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We all agree with the concept that apprenticeships are a good thing, but the way in which the Government have redefined them will ultimately prove to be the downfall of proper apprenticeships and will create a
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disincentive for people to take on apprenticeships and try to reach the level 3 A-level equivalent. Some people with an aptitude for manual trades might not be able to take academic A-levels, but be able to take on a good apprenticeship, for example in some of the aerospace firms that operate successfully in my constituency. Those firms are looking out for really good-quality applicants to become apprentices, such as people who might have been able to go to university, but choose instead to go into a trade in such a manufacturing industry. Indeed, the firms prefer to take people with the right aptitude and qualities straight from school because they find that those people are able to understand and work on the job to a much greater extent than those who have graduated from university, who are not necessarily so much in touch with reality.

I think that employers in my constituency want good quality placements for apprentices, especially in manufacturing. They do not like the idea of a new Bill that will centralise, control and redefine the concept of apprenticeships, while effectively putting a big burden on employers.

Mr. Hayes: I take on board my hon. Friend’s point about micro-management and supply-side measures, but does he acknowledge that it is important to redefine apprenticeships to ensure that they are mentored and workplace-based, and does he agree that it is important that they deliver real competences; that group training associations might be helpful in that regard for smaller businesses; and that we need an all-age career service to advise young people on how to achieve apprenticeships that are in line with their aptitudes?

Mr. Chope: I have no disagreement with the points that my hon. Friend makes.

Let me make a suggestion. I am not sure whether it is yet the policy of my colleagues on the Front Bench, and it is certainly not yet Government policy. Incentivising young people to take apprenticeships is vital, and we know that the level of remuneration is critical to that, but there is no point in forcing employers to pay more than the economic rate; if we do, in the end they will not offer the apprenticeships. My suggestion is that the Government should offer national insurance credits to people in genuine apprenticeships. They would not have to pay national insurance contributions so long as they were in an apprenticeship. Also, people in genuine apprenticeships, particularly level 3 equivalent apprenticeships, should have an additional tax allowance before they have to start paying tax. What those young people are interested in is take-home pay—the money in their pocket at the end of the week. Instead of forcing employers to pay more, through higher wages and imposing the minimum wage, the Government, to help incentivise apprenticeships, should reduce the tax burden on those young people, who are the future of our country.

Finally, I was depressed to read a previous debate, in respect of an intervention in which my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings asked whether the taxpayer incentives in apprenticeship schemes should apply only to British citizens. I would have thought that that was vital, because we have limited resources; they should go to British apprentices, rather than to those from foreign countries.

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2.46 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): As chairman of the all-party skills group and a member of the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills, which hopes to scrutinise the apprenticeship reform Bill, I think that today’s debate is extremely topical. I am extremely proud of the Government’s record and achievements on the subject. Those Opposition Members who came to snipe, not speak, should be ashamed of themselves.

In the brief time available to me, I want to make two or three key points. There has been a lot of discussion in the debate about the nature, structure, and other aspects of apprenticeships. We need to look at the structure of apprenticeships and the progression process; that is clear from research that is being conducted and from the round table discussions held in the House at the beginning of the month, in which the Minister and I took part with a range of people from the sector. The London figures that he quoted amplify that point.

There is no getting away from the fact that completion rates are improving. They have gone from 24 per cent. in 2001 to 62 per cent. today, but we need to look carefully and clearly at whether we need to do something about the structure of apprenticeships, particularly for those people who are coming back to reskill. We have to consider whether a greater combination of on-work activity and apprenticeship activity, and perhaps a modular approach in some cases, will increase completion rates. That is important. It is particularly important for women who are coming back into the sector to reskill, and who may need time out for caring and other duties.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does my hon. Friend accept that some apprenticeships are of very good quality? I can give examples from my constituency, where there is an excellent partnership between Durham community business college and a further education college; they have a centre of excellence. Those good quality apprenticeships are responsible for pushing up completion rates from 707 two years ago to more than 1,300 now. That is why we should be supporting and extending apprenticeships.

Mr. Marsden: I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and she makes the point well that the co-operation of universities and others is key to what we need to do. We also need a culture change at an earlier stage in schools, because without the right sort of careers guidance, if the right attitudes are not inculcated in schools and without the involvement of hands-on advisers from businesses and organisations, people will not take up apprenticeships later. This is a whole-school and whole-area option.

In the various announcements that we heard from the Secretary of State on Monday, I was impressed by his focus on an all-age solution. Adult apprenticeships, particularly in the area of re-skilling, where we know there is a demographic gap, are key. We must get that right. We must review advice and guidance. I look forward to seeing how the Government take forward the ambitious ideas for a personal career and advancement scheme.

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In my constituency in Blackpool, we have a large number of small and medium-sized businesses. The Government’s involvement and support are critical, so I welcome the £90 million announced on Monday. My further education college, for example, has a virtual restaurant—it serves food, and for training purposes the structure is exactly the same as that of an ordinary restaurant. That is the sort of on-the-job work that is necessary. If we are to achieve the improvements that we want in Blackpool as part of our regeneration programmes, such an approach is important, as is investment in the public sector. I agree with the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) of a requirement on firms taking public sector contracts. We may need some age-proofing requirements as well.

In conclusion, the debate is timely. It is right that the Government should take the time to examine the structure of apprenticeships and how we define and run them. It is also right that the Government should take no lessons from the Opposition, with honourable exceptions. I would exempt my hon. Friend—he is a friend—the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who has done sterling work in the all-party group. There is no comparison between the record of the present Government and the record of Opposition. The fact that their spokespeople—the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), for example—downgrade, snipe at and criticise the vocational measures that we are introducing underlines the point.

2.52 pm

Mr. Lammy: I hope we can agree that the debate has been topical and interesting. I pay tribute to my Lib Dem colleague, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), and to all my hon. Friends. We are all agreed about the importance of apprenticeships to the country and to young people and their families.

It is a shame that Conservative Members were not prepared to move on from the position that we inherited in 1997, when apprenticeships were at an all-time low and the only offer for young people not able to take up an apprenticeship or go to university was the failed youth training scheme. None of them was prepared to mention that.

I shall deal with some of the points that hon. Members raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent,
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South (Mr. Flello) spoke about small businesses and how we could encourage more of them to offer apprenticeships. He is right to say that our review should examine that point carefully. I was up in Birmingham last week, where the Birmingham electrical training unit is acting as a hub for small businesses in that area and providing apprenticeships in those small businesses. We may well develop that model further.

Ms Dari Taylor: Will my hon. Friend visit the north-east and the north-east chemical industries cluster? Those small industries together produce an excellent training apprenticeship at level 3. It would be a great pleasure for him to visit. More than 90 per cent. of the youngsters who join the scheme end their apprenticeship brilliantly.

Mr. Lammy: The north-east was the first area that I visited in this ministerial post. I am happy to return, particularly following the announcement of the new skills academies for the processing industries in that area.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): The Minister will not go to Scotland, because it lies outside his remit. However, he will be aware that the Commission for Employment and Skills applies to Scotland. Will he undertake to convey his positive impression of apprenticeships to the Scottish National party Administration, who have put a freeze on apprenticeships?

Mr. Lammy: I am aware of that freeze. I talk to my opposite number in Scotland all the time about skills issues and the benefit of apprenticeships. The Government are not alone in talking about apprenticeships. When the Opposition condemn apprenticeships, they should remember that companies such as British Telecom, British Gas, Tesco, Rolls-Royce, BMW, Ford, BAE Systems and Toyota all support apprenticeships, which are fundamental to this country. Those industries, businesses and companies are testimony to the expansion that we have made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South has mentioned pay. Following the apprenticeship review, we will refer the matter to the Low Pay Commission again.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry)—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, with out Question put, pursuant to Temporary Standing Order (Topical debates).

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Common European Asylum System

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

2.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I beg to move,

It gives me great pleasure to speak today about the important issue of asylum and how we work with our European partners to make sure that we have a common approach while protecting the UK’s interests and sovereignty on that matter. We are here specifically to debate the green gaper published in June this year by the European Commission on the future of the common European asylum system. The green paper invited member states and relevant stakeholders to express their views on the future of European Union asylum work.

The 1997 treaty of Amsterdam and the 1999 Tampere European Council committed member states to establishing minimum standards for asylum procedures and policies across the European Union. A series of asylum directives were subsequently agreed and the procedures directive, the last of those, will be implemented in the UK on 1 December this year.

The implementation of the minimum standards directives has provided the basis for a common approach across Europe. That has helped to tackle asylum shopping, while also allowing member states to reflect their own distinct domestic circumstances.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend knows that one way in which we can assist in co-operation between various European countries is to make sure that we deal with asylum cases as speedily and efficiently as possible. I know that she is now the champion at the Home Office for ministerial correspondence. What steps has she taken to ensure that the immigration and nationality directorate deals with asylum cases much more quickly than it has done previously?

Meg Hillier: My right hon. Friend is generous to suggest that I have made progress on that issue in my five months at the Home Office. The Border and Immigration Agency, which was formerly the IND, now has an approach based on dealing with new claims within six months from end to end. On legacy claims, soon caseworkers will be allocated cases, and they will deal with those cases from end to end. We hope that that will speed up both new asylum cases and deal with those who have been waiting for their claims to be assessed. My right hon. Friend is right to acknowledge that that is part of dealing fairly with claims across
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Europe. The Government have long acknowledged the importance of a Europe-wide approach to asylum and to migration in general. The framework under which we currently operate, which the green paper suggests that we review and assess, helps to reduce the risk of a weak link in the chain of dealing with asylum seekers across Europe. We have an opt-in, which we have chosen not to use on a number of measures. However, our practical work with other member states, particularly some of the newer European Union partners, helps us preserve our strong border controls—a strong tenet of the Government’s approach to migration—by strengthening Europe more generally.

The UK has benefited immensely from working with European partners on European and asylum issues.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am most interested in my hon. Friend’s emphasis on our strong border controls. Are those reflected in other European member states? Do those states take a view similar to ours?

Meg Hillier: We have chosen not to opt into certain Schengen arrangements. We have protected our sovereignty along our borders so that they are strong. We could sum up our policy by saying that we have our own strong borders and that by participating in Europe on certain immigration issues, and in supporting European countries, we effectively have “borders plus” through the strengthening of the wider European border. There is a double ring to make sure that we keep track of who is coming into our country. Next year, we will introduce a points-based system for migrants outside the asylum route and we will be able to count people in and out.

We are here to talk mostly about asylum and the Commission’s green paper. Before my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) intervened, I had been about to give a couple of examples of good co-operation with European partners. One example is our work with the French Government to strengthen our border controls and protections at Calais and other channel ports.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recall that we had difficulties with the French Government in respect of asylum seekers? Does she think that the position has now been strengthened? Are the relationships getting better or worse?

Meg Hillier: The relationships are considerably better. People from the British Border and Immigration Agency are working across the channel. For example, the passport of someone travelling on a ship or a Eurostar train will be checked on the European side rather than when the person arrives back in the UK.

We have good relationships with our European partners. The framework under which we are operating is working well. We are keen that it should be better evaluated before we take the next steps. Although we are interested in what the green paper says and the questions that it asks—it has a number of those—we feel that it is a bit early to learn the full lessons, although in general we have made considerable progress.

We also learned lessons from Sweden when setting up our gateway resettlement programme for refugees; we are gaining from such cross-country inter-state
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working, some of which is dealt with by the Commission and some of which is dealt with through operational co-operation, outwith the formal structures of the European Union, between states.

More should and could be done at the European level to facilitate such practical engagement; only through the active participation of all member states can we expect to see greater convergence and higher standards. An example of that is our interpreter support service and the identification of lead countries, helping those from some national groups with claims. That allows us, for example, to support countries on the EU border when someone presents for asylum. The UK or another country may have expertise with that national group. Britain and other lead countries provide expertise and interpretation by video link. That is a good example of practical co-operation that has come from the work done by the heads of border agencies across Europe, and it demonstrates that there is more than one way in which we can co-operate across Europe.

Keith Vaz: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. Do the Government support the proposal, put forward at the start of The Hague programme, for the creation of a European support officer and office to deal with common asylum issues?

Meg Hillier: That is one of the discussions in the green paper. We will wait to see what the Commission comes up with on that. Realistically, there is not a great deal of time to take major legislation through the European Parliament and processes before the 2009 European elections. When we see what the Commission comes up with, there will have to be discussion about what is feasible and practical. The issue raised by my right hon. Friend is certainly of interest to us.

We are encouraged that the Commission has confirmed that it will undertake a feasibility study of how best to take forward the sort of practical co-operation that I have been talking about. We will actively support measures that encourage that spirit of co-operation without undue bureaucracy. We are also mindful of the need for more to be done outside the borders of the EU. The UK fully supports the EU’s regional protection programme, which allows refugees access to protection quickly and close to their countries of origin.

In the UK, we have introduced several measures that have increased the robustness of our asylum process and reduced the number of unfounded asylum claims. Those measures, which include the expansion of our fast-track process—when people arrive, their claim is initially triaged, or assessed, and determined so that they then leave the country or are accepted as refugees within two or three months of their arrival—and the introduction of new offences for passengers who attempt to conceal their identity or their country of origin by deliberately destroying their documents, have reduced asylum applications to the lowest levels since 1992. The annexe to the green paper produced by the Commission provides some of those figures in more detail.

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