1. Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to support the provision of apprenticeships in the construction industry in the current economic situation. 
The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham):
Despite the current economic crisis, the most recent construction skills estimate was that there would be more than 40,000 new entrants to the industry every year. We are determined to maintain the highest possible numbers of apprentices in the sector, so we are looking at how we can use the power of
Government contracts to increase the number of apprenticeship places. We have set up a clearing house, which has already placed two thirds of apprentices who risk losing their apprenticeships with a new employer or training provider, and convened a group of employers and trade unions to advise us on other practical steps that we can take to support the sector. I am clear that we must be prepared to consider new and radical ways of promoting and supporting apprenticeships in the current economic conditions.
Jim Sheridan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. He will be aware that despite the economic crisis in the construction industry, there are still some good employers who spend money and time training their employees. However, they are being undermined by unregistered rogue employers who do not pay tax or insurance, thereby undermining the good employers and their businesses. Could my right hon. Friend therefore ensure that, all things being equal, Government procurement contracts are given only to those registered companies with a track record of investing in training?
Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know that in the £2.3 billion capital programme for further education colleges in England we have already made it clear that major new contracts will have to have a training agreement within them. I can assure him that I am discussing that message actively with colleagues across Government, so that we look into every area of Government procurement to see how it can be used to secure the maximum training and the maximum numbers of apprentices.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I am very supportive of the Governments approach towards apprenticeships, and I think that I speak for my colleagues on the Front Bench when I say that. However, there is a concern, not only about construction apprenticeships, but about other apprenticeships. At the end of the last financial year, £284 million was taken out of the learning and skills budget, £128 million of which was given to higher education to support student grants. How does that attune with what the Secretary of State has said about trying to get more apprenticeships, to meet the target of 500,000 that Lord Leitch set and which the Government supported, and will that money go back to the Learning and Skills Council?
Mr. Denham: I am grateful for the hon. Gentlemans support. We have made it clear through the Learning and Skills Council that we do not want any shortage of money to be a constraint on the number of apprenticeships and we have reinforced that in the past year. There are one or two examples at the local or regional level of people saying that there is no budget for apprenticeships. We have overruled that and made it clear that we will expand the financing going into apprenticeships to meet the demand that comes from employers. With regard to last years budget, the hon. Gentleman will know that £115 million of underspend last year, the first year of the Train to Gain programme, was reinvested in the further education and skills budget. However, I am more than happy to write to him and the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills to explain how that was done.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): A substantial expansion of the newly restored rights of local authorities to build council housing linked to a requirement to take on apprenticeships would be a useful step forward. We have seen the number of apprentices double over 10 years and that is great, but 19 out of 20 employers still have no scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for that might be the paperwork associated with accessing public money for apprenticeships? The paperwork is quite substantial, ranging from the monitoring of quality assurance to retaining data on every apprenticeship for at least six years. Is there not a simpler way of approaching the matter?
Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I had quite a lively meeting in my office in July with a number of people from different parts of the apprenticeship system. The farce of people believing that they had to keep vocational qualification documents for six years in paper form for audit purposes is being dealt with, as is the fact that people could not get their accreditation online and had to use a paper-based process. Some of the accrediting bodies are already removing that practice from their procedures. So I can assure my hon. Friend that, whether we are talking about public sector apprenticeshipswhere the numbers are expanding rapidlyor more private sector apprenticeships, we are determined to deal with the bureaucracy that has been an inhibition in the past.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I have worked in the construction industry, and I have to say that I am quite encouraged by the Secretary of States remarks. There is no doubt, however, that further trained personnelparticularly craftsmenare required in the industry, and there should be additional apprenticeships available. At the moment, the industry sucks in too many people from overseas to fill the positions that are vacant. Will the Secretary of State take seriously the points that have been made on both sides of the House on this question?
Mr. Denham: Yes, I will. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I never want us to be in a position where someone in this country loses a job that goes to somebody from another countrywhether that person comes here to do the job or whether the job goes therejust on the basis that they do not have the necessary skills. I am determined to ensure that we do not ignore untapped talent in this country, resulting in people losing out. We will look at new ways of approaching the situation, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right to suggest that projects such as the Olympics, the major Crossrail programme and the Governments public sector housing programme will all draw people into the industry, even though the private house building market is very slow at the moment. We will need to look at new ways of doing this, recognising that smaller companies might find it a little more difficult financially than it has been in the past. We will look at those new ways of ensuring that we have a supply of skilled labour.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP):
Will the Secretary of State accept that there is an urgent need right across the United Kingdom to grant the skilled
training of apprentices in the construction industry a higher professional qualification and recognition by society?
Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the question of qualification levels. I want as many apprentices as possible to get the level of advanced qualification that will give them the ability to work on any building site. The other thing that the Government will be doing a lot more of in the next year is promoting the apprenticeship to its real value in society, as a legitimate means of training. Apprenticeships had disappeared in 1997; few people started them, and very few of those people finished them. We have rescued apprenticeships, but we are still on the journey to restoring their rightful position as a mainstream option in the training and education system in this country. That is what we are determined to do.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): It is good to be questioning the Secretary of State, rather than one of the two novices sitting either side of him[Hon. Members: Oh!] But I do not want to be ungenerous. In 2003, the Prime Minister promised that apprenticeship numbers would rise to 320,000. We know that, today, there are just 240,000, and that level 3 apprenticeships have been falling every year since 2000. If the Government are really serious about apprenticeships, will they adopt some of the policies outlined in our green paper? Those include equalising funding for people over 18 doing apprenticeships, providing a cash bonus of £2,000 per apprentice to small and medium-sized enterprises, and helping group training associations, which would again help smaller companies to take apprenticeships seriously and boost their numbers. The Conservatives believe in apprenticeships. Does the right hon. Gentleman, or is it just more fine words and failed policies?
Let me deal with a few of the statistics, although not all of them. The hon. Gentleman really should not confuse the real progress that we have made with the long-term targets for apprenticeship numbers that we are determined to achieve. They were set out in the Leitch report and we are working towards them. Let us look at advanced apprenticeships. The number of people achieving that qualificationwhich is what mattershas more than doubled under this Government. Of course, there was a time when there were far fewer apprenticeships, they were all called level 3 and nobody completed them. That was the apprenticeship system under the previous Conservative Government. At that time, no public money was going into apprenticeships.
I was very glad that the policy on group training associations announced by the Conservatives during the summer mimicked directly the one that we had announced in January. I was also very glad that their support for wage compensation for small employers mimicked directly the policy already implemented by this Government. It is really quite ridiculous for the Conservatives to go through our policies, repeat them and then claim that that is evidence of their support for apprenticeships.
The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): The latest figures show that there were 730,000 young people aged 18 to 24 who were not in education, employment or training in England. Around 260,000 of those young adults have caring responsibilities and a further 78,000 have a disability or sickness. Since April this year, we have made it possible for 18-year-olds with a history of not being in employment, education or training to be fast-tracked through the new deal programme on a voluntary basis; and from April next year, early entry to the new deal will be mandatory for 18-year-olds who have been in the NEET category for six months. Since 1997, the Government have increased the numbers of young people active in work or education from 3.9 million to 4.7 million. Through the measures we have taken, we aim to continue that progress.
Mr. Crabb: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response, but notwithstanding the measures and results he referred to, one of the principal stains on this Governments reputation is without question that during a decade of economic growth, rising employment and falling unemployment, hundreds of thousands of young people were allowed to fall through the net and effectively do nothing with their lives as they were not in education, not in training and not in the apprenticeships that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier. Now, at a time of economic hardship when jobs are being shed and the cupboards are bare, will the Secretary of State please tell us what measures he can bring to the table today that suggest that he knows how to bring down the number of NEETs at a time of economic difficulty?
Mr. Denham: First, at the risk of repeating myself, what was achieved in the decade of growth was a huge increase in the number of young people in education and employment and, of course, a dramatic reduction over the same period in long-term youth unemployment. The hon. Gentleman is right that, within the overall number of NEETsit is a much smaller number than in the pastwho do not have caring responsibilities, who are not out of work and bringing up their families, who are not among the 80,000 owning or buying their own homes and so living in households with significant incomes, there is a core of people about whom we remain worried.
I would say to Conservative Members, however, that opposition to increasing the participation age for training and work is the worst possible policy. The best way of ensuring that young people do not end up out of work, out of training and out of education is to ensure that, between 16 and 18, they are either in college or in work with training. I regret the fact that the Conservative party rejects the most practical measure that the Government are putting in place to deal with the issue in the longer term.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab):
Second only to the Isles of Scilly, Wakefield has the second highest rate in the country of young people not in education, employment
or training. With 11 per cent. of 16-year-olds classified as NEETs and just 22 per cent. progressing to higher education at 18, despite our excellent GCSE results, will my right hon. Friend sit down with me, Wakefield council and Wakefield college to discuss what can be done to stop that tragic waste of talent during the years before the secondary school age rises to 18?
Mr. Denham: I would be delighted to do so. I know that my hon. Friend is very keen on the development in her area of a stronger offer for higher education. Part of the challengeit is only part of itis to make sure that the aspirations of young people of talent and ability are raised to the highest possible level. In some parts of the country, local access to higher education is not as strong as it could be. The Higher Education Funding Council will shortly end its consultation on our new university challenge, which might be one of the issues that we should discuss for Wakefield. A number of other Members have a similar interest for their areas.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Has the Secretary of State had a chance to look at The Daily Telegraph this morning? If so, he will have seen an excellent article by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), a former welfare Minister, in which he points out that the number of NEETs under this Labour Government is now at record levels and suggests that the new deal should be scrapped for having failed young people and that the money saved should be spent on better projects in order to deal with the forthcoming economic difficulties that the country faces.
Mr. Denham: I shall undoubtedly read the article with great interest. It is difficult for me to comment, given that I have not seen the article or the statistics that it contains, but I can say that some of the statistics that are currently in play are very misleading. I do not think it fair [Interruption.] May I be allowed to make my point? I think that the hon. Lady will agree with me.
If, for example, a mother decides to stay at home looking after her children and to study part-time, she will appear as a NEET in some statistics, but I do not think that a mother who chooses to do that should be labelled as someone who is not doing something useful or active, and the same applies to others with caring responsibilities. We must accept that there is a much smaller but, yes, hard-core problem involving those who have dropped out of the system and are not engaged in education and training, but I believe that the higher level of conditionality on benefit and the much earlier intervention with young peopleparticularly those who have already been out of work for a couple of years before reaching the age of 18is the way to go.
Those core principles are at the heart of the new deal, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is making very clear that much more active and much earlier intervention involving more young people is the key to ensuring that they do not stay outside the employment, training and education system for long periods.
The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): We are very encouraged by the interest in our new university challenge policy, and want to extend the benefits of higher education to more people and places. If any proposals are developed, in Knowsley or elsewhere, we shall be happy to meet delegations led by hon. Members to discuss them.
Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that the collaboration involving Edge Hill university in Knowsley and efforts to provide more higher education opportunities at Knowsley community college will pave the way towards establishing a campus in Knowsley?
Mr. Lammy: My right hon. Friend raised this matter with me during my first week in the job. He is absolutely right: the work between the further education college and the higher education college, and the establishment of a new university, are bound to promote regeneration and opportunities for both young people and adults in that part of the north-west. I am very keen to talk to my right hon. Friend further about any proposals. The decisions will of course be made by the HEFCE, but there is currently a great deal of enthusiasm across the country about new universities. That suggests that there is a lot of unmet need out there, which our policy is supporting.