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The flexibility of allowing people to train and upskill later in life means that they will be better equipped for the world of work. We will have to enable people to change professions later in life, as their lives change, and as our economy changes. That is not only good for those people, but essential for our economic prosperity. That is why I welcome the provision in the Bill to provide a statutory basis for the apprenticeship programme, establishing the first statutory entitlement to apprenticeships for all suitably qualified young people. The Bill will also create a new national apprenticeship scheme and ensure that careers teachers and advisers provide comprehensive information about apprenticeships, which is absolutely key. A lot of research has been done showing that young people have no idea that apprenticeships have changed, or of the number of apprenticeships on offer, and we will have to offer “training the trainer” courses to ensure that careers services make those opportunities available to young people.

Recently, I visited VT Shipbuilding in my constituency, which has a thriving apprenticeship programme, and the young men whom I met—they were all young men; VT was at great pains to tell me that it has women shipbuilding apprentices, but they were not there on that day—were confident, articulate and passionate about what they were doing. A couple of them freely admitted that before they went on the apprenticeship programme, they were well on the way to going off the rails. Since they had been involved in this programme and given responsibility, as second and third-year apprentices, they had found self-esteem and the confidence that they had a future and something to aspire to.

Sir Robert Smith: I was thinking of some of the apprentices whom I have met in the new schemes set up in the offshore oil and gas industry, and of how enthusiastic and motivated they were by those schemes. The hon. Lady talked about the importance of being able to see a future. Getting it across to people that a career can be had through apprenticeships, once they have the skills, and that future employment is possible, is an important part of motivation.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: It is important to VT Shipbuilding, because it is struggling to find skilled people to fill its orders in the workplace, and we will have to move further on that.

We have to ensure that it is not just large companies, such as VT Shipbuilding, that have the opportunity to offer apprenticeships. Smaller organisations should also have the chance to do so. When I visited one of the smaller companies in my constituency, which was keen to offer apprenticeships, I found that we are often not equipping young people with the sort of life skills required for the world of work. It is important that we go for the five GCSEs, but when I did a seminar with employers, they said that they needed people with skills such as the ability to turn up on time and the ability to work as part of a team. Such life skills are far more important.

One of the smaller companies in my constituency was having that difficulty. It was bringing apprentices in, but the amount of management time taken up with ensuring that they understood what the world of work was about was becoming counterproductive. It got round that problem by saying that it would only take on apprentices
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who already had a relative employed. It worked on the basis that if a person’s father, uncle or mother was working for the company, they would make sure that the apprentice in question got up and came into work. That is all very well, but it means that a huge crowd of people do not get the opportunity to work. If we can offer support to smaller enterprises, allowing them management time and mentoring time, it would help us to move forward.

Raising the education participation age to 18 will be a key enabler of the provisions in the new Education and Skills Bill. Contrary to the Conservative party’s views that raising the participation age to 18 is a gimmick or a stunt, I believe that it is a radical, fundamental reform, which shows that we are serious about fairness and maximising the potential of all young people.

In my maiden speech, I referred to the motto of one of the schools in my constituency, the Admiral Lord Nelson school: “Dare to Dream, Aim to Achieve”. We should bear those sentiments in mind in ensuring that we have the right framework in place so that every child who dares to dream also has the opportunity to achieve.

Mr. Purchase: I believe that my hon. Friend shares my view that some young men and women do better in a college setting post-16 than they do at school in formal fifth and sixth forms. I am concerned about the arrangements that we need to make to allow that simple choice to be exercised at 16. Perhaps we have not thought it through properly, because the funding is fraught with considerable difficulties. Colleges find it difficult to run an appropriate equivalent sixth form without proper funding. Perhaps my hon. Friend will develop that point. Can we continue with that choice between college and school, and ensure that it remains real through appropriate funding?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: There is a question about cost-effectiveness and the size of the unit. Often, the problem with small sixth forms is that they cannot offer the breadth of subjects that colleges can. However, I take on board my hon. Friend’s point that we must offer a variety of settings and that it is no good saying that we will raise the education age to 18 and letting people assume that everybody will pour into the colleges. We must offer a variety of training. We are not saying that everybody has to stay in academic education till the age of 18, but that we will not allow 16-year-olds simply to leave school and do nothing. We are there to ensure that a variety of options is available, be they workplace-based or college-based training. We have a lead-in period to ensure that that variety is in place. As I said at the beginning, we have set ourselves a hard task, but there is no problem with doing that if we are serious about making it work.

A solid economy and a fairer education system are the founding principles of a good society. More than that, we need a society based on fairness, with fairness and opportunity enshrined and codified in our national life. In modern Britain, nobody should be discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, their gender, age, religious creed, disability or sexuality. Everybody should have an equal chance to succeed, and it is right that those equalities should be properly enshrined in law.

That leads me to the second Bill that I want to consider this afternoon—the equalities Bill. We have
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already made good progress in achieving our aim of equality for all, especially thanks to some of the progressive legislation that we have passed in the past decade, which no other Government were prepared to do. However, it is right to move to a single equality duty, which reflects modern Britain in the 21st century and encourages opportunity. If the first pillar is education, the Government must also ensure that people who take the opportunity to gain skills, training and formal qualifications are not thrown off course by lazy prejudice. I therefore welcome the provision to require public bodies to consider the diverse needs and requirements of their work force and the communities that they serve. It is right for those who work in those bodies and for organisations that are based in and serve the community, and for which taxpayers pay, to reflect the diversity of all the taxpayers of this country. It is also right that, under that legislation, we should make public bodies more transparent, in recognition of the fact that inequality can be hidden. It cannot be tackled if we cannot see it.

Britain seems to be a more tolerant society than it was a decade ago, but I am sure that we have all seen examples of people who are still being discriminated against. It is therefore right that we should introduce the equality Bill, to ensure that there is no room for discrimination in today’s Britain. And what better place to start than in this House? It is a source of shame that of the 646 Members elected when I joined the House in 2005, only 125 were women. It is, however, a source of personal pride that 96 women in the House are Labour MPs. This was achieved by one means, and one means only: positive action, in the form of all-women shortlists.

Female colleagues on this side of the House will be acutely aware of the recent passing of a very good friend, Val Price, who ran the Labour Women’s Network. Many of us owe her a deep debt of gratitude for her strong belief and determination. She championed all-women short lists and devoted herself to giving women the confidence and self-esteem that they needed to follow their dreams. It is easy to forget how few women there were in Parliament before this Government came to office, but fortunately, these days it is difficult for political parties to ignore women and women’s issues in politics. I am convinced that much of that is down to the work of Val Price. It is right that we should embed these positive changes, and the progress that we have made so far, and I welcome the commitment that will ensure that we allow political parties to use all-women short lists until 2030.

All-women short lists are a prime example of positive action. The new equality Bill will enable companies that wish to have a diverse work force that reflects the environment in which they exist also to take positive action. Where there is equal ability and equal talent, employers will be able to make a positive decision to redress inequalities in their work force. This will benefit employers as well as employees. Surveys have shown that employees value working for an organisation that has a strong corporate responsibility ethic and a mature approach to equality. Organisations that want to attract the best employees will have to demonstrate their commitment to equality. When we were discussing the equality Bill earlier, we talked about getting the private sector involved. I am very keen that the organisations in the private sector that contract with the public sector, and therefore use public funds, should be subject to these considerations.

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The private sector should also remember that many people these days have opportunities to make investment choices that they did not have before. Investment has opened up. Thanks to the child trust fund, every parent in the country now has a nest egg to invest for their child, and there is now a whole army of investors among people who never dreamed that they would have a choice about where to invest their funds. People who have a choice about financial returns might also want to make their choices on an ethical basis. There is therefore a huge advantage in companies starting to look at such factors, and for the private sector to start taking them on board as well.

The gender pay gap represents another huge inequality, and despite all the efforts through equal pay legislation, men who work full time still earn 40 per cent. more per hour than women who work part time. A veil of secrecy is often drawn over pay and, as I said, hidden discrimination is much more difficult to tackle. I therefore warmly welcome the requirement for public sector organisations, and organisations that contract with public sector organisations, to publish their gender pay gap. As I said earlier, I hope that the private sector will follow suit. We can look at the facts and find out where the gaps are. We can see who is following best practice and identify the organisations that need to improve.

We are the party of equality, and we have made progress. We were the party that challenged disability discrimination, tackled the pay gap, fought racism and supported equal treatment for gay people long before it was the accepted wisdom or the current fashion. The new equality Bill shows that we have an unwavering commitment to those values, and I hope that the other parties in the House will support it.

Building on our proud list of achievements, steering the economy through difficult times, fairness, opportunity and equality for all—these are the hallmarks of a Labour Government. We have made solid progress that has all too often been sneered at by the Opposition, but it has been welcomed by the people whom I came here to look after. They are the people who do not have the loudest voices and who are not the most articulate. They are the people to whom life has not dealt a great hand to start with, but they have dreams and aspirations just like everyone else. That is what we are about as a party. The Conservatives might think that they talk a great talk, but I think that that is all empty froth. I believe that what we are delivering in office is not soundbites but sound action, and long may that continue.

3.49 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to reply to this important debate on the Government’s draft legislative programme for the next Session. We have heard some interesting and thoughtful speeches.

Let me begin by saying something about the process, which a number of hon. Members raised. Some hon. Members may be aware that I was a civil servant before I entered the House. At one stage, I was tasked with briefing the then Chancellor of the Exchequer on what should be in the legislative programme. At that time, 10 or 12 years ago, the process was rather random.
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There are some things that any Chancellor has to support—there has to be a Finance Bill, for example—but I would look down the list, think, “That looks quite good,” and then brief him to support certain things. We have taken a major step forward in opening the process up, so that there can be proper scrutiny and so that the entire nation can take part in considering not just the individual items of legislation, but the programme as a whole.

I felt that the speech of the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) was a little contradictory. On the one hand, he said that he was disappointed, but on the other, there were 12 items that he completely agreed with.

Mr. Vara: I thought that I was very clear, but obviously I was not. For the record, let me say that I was very pleased with the contribution that the Conservative party had made to the draft legislative programme, but disappointed with all the rest, which was simply rehashed policies or efforts to make good the damage of the past 11 years.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman has again set out what is essentially a contradictory position. He criticised the Government for being closed minded, but then said that we borrowed policies. He said that not just about the general shape of the programme, but about specific items. Early on in his speech, he said that we were not doing anything about overcrowding in prisons and prison places, yet when he talked about the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill, he criticised the fact that the new body will take account of the prison population.

Mr. Vara: Given that the hon. Lady is trying to pick up on what she says were contradictions in what I said, let me make the position absolutely clear. My first comment on crime and prison was simply that when somebody is sentenced to prison, they should serve their sentence in prison, not outside as part of the early release programme. My second comment was about the Government’s proposal to have a separate committee to consider sentencing and whether it should be influenced by the amount of space available in prisons. The two are separate and distinct issues. I am sorry that she was not paying attention and therefore got a little confused.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman then talked about the constitutional renewal Bill. He said that it contained some good elements, but wondered why English MPs could not vote solely on English legislation. Publishing the draft programme in its entirety enables us to look at the territorial extent of different Bills. The situation is different for different Bills. The banking reform Bill, for example, applies to the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as does the saving gateway Bill, but the business rates supplement Bill applies to England and Wales. The marine and coastal access Bill applies in its entirety to England, but as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) acknowledged, only some parts of it apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Education and Skills Bill applies in its entirety to England, but only the provisions on the Learning and Skills Council apply to Scotland, while other parts apply to Wales and Northern Ireland. That reflects the different devolution settlements with different parts of the country.

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The notion that we should have only English votes on English Bills is so over-simplified that it fails to do justice to the complexity of the current situation. Even when a piece of legislation applies to only one part of the United Kingdom, it is often used as a model for secondary legislation in other parts. I thus hope that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire will think again about this issue.

The hon. Gentleman went on to criticise the effectiveness of the Government’s education policies, but he did not take sufficient account of the very significant achievements that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) described in the context of her constituency. We also know that at the overall national level, literacy rates have improved by 26 per cent.—a very substantial improvement—over the last 10 years.

The hon. Gentleman similarly criticised the welfare reform Bill. He said that there was nothing new in it and that we could not be proud of our record. Well, I am proud of the fact that unemployment is half what it was 10 years ago and I think that that is a significant achievement. I also think that it is good that young people have opportunities for paid work, training and voluntary work, which they did not have 10 years ago.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the costs of the consultation process. We have 60 events planned across the whole country and the consultation period carries on until 6 August, so we do not know the full costs at the moment. When we have completed the programme, we will inform the House how much it cost.

Mr. Vara rose—

Helen Goodman: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman one last time.

Mr. Vara: There is one further point. I asked the Leader of the House to be gracious enough to acknowledge the contribution of Her Majesty’s Opposition to the draft legislative programme. I am gracious in thinking that her failure to do so was an oversight on her part, so I invite the Deputy Leader of the House to give due credit to the Conservative party for the policies that Labour has adopted from us in the draft legislative programme.

Helen Goodman: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise and I am very sorry if he is disappointed with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) made a very different speech. He reflected on the nature of change in modern society; he reflected on the world becoming more individualised and atomised; he talked about the importance of community and the Labour party’s traditional role in working in communities; and he spoke about housing. My hon. Friend took the time to develop an argument, which made his speech excellent and enjoyable to listen to. I hope that he will look more deeply at the community empowerment legislation when it is introduced. The Bill will facilitate many of the measures to build up communities that he seeks.

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