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Apprenticeships: SMEs — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:47 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) (Europe) 1:47 pm, 13th February 2020

It is always a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi for raising this crucial debate. It is particularly important to me, as a former engineering apprentice who came through this process.

I left school with CSEs, and I walked into the careers office one day and they said, “What do you want to do?” I was not sure whether I wanted to stay on or do something else. My dad worked for BSA in Birmingham, where they made motorcycles and firearms. It was one of the biggest motorcycle manufacturers in the world at the time, but unfortunately only a few are now made, in Meriden—not as many are manufactured in the United Kingdom as we would like. I explained what my dad did as a capstan setter operator—that is probably a foreign language to most people in the Chamber, but he operated a repetitive component-manufacturing machine. They said, “Oh, right. Do you want to go into an engineering apprenticeship scheme?” and I said yes, so they offered a year of off-the-job full-time training at Garretts Green Technical College, a local college that no longer exists. Within six months of starting, we were offered interviews, and I was privileged to be offered an apprenticeship at Delta Metals, Delta Tubes as it was then, which unfortunately no longer exists, either. I made my way through various phases of that and ended up at Birmingham Polytechnic, which also no longer exists in that form and is now Birmingham City University. I learned a huge amount about engineering and afterwards I was able to set up a small manufacturing and engineering company with my friend Mr Olley, who is a great friend to this day. That allowed us to move forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough said, it allowed me to move forward as an individual, perhaps above the position that I had been in, and to grow up, both physically and in terms of my skills. It was a huge opportunity.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Slough about what the Government are doing at the moment with the levy, and about the onerous conditions the levy puts on the employer, as it stands. Employers are under a huge amount of pressure to try to conform to something that they cannot. They find it very difficult to come to terms with some factors, as eloquently explained by my hon. Friend.

If we are going to look at upgrading more people, particularly post Brexit, we need a far greater understanding of the engineering and manufacturing sector. Of course, the services sector is important, but we cannot rely on it alone given the downturns we have had in overall GDP when the financial sector collapsed. Germany does not suffer as much because it has a huge engineering and manufacturing sector, which acts as a boost and a steady hand. Now, with our independent status, we need to have more of that independence ourselves, to be able to move forward.

I will say a couple of things about a success story in my constituency, Mr Davies. The Engineering Employers’ Federation has a training school for engineers that takes on young people, both with and without qualifications, and provides apprenticeships that take them to the highest level. The engineering college was set up almost seven years ago by EEF using a levy from its members, above the apprenticeship levy, to provide the capital costs. I am happy to show the shadow Minister and the Minister around, should they wish to visit; a number of Ministers and others have already done so.

The initiative is a tribute to engineering and manufacturing. It started with about 300 apprentices; there are now four times that number. The majority of the commitment has come from local employers in the sector, who have put in a huge amount of the capital costs. The college still cannot get capital costs from the Government. As one would imagine, training in engineering requires practical lessons so people can operate the different machinery and equipment. Those involved have done a superb job putting the college together. I encourage the Minister to look at how we support engineering and manufacturing to move forward with the right sort of apprenticeships.

Our technical colleges used to do that, but there are now very few of them. There is only one real college, South and City College, Birmingham, that does any real manufacturing, engineering and building construction training at all. We are at a loss to get new engineers to come forward and to develop an understanding of the practices needed for people grow their skills. Two or three people from different disciplines in engineering can set up a company to create something, just as I did with my friend Mike Olley. That makes the growth; it is what makes the country grow.

We have not had that type of training for too long—since the 1980s, when Delta Metals was closed down and bought up by a company for its order book. I am not being parochial about this at all, but all our equipment was bought up. At that time, there were three manufacturers of copper tubes: IMI, Wednesbury Tube and Delta Tubes. We were sold because we were the most advanced. All of our equipment was taken to China and installed there. We were years ahead of Wednesbury Tube, which is now owned by a Swiss company. IMI still just about exists. We lost our capacity, but then there are complaints about being flooded with foreign goods. If we do not train our own people and if we do not have the capacity in engineering and manufacturing, that is what happens. We lose that market.

Following the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, I am pleading for us to have that capacity. We want to move our people forward, and for our country to have a strong base in engineering and manufacturing in the economy. That is important because we are now independent and moving forward on our own. The shadow Minister has done some great work in this job; I commend her for the interest she has taken. I am sure she will continue to do that, particularly in engineering and manufacturing, which is a subject close to my heart. I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Slough for raising this issue and for his great work.