Amendment 39

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 15th July 2021.

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Lord Addington:

Moved by Lord Addington

39: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—“Review of apprenticeship levyThe Secretary of State may request a review of the apprenticeship levy in respect of eligible costs definitions, in order to ensure that the funding required for the delivery of local skills improvement plans is optimised and reflects employers’ needs.”Member’s explanatory statementThe purpose of this amendment is to create flexibility in the eligible use of employers’ apprenticeship levy funds.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in speaking on this bit of the Bill and this amendment, I feel like the reserve coming in to fill in for somebody else as my noble friend Lord Storey initially had his name down. When I see that the other co-signatories are here, I am reasonably sure that the team will do the job.

The apprenticeship levy sounds right. It is the idea that if you have a turnover of, I believe, more than £3 million, you will pay into a training levy—apprenticeships through a training levy might have been better in the first place—then you will get something out of it. However, it has never really taken off. We do not really know what it is for or what it is getting in. Of late, we have had a decline in the number of apprenticeships, yet you are still having to pay in. There have been lots of other issues here, such as— although the loophole has been filled—the fact that MBAs have been studied on the money from the apprenticeship levy. Can we have a look at what this is really for? Does it need redefining? Does it need a new level of focus? That is what is behind this amendment. How can we make sure that it is functional and does what we think it was supposed to do? If we actually know that, we will get more encouragement for it and will keep it going forward.

Before I go any further, I want to point out that the Treasury gets money that is not spent at the time. If it is training money, we should make sure that it goes somewhere that trains. Hopefully we will examine questions here, such as would level 1 and 2 activity be taken on here? Should it be for the under-25s if it is supposed to be about youth training? Can we get these things out? Can the Minister, in her reply, let us know exactly what the Government think the future of this institution is? At the moment, it is danger of becoming something faintly ridiculous that is not quite achieving what we think it should. The people are having to look for a way to get the best out of it and get a focus. We could actually use this money to support colleges and institutions in delivering the right type of structure, especially locally, under the course of this Bill.

I hope that, by the end of this discussion, we will have started to find out a little more about the Government’s direction and the use of this very useful pot of money, because if you really want to make this a tax on businesses with turnovers of more than £3 million, let us just call it a tax. Let us take the money back and put it into colleges in the normal way. There really is not any point in having this label on this institution if it does not function. If we are going to have an effective training levy, taking out apprenticeships might be the best start for it, so that you are not actually tied to that, and doing something else with it. I hope that, by the end of this debate, we will have a clearer idea of the future direction of this because this really is starting to damage the idea of apprenticeships more than it actually helps. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees 4:45 pm, 15th July 2021

I call the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green. No? I call the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, it is an unexpected pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington, with his straight talking. I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Storey, in introducing a greater degree of flexibility in the use of employers apprenticeship levy funds.

I am particularly glad to see the involvement of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, who brings practical experience of what works from running a training business and of the red tape—my words, not his—of complying with regulatory conditions, which I fear this Bill increases too much. The backdrop to all this is a dramatic fall in apprenticeship numbers in recent years—exactly the opposite of what we wanted and promised to achieve. A great deal of effort has been put into improving the quality and level of apprenticeships but I fear that, perversely, this has excluded many who would have benefited from the discipline and recognition of a successful apprenticeship, for example in my old industry of retail. However, my noble friend the Minister may have a better explanation for the decline and be able to reassure us that the fall has come to an end.

I was at the birth of the apprenticeship levy as the Minister who took the legislation, the child of Nick Boles, through our House. As noble Lords may have sensed earlier, I am passionate about apprenticeships, which were beginning to be a lost art, but I did have some carefully disguised doubts about the design of the arrangements for administering the levy. The system is a bureaucratic one and was led by education, rather than employers, so bigger employers paid a substantial levy. This often came off their existing training budgets; they were then unable to fix their training into the mould laid down by the Civil Service, so the levy ended up as a tax.

Perhaps my noble friend the Minister can explain why things are better now. In particular, where a company has surplus levy credits, can these be allocated to their supply chain or pledged to other companies without the levy payer having to become responsible in any way for the training in that other firm? That requirement was a real barrier to good practice and spreading the levy into the supply chain. What is the current cap on the new arrangements in percentage or other terms? Has the inevitable move to digital made the system more efficient, with fewer requirements to keep unnecessary records for inspection and more trust in employers to lead and train their apprentices? Or have more requirements been laid down in the digital world because, in theory, it is so very easy?

Amendment 39 seems to suggest that the levy funds could be diverted in other ways, which I might be more concerned about if it led to pressure for a rise in the levy. Companies can ill afford a levy increase at present, especially those whose training budgets have been hit hard by Covid. Before we reach Report, I would like to understand better what is planned for apprenticeships. Apprenticeships provide a passport to mobility from one job to a better one. They provide a route to advancement to people who do not need or want to go to university and incur debt doing so. If we could massively increase their numbers and their status on the German model, that would contribute to happiness and to growth.

Photo of Lord Aberdare Lord Aberdare Crossbench

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe. I suspect that her knowledge of apprenticeships is far greater than mine and I appreciate her remarks. I also strongly agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said at the beginning of this debate.

I have added my name to this important amendment because apprenticeships need to be an integral part of the new skills and education system which the Government are rightly seeking to create. They are employer-led and job-focused, and they cover all levels, from GCSEs up to degree level. Through the levy, they provide a mechanism whereby employers contribute to the cost of skills training—where, at times, they have been less than forthcoming.

However, as we have heard, there is a widespread recognition that the levy is not working as well as it should. Relatively few employers are able to use more than a small proportion of their levy funds. Even for major employers in the energy and utilities sector, it is only just over 50%. So, to maximise the funding they can recoup, they tend to use a high proportion of the funds for apprenticeships that are about upskilling or reskilling existing employees, rather than taking on or training new, young apprentices. This is perfectly understandable and, of course, reskilling and upskilling are good things to do—but the result is that the number of 16 to 25 year-old apprentices has not grown nearly as much as the number of over-25s. Although there are mechanisms for employers to transfer up to 25% of their levy funds to other employers who can use them, the process seems overcomplicated and take-up has been pretty low.

At the same time as levy payers are unable to use all their levy funds—with much of the unused funding going back to the Treasury—there appears to be a shortage of apprenticeship funding for non-levy payers. So the impact of the levy on the total funding available for skills training has been rather less than might have been hoped. It is not even clear whether the total amount of funding going into apprenticeships is significantly greater than before the levy was introduced.

The word that crops up most often in discussions with employers about the levy is “inflexible”. As I have said, apprenticeships will surely be a significant element of LSIPs and they need to be properly integrated. I have felt for some time that it would make sense to recast the apprenticeship levy as a wider skills levy—perhaps with a lower payment threshold to bring more employers into the net of contributing towards training. But, at least, if employers in an LSIP area are not able to use all their levy funds, why should it not be possible for those funds to be used for other, defined LSIP training priorities? In any case, what is needed is a review of the apprenticeship levy system in the light of experience to date. It must be clear how it relates to the wider post-16 education and skills system, as set out in the White Paper and now in this Bill.

Amendment 39 does no more than encourage the Secretary of State to conduct such a review. In my view, that is the answer to the argument that it does not belong in this Bill. Well, it does belong in this Bill—it is fundamental to it—and the review is to ensure that levy funds are used in a way that is integrated with the priorities of local skills plans and properly reflects employers’ needs. Of course, such a review must not reduce the amount of funding available for the apprenticeships that are so badly needed. It should seek to maximise the funding available from the levy and to optimise its use in pursuing local and national skills priorities. I look forward to the Minister telling us how this will be achieved—but the review proposed by the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, would be a very good place to start.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

We will go back to the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, to see whether he wishes to participate.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

Thank you, my Lords. I apologise that, on the previous occasion, I committed the offence of forgetting to unmute.

I am aware—as are many other noble Lords—of the deficiencies of the apprenticeship levy. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, almost said, we should be careful before we throw the baby out with the bathwater. It has done a lot of good. It has focused employers’ minds on the importance of apprenticeships. We have an Institute for Apprenticeships which is involving employers in creating new standards. I agree with the noble Baroness who said that there was a need for reform. But a consultative process is going on. I ought to have declared my interest as a national apprenticeship ambassador.

Employers already have the ability to use apprenticeship levy money to support not just supply chain companies but other companies outside their supply chain, and there has been a better take-up of that. Indeed, the Government have made more of the apprenticeship levy available. My concern at the moment is that, if we are really looking for growth in apprenticeships, this needs to be in the area of small and medium enterprises, especially in small and micro companies. Those companies frequently complain that the administration is too complicated, and that they find it a burden. We should bear in mind that many are saying, “Look, I’m struggling just to keep my business afloat and now you want me to take on an apprentice”. My response is to be understanding We need to work on helping them to remove some of that administrative and basic training burden. I also say to them, “Look, having a young person whose digital skills might be a lot more advanced than yours can often be of benefit to your company”.

I agree that some of the apprenticeship levy money has been spent in the wrong place. My concern is the 16 to 18 group, where the levels of youth unemployment are exceedingly high. I have already acknowledged the work of the job coaches, but more needs to be done on that front. So I am in favour of reform of the apprenticeship levy. I do not think that we should call it something else. We are just beginning to see a much better understanding by both parents and potential apprentices of the value of apprenticeships. I was interested in a recent development. UCAS, which used to be the clearing house just for those interested in going to university, has now opened another portal where people will be made aware of apprenticeship routes and vacancies. So reform is needed, but I still think that the basic concept is right. There are always areas where things could be improved, perhaps including the role of the Institute for Apprentices.

The apprenticeship levy is a bit like the curate’s egg—good in parts. I think the Government are aware of that, which is why there is a consultative process. I welcome the opportunity for the Committee to have this debate.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, this seems to be our only opportunity, in considering the Bill, to mention the words “apprenticeship” and “levy” in the same sentence. We should utter these words sotto voce because, at Second Reading, the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, made it very clear that the levy was beyond the scope of the Bill. That is not the fault of the noble Baroness, of course, but speeches by several noble Lords at Second Reading, which have been reinforced today, demonstrated that I am not alone in finding it rather perplexing that the levy does not merit a mention in the Bill. This is despite the fact that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education—which develops and approves apprenticeships and technical qualifications with employers—is quite prominent in clauses that we shall consider in later debates on the Bill.

Apprenticeships are key to ensuring that Britain is equipped with a well-skilled workforce in the years ahead. The levy scheme—which we have supported in principle—has yet to produce anything like the effects hoped for and required. So, while I am happy to support the intent of this amendment—and understand the reasoning behind it on the basis of what the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said in introducing it—I urge caution at this stage with regard to the levy and using its funds for any purpose other than apprenticeships. In that, I think I am reflecting the comments which my noble friend Lord Young has just made.

In a briefing for noble Lords, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers pointed out that, prior to the pandemic, the levy was heading towards an overspend on apprenticeships. It quoted the National Audit Office report and the subsequent Public Accounts Committee hearing and suggested that should the expected economic recovery, much trumpeted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, come to pass, that danger might return.

I am a bit confused. We believe that the levy should be rebalanced to ensure that more apprenticeship opportunities are available for young people, and at entry levels. A stand-alone budget for non-levy-paying SMEs is also needed. My confusion comes from what we know about the levy in its second two-year term—and we know it because of a reply on 24 May by the Minister, Gillian Keegan, to a Written Question from the shadow Apprenticeships Minister Toby Perkins MP. We know from that reply that between May 2019 and April 2021 there was an underspend of £2.1 billion, according to the Government. I know that the Government do not use the term “underspend”; they prefer to call them “expired funds”. What Ministers do not say is what happens to those expired funds: do they simply return to the black hole that is the Treasury? How much went to the small companies that do not pay the levy? Like my noble friend Lord Young, my main concern is small and medium-sized enterprises, where there is a need for a stand-alone budget, as I have said. That must be considered alongside the review mentioned in the amendment.

In small towns, SMEs are the main source of employment and, if they do not receive funds, the availability of apprenticeships in those sorts of areas will be very limited. This should be part of the levelling-up agenda, we believe. The Government talk a lot about that but are yet to deliver on it. We believe that the apprenticeship levy needs more time to grow and that employers, especially non-levy-paying employers, should make greater use of it. As I said, while supporting the intent of Amendment 39, we believe that, at this stage, to consider spending levy funds on anything other than apprenticeships is probably premature.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 5:00 pm, 15th July 2021

My Lords, now that I have de-masked myself, I will first make two remarks to the noble Lord, Lord Watson. In my enthusiasm to start my speaking role on this Bill, I did not thank him for his kind words in welcoming me to the Dispatch Box. I also acknowledge completely his point about the timing of various announcements and the need to ensure that noble Lords have as much information as possible to help them to scrutinise proposals for this Bill. We will endeavour to do our best in that regard.

I am grateful, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for giving us, on behalf of his noble friend, the opportunity to discuss apprenticeships, which are at the heart of the Government’s skills ambitions. As we recover from the impact of Covid-19, apprenticeships are more important than ever in helping businesses to recruit the right people and to develop the skills that they need.

I hope that noble Lords will allow me a little time to outline a few principles of the apprenticeship levy and its funding, as that will respond to some of the points made in this debate. The funds available to levy-paying employers through their apprenticeship service accounts can be used for apprenticeship training or assessment in their own businesses, or transferred to other employers. They are not the same, however, as the Department for Education’s annual apprenticeships budget.

While those unspent funds, therefore, expire from the employer’s accounts after two years, the broader funding contributes to the budget set by the Department for Education, according to its rules, and funds other costs associated with apprenticeships. This includes training and assessment for apprenticeships for employers that do and do not pay the levy, the cost of English and maths tuition and additional payments to support young apprenticeships—as I heard from noble Lords, those are a priority—and those with additional learning support needs.

On Amendment 39, I reassure noble Lords that we keep apprenticeship funding policy under review. I say to the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Aberdare, among others, that a key principle of the apprenticeship levy is that we should only pay for apprenticeship training and assessment costs from the apprenticeship budget, as apprenticeships deliver a significant return on investment from the public purse, rather than using the levy to fund wider skills training needs.

We have an ambitious agenda for apprenticeships and we have made huge strides forward with the apprenticeship reforms, but we cannot and will not stop here. We want to grow the programme, drive up quality and improve apprenticeships, to the benefit of all employers and ultimately the economy, through increased skills and jobs. While widening the scope of the apprenticeships budget to pay for other costs or skills training, even for a time-limited period, would not be in line with the Government’s aims for the programme, I hope that noble Lords who have raised questions about how it currently operates will be reassured by some of the improvements that we are making to make it easier for employers to use and to encourage take-up by potential apprentices.

We continue to listen to employers and to adapt apprenticeships to better meet their needs. Work is under way on a package of improvements that respond directly to employer feedback, so that employers can make better use of their apprenticeship funds.

First, we are introducing a new service that will make it easier for employers that pay the apprenticeship levy to transfer funds in their accounts to other employers, including smaller employers. Large employers will be able to pledge funds for transfer and other employers will be able to receive these funds, so that both will benefit from those transfers. In response to a question from, I think, my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, the lead employer that is transferring those funds will not retain any responsibility for the provision of training after the transfer. It is not an additional burden on them.

Secondly, we are helping employers to choose more innovative training models, such as front-loaded training and accelerated apprenticeships, which will help apprentices with relevant skills and experience to complete their training more quickly. Finally, we are supporting sectors of the economy that have more flexible working patterns, such as the creative industries. We will shortly launch a £7 million fund to help organisations in England to set up and expand new flexi-job apprenticeship schemes.

The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, asked about the funding available for apprenticeships. In 2021-22, the funding available for investment in apprenticeships in England is almost £2.5 billion. That is double what was spent in 2010-11. We have increased the investment available for apprenticeships.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about the aims of the apprenticeships programme and its direction of travel. Our reforms to the programme have all been focused on making them longer and better, with more off-the-job training and proper assessment at the end. Many pre-reform apprenticeships were of low quality and involved little or no training. That is what we have aimed to change.

We know, however, that there is more work to be done and, in addition to the reforms that I have mentioned that will make it easier for employers to take up their levy funds, we have introduced new incentives for those employers, particularly during the pandemic, to take on new apprentices. Until the end of March those incentive payments were £1,500 for those aged 25 and over and £2,000 for those under 25—71,140 incentive payments were paid up to that date. We have increased the incentive to £3,000 and that remains in place until 30 September.

I hope that noble Lords take some reassurance from what I have outlined that we remain committed to the apprenticeship programme. While we do not agree with diverting apprenticeship funding to other forms of skills training, we acknowledge the need to continue to review and adapt the apprenticeship programme so that there is better take-up and it works better for employers and those who will potentially benefit from it. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I have received no requests to speak after the Minister so I call the noble Lord, Lord Addington, to conclude the debate on this amendment.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, wanted to come in.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

I have a quick question for clarification. I think what the Minister is saying is that she wants quality of apprenticeships, not quantity—for example, that level 2 apprenticeships are a thing of the past. I was saying that I am rather sorry about that, but I would like to be clear, either now or before Report, exactly what the direction of travel is on the lower grades. I completely support those doing level 6 including even the stonemasons , but I think that there is a place, especially among youngsters—those between 16 and 23 years old—whom we are trying to get to do apprenticeships, to do something perhaps a bit less sophisticated that brings discipline and the sense of attainment that apprenticeships can bring.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I believe the Government are aiming for quality and quantity when it comes to apprenticeships. On the noble Baroness’s specific question about lower-level apprenticeships, I will ensure that I write to her with that specific information before Report.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this has been one of those slightly odd debates. One thing that we have established is that it is complicated—“We are not quite sure what it should do; we think it is quite a good thing, so please do not get rid of it now.” That certainly seemed to be the attitude of the Labour Party. They may be right about that, but at the moment there is a great deal of scepticism about whether this actually delivers. The intentions are good, but that is the thing that paves the way to hell. Can we please just make sure that we get a little more clarity on this? Whether it is worth returning to on Report, I will have to have a word with my noble friend Lord Storey after he has read this debate.

I felt, listening to the first part of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, that with a bit of tweaking you would get to a classic sketch about bureaucracy in some lofty TV show of my youth when people were being clever. Because it is complicated, but there is an intention behind it. The noble Baroness replied, “Yes, but we are trying to do things.” There was a lack of clarity here and focus at the heart of this. We should keep an eye on this, because if it continues to bring itself into disrepute, it may well be doing more harm than good. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 39 withdrawn.

Amendments 40 and 40A not moved.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we now move to the group beginning with Amendment 41. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.

Clause 5: Institutions in England within the further education sector: local needs