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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 2, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 02 March 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2017, Child Protection Improvement Programme, Scottish Patient Safety Programme, Criminal Finances Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Contents


Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2017

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-03731, in the name of Fulton MacGregor, on Scottish apprenticeship week 2017. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2017 will take place from 6 to 10 March with the theme, Apprenticeships are Changing; understands that it aims to celebrate the benefits that apprenticeships and work-based learning bring to employers and businesses in Coatbridge and across Scotland, with events and activity taking place throughout the week; recognises the achievements made by apprentices and the value they add to the country’s workforce; notes that the week supports targets to create 30,000 modern apprenticeship places each year as well as the introduction of foundation and graduate level apprenticeships; notes the encouragement given to members to get involved by visiting an apprenticeship employer or training provider in their area, and wishes success to all of the employers, training providers and apprentices involved in the week’s activities.

12:49  

I thank all members who supported the motion and all those who have stayed in the chamber to debate it today. I also welcome representatives from Skills Development Scotland who are in the public gallery for the debate.

Next week is apprenticeship week, and all members will have been invited to visit a local organisation involved with Skills Development Scotland. I am looking forward to visiting the Simon Community Scotland in Coatbridge, a fantastic organisation working to eradicate homelessness, with which I have been involved previously. I encourage any member who has not already arranged a visit to get in touch with SDS and get involved.

Everyone agrees that apprenticeships are a vital part of supporting our young people into work and that the extra investment and focus over the past decade has transformed apprenticeships across the board. Countries with well-developed vocational learning systems and significant employer engagement have the lowest levels of youth unemployment, so by investing in modern apprenticeships we are heading in the right direction. It is also good that we are providing more opportunities for young people who feel that college or university is not for them.

Although it is welcome that more apprenticeships are available, we must focus now on ensuring that more young people from black and ethnic minority communities are encouraged to sign up. As colleagues will know, I am the convener of the cross-party group on racial equality and at our most recent meeting there was a lot of discussion among members about the lack of access to apprenticeships for black and ethnic minority young people.

Apprenticeships are a vital part of building a stronger Scotland and ensuring that we have a talented, multi-skilled workforce that will help build our economy. It is in all our interests to ensure that modern apprenticeships are easily and equally accessible to all Scotland’s young people. At the moment, BEM people in our society face many challenges in obtaining modern apprenticeships. The Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights carried out research that shows that young BEM people are six times less likely to undertake a modern apprenticeship than young white people. When looking specifically at Asian and African, Caribbean and black young people, that increases to nine times less likely.

Therefore, I am delighted that Skills Development Scotland has launched an action plan to encourage more BEM young people into modern apprenticeships. The plan proposes to expand the range of career opportunities and increase the number of modern apprenticeships available to BEM people.

To achieve that, Scotland must improve the capacity within employer networks to embrace positive action recruitment practices. There must also be an effort to increase engagement with the female BEM community, involving more young BEM women in apprenticeships. Training providers must be able to identify good practice and be better prepared to recruit and support BEM young people on SDS programmes.

The equalities action plan ensures that the number of individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds who are apprentices will increase to equal the population share by 2021. The action plan will support BME young people in building successful futures and will contribute to businesses across Scotland.

Another area in which more must be done is in ensuring access to apprenticeships for young people who have been in care. That links in well with the Government’s review of the looked-after and accommodated system. When I met Skills Development Scotland last week I was very pleased to hear that it is committed to ensuring that support is in place to help care leavers into modern apprenticeships, including, for example, by extending the age limit for care leavers to 29.

The theme of the awareness week is “apprenticeships are changing” and it aims to highlight the work being done to adapt apprenticeships to modern times. I was interested to learn a little about the new foundation apprenticeships and graduate apprenticeships being introduced. Foundation apprenticeships are a very exciting prospect as they engage young people while they are still at school, allowing them to pick up valuable experience before the time comes when they need to find a job.

We all know young people who, whether they have gone to university or not, struggle to get into work due to lack of experience. The new apprenticeship sets out to avoid that and at the end of the two-year programme will leave the young apprentice with a qualification that is the equivalent of a higher. Some universities are now beginning to routinely accept the foundation apprenticeships as part of their entry criteria and I encourage more universities to get on board with that.

Foundation apprenticeships are now available in every local authority area in Scotland, including, I am pleased to say, at New College Lanarkshire, Coatbridge campus in my constituency. It is hoped that by 2019, 1,500 young people will be going through a foundation apprenticeship.

Overall, there are currently 37,000 young people going through an apprenticeship in Scotland, at foundation, modern or graduate level. It is important that we continue to recognise those who excel during those apprenticeships. I want to mention Daniel Barr from Coatbridge who was recently awarded adult apprentice of the year for his fantastic work as a plasterer. I want to put on record my congratulations to him.

As we are all aware, next month, a new apprenticeship levy will be introduced on large employers. I was pleased that, after full consultation, the minister made key commitments, including increasing the planned number of graduate apprentices in 2017, considering raising the age limits for modern apprenticeships and a commitment to 30,000 new modern apprentices a year by 2020.

The aim of apprenticeship week is to raise awareness and to encourage more employers in Scotland to recruit apprentices. We can all support that. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to bring the topic to the chamber today.

Before I finish, I will briefly—if you do not mind, Presiding Officer—mention that it is my son’s third birthday—

He is not in an apprenticeship scheme, is he?

No, he is not old enough yet, but I would like to do him the honour of saying in the chamber, “Happy birthday.”

We will forgive you.

12:55  

I wish a very happy birthday to Fulton MacGregor’s son.

I congratulate the member on bringing this important debate to the chamber. It is an opportunity to promote next week’s Scottish apprenticeship week and to celebrate the success of Scotland’s apprentices.

As the motion suggests, it would, indeed, be a good show of support if members could take time to visit an apprentice, an apprenticeship employer or training provider in their constituency or region. For my part, that will include meeting up with my nephew, who is in an apprenticeship training programme to become an electrician. He very much enjoys it. [Interruption.] He is a sparky, yes.

I, too, congratulate Skills Development Scotland on its continued work to deliver Scotland’s apprenticeship programmes, and applaud the network of local authorities, third sector providers and colleges that work to support the many thousands of apprenticeships across the country.

This coming week will provide an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of all involved in delivering the programme. It will also provide a chance to reflect on the changing nature of apprenticeships and how we, in Scotland, ensure that we create a modern apprenticeship programme that is fit for employers and employees and takes into account how employment is changing.

Plans to increase apprenticeships featured in all parties’ election manifestos last year, illustrating the cross-party support that there is for the benefits that apprenticeships and work-based learning can bring to employers and to businesses.

There are differences in parties’ policies on how to deliver an increasing number of apprenticeships, but there is consensus about the priority of the objective. Apprenticeships are an effective way to support young people—and people of many different ages—into the workplace, to develop careers that go on to meet future economic needs, and to address the skills gap.

In addition, at a time of fast-moving change in the economy and the skills required, apprenticeships can provide the tools for lifelong learning and for adaptability to changing employment markets and technology. As the World Economic Forum highlighted, 60 per cent of the jobs that children who are now at school will do, do not exist yet, so lifelong learning and training are essential for the economy.

In my region of Stirling, Skills Development Scotland has provided data that shows that, in 2016, 581 apprentices were in training and 291 modern apprenticeships were started. That is to be welcomed. In the Stirling area, construction is the most popular modern apprenticeship framework and accounts for 20 per cent of apprenticeships taken up. However, computing and information technology modern apprenticeships represent only 6 per cent of all modern apprenticeships in the Stirling area and, in the longer-term, that may result in a shortage of those skills. That is worth further investigation, given the cross-party support for increasing skills in that important area.

There are also well-documented imbalances between genders in certain sectors. The uptake of apprenticeships in the construction industry in Stirling, for example, is heavily gender segregated, with 99 per cent of those apprenticeships being undertaken by men. There is also demand for apprenticeships for older workers, which are not as available or are funded at lower rates. As employers such as Asda have highlighted, it is important that we seek greater flexibility on the age limit of apprenticeships. I also recognise the issue that Fulton MacGregor raised about the low numbers of young people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds in apprenticeships.

Given those issues, it is vital that we all work together to evaluate how we can improve access to the modern apprenticeship programme because, as the motion correctly notes, apprentices add a great deal of value to Scotland’s economy and the skills of the workforce. That was made clear by the wealth of talent that was honoured in November last year at the Scottish apprenticeship awards.

I once again thank Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate to the chamber and I encourage everyone to get involved in the many events that are taking place next week to celebrate Scottish apprenticeship week.

13:00  

I thank Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate to the chamber. Apprenticeship week provides an opportunity to highlight the huge benefits of people being able to work and earn while studying and, in many cases, ultimately acquiring a skill set for which there will always be a demand. Of course, university, college or entering the workplace is right for some, but an apprenticeship will provide the ideal solution for others. I welcome the fact that that range of choices is on offer to our young people.

Last year, two young men from my constituency were recognised for embracing the benefits of an apprenticeship. Callum Low, who started working at Invermark estate in 2015, was named the Scottish Gamekeepers Association young gamekeeper of the year. He manages grouse, deer stalking and other resident wildlife on the 55,000 acre mixed sporting estate. Callum was also named student gamekeeper of the year in 2014 and Lantra’s apprentice of the year and learner of the year in 2015. Shaun Davies was named apprentice of the year at the trades awards last year. Shaun, who is an apprentice bricklayer with Stewart Milne Homes, was recognised for the being the best in his class when he was at college and for

“unwavering motivation and ambition to hone his skills in the trade and for his unparalleled work-ethic, as well as his ability to learn fast and … attention to detail.”

I am never one to pass up an opportunity to highlight success stories from my constituency, but I also want to focus on the provision of a safety net for when things go wrong, as they sometimes do—not through anything that an apprentice may have done but perhaps when an employer goes into administration.

In 2014, that was the fate that befell John M Henderson, an engineering firm in Arbroath, with 16 apprentices being told that they were to lose their jobs, although eight of them had started their apprenticeships just 11 weeks earlier. It was a devastating experience for not only the young people concerned, but their wider families. I know because, as the constituency MSP, I was contacted by a number of them and was actively involved in securing a solution.

Thanks to the Scottish Government’s adopt an apprentice scheme and a terrific local rally-round, those who were in the second year or later stages of their apprenticeships did not have too much trouble finding other employment. If memory serves me right, all bar one continued their apprenticeships elsewhere, the exception being a lad who decided to change career path.

I acknowledge the fantastic contributions made to that rally-round by the Angus Training Group, Angus Council and the local partnership action for continuing employment team. I also recognise that firms that took on those apprentices were able to receive support from the adopt an apprentice scheme, which offers employers in the oil and gas sector financial incentives of £5,000 and those in all other industries £2,000 to help with the wage costs of taking on an apprentice who has been let go.

The big challenge around the Henderson apprentices was finding work for the eight lads who had barely embarked upon their first year, five of whom were in the care of Angus Training Group and three of whom were at Angus College. That is where Angus Training Group really stepped up to the mark by, at a potential cost of up to £18,000, assuming responsibility for its new starts and guaranteeing them the completion of the first year of their apprenticeship training regardless of whether employers were found.

Angus Council also stepped up to the mark by supporting Angus Training Group via its towards employment scheme with wages and travel costs for 12 weeks or until employment was found so that the apprentices were in a position to continue their training. Ultimately, two of the five found other employers and one went to college. The money that Angus Council provided meant that the remaining apprentices could be kept on for over 30 weeks—the rest of their full training year—before finding employment.

I relate that tale not to introduce a negative note, but to highlight during apprenticeship week the fact that it is not always plain sailing and that, between them, the various bodies and the Government provided, and provide, the safety net that I touched upon.

I take the opportunity provided by apprenticeship week and the debate to pay tribute to Alan Swankie, the managing director of Angus Training Group, who is to retire shortly. Alan is stepping down after 39 years. In that time, more than 1,600 apprentices have passed through the group’s doors. With the grounding that it has given them, those young men and women have gone on to make careers for themselves in the engineering sector. That is quite a career achievement for Alan and a testament to the work done by that highly-regarded training provider.

13:04  

I thank Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate to Parliament. Like many members, I will be supporting apprenticeship week, which begins on Monday, with workplace visits and briefings with Skills Development Scotland.

Apprenticeships are an essential part of the labour market, where Government intervention is both welcome and necessary; it is right that we do not leave the labour market to market forces alone, but plan it. Skills Development Scotland spends around £30 million a year in the area that I represent to support the skills agenda, and backs more than 6,000 apprentices in training, half of whom are in modern apprenticeships. Glasgow city region economic action plan—the action plan for the city region deal—promises every 16 to 24-year-old a job, training or an apprenticeship. It promises a right to work, in effect. With youth unemployment in Scotland at 9 per cent—about twice the national average of other age groups, according to the Scottish Parliament information centre—that represents a bold commitment that could transform the lives of a whole generation of young people. That is an example of the difference that Labour in power in local government can make.

We live in topsy-turvy political times. Last year, when the details of the apprenticeship levy were announced by the Conservative Government, the Conservative spokesperson in this Parliament declared:

“We now have the chance to invest in Scotland’s workers.”

The SNP Government minister, who is sitting here this afternoon, said in his press release that it is

“an unnecessary financial burden on employers.”

For our part, the concerns across the labour movement are that the new levy, which will be introduced in just a few days, could put downward pressure on wages and serve as a financial disincentive to employers to employ workers directly, as employers just below the £3 million pay-bill threshold seek to avoid the levy altogether, and those above it try to keep their pay bill static or even to cut it, in order to minimise their liability under the levy.

Richard Leonard makes an eminently sensible point about the disincentive that he has identified. I spoke of the “burden on employers”. Will he join me in recognising that the levy introduces a £73 million tax burden on the public sector, thereby removing investment in the public sector.

I agree. The levy was presented as an additional benefit to Scotland, but when we look at the liability on public sector employers, we see that it will leave a hole in the public finances.

I want to turn my attention, in the minutes that I have left, to the Scottish Government’s approach, which is to go for an employer leadership model and the setting up of a Scottish apprenticeship advisory board. I hope that the Scottish Government will listen to employee leadership as well, because if the Government simply provides for employer domination of the design and quality of Scotland’s apprenticeships, they will be tailored solely to meet the ends of employers, and not to meet the needs of working people—young working people, in particular.

I say, therefore, to the minister this afternoon that establishing a Scottish Government apprenticeship framework standards group with only one trade union representative out of 21 members is not good enough. To have formed a Scottish apprenticeship employer equalities group with one trade union representative out of 23 members is not good enough either. To have set up a Scottish apprenticeship employer engagement group with nobody—nobody—from the trade union movement on it is, to be blunt, unacceptable, and creating a main advisory board, directing these groups, with one trades union representative on it out of 28 members, is by any measure, in plain and simple terms, neither democratic nor representative. In fact, there are as many voices of employers that are caught up in the construction industry blacklisting scandal on the Scottish Government’s advisory board on apprentices as there are trade union voices. I am sure that that was not the result that the minister set out to achieve, but it is the result that we have, so the minister should act to correct it.

Finally, I have been impressed in my work with Skills Development Scotland by how it is targeting young people who have come through the care system or who are going through the community justice system. We should be demanding equality for those young people and for others whose access to the labour market is subject to barriers. That is where, I hope, we can redouble our efforts this year and build on the focus that apprenticeship week provides to boost not just the quantity of Scotland’s apprenticeships, but just as important—as the motion suggests—their quality and their equality as well.

13:09  

I thank Fulton McGregor for the debate. I am certainly glad that it is not about a certain TV show and its hosts.

Apprenticeship week is about promoting apprenticeships as an important and rewarding career path, and about celebrating businesses that value training their staff. I hope that it is also about challenging some stereotypes, although it has occurred to me that we are not exactly gender-balanced in the chamber today.

In my time as a councillor on the City of Edinburgh Council and as an MSP for the Lothian region, I have met apprentices and employers who have taken on apprentices. Their experiences of apprenticeship have been overwhelmingly positive, so I encourage anyone who is in school to consider it as a career option. The Wood commission reported a few years ago with an absolute insistence on parity of esteem, so it is high time that we challenged the notion that the vocational career path and apprenticeships are in any way inferior to higher education.

In Edinburgh in 2016-17, more than 1,000 modern apprenticeships will start, so young people will not be alone in taking such a positive path. Next week Edinburgh will host a road show for secondary 4 to S6 pupils, and for anyone else up to 24 years old. It will be an open day for people to learn about apprenticeships. There will be events for parents, careers advisors and teachers, and a graduation event for apprentices who completed their training last year. I encourage those who can do so to get along to the event.

Last year, I had the privilege of awarding prizes that had been won for construction apprenticeships at an event in this building. It was an incredibly moving afternoon, during which I heard from one young man whose tale will always stick in my mind. He cycled to work on a pink bicycle—that always sticks in my mind, too—because he could not afford transport costs on his wage. The Green manifesto on which I stood for election highlighted the importance of paying apprentices at least the living wage, regardless of their age. The national minimum wage for apprentices remains incredibly low at £3.40 an hour, rising to £3.50 from April this year. That is less than half the minimum wage and is a far cry from a living wage. The majority of apprentices are paid more than the minimum, but if we want to value vocational jobs and reward them with fair pay, the UK Government needs to raise the statutory minimum, and we should add our voices to that call.

Edinburgh has a successful scheme, called the Edinburgh Guarantee, to offer a job, training or education to every school leaver. There is a similar national ambition, but we know that 8 per cent of school leavers leave without going into a job, training or further education, and that the figure rises to 15 per cent among school leavers who come from the most disadvantaged areas. Apprenticeship week might be able to give more opportunities to those young people.

We also need to do more to reduce gender stereotypes and increase ethnic minority participation. I welcome Fulton MacGregor’s focus—and that of other colleagues—on that point. I do not think that anyone in the debate will disagree about that challenge; the question is how we tackle it. Close the Gap Scotland has created a tool that is based on work that has been done by the WISE—women in Scotland’s economy—research centre, and has applied it to the Scottish modern apprenticeship programme. Ideas that came up include taster sessions for women in non-traditional careers paths—far too few women are involved in construction, for example; financial incentives for employers who recruit women into non-traditional careers; more women-only pre-vocational training courses; and same-sex mentors. Another idea that has potential was to have two work-experience placements at school—one at a pupil’s first-choice location, and the second in a non-traditional industry.

Before we even look at the concentration of women in service roles, who are traditionally paid less, the most recent SDS statistics show that 63 per cent of MA starts were male, 37 per cent were female, and 1.7 per cent came from ethnic minority backgrounds.

I welcome the Government’s ambition to do more, and plans such as SDS’s equality action plan and fund to give support to employers to take on modern apprentices from more diverse backgrounds. I hope that apprenticeship week’s strapline, “Apprenticeships are changing”, can ring true for improvements in gender, pay and parity of esteem.

None of that takes away from my experience that apprenticeships are an excellent career path for many. I would encourage any young person to go along to an event near them and consider that path.

13:14  

I congratulate Fulton MacGregor on securing this debate to celebrate apprenticeship week 2017 and the positive contribution that apprenticeships have made to our society, whether for individuals, businesses, government or the wider Scottish economy. I encourage everyone to participate in the events that are being held across Scotland to support and raise awareness about all the amazing opportunities that apprenticeships provide.

The theme of apprenticeship week 2017 is “Apprenticeships are changing”. Each year, we set an extremely ambitious target to create new opportunities. By 2020, the Scottish Government aims to expand the number of modern apprenticeship opportunities to 30,000 new starts each year, while simultaneously introducing improving new standards to ensure that those who do apprenticeships can rise to the top and reach their full potential. Even more young people will be able to enter the workforce with employers including BT, Microsoft, Scottish Power, the Royal Air Force, Boots, British Airways, BBC Scotland, Santander and Lloyds Banking Group, to name just a few. Small and local businesses have also pledged new apprenticeships and traineeships to give young people the opportunity to develop skills in languages, maths and social sciences, to progress to other jobs and open other prospects.

In my constituency, a wide array of apprenticeships are available and cater specifically for the skills that young people seek to develop and the goals that they want to achieve. I was particularly impressed during a visit to the Harry Fairbairn BMW car dealership in Kirkcaldy, where I met and spoke with the staff and young apprentices. The automotive mechanical industry is a highly skilled field; I was amazed not only by the opportunities that are available but by the high standard of the education and skills that are received by the apprentices.

Fife Council and Fife College are among the area’s largest apprenticeship employers, and offer modern apprenticeships ranging from engineering, construction and social services to creative and media studies. The combination of learning and working provides young people with the best of both worlds, with hands-on work experience as well as study. The 30,000 new starts a year pledge is testament to the popularity of apprenticeships, as more and more young people, employers, parents and teachers recognise their benefits and see that apprenticeships and work-based learning bring economic and social investment to our economy. That will certainly trickle down to our communities.

It is crucial to recognise how businesses and young people can help each other through apprenticeships. When a young person gets involved with a business as an apprentice, they receive the confidence and qualifications that they need to succeed in the future, and businesses are able to build the talent, productivity and motivation that are crucial for growth, success, and accomplishment. The opportunities that apprenticeships provide not only deliver life-changing opportunities for young people; they also help businesses that are eligible for grants for taking on an apprentice. Skills Development Scotland, Scotland’s national skills body, plays a crucial part in helping to create a skilled workforce that is prepared to face the future, by setting young people up for success in their careers. Crucially, SDS is designed to tackle potential skills gaps, as well as to support existing apprentices to develop their skills.

Young people entering the workforce today still face challenges. For example, many young women face challenges that make apprenticeship opportunities a less attractive option for them than further education. It is our job as policymakers to close the gender gap and ensure that every sector of our economy provides as many opportunities to women as it does to men.

An apprenticeship is a real success story. Modern apprenticeships employ over 30,000 young people, 91 per cent of apprentices are still in employment six months after completing their modern apprenticeship, and 96 per cent of employers believe that their former apprentices are better equipped to carry out their jobs. Consistent with this year’s apprenticeship week theme, which highlights the changing nature of apprenticeships, SDS has introduced new programmes including foundation apprenticeships, which bring education closer to industry, and graduate-level apprenticeships, which take work-based learning up to master’s degree level.

I encourage all my fellow MSPs to get involved with as many events as possible in their respective areas during apprenticeship week to show support for our country’s future workforce. Growing talent among the next generation and aiding young people to develop skills to transition into new careers through apprenticeships is a positive way of laying a strong foundation for economic and societal improvement.

Thank you, Mr Torrance, and I note that you looked up at the clock, so we are making progress. I call Bill Bowman, who will be the last speaker in the open debate.

13:19  

I am pleased to participate in this afternoon’s debate on apprenticeship week, and I join colleagues in congratulating Fulton MacGregor on bringing the motion before us. In the spirit of earlier contributions, I wish everybody happy Thursday, since I do not have a specific event to celebrate.

Like many members across the chamber, I am looking forward to participating in Scottish apprenticeship week next week. I am going to be visiting two Dundee-based employers, Caledonia Housing Association and Roseangle House Nursery, which between them employ nine apprentices.

The young people employed by both those employers will benefit from the opportunity to build their confidence, learn something new and develop their skill set—the confidence that an earlier speaker mentioned is an important aspect of this. All those attributes will stand them in good stead when they embark on their chosen career path and apply for jobs.

I was pleased to note that in a survey by Skills Development Scotland, it found that in 2016, two thirds of the modern apprentices it surveyed were still employed by their original employer. In such a competitive job market as today’s, any experience that young people can get in the world of work is good.

That experience is not only good for the young people who complete their apprenticeships; the companies that employ them benefit from having someone with a willingness to learn and from the ability to create a training programme for their apprentices that best meets the needs of their business.

As the motion states, our country’s workforce also benefits. In my previous employment, one of the pleasures of my job was to witness the progress of young trainee accountants who joined our firm, as they worked their way up the ladder at the same time as following a programme of professional development.

In our manifesto last year, Scottish Conservatives made three commitments in the skills portfolio: to create new skills academies; to expand the number of apprenticeship starts; and to provide more bite-sized training opportunities. We believe that the proceeds from the apprenticeship levy that comes into force in April this year should advance all three of those objectives.

Although we will always welcome the creation of new and more apprenticeships, it is important to recognise that employer-delivered apprenticeships or training programmes are able to deliver the same standard of training as modern apprenticeships, without the additional benefit of Government support—something that a number of businesses have contacted me about. I hope that the minister will consider that point.

Scottish apprenticeship week is about celebrating and promoting the benefits that apprenticeships bring to individuals, businesses and the economy. As other members have encouraged, the more of us who can get out to see apprenticeships on the ground, the better. It is one thing to listen and to read about apprenticeships, but when we see them in place, we see the benefits that they bring. Apprenticeships are often the best route for young people who do not consider university to be the right choice for them and who would benefit more from going straight into the workplace, learning on the job and working towards an industry-recognised qualification. I look forward to meeting some apprentices during my visits next week and to talking to them about their experiences.

We have a duty to do everything that we can to support young people and to give them the best opportunity to succeed. Whether through educational opportunities or vocational routes, it is important that the skills base of our workforce is matched to the needs of our economy, now and in the future. I believe that apprenticeships play a vital part in equipping our young people with the skills and experience that are required for that.

13:23  

I very much welcome the chance that we have had to debate next week’s Scottish apprenticeship week. I join others in thanking Fulton MacGregor for bringing the subject matter to the chamber. I also wish the young MacGregor—that is Fulton MacGregor’s son rather than MacGregor himself—a very happy birthday. I heard you inquiring, Presiding Officer, as to whether Fulton MacGregor’s son had begun an apprenticeship. I know that there has been a call for the Scottish Government to embed a degree of age flexibility in our approach to modern apprenticeships, but I can confirm that we do not intend to go quite that far—although, of course, it is never too early to plan for undertaking an apprenticeship.

Dean Lockhart misheard me earlier when I made a sedentary intervention—something that we are always advised by you and the other Presiding Officers not to do, Presiding Officer, so I apologise for having done so. Dean Lockhart thought that I said that his nephew was a “sparky” when he was talking about his nephew undertaking an apprenticeship. I was actually inquiring as to whether it was his nephew’s birthday. I can only assume that it is not. However, I wish Dean Lockhart’s nephew all the best as he continues his apprenticeship.

I am proud that the range of opportunities that we have offered over the years has changed many lives for the better. Over the past parliamentary session, we offered more than 128,000 new modern apprenticeship starts, supported by the Scottish Government.

As I think that all members have said, a modern apprenticeship can be a life-changing opportunity for the person who undertakes it. David Torrance was correct to say that an apprenticeship provides the person with not only work and an industry-recognised qualification to support their future career ambitions but a real sense of confidence.

Graeme Dey and Alison Johnstone talked about the need for apprenticeships to be put on an equal footing with academia—I think that Alison Johnstone used the term “parity of esteem”. It is just as valid for a young person to undertake an apprenticeship after leaving the education environment as it is to pursue studies in further or higher education.

That should be a core message that we take from the debate. It is something that we are trying to make clear in the school environment, through our developing the young workforce agenda, and it is well worth putting on the record. This debate, in Scotland’s national legislature, allows us to recognise the equal validity of apprenticeships and academic pursuits. Apprenticeship week is an opportunity to promote that view and to dispel the misconception that has existed—albeit less so now—about apprenticeships not being as valuable as the pursuit of academic study.

I will undertake visits every day next week, and all Scottish Government ministers will undertake at least one visit associated with Scottish apprenticeship week. Indeed, all MSPs can undertake a visit. Given that we are a select few taking part in this debate, it is perhaps not surprising that all those present intend to undertake such a visit. I am sure that we will all encourage our colleagues to get involved, too.

Richard Leonard was correct to say that we cannot leave it to the market to determine how we take forward apprenticeships. We need to respond to economic and social demand, and we need employers across all sectors—private, public and third sector—to be involved in delivery.

There is a critical role for Government intervention. Mr Leonard expressed concern about the role of trade unions. If he wants to contact me, I will be happy to reflect on his specific concerns. I reassure him and all members that I take seriously the need to engage with unions and the Scottish Trades Union Congress on all matters in my portfolio. My officials engaged directly with the STUC just last week on how this Administration responded to the apprenticeship levy, and the STUC was very supportive of our approach.

Given that I have mentioned the apprenticeship levy, I will say that it was somewhat surprising to me that it was left to Mr Leonard to raise the issue. Hitherto, I think that it has been Conservative speaker after Conservative speaker who has raised the issue with me. The penny must at last be dropping; Conservative members are beginning to recognise that the UK Government has pulled the wool over many people’s eyes in implementing that new fiscal measure, which does not bring forward pockets of new funding for disbursement on apprenticeships, employability and training but, in essence, replaces existing funding. I genuinely think that many members on the Conservative benches did not realise that at first, but I think that we all now realise that that is the case.

I mentioned the levy because in response to its imposition, the Scottish Government did what the UK Government did not do: we undertook a public consultation on it, which has been hugely instructive in determining how we take forward the delivery of apprenticeships.

We are undertaking implementation of all that we found and gathered through the consultation that we undertook. That is why we are rolling out our ambition to have 30,000 modern apprenticeship starts by the year 2020, which is what the consultation told us to do. It is also why we are expanding the provision of foundation apprenticeships in the school environment and the provision of graduate apprenticeships, and why we are implementing a flexible workforce development fund, which is something else that was raised in the consultation.

Will the minister give way?

If I have time, I am delighted to give way to Mr Lockhart.

I understand that the rate of apprenticeships in Scotland is approximately half the rate in the rest of the UK. The minister has provided us with numbers, but when does he expect equilibrium to be reached, in the sense of apprenticeship numbers in Scotland being at the same ratio as in the rest of the UK?

I wondered when that issue would come up. It is the first time that it has been raised with me today, but I knew that inevitably it would be. It is not for me to worry about what the provision of apprenticeships might be in the rest of the UK and certainly not in England—that is for the UK Government to worry about. However, I wonder how the massive expansion that the UK Government is planning to undertake—in essence, to have 600,000 starts each and every year going forward—can possibly be delivered. In the consultation that we undertook, there was no demand to have a pro-rata share of that level of delivery. We have a high-quality modern apprenticeship offering in Scotland. There are significant questions about the quality of the apprenticeships that might be delivered south of the border. I am happy to explore that further with Mr Lockhart, but I suggest that he looks a bit more closely at what is being delivered in the rest of the UK.

I know that I am a bit over time, Presiding Officer, but you are always very generous in allowing me to make the relevant points that must be made and to pick up on what members have said.

I am not too generous.

I have always found you to be remarkably generous, Presiding Officer.

Your time is getting shorter all the time.

Members have raised the equalities agenda. I recognise that there is significant underrepresentation of certain sections of our society in our modern apprenticeship delivery. Undoubtedly, some of the barriers are structural although, as I think Alison Johnstone pointed out, they are largely cultural, and those will not be readily overcome. However, there is a significant desire to achieve a better spread of modern apprentices and representation across the country and we are implementing changes to try to incentivise that.

To try to respond to some of the challenges, there is an enhanced payment for those who are disabled or who are care leavers, and we are introducing a rural supplement for modern apprenticeships from next year. However, we will always be willing to consider what more we can do.

The debate is welcome. I wish all the members who are undertaking visits next week an enjoyable set of visits. It is absolutely appropriate that we have had a chance to recognise the apprentices the length and breadth of Scotland who are undertaking fantastic work.

13:32 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—