The coalition Government have delivered over 2.3 million apprenticeship starts since May 2010, and this Government will support 3 million new apprenticeship starts over this Parliament. We are developing a comprehensive plan for growth, including more work with large employers, more help for small businesses and a new funding system supported by an employer levy.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Support for further education colleges, including South Devon college in Torbay, will be vital to delivering more higher level apprenticeships and, in particular, degree-level apprenticeships, which provide the highest level of training. What plans does he have to support FE colleges, including South Devon college, in delivering that type of training for employers?
I know that my hon. Friend is very passionate about this issue. I am happy to congratulate South Devon college on its plans. Degree apprenticeships are a fantastic route to higher level training. I assure my hon. Friend that my Department is working hard with colleges, universities and employers to support what is an increasingly popular route.
I am afraid that there is an issue not just with quantity, but with quality. With further education in a state that is getting close to desperate, too few apprenticeships are of a high enough quality. I visited Mech-Tool in my constituency, where apprenticeships are four years long and people get good jobs afterwards. What will the Secretary of State do to make sure that we improve quality for the rest of our apprentices?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. No one wants an increase just in quantity; we at the same time want to see quality improve. I hope that the hon. Lady will, for example, support the Enterprise Bill, when it is introduced in the other place on Thursday, which will for the first time protect the term “apprenticeship”.
The agricultural sector in this country is small, but important. One of the things that is holding it back is a lack of skills on the technical side of agriculture. Wiltshire college in Lacock is particularly concerned about that. What can my right hon. Friend do to assist in building up technical skills in agriculture in this country, and in particular to increase the number of apprenticeships in agriculture?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That issue has come up a number of times in the agriculture sector, and there is more work to be done. My hon. Friend the Minister for Skills is working on seasonal apprenticeships, which will help to make a change.
Britain has a serious and growing skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and maths, with businesses facing what they have called a “skills emergency”. Alarming new figures show that of more than 250,000 apprenticeship starts last year, only 140 were in science and maths, and fewer than a fifth of apprenticeships this year are in engineering. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how he hopes to close the skills gap when there are so few apprenticeship opportunities in those subjects?
May I again welcome the hon. Lady to her place and to her new position? I agree with her that there is a skills shortage. When we talk to employers across the country, that is one of the first issues that they bring up. That is why the Government have brought significant investment and focus to bear on the issue. For example, we launched our higher apprenticeships earlier this year and I would like to see those increase; as I have said, we are currently seeing record growth. We are also setting up a network of national colleges: there will be seven national colleges, and I hope that they will all be operational by September 2017.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his second welcome in as many days. I hope that there are some things we can agree on, even though we started off on very disagreeable terms with the Trade Union Bill yesterday.
There are serious concerns that in the rush to meet the Government’s artificial, politically driven target, many apprenticeships are really little more than a rebranding of entry level jobs. The latest Government figures show that only 3% of new apprenticeships starts were at the higher level. How can that be compatible with the Government’s aim of creating a highly skilled workforce?
As the hon. Lady perhaps knows, we are starting to see a significant increase in the number of people taking STEM-related apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships. She will also be aware that, in the recent Budget, we announced the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, which will help to make sure that there is long-term sustainable funding not just for the quantity of apprenticeships, but for their quality. I hope that she welcomes that.
I welcome the Government’s move to ensure that all big Government contractors deliver apprenticeships as a key part of their commitment. Does the Secretary of State agree that, with over £50 billion a year spent on procurement contracts, that represents a huge opportunity to boost apprenticeship numbers across the country?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We looked at that issue in the coalition Government, but I believe that we can take it further and we will announce plans shortly.
I am delighted that the Secretary of State has learned the value of apprenticeships from Scotland. Our Parliament has created 25,000 places each year during its lifetime. It has now exceeded its target and brought the number up to 35,000 annually. Moreover, every apprentice in Scotland is guaranteed a job once their training is completed. As part of the plans to impose an employer levy, has he assessed the cost to Scottish businesses and apprenticeship opportunities that such a levy would impose?
I am pleased to hear that apprenticeships are doing well in Scotland—I have been following that closely. I would like to see more apprenticeships throughout the United Kingdom. That would be a good thing. I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes the development of the employer levy. We are in the process of deciding exactly how it will work. We are talking to all devolved authorities and look forward to working with them on it.
Northern Ireland has a good story to tell with regards to the development of apprenticeships. However, with the resignation of the Minister responsible and the impending collapse of the institutions, will the Secretary of State indicate that he and his Department will step up to the mark if required, fill the gap and continue that good work?
Of course I hope that Northern Ireland is able to deal with these troubling issues and that there is no collapse of the institutions. If there is anything that we can do to help, we will of course look carefully at that.