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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a native Mancunian, I am well aware that over the past 20 to 25 years, the local councils in the Greater Manchester area have done splendid work in this respect.
I was talking about Building Schools for the Future and the contractors on the Olympic park. It is also sometimes forgotten that it was our party, in government, that ensured that skills and apprenticeships would be an integral part of the Crossrail project that we had announced. It was our party that put in place the tunnelling academy and laid the framework for a procurement strategy based on taking apprentices from the local London boroughs.
That is what we believe, but more than that, it is what a raft of other bodies believe as well. Most recently and significantly, the cross-party Business, Innovation and Skills Committee ended its 11-month inquiry into apprenticeships and, in its recent report, called on the Government to adopt such a scheme. The Committee argued that the Government should aim for the benchmark used by many leading businesses in the construction sector, including Kier, Wilmott Dixon and Laing, whereby for every £1 million spent by Government Departments and their agencies on public procurement, at least one new apprenticeship place should be created.
That sensible approach has already attracted many supporters. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, the Association of Colleges, the National Union of Students, the North-East Federation of Small Businesses, the North-East chamber of commerce and many others endorsed the approach when it was set out by my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell in her excellent private Member’s Bill last year. During the Select Committee sessions, organisations such as JTL and unionlearn also backed the procurement concept.
Despite all that, this Government continue to refuse to act. Their response to the Select Committee report cited rather vague unintended negative consequences as their excuse for ducking the issue. They said that they were
“currently working on guidance to encourage best practice amongst local authorities in relation to Apprenticeship conditions in construction contracts”.
Why has it taken them more than two and a half years to get to this point? After all, does not such a starting point already exist in the form of the OGC guidance that I referred to earlier? Why are the Government reinventing the wheel?
It has also been suggested that civil servants fear that they could fall foul of EU procurement rules. The Minister’s illustrious predecessor, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, ruefully admitted to the Select Committee last May that he felt that the Government could be more creative in their use of procurement. That position has also been confirmed by the House of Commons Library, which points out that the European Commission has a guidance note entitled “Buying Social: a Guide to Taking Account of Social Considerations in Public Procurement.” That guidance suggests that promoting “employment opportunities”, “decent work” and access to training can be taken into account. Those guidelines are surely compatible with promoting apprenticeships.