Apprentices: Wages

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 12th October 2021.

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Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP 2:15 pm, 12th October 2021

3. Mr Harvey asked the Minister for the Economy whether his Department will consider increasing the wage of apprentices due to the increased cost of living. (AQO 2567/17-22)

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The national minimum wage, including that for apprenticeships, is a reserved matter, with policy responsibility resting with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The national minimum wage apprenticeship rate does not apply to higher level apprentices. My focus, however, is on growing high-quality apprenticeships, including higher level apprenticeships that lead to high-quality, well-paid and resilient careers.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

Minister, what steps is your Department taking to encourage more people into trade apprenticeships?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Member for his question. My Department has put in place a package of financial support to encourage employers to return apprentices from furlough through to successful completion of their framework and recruit new apprentices. Information on the apprenticeship return, retain and result scheme and new apprentice recruitment schemes can be found on nibusinessinfo.co.uk.

Employer-led sectoral partnerships operate across various sectors of the economy and are central to the development of the apprenticeship frameworks, from level 2 to level 8, to ensure that they meet the current and future needs of industry in Northern Ireland. For example, the level 3 apprenticeship in IT was recently expanded to include pathways in cybersecurity and digital forensics to reflect the growing demand for skilled workers in those fields. In addition to that, my officials continue to work on extending all age criteria to non-economic priority sectors and the development of public-sector apprenticeships.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

The Minister will be aware that one of the things impacting on the cost of living is the big increase in energy costs, which are associated mostly, although not solely, with the increase in gas prices. Further price increases are predicted in the near future. Does the Minister agree that we need to see a greater intervention from the British Government through funding that is commensurate with the increases to mitigate the rise in the cost of living for workers, families and businesses?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Absolutely. I recognise the impact that those world market increases are having not only on businesses in Northern Ireland but on consumers. I am concerned about the impact that that will have, especially as time goes on. We are certainly in a very uncertain time. Later this week, I will meet my counterpart, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

We can also do things here to help. The Department for Communities takes the lead on fuel poverty issues, and, in my Department, we focus on energy efficiency, which is really important. We should all be aware of that because using less energy will contribute to lower energy costs.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I support any call for additional apprenticeships and for them to pay a fair living wage.

There appears, from speaking to businesses and apprentices currently in the system, to be a backlog because those who have completed the paper-based educational side of the apprenticeship are unable to finish the vocational one due to the impacts of COVID. Are you aware of the issue, Minister? What is being done to alleviate the backlog?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

We are aware of the issue. We want to encourage people to take on apprentices and make sure that they are able to complete their training. The apprenticeship return, retain and result scheme was developed to reduce the risk of apprentices being made redundant. In total, £3,700 per apprentice is available to employers over three incentive payments. The first one is the return element of £500 per furloughed apprentice. The retain element is a maximum of £2,000 over the course of four months, and the result element is £1,200 for successful full framework achievement of a returned apprentice.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

As I said at the start, questions 4 and 13 have been grouped.