I have two main points to land. The first is that the best way for someone to get work-ready and improve their life chances is to get a job and progress in the job they have. The second is that we need a clear-eyed look at existing training provision, including the apprenticeship levy, to provide thousands of jobs in small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the backbone of the country. I am thinking particularly of the jobs and businesses in the Stroud district.
Many moons ago, a boss told me that I had bouncebackability. That was a polite and positive way of noting that I get up every time I mess up and fall flat on my face, which is pretty often. That boss changed my life. Being a free school meal kid from a chaotic single-parent family and leaving home at 15 means you basically get written off. The statistics say that you are in trouble, but that does not have to be a given, as my story will testify.
I started work as a secretary. Over time, the firm saw something in me and got me into a training programme. I attended night school and law school at weekends; it took a long time, but I qualified as a solicitor. I had no debt and I had years of experience under my belt. However, I hid all of that for a long time, because I was embarrassed. Most lawyers go to university, and Tony Blair had rammed it into all of us that university was the only way forward. I was wrong to be embarrassed and he was wrong to have such a narrow focus. I did not understand that all my jobs—paper round, supermarket checkout girl, aerobics teacher and spinning instructor, which were all done to pay law school fees—and years at the coalface of work had equivalent value to a degree. I was wrong, and I am happy to admit it, because I have bouncebackability.
The best way to be work-ready and life-ready—to grasp the chances that come across your desk—is to actually go to work. Social mobility is not just about poor kids getting into Oxford; for workless families, a parent holding down any job will improve the social mobility of their children. Becoming a manager or retraining into a second career is social mobility in action. Sadly, however, snobbery about further education and having no degree continues to this day. To see that we need only look at Carol Vorderman’s attack on my right hon. Friend Johnny Mercer and his wife, where she said in a tweet:
“not a degree in sight…who’d employ them?”.
That is the latest example of nonsense; dismissing a Minister who works tirelessly for the armed forces and veterans for not having gone to university is bad enough, but being deliberately condescending about the lives of millions of people who did not go to university is unforgiveable. I used to admire Carol Vorderman a lot, before she decided to eat so much political hate for breakfast to get social media hits. Now, sadly, I just feel sorry for her.
Thankfully, this Government recognise the quality of life that employment and training can bring, and it is absolutely at the heart of our growth strategy. Despite the global economic turmoil, the UK still has its lowest unemployment since the 1970s, at 3.9%, and the fourth highest employment rate in the G7. I give credit to the Stroud jobcentre and the Department for Work and Pensions team, which the Secretary of State visited. They are doing an incredibly amount locally, taking a bespoke, careful look at how we help people off long-term sick and into jobs.
“Productive and meaningful employment gives us an opportunity to learn and develop our skills. It allows us to afford a better standard of living…and brings structure and routine which helps mental health and wellbeing.”
At a time when a fifth of people are not confident about their financial position, millions rely on their job. Jobs, training and in-work development are therefore the gold standard. I set up the all-party parliamentary group on the future of employability to explore this issue further after a decade of discussions about education with my friend Ronel Lehmann, who founded Finito, which helps young people get work-ready. The APPG has also been backed by the Institute of the Motor Industry and the Wise Group, which are incredibly helpful in thinking through how we can make people get into jobs and stay in them.
I turn to my second issue: I believe that we need a clear-eyed look at existing training provision to help SMEs and to help people stay in jobs. The Government are stealing a march on creating lifelong learning opportunities. There are a range of training programmes, including skills bootcamps, sector-based work academy programmes —SWAPs—the Multiply programme supporting adult numeracy, and free skills for jobs courses. Returnships are basically all of the above along with apprenticeships, but for people over 50 returning to work or seeking a career change.
However, I have a challenge for the Minister. I do not believe that we need new-fangled policy or legislation. We have everything we need. I do not want any more fancy-pants new schemes; we need to reform the ones we have. We need to accept that good products such as the apprenticeship levy require changing to make them business friendly. We should not scrap them but improve them.
Take returnships, for example. More than 500,000 over-50s have stepped away from the workplace post pandemic, so I completely understand the focus on that age group, but with the rise of technology such as artificial intelligence, it will be people in their 30s and 40s who may need to change employment. Let us tweak that policy and see who else we can help.
So much depends on the efficiency of the apprenticeship levy. I listen carefully to organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, to businesses such as Renishaw and BorgWarner in my constituency that have apprentices, and to local companies that desperately want apprentices. Many feel that the system is just not working for them.
I appreciate that this is strictly a Department for Education issue, but it is crucial to employment, so I am grateful that the Minister for Employment will be responding to the debate. Every apprenticeship is a job with bells on, and it so often leads to a long and meaningful career. It is also cheaper to the taxpayer, given that the Government had to write off 44% of student loans in 2021-22.
The DWP and the Treasury are grappling with the issue of economic inactivity and the millions on out-of-work benefits. I respectfully believe that, along with the Department for Education, they need to take a keen interest in the apprenticeship levy and listen to what Stroud district employers, the Association of Colleges and chambers of commerce all over the country are telling us. It cannot be right, as UKHospitality points out, that one of my local pubs cannot transfer its levy to another pub in the same chain, and that the levy will just disappear back into the Treasury if it is not used. We can make changes to make this thing work better for business.
Let me turn to some clever bits. I cannot take credit for them; they came from the brains at Policy Exchange—I recommend the report by Iain Mansfield and Toby Hirst, “Reforming the Apprenticeship Levy”—and from my local college, SGS Stroud, which asked me to cover many of Policy Exchange’s recommendations. Before I come to my recommendations, I will outline a few points for us to have in the back of our brains.
Over the last five years, £4.3 billion has been raised by the levy but then not spent on apprenticeships. A recent report by UCAS and the Sutton Trust found that 430,000 students were interested in apprenticeships but only 5,000 a year are starting degree-equivalent courses. I have a university technical college in my patch, which was started by my predecessor, Neil Carmichael. I went there with Lord Baker. We had its students—young women science, technology, engineering and maths students—up here this week saying that they are desperate for apprenticeships but they cannot find one. These are young people with brilliant minds. We have to get them into the jobs that they want.
We know that learning on the job is attractive to people of all ages. Learning at an older stage in life in an apprenticeship, so that we can earn and learn, is crucial to those of us with families and mortgages who need or want a career change. Yet unfortunately, the total number of apprenticeship starts has gone down to 349,000 in 2021-22, which is significantly below the 393,000 in 2018-19, and lower than the high of 500,000. Therefore, while the quality has definitely gone up, the starts are something that we need to look at, because they matter.
The number of starts in SMEs has fallen by almost 50%, but small employers all over the shop, many of which I speak to locally, want to train up their own workers. As Policy Exchange explains in detail in its report, the requirement to pass English and Maths at level 2, which is a GCSE equivalent, means that somebody can be barred from achieving an apprenticeship qualification in bricklaying, childcare or IT due to a lack of achievement at school, which may have been years or decades ago. We desperately need these workers. I am fighting campaigns about childcare workers, so what is happening at the moment is madness.
I am very taken by what my hon. Friend is saying about the ordinariness—if such a word exists—of the training needs. In my own constituency, which the Minister has been kind enough to visit, tourism and hospitality are the major employers. I see on an almost daily basis employers in hotels, pubs and restaurants talking about how they are trying to offer employment to the young as a first job, to those in middle age who want something more flexible, to those who are returning to the workforce at an older age, and—I say this as the Minister for Employment is here—increasingly to those who are perhaps on the edges of employment in conventional settings. A little more effort and a bit of help from the Department for Work and Pensions makes them suitable for the work environment. Does my hon. Friend agree that the packages and the help that the Government offer need to be applicable in those very ordinary and routine settings?
I absolutely do agree, and I welcome the intervention. The reality is that talking about these everyday jobs—jobs that we desperately need in every single one of our constituencies—is key to impressing on the Government why these changes are needed. The bureaucracy and the pain in the neck that come with trying to work through the apprenticeship levy are actually putting off quite a lot of small businesses. They do not have the extra department to do the paperwork for them. However, Policy Exchange and I have some ideas about that.
There are loads of recommendations in the report, but I have picked out a few that would really push forward on this. The first would be to transform the levy into a growth and skills levy. That would allow employers to spend up to 25% of funds on high-quality employer-relevant skills training, including shorter and more flexible courses. On my hon. Friend’s point, this is about flexibility for everyday businesses and everyday people.
Secondly, we want to see a £3,000 incentive for every young apprentice trained by an SME to help support smaller businesses with off-the-job training costs. We also think that there need to be course finishing bonuses to make sure that we encourage learners to go all the way through. The adult learning budget is a fraction of the tertiary education budget, so I would like to see some funding made available for that. I would view it as levelling up skills and jobs around the country.
Thirdly, we need to create SME roles and hubs at colleges and growth hubs to support SMEs in dealing with the bureaucracy and the recruitment of apprentices. We have regional schools commissioners, so why not a regional apprenticeship facilitator—an RAF? I am sure the actual RAF will have something to say about that, but why can we not provide these regional support systems?
Fourthly, we could abolish the apprenticeship minimum wage, with all apprentices to be paid the national minimum wage for their age. I recognise that that is a Treasury matter and that we are not flush with money in this country—nor indeed is any country in the world right now—but in financially constraining times youngsters will choose a job in a supermarket that pays more than an apprenticeship. That is not only because they need the cash, but because apprenticeships are hard graft. We need to reward them—it will help all of us. I would also like to see the immigration shortage occupations list linked to skills training. Employers should be able to use the levy to fund qualifications to help them to train up local talent instead of being forced to rely on immigration.
I would like to know what the Minister, with his employment hat on, thinks of those proposals. Will he tell us about what DWP is doing to use employment to improve the life chances of people of all ages, and to make the UK’s existing training provision work for small and medium-sized businesses? I want training and education to work for work.
Before the Minister responds, I will make a short note on work placements. The APPG on the future of employability is looking at how we can increase the numbers of work placements available and allow people to gain experience at any time of their life. A constituent told me today that his daughter had an incredible work placement last week at Steller Systems in Nailsworth. It is a naval architecture company, so that is quite cool. She had a brilliant time learning with the staff in a highly specialist area; they did not need to give their time, but they did, and she will no doubt benefit from that for the rest of her career. We need to normalise those opportunities throughout the country.
On a final note, there were some empty Stroud noticeboards at Lansdown Hall during the pandemic, which were covered in the local newspapers. One of them said:
“The best way to learn anything is by doing it. Model some clay, carve a piece of wood—or a carrot! Sculpture can be made out of anything, I think it’s a question of finding a material and visual language that speaks to you.”
I say, “Over to you, Minister, to sculpt your response.”
Good news today: vacancies are down, employment is up, economic inactivity is down and my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie has brought forward a crucial debate that could not be more timely.
We start from a situation where we have created over 5,450,000 apprenticeships since May 2010. That is an astonishing figure, well over 5 million, and it is something to be celebrated. However, I take the tone of my hon. Friend’s debate to be both a celebration of what the Government have done, rightly lauding our efforts to get more people into employment, a celebration of the apprenticeship levy and the clear successes it has brought to this country, and a desire to do better. That is something that I utterly endorse.
I am fortunate that I am responding for only one Department. I think I would probably need to respond on behalf of the Treasury, the Department for Education, the Department for Business and Trade and various other Departments that my hon. Friend rightly cited, but, bluntly, I am happy to set out the position as best I can. I endorse what she says about the Policy Exchange report, which is eloquent and well-made and makes some very good points. She and I have also spoken in the past to the Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, who only a couple of months ago brought forward a specific Education Committee report looking at further education and post-16 education, all of which should be noted by the House.
It is unquestionably the case that upskilling our workforce is the most important thing. We need to do that not least because we are trying to reduce unemployment and improve social inclusion, productivity and progression. I made two visits to the beautiful constituency of my hon. Friend Robin Millar a little while back to see the work that is done by the DWP in his part of the world. I was on the phone to them this afternoon in respect of cases in Ynys Môn and the work that our hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie is doing to try to deal with the issues in Llangefni. The staff there are fantastically committed to transforming the outcomes that we all hope for.
I was also privileged to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, to meet Tom Robinson from the business Adaptavate and go around his factory. That was in my former life as a pensions Minister; I then enjoyed a brief 49-day holiday as a Back Bencher before returning in this present role, where I hope I can contribute some further matters.
When I had to secure the survival of the Amlwch jobcentre, that was a particular challenge, but my mum is a Llewellyn and grew up in the Tywi valley, so I have some Welsh in me beyond the ability to order two beers in Welsh.
The jobcentre in Stroud does a great job. I will make two points before I get into the nuts and bolts of the submissions from my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud. I am also proud to call my right hon. Friend Johnny Mercer and his wife, Felicity, friends. They have very much been abused by others over the last few days. My hon. Friend is right to cite Ronel Lehmann, an old friend of mine who has done great work with Finito and in creating opportunities.
I have over the last few months met the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, all the key business organisations, and, most importantly, UKHospitality. We are trying our hardest to drive forward true change to ensure that we get proper job opportunities created to fill the vacancies that clearly exist in the hospitality industry up and down the country. I was privileged to meet all the leading players in the hospitality industry last week, on
I look forward to being before my hon. Friend’s APPG on the future of employability, which I am booked in to do in September—that is in the diary. It is unquestionably the case that although the Government have committed £1.3 billion this year to fund a range of opportunities designed to raise skill levels and, subsequently, social mobility, and that a huge amount of money has been invested in the national skills fund, we are also trying to remove barriers that prevent people from progressing—be it through universal credit or the in-work progression that we know is so vital, or through the utilisation of the apprenticeship levy and the skills that are there.
It is difficult for me, in my humble position as a junior Minister, to articulate that there will be widespread change to the apprenticeship levy, but I believe that we should support the institution that it is, while asking ourselves how we can improve and enhance the offer. My hon. Friend set out a number of particular recommendations, one of which was familiar to me, because I have met Punch Pubs, Greene King, Budweiser, Heineken, Molson—all the big players in hospitality. They all made the simple point that they pay the apprenticeship levy but cannot then transfer that to the individual publicans in their franchised pubs up and down the country—no matter which constituency—so that they can employ an apprentice. That seems to me to be something that the Government could look at to see how they could flex that on an ongoing basis.
My hon. Friend also raised the brilliantly named regional apprenticeship facilitators—the RAF of the modern era—and she made a fair point: every one of us has, in our constituencies up and down the country, a regional schools commissioner who looks after our region and drives forward excellence in education in that way. Why would one not try to facilitate that for apprenticeships?
On the £3,000 incentive, I bow to others who know the particulars in more detail. On the abolishment of the apprenticeship minimum wage and harnessing that to the Treasury-led national minimum wage for their age, that is a matter that I am sure my hon. Friend will take up with the Treasury. What I will do, however, is ask my colleagues at DFE, HMT and the Department for Business and Trade to respond to my hon. Friend’s individual points in writing so that she gets the detailed answers on how she can drive forward ongoing change, particularly in the light of the APPG that she runs with others.
It is fair to say that there is a gap we have to acknowledge between the amount of money raised from the apprenticeship levy and the actual spend. How can this country squeeze that gap to achieve the outcomes we all so willingly seek in our constituencies? I certainly hope that that is one of the major things pressed upon me. The Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, feels passionately that there must be enough entry-level apprenticeships on an ongoing basis. Others have also made that point. I have had the opportunity to visit South Essex College with my hon. Friends the Members for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge) and for Southend West (Anna Firth) to see the benefits of T-levels, which are transformational, and other countries are copying them. There is no doubt that we should be doing more in that space and have great opportunity to do so.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that our over-50s offer has to get better. She will know that we have 37 over-50s champions in each region of the country, pioneering and driving forward real change in the attitude of employers and co-workers to older workers—some of us have inexplicably reached the age of 50 and need to ensure a supportive approach to that.
There is no doubt that we need to drive forward the way in which employers look at employment. Why would a particular employer pay somebody to provide a service when the Department for Work and Pensions will provide training for free through a skills bootcamp, a sector-based work academy, returneeships and all manner of other things? We exist up and down the country in over 700 locations, in every constituency. I was honoured to go to the Canvey Island jobcentre recently with the Whip on duty, my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris, and those who work there do a fantastic job of training people up. It is a free service to local employers, and it can be from one week up to 12 weeks. We want more employers to sign up to taking people in this way, and we would like more employers to sign up to T-levels as well. There is no doubt whatsoever that we need to do more in that space.
The childcare reforms that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud pioneered—I know she has been a frequent visitor to the Chancellor in the previous nine months—have, without a shadow of doubt, done great work to drive forward change and provide opportunity, so that individuals can now go to work and have their childcare supported and paid for by the state. That is certainly making a difference in universal credit.
We continue to work closely across Government and with employers and stakeholders to refine the support on offer and more closely align employment and skills. We need to do that because it supports unemployed people who are looking for work. While the present position is very positive in terms of increasing employment, reducing vacancies and a reducing economic inactivity, we all know that there is more to do, and this is a Government who are passionately committed to ensuring that we solve these problems.
Question put and agreed to.