This week marks National Apprenticeship Week, and is an opportunity to celebrate the success of apprenticeships and encourage more people to consider this as a pathway to their chosen career. Now in its 12th year there are events taking place in Parliament and beyond, and I will be making a return visit to a local apprenticeship provider based here in my own constituency.

Skills and apprenticeships are something I have long been a big supporter of, and there is nothing like hearing from young people about their experiences and their achievements. The spectrum of apprenticeships is now wide reaching, extending well beyond what was traditionally on offer, and providing many more opportunities. With our strong manufacturing base in the West Midlands apprenticeships are also a key part of growing our skills base for the future.

Locally in my own constituency I have seen and discussed the success of apprenticeships at first hand, through meeting some of our local employers as well as Aldridge based In-Comm Training and Business Services. It is always good to hear from local businesses about the continued benefits of apprenticeships and they are to be congratulated for their willingness to invest time and money into their apprentices. Without their continued investment the skills gap would be much wider.

With recent economic figures showing that wages have risen at their fastest pace in 10 years and employment has reached a record high, we should recognise the role of local employers and businesses, both large and small, in helping to achieve this. Across Aldridge-Brownhills unemployment continues to fall and stands 60% lower than in April 2010. This is to be welcomed.

Having come from a small business background myself I know all too well how small businesses and manufacturers play a vital part in driving this economic growth and job creation, and as your Member of Parliament I continue to champion the small business community to ensure they receive the support they need from the Government.

International Women’s Day is on the 8th March and is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This year the theme is ‘Let’s build a gender balanced world’, and it is a day that will be marked in Parliament with a debate in the Chamber. Since November 1918 and the passing of the Qualification of Women Act, allowing women to stand for Parliament we have only had 491 women MPs, compared to 4503 men. I am the 431st female MP to have been elected, and today female representation in the House of Commons now stands at 32% (209 out of 650).

Quite clearly there is still more to do even in Parliament, for us to achieve gender balance through equal representation, hence the cross party campaign 50:50 Parliament which many MPs from across the House support.