HL Deb 25 January 2005 vol 668 cc1135-8

2.43 p.m.

Lord Harrison: asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to promote opportunities for apprenticeships and work experience for those training to acquire skills in the United Kingdom's construction industry.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, we are expanding and improving both apprenticeships and work experience opportunities and engaging more employers to offer apprenticeships, including in construction. Construction is one of the priority sectors developing new sector skills agreements, which set out how the industry skills base will be improved. Apprenticeships and work experience will play a major role in achieving the goal of an all-qualified construction workforce by 2010.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging Answer. First, will the Government extend the successful pilot programme called OSAT, which is concerned with onsite training and assessment of apprentices in the construction industry, so that we can provide the 500,000 new recruits that we need each year in this important and vital industry? Secondly, will the Government help to rationalise the gathering of data for labour market intelligence and skills assessment, which currently falls among four separate government agencies and departments?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that the initiative that he described a moment ago will continue. Because of the need for the half million further trained experts within the next six years within the industry, that programme will be very important. In all these areas, we are very reliant for intelligence on employers in the industry. Nobody knows what is needed in the industry in the medium and long term better than those who have to address that industry from a commercial point of view. Although a number of government agencies are indeed involved, they come together through the sector skills councils, where the evidence of employers is foremost.

Baroness Morris of Bolton

My Lords, this country is crying out for more plumbers, joiners and skilled tradesmen. Surely one of the best ways in which to encourage apprenticeships is to confer status and standing on practical vocational skills. Does not the Government risk sending out the wrong message with their obsession to push 50 per cent of young people into universities?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the aspiration for 50 per cent of young people to qualify themselves to the highest possible level cannot be a bad one. However, the need is plain: we need more people with the skills that have just been described, and the sector skills councils are absolutely vital in that. They will reach skills agreements which will go to the heart of the programme, as is happening in construction. I have been astonished to find that the Official Opposition plan to abolish the councils that provide the employers with exactly the means that they seek to shape training, to put funding and training into operation and to offer routes to employment and career progression for young people. That must be one of the most surprising pieces of policy that anyone has heard of.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, could the Minister say what the Government are doing to encourage young people to complete the apprentice courses? I understand that both on the basic and on the advanced course the drop-out rate is about 50 per cent. On the employers' side, could the Government say whether they are convinced that they are reaching the right people, with the employer training pilot? Is it really reaching the SMEs that need assistance with training, or is it just going to the multinationals?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, construction completion rates are a cause for concern. However, there is a contrast to the improving standards for apprenticeship programmes as a whole. As a result of those improving standards, the number of those who drop out has been falling, from 60 per cent in 2002 to 34 per cent in 2004. The industry itself is made up in large part of very small firms, some of them micro-firms, unable to operate apprenticeship schemes on their own. We have tried to get the larger firms to use the firms downstream of them to provide apprenticeships, but with the larger firms co-ordinating and providing the content. That way, we are most likely to be able to deliver.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the important work of National Grid Transco in training young offenders in custody in the repair and laying of pipes and in fork-lift driving, and of the very low rates of recidivism in those young men when they leave custody? What plans are there to expand that scheme to fill the gaps in the construction workforce to which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, alluded?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I am grateful to have been asked that question. I am aware of the scheme and there are plans to encourage it. Perhaps I could draw the attention of the House to one other scheme which illustrates very well the point made by the noble Earl. The Whitefriars Housing Group in Coventry, which owns and manages 20,000 homes, has an apprenticeship scheme for young people who are on the edge of serious criminal activity. Those young people, with a 90 per cent absentee record at school, have a 99 per cent attendance record at work. Indeed, one individual who was described as a one-person crime wave has just been awarded the apprenticeship of the year.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, has the Minister considered the German experience where examinations for apprenticeships are done externally, where written reports are produced and where plumbers put their qualifications on the side of their vans? Could we not aim to do that?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the House knows that apprenticeships constitute structured programmes of training which lead to recognised qualifications, giving the young people who take those apprenticeships the opportunity to work with an employer, to learn on the job, to build up knowledge and skills and to gain qualifications. It would be very good news if people put their qualifications on the sides of their vans.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I declare an interest as a past vice-president of the National House Building Council. What percentage of women are going in for this training? They are eminently suited to undertake these highly skilled jobs.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I do not have the overall figure for women as regards the 22,000 construction industry apprenticeships that are currently on offer, but I will write to the noble Baroness and provide it. I am told that the number and the proportion of women are going up. I believe that is also the case as regards other groups from ethnic minorities that have been under represented.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the shortage due to the fact that employers will not employ apprentices or to the fact that apprentices are not paid enough to go into the job?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, happily, the number of apprentices in the construction industry is going up. There is every reason to believe that it will continue to go up. The fundamental thing for all these apprentices is that their aspirations are met by the courses they take, and that their abilities match them to real needs in the market so that they can see that they have a viable future. All of those factors are combining. That is a rather good news story for the United Kingdom.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does my noble friend acknowledge that the Coventry-based Whitefriars Housing Group, which he has already mentioned, has been highly successful in recruiting apprentices from the ethnic minority groups in the local areas?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, that is quite true. It has been particularly successful in doing so. That was one of its aspirations. I mentioned the other aspiration in an earlier answer. Although I need to check a little further, I believe that I could make the same assertion about its recruitment of women.