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My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Monks for instigating this most interesting debate. I remind the House that the previous Labour Government were committed to ensuring that by 2015 there would have been an apprenticeship for every suitably qualified 16 to 17 year-old. There were just 65,000 apprenticeships when Labour came into office but nearly a quarter of a million in 2010. I welcome the fact that the figures for the post-25 age range have gone up since but the statistics, as has been said, for those aged under 19 have fallen and the unemployment rate for 16 to 17 year-olds is far too high.
As my noble friends have said, this is why Labour’s commitments to match the number of school leavers becoming apprentices to the number going to university and for a gold standard vocational tech bacc qualification are so important. Half the UK’s largest companies do not offer apprenticeships, and there is a case for trying to see that every supplier that bids for public contracts over a certain amount is asked to provide apprenticeships and training opportunities. It would mean that companies with good practices would then be on a level playing field with those that did not invest in skills and training.
However, I would like to talk about a group of young people who desperately need attention—those, as the right reverend Prelate has just mentioned, who are not in education, employment or training. It is an issue that has had cross-party consensus, I think possibly due to the fact that it is so difficult. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Young Women’s Trust, which aims to improve the lifelong opportunities for young women by addressing the poverty, inequality and discrimination that many of them face and to give them a forum where their voices can be heard.
In April this year the YWT launched an inquiry focusing on young women who are NEET—I apologise for using the acronym but if I do not use it I will get into trouble with the time limit—because for more than a decade there have been more 18 to 24 year-old women in this bracket than young men. In fact, one in five 18 to 24 year-old women is NEET and that figure is worse in some parts of England. The cause is not motherhood, which is a common perception, because only 24% have children. These young women will be affected for life by this experience but the country is missing out too, as the cost to the Government is more than £1 billion per annum in lower wages, lost taxes and increased benefit bills.
One of the initial results of the inquiry, which is due to finish early next year, has highlighted that these young women feel they have been let down by the career support and advice they have been given. When there are five hair and beauty practitioners chasing a single job, but two jobs for every construction worker, it does not make sense for girls to be three times more likely to be told to become hairdressers when boys are six times more likely to be told to think about IT or plumbing.
One young woman from Birmingham whom the YWT inquiry met said:
“I come from a working class area where it is difficult for girls to get anything but waitressing jobs. Boys get jobs quicker—they can get jobs in building”.
It had never occurred to her that she could get an apprenticeship to work in the building trade herself so that she could get a better paid job too. We need to encourage diversity of aspiration regardless of gender so that all girls can fully contribute to the world they live in.
We should look again at what happened during the building of the Olympic park. The Olympic Delivery Authority started the Women in Construction project to help women access training and employment opportunities on the site, which meant that more than 1,000 women worked on constructing the park and village. It achieved that by adopting an evaluation scorecard which meant that contractors had to address equality and diversity issues if they wanted to win a contract.
“such inequality, especially in a publically-funded scheme, is not acceptable”.
The Government’s changes to the careers service are under attack from all areas, with even the CBI questioning their laissez-faire approach. Careers England says that eight out of 10 schools have dramatically cut the advice they provide. Currently too many young people—boys and girls—are dropping out of education and training. The consensus from Ofsted, the business community and the Education Select Committee is that the current careers advice and guidance provision is inadequate, lacks independence and is failing the young people that need it most.
Ofsted has also identified that too few schools work well enough with local authorities to target guidance for students at risk of becoming NEET. The new Secretary of State for Education—I think with her women’s inequality hat on—said recently in a speech to the Wealth Management Association that the Government were committed to providing better careers advice to young women at school, and I look forward to the Minister giving us more details about that this afternoon. Knowing the options is so important. Teachers are not always best placed to know about workplace opportunities. Young people need to talk to adults who have been through vocational routes, which is why so many of them say they find out through family and friends.
There are also limited opportunities for second chances for young women who are NEET. For example, 55% of young women who are NEET have not received any training or education since they left school, college or university. That is why Labour’s jobs guarantee will help all young people who have been unemployed for a year. Those aged 18 to 25 who have been out of work for 12 months or more would be offered 25 hours of work, preferably in the private sector, on the minimum wage, and the employer would have to guarantee compulsory training. This will go hand in hand with a new settlement for lifelong learning that does not discriminate between academic or vocational routes and, I hope, by gender.