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I am pleased that my first Cabinet Office debate concerns such an important issue—one of the most important that must be dealt with by society as a whole, and a subject on which I feel particularly strongly.

I want to say something about the work of the panel on fair access to the professions. I pay tribute to the panel and its chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn). Access to the professions and social mobility are important to society and to hon. Members in all parts of the House. Today’s debate will be enhanced by the wealth of expertise represented on the panel, which, as a cross-party, independent body, has scrutinised both Government and society as a whole. Having read its reports, I thank the panel for the depth of the work that it has undertaken, and look forward to seeing the conclusions and recommendations that it will make to the Prime Minister.

The Government believe that every member of society should have the opportunity to get on with life. That ethos is at the heart of what government is about. We are committed to ensuring that everyone can achieve their potential, not just now but in the decades to come—not just for their own benefit, important though that is, but for the benefit of society and the economy. We need to be able to draw on the widest possible pool of talent, and ensure that the best people enter the professions.

The panel’s reports identify the importance of the professions to the economic and social success of the country, and reflect on the number of new people who are required in an evolving global economy—an economy which will become very different in the future. They also draw attention to the need for fairer access in particular spheres. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington will say more about that, but what is crucial is the ability to choose from the widest possible pool of talent in order to increase economic efficiency and production. That will not only help individuals to succeed, but contribute to social cohesion and inclusion. Social mobility has a direct impact on our economic future.

It may seem difficult to imagine this now, but the world’s economy is set to double in the next decade as India and China renew their economic growth. One billion skilled jobs are being created, and here in the United Kingdom we shall need to find an extra 6.8 million or so new entrants to the professions. We need to be ready to capture those jobs in the future, and ensure that everyone can enjoy new opportunities as they arrive. That must be a priority for the Government.

Access to the professions and to senior jobs must clearly be based on talent and the ability to do the job. Geography, finance and family background cannot be the deciding factors. Although that ambition is not contentious, many communities, and even graduates of many universities, are denied access to many professional
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and senior jobs. Of course no one wants people who cannot do the job; what we want are the best people in the job, regardless of their background. All too often, barriers exist to prevent that. We are committed to continuing the progress that has already been made, and destroying every obstacle in order to ensure fair access to the professions for all.

I think it fair to say that we have made progress towards achieving our objectives, but to ensure fair access we need to help individuals at different stages of their lives. Children need support from their early years if they are to secure the best start in life and develop their abilities. Young people, whatever their backgrounds and aspirations, need support as they make the transition from school to further education, training and higher education. Adults also need help to develop and adapt their skills in an increasingly changing labour market. The provision of excellent, personalised public services can provide the right balance of support and incentives, and we are continuing to build on what we have already achieved in that regard.

We do not consider it right to cut the investment that is necessary to build secure foundations for tomorrow, especially during a recession. I know that some believe that a recession is the best time at which to cut back, but it really is not. We must invest during a recession in order to take advantage of the upturn.

Even the youngest people need support if the professions are to benefit from that wider pool of talent in the future, and we have more than doubled the number of child care places to 1.5 million in just over 10 years. All three-year-olds and four-year-olds are now entitled to free part-time early education places if that is what their parents want, and we have introduced more than 3,000 Sure Start children’s centres. We have brought families out of poverty through tax credits, the national minimum wage and child trust funds, which is making a real difference to their lives. I am sure that all Members of Parliament have been told about that in their constituencies.

In the Budget, the Chancellor also announced that the child element of the tax credit would increase by an additional £20 a year above indexation from April 2010. In schools we have doubled funding per pupil in real terms, which has raised overall performance. We owe a tribute to teachers and classroom assistants, who have played a massive part in changing education and improving the quality of education that young people receive in our schools. It is no coincidence that total funding per pupil in the past 12 years has almost doubled to £2,880. In the pre-Budget report we announced £14.5 billion of additional spending on education for 2010-11. That investment has made a difference. There are now fewer schools in special measures—the number has nearly halved in just over 10 years—and those that are in special measures get out of them much more quickly because of the support that is there for them. The investment in education means that there are 41,000 more teachers, 210,000 more support staff and over 120,000 more teaching assistants than there were 12 years ago.

The investment also means that now more than 64 per cent. of pupils attain at least five GCSEs from A* to C, including English and Maths. That has gone up from 45 per cent.—less than half—12 years ago. The investment in staff, equipment, buildings and child care has delivered real improvements in education. To help those who are
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perhaps most at risk from not fulfilling their potential in school, we have introduced the educational maintenance allowance. Half a million young people have been helped every year with £10, £20 or £30 a week.

In the 2009 Budget, the Chancellor also announced a guaranteed job, training or work placement for all 18 to 24-year-olds who reach 12 months’ unemployment. We have also prioritised giving second chances to those adults who did not achieve their potential in education the first time around. Since 2001, over 2.5 million people have improved their basic skills and we have now put in place a legal right for adults to get free training up to level 2—GCSE, A-level or equivalent—to help increase their employability. We have revived apprenticeships as a viable and mainstream option for young people. This year there will be an extra 35,000 apprenticeships and we have seen a huge increase in the number of young people completing their apprenticeships.

One problem is that all too often in the professions there are barriers preventing those in junior roles from progressing to professional and better paid jobs. There was a time when older journalists could say that they had gone from making the tea on their local paper to becoming a senior journalist on a national newspaper. We do not see that so often these days. Another route is an unpaid internship through family connections in London, which is becoming an increasingly normal way to enter national journalism. It can still be difficult for talented, able and ambitious apprentices to work their way up to the highest levels. We have listened to the views on this and, following consultation, the UCAS points system will be applied to apprenticeships.

I wish to draw the House’s attention to the “New Opportunities” White Paper, which sets out ambitious plans for everyone in Britain to make the most of their potential, to increase aspiration and, having done so, to turn that into success. The commitments in the White Paper will have a direct impact on the issues under discussion today. We are on track to provide access to high-quality early learning and child care for two-year-olds by September.

Already 145 schools are taking part in the scheme to get the most effective teachers into the most challenging schools. Often, one of the problems for the most challenging schools is a high turnover of teachers. Effective teachers are joining such schools from September, and they will get a new £10,000 incentive if they guarantee to stay in the school for three years, thus ensuring continuity of teaching for their pupils. These new skills and that continuity will help to continue the improvements that we are seeing in the most challenging schools, often in the most challenging communities.

The National Apprenticeship Service was launched in April with the aim of creating 35,000 new apprenticeship places across the public and private sectors. That is a challenge. We have a Cabinet-level steering group and the continued development of delivery plans is in the early stages, but good progress is being made and I urge as many private and public organisations as possible to take on apprentices to make this a success.

We are trebling the number of career development loans available for people who want to undertake training. It will help to develop their skills and to realise their full potential. Over the next two years, 45,000 new and rebranded professional and career development loans will be made available, up from the 15,000 available in
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this financial year. They will be made more attractive by reducing the headline interest rates, allowing people to apply for loans of up to £10,000 to study at colleges, universities and with private training providers—an increase on the current limit of £8,000.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am listening with respect to the Minister. The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will know that a particular hobby horse of mine is clause 84 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which concerns election for apprenticeship schemes. Will the Minister take on board the concern that if there is a prescriptive requirement that somebody should have level 2 or level 3 qualifications, that can discriminate against young people with special educational needs—perhaps on the autistic spectrum—who do not have such qualifications but who in every other way would be extremely well suited to the pursuit of an apprenticeship scheme?

Angela E. Smith: I entirely agree; the hon. Gentleman will know that the matter was raised several times in Committee. The Government are looking at it, because we do not want people with special educational needs to be excluded from apprenticeships. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Minister has taken his comments on board. That point also relates to the charity v, which is looking at full-time volunteering opportunities for young people who are not in education or employment. We want that to be extended as far as possible from April this year.

Having read the two reports from the panel, I am eager to see the recommendations to be given to the Prime Minister. We believe that everyone with ability from across society should have an opportunity to get the most senior jobs in society. That is why the Government invited my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington, senior professionals and experts to establish the panel on fair access to the professions, which is entirely independent of Government.

The panel’s remit was to look at barriers to fair access and senior jobs and at what more could be done by the professions with support from the Government to improve fair access for all. Fair access to the professions is crucial for individuals. It is important for their communities and for society, but it is also crucial to the economy as a whole. We must have the widest possible pool of talent from which to choose, as that increases economic efficiency and productivity. It is not just individuals who succeed if we give everyone a fair chance; it can also contribute to social cohesion and social inclusion. Social mobility has a direct impact on our economic future.

The panel is developing its recommendations, which will be published over the summer, although it has shown so far that many of the top professions are not representative of society. There is a much higher representation of independent school-educated professionals, especially doctors and lawyers, who come from well-off families.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): The Minister referred to the report being published in the summer. That has been the official position for some time. Can she give any more detail as to when we might expect it? Will there be a statement to the Commons?

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Angela E. Smith: That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington. It is not my report or my panel. I wish I could assist the hon. Gentleman. It would not be for the Government to tell my right hon. Friend what to do and when to present his report.

Mr. Alan Milburn (Darlington) (Lab): I am grateful not to be told what to do by my hon. Friend. If it helps the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and the House, I can say that the intention is to publish our report in mid-July. It is for the Government to decide whether they want the House to consider it. As it is an independent report from a ferociously independent panel, representing all parties and none, I cannot speak on behalf of the Government on that issue. But we will publish in mid-July—I before the House rises, I hope.

Angela E. Smith: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I think that “summer” was a fair representation, although we are not always sure that July is summer. Some professions have perversely become less, not more, socially representative over time, especially accountancy and journalism. The panel has so far identified five underlying barriers to improving access to the professions and the House would be pleased to hear the views of Members on these issues.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I appreciate that the hon. Lady has just started that section of her speech, but will she give at least some credit to the professions—particularly the Law Society and the Bar Council I might add, as I was formerly a lawyer—for the efforts that they have made to increase social mobility and ensure that there is, as far as possible, broader access to them? It should not be felt that the professions are unaware that these issues are at stake; indeed, they have made some significant steps in recent years. They might have more to do, but they are very much on board.

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Many professions recognise that if they are to attract the brightest, best and most able, they will need to have a much fairer system of progression. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bar Council, and there is Julia Neuberger’s report on that issue. Many professions have taken good steps forward, but they acknowledge that they have more to do in facing the challenge ahead of us. Progress has been made, but I would not imagine that any Member thinks that we have gone as far as we should. I acknowledge the progress that has been made, but we want there to be more, and we await the panel’s recommendations on the best ways to achieve that.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I want to ask the hon. Lady a question, and to do so without prejudice. To what extent has graduate entry changed the opportunities for people to rise through professions? It was once entirely possible for someone to start as a tea boy in a professional organisation and to rise to close to the top of it. I know of cases when precisely that occurred in both journalism and accountancy.

Angela E. Smith: The panel will be looking at, and making recommendations on, precisely those issues. The extent of such opportunities varies from profession to profession. Graduate entry has opened up access in
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some professions, but, perversely, it has had the opposite effect in others. That is why the panel has been asked to make independent recommendations on all these issues; we want fair access to the professions.

The panel’s initial report highlights the aspirations of young people as a significant barrier. Only one in five young people from average backgrounds and only one in eight from poorer backgrounds currently aspire to be a professional—in this context, that term covers a wide range of professions. However, the proportion for young people whose parents are already in one of the professions is two in five. I do not believe that where we live, how much our parents earn and what our parents do have any impact at all on ability, but they clearly impact on young people’s aspirations.

Another important issue is career support for young people. The panel’s research shows that soft skills are becoming increasingly valued by employers, but not all young people have the opportunity to develop them. Another barrier is to do with internships and work experience. They have become an important route into the top jobs. More than nine in 10 young people have been interns. That helps to raise their aspirations and improve their CVs, and four out of five employers recruit former interns. A disproportionate number of internships are in London and the south-east, and the evidence shows that more internships are sourced through families and friends than through advertised schemes. Therefore, where a young person lives and what university they attend can also be a barrier to their moving into the professions.

Another issue is recruitment and selection. Seven out of 10 of the top graduate employers target just 20 of 167 universities. Therefore, as I have said before, what university someone attends can have an impact on their progression.

There is also an issue to do with flexible routes of entry to the professions. There has been a long-term decline in the non-graduate routes. Today, only 27 of The Times top 100 employers accept alternative entry routes such as non-graduate entry. There are good examples of professions opening their doors to people entering from different routes, such as the fast-track teaching qualification, which can be undertaken in just six months. There is clearly more to do, however.

It will take a few years before we have a clearer picture of access to professions for all those who have come through the education system in the past decade, but to date the panel’s evidence shows a narrowing attainment gap between kids from poorer families and those from better off families. We believe that that will lead to increased social mobility in the years ahead.

The issue of aspiration is at the heart of this debate. We need to ensure that young people aim higher and fulfil their aspirations. Fair access to the professions is not just good for those individuals who succeed; it is good for their communities and for society. It is also no exaggeration to say that it is essential for the economic and social future of this country.

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