My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to participate in this important debate secured by my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green. Once upon a time in Haringey we had Tottenham Technical College, where our young people did apprenticeships as car mechanics, bricklayers, hairdressers, dressmakers, plumbers and carpenters. They were on day release and so on. The discipline and skills they acquired helped not only their own careers and families but everyone on and around the Broadwater Farm estate, especially when the council put forward a plan to pull down their homes amid tensions on the estate.
They organised professionally and persuaded the council to work with them to keep the estate open. They took leadership positions in the residents’ association and set up a youth association to tackle anti-social behaviour. They reopened closed shops and set up an enterprise workshop, a co-op store, a nursery and a mothers’ project. Help and recognition came from all over, including from our councillors, the late Bernie Grant, Jeremy Corbyn, who is now my leader, and a government Minister for Inner Cities, Sir George Young—now the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. They recognised that the youth and the work they were doing needed encouragement. I organise alongside these dynamic young people, so I know the importance of employer-led training, both to improve life chances and to meet our growing skills gaps. For these reasons, it is imperative that Labour continues to support the apprenticeship levy.
That said, we are all aware that the current government apprenticeship programme has attracted significant criticism, including from the National Audit Office, for its ongoing failure to attract applicants—numbers have declined by 120,000—and to provide social progression and diversity. This is despite the Department for Education meeting its targets to widen participation among underrepresented groups, such as black, Asian and minority ethnic apprentices, as well as those with learning difficulties, disabilities or health problems. The reason for the criticism is that the targets set by the DfE lack ambition and are not sufficiently stretching. For example, the target for starts by BAME apprentices, at 11.9%, is lower than the working-age BAME proportion of England’s population, at 14.9%, and much lower than the proportion of BAME pupils at the end of key stage 4, which is 20.7%.
The Public Accounts Committee has also called on the Government to prevent the apprenticeship levy system being misused by businesses to upskill existing employees. I would be grateful if the Minister could please explain: first, what steps are the Government taking to set and meet more challenging targets to increase the number of apprenticeships started by underrepresented groups; and secondly, what work is being undertaken to understand the barriers to entry for each different segment of these underrepresented groups?
A second reason why criticism has been levelled at apprenticeships is that there has been a marked shift from intermediate and advanced-level apprenticeships to higher-level, more academic apprenticeships, which take the place of HE undergraduate degrees or simply upskill young people already in work. The proportion of starts at advanced level or higher has steadily been increasing, from 37% in 2011-12 to 57% in 2017-18. Given that a range of voices—trade unions, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Sutton Trust and so on—are calling for the Government to make changes, please could the Minister explain: first, what are the Government doing to tackle the significant decline in level 2 and 3 apprenticeship starts; and secondly, how do they plan to address the recommendations made by the Federation of Small Businesses, which, in its recent Fit for the Future report, said that the Government need to reduce the administrative burden to address a sharp decline in apprenticeships being offered by small and local businesses?
The unions have always argued that the Government’s apprenticeship scheme is profoundly unfair because it excludes young people without five GCSEs at grades A to C. This immediately presents an advantage to people from privileged family backgrounds over those in poverty. In view of the findings of the Government’s recent race disparity audit, can the Minister outline what the Government are doing to break down systemic and structural barriers to entry into apprenticeships? In particular, will the Minister confirm whether he has explored a personalised budget approach to apprenticeships, in which every young person has access to a fixed amount of funding to obtain whatever level of apprenticeship experience they need?
The unions have also run a national campaign arguing for apprentices to be paid fairly, so that young people from low-income households are not priced out of the scheme. Given that businesses such as Ikea already pay their apprentices the real living wage—£9 per hour with a London-weighted uplift of £1.55—will the Minister confirm when the Government plan to adopt the real living wage across the apprenticeship scheme?