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I have really enjoyed the debate, which has been constructive on both sides of the House. The challenge with such debates is always the shortage of time and, like many other Members, I could talk about apprenticeships for a long time. I shall keep my speech brief, however.
For me, this subject is all about jobs. I was planning an apprenticeship initiative well before I was elected and I am pleased that I was elected as it meant that I could implement it. I was one of the first Members to do a 100 apprenticeship in 100 days campaign and in Eastbourne we achieved 181 apprenticeships, which was superb for the town. That momentum continued strongly and, according to the latest figures, since the general election Eastbourne has recruited more than 2,100 new apprentices, more than any other town across the whole of the south-east and more than the constituencies in Brighton. It works.
A lot of that success is down to the partnership working between local businesses, training organisations and Sussex Downs college and to the focus on making apprenticeships work. That goes back to the jobs agenda. In Eastbourne, we are running at a conversion rate of about 90%, which is stunning. That means that 90% of people involved are in full-time work after their apprenticeships.
Irrespective of the party political disagreements, I think that Members are, broadly speaking, united in recognising modern apprenticeships. I pay tribute to Mr Lammy, who, along with the Labour Government, began to promote apprenticeships. I hope he agrees that we have carried that work on.
Let me flag up three issues that I urge the Government to consider closely, as we have the Minister here. We have talked about schools and I am sure he knows that unless there is a clear rationale for schools to tick a box to show that they are doing something, they will not do it. I work very closely with the secondary schools in Eastbourne, which are very pro-apprenticeships, but they say, bluntly, “Stephen, there is not a lot of point in our selling apprenticeships because we don’t get any bonus for getting 100 apprenticeships.” I urge the Minister to discuss that with the Secretary of State for Education; let us do some creative thinking.
The second issue is quality, particularly when expansion is so rapid, and everybody recognises that we must keep an eye on that. I ask the Minister to keep focusing on quality. In seven or eight years, if we keep up our commitment to apprenticeships, they will have the same gravitas as apprenticeships in Germany. We should not forget, however, that some young people do not have the most academic education or background, and we do not want to set the lower rung for apprenticeships so high that they cannot get on to it. We must keep a close eye on that.
The subsidy for small and medium-sized enterprises is a strong idea, and within nine months of the general election I was urging it on the Business Secretary. I am delighted that after consideration, the Government moved down that road. I think it involves 40,000 SMEs a year. Despite the challenges in the economic envelope, I urge the Government to keep expanding the scheme over the next few years. Many SMEs have taken on apprentices—about 10%—and if more can do so it would be utterly transformational.