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House of Commons

Thursday 30 April 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to increase the number of apprenticeships. [271876]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): The Government have rescued and expanded apprenticeships. Apprenticeship starts have more than trebled from 65,000 in 1996-97 to a record 225,000 in 2007-08. We are taking further action to promote apprenticeships during the downturn. This week, we announced an extra £7 million for up to 10 new apprenticeship training agencies to help small businesses take on apprentices. We have recently announced a further £140 million to provide 35,000 extra apprenticeship places this year. In January, we launched the online apprentices vacancy matching service to make recruitment of apprentices easier.

Mr. Crausby: The disruption of Britain’s industrial base in the early years of the last Conservative Government denied many thousands of apprenticeship opportunities, particularly in engineering. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend ensure that as we come out of this economic downturn, we have an entirely different outcome, and emerge with more skilled young people, not fewer?

Mr. Denham: As a former apprentice himself, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. There is a sharp contrast between the Government’s investment in expanding apprenticeships, the industrial policy that we outlined last week to develop our real economic strength, including in advanced manufacturing industries—the industries of the future—and the do nothing approach of the Conservative party when it was in power in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): The Government have rightly focused on the pay gap between men and women. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of tackling that is to get more women into what are seen as non-traditional sectors for them such as
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science, engineering and technology? What can the programme of apprenticeships do to ensure that that happens?

Mr. Denham: One of the most important things that we can do is to ensure that in promoting apprenticeships in schools, young women are introduced to apprenticeships that are not the traditional ones for them to enter. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill introduces for the first time a statutory duty on schools to promote information about apprenticeships. As part of the guidance that follows that through, we will want to ensure that non-traditional apprenticeships are promoted to young women, and young men, in school.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Just two weeks ago, the university of Cumbria announced a 40 per cent. increase in recruitment to its farm apprenticeships course, and 50 per cent. of those new recruits were from non-farming backgrounds, which is incredibly positive. At the same time, I spent much of my Easter recess visiting more than 300 small businesses in my very rural constituency, and found that the overwhelming majority had not even considered taking on an apprentice and were not aware of the scheme. Will the Secretary of State agree to give additional support not just to small businesses but to those in the tourism sector in rural areas, so that they can take advantage of the apprenticeships scheme?

Mr. Denham: May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the announcement made, I think, at the end of last week, or the beginning of this week, by my noble Friend Lord Young, about funding for group training associations to promote apprenticeships? One of the key ways of getting apprentices in smaller businesses is to ensure that a central agency run by groups of employers provides the administration and support for the apprenticeship scheme. He might like to look at his local economy and consider whether it might be appropriate for him to encourage such an application, because that is part of the practical solution to the issue that he has raised.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend’s Department link into the fund announced in the Budget that will enable local authorities and voluntary bodies to offer employment to young unemployed people? If people get the opportunity of the six months’ employment under that scheme, that could lead to a formal apprenticeship afterwards. That is a path out of unemployment and into a better future for young people.

Mr. Denham: My Department will be involved in the jobs fund in two ways. We will receive additional funding—well over £100 million—to offer more than 80,000 additional training places to young people who have been out of work for 12 months, to ensure that they gain new skills. We will also want to work with employers who create new opportunities to ensure that young people doing those jobs can get the skills to sustain their future employment.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): In a parliamentary answer on 20 April, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), assured me that funding will allow every person who has started an
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apprenticeship to complete it. So why are providers approaching us to warn that funding cuts for next year are so severe that they cannot be confident even of being able to maintain their current apprenticeships, let alone meet the Government’s ambitious targets for more apprenticeships? Will the Secretary of State consider our proposal for a nationwide clearing house for all apprentices who are now in danger of losing their apprenticeships before they are completed?

Mr. Denham: Two issues are involved. On the funding for apprenticeship training, it should not be the case that training providers are unable to pay for or receive funds for the completion of current apprenticeships. On the second issue of those who lose their jobs because their employers are unable to keep them in work as a result of the downturn, we already have a clearing house in construction apprenticeships, which is obviously one of the most pressured areas, and that has managed to place more than 600 apprentices; we have changed the rules so that an apprentice can continue training for up to six months at college even if they do not have an employer, so that their training is not interrupted; we have reached agreement with the Department for Work and Pensions that—this is unusual—apprentices will automatically be able to continue for up to 13 weeks seeking work solely in the line of occupation of their apprenticeship; and we are discussing with the DWP the best way of ensuring that apprentices whose technical training might be interrupted are able to do intensive work in college to complete their training. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything that I think is feasibly possible to ensure that we continue to support apprentices who might lose their jobs while they are training.

Mr. Willetts: I heard what the Secretary of State said, but I have to tell him that there are training providers who, having seen the provisional proposals for their funding in 2009-10, are not sure that they will have the funding to continue providing the training for apprentices whom they have already recruited. We will be holding him to account for the assurance that he and the Under-Secretary have given. I warn the Secretary of State in respect of any thought he may have had that further education capital spending was under control. He has a plan for 50 per cent. of students to go to university next year, yet he has cut his plans for university student numbers so that it is absolutely impossible for that figure to be reached. Given the current funding pressures, will he consider suspending the reorganisation of all the quangos, which has been estimated to cost £140 million, and devoting that money instead to ensuring that apprentices and students are supported during this Labour recession?

Mr. Denham: I would remind the hon. Gentleman that on 5 January his party announced that it would be cutting my Department’s budget by £610 million in this financial year, and he has yet to reply to my letter of 15 January to explain where those cuts would fall, so he is not in a position to talk about this Department’s spending.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to follow up with me the points that he has made about training providers. I understand that although it is, of course, necessary to ensure that budgets are adhered to within the Learning
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and Skills Council on apprenticeships—he will entirely understand that—there should be no question of someone having the funding for an apprenticeship that they have already started withdrawn. I am perfectly happy to follow that issue up.

2. Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What measures are in place to ensure that contracts let by his Department facilitate the creation of apprenticeship places. [271877]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is committed to maximising skills training and apprenticeship opportunities through its procurement programme. In Building Colleges for the Future, we have introduced a firm requirement that contractors working on college construction projects provide a formal training plan and maximise apprenticeship opportunities. We estimate that about 500 apprentices are currently being supported on further education college capital projects—that is equivalent to one in every 20 workers employed. We will ensure that this requirement is extended to cover all future FE college capital projects. We are also encouraging research councils and higher education institutions to seize opportunities to provide skills and apprenticeship opportunities through their contracting processes.

Jim Sheridan: I thank the Minister for that very positive response. Good employers have nothing to fear from investing in apprenticeships for the future, but can he assure the House that those requirements will also be placed on subcontractors involved in this work? More importantly, will he ensure that any company that is found to be engaging in blacklisting people will be excluded from these contracts?

Mr. Simon: Blacklisting is an abhorrent practice. We thought that it had been stamped out in this country under Labour, but if reports of its re-emergence turn out to be true, I know that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will take it very seriously and examine it urgently. I can tell my hon. Friend that apprenticeship procurement runs throughout the supply chain and that the guidance from the Office of Government Commerce given only earlier this month sets out how Departments can find their way through the significant legal and technical complexities to ensure that they can agree contracts that provide high quality training as a fundamental requirement.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): An academically talented young constituent of mine, who is dyslexic, obtained nine A-C grades at GCSE, but failed to obtain English, and was therefore debarred from taking up a level 3 apprenticeship. Will the Minister have a discussion with me to see whether we can encourage the sector skills councils to pay special attention to the creation of apprenticeship places for those who have learning difficulties?

Mr. Simon: I assume that my hon. Friend refers to the same young constituent about whom we have corresponded, in which case I recall that he is now studying his level 3 apprenticeship and progressing well. However, I know
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that that does not eradicate the problem and, as my hon. Friend knows, we must strike the balance between accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities and difficulties on the one hand and maintaining the rigour of the qualification on the other. I met the chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People earlier this week to talk about these issues as they might affect the specification of apprenticeship standards for England, which sets out the overarching definition of the apprenticeship framework. I would be glad to meet my hon. Friend to talk about such issues in greater depth.

Mr. Speaker: Martin Linton. No, Ken Purchase.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker—almost overlooked. [Hon. Members: “Never!”] I welcome the wide extension of apprenticeship schemes into many trades in recent years. What can my hon. Friend tell the House about the demand for places on science, engineering and technology-based apprenticeship schemes and what more can be done to encourage young people into such trades so that we are properly prepared for whatever upturn comes at the end of this recession?

Mr. Simon: My hon. Friend is very unlikely to be overlooked, not only because of his physical size but the magnitude of his personality and authority. He has hit the nail on the head when he talks about demand for advanced and engineering apprenticeships. The provision of such courses is led by demand. Apprenticeships are jobs, and need to be required by the employer. I am glad to confirm that the number of advanced apprenticeships continues to rise and, contrary to what we often hear from the Opposition, continues to rise as a proportion of the total number of apprenticeships.

South Thames College

3. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Learning and Skills Council on the funding of phase 2 of the South Thames college redevelopment. [271878]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): My Department has regular discussions with the LSC on the funding for capital projects and I am aware of the position regarding South Thames college following recent discussions with my hon. Friend and the college principal.

Budget 2009 announced that an additional £300 million of capital funding will be made available in the current spending review period to support a limited number of the most urgent projects. Selection of these projects must be based on objective criteria that the LSC is developing in consultation with the sector.

Martin Linton: The Minister has been most helpful, meeting the college principal and me, as has the Chancellor in providing the extra funds. However, the Minister will know that the cranes and contractors are on site, so can he give any better indication of when the LSC is likely to reach a decision?

Mr. Simon: I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact date, but we expect the process that the LSC is leading, to make rapid decisions on the most urgent and high
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priority projects, to be completed in the near future and the colleges to be given the final go-ahead early this summer.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The Minister’s last answer gives me cause for hope that the predicament of Havering sixth form college might be resolved. That college has already spent £6 million on its capital project and the enabling works have included the demolition of a sports facility and three classrooms. These enabling works will have to be reversed if the money is not forthcoming. Will the Minister commit to the future of Havering sixth form college’s capital project now, so that it has some confidence that it will make the improvements as intended?

Mr. Simon: I can tell the hon. Lady that I am truly sympathetic to her predicament and that of her college. Many college principals all over the country have undertaken development and preparatory works and have borrowed and spent money on the assumption that they would be able to deliver capital projects that they now find themselves unable to deliver according to the time scales that they first thought. She knows that I will not be able to make commitments about her college now. Indeed, it is not for me to make commitments about the proposals for any college in detail. These decisions have to be made by the Learning and Skills Council through a transparent and open process, particularly in the current difficult climate. We are confident that we will get decisions on the urgent and high priority cases very quickly and on the other cases that do not make it into that category soon thereafter. Colleges that find themselves in difficulties with costs will be supported.

Further Education Colleges

4. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): How much capital expenditure on further education colleges is planned in (a) East Devon constituency and (b) England in 2009-10. [271879]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): While East Devon college has received capital support in the past, there are currently no capital projects under way at either East Devon college or Bicton college. Therefore, there is currently no planned expenditure on approved capital projects in the East Devon constituency in 2009-10.

Budget 2009 announced additional capital funds of more than £300 million for this spending review period—2009-10 and 2010-11—and the total further education capital budget for 2009-10 is £827.6 million. That budget will cover expenditure on projects which have already been approved as well as on new projects.

Mr. Swire: I was hoping to get the Secretary of State rather than the twitterer. The Secretary of State, who is a good east Devon boy, will have heard, if not from the excellent chairman of Uplyme parish council, about the continuing discrimination against schooling and funding for schools in east Devon.

The Minister’s reply was very telling inasmuch as he said that there were no plans for capital expenditure in east Devon, which just goes to underline what I have
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just said. However, he will possibly be aware of plans to secure the Rolle college campus site in Exmouth following the vacation by the university of Plymouth. We are making strident moves to achieve that. Will he instruct the Learning and Skills Council—or have a discussion with it on this subject—to prioritise that plan, should we be successful?

Mr. Simon: I am happy to speak to the Learning and Skills Council about the hon. Gentleman’s project. I certainly was not saying that there would never be any capital expenditure in east Devon, but simply that, as I understand it, there are no plans for FE college capital expenditure at the moment.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): The news of the £3 million capital will be most welcome for Hereward college in Coventry. I am sure that the Secretary of State knows that that college is also a national college for people with learning difficulties and various disabilities. That situation contrasts with the years when the Opposition were in Government, when they never properly funded capital programmes for colleges.

Mr. Simon: As ever, my hon. Friend speaks wisely and convincingly on behalf of his constituents. He makes the unerring and fundamental point that the college capital building programme budget under the Conservatives in their last year in government was precisely nil, whereas we have invested £2.3 million in the current period and are committed to investing as we go forward.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The Government and the LSC have said that the programme will go ahead on the basis of those schemes that deliver the biggest return on capital in terms of the enhancement of skills. Will he ensure that the criteria are drawn so that colleges with well-developed programmes that serve predominantly rural areas, which tend to be heavily dependent on a handful of relatively low-paying industries, compete on a level playing field? The move of Craven college from 11 sites to a new site is part of the regeneration programme for Craven as a whole. The upgrading of skills is desperately needed and the college has an extremely good track record in delivering that.

Mr. Simon: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The importance of skills in the rural areas is absolutely understood, as are the different requirements and conditions there. I have been made aware of that in the meetings that I have had on this matter, and partly through meeting hon. Members from rural constituencies who, like the right hon. Gentleman, have raised the issue. It is something about which I am talking to the LSC, as it and the Association of Colleges put together their open and transparent process to prioritise which colleges get the go-ahead.

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