MPs and peers launch new all-party group for apprentices

Nik Darlington 11.47am

I have just been to the inaugural meeting of the APPG for Apprentices, which is to be chaired by the Lib Dem MP for Burnley, Gordon Birtwhistle.

The straight-talking 68-year-old Birtwhistle is an appropriate choice to lead the new all-party group, having begun his working life as an apprentice engineer in the 1950s.

What surprises me is why MPs have waited until now to set up such a group. Apprentices have been strong on the parliamentary radar, with the Government investing much time, effort and resources in expanding apprenticeship opportunities and numerous MPs now employing their own apprentices.

A jokey verbal joust even broke out between two of the group’s newly appointed vice-chairmen about who had been the first MP to employ an apprentice. Guy Opperman (C, Hexham) pronounced it to have been him, though this was contested by Catherine McKinnell (Lab, Newcastle-upon-Tyne North), the shadow solicitor-general. Proof that competition in the public sector is a healthy thing?

Whoever of the two is right, the number of MPs employing apprentices in Parliament and in their constituencies is large and growing, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Parliamentary Academy, an organisation set up not so long ago by Conservative MP Rob Halfon and the journalist Martin Bright.

The Government has been offering incentive payments to businesses to encourage the taking on of apprentices. The policy has created hundreds of thousands of apprenticeship places already and it is hoped further tens of thousands will be created over the next year. As evidence of the effect the policy is having, the number of people starting apprenticeships increased by more than 60 per cent in 2010-11, to a total of 457,200.

Much has been done but with youth unemployment such a concern, clearly more needs to be done. As Mr Birtwhistle said today, still too often youngsters see apprenticeships as something you do if you fail to get into university. On the contrary, he said robustly, “universities should be what you go to if you fail to get an apprenticeship!”

Information, advice and guidance about the apprenticeship route needs to be better and more widely available, something mentioned today by Stella English, a former winner of the BBC’s The Apprentice.

So an all-party group for apprentices is long overdue, and it is not quite off the ground yet, but it is a very encouraging step in the right direction and Egremont wishes it all the very best.