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8 Dec 2008 : Column 319

This is Ofsted telling us that Train to Gain has not been working. As a result, there is a serious underspend on Train to Gain. We are proposing not to abolish it but to refocus its budget on what we believe is a priority, especially in these tough times: more funding for apprenticeships, which is the single best thing that we can do to strengthen the skills and training opportunities in our country.

Train to Gain is failing and instead we will have “time to train”. We do not oppose the idea of a right for employees to seek the opportunity for more training and we hope that it will succeed, but the Secretary of State must surely accept that concerns are expressed in the documents that his own Department has produced to go alongside the Bill.

Mr. Ellwood: Another fact that the Secretary of State conveniently left out is that the apprenticeship schemes are paid for in full for 16 to 18-year-olds, but as soon as someone reaches 19, the money is split in half, thereby dissuading a lot of people from continuing apprenticeships over the age of 18.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is right and, contrary to the caricature painted by the Secretary of State, one of our many proposals is to refocus Train to Gain on supporting apprenticeships by ensuring that that completely unacceptable age discrimination is abolished. No longer will people get full funding for an apprenticeship only if they are under 19 and receive 50 per cent. funding after that. We believe—especially in tough times, when there will be people over 19 who, sadly, will lose their jobs, seek a new career or try to get training—that using the Train to Gain budget to support them in their apprenticeship is the single best thing that we could be doing. It is a great pity that the Secretary of State presides over a system that is so clearly biased against anyone over the age 19.

We hope that the proposals for “time to train” will work, but the Secretary of State will doubtless be aware of the comments of the CBI, for example, which is concerned that the impact of “time to train” on employers

It would be very useful to hear from the Secretary of State about something that he did not cover in his speech: the steps that he will be taking to ensure that employers are not overburdened as a result of the new right that he is proposing to implement. Surely, as a minimum, he needs to make a commitment to this House that he will monitor the effectiveness of this new right, to ensure that it is not coming with a disproportionate burden for employers.

On apprenticeships, we also need to be confident that we can do far better than the Government have done. Their approach in the Queen’s Speech has been not to do anything real to encourage apprenticeships, but instead to pass new legal rights. Again, we do not have a problem with people having a legal right to an apprenticeship, but legal rights is not the crucial issue—any more than passing legislation with a commitment to abolishing child poverty by 2020 will, of itself, miraculously solve the problems of poverty. In fact, there seems to be a pattern in this Queen’s Speech, whereby the Government pass law requiring virtue and forbidding vice in all the areas where they seem to be making least progress in the
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real world in achieving their objectives. A report today shows how badly the Government are doing on child poverty, and we are invited to support the aim of abolishing it by 2020. We have clear evidence that they are doing badly on apprenticeships, and we are invited to support a new legal right for an apprenticeship, without any clear evidence of how it is to be achieved.

This seems extremely odd, and I should be grateful if the Secretary of State helped us on this issue. In the draft Apprenticeships Bill—of course, we have yet to see the new combined legislation—there was a proposal that, in order to be an apprentice, one had genuinely to be employed. We Conservatives had been pressing for that, because we think that for most people, an apprenticeship means that they are in employment and receiving training in addition. A lot of damage is done to the brand if large numbers of other training schemes that are not linked to employment in any way can be called apprenticeships. The proposal in the Bill was that any apprenticeship had to be linked to employment. However, we understand that in addition the new legislation will include an entitlement for every young person to have an apprenticeship. If to be in an apprenticeship a person has to be in employment, and if we are passing a law giving everyone an entitlement to an apprenticeship, we will be interested to hear how the Secretary of State believes that the entitlement will be delivered. Ultimately, we are in a free economy in which employers cannot be required by law to take on an apprentice—although, of course, we want many more employers to do so.

Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: Yes. If in the absence of an intervention from the Secretary of State the hon. Gentleman will help with my inquiry, I will be grateful.

Rob Marris: I can help the hon. Gentleman with the inquiry, with reference to what the Secretary of State set out in his speech. There are two ways in which the entitlement can be delivered. One is through the public sector and the other is through contract compliance.

Mr. Willetts: I am pleased with what the hon. Gentleman has said about the public sector. As he will be aware, in the past year I have tabled many questions trying to identify how many apprenticeships there are across the public sector and in central Government. The figure for the Government was shockingly low: there are 3,431 apprenticeships in central Government—a very tiny figure, especially if we take seriously the extraordinary figures for the total number of apprenticeships that we heard from the Secretary of State earlier. There seem to be 2,581 advanced apprenticeships, which are the only sort of apprenticeship in most other countries. Given that currently there are only around 3,000 apprenticeships across Government, it would be an extraordinary ambition for the public sector to deliver that entitlement, which will apparently be offered to all young people.

I admire the ambition of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), and I hope that we will hear from the Government—we have not this evening; we are still waiting—about what practical measures they will take to achieve the targets. How will they explain the idea that people can have an entitlement to be employed?

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Mr. Denham: I shall not repeat the various measures that I set out in my speech. The House will note that the Conservative party has opposed them—particularly the establishment of a dedicated apprenticeship service, which has been recommended as the key necessary organisational focus by a Committee in another place. However, I am perfectly happy to confirm that our view is that an apprenticeship must have a clear link with employment in the workplace. We said that in the apprenticeships review last year, and our intention is that the Bill will define that key characteristic of the apprenticeship.

We accept the challenge involved in meeting the obligation that the young people with the ability, qualification and desire for an apprenticeship should be able to have one. The difference between the Government and the Conservative party is that we believe that it is right to go for such challenges—to set ourselves the target and have the determination to achieve it. We heard again from the hon. Gentleman the voice of despair—“Nothing can be done.”

Mr. Willetts: The Secretary of State should understand that we are talking about genuine concerns raised by people in many areas of the British economy about how apprenticeship schemes are developing. I shall quote the House of Lords Committee, which he cited earlier:

We want to do better; that is why we have said that we will cut the bureaucratic burdens on employers that currently deter them from taking on apprenticeships. We have said that we will encourage small businesses in particular to take on more apprentices by having more group training associations. We have said that apprenticeships should be a route into higher education and university for young people, who should benefit from them. That is why we have proposed both apprenticeship scholarships—to enable apprentices to go on to university—and the ending of age discrimination in access to apprenticeships.

We want more real apprenticeships. We do not believe that the Secretary of State has credibly explained how the two requirements to be imposed by the legislation—that apprentices have to be employed and that people have a legal right to be an apprentice—can be reconciled in the real world. He has still not explained that puzzle to us.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: I will happily do so.

Kelvin Hopkins: The backbone of apprenticeship provision in the past was the large-scale public sector organisations and large-scale manufacturing industry; as a Government, the hon. Gentleman’s party did more than any Government in history to destroy both. Does he not agree that starting to re-establish direct, large-scale employment in the public sector would help provide apprenticeships?

Mr. Willetts: I absolutely wish to see more apprenticeships across the public sector. One of the reasons why I tabled the parliamentary questions that showed how few
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apprenticeships there were across central Government was to try to get the Government to do something about the scandal of how low that level is.

Let me repeat again for the benefit of the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) that we want more people of all ages to be in apprenticeships. We have practical proposals to increase the number of people in apprenticeships; what we have from the Secretary of State is rhetoric without any explanation of how he will achieve the ambitious targets and legal requirements that he proposes. That is the history of his party’s approach to apprenticeships—an endless stream of ambitious targets, none of which is ever met. They are not met because the Government have not made the practical proposals that we have made to ensure that they are spread. That is the problem that the Secretary of State’s proposals face.

I turn briefly to the subject of universities, about which the Secretary of State spoke. The Government have failed to achieve their apprenticeship targets, the Learning and Skills Council has failed and Train to Gain has failed. On top of all that, this is the last Session before the Government face the truth of their failure to achieve their target for university participation, which, we should recall, was that 50 per cent. of young people should participate in university education by 2010.

Bob Spink: Is the Opposition’s policy on universities to continue investment and support in large-scale, longer-term research projects such as the large hadron collider, particle physics research and, of course, cutting-edge medical research?

Mr. Willetts: It is. Like the Secretary of State, I had the excitement of being at the event in central London on the morning when the large hadron collider was turned on. I much regret the fact that, shortly after, it was turned off; we hope that it will eventually be turned on again. The reasons for the malfunctioning of the large hadron collider merit a debate in their own right. I was concerned when one of the scientists at the opening of the collider said that one problem had been that one of the people constructing it appeared to have left a can of lager in the central tube, and that that had distorted the signal. Whatever the reason, we believe in those projects, which are an important part of the scientific research carried out in our nation. That is why the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, was so right to take the decision that we should back that programme.

I turn back to the subject of universities. The Government target was that 50 per cent. of young people should go to university by 2010. Progress towards achieving that target has barely moved upwards since it was set; the figure has been stuck at about 40 per cent. for the past seven years, and between 2005 and 2006 it actually fell. That is another example of the phenomenon of the Government announcing an ambitious target and failing to meet it. I suppose that we should be relieved that at least they did not propose a law that said that everybody should have an absolute entitlement to go to university, even as the Government moved further and further away from their target.

There are many reasons for the Government’s failure to achieve the target. As the Secretary of State knows, one of my particular concerns is the extraordinary gap that has opened up between male and female participation
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in higher education. It is great that 45 per cent. of young women now go to university, but the fact that only 35 per cent. of young men do so tells us that our education system has a serious problem of male under-achievement.

The Secretary of State disappointed me when the only factual question that we asked in this Chamber about his proposals on maintenance grant, which was repeated so skilfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), did not get a straightforward answer. It is a very simple question. I have to ask Labour Members this: do they believe that if the answer was in any way encouraging it is possible that we might have heard it instead of the endless evasions and contortions of the Secretary of State? I wrote to him in advance, trying to explain that I would be grateful to receive an answer on behalf of many tens of thousands of families.

In 2007, one of the first acts of the new Prime Minister and the new Secretary of State was to announce a new regime for maintenance grant that applies in 2008. Only a month ago, the Secretary of State announced that he was changing the 2008 regime to apply a different regime for 2009, which will clearly be far less generous because many fewer students will get their maintenance grants than would have done had the 2008 regime continued. Universities will now have three different maintenance grant regimes for students who went up in 2007, in 2008 and in 2009. Only this Government could achieve that, but that is what we are going to have. Young people from tens of thousands of families who had already applied to university are entitled to know how they will be affected by these changes, and we are entitled to know how many fewer students will receive maintenance grant in 2009 than would have received it in 2008. Unlike the intervention by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), this is not rocket science. It is a straightforward question: how many people, comparing the 2009 and 2008 regimes, will not be getting maintenance grant?

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: If the hon. Gentleman is going to assist with our inquiries, as they say so often around this House nowadays, then yes, why not?

Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, although he may regret it. He said that only this Government—I share his criticism of what they have done—could have changed the student grant regimes in such a way. I was a student when the Conservative party was in power, when the grant was reduced every year and benefits were withdrawn. During my three years at university, the regime was different each year.

Mr. Willetts: I am full of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman. The world has changed since then, and many more young people are going to university. We celebrate that fact. Of course, the number of young people going to university surged during the years when we were in government.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention was not as helpful as I had hoped, because he diverted me from my line of inquiry. Not only Conservative Members but families throughout the country are entitled to know how many
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fewer young people will get maintenance grant in 2009 than in 2008. We believe that about 40,000 students will no longer get any grant at all compared with the 2008 regime, but we also need to know how many will have a reduction in their grant but still get some of it. There are various estimates going around. We have tried to work it out with the limited resources of Opposition, using the information that is already publicly available. The Secretary of State set out the detail of how the taper is going to work, and we have the provisional figures for the Student Loans Company. It is possible that a further 80,000 students or more, adding up to 120,000 per year, will lose out compared with the previous regime, which over the three years as we get up to a full complement of students means that 360,000 students will lose maintenance grant compared with the 2008 regime.

If the number is as great as that, it is hard to see how it is possible that two thirds of students will still receive a grant. One of the things that surprised me about the Secretary of State’s remarks was that he implied that he still believes that that will happen. On our calculations, that seems most unlikely—we believe that the proportion could be significantly lower under the new regime. Regardless of what one thinks about the announcement that the Government made in 2007 and the financial crisis that they have faced since, surely Members in all parts of the House are entitled to an answer to this simple question, which the Secretary of State seems to have a phobia about answering and has yet again failed to answer. Every time that happens, it confirms our suspicions that large numbers of families are losing out compared with the regime that he proudly announced in his first week as Secretary of State. We should all expect as a minimum that he comes clean on that.

What we have in the Government’s proposals in the Queen’s Speech is not reform but change—endless change on the previous structures that the Government themselves put in place. We have seen the failure to achieve more real apprenticeships linked to employers at level 3; the failure of Train to Gain, which should be refocused to provide more financial support for apprenticeships; and the failure to achieve the Government’s targets for participation in higher education. That is why Conservative Members have no confidence in this Government’s ability to achieve the improvement in skills, education and training that the country so clearly needs as we head into what could be a very severe recession.

7.16 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to participate under your leadership.

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