Apprenticeship bursaries paid to persons leaving local authority care

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 4th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Clause 10 exempts care leavers’ apprenticeship bursary payments from income tax. This Bill contains areas on which there will be disagreements across the Committee, and areas that the Opposition Front-Bench team has noted that it wants to prioritise in scrutinising the Government, but there are other clauses that are essentially technical in nature on which I doubt there is any serious disagreement about their importance or intent. This, I suggest, is one of those clauses.

Young people who are in care or have left care who choose to start an apprenticeship receive a £1,000 bursary to help them to make the transition to the workplace for their practical studies. The extra financial support is for those aged 16 to 24 and living in England. Payments such as the care leavers’ apprenticeship bursary would normally be subject to income tax, as such payments relate to employment. Changes made by clause 10 mean that bursary payments made to care leavers who start an apprenticeship are exempt from income tax.

The changes affirm the Government’s commitment to support care leavers and ensure that those in receipt of the bursary can benefit by the full amount. The clause ensures that care leavers starting an apprenticeship will benefit from 100% of the bursary value. It is the right thing to do and I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

The Financial Secretary is right that he will not get much by way of argument from us. The bursary is obviously a laudable policy designed to support people in our society who lived in care as children and who far too often face serious disadvantages in terms of educational outcomes, employment opportunities and life chances.

It is a source of deep regret to me, as the son of a parent who spent time in care—care leavers are a big part of my family—that we have not done more as a country to narrow the attainment and opportunity gap for care leavers. Of course it is right that individuals who are in or have left local authority care who subsequently join an apprenticeship scheme should not be subject to income tax and national insurance contributions. We will certainly not oppose a clause designed to give effect to that.

I have some questions for the Financial Secretary about how the Bill deals with that, as much out of curiosity as anything else. There is an existing exemption in section 776 of the Income Tax (Trading and Other Income) Act 2005 for income from scholarships, which includes bursaries held by an individual in full-time education. Section 776 could have been amended to include the bursary payment, instead of introducing a new section to the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003. I would be grateful if he could clarify why the Government have chosen to enact the provision by amending legislation in that way, rather than using section 776 of the 2005 Act.

I understand that it is the Government’s view that the bursary is employment income rather than other income, but other bursaries are classed as other income, and care leavers could be entitled to bursaries outside an apprenticeship. I would be grateful if the Minister explained why the Government consider this bursary to be employment income. If it is employment income, legislation will be required to exempt the payment from national insurance contributions; if it is not, additional legislation might not be needed. Some understanding of that, for our interest and the interest of all those who follow proceedings such as these closely, would be welcome.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Again, I am not looking to oppose the clause. The aim is laudable, but I want to highlight a couple of things about apprenticeships. Coronavirus could significantly affect the number of apprenticeships that will be available to young people this year and perhaps even into next year as well. What do the Government intend to do to make sure that those opportunities are not lost to a generation of young people who are leaving school as well as leaving care?

As you will appreciate, Ms McDonagh, if those young people do not have the opportunities that they should, the impact on them will be devastating—as it will be on society as a whole if their skills and talents do not go into the workplace. I implore Ministers to look carefully at that, to make sure that they do not miss those young people, and that those concerns are high on their agenda. Apprenticeships can be transformational for young people. They can give them new opportunities and a chance to do something that they would never have anticipated through their family background or their ambitions growing up. It is vital to protect them in the months ahead.

I would also highlight the fact that the minimum wage rate for apprenticeships remains staggeringly low. The Government should look carefully at apprentices more generally. The bursary in the clause is fine and laudable, but apprenticeships for all young people need to be properly remunerated. Some of those young people will have families themselves and will be unable to take up those opportunities if they cannot afford to put food on the table because the apprenticeship rate is so low.

Not all young people live with their families, as the bursary recognises; but all young people who want them should have access to apprenticeships. I urge the Government to reconsider minimum wage rates more generally. There should be a living wage for everyone, but apprenticeship rates in particular are incredibly low in this country and they need to be addressed urgently so that all young people who want to can take up those places.

The Government could also look at the work done in the care review in Scotland. We appreciate that not all the things that could have been done to help young people have been done. The care review took an in-depth look at that. I urge the Minister to look at that and at what more can be done to support young carers in society.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Those were two useful, helpful contributions from the Opposition. The broad answer to the technical question raised by the hon. Member for Ilford North is that this is a cleaner and more direct way of addressing the problem; but I should be delighted to write to him and set out the reasoning in more detail.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of other exemptions. As he will be aware, we are absolutely amenable to considering these things on a case-by-case basis, and if there are others that he thinks deserve further consideration, he is again welcome to write to me and we will give that a review.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central raised a point about apprenticeship opportunities more widely, and she is absolutely right. The Government have already been leaning into the issue of apprenticeships, as she will know, through the levy. There is much more work to be done in this area, and it is well understood, certainly from the Prime Minister down, that the response to the coronavirus may well cause the Government to want to look at the whole area in more detail.

I cannot pass from this topic without drawing the hon. Lady’s attention to a personal interest that I have, which is the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering, in Hereford. That is the new university we are setting up precisely to integrate the academic and the vocational in a way that gives scope for very high value-added learning, using apprenticeships but also actual project work, in a way that is integrated into the engineering curriculum in many ways.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.