of opportunities in place, so that young people have a choice post-16. NEETs have been mentioned, and apprenticeships must be at the heart of the opportunities offered to young people.

Under this Government, apprenticeships have flourished, are flourishing and, I hope, will flourish. It is a great shame that the Opposition have missed the opportunity
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to support and applaud the Government’s work in overturning the previous paucity of provision. We should all get behind these proposals.

2.17 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), but it is a genuine pleasure to me to take part in the debate. I hope that my first opportunity to speak from the Front Bench on this issue will be a positive experience. I shall stick to the remit of the future prospects for apprenticeships in England. There are concerns, and as a representative of an Opposition party, I shall voice those concerns, but I hope to do so constructively, because it is important—as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) said—to send a strong message on this issue.

As a representative of a Welsh constituency, I realise that this is an English debate, although 100,000 of the 500,000 Government target will presumably be Welsh or Scottish apprenticeships. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about his liaison with the devolved Administrations, especially in Wales.

I do not doubt the target or the need, but I wish to raise some practical concerns. First, and fundamental, is the need to get employers positively engaged in apprenticeships and other work-based training. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East, it was revealed that there are 1 million businesses with one or more employees in England, but only 130,000 employers actively participate in the scheme. That needs to increase dramatically. I am reminded that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) asked the Minister last week who would be responsible for selling the need for apprenticeships to small and medium-sized enterprises.

That is a crucial issue. At present, only 13 per cent. of businesses are involved in apprenticeships, and there is a particular need to consider small businesses. Yesterday, there was a debate in Westminster Hall about further education in south Yorkshire. In that region, there is a shortfall of suitably sized businesses. Like many of my colleagues, I represent a rural constituency. How are we to involve companies in those areas? There are particular challenges in rural areas.

Funding for apprenticeships for the over-25s is significantly lower than for the under-19s. Leitch said that 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force will already have completed their compulsory education, so there is a pressing need for reskilling and upskilling—not only for young people, but for people who need to re-engage with new skills. We need to look into the message the funding regime sends people who have already fallen through cracks in the education system. They need to be confidently involved, which is why independent careers advice is so important for them.

After the last big expansion of the apprenticeship programme, completion rates fell. In 2001-02 they went down to 24 per cent., although they have significantly increased since. I applaud the increase but there is still a long way to go, and it requires proper active engagement with employers.

Mr. Redwood: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Can he explain, in the Liberal view, what should be the role of regional government in England in apprenticeship schemes?

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