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My Lords, I am going to be the 20th person to congratulate my noble friend Lord Haskel on the superb subject that he has raised. I echo what my noble friend Lord Soley said. The passion and resolution in my noble friend Lord Haskel’s speeches are always inspiring. This debate is closely linked with the debate in this House on Tuesday on productivity. I am not the first person to say this, but when one is 20th on the list it is difficult to say unique things, but I will do my best.
For me, some elements of productivity in the UK are absolutely tied in with British growth. I want to concentrate on the difference that well-led and well-trained staff, at all levels in businesses, make to the success of those businesses and how they consequently make a difference to the British economy. This is even more important following the period of austerity. Indeed, some of us would say that this period still pertains.
The Labour Government set rigorous goals for apprenticeships. I am delighted that the Conservative Government, like the coalition Government, are carrying on with this vision and, in fact, starting to deliver. The Labour Government worked closely with employers and trade unions, and I was delighted at the time to be heavily involved in the setting up of what was really the kernel of all this: the sector skills councils. Many of those councils, including SEMTA, led the way in working with employers to understand and value the difference that trained staff could make to their bottom line. Many of these businesses contribute hugely to the GDP.
In my view, the British economy still struggles in many ways to benefit fully from the contributions of small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government struggle with how to support these businesses and recognise the contribution they make to growth. Many issues still prevent SMEs growing as they would want to.
Some noble Lords who spoke today also spoke in Tuesday’s debate on productivity. They may well think that what I am talking about should have been said in Tuesday’s debate. However, I make no apology for focusing on it. As my noble friend Lord Solely and other contributors today have said, without good productivity, British growth will not happen and certainly will not be increased. Higher apprenticeships and apprenticeships really belong in the productivity area but, as I have already said, make the difference between a business being very successful or mediocre—and mediocre businesses sometimes fail, and certainly do not contribute for employers or the UK economy.
I am not worried at all about focusing on the overlap between a productive United Kingdom workforce and the British economy beyond austerity. That is the link I am making in this debate. Will the Minister assure us that the apprenticeship numbers the Government have suggested they are going to achieve will be achieved? The emphasis the Government have put on the employer paying towards this is absolutely superb. It was not what the Labour Government did, but the ownership of apprenticeships has become much more valuable because the employer feels that they are in charge and will benefit from recognising what that skilled workforce brings to their bottom line.
Finally, I want to talk about the gains that such a workforce makes through its contribution not only to business and the economy but to the overall nature and culture of our country. I echo what a number of my colleagues have said already: when people are in work that gives them satisfaction and feel that they can make a difference, the whole culture of the business, and consequently the whole culture of the UK economy, changes.