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I very much hope that the Secretary of State will offer that assurance and clarify, as the Select Committee asked, whether conversions to apprenticeships within the public sector will be counted as achieving the Government’s target.

We support the Bill’s objectives, but very much doubt whether the Government can be trusted to deliver them. They are once more reorganising when they lack vision and once more redefining apprenticeships, rather than encouraging them to grow. They are presiding over an increase in the number of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—when Members on both sides of the House wish to see it reduced. They are not committed to genuine adult learning, for which the number of places has fallen catastrophically. Those are the points on which we shall challenge Ministers as we scrutinise the Bill in Committee.

9.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): It is a pleasure to reply to the debate. I apologise to my hon. Friends and to Opposition Members if I cannot respond to all their comments in detail.

A wide range of issues have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) emphasised the needs of older apprentices, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). Let me say to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that it is important for us to create new opportunities for young people to undertake apprenticeships. I reject the idea that an apprenticeship is an inappropriate way for someone to learn halfway through a career, and I reject the hon. Gentleman’s apparent view that anyone who learns in that way should not be counted as a proper apprentice. That is simply wrong—yet it is the position of those on the Conservative Front Bench.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) spoke of people with special educational needs. She should be congratulated on her remarks, and on her private Member’s Bill. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) also referred to that important issue. There is clearly a strand of concern throughout the House about the need to ensure that apprenticeships can reach the widest possible range of young people. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) raised similar issues, as did a number of others.

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The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) and others—including the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who chairs the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee—spoke of the importance of quality in apprenticeships, which lies at the heart of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough spoke of the importance of careers advice. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, also spoke of the need for quality in apprenticeships.

It is clear that this has been a good Second Reading debate. I understand that there will no Division tonight. There is broad agreement on many parts of the Bill, which must now be subjected to detailed consideration in Committee. However, although it is always welcome when there is cross-party agreement on a number of clauses of a Bill, I should stress that the House must not be misled by the apparent agreement on many of the clauses into believing that the Opposition and this party stand for the same things, or believe the same things.

Today we have seen a concerted attempt—and, in particular, an attempt by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—to suggest that there is only so much difference between the two parties on many aspects of the Bill. We began with a discussion about spending. Spending is very important to our ability to implement many of the measures in the Bill, and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath made it very clear—he could not have been misunderstood—that there was absolutely no question of his party’s not matching, pound for pound, the full amount that the Government will spend on the budget of the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The hon. Gentleman said, I think, that he had shot my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s fox. He said that we were misinterpreting the circumstances, and that we had misunderstood the remarks of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) when he spoke of Conservative budget proposals. That is unfortunate for the hon. Gentleman, because I happen to have a transcript of the question asked by Mr. Andrew Grice—I believe he is a newspaper reporter—on 5 January at a press conference held by the right hon. Member for Witney. Mr. Grice said:

The right hon. Member for Witney replied:

There was no mention of Sure Start centres, or any other part of the DCFS budget. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has completely contradicted the leader of his party. The fox which, a few hours ago, appeared to have been shot dead is now alive and running around, and is coming back to snap at the hon. Gentleman’s heels.

Mr. Marsden: Is it not possible that my right hon. Friend is being a little unkind to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen? Is it not possible that rather than not having shot a fox, they are merely reinventing the
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1p on income tax that the Liberal Democrats used so productively to spin out many of their promises before the last election?

Mr. Denham: Whatever is the case, the Opposition are in some confusion on this issue. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath said he had inadvertently deleted a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families asking about the schools budget, so let me remind the hon. Member for Havant that he has yet to reply to my letter asking where the £610 million that is going to be cut from the DIUS budget from 1 April under his party’s plan will come from. The House should know, because this legislation is very important. We are making legislation today, rather than deciding on budgets, but the reality is that the ability to make anything of this legislation, and in particular to deliver the quality apprenticeships that so many Members have spoken about, depends on spending, and the Opposition are simply failing to come clean on these issues.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath was also keen to express support for Ofqual. He said he wanted no part in any argument about dumbing down, but he then quoted every single authority he could find to claim that exam standards have fallen, and he did not quote a single one that believed the opposite—although my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) gave us a healthy corrective concerning ways in which some evidence can be misinterpreted. I have to say that during the hon. Gentleman’s speech I myself began to worry about the standard of maths education. I have not discussed this with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, but I did feel that we should, perhaps, introduce a compulsory new question to the A-level maths syllabus. We should ask students to identify how many ways a Tory spokesman can misuse statistics on apprenticeships in the course of a single debate.

Let us have a look at the record. We have heard a number of times the claim that there are fewer advanced apprenticeships than a decade ago. The hon. Member for Havant wrote to his colleagues on 19 February saying that the number of advanced apprenticeships had fallen to just 97,000. That is not a figure I recognise, but let us be clear about this. The Conservative party never used to bother to find out who completed an apprenticeship; it never took any notice of that. What is the truth? In the first year for which we have statistics for the completion of advanced apprenticeships, 18,400 were completed. In the last year for which we have statistics, 36,200 advanced apprenticeships were completed—twice as many people completing advanced apprenticeships under this Government than under the previous Government. The number of people starting advanced apprenticeships rose by 29 per cent. in the last full year. That is the truth about advanced apprenticeships, and it is a disgrace that the Opposition seek to misuse and selectively quote figures in order to try to make a case that simply does not stand up.

Mr. Willetts: The Secretary of State appears not to recognise a statistic from his own Department’s statistical release. I have that release to hand and the statistics show that for the year 2006-07 there were, indeed, 97,000 people in advanced apprenticeships, as against the year 2000—the first year in the table in the release—
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when the figure was 126,000, and every year in between the number went down. These are his figures, and he should stop denying them.

Mr. Denham: What the hon. Gentleman needs to understand is that what matters—this is very important—is the number of people who successfully qualify in an apprenticeship. When the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power about a quarter of people—if that—ever completed an apprenticeship. The completion rate is now up to two thirds. That is why we are successful. Not only are more people starting apprenticeships, but more people are completing them, and they are completing them at level 2 and level 3.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath said that the Prime Minister had not met his target of 500,000 apprenticeships. Well, that is a bit challenging, because the target is for 2020. The hon. Gentleman knew that when he quoted the figure, but why let a decent fact spoil a good misuse of statistics?

The truth is that the Government have rescued apprenticeships and they are now well on their way to their rightful place in the mainstream of our education and training system— [ Interruption. ] The number of starts has gone up. The hon. Member for Havant cannot say that it has gone down. He does not understand the statistics and he should look at what matters. The number of people starting apprenticeships has gone up. The number of people completing apprenticeships has gone up. Those are the key facts that matter.

The measures that we have announced today—an additional 21,000 public sector apprenticeships and, in total, an additional 35,000 extra apprenticeships over this year—will take the total number of people starting apprenticeships this coming year to more than 250,000, and that takes us further forward. So does this Bill. It does what the House of Lords Committee—on which served three former Conservative Chancellors of the Exchequer, as well as my noble Friend Lord Layard—recommended, by establishing a National Apprenticeship Service. That proposal has been treated with derision by the Opposition, as an addition to the quangocracy, but the House of Lords was right. If we are to make a real success of driving apprenticeships forward to the next stage, we need a dedicated service, able to support the careers service in schools that so many people have talked about, able to support employers, and able to work on the support for the group training associations that I happily and effusively support, as I was asked to do by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart).

The Conservatives reject the advice on apprenticeships given by the House of Lords Committee dominated by members of their own party. It does not do the Opposition much credit to have made the concerted effort that they have, today and on other days, to rubbish the achievements of this Government on apprenticeships. They would do much better to acknowledge what has been achieved. There are debates to be had about how we should proceed, but instead they appear to want only to denigrate everything that we propose.

An important part of the Bill for my Department—it has hardly been mentioned this evening—is the introduction of the right to request time to train. That is a new right at work that will cover 22 million people, not only those with lower levels of skills. It will directly address the
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problem in those workplaces where skills needs and training are not regularly discussed. It does mean that people will have the opportunity to identify their training needs and employers will have to respond to a reasonable request to give that time off.

Mr. Willetts: Will the Secretary of State let us know whether that right is one of the measures that will be reviewed by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, as we read in The Times today that he is busy trying to get rid of these extra burdens on employers?

Mr. Denham: This is an important measure and it will take forward the skills agenda— [ Laughter. ] It will take it forward in a way that the Opposition have never done. When they were in power, there was no investment in apprenticeships, and none in the FE capital programme. I heard the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Havant about the FE capital programme, but when he went to the Association of Colleges conference in November he could not even confirm his party’s commitment to our capital programme for 2010-11, let alone the one for the future.

I know that my hon. Friends will say that I am being unfair—[Hon. Members: “No!”] They will say that this was all 10 years ago and that the Opposition have learned their lesson. They are cuddly now, and full of emotional intelligence. Well, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath was certainly full of emotion, with not much intelligence, and the hon. Member for Havant was full of intelligence, but not much emotion. The truth is that the Opposition have learned little from their past history and they would make the same mistakes again.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill (PROGRAMME)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

Question agreed to.

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Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill (Money)

Queen’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

Question agreed to.

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill (Ways and means)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

Question agreed to.

Business without Debate

Business of the House

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

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