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Science and Engineering Apprenticeships (Young Women)

4. Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to encourage participation by young women in science and engineering apprenticeships. [262853]

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): We are challenging the apprenticeships gender divide by legislating to ensure that young people get impartial careers information on apprenticeships alongside other options. We are also taking positive action for learners in non-traditional occupations.

Alison Seabeck: Clearly, the Government have introduced several measures to help encourage young women into apprenticeships, but they still generally go into the lower paid end, and a gender pay problem remains. However, will my right hon. Friend join me in commending Plymouth city college on its “females into engineering” days, which are designed to encourage young women into engineering, and congratulate the three female apprentices whom the Learning and Skills Council has nominated for apprentice of the year?

Mr. Lammy: I congratulate Plymouth city college on all that it is doing in science and engineering and the young apprentices on all that they have achieved. My hon. Friend is right to champion again the same rate of pay for female apprentices as for male apprentices. Some progress has been made in the past few years—we have narrowed the gap from 26 to 21 per cent., but much more remains to be done. I hope that she agrees that having the appropriate information, advice and guidance in schools for the first time, and legislating for that, means that young women can properly appraise the pay that they will get, depending on the apprenticeship that they take up.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): One of the most important ways in which to get young people to take on apprenticeships is to interest them in science and engineering. Will the Government accept my congratulations on their announcement earlier this week that they will implement the Conservative Teach First policy? May I urge them to hold fast to those principles and not to be put off by the agitation of teacher trade unions?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman is right that this is a time to ensure that those with a background in subjects such as mathematics, who have worked in other sectors of the economy, have the opportunity to come into schools and enthuse young people about science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the STEM subjects. I am sure that he will be pleased about the increases, because of the work and extra money that has
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been invested, in applications to study those subjects in our universities. We must have that bank of teachers working in those subjects to enthuse our young people.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): To encourage more women to participate in engineering and science apprenticeships, we need more opportunities, especially in my area, the north-west. Are not investing in places such as the Daresbury laboratory and expanding and developing the Daresbury business park, which will be one of the biggest science parks in the country, ways of doing that? Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that the Government will continue to consider what they can do to help the Daresbury laboratory provide opportunities for jobs and apprenticeships and underline the importance of the Daresbury science park?

Mr. Lammy: We will shortly be publishing the McKillop report on the future at Daresbury, which I am sure my hon. Friend is awaiting.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): This week marks international women’s day and national science and engineering week. The Government talk a lot about equality and rightly so, but after 11 years of this Labour Government, only 2.6 per cent. of engineering apprentices are women, a figure that is virtually unchanged. It is also sobering to note that 15 per cent. of UK engineering students are women, yet in Chile the figure is 21 per cent. The Minister should not be complacent; he should be embarrassed by our progress. What is Chile doing that we are not doing?

Mr. Lammy: There is certainly no complacency on this issue. That is why it is important to have critical mass pilots and positive action—something opposed by the Opposition—to ensure that women have those opportunities. It is also why we are putting money into women-led projects, such as the women in science, engineering and construction initiative, to ensure that young women in schools have the right resources and that we challenge gender stereotypes and make progress in this respect. However, until the hon. Gentlemen’s party recommends positive action—akin to the positive action that has given us women on the Labour Back Benches—I do not need a lecture from him on equality.


5. Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): How many people started apprenticeships in each of the last five years. [262854]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): The numbers of people starting an apprenticeship in England in each of the last five years were: 194,000 in 2003-04; 189,000 in 2004-05; 175,000 in 2005-06; 184,000 in 2006-07; and 225,000 last year. We have rescued apprenticeships, increasing the number from 65,000 in 1997 to 225,000 last year. Completion rates are also at a record high, with 64 per cent. of people successfully completing an apprenticeship, up from 37 per cent. only three years ago. We will be investing more than £1 billion over the next year to ensure that we continue to build and invest in skills and training.

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Lindsay Roy: I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful response. I congratulate the Minister and the Labour Government on giving such a high priority to investment in apprenticeship training and on their success in continuing to increase numbers. Apprenticeship training is potentially a soft target in difficult economic times, but if we are to remain competitive and ready for the upturn, it is vital that we continue to invest in skills. Is the pattern of investment in apprenticeships consistent throughout the UK?

Mr. Simon: May I thank my hon. Friend for that question? He follows in the footsteps of John MacDougall, who was a very special man. In the short time that my hon. Friend has been in the House, he is already filling those boots as a champion of the people of the Glenrothes. In answer to his question about whether the pattern is consistent across the UK, no, I am afraid that it is not. The pattern is one of tremendous investment from this Government—£1 billion in apprenticeships in England—but sadly, under-investment in Scotland, where apprenticeship pay is poor and apprenticeship take-up is pathetic.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May I reiterate to the hon. Gentleman the point that I made on Second Reading of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill on 23 February? At present, the overly prescriptive clause 84 would have the effect of denying the chance to participate in apprenticeships to quite large numbers of children and young people with special educational needs—for example, on the autistic spectrum—who perhaps do not have level 2 or level 3 qualifications, but whose mindset and instinct would be well served by such an apprenticeship. Will he allow himself a degree of flexibility in this matter?

Mr. Simon: It is a feat of the hon. Gentleman’s remarkable and well noted memory that he has managed to recall the title of that Bill, on which we spent an hour and a half in Committee just this morning. I understand the point that he makes and he makes it well, with his usual articulacy and passion. We are going through those matters in Committee. There is absolutely no intention that young people with learning difficulties or disabilities should be anything other than supported, developed and included by the Bill, and I am happy to assure him that they will be.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Had the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) asked for statistics over the last 40 years, I would probably have been included in the answer as I was engineering apprentice then. Will he join me in congratulating Councillor Ron Round, the leader of Knowsley council, who has gone out to promote apprenticeships across all sectors in the area? Last year, he succeeded in getting more than 100 apprentices placed into employment across the borough. Would he care to come and look at what has been done in Knowsley and consider rolling it out as a model across the country?

Mr. Simon: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who over the years has shared a few stories with me of his days as an apprentice—[Hon. Members: “Tell us.”] No, I cannot be tempted to betray those confidences
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now. I am happy to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating the leader of Knowsley council. I cannot help noting that it is the Labour leader of a Labour council in Knowsley who is driving up the number of apprentices, not just in the public sector where we aim for 21,000 new apprentices, but right across the board. I am very happy to congratulate the council leader and I would be more than delighted to visit my right hon. Friend’s constituency.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) asked about consistency across the country. Will the Minister confirm whether my perception is correct—that there are actually rather fewer places for apprenticeships and certainly a lower uptake of them in rural areas? I suspect that the reason has a lot to do with access problems encountered by individual young people. What is he going to do about that problem?

Mr. Simon: I do not believe that there is much hard data on this, but I can confirm that there is an issue in more rural areas, where there is likely to be fewer large employers and less heavy industry, so perhaps there is less of a tradition of apprenticeships. To tackle that, we are developing and extending group training associations and what we call apprenticeship training associations, which are different types of confederations and sharing systems for apprenticeships, so that the smaller businesses that are more likely to be found in rural areas are able to provide apprenticeships. When the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill is passed and we have a National Apprenticeship Service, one of the first things it will do is go out into the harder-to-reach parts of the country, to spread the word and the practice of apprenticeships.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I just want to check that I heard what the Minister said a few moments ago correctly. Did he say that while we are charging ahead with increasing apprenticeships in England, the Scottish Nationalist party Government have cut the budget, are paying less money to apprentices and, as I understand it, were going to cut the number of apprenticeships, had it not been for the fact that the Labour group demanded in the last budget that the number be increased? Is that correct?

Mr. Simon: I understand why my hon. Friend puts those questions in that way, as it does sound extraordinary and almost unbelievable, but yes, I believe that it is like that in Scotland. I cannot remember whether apprentices are paid a minimum £30 or £40 a week in Scotland, but in England it is £80 and rising to £95. He is correct that, apparently, the SNP Government have cut the budget and the number of apprenticeships. I agree with my hon. Friend that that is extraordinary and inexplicable, but it is absolutely not the way that this Government will run apprenticeships in England. I am sad to say, however, that with their £610 million of cuts, that is exactly where Conservative Members would take us back to if they got their way.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Contrary to the Minister’s rather intemperate suggestions, he knows that the Conservatives support apprenticeships because we know that growing skills
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spreads opportunity, feeds social mobility and boosts our economy. That is why we will create 100,000 more apprenticeships, as we outlined in our green paper. Those will be genuinely new places, not the result of

which the House of Lords Select Committee recognised as the principal reason for the growth in the number of apprenticeships that the Minister described. Will he now give the House an absolute assurance that all of the future expansion of public sector apprenticeships that the Government promise will be new training for new staff and not just the result of converting existing training into apprenticeships and existing staff into apprentices?

Mr. Simon: I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that the investment that we plan—which he plans to cut, but which will rise over the next two years—of an extra £1 billion in apprenticeships will carry on. The 21,000 new apprenticeships in the public sector, each and every one of them, will be new training—of course they will.

Student Loan Book

6. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What progress has been made in selling the student loan book. [262855]

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): The Government still intend to make sales from the student loan book, but it is clear that that should be done only when we can get a good return for the taxpayer. For the time being, the market conditions do not allow that, but we will actively look to identify opportunities for a sale that represents value for money as market conditions improve.

Paul Rowen: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he therefore admit that Government policy has been an abject failure? In fact, the Government’s taking on of other people’s bad debts and trying to sell off the student loan book is not a goer, either now or in the future.

Mr. Lammy: I do not accept that, but what I do accept is that we are in a global downturn. Market conditions have changed since the proposal was brought before the House. That is why I made the announcement that I have made today.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): Student loans are an important policy area and, along with grants, bursaries and the education maintenance allowance, have encouraged serious numbers of young people from my constituency to go into further and higher education. Will the Minister reassure me and confirm that that funding will continue?

Mr. Lammy: I am obviously pleased: we predicted that a third of students should be entitled to a full grant—indeed, uptake went to 40 per cent.—and two thirds of students are entitled to a grant of some sort. That has made a huge difference.

I know that my hon. Friend will also be pleased—these issues are hugely relevant in her constituency, and she continues to champion them again and again—that
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there has been an 8 per cent. rise this year in the number of students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds going into higher education.

Apprenticeships (Sedgefield)

7. Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase the number of apprenticeship places in Sedgefield constituency. [262856]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): Last year, 590 people started an apprenticeship in the Sedgefield constituency—the highest number for five years. In January, the new online National Apprenticeship Vacancy Matching Service went live, enabling employers to advertise apprenticeship vacancies at no cost and prospective apprentices to search for places across England.

The new National Apprenticeship Service will be fully functional from 1 April, providing a single point of contact for employers and apprentices. To raise awareness and encourage more employers to take on more apprenticeships, we are running a national advertising campaign fronted by Sir Alan Sugar, no less.

Phil Wilson: I thank the Minister for that reply. We need to applaud the Government for saving the apprenticeships scheme from the previous Administration. In my constituency, the number of apprenticeships has gone up by 80 per cent., but 15 per cent. of adults still do not have any qualifications. Will he tell me what the Government are doing to ensure that that figure continues to decline?

Mr. Simon: I will tell my hon. Friend, and I thank him for his analysis, which means a lot coming from such an assiduous representative of his constituents. He wanted to know the number of apprentices in Sedgefield; the answer is 590. Shall I tell him how many apprentices per UK constituency, on average, were starting apprenticeships in 1997? The answer is 20. Congratulations are due for the fact that there are 590 apprentices in Sedgefield. The biggest single thing we are going to do is increase the investment in apprenticeships to more than £1 billion over the next two years, unlike the Conservative party, which is committed to cutting it.

Student Loan Repayments (Arrears)

8. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): How many former students resident outside the UK are in arrears with their student loan repayments. [262857]

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): According to the latest published provisional data for 2007-08, 500 income-contingent loan borrowers living overseas are in arrears.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Is there not a developing scandal in that UK-based students are repaying their loans through the tax system and are often having great difficulty doing so, while an increasing number of overseas students are not making their repayments, cannot be contacted or are falling into arrears? Will the Minister confirm that the figure in 2007 was 70 per cent. of such overseas students? Will he tell the House what legal action is being taken by the Student Loans Company or his Department to recover the money?

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Mr. Lammy: On this occasion, the right hon. Gentleman is a little premature. When the system began in 2006, 7,100 students from the EU were entitled to loans. He will understand that those students do not graduate until this summer, and will be eligible to repay from the spring of 2010. Some students dropped out while on courses, and many of them are on other courses and below the threshold. Many of them are back in their European countries on other courses and below the threshold. That leaves a small number of students, and I can confirm that nine are being chased through the courts.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) highlighted, the fact that 70 per cent. failed to start repaying student loans that they took out while studying in UK universities is rather disappointing. A spokesman for the Student Loans Company has said that it does not write routinely to addresses provided. That is surprising. I believe that it is a warning of a much bigger problem to come when more EU students graduate. Does the Minister not think that the problem was predictable and avoidable? Will he promise to take action sooner rather than later, because fewer repayments from yesterday’s students means less money for tomorrow’s students?

Mr. Lammy: The soundbite at the end was okay, but— [Interruption.] I just remind the hon. Gentleman that 10,000 UK students are studying in European countries, and many of those UK students are entitled to loans and grants in foreign jurisdictions, so the suggestion that somehow EU students are more dishonest than UK ones is not right. As I have said, the 70 per cent. figure is plain wrong. Most of that 70 per cent. is made up of students who have changed their courses, dropped out of courses, are still in education and are certainly beneath the threshold. Most of those students do not graduate until the summer of this year and, as he would expect, the Student Loans Company is putting in place everything it can to ensure that we chase down those students when they graduate.

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