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I am delighted to do so. That is another indication that Conservatives down in Kent seem to do things rather differently from Conservatives in Government.
As I was saying, could it be—perish the thought—that some Ministers are simply using European Union law as a convenient smokescreen to disguise their reluctance to support this kind of active, intelligent Government initiative? If that is the case, what do they think that our French or German counterparts would do? Do they think that they would allow arcane, untested notions of EU law to prevent them from expanding apprenticeships, given the dire unemployment rates among young people that exist under this Government? Why, if that is the case, does one of the Government’s own Departments claim to be following an approach much like ours?
Since July 2011, the Department for Work and Pensions has been operating its apprenticeships and skills requirement contract schedule, which requires:
“The Contractor shall and shall procure that its Sub-contractors shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that 5% of their employees are on a formal apprenticeship programme.”
The apprenticeships Minister himself praised the DWP initiative in a recent House of Commons response. That is all well and good, but if the initiative is such a good idea, why have the Government not extended it to other Departments? Why has the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as the lead Department for apprenticeships, not taken matters any further in the 20 months since the launch of that initiative? Why have the Cabinet Office, the Deputy Prime Minister, and even the occupants of No. 10—who waxed eloquent yesterday about the value of apprenticeships being the new norm—done nothing? That is not exactly the equivalent of Churchill’s “action this day”. Are this Government so supine, so conflicted and so hung up that they prefer taking away people’s employment rights to creating career opportunities for them? Does it not boil down to the resistance of many, if not all, in the Tory-led coalition to any active, intelligent role for Government which would require them to strain every sinew to promote economic growth and expand young people’s life chances?
The Government cannot and should not micro-manage, but they must expand apprenticeship places more vigorously and systematically than they are at present. That is central to what we need to achieve as a country so that we can compete and thrive in the 21st-century world. It is no wonder that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made the expansion of apprenticeships with employers and other stakeholders, and the introduction of the “tech bacc”, the central focus in his speech to the Labour party conference last year. He has also spelt out the way in which a future Labour Government could apply the same criterion to major infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2, with the objective of creating at least 33,000 additional apprenticeships.
We can see how the same formula could be applied directly elsewhere, and in other Departments beside the DWP. For example, there are four existing road projects announced by the Department for Transport—work on the A160 and A180 in Immingham, on the M6 in the west midlands, on the M3 in Surrey, and on the M275 in Portsmouth—with a combined contract value of more than £400 million, from which hundreds of apprenticeship places could be created. If the Government really want to expand apprenticeships, why will they not practise what they preach and implement these sensible proposals? After all, what better spur can there be for the two thirds of businesses that still do not offer apprenticeships than the knowledge that they are crucial to the Government, and also crucial to their working with the Government?
As Members have said, we need to see Government Departments themselves opening up and offering more apprenticeships. The most recent data available to us on BIS are those mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak. Spurred by the cogent arguments advanced repeatedly over the past year by my colleague in the other place, Lord Adonis, the Government should be introducing an apprenticeship fast stream for the civil service. Ministers have now announced belatedly that they will be running such a scheme, but we are still waiting to hear—and it would be interesting if we could hear today—just how committed to it individual Departments will be. The Cabinet Office, for example, was far from forthcoming when I asked parliamentary questions about this earlier this year. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition summed the position up perfectly in an article at the end of January in which he said:
“Whitehall takes 500 of the brightest graduates from our top universities every year and fast-tracks their careers on good salaries. Let’s give the same opportunities to youngsters who are ready to knuckle down and learn on the job, in tough apprenticeship schemes. It should start in the offices of ministers in the Government.”
We believe that any new apprenticeships created via this procurement route need to be high quality, a point echoed by the Doug Richard review recommendations.