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Like other hon. Members here today, I welcome national apprenticeship week. Last night I was pleased to be able to attend an event organised jointly by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and Semta on apprenticeships in the motor industry, where I met Carolyn Lee and James Doughty, two new apprentices working for Jaguar Land Rover. If anybody ever doubted the value of apprenticeships and what they can do to raise aspirations among young people, they just need to listen to the kind of things they were saying to me.
As chair of the all-party motor group, I have regular discussions with motor manufacturers and others in the motor industry. It is a sector where apprenticeships are taken very seriously and where a great deal is being done. The automotive sector is one of the largest providers of apprenticeships in our country. People in the sector certainly welcome a number of the initiatives that have taken place, but last night they told me something that it is important for us to bear in mind: we must not think that rhetoric about apprenticeships is exactly the same as reality, because they are different. We can support some of the things that are being done and still recognise that.
I am sorry that the Minister did not seek to engage with Labour Members on the issues that they wanted to raise with him. My first point about rhetoric not always matching reality is that people involved in the automotive sector and elsewhere are saying that small and medium-sized firms, in particular, have genuine concerns about how they can engage with the system: how they access apprenticeships, what they mean for them, and whether it is too difficult for them to get involved. The system is not joining up in the way that it should, and it is important that the Government listen to what those in industry are saying. They are not making political points; they are talking about the health of their businesses and the opportunities that should be available to young people.
My second point on the rhetoric is that it is okay for the Government to talk about the expansion in the number of apprenticeships that has occurred over the past few years, but often those apprenticeships are not tackling the issue of youth unemployment, even in terms of numbers. In the last academic year, the number of 16 to 18-year-old apprentices fell in four of England’s nine regions, including my own, the west midlands. Youth unemployment has sky-rocketed in my constituency; 1,260 young people are currently without a job and long-term youth unemployment has more than doubled. If we overlay that with access to apprenticeships, it does not make good reading. The Prince’s Trust has highlighted the fact that in some cases just 14% of apprenticeships were obtained by unemployed young people.
There are examples of good practice. I welcome the work of Birmingham city council. Last year it established a commission on youth unemployment, which produced pretty staggering and disturbing results: we are one of the youngest cities in Europe but we have 15,000 unemployed young people, 3,000 of whom have been unemployed for more than a year. The council and its partners set up a youth jobs fund to target funding on tackling long-term youth unemployment. There are issues involved in targeting funding: should it be targeted on young people, on the areas in which they live or on the areas in which employers operate, which form the catchment area for the young people? I have written to the council and I hope soon to receive replies to my questions.
We need more initiatives that bridge the gap between boosting apprenticeships and ensuring that they tackle long-term youth unemployment, and in that context I wholly endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend Mr Bailey on behalf of the Select Committee. If we are to join up the system it is vital that our education system links with the necessary skills training and opportunities for young people.
The long-held perception in this country that the academic route is superior to the vocational route must end. I hope that Ministers will think a little about the messages they send young people. The rhetoric of the Secretary of State for Education over the past few years has pointed young people in a direction that has not encouraged them to believe that apprenticeships enjoy parity of esteem, whereas we must ensure not only that opportunities are available but that young people feel they can contribute the skills necessary if our country is going to be as competitive as it should be in future.