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Part of Opposition Day — [19th Allotted Day] — Tax Fairness – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 12th March 2013.

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Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 4:26 pm, 12th March 2013

We wait with bated breath to see what might occur in the Budget, and I hope that the Skills Minister might use his good offices with the Chancellor in that respect.

Labour Members believe that this apprenticeship route has to be a high-quality one. We have to have that because we have had problems in the past with the duration of apprenticeships, and it took some time for the Government to move on that. These issues of quality are being addressed by our Labour skills taskforce. It is taking forward details of our proposals, which the Leader of the Opposition announced last autumn, drawing on the practical experience of business, the further education sector and elsewhere. That is why we are seeking not only to boost the number of apprenticeship places available, but to address the situation pre-18 by introducing a new technical baccalaureate.

While the Government have been dithering nationally about how to expand apprenticeships and ignoring procurement policies, Labour local authorities have been leading the way. A number of Labour-run authorities are going ahead with public procurement to create new apprenticeships for young local people eager for those opportunities. For example, Sheffield city council has identified 233 additional apprenticeships that it can create via public procurement where it has set its requirements at £100,000. Sandwell’s council has done something similar, aiming to create just under 200 apprenticeships through public procurement in the next three years. Other councils, such as my local authority in Blackpool, are boosting numbers in other innovative ways. It already has 48 apprentices on the books, but my local council is working with other local public sector bodies, such as the police force and the NHS, to create shared apprenticeships across those bodies. One could add to that other Labour councils such as those in Reading and Plymouth that are actively engaging with local businesses to boost apprenticeship opportunities across their boroughs, as well as the city skills hubs of Manchester and Leeds.

What is telling about that story of activity in local government is that, as we have heard, even Conservative-run local authorities realise the merits of that approach. For example, Kent county council has put in place criteria whose details closely mirror ours: procurement for all contracts worth more than £1 million should create at least one additional apprenticeship place. Northamptonshire county council has also put in place mandatory requirements on all contracts over the value of £2 million. In addition, there are those in the Prime Minister’s own parliamentary party who have argued that something has to be done, with perhaps the sharpest example being Robert Halfon. Last year, that redoubtable Member made similar suggestions that government should be using public procurement to boost apprenticeships.

That shows the range of consensus on the need to act now. It is a consensus that has been built by a determination to do something to kick-start us out of a dire, flatlining economic situation, which has the potential to put thousands of young people at risk. The Opposition are advocating a useful change that has the potential to transform the life chances of thousands of young people. It offers them the opportunities they are crying out for, and sends a clear message to business that apprenticeships matter and add real value to a firm. If we will the ends, we must will the means. It is time for the Government to stop tying themselves in tortuous knots when they are put on the spot by the wise words of the Select Committee.

The Skills Minister has repeatedly said that apprenticeships are at the heart of the Government’s skills strategy. As many of his Tory colleagues in local government agree with our approach, why does he not take this modest proposal forward? He has the opportunity. We have a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that already has a Minister with two brains and a Secretary of State in two minds about ring-fenced funding and economic growth. Now I wait with bated breath to see whether the Under-Secretary of State for Skills will be able to say the right thing for his two Departments this afternoon.

Abraham Lincoln—or perhaps it was Daniel Day-Lewis—famously said that when

“the occasion is piled high with difficulty” we must rise to it, and

“As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

That is our proposal today. When our economy and this Government’s strategy are flatlining, we must act anew. A public procurement policy for apprenticeships would start to transform the numbers and the life chances of tens of thousands of young people. It makes economic sense, but it is also the right thing to do. We believe in a one nation Britain with not only social cohesion and fairness but economic cohesion, in which apprenticeships have a firm stake. That is why we have put the proposal centre stage today and that is why I am proud to move the motion.