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It is true that there has been some increase in STEM graduates over the past five years. However, among those taking STEM A-levels—the next generation of graduates—there has been a 15 per cent. decline in those taking mathematics, a 14 per cent. decline in physics and a 47 per cent. decline in computer science. Those figures come from a report by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, so it is not a political point that I am making. However, it is a point that the Government should be greatly concerned about and
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one that they should act upon. Unless we ensure that we have the skilled technologists and scientists, we will—I repeat—fail.

I want to conclude, because I know that others want to speak. First, we need to get out and involve business much more effectively in the training, skills and packages that we need to deliver to achieve a more trained and skilled work force. Unless we do so, we will—I repeat—miss a massive opportunity. I fear that I have not heard enough from the Government about that. Secondly, we must ensure that we have the trained scientists and technologists, who will be at the heart of the global challenge that I have mentioned three or four times already. I have not heard enough from the Government about how they are going to achieve that objective either.

Britain faces a particularly difficult recession and a particular challenge in competing in the world to earn our living. I have grandchildren. I want to see them living a life of well-being and being able to fulfil their ambitions. Unless we meet the challenges and overcome them, I fear that they will not be able to enjoy that well-being to the level that I would like. I urge the Government to give me some answers to the two major problems that I have raised.

6.24 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): This is an extremely important debate, but it has the capacity to lurch from the real to the surreal.

I doubt whether any Member of the House would disagree with that part of the Opposition motion which reads:

or with that part which

Given that context, however, it would not be unreasonable to expect the Opposition to recognise that by the time Labour came to power, the Conservatives had reduced the number of apprenticeships to 75,000. Under this Labour Government, that number has been increased to almost 250,000. Nor would it have been unreasonable to expect some recognition of the fact that when the Opposition left office, the completion rate for apprenticeships was down to around 22 per cent. Not only has Labour increased the numbers going into apprenticeships; we have trebled the numbers successfully completing apprenticeships. It would be helpful to provide that recognition.

It would also appear reasonable to expect that anyone calling for a boost in the number of apprenticeships should also be saying that they would be able not only to match the current spending going into apprenticeships, but potentially to increase it. Instead, we are in the absurd position whereby the Opposition cannot even guarantee that their spending commitments will match Labour’s as we enter the next decade, let alone say that they will be sufficient to take us through the entirety of that decade. That is where we drift into the surreal.

I am reminded of the words of Aneurin Bevan, who cautioned politicians against the futility of willing the ends but not the means. That is what being in government
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involves—taking the responsibility. We have to will the means that take us to where we want to be at the end of the next decade.

Mr. Binley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alan Simpson: No, I am not going to accept any more interventions, because that just takes someone else’s time.

I would argue in favour of an increase in Government spending and in favour of the Government accepting the fiscal responsibilities of raising the cash to fund that expenditure. However, this will not avoid difficult decisions that have to be made along the way. The only thing that we can say about a recession is that it always contains the silver lining of allowing the Government to choose to come out of it in a different place from where we into it: so it is with the decisions that this House will face over the coming years.

We have to be clear about the nature of the economic transformation that we face, which has to be rooted in our skills and apprenticeships programme. That is why, if we are to have an equivalent of Obama’s Apollo programme moment, the blueprint or starting point for me would be the Government’s “Building a low-carbon economy” document. We recognise that by 2010, there will be opportunities for so-called green-collar jobs in a global market that has the prospect of being worth $700 billion. Economic prospects, skills prospects and transformation prospects go hand in hand if we take them seriously.

One of the problems that we face in doing that is recognising that our skills agenda can no longer be detached from changing the demand side of our economy. Other parts of the EU have been much more proactive in doing so. Britain needs to show some humility and follow suit. We already know that in the energy sector, the electricity companies are saying that even in a recession they anticipate a shortage of 9,000 jobs by 2015. We have to plan and train to fill these known gaps in the market, as well as the gaps that we expect to face in a market that we are seeking to transform.

Obama has sought to do this with his own Apollo programme, making no apologies for the fact that it is rooted in a commitment to deliver 5 million jobs, on the basis of $150 billion of direct investment to transform the nature of the US economy into a more sustainable one. That, for me, is where Britain’s future will be found as well.

The House has made certain commitments in the Energy Act 2008. We have pledged to come back to the House and the country by 2010 with feed-in tariff schemes, along similar lines to those that already operate in Germany. Those schemes have delivered more than 250,000 new jobs in four years, and the domestic industry in Germany is now worth €30 billion.

The thing that scares me, having done some work on the transformation of housing stock myself, is that, at every point during the kitting out of my house, the architects and the builders told me that we would have to source the various elements from Germany, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden or France—anywhere, in fact, apart from the UK. We know that we are going
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to change the nature of our domestic energy market. We need to change the skill bases of the apprenticeships that are being offered now to do so. We cannot wait until we start to transform the market, and then realise that the jobs are going to non-British workers because we have not delivered the skill base that our workers are entitled to expect from us, in order to access the jobs that we are generating. This is not rocket science; it is simply a matter of market and economic transformation.

The same applies in relation to fuel poverty. The debate in the UK has been about the construction of up to 200,000 new houses a year, some of which might be eco-homes, after 2016. In reality, the challenge lies in the 25 million houses that people are living in today. The number of job and skill opportunities that exist for the refurbishment of that housing stock is vast. I have looked at some of the intervention schemes that are operating in other parts of Europe, and I want to convey to Members that the difficulties there are not about reaching out to young people who are not academic high-flyers and getting them into the schemes. The difficulty is in finding enough apprenticeships to cater for the demand. The young people there see the prospect of real jobs and real skills that will kit them out to deliver solutions in the 21st century, and they are queuing up to be part of that transformation process.

We will not be able to shop our way out of the recession, but we will be able to build and transform our way out of it. That also applies in the context of transportation. I have heard numerous Members talk about initiatives that are being taken in the vehicle sector to maintain jobs. However, the real question is whether we can transform that whole sector, over the next five years, into one that delivers vehicles, all of which have to operate within a carbon emissions standard of 100 g/km. Other countries are already doing this, and if we do not, we will find that our kids just do not have the skills to deliver for tomorrow’s sustainable market.

My plea to the Minister is simply to continue to invest, and to increase the volume of investment, but also to tie training into the direct intervention measures to which other parts of the Government are committed. We need an approach to training and apprenticeships that is about joined-up doing, not just about joined-up saying. If we can achieve that, the generation of young people who are hungry for skills for the 21st century will be there to thank us, as will the fuel poor and those who want to be part of our carbon reduction agenda. Whole societies and communities will see that this is the shape of a better future. It will be different from the one left for us as an inheritance when we came into power in 1997. I had hoped that we could expect more from the Opposition, who say that they want to be part of that future, but who are just not prepared to put the money up to deliver it.

6.34 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The Government’s record on skills is one of failure, fallacy and falsehood. If we are to emerge stronger from the recession, to foster enterprise and innovation and to unlock individual potential, we must understand the true value of skills, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) made clear at the outset of the debate. That sentiment was echoed in the
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typically thoughtful speech made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and also by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley).

Although the Government inherited a strong, growing economy and benefited from 11 years of benign conditions, they are failing to skill the nation to meet economic need. It is not, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough suggested, that they have failed to grasp the central role that skills play in facilitating social mobility and the social justice that is at the heart of Conservatism; it is that the management and funding of skills are simply not fit for purpose.

Through the good times, Ministers actually restricted the opportunity for people to improve their knowledge and skills. I was disappointed that the Secretary of State’s speech, which was long on the avuncular style that he personifies but short on substance, failed to acknowledge that. He knows that, in colleges, workplaces and communities, there has been a shocking collapse in access to education and training.

Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes: I will in a moment, because the hon. Gentleman always makes valuable, interesting and measured contributions to our considerations—and now that I have said that, he will not be unkind to me. He knows, as does the Minister, that enrolments in further education colleges have plummeted. There are now almost 1 million fewer learners than there were when Labour came to power. Perhaps he would like to intervene on me to defend that.

Rob Marris: I would like to invite the hon. Gentleman to have a word with his colleagues who are now running Wolverhampton city council in a rotten coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They are cutting £640,000 from the adult education budget. Now, I am not wild about what my Government have done about adult education, but these measures are really hitting home in Wolverhampton. Will he speak to his colleagues there, please?

Mr. Hayes: I would be delighted to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to go to Wolverhampton, and I would expect to benefit from his largesse and hospitality when I do so.

The figures published in December showed that enrolments in FE continue to fall. We also heard today about the awful situation in respect of capital spending. I acknowledge that the Secretary of State made it clear that he had launched an independent investigation into the problem. That itself is newsworthy, because he clearly does not want his own officials to investigate the matter. Instead, he has brought in a third party. I also acknowledge that he has said that it was “unacceptable” that ambitions were “encouraged” when they should not have been. However, that does not alter the fact that colleges up and down the country are facing an end to the capital ambitions that they put in place with the support—and often the encouragement, as the Secretary of State said—of those who should have known better. We look forward to debating that issue at greater length after 2 March, as the Secretary of State has promised.

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Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I know that my hon. Friend has personally given a great deal of consideration to ways of widening participation. May I suggest that he looks at how community colleges in the USA have successfully integrated higher and further education, and done a great deal to widen participation there?

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend also did a great deal of work on this, before his recent move. I share his view that one of the most effective ways of broadening participation is to allow more to be taught in FE. Sadly, there are many bureaucratic obstacles to that kind of expansion, but they are obstacles that a Conservative Administration would clear, allowing more people from under-represented groups to have a chance to go to college to study the courses that they wished to study and that would serve our society and the economy.

The Government promised to revive apprenticeships, but they have actually succeeded in restricting access to high-quality, employer-based schemes. The Minister might be surprised to hear me say that, but he knows that the Government’s record on apprenticeships is about as convincing as his colleague’s performance on “Mastermind”. There are fewer people in advanced apprenticeships—the equivalent of all apprenticeships in countries such as Germany—than there were in 1999. The figure is down from 130,000 to just under 100,000. The number of young people starting an apprenticeship continues to decline at all levels.

I agree with the hon. Members for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson)—an old friend, who always makes useful contributions to these debates—that apprenticeships are a critical way of ensuring that we develop high-level skills for an advanced economy, but I have to tell both of them that the only way to revitalise the apprenticeship system is from the bottom up, by encouraging more small and medium-sized enterprises to get involved with apprenticeships, and the only party with a practical plan for doing so is the Conservative party, the official Opposition.

At a time of economic growth, perhaps most shocking of all is the number of young people not in any kind of education, employment or training: that number has actually grown since Labour came to power. In the past five years, nearly 100,000 have been added to their number and it has risen to almost 200,000 since the turn of the decade. I know that Members of good conscience cannot sit comfortably on the Government Benches when they know that an army of young people with unfulfilled potential and wasted talent has been raised on their watch—a generation of broken lives and shattered dreams. How did a Government who had so much opportunity fail to provide opportunity for so many?

Judy Mallaber: Will the hon. Gentleman have a word with the Conservative-controlled Amber Valley borough council, because the budget cuts it has just made as a result of its financial incompetence has meant that programmes to help and encourage NEETs to get into education and training have had either to be put on hold or to be handed over to other organisations?

Mr. Hayes: Let me say that, in my few moments of spare time, there is nothing I would like more than to visit Amber Valley, and I will certainly do so at the earliest opportunity.

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It is not just failure that characterises this Government’s record on skills, as their attempt to perpetuate fallacies about what has been achieved is also characteristic. Ministers claim that they have built a demand-led system.

Tom Levitt rose—

Mr. Hayes: I will not give way, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will also come to High Peak, as I know that that is what he wants to intervene about.

We do not have a demand-led system; we have the same old centrally driven micro-managed supply-led system, but rebranded. Let us consider Train to Gain, about which we have heard so much: it is simply not fit for purpose. As John Stone of the Learning and Skills Network told the Education and Skills Select Committee,

More recently, evidence was presented to the DIUS Select Committee, when one employer said:

It was argued forcefully that Train to Gain, far from increasing skills, was

Elsewhere still greater fallacies permeate the Government’s record. Money to support training by individuals is divided between what the Learning and Skills Council calls “adult learner responsive funding” and adult safeguarded funding. The former supports training towards qualifications, but it is available only if an individual undertakes a full qualification, even though it is difficult for many people to study full time. We heard about that from the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). That entitlement is not available for those who now need to reskill in the recession. Adult safeguarded funding supports the kind of short adult and community courses that could play a central role in helping people to update their skills, but substantially more than 1 million adult and community learning places have been lost since 2005 and funding is set to continue to fall in real terms.

As if failure to provide opportunity and the fallacy of a demand-led system were not bad enough, Ministers have added falsehood to their list of indictments. In recent weeks, we have seen a cascade of false claims and fake promises from DIUS. We have had the promise of a national internship scheme with no new internships. We have had the promise of new apprenticeships, when apprenticeship starts for young people are actually declining. We have had the bogus promise of retraining at universities, when the Government’s decision to cut funding for second chance education has, in fact, cut access to university for those who want to study equivalent and lower qualifications. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends who fought such a fierce campaign in defence of Birkbeck college, the Open university and other institutions most damaged by those cuts.

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