My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to her new post and look forward to working with new-found professional friends in this legislative programme. The first priority in the Queen's Speech is,
"to reduce the deficit and restore economic growth".
In this wide-ranging debate, I shall focus on using the talents and skills of the whole workforce to best effect.
Under the previous Administration, apprenticeships increased from around 65,000 to 250,000, with a completion rate of more than 70 per cent. That has to be a very worthy achievement. We warmly welcome the announcement last week of investment in a further 50,000 apprenticeships, with £150 million diverted from Train to Gain. That will be particularly relevant for adult apprentices, where the demand has been the greatest. Many of those might be within the public sector and it will be a challenge to ensure that placements can be taken up in the face of cutbacks in public sector employees. It is essential to engage the next generation in meaningful training for work, to re-skill adults, to encourage aspiration and to reward achievement.
Craft, manufacturing and service industries all have the potential to increase their productivity even in times of hardship. As the Minister indicated, crucial to that growth will be small businesses which will benefit from the intention that:
"The cost of bureaucracy ... will be reduced"- a very welcome intention.
The stringent cuts ahead should not be allowed to reduce opportunities for creativity and enterprise. What more can be done? One question we could ask is: why is it that women, who demonstrate great initiative and enterprise in other countries, are only in the UK half as likely as men to start up their own businesses? To that end, we have long argued for improvements in careers information, advice and guidance. It is not too soon to set out to children at secondary-even primary-school the range and variety of practical jobs which call for vocational skills and to interest them in business. Career ambition and aspiration is not just for academic and professional walks of life. Students should be aware of the opportunities which speak to their individual talents and motivation, whether for economics or catering, astrophysics or car repair, philosophy or care-and none of these is, of course, mutually exclusive.
Recent research from the City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development drew two important lessons: first, that vocational education works best when delivered in partnership with the community, including local employers and parents; and secondly, that the programmes are most successful when both vocational and academic learning are well integrated. We shall have a golden opportunity next year to raise the profile of vocational achievement when London plays host to the WorldSkills Competition. It can be inspirational to witness the levels of skills from young people at such competitions, and a challenge to our workforce to rival the best in the world.
Practical skills have key parts to play in economic regeneration, but so, too, must we concentrate on the country's poor record of financial literacy. We battled in the last Session to have personal, social, health and economic education made statutory in schools and just lost that valuable measure in the final hours of the previous Government.
Personal debt in this country has long exceeded £1 trillion, too much of it unsecured and unmanaged. We are paying the price of lack of corporate financial literacy in the banking crisis. Ensuring that young people start in life with the basic tools of financial management will pay short- and long-term dividends for individuals and for the nation.
The positioning of further and higher education within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is indicative of the economic impact of these sectors. However, this does not in any way detract from the invaluable academic, social and cultural aspects of our lives. Will the Minister, in response, give assurances that universities and further education colleges will be supported in maintaining the highest standards of teaching and learning; that their administrative burdens will be eased; and that funding will reflect the long-term contribution they make to individual well-being and the national economy? We look forward to lively and productive debates as we find new ways of working collaboratively in the coalition Government.