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.