March 12, 2013 - Bill Esterson's Westminster Diary

Bill Esterson



Three apprentices at Maghull Town Council highlighted to me the importance of apprenticeships to young people when I met them recently. I was pleased to see that the Labour-run council in Maghull is playing its part in helping young people improve their skills and job prospects. Last year I met apprentices employed by Sefton Council. The commitment and enthusiasm of the apprentices at Sefton and at Maghull showed just how much potential the young people have in this community. 

Good news indeed for the future.

Having good quality jobs and people with the skills to fill those jobs is an essential part of having a successful economy, which is why apprenticeships are so important to our prospects as a country as well as for the prospects of young people. I was also very pleased to hear about the significant apprenticeship programme at Peel Ports and I look forward to meeting some of the apprentices when I visit the port facilities in the next few weeks.

This week is National Apprenticeship Week. Labour in Government established National Apprenticeship Week in 2008 and to mark the event, on Tuesday Labour is holding a debate on apprenticeships in the House of Commons.

Under the last Labour government we more than quadrupled apprenticeship starts from a woeful 65,000 under the Major Government in 1996/1997 to 280,000 starts in our final year in office. From the 2012 Olympics to Building Schools for the Future projects up and down the country, we linked the creation of apprenticeship placements to public procurement across a number of Government departments. We set up a dedicated National Apprenticeship Service to support and expand apprenticeships. 

But we need to do far more. Two thirds of large employers do not offer any apprenticeships at all in Britain today and this needs to change. There are not nearly enough apprenticeships being offered in the public sector given the billions spent on procurement. And, let’s face it, though employees with vocational and technical skills are as important to the UK’s economy as those who have been to university, as a country, we often do not afford parity of esteem to non-academic qualifications in this country. This all needs to change.

Why? Because, if we are serious about having a One Nation approach to our economy and to our society, then everyone should have a stake and that must include those who do not go on to university. After all, employers are crying out for people with technical and vocational qualifications.

The Tory-Lib Dem Government massively over plays its achievements in this area since coming to office in May 2010. Their strategy has been to go for quantity over quality and they have engaged in statistical trickery on a grand scale, which masks the reality of an apprenticeship drive that has stalled.  For example, Lib Dem Business Secretary, Vince Cable goes around the country boasting that he has created more than one million apprenticeships but much of this has been achieved through re-badging Labour’s Train to Gain scheme as apprenticeships. Too many apprenticeships which have started in the last few years have been short term training programmes and not real apprenticeships. And while there are many people who need the basic literacy and numeracy skills a full apprenticeship is at a very different level. 

The reality that lies behind Ministers’ rhetoric is different from what they tell us. In the last academic year the number of apprenticeships for 16 to 18 year olds has fallen in four out of nine of England’s nine regions and is down by 9,200 overall. The vast bulk of additional apprenticeships since this Government came to office have come in the post-25 age range. It became clear that the number of apprenticeships lasting less than a year was accelerating in 2011 because of the government’s obsession with quantity above all else.

That’s why Labour and stakeholders in the skills sector had to force Ministers to adopt a one year minimum duration for apprenticeships in 2012 in order to protect their quality, although in many trades, it takes many years to gain the skills necessary so one year is still far from long enough for a full apprenticeship.

Shockingly, the Government’s recent apprenticeship pay survey shows that one in five respondents said they had received no training during their apprenticeship, a point which a number of my constituents have raised with me, with 5% saying they received no pay during their apprenticeship. And, it is worth noting the Department for Business Innovation & Skills – itself responsible for the apprenticeship policy – has just one apprentice aged under 19 in a department of over 2,500 staff. This is a hardly leading by example.

What would a future Labour government do? 

Skills are a central part of the One Nation Industrial Strategy we are developing. At last year’s Labour conference we announced the creation of a new technical baccalaureate – it was so good the Government has since adopted it. We also said we would require people to learn Maths and English up to 18.

I am proud that the last Labour government established National Apprenticeship Week in 2008 and we will celebrate it this coming week. Because if we are serious about building a new economic model out of the crash of 2008/9, that means improving our skills as a country. More and better quality apprenticeships are central to that.