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My Lords, as a newbie just completing my first year in your Lordships’ House, this feels a little like my apprenticeship, especially under the watchful eye of my noble friend Lord Stevenson and the departmental lead, my noble friend Lord Watson.
Apprenticeships can be a fantastic route into secure and meaningful work, and I am pleased that there seems to be a consensus on this across the House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, said, the aim of the scheme is laudable. However, there are simply not enough apprenticeships available, and many of those which are available are simply not of a high enough standard.
Too many apprenticeships are secured by older people rather than school leavers, as my noble friend Lord Layard mentioned earlier. The gender balance is not being achieved, and the shape of the curriculum, particularly at degree level, is obscured, as touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. Also, concerns have been raised that particularly few apprenticeships have been taken up by those with disabilities, as well as by care leavers, LGBT people and those with a BME background, as noted earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and my noble friend Lady Osamor. Can the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to set targets to increase apprenticeships for people from often disadvantaged groups?
The wider issue of numbers is disappointing, particularly as many feel that the Government’s apprenticeship policy has focused too heavily on quantity without ensuring that those who engage in the apprenticeship scheme emerge with qualifications that not only benefit them but are recognised by employers. With the Government missing the mark on numbers of apprentices, it seems that they have little concern for apprenticeship completion or outcomes for learners, as was touched on by many noble Lords.
We must also remember that apprentices deserve a strong standard of on-the-job training, and that apprenticeships should not be used by employers simply as a way of paying workers less than the ordinary minimum wage. I am sure that many in the House will be aware of stories in the press about substandard schemes and the inquiry by the Commons Education Select Committee late last year, which found that many apprentices are not getting the high-quality training they deserve.
The Minister may be aware of the Labour shadow Education Secretary’s proposal that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education report on an annual basis to the Secretary of State on the quality outcomes of completed apprenticeships to ensure that they deliver skilled workers for employers and real jobs for apprentices at the end of their training. Have the Government made any assessment of this proposal?
I turn to the apprenticeship levy. On this side of the House, as noble Lords have heard, we support the levy and understand the value it can bring to creating more apprenticeships. However, as many noble Lords have touched upon, we have a number of concerns about the implementation of the scheme. From a business perspective, it would be welcome if the Government allowed employers more flexibility in how the levy is deployed, including allowing it to be used for pre-apprenticeship programmes. For example, the creative industries play a crucial role in creating wealth for the country, but, as they have been saying for several years, the sector is predominantly freelance and cannot offer traditional apprenticeships. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will look into this? Recognising the role of small and medium-sized employers, which do not pay the levy, I would be grateful for confirmation that the £440 million funding for apprenticeships in this regard will be protected.
Remaining on the issue of education and training, it is disappointing that despite claiming to be committed to delivering high-quality training, the Government have cut funding for further education colleges, our main providers of adult and vocational education, while reducing entitlement for adult learners. The result, inevitably, has been diminishing numbers of courses and students. Ultimately, we need free, lifelong education in further education colleges, enabling everyone to upskill or retrain at any point in life, and also providing alternative routes into higher education—a system found in many other advanced economies but not the UK.
Our skills and training sectors have also been held back by repeated reorganisation, as my noble friend Lord Monks touched on earlier, which deprives providers, learners and employers of the consistency they need to assess quality and to deliver further and better outcomes. The Government need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and focus on the funding issues around this. A number of noble Lords and noble friends mentioned the Augar report. Will the Minister confirm that the recommendations of the report are being considered?
Moving on to the broader issue of workplace opportunities and conditions, I suggest that noble friends across the House consider the recent Stuck at the Start report by the TUC, which identified five issues that young workers face in getting ahead at work. The report notes that they are disproportionately affected by wage stagnation, in low-paying jobs, lacking access to skills development, vulnerable to insecure work, and in need of a voice at work. Apprenticeships can be a solution to many of these problems, but there needs to be more of them, and they need to be of a high enough quality.
I will touch briefly on workers’ rights. According to the Living Wage Foundation, more than 1 million young adults lack adequate working hours and pay to make ends meet, with millions of workers facing cancelled shifts. Trade union membership can and should be promoted to offer a collective voice for young workers to overcome these issues. In unionised workplaces the worst excesses and exploitations just do not exist. This is to the benefit of everyone: management, the workforce, and trade unions. The UK could begin by guaranteeing trade union representation in the governance structures of the Institute for Apprenticeships, and look at working with the National Union of Students, which campaigns on issues relating to the education which apprentices receive.
I will conclude with the opening arguments of my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green. If Her Majesty’s Government can ensure that apprenticeships are well delivered, of a high enough educational standard, and run for the benefit of both the employer and apprentice, they will, as the 2012 Richard review stated, bring many benefits: to the economy, to employers and, most importantly, to individual apprentices, by providing a ladder into meaningful employment. On that I am sure the whole House can agree.