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.