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29 Nov 2007 : Column 483

Mark Williams: I was about to refer to regionalism. Not just regional government but local government has a responsibility in these matters. There is a case for local and regional government to be more involved; they offer apprenticeships to 14 to 19-year-olds, and such schemes should be expanded so that we can build on some of the recommendations in the Lyons report about moulding educational programmes to local need, which is important.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman recall that under the previous Government there were no apprenticeships, except in local government? The trade union movement undertook massive agitation for the reinstatement of apprenticeships.

Mark Williams: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation, which relates to a general point about public sector participation. When the Prime Minister made his speech in October, he talked of the need for more apprenticeships in the public sector—in local authorities, in the health service, in Whitehall, perhaps even in this place. We could follow the model of the Ministry of Defence, which has had some success in that regard.

New apprenticeships need to be more employer-based. I take the Minister’s point about people who may be struggling to reach a level 3 apprenticeship. As a former teacher, I am sensitive to the need to remember that apprenticeship is an individualised process. We sometimes get embroiled in an array of targets, but we are talking about individual people, so an individualised approach to learning and apprenticeships is fundamental. I will not lament programme-based apprenticeships, because the future has to lie with employer-based schemes, and we look forward to them.

Some points have been raised by charities. In light of the plans of the Department for Work and Pensions to get people off incapacity benefit, Barnardo’s pointed out that we need to help people with disabilities to take up supported apprenticeships. That is a resonant point in view of the statement we heard earlier. The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who is no longer in the Chamber, made the important point that we need to debunk some of the stereotypes about women in apprenticeships.

Angela Watkinson: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that in some areas of employment, notably retail, hospitality and the service industry, which seem to attract more women as employees, there is often no wage benefit after someone has completed an apprenticeship?

Mark Williams: I cannot go into great detail on that point, but I very much concur with what the hon. Lady says.

In the Prime Minister’s speech on 31 October he announced a UCAS-style matching scheme. That proposal gets to the nub of the challenge facing the Government and all parties. Such a scheme would match young people with apprenticeships in every area, which is a huge challenge given the realm of sectors involved. The Association of Colleges has cited some sectors, such as electrical installation and telecoms, where if that matching process is to be a reality a huge
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amount of work will have to be undertaken to engage employers. We heard earlier, and during questions last week, about the challenges facing the building sector.

Demand for apprenticeships outstrips supply by a factor of 10, so if the UCAS-style model is to be valid for young people, there must be some equity. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we can sell these ideas. In a Westminster Hall debate, I referred to the need to sell the idea of apprenticeships to employers and schools. It is a huge agenda. Who will be responsible for it? Will it be the Learning and Skills Council or local government? It is essential that we get the message across.

I offer the House an example of a pioneering scheme from my constituency. Llwyn yr Eos school in Penparcau near Aberystwyth has established a young artisans club—children aged between seven and nine are involved in simple carpentry and joinery work. If we can do something like that for youngsters of that age, we have to achieve it further along the education system.

I am positive, but I am sceptical about targets. We need to see the substance that will result from the review in January and the Bill. The Liberal Democrats look forward with some enthusiasm to taking part in that debate—not uncritically, but recognising that it is fundamental if the targets identified by Leitch are to be realised.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We have 30 minutes left, which will allow only three speakers if everyone sticks to the 10-minute rule. I do not want to micro-manage the debate any further, so I hope that Members will recognise the fact that others want to make a contribution.

2.27 pm

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Conscious of your comments, I shall try to stick to five minutes to enable my colleagues to contribute.

I am lucky enough to represent the city in which I was born and brought up—a city dominated by the naval dockyard, which has provided high-quality skilled jobs for Portsmouth people for centuries. I remember as a child seeing traffic coming to a standstill at outmuster time as thousands of dockyard workers exited the gates on their bicycles. When I was at school, the pinnacle of every young lad’s ambition—it was overwhelmingly lads—was to pass the dockyard entrance exam, get their apprenticeship and learn their trade, secure in the knowledge that with those skills they would be set up for life. As a result, Portsmouth did not have a large culture of going on to higher academic education.

Unfortunately, during the 1980s and 1990s—those long, depressing years of Tory rule, when the economy foundered and public funding was cut relentlessly—slowly but surely those apprenticeships died out. The dockyard was run down and later generations had no opportunity to learn a trade. As there was no family history of higher education, young people left school at 16 to be dumped on the scrapheap of the dole queue with no prospect of work, so more children were brought up living in poverty with neither parent in work.

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It is no wonder that in my constituency, when this Government took office in 1997, there was generational unemployment, lack of aspiration, poor educational results and poor health. Like me, the people of my constituency have not forgotten who was responsible, even though the Conservatives have reinvented themselves and seem to have selective memories. It is important to remember that we cannot solve 18 years of neglect overnight. Two generations of unemployment, poverty and lack of aspiration take a long time to turn around.

In the past 10 years, Labour’s massive investment in public services has delivered real improvements. In Portsmouth, we have seen huge improvements in educational attainment since 1997. Back then, only 25 per cent. of young people got five good GCSEs. We have now doubled that to 50 per cent., but that is not good enough because it means that half our young people are still missing out. The issue is not just about qualifications; it is about boosting confidence and self-esteem so that young people believe that they can achieve, and can go on to further and higher education.

I wholeheartedly support raising the education participation age to 18 and I am saddened, but not entirely surprised, that the Conservative party opposes our plans. The Conservatives did nothing to raise aspirations for ordinary working class kids when they were in power, so why should they be any different now? Raising the education participation age to 18 is not about forcing young people to stay on at school. Training is the key word. Building on the Leitch review of skills, we are not simply saying that all young people must continue studying academically for another two years. I want vocational skills to be accorded the same respect as academic skills, and I want those skills to be nurtured in a proper training workplace environment, as part of a modern, structured apprenticeship. Apprenticeships can be a route to high-level professional skills. For example, the Association of Accounting Technicians offers a vocational route to entry into professional accounting qualifications.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I am concerned about others having time to make speeches, but given that my hon. Friend probably will not get to make a speech, I shall give way.

Ms Dari Taylor: I am most grateful. My hon. Friend is talking about the way in which training should take place. Will she acknowledge that, for the chemical process industry, a general science GCSE is not acceptable? We have to teach physics, chemistry and maths if we are to have apprentices with the qualities that the industry requires.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The teaching of science is important. If people do not get those science qualifications, they will not have the skills to compete in the global marketplace. We have to look at how those subjects are being taught in schools, to make them relevant and to get young people interested in science-based subjects at a much earlier age.

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We have to harness talent and work towards developing world-class skills. Raising the age at which individuals leave education or training is vital, not just as a message of individual economic prosperity for people, but as a tool of social justice, to ensure that in families that have suffered generations of unemployment, young people have the chance to succeed. It is also good for the British economy. As I said, we face ever-increasing globalisation, and ever-increasing competition from places such as China and the United States, so it is more vital than ever that we have a highly skilled, well-educated work force.

That is also important for the social glue that binds our communities together. A family in which the parents have had access to good quality training and skills, and have aspirations for the future for themselves and their children, is a family in which the parents will be good role models for their children so that generational unemployment is replaced by generational aspiration.

2.33 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I am still slightly bemused as to why this subject was regarded by the Leader of the House as the hot topic of the week. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was on the right lines when he said that perhaps the Government want to point out that the fact that the Prime Minister has had a 10-year apprenticeship does not necessarily mean that he is any good at the job at the end of it. There certainly seems to be evidence that if the current fundraiser for the Labour party had had an apprenticeship, he might have realised that what he was doing, which he thought was lawful, was actually unlawful.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): May I help my hon. Friend with his confusion about why this subject has been chosen for today’s debate? Could the decision relate in any way to the fact that the Prime Minister gave a speech last Monday on climate change, and the hot topic for the debate on the subsequent Thursday was climate change? This Monday, the Prime Minister spoke on skills and apprenticeships, and this Thursday we are debating them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I help both hon. Gentlemen? Such limited time as there is ought to be devoted strictly to the topic that is before the House.

Mr. Chope: Absolutely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is why I am going to start off with a dictionary definition of an apprentice, which is very much in tune with what my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings has been saying. The New Oxford Dictionary of English, second edition, 2003, defines an apprentice as:

That is what the general public understands by “an apprentice”. To be an apprentice is a privilege and a good thing. There are a host of families—thousands of families—who hope that they will be able to get their children into apprenticeships.

The Government, however, have devalued the word “apprentice” so that it is no longer the subject of pride. Indeed, if we allow an apprentice to be regarded as
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somebody who has not even got the basic skills in maths and English, we are in danger of reaching a stage at which a young person who says that they are an apprentice will be looked down on, instead of looked up to, as has traditionally been the case.

Mr. Denis Murphy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chope: I will not, because we are all trying to make as much progress as possible.

The Government have devalued the currency of apprenticeships. To force businesses—this is what seems to be in the pipeline—to take on people who do not even have basic elementary skills in maths and English as apprentices will damage the competitiveness of our economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, in 1997, there were 75,000 apprentices. They were genuine apprentices. They had already attained level 2 qualifications and were aspiring to level 3 equivalent qualifications. The comparable figure today is 98,000. Let us compare 75,000 with 98,000.

Mr. Lammy: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that completion rates in 1997 were poor and that it was important to increase level 2 apprenticeships so that young people could progress to level 3 apprenticeships, as well as to increase level 3 apprenticeships for young people who could move into an advanced apprenticeship straight away? We are talking about both, not either/or.

Mr. Chope: It is obviously important to raise the skills of all our young people. However, I am concerned that the Government have dumbed down the apprenticeship process.

Mr. Hayes: It is important that we button down this point. Despite the Minister’s assertions, which are ill judged, it is clear that the number of level 3 apprenticeships has declined since 2000. The truth is that we have traded level 3 for level 2, as my hon. Friend said. That is not fair to learners and it is not right for employers. The Minister should acknowledge that, as I hope my hon. Friend will make clear.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the Prime Minister starts citing figures, why does he not compare the 75,000 figure in 1997 with the 98,000 figure now? I concede that there are now more apprenticeships than in 1997. However, between 1997 and 2000, the number rose higher than it is now. Since about 2000, the number of level 3 equivalent apprenticeships has declined. The change is going in the wrong direction.

Adam Afriyie: It is absolutely clear from the figures that the Minister—I am sure that this is not deliberate, or at least I hope so—is not comparing like with like. He compared a figure of 75,000 for 1996-97 with one of more than 250,000 today. However, those figures relate to completely different things, so I hope that he will set the record straight in his winding-up speech.

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Mr. Chope: I think that we have done that for the Minister. We have put the spotlight on this issue. We must make it clear that when the Government talk about apprenticeships, they are talking about something of a much lower grade than when the Opposition were in government.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend’s comments about maths and English qualifications are absolutely right. Does he agree that an exception could be made for students who have been in special education, who might take a bit longer to acquire necessary skills in an apprenticeship, but could become extremely reliable employees who would not get bored and tend to take days off by pretending to be ill?

Mr. Chope: I am with my hon. Friend absolutely on that. That was why I thought that yesterday’s threat by the Prime Minister of imposing minimum wage legislation on apprentices’ employers was a damaging development. The dictionary definition of “apprentice” that I cited makes it clear that an implicit aspect of being an apprentice is taking a lower wage to reflect a lack of experience and skills. There is a partnership between an employer and an apprentice under which the apprentice agrees to learn and work on the job, and the employer gives his time freely. Obviously, however, the employer cannot afford to give the apprentice the full wage that he would pay to someone who was fully qualified.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chope: I will not give way again.

In reply to Question 10 during yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, which was asked by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), the Prime Minister seemed to be saying that he was thinking of extending the minimum wage legislation into the area of apprenticeships. However, that would be extremely damaging to the job prospects of those who aspire to become apprentices.

I am keen to ensure that more people in this country want to take on skills, especially in manufacturing. However, we will not achieve that aim if we start pretending that the role of employers is to prop up the failures of the state education system. About £50,000 of taxpayers’ money has been invested in the education of each child leaving school at the age of 16. The Government are now saying that because so much of that money has been wasted on those pupils who have not learned what they should have been learning in school, or have not been taught properly—those who have missed out on their right to learn—we will give another £3,000 per pupil to try to make all the difference post-16. That is not a solution; it is a sticking plaster over a problem that has become much worse under this Government.

Ms Dari Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chope: I will not.

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