Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:02 pm on 16th May 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills) 7:02 pm, 16th May 2012

My Lords, first, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, on their maiden speeches, which were stimulating and interesting. I do not want to say too much about the economy because that has been amply covered by my noble friend Lady Royall in her contribution and the noble Lord, Lord Low, in his analysis. I want to concentrate on the failure to stimulate the economy to produce growth and the impact that that is having on youth unemployment. I will also speak about apprenticeships, which will not surprise anybody I am sure.

On Monday, my noble friend Lord Kennedy asked a Question about youth unemployment and said that there were more than 1 million young people unemployed. The response of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, was that if you took away the students, the figure was only 719,000. He did conclude that that was perhaps a little too high. There is certainly no room for complacency in this area. Students will eventually leave the world of acquiring knowledge and will require jobs. Like thousands of young people, they will be faced with the reality of making hundreds of job applications only to find that they are lucky if they get any response at all to those applications.

Yesterday, I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, speak eloquently about young people being locked up for hours in cells in institutions. He said how debilitating that was because they were not learning anything. But what about when they leave young offender institutions and fail to find a job? If there is any bigger challenge in dealing with youth unemployment I cannot think of one.

I do not want in any way to denigrate the Government's attempts to deal with this problem, apart from their economic policy. Their approach to apprenticeships has been good. It has been enthusiastic. If you look at the overall figures, they look like good news. We are told that there are something like 450,000 apprenticeship starts. But if you start to disaggregate those figures, you find that there are large numbers of adult apprenticeships. I do not question the fact that we should have adult apprenticeships, but we need to look at quality not just quantity in terms of apprenticeships, and there is some disturbing news coming through about the quality. I raised in another debate in the Moses Room the recent "Panorama" programme which showed what purported to be apprenticeships were delivering very little training at all and certainly no job at the end of them.

We were criticised when we were in government for having programme-led apprenticeships, and we started to faze those out. We said it was not an apprenticeship unless there was a job at the end. The Government need to focus carefully on this. There is a place for adult apprenticeships. It is an opportunity for people to re-skill, but some of the experiences that we are getting these days in relation to large companies employing large numbers of adult apprentices gives us cause for concern.

There are areas where I believe the Government have an opportunity to ramp up the number of apprenticeships and there are some practical things that they should be doing. If we think that we have solved the problem because numbers are increasing I remind noble Lords of two statistics that should worry us. Only something like 4% to 8% of companies employ an apprentice and only a third of FTSE 100 companies have an apprentice. We have not created a culture of apprenticeships by any means, even though the situation has significantly improved.

What can we do to improve it further? The Government should lead by example. I have said that on a number of occasions and I make no apologies for repeating it. I do not understand why they do not heed that advice. They should demand that wherever they have government or public contracts there should be a commitment for apprenticeships. We did it for the Olympics and we got well over 300 apprentices. We got Crossrail to commit to 400 apprentices. I do not understand why the Government somehow believe that the marketplace will do it. That is not the right way forward and it is something they could demonstrate by leading by example.

If you want to involve more SMEs, giving them £1,500 will not crack the problem. It is a help, but creating more group training associations, where there is a hub that deals with the basic training and administration of apprentices, is a tried and trusted formula. I went on the National Apprenticeship Service website today looking for progress on GTAs. As I read it, I thought that it looked familiar. That is hardly surprising because it is dated October 2009. I know that work is being done, but it is not enough. We need to be driving it harder and further. The same can be said of apprenticeship training associations.

It is a shame that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham is not in his place. He said that skills are not just learnt in the classroom but they are learnt in the workplace. We need to ensure that things like the green investment bank and regional growth funds start to deliver. He gave a good example when he talked about "shovel-ready" jobs in the construction industry. We should be worrying about the fact that we still have a downturn in the construction industry. I also concur with the other right reverend Prelate who talked about the fact that VAT is to be put on the cost of repairing listed buildings, which seems to be a totally self-defeating policy. I hope that the Government are listening and that they recognise the scale and size of the problem of youth unemployment, and will do much more to create more apprenticeships.