My Lords, I too am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Young, for bringing this very important subject to our attention. Like him and both the noble Lords who have spoken, I do not suppose that anybody would argue against the value of apprenticeships, or the principles that undergird the apprenticeship levy. Indeed, the Church of England is a very strong supporter of both, as well as a significant contributor to the levy. If that is an interest, I am glad to declare it. We are keen to play our part in improving skills and increasing productivity throughout the UK workforce, as well as providing more opportunities for young people to find worthwhile employment.
In the earlier debate today we were reminded of the very significant connection between just such worthwhile employment and mental well-being. However, like the noble Lords who have already spoken, we do not believe that the process is yet as effective as it might be for achieving those laudable ends. I shall briefly mention four issues.
One of the main problems appears to be the speed at which the regulator is able to respond to the development of new standards. Our own church minister apprenticeship standard is one example. The standard itself, which has been in development since 2017, has been approved, but written confirmation of what is known as its endpoint assessment has still to arrive. There are also some outstanding questions about the allocation of its funding band. We understand that the Church of England is not the only so-called trailblazer to have experienced long delays while attempting to introduce new standards. To that end we all welcome a recent speech by the Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, Anne Milton, on exactly this issue.
Closely connected with the problem of speed is that of apprenticeship levy spending. The rules governing access to levy funds have been criticised, not least already this afternoon, as overcomplex and inflexible. Due largely to the sorts of delays I have mentioned, it is estimated that nationally, large employers, including the Church of England, are in effect losing as much as £12 million a month. We welcome the extension of the maximum levy fund payment from 10% to 25% for what are known as organisations and stakeholders in supply chains, which for us in the Church of England translates as parishes and dioceses, but at the same time we would appreciate a rather more realistic approach to the way such payments can be accessed.
A third matter of concern—it was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young, in his introductory remarks—relates to the need for provision at levels 2 and 3; in particular, for those young people who are just starting out in their careers and trying to find a place on the apprenticeship ladder. We have already heard various statistics, but since the apprenticeship levy was introduced there has been a 42% decline in the number of level 2 apprenticeships. This is not helped the formation of a clear apprenticeship pathway. As the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has pointed out, it risks leaving behind people with lower skills and those from more disadvantaged communities. What is more, the recently published Augar review, which has been referenced already, called for,
“an efficient distribution of Level 3, 4 and 5 provision within reasonable travel-to-learn areas”.
That has particular resonance for those of us who live, as I do, in the more rural parts of England. I would be grateful to know from the Minister what plans Her Majesty’s Government may have for tackling the provision of lower-end apprenticeships, especially in the more remote and sparsely populated regions of this country.
Finally, as we have already been reminded, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I am aware that the original target of 3 million new starts by 2020 will not now be reached. I appreciate the new emphasis that has been placed on quality rather than quantity. Of course, quality is tremendously important, but that does not mean that numbers no longer matter. It would be good to know what sort of figure the Minister might regard as a suitable replacement target.