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I describe the hon. Gentleman as expert because he is chairman of the all-party skills group, which does a good job of encouraging debate of such matters in a non-partisan way. He and I have enjoyed many conversations on this matter and others. However, his optimism might be ill-founded, given that the review said that the NAS, part of the Learning and Skills Council, will be responsible for the
“achievement of the targets set by Government. This includes determining and publishing the strategy for expanding places by region, sector and age group consistent with the Government’s published national plans.”
If that is not a supply-driven, centrally-based, target-orientated model, I do not know what is. It does not sound responsive to demand, or dynamic in the way that Lord Leitch hoped that the system might be.
I go further. The NAS will be responsible for determining apprenticeships qualifications. By the way, I believe that sector skills councils should have a bigger role. I recommend to the Committee an excellent paper that I wrote with my adviser Dr. Scott Kelly, who is an even greater expert on the subject than the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, which is entitled “Towards a gold standard for craft: guaranteeing professional apprenticeships”. In it, we reinforce, or perhaps borrow from—having been immodest, I move straight into my modest mode—Lord Leitch’s view. It is clear that sector skills councils, as bodies that are linked closely to employers, are best placed to fulfil precisely the role that is now to be put in the hands of the NAS. In other words, it is about anticipating demand, transmitting that demand to the people who provide skills—the various agencies that train people—and ensuring that the qualifications are best suited to changing skills needs.
I am alarmed that the new review weakens the role of sector skills councils in the process. That will weaken those aspects of the Bill that require a robust apprenticeship system to provide the training necessary, given the compulsion that lies at the heart of the Bill.
The creation of the NAS adds to the confusion. There is already a confusing array of organisations with overlapping responsibilities crowding the skills sector. The NAS will be responsible for a national information and marketing service for apprenticeships. That is in addition to the careers and training advice that is already provided by schools and colleges, local authorities, the Connexions service, the proposed new adult careers and advice service, and skills brokers as part of Train to Gain. A litany of organisations advise young people in which direction to travel in order to fulfil their statutory duty, but I am not sure that the advice received will be consistent or always helpful.
As far back as 2001, the Cassells review recommended that the apprenticeship system should be led by employers, with training providers acting only as apprenticeship agents with a clearly defined role. In 2002, the Learning and Skills Council announced that it accepted that recommendation, but it has never been implemented.
We could debate apprenticeships all day, but I do not want to delay the Committee unduly—except to say, for the avoidance of doubt, that I am a passionate supporter of vocational education and training. I admire the apprenticeship system, which, at its best, produces superb training. It a world-recognised brand, and we must not see it diluted in any way, shape or form. Some of the best apprenticeships, such as those of BT, Rolls-Royce and Honda, are the envy of the world, but unless we underpin the Bill, without sacrificing rigour, by ensuring that sufficient apprenticeship places are available, we will be short-changing potential trainees and British business. Neither of those is acceptable.
I trust that the Under-Secretary, who has hared to his place, has assembled his notes. I have resisted my instinct to abridge my remarks to give him sufficient time to pull his notes together. I hope that he will recognise the amendment as an important safeguard. I think that he knows that if the terms of the amendment are not met, the Bill simply will not work.