Previous Section Index Home Page

6 July 2009 : Column 719

Only 13 per cent. of university students received a job offer by March of their final years. Graduates in medicine and dentistry are the most likely to be in work, but there are many other disciplines where the prospects for employment—particularly employment relating directly to the degree studied, thereby matching graduates’ hopes, aspirations, talents and ambitions—are limited. Indeed, more than one in 10 students with architecture, building or planning degrees are jobless, a figure that is of course linked with the decline in the housing market.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest. Does he agree that when people leave university with degrees in surf studies, as they do from Plymouth university, it is hardly surprising that they are unable to find jobs that match their expectations?

Mr. Hayes: I would never want to say anything disparaging about Plymouth—or indeed any other part of this kingdom—and I would particularly not want to disparage our higher education system. However, it is absolutely right that, knowing the figures, people who consider their futures at school and beyond will increasingly look to those courses that are most likely to reward them with employment. That is a natural consequence of the process.

I am not utilitarian: I believe in study for its own sake. I believe in the power of learning, because it elevates people and builds a better nation. I believe in education for democratic citizenship. One of the reasons why I so resent the attack launched by Ministers on adult and community learning is not that adult and community learning typically takes people into further study and then into employment, although it often does, but that it has a worth beyond all that: it has a value for its own sake.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hayes: I will happily give way to my hon. Friend, who is a great authority on this matter, and who regularly defends adult and community learning in his constituency.

Christopher Fraser: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that endorsement. Does he accept that not every child is academic, and that vocational skills are equally important if young people are to play a role in getting us out of this recession and in creating the prosperity that this nation deserves?

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend is right. That is why the Conservatives have championed practical learning and made a strong case for the kind of vocational education and training that he rightly advocates. I will say a little more about that in a few moments.

In the Government’s new guide, “Life after graduation”, they have advised graduates to seek work in call centres. Professor Alan Smithers, the director of education and employment research at Buckingham university has said:

and so it is. Graduates face difficult times, and aspirant university and college students face a bleak future.

What of vocational learning of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) has identified as so critical? It is critical for our
6 July 2009 : Column 720
economy because of the skills gaps that I mentioned earlier. It is also critical for the lives of many people who, through the acquisition of a skill or a craft, gain meaningful purpose as well as work. They gain a sense of pride and worth through real accomplishment.

Sadly, however, new statistics show a significant drop in the number of teenagers starting apprenticeships this year. In the academic year 2008-09, there was an 8.3 per cent. fall in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds taking up apprenticeships. There was a 2 per cent. fall in the number of 19 to 24-year-olds starting apprenticeships. There were 196,600 apprenticeship starts in the first nine months of 2008-09, and 80,200 apprenticeship framework achievements. There is a real problem with completion, though I acknowledge that the Government have made some improvements in that area. The Minister will say that, and it is important for me to say it, too. However, in return for that act of straightforwardness and—dare I say it?—generosity, will he for the first time acknowledge the plain truth that the number of level 3 apprenticeships represents a significant problem and that it has fallen on his watch? Level 3 was once the level at which all apprenticeships were fixed, and it still is among most of our competitors. Given the decline in level 3 apprenticeships, is it any wonder that many commentators believe that Britain will fail to compete as we acquire the skills that we desperately need? I hope that we will have a refreshing bout of honesty from the Minister about apprenticeships when he makes his speech.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Even though the Government have provided some assistance, 2,000 apprentices in the building industry have lost their apprenticeships as a result of losing their jobs in recent months, and only 36 per cent. of them have subsequently found another job. That means that more than 1,000 youngsters who were training for a skill now have no opportunity to continue to do so. If 1,000 university children had been unable to continue their courses because their university had closed, my goodness, there would have been a rumpus. Middle-class people would have marched in the streets. Is it not time that we did something for those apprentices?

Mr. Hayes: It is certainly time that we rejuvenated the apprenticeship system, valued practical learning and invested in vocation training in the way in which my hon. Friend for South-West Norfolk has identified. He is right, frankly—for too long, we have assumed that the only form of accomplishment is academic. That is not good enough; it is failing Britain and many Britons.

The Minister for Employment (Jim Knight): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way with his usual courtesy. I was interested in the intervention we heard from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). As I recall, the only game in town at the moment for the construction industry is the investment put into school buildings and other public buildings—financed by the accelerated capital programme and the fiscal stimulus that this Government support. Does the hon. Gentleman support that?

Mr. Hayes: The Minister is not entirely right, because level 3 apprenticeship numbers in the construction industry did not grow when the economy grew in anything like the measure they should. The Minister will know, although
6 July 2009 : Column 721
I do not want to parody Polish plumbers, builders, carpenters and so forth, that rather than take advantage of the growth in building over the past 10 years to give the kind of start that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) wants to give so many young people, we typically under-invested in training and under-supplied our key industries with our own people as a result and imported a great deal of labour. This is an open secret, is it not? Everyone in my constituency is aware of that, and I suspect that everyone in the House is too, so it is time that members of the Treasury Bench faced up and admitted it.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I want to go back to an earlier point. I was impressed when the hon. Gentleman gave the Government credit for increasing apprenticeships vastly. I am desperately looking through my notes—I cannot find the figures—but I know that we are up to about 250,000. We need to compare that with 1997, when I was teaching young people about to leave school in the run-up to 1997. I was teaching them how to fill in UB40 forms at that time, but the opportunities have vastly increased under this Government. On Friday, I am going to visit a construction industry project in Wolverhampton, which is aimed at bringing homes up to a decent standard. About 30 young people have already been taken on and another 25 will soon join them. It is clear that the system is working very well in some places.

Mr. Hayes: It is important that we in the House give credit where it is due, try to debate these matters dispassionately and do not resort to party political knockabout. Let me say that I have no doubt that many Labour Members, who I have heard frequently articulating their case, believe in apprenticeships as passionately as I do. I do not believe that the issue divides us along party lines, but it is a simple fact that for a very long time we have underestimated the force, the significance and the value of vocational learning and training. This may indeed go back further than 1997, but it has certainly not got much better since. I hope that when I come to announce our exciting policies—I know that enthusiasm is mounting—the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) will greet them in the right spirit with the even-handed, open-minded, non-partisan enthusiasm that she personifies.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I apologise for it in advance, but I want to make a political gibe. When I worked in the union movement, I was involved with workplace learning, so I know how difficult it was after 1997 to rebuild the apprenticeship system that had been completely destroyed before 1997. Where we have got to now is an absolute miracle, given where we started from—as I say, after the complete destruction of apprenticeships and all kinds of workplace learning.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Lady is straying into the kind of denial in which I suggested Government Members should not indulge. She will know that further education college numbers have fallen. She will know that level 3 apprenticeships have not grown at the rate Ministers occasionally claim they have—although not with too much conviction, as they know the figures as well as we
6 July 2009 : Column 722
do. She will know, I am sure, about the collapse in adult learning that I described. She will also know about the growing number of NEETs. I think it ill behoves her to make exaggerated claims for the Government’s achievements in this regard when the facts tell an entirely different story.

Christopher Fraser rose—

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD) rose—

Mr. Hayes: I will give way to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), but then I must make a little progress.

Simon Hughes: I am glad that there appears to be general consensus that apprenticeships are a fantastically good and useful thing. As I said during Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday, I commend the Government for the announcement that they made last week. However, it appears—I hope that Ministers will respond to this point—that the new package for those under 25 who have not been employed for a year may not pay them for long enough to enable them to do the work that would allow them to gain the proper qualification that an apprenticeship confers. Those who advise me, including my local authority chief executive, believe that the payment is for only 32, 33 or 34 weeks, which will not allow them to obtain the work plus the opportunity to gain the qualification that they must have in order to take the next step.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman tempts me to go off at a tangent and speak about apprenticeships in more detail than I intended, but although I know that the House wishes me to speak at inordinate length, I will resist that temptation in order to give others a chance to speak. I will simply say that, for an apprenticeship to be meaningful, it must do three things. First, it must confer real competences. Secondly, it must be workplace-based and mentored so that people are given a real taste of the world of work. Thirdly and fundamentally, it must increase the individual’s employability. That is partly about placement, partly about frameworks and partly, as the hon. Gentleman has said, about the way in which apprenticeships are managed and funded.

According to a recent report from the Skills Commission, which Ministers will have at their fingertips:

I think that that was the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey.

We need to ensure that those who advise young people understand the importance and value of apprenticeships. One survey revealed that teachers who gave advice and guidance knew so little about apprenticeships that the only subject about which they knew less was the Welsh baccalaureate. While the Welsh baccalaureate may be a fine thing in itself, it is not as relevant to people across Britain as I hope apprenticeships should be.

The Skills Commission says that although the number of apprenticeships is rising, only 130,000 businesses out of 1.3 million take apprentices on. That is what I meant
6 July 2009 : Column 723
when I told the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that we should be modest in what we say. The commission also says that the Government should

At present, there is a disparity between post-19 and pre-19 funding.

Let me now tell the House what we will do. Our motion complains about the Government’s failure in respect of university places, graduates, young people who are disengaged, and training, but Members will want to know what the exciting alternative is.

We do not merely propose new policies. We propose a whole new approach: a new way of thinking about education, and a new way of preparing children and young adults for the skills that they need. We will tackle the NEETs problem head-on with a £100 million-a-year package building on best practice, which is often in the charitable, voluntary and community sectors. We will provide bite-sized chunks of learning so that people can engage in the education that they need in the way that is most suitable for them.

People who were failed by the system first time around need to be handled carefully and skilfully, and we know how that can be done because there is evidence of its being done to best effect. We will provide an independent advice and guidance service with a presence in every school and college, and a high-street presence as well, to give young people the best possible advice. We will make apprenticeships easier by encouraging companies to run them, cutting unnecessary bureaucracy, instituting direct payments to employers, creating financial incentives for them to take on apprentices, and making more Government funding available upfront.

We will inject £775 million in support through lifelong learning accounts to provide a careers service of the kind that I mentioned and an apprenticeship programme of which we can be proud. We will also put an additional fund in place: a further £100 million a year so that we can rebuild the infrastructure of adult and community learning, which has been so eroded under this Government. [Interruption.] Well, as the Minister knows, the way we will fund that is by— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We cannot have these sedentary interventions. It is much more helpful if any hon. Member who wishes to say something rises and does so in the usual way.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister knows very well that we intend to fund that through dismantling the Government’s Train to Gain scheme. Although it does some good work, it is cost-ineffective, has an immensely inefficient brokerage service, and has a dead-weight cost—which, other than the Government, almost everyone I have spoken to in industry, colleges and everywhere else acknowledges. It also often accredits existing skills rather than adds new ones. Apprenticeships are a much more effective way of training people. They are predictable and time-limited; we know what they cost and the value of the skills they confer. Adult learning is also critical, as it provides a bridge into learning for those who may have been out of learning, such as women returning to the workplace or previously disengaged young people.

6 July 2009 : Column 724

Lynda Waltho rose—

Mr. Hayes: I shall make some progress, as I want to pose the following questions to the Minister before I conclude, but I hope that I might have a chance to give way once more before I sit down.

Does the Minister expect the number of NEETs to continue to rise in the coming 12 months, and if so, by how much? Can the Minister explain why there was already a growing number of NEETs before the recession took hold? Will the Minister say why in May it was revealed that only 30 of the 1,395 apprentices on public sector training schemes were new employees, and why 98 per cent. of those on the Government skills national apprenticeship pathfinder schemes are already in the civil service? Will the Minister tell us his plan for the anticipated nightmare scenario when thousands of bright students may not be able to get the university or college place that they need? Will he also say a word about why there are so few apprenticeships at the Olympics site?

It is time for Ministers to forget the rhetoric and face the facts. Just a month ago, the independent think-tank Centre for Cities estimated that, under current Government policies, youth unemployment was set to triple. While we fail to act, we fail to help a generation of young people reach their potential. The House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs concluded two years ago that many who “could and should benefit” from apprenticeships have not done so. The economists David Bell and David Blanchflower said in a Bank of England paper that applications from people from non-professional backgrounds have not risen for the past four years and there is talk of short-term sticking plasters.

This is the choice that we face: short-term sticking plasters or long-term reform. That is why we have taken the tough choices that I have described, with real investment in apprenticeship places. That is why we believe that the Government should make economies to pay for 25,000 extra masters degrees in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—to help graduates in the coming months and years who cannot find the jobs that they need. I believe that a generation who have so much to offer should not be deprived of the education and training that they need. We offer hope for the future and a vision of a highly skilled Britain—a vision in which craft is elevated.

We have heard so much about Government failure; is this the best that the Government can do? Do Ministers seriously expect those whom they represent to stand for this? Is this really all that Britain can be?

I say that Britain is entitled to expect more. Government can do more, and Britain can be more, greater and better, but it will not be so unless we change direction. Until we head towards hope—new hope, a new Britain, a new Conservative Government.

5.9 pm

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

Next Section Index Home Page