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National Assembly Powers

7. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will take steps to increase the scope of the powers of the National Assembly for Wales. [5066]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): The Government's proposals are contained in the White Paper, "Better Governance for Wales", which I published on 15 June.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Having served with the right hon. Gentleman on the Modernisation Committee, I know that he believes very fervently in democracy, but does he agree that there is considerable frustration in Wales about the Assembly's lack of legislative authority and powers? Will he have another full referendum in Wales to see whether people want more legislative powers and more devolution, or would like to scrap devolution altogether?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman speaks with the same voice as the shadow Secretary of State, who wants, as the hon. Gentleman appears to want, to abolish the National Assembly for Wales and to go back to the kind
 
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of rule that we had under the Conservatives when they trampled all over Wales—and as result, every Tory MP was cleaned out of Wales in the 1997 election. Having said that, the hon. Gentleman was a very good member of the Modernisation Committee and I pay tribute to him for that. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise in the House.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Yesterday, Andrew Davies, the Economic Development and Transport Minister in the Assembly, said that he was extremely concerned about the poor performance of the Welsh Development Agency's inward investment division. Will the Secretary of State therefore consider giving the National Assembly the power to vary corporation taxes so that we could have the kind of tax breaks that have been so successful in Ireland? I understand that the hon. Member for Normanton (Ed Balls) is keen, so he might have some luck with the Chancellor.

Mr. Hain: The answer is no, because, just like Plaid Cymru's proposals for varying income tax for Wales, it would raise an immediate question mark as to whether the extra spending per head in Wales provided by the Treasury was still justified. This is the kind of gobbledegook economics that is typical of Plaid Cymru.

Countryside and Rights of Way Act

8. Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the application of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to Wales. [5067]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): That is a matter for the National Assembly. The right-to-roam provisions came into effect in Wales on 28 May. As a result, almost a quarter of the Welsh countryside is now open to the public. I will meet Carwyn Jones shortly to discuss that and other matters.

Mr. Caton: Does my hon. Friend agree that the CROW Act has been one of the major achievements of a Labour Government, not only in extending access to the countryside but in other countryside provisions, especially in relation to areas of outstanding natural beauty? My hon. Friend knows that Gower was the first designated area of outstanding natural beauty in the country. May I invite him to visit Gower next year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that designation and the success of the Act?

Nick Ainger: I am more than happy to visit my hon. Friend's beautiful constituency and I am grateful for his support for the implementation of the CROW Act. It has given an increasing advantage to the rural parts of Wales. According to the Wales Tourist Board, walkers contribute £550 million annually to the Welsh economy and that should increase with the new access regime. My hon. Friend may also be pleased to know that the Welsh Assembly is in discussion with the Countryside Council
 
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for Wales to examine actively options for extending open access to coastal areas, which would include his constituency, under the Act.

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [6079] Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 22 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Dr. Wright: Does the Prime Minister recall that, last year, we had a celebration to mark the centenary of the entente cordiale? Last week, the President of France said that my right hon. Friend was "pathetic" and "tragic" and demanded a gesture of solidarity from him, Will my right hon. Friend explain to President Chirac that what is pathetic and tragic is the fact that 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day while each European cow gets $2.5 a day in subsidy? Will he tell the President that the only gesture of solidarity worth making is one that does something about that?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for the question—although I think he was actually referring to the discussion. However, I believe it is important that we make it clear that reform of the common agricultural policy is in the interests not only of Europe, but, as my hon. Friend rightly says, of the poorest parts of the world, which need to be able to get rid of export subsidies for agriculture in the wealthy parts of the world for their economies to flourish. Change in the CAP is therefore not only important, relevant and right for the European Union, but an essential part of getting a fair deal for the poorest countries in the world.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Today, the chief executive of the Citizens Advice service said that the tax credit system

Does the Prime Minister agree with that?

The Prime Minister: It is also important to point out that

It is true that the report goes on, like the ombudsman, to make criticisms of the system. We are trying to address them, but let me point out that, although we acknowledge the force of the criticisms, 6 million families and 10 million children benefit from the tax credits. It is important to get a sense of balance when we discuss them.
 
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Mr. Howard: It is indeed important to get a sense of balance but the Prime Minister is in danger of sounding extremely complacent. The Citizens Advice service report states that the tax credit system

and has

that

that some

and that for others,

because families were left without enough money to eat. Does that sound to the Prime Minister like a system that is "performing very well"?

The Prime Minister: As I said a moment ago, we accept entirely the problems that the Citizens Advice service report and the ombudsman's report identified, and it is important that we address them. Indeed, some were addressed by the statement that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General made on 26 May. We apologise for the hardship and distress that have been caused to some families and we are taking action to change the circumstances in which they find themselves. All I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that we must also recognise that millions of families have benefited from tax credits, to the tune of thousands of pounds a year. Those families were often forgotten under the old system. They did not qualify for family credit and were left to languish on the dole for long periods of time. It is important to realise when we discuss the system that both the Citizens Advice service and the ombudsman say that the principles of the system are right and should be maintained.

Mr. Howard: Figures this month show that 700,000 awards were underpaid in 2003–04, that 1.9 million were overpaid, and that the amount of overpayment was almost £2 billion. I ask the Prime Minister whether we are dealing with a system that is "performing very well"? He will know that that is what    the Paymaster General told the House in February. The ombudsman says that the Paymaster General's reassurances

Has the Prime Minister asked the Paymaster General for an explanation of the answers she gave the House in February?

The Prime Minister: As the right hon. and learned Gentleman has quoted the ombudsman, let me also quote what she says, right at the beginning of her report. I hope that he will also accept this:

It is fair to put that on the other side of the ledger. The problems of overpayment to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is drawing our attention are, of
 
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course, right. There is one difficulty, though. With any such system, when people change jobs, as some 3 million people do every year, and when about 300,000 families who are eligible for tax credits undergo substantial financial changes, there has to be some way of compensating for that and ensuring that people are neither underpaid nor overpaid.

I accept—as did my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General in her statement on 26 May—that there are serious issues to be addressed, and we are addressing them by, for example, ensuring that people have far better information for the claimants, identifying the families that might be most at risk in respect of changes in their circumstances, and making improvements to the information technology system. All of this has to be done, and we are doing it. What would be wrong, however, would be to suggest that, overall, tax credits have not helped millions of people, because they have.

Mr. Howard: And that was something that I never suggested. The answer given by the Paymaster General to the House has been criticised in the most direct terms by the ombudsman. I asked the Prime Minister whether he had sought an explanation from the Paymaster General for her answer, and it is perfectly clear that he    has not. The ombudsman makes 12 specific recommendations in her report, and she also raises some fundamental questions about the whole system that she says need to be addressed. Will the Prime Minister now accept all those recommendations and address those fundamental questions? Will he also give an undertaking that the 800,000 families who currently receive their tax credit through Jobcentre Plus will not be moved on to the Inland Revenue system this year, as is currently planned?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General is going to make a statement after Prime Minister's questions today, and she will deal with some of the issues that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised. In respect of the ombudsman's recommendations, we will obviously study them very carefully because there has to be a balance between the interests of the families receiving the tax credit and those of the taxpayer as a whole. Despite the way in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has put these questions, however, I think that we are in agreement. The tax credit system is the right system, and as a whole, it is benefiting millions of families, but it is correct to say that, at the moment, it is failing some families. That is unacceptable and we will take the necessary measures to remedy the situation.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): The Government have rightly received praise for their very considerable increase in housing budgets, especially when compared with the Tory starvation years. The Prime Minister will know, however, that 300,000 families are currently registered as applicants for council housing. Does he agree that it would be sensible to encourage local authorities to build new houses rather than simply arranging stock transfers and arm's-length management organisations, which do not in themselves create a single tenancy or put a lick of paint on a single windowsill?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, the budget for social housing has been increased
 
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substantially, and has been increased again by 50 per cent. I disagree with only one thing that he said. I do not think that this can be done only through traditional local authority provision; I think a mix of provision is necessary. I think that many housing associations and other non-governmental bodies also do a superb job in providing homes for people.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): Given that the Prime Minister's current majority of 67 is based on 35 per cent. of the popular vote, and given that the Government are set to force through further authoritarian measures such as compulsory identity cards, the ending of trial by jury and a restriction of people's right to protest, must the Prime Minister not face the fact that here in Britain we are close to experiencing a tyranny of the minority? Does he think that the composition of the House of Commons accurately reflects what the British public voted for on 5 May?

The Prime Minister: Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that just a trifle exaggerated, in all honesty? Let me take the point about trial by jury in complicated fraud cases. The reason for what we are doing is perfectly simple. We are spending literally millions and millions of pounds on a very small number of cases in which the issues are often hugely complex. It has been suggested by independent report after independent report that we need to change the system, so we are doing that. Linking that with proportional representation, which I assume the right hon. Gentleman is trying to do, is slightly difficult, if I may respectfully say so.

All electoral systems have their flaws, but if we had a system of proportional representation in which, for example, the Liberal Democrats held the balance of power, might that not be something of a tyranny of the minority?

Mr. Kennedy: May I come back to the Prime Minister, and indeed to the excellent first question that he was asked? Now that one referendum appears to be off the agenda, may I make a constructive suggestion for another? The Labour party manifesto on which the Prime Minister has just stood and been re-elected says that there will be a further review of the voting systems in this country. Will that be yet another pointless exercise, or can the Prime Minister give the British public a guarantee here and now that during this Parliament they will have the democratic right, through a referendum, to vote for a system of proportional representation?

The Prime Minister: I can absolutely assure the right hon. Gentleman that it will not be a pointless exercise. What I cannot assure him of, I am afraid, is that it will result in a referendum on proportional representation.

I can only say to the Lib Dems that what with all that is going on in the world today, this seems to be a pretty odd set of questions.
 
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Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his continuing efforts to achieve an international consensus on tackling climate change. Does he agree that we all face both a personal and a political challenge? Would he consider joining me and other Members who have made a commitment to reduce our personal carbon emissions by 25 per cent. over the next five years?

The Prime Minister: There is an answer to that somewhere here, but I cannot quite find it. I shall have to get back to my hon. Friend with the precise implications, but I think that in respect of Downing street there are already measures designed to reduce emissions—at least of the CO 2 kind.

Q2. [6080] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): A year ago, a 17-year-old student who lived in my constituency, Alexine Melnik, was killed by a careless driver. The careless driver was fined £500. Does the Prime Minister agree that there should be a new offence of causing death by careless driving? When will legislation to that effect be presented to the House?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to pay tribute to the work of his predecessor, Paul Stinchcombe, on that issue. He is absolutely right that it is important to ensure that we toughen the law in respect of death by careless driving. Our consultation exercise ended on 6 May. We are currently analysing the responses received. We will publish our response shortly but, as a result of the campaign that was launched by the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, we made certain commitments before the election, which we will honour. It is high time we realised that, as a result of toughening up the law, around 10,000 fewer people are now killed or injured each year on our roads than 10 years ago. We need to ensure that the law is commensurate with the degree of public concern.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is looking at the appropriate use of statins. Given that in my constituency more than 6 per cent. of men die prematurely of heart disease, is it not right to ensure that appropriate prescribing of this drug, alongside the good exercise and diet plans that GPs currently give patients, is included as part of the programme?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The importance of statins has been recognised by the fact that we have increased spending to about £700 million a year. A report has just been published by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence showing why it is important that we broaden the use of statins, so I can assure her that the commitment and the investment are there from the Government, and we are working closely with GPs to make sure that that is used properly. The increase in the use of statins is one reason why deaths from cardiac disease have fallen by about 20 per cent.

Q3. [6081] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Will the Prime Minister join me in extending our sympathy to those who suffered in the devastating
 
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floods in North Yorkshire, particularly in Thirsk, Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe and Helmsley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway)? Will the Prime Minister praise the emergency services for their swift response in ensuring that there was no loss of life, but regret the loss of livestock, crops and personal possessions? Will he please dig deep into the coffers of the Government to provide the millions of pounds needed for road repairs, bridge repairs, the clean-up operation and, more especially, the flood alleviation scheme in Thirsk, which might have prevented the damage to Thirsk on this occasion? Will he help North Yorkshire—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: I certainly join the hon. Lady in sympathising with all those who have lost possessions or livestock, or had their homes damaged as a result of the floods on Sunday. I understand that in this case one month's rain fell in two to three hours. In respect of the flood defences, we are investing about £500 million each year in flood and coastal erosion management. That is obviously a huge increase on before. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be able to meet the relevant Ministers to discuss further the things that could be done but, if we look back over the past few years, investment in flood defences has seen a remarkable uplift. I am afraid it is a feature of our current situation that, as a result of changes in our climate, we have to take these measures.

Q4. [6082] Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The pupils of Tondu primary school, like many of our school children, dream of seeing an end to world poverty, climate change and trade injustice. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the members of the G8 summit have a unique opportunity to turn those children's dreams into reality, and that to fail would be to fail the children of many generations?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to say that the J8 programme has elicited an enthusiastic response across the country. It has been developed by the Department for Education and Skills alongside Morgan Stanley. The fact that so many young people have been closely involved in making the case for action on climate change, third world debt and aid is an example of the idealism of our young people. The fact that so many schools have engaged in those projects is wonderful. Let us hope that the result of Gleneagles matches their aspirations.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I am sure that we all agree with the sentiments that have just been expressed by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), and, indeed, with Prime Minister's reply. Today, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that Britain is being transformed from

But yesterday, the European Environment Agency said that we were the worst in Europe for increases in carbon emissions from electricity and heat production. Without wishing to cause another row with Europe, can the Prime Minister reconcile those two statements?
 
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The Prime Minister: First, we will of course meet our Kyoto targets for reduction in greenhouse gases—a 12.5 per cent. reduction—which is important. It is correct that there have been increases in CO 2 emissions, partly as a result of the strength of the economy, but overall, climate change emissions have fallen by 5 per cent. This country will be one of the few countries to actually meet their Kyoto targets.

Mr. Howard: In 1997, the Prime Minister promised to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent. Since then, carbon emissions have risen. Last week, the Minister concerned announced a delay in the UK climate change review programme. Is it not the case that Britain is becoming the dirty man of Europe, and that the Prime Minister's moral authority to persuade others to tackle climate change is being fatally compromised?

The Prime Minister: That is a ludicrous thing to say, and no, I do not accept that at all. As I said, we will meet our Kyoto targets. We have established the target of 10 per cent. renewable energy by 2010, and incidentally, we have also introduced the climate change levy, which is saving us literally millions of tonnes a year—opposed by the Conservatives. I do not know what specific measures the right hon. and learned Gentleman has. We are investing far more in energy efficiency than his Government ever invested, and we are investing more in helping pensioners and others to make their homes more energy-efficient. If he has some specific measures to propose, let us hear them, but actually, most of the measures that we have taken to reduce emissions he has opposed.

Q5. [6083] Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that this is refugee week, which began in my constituency last Sunday with our local festival. Does he agree that refugee week provides an excellent opportunity to dispel the myths and disinformation that some circulate about refugees and   asylum seekers, and to celebrate the enormous contribution that refugees have made over the years—indeed, over the centuries—to British life, public and private, and economically, socially and culturally?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right in saying that we should always acknowledge the tremendous contribution made by migrants to this country over the years. It is important to recognise that, as is demonstrated by many in this House, many of us have ancestors who migrated from abroad. We recognise the strong contribution that migration makes, but it is also important to recognise that we have to take action to deal with asylum applications, which are now down by more than half, and to introduce the controls on immigration that we have indicated. This will allow us to continue to have people migrating to our country whom we need for our economy, while making sure that proper and robust rules are in place. That is the right balance for today's world.

Q6. [6084] Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): On 11 July in Leigh-on-Sea, which is in my constituency, the Guinness Book of Records will attend an event that I have organised. A world record attempt will be made to gather together the most people aged 100 and over
 
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living in a town, which will be celebrated with a tea party. Will the Prime Minister wish the participants well, and if a record is achieved, will this rotten Government take the credit for people living so long in Leigh-on-Sea?

The Prime Minister: I think that we should give them the credit for having lived so long. I was going to read out the statistics on how much we have helped pensioners, and so on, but instead let me point out that we should all send hearty congratulations to everybody who has made it to 100. Let us hope that we join them in the years to come.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Prime Minister will be aware that up to a million people—the poorest in Africa—have been made homeless in the last couple of weeks by the thuggish and brutal behaviour of Mugabe. What will my right hon. Friend and the G8 leaders do to put pressure on Mbeki, who has so far refused even to condemn what has happened? Does he agree that we cannot make poverty history in Africa until we make dictators such as Mugabe history?

The Prime Minister: I totally agree with my hon. Friend about the nature of Mugabe's regime. We and others are always making it clear that those in the region have to take the necessary action to deal with the situation in Zimbabwe. I do not agree with my hon. Friend, however, when she says that unless and until we deal with Mugabe, we cannot deal with the problem of poverty in Africa. We should do both. There is a strong case for saying that African leadership needs better governance, better protection from corruption, better conflict resolution. I abhor the Mugabe regime every bit as much as my hon. Friend does, but I do not believe that we should allow it to get in the way of our helping those countries, particularly those that have made great forward strides in respect of democracy and better governance, whose children and adults still live in appalling poverty.

Q7. [6085] Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): In 1993, the Chancellor declared:

My constituent Mrs. Phyllis Webb and the Braintree pensioners action group would like to know whether the Prime Minister feels bound by that commitment.

The Prime Minister: I feel very proud of the fact that the Government have helped pensioners so much over the years—[Interruption.] Oh, yes, we have. Millions of pensioners have benefited from the pension credit, the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences for over-75s and help with free bus passes. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that we are happy to compare our record in 2005 and the help that we have given to pensioners with the help that they were getting in 1993. The hon. Gentleman should go back and tell pensioners in Braintree that, even though they elected a Conservative MP, they should be very glad that they still have a Labour Government.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I praise my right hon. Friend for attending the parliamentary links day organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry and for his great support for
 
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science and engineering, but does he agree that, in delivering the G8 agenda on Africa and climate change, he will need strong support from the scientific and engineering community?

The Prime Minister: I totally agree. I was delighted to attend the parliamentary links day and to see that it was a thriving all-party occasion. Science will be particularly important in dealing with the killer diseases in Africa, and the science and technology behind dealing with climate change is also crucial. That is why it is so important that science forms a strong part of what we do in the G8.

Q8. [6086] Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Does the Prime Minister accept that busy village halls are often at the heart of thriving rural communities such as those that I represent in Rugby and Kenilworth? However, the huge increases proposed in the Licensing Act 2003—increases in paperwork and in the cost of entertainment licences, rising from £30 to more than £900—will put vital resources at risk. Will the Prime Minister do something about that?

The Prime Minister: I do understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns. We tried to introduce a licensing regime that puts more power in the hands of local people. I understand the problems of village halls—I have heard about them myself—and we will look further into them to see if anything can be done. Obviously, in the end, we need a licensing regime that pays its way.

Q9. [6087] Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Given the importance of manifesto promises, will the Prime Minister confirm that our manifesto commitment to a publicly owned Royal Mail fully restored to health means that 100 per cent. of the shares will continue to be owned by Her Majesty's Government?

The Prime Minister: I can confirm to my hon. Friend absolutely that our manifesto sets out our policy. We have given the Royal Mail greater commercial freedom and have no plans whatever to privatise it.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): On Monday, the adjudicator, Dame Barbara Mills, published her annual report, which revealed that 50 per cent. of the complaints that she considered were related to tax credits and that of those, 86 per cent. were found in favour of the complainant. Faced with that and two other damning reports, the House might reasonably expect the responsible Minister to have resigned by now. Given that that has not happened, will the First Lord of the Treasury now give an undertaking that those who have faced demands for repayment of money will be given an amnesty in each and every case where the Treasury is responsible?

The Prime Minister: In fact, my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has said already that we will not seek to get the money back if the error is on the part of the Inland Revenue. In the interests of the general taxpayer,
 
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however, we obviously cannot say that overpayments resulting from a claimant's change of circumstances should stand. A moment or two ago, I said that criticisms were made in both the CAB report and the ombudsman's report. We have taken those criticisms on board and are acting on them.

Q10. [6088] Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): The modern apprenticeship scheme is to be welcomed, even though it happened to be opposed by the Opposition. Traditionally, youngsters leaving school have taken on apprenticeships. Many years ago, I was an apprentice and I remember the time when 100 apprentices were taken on every year at the shipyard. What is my right hon. Friend going to do about bringing back apprenticeships for plumbers,
 
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joiners, fitters and all the traditional trades? That would make the current crisis in those areas much more manageable.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend raises a point that is important for the economy, and that is why the Learning and Skills Council has almost doubled spending on apprenticeships. By the end of this year we will have almost 300,000 apprenticeships, which is fantastic for our young people. The other thing that we have to do in our school reforms is to start making sure that a proper vocational route is available for young people at the age of 14. That will allow them to gain work experience with employers at an early age. We have concentrated on bringing back apprenticeships in the past few years. There is more to do, but the numbers coming through show that the system is working.


 
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