My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Young on this initiative and securing this important debate on apprenticeships. I also welcome the generally positive, constructive tone on apprenticeships and the role they play in our society, which I think all speakers have demonstrated in their contributions. There has been plenty of critical support, and plenty of criticism, but overall this has been given in the context of supporting more being done and improved systems being developed for delivering apprenticeships.
As my noble friend Lord Layard said, vocational training has not been a British success story for some time. Institutions have come and gone. In my working life, I have been associated with: the industrial training boards; the Manpower Services Commission, which was a bit of a favourite of mine until it got swamped by high unemployment, which it had to concentrate on; and, in England, the Learning and Skills Council, which flared briefly before it was put to sleep. They all started brightly and enthusiastically, with good people driving them, but all have ended up in the Whitehall graveyard, having been regarded as institutional failures, with a lot of bewilderment out there about what vocational training and education really is and what institutions are around to deliver it. As several noble Lords have said, the contrast with higher education is absolutely glaring.
As we consider the current review of the apprenticeship levy, it is important to remember that we have a record of failures. It is important to ensure that we learn from those and that the current initiative does not end up in some gloomy Whitehall graveyard. It does not deserve to do so, despite some clear problems which have been referred to. The levy was a bold idea and an ambitious intervention in the British labour market in an era when there were not many interventions, except against trade unions. It needs buttressing and some determined, enthusiastic support in this review to establish the objective of an apprenticeship culture and a clear system in our society and our country. I am not surprised that there have been problems, but I hope they do not weaken government or industry support for developing and pushing forward the apprenticeship route.
I know of some of these problems from the TUC, with which I am associated. One problem that has not been mentioned so far is the fact that some employers are frankly exploiting some apprentices. According to the Government’s own survey of apprentices’ pay, one in five are not receiving the legal minimum of £3.50 per hour. In some sectors the picture is far worse, with particular black spots being hairdressing, childcare, construction, health and social care and, perhaps surprisingly, sport.
In addition to these wage problems, there are other financial barriers. Many young people from lower-income families face pressure not to participate in an apprenticeship because eligibility for child benefit ends when they take one up, which is not the case if the young person continues in school or college. I certainly do not want to convey the impression that apprentices are being widely abused—they are not—but breaches of the rules are widespread enough to damage the attractiveness of apprenticeships in the eyes of some young people and their parents. Marketing people would say that the brand is being damaged if the backsliders are not brought into line.
Another area of concern, which others have touched on, is the quality of the training provided on some schemes. Astonishingly, the Government’s own survey found that 30% of apprentices were not even aware that they were apprentices and that they were on a course. I found that absolutely astounding. Many in this category are in the poorer-quality schemes, or sometimes are existing employees recruited into an apprenticeship to upgrade their skills. The Government’s move to regulate that apprenticeships must last at least 12 months has been a very welcome step and eliminated the very short apprenticeships that were developing rather quickly. It has undoubtedly reduced the quantity of apprentices, but I would choose quality over quantity in this respect every time. The average duration is now 17 months—still much less than the average in high-quality European neighbouring countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
It was a few years ago now, but I visited a motor mechanics’ training centre in Vienna, supported by all the major car manufacturers with their dealerships in that city and region of Austria. They had wonderful facilities. What really surprised me was that most of the teaching was done in English, to level 2 and level 3 young people. They were working in English because the drawings, handbooks and so on were in that language. We should be aiming at raising our standards to these levels. That is the central task.
In addition, I would like to see widening access so that women, black and ethnic minorities and the disabled get a chance to access high-quality schemes, not just the ones at the lower end. Currently, only 4% of engineering apprentice starts are women, and women and girls are disproportionately found in the lower-paid sectors, such as hairdressing and social care. This problem needs urgent attention.
I hope the Government will bear the many constructive points made in the debate in mind as they conduct this review. They must not throw the baby out with the bathwater, though, and instead concentrate their efforts on raising the status, and increasing the attractiveness, of apprenticeships. This means tackling abuses and low standards and developing a clear route so that teachers, parents and young people understand the way to go. It means working closely with unions and educational bodies and, of course, with better employers, who are crucial to raising the standards of the various offers. It also means being flexible and responsive to the points raised by employers about the administration of the scheme, for example by relaxing the time limits of when employers have to spend their levy payments, perhaps beyond the current 24-month limit.
Getting the balance right between flexibility and good administration is not easy and there is always a risk of abuse by the unscrupulous, but our basic message should be to rally round the great cause of promoting effective apprenticeships. Do not consign the concept to that Whitehall graveyard of failed institutions on vocational learning. It will take time to develop a culture in which an apprenticeship is the natural way for many people to go and equal to the best the academic world can provide, but let us apply ourselves with patience and skill to bringing about this much-needed change.