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I congratulate my noble friend Lady Stroud, whom I have known and worked with for some time, on her maiden speech. We worked at the CSJ on Breakdown Britain and Breakthrough Britain, and I compliment her on identifying not just problems but the solutions that make a real difference to the lives of people. She is committed, knowledgeable and incisive regarding the issues and the solutions we need to put in place. This House will be the richer for her contribution and involvement. From all my dealings with her, the one thing I would say is that she is very good at challenging herself and her colleagues—and, I hope, the whole House—to do that which is best for those who need us most.
I support the principles behind this welfare Bill. While I am sure that it will have been quoted many times, I fully support the objective of doing all we can to move our country and the individuals in it from a low-wage, high-tax and high-welfare society to a higher-wage, lower-tax, lower-welfare economy. This principle will ensure that work always pays more than a life on benefits and that support is focused on the most vulnerable in a way that they need. We must not miss the point that the system must be fair, as Lord Blencathra explained, to all those who have put in and those who receive the help they need. I do not mean being fair to one group at the expense of another; I mean basic fairness.
We heard about China tonight. I am thankful that we live in a democracy that allows everybody in this House to stand up and say exactly how they see the situation. People listen, and some people’s views may well be changed, but we need to make sure we work together to get the best of this Bill for those who need it most.
I will focus on apprenticeships. Clause 2 introduces a duty to report annually on the progress being made towards the Government’s ambitious target of 3 million apprenticeships being started in England during this Parliament. That figure is ambitious, but we have to be ambitious for the people we want to take part in apprenticeships. However, our ambitions must not stop at the quantity of apprenticeships; we must also consider their quality.
It is encouraging to know that in development are more than 140 Trailblazer groups, involving more than 1,300 employers and 187 published approved apprenticeship standards. Of these, more than 60 are higher and degree apprenticeships, and more than 160 are new, approved English apprenticeship standards. Provisional data show that during the last Parliament, there were 2.3 million apprenticeship starts, of which more than 600,000—26%—were taken by 16 to 18 year-olds. We need to build capacity for more 16 to 18 year-olds in approved apprenticeships.
For me, apprenticeships have three benefits: for the participants, for the employers and for the economy. I will talk about the participants. Apprenticeships are part of the journey of people who want and need to make a successful transition from education to employment. I have spoken many times in this House about the need to take young people on a journey and support them. Apprenticeships introduce young people in particular to the world of work. They do not just produce work experience but, most important, they provide real experience of the world of work and give young people the necessary skills.
Research by London Economics shows that the lifetime benefits associated with apprenticeships at Levels 2 and 3 are significant: between £48,000 and £74,000 for Level 2, and between £77,000 and £117,000 for Level 3. Higher apprentices can earn up to £150,000 more, on average, over their lifetime than those with just vocational qualifications. I am a great believer in evaluating programmes. In 2014 an apprenticeship evaluation showed that 89% of apprentices were satisfied with their apprenticeship; 85% said that their ability to do the job had improved; and 83% said that their career prospects had improved. Apprenticeships are good for apprentices. Nine out of 10 of all apprenticeship completers—88%—are in either full or part-time employment, seven out of 10 with the same employer.
Secondly, apprenticeships are good for employers. According to the 2014 apprenticeship evaluation, 82% of employers were satisfied with the programme, while 70% reported that apprenticeships had improved the quality of their product or service. That is an excellent basis on which to build to ensure that quality as well as quantity is maintained. I fully accept that larger employers have the capacity and infrastructure to accommodate and support apprenticeships. I am pleased at the number of SMEs that are giving such opportunities, but sometimes they do not have the capacity and infrastructure to do as well as they want. Are we doing enough to support SMEs to make sure that they play their full role and give young people the opportunities that they should? I would also like to encourage the whole public sector to open their minds more to providing apprenticeship roles.
Thirdly, the economy as a whole benefits from apprenticeships, as people are upskilled and make a good transition from education to employment and understand how they can play their full role in the business. That helps our economy to continue to grow.
In summary, we have a welfare Bill that aims to ensure that we do better for people. I am sure we will have a big debate about the rights and wrongs of that, but let us not only have the debate but find some really good solutions, so that many who start their journey can, with our support, complete it and reach a good destination. Apprenticeships are a key, fundamental part of that journey, and quality is important. None of these things will happen unless employers, particularly SMEs, are able to deliver good quality apprenticeships and, as a result, a good economy.
I look forward to the continuing debate and, with some trepidation, to the continuing challenge. But I hope that the hearts of every one of us will beat in concert, and at the end of the day we will do the right thing for the people whom we in this House are here to serve.