Another month, another broken ministerial pledge. It centres around the delivery of a promise on apprenticeships, and it fuels the let-down felt by people and businesses in my Bristol South constituency.
It seems a long time ago, but the 2015 Queen’s Speech highlighted apprenticeships as a big part of the government’s plan, with a pledge for three million new ones by 2020.
Home to some of the most economically deprived wards in the country, Bristol South sends fewer of its young people to university than anywhere in the UK. So good quality apprenticeship and training opportunities are vital for our young people.
In common with other places, many people in Bristol South who start an apprenticeship don’t finish it. And many apprenticeships do not represent a step-up, which means many people are training at a lower level than their ability. Most A-level apprentices do GCSE-level schemes, and almost all university-age apprenticeships are A-level equivalent or lower.
Then there’s the constituency’s business profile. In Bristol South we have very few large businesses, but we do have hundreds of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). From conversations I have with them I know they’re keen to play a part in achieving the government target, but that they felt in the dark about how to take advantage of the pledge.
Extending opportunities for young people comes above party politics, so I welcomed the government’s three million pledge, and promised to do all I can to support its implementation.
And because it matters so much to the people I represent, I wanted the government to get on with it.
So in March at PMQs I told the Prime Minister that people in Bristol South look forward to their share of the target but asked if there was a delivery plan, or if he was making it up as he went along.
Days later at Business Innovation & Skills Questions I asked Skills Minister Nick Boles for more detail. “We do have a lot of questions that we need to answer,” he acknowledged. “If those questions have not been answered fulsomely in the month of April I shall be severely disappointed,” he admitted.
Like local businesses, families, colleges and other training providers I have been waiting for progress since March, but sadly we have been let down.
We do know that the government’s apprenticeship levy, due to be introduced next spring, will apply to large employers whose total salary bill is above £3 million per year. The idea is that the levy will create a pot of money on which firms will be able to draw to help pay for apprenticeships and training. Levy-paying firms will have priority for the funding, but some of the unspent money is expected to be made available to SMEs.
And we also know, from a short guidance document published in April, some basic principles of the rate at which the levy will apply to large companies, and how it will be imposed on them.
Yet Ministers have still failed to issue any meaningful guidance to SMEs which might wish to use the fund.
SMEs will be expected to make a contribution to the cost of training they want apprentices to undertake, with the government paying the rest, but there is no detail on rates, simply a pledge to ‘confirm it in October 2016’. To make things worse, ‘detailed funding rules that will provide further information on exactly how apprenticeship funding can be used’ by firms of all sizes won’t be finalised until December.
So the April document has failed to ‘fulsomely’ provide answers that SMEs, training providers and would-be apprentices need. The Skills Minister must take urgent steps to address the ‘severe disappointment’ he will no doubt be feeling, by setting out the detail we all need to see.
It’s needed not just by businesses and providers up and down the country, but by young people and their families who deserve to know how skills opportunities will unfold for them in the months and years ahead.
SMEs in Bristol and elsewhere are left hanging until the winter, unable to make any credible future apprenticeship and training plans. And with many young people hoping for an apprenticeship in September following a batch of summer assessment results, it looks as though any substantial new opportunities for SMEs triggered by the levy will not be able to kick off until autumn 2018 at the earliest.
The apprenticeship challenge for SMEs is very different to that facing large business. It’s as if ministers don’t understand this.
So my original question to the Prime Minister remains valid. The government still seems to be making it up as they go along. Meanwhile people are being let down.
I remain determined to do all I can to help improve the quality, quantity and variety of apprenticeship opportunities for my constituents. And I still support the government’s pledge.
But the need for action is now more urgent than ever.
Karin Smyth is MP for Bristol South