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My Lords, I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution to this last day of the Queen’s Speech debate. I refer to my declarations in the register of interests. I also commend my noble friend Lady Sherlock on her excellent opening speech, which clearly laid out the context for this debate on behalf of these Benches.
The first issue I raise is education, and specifically the crucial policy area for the future well-being of our economy: apprenticeships. On this, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, rightly said, the Queen’s Speech is silent. The University of Salford, where I am chair of the board of governors, is rapidly growing its degree apprenticeship provision. Combining degree-level study with on-the-job training, degree apprenticeships are a shining example of the high-quality technical and vocational education that the Secretary of State quite rightly champions as vital to the future economic well-being of the country, but we are not making the most of them. A recent report by Universities UK showed that four in five year 10 to 12 school pupils know “little or nothing” about degree apprenticeships. If young people are not made aware of the different educational opportunities, particularly vocational and technical, they are unable to make informed choices as the Secretary of State so wishes. I therefore encourage the Government to do more to raise the profile of degree apprenticeships among school leavers and their parents.
I cannot speak about apprenticeships without mentioning the apprenticeship levy. Now more than two years old, the objectives of the levy were sound, but the outcomes it has produced are not. The overall number of apprenticeship starts has fallen since the introduction of the levy, and there is a shocking lack of transparency around how firms’ levy contributions are spent. While many big employers report a significant underspend, there is an overspend on the overall apprenticeship budget, meaning limits on the funding made available for non-levy payers, which are predominantly SMEs.
At the University of Salford, we have around 50 SMEs that want to take on apprentices with us, but we have to turn them away because we do not have sufficient funding. This has to change. SMEs cannot be left out in the cold from the degree apprenticeship revolution, and I hope the Government will look at this to enable apprenticeships, at all levels, to be a viable and valued education and training route for businesses and careers.
The second issue I raise is mental health and the reform of the Mental Health Act. I was pleased to be able to contribute to the review of the current Act by Sir Simon Wessely, and I welcome his report. I hope the Government’s response with a White Paper will be published before Christmas, that we will move more quickly to legislation, and that tonight the Minister will allay the fears that we may have to wait at least two years before legislation is introduced into Parliament.
I will highlight just two of Sir Simon’s recommendations as they relate to the criminal justice system. First, recommendation 130 states that,
“Prison should never be used as a ‘place of safety’ for individuals who meet the criteria for detention under the Mental Health Act”.
I agree. This prohibition, like the use of police cells as a place of safety for children—which should of course be extended to adults—must be enacted as a matter of urgency. Secondly, recommendation 132 concerns the transfer of prisoners sectioned under the Mental Health Act from prison to healthcare. It specifically sets a statutory time limit of 28 days broken down into two 14-day periods, the first for assessment and the second for transfer. This is a more realistic and practical proposal than the similar one I made in my report some years ago, but, again, it must be enacted as a matter of urgency. However, both these recommendations rely on urgent investment in appropriate high-quality alternative facilities as places of safety across the country, and investment in NHS secure beds to ensure that the transfer target can be met.
My third point relates to investment in mental health services for children and young people, and particularly for those with special complex needs. The Association of Child Psychotherapists, among many organisations, has suggested that as many as 40% of children with mental health problems have complex conditions—often arising from early trauma or adverse childhood experiences—which are likely to require specialist input. We urgently need a national multidisciplinary commissioning proposal to address the situation as part of the planned investment in mental health services in the NHS long-term plan.
I hope the Minister will be able to respond to each of these points when she concludes this debate.