Skills Minister Robert Halfon has made his first speech on apprentices, and has laid out in detail his priorities in his new job. Responding to criticism from Labour MPs over the levels of funding for apprenticeships in deprived areas, Halfon was told a gathering at Westminster that much of the flak was based on outmoded thinking, and that he was in fact pushing a new system of skills training.
“I have five priorities in my job,” Halfon said. “The first is to change the culture and prestige of apprenticeships. Now we are going to have big arguments about what the government is doing but I can tell you this, if the government gave a hundred billion pounds tomorrow, we will never get the apprenticeships and skills base we need in our country unless we change the language, the culture, the prestige, the narrative the way apprenticeships are taught in schools or people are encouraged to do apprenticeships and we need massively boost back up the national conversation about the value of apprenticeships and the value of skills.
“The second part of it, and this is where I understand why [Labour MP] David [Lammy] is making the point he is making …I am doing this is partly about economic productivity yes, but also because I believe in social justice and I believe we can provide the people who are on the lowest incomes but also for the people as the prime minster describes, just get by, and provide that opportunity through apprenticeships and skills to literally transform peoples lives and change our country.
“I see apprenticeships as a fundamental part of social mobility and reform and that is why I agreed to do this job and why I am very pleased to be doing it with all the social media responsibilities of social media put aside.
‘No delay to the apprenticeship levy’
“The third part of course is to deliver the apprenticeship levy and then the manifesto commitment of reaching three million apprenticeships and then of course it is no good just having three million it is important to have apprenticeship quality and a state of the art apprenticeship policy.
“The first thing I need to set on the table to you is that there is going to be no delay to the apprenticeship levy. Where we can work together from both sides is looking at the consultation which we have been doing very carefully over the summer, we have nearly 1,000 responses and huge engagement before the official consultation and since by myself and other officials as well as organisations on a regular basis. Having said that, and I know that will not please everyone although some do agree.
“I need to discuss the big issue of frameworks. First thing we also have to mention is the number of money spent on apprenticeships which was always going to be down to roughly two and a half billion as you know. The second thing is of course that the MPs have highlighted areas of concern, and we need to be challenged on this, but there are also frameworks going up. Separate to that STEM subjects are going up substantially so not everything is going down.
‘The new world is very difficult’
“The next thing I would say is that what we have to understand is that we are in a new world and the new world is going to happen when the apprenticeship levy comes in.
“In my view, the criticism we get is based on an old world view, the new world is going to be we are moving from frameworks to standards and the employers are designing the apprenticeship and the new world is very difficult. If you are looking at everything in the old way yes you have a complete case but in the new world who is to say businesses will choose the same frameworks or standards, and who is to say that would be apprentices would choose the same apprenticeships.
“The way things are with behaviour of both businesses and employers because they are designing the new standards this is going to change. When we look at what is happening to funding we need to look at that, but let us remember as I said, not all frameworks are going up and down, in order to encourage employers to employ 16 to 18 year old apprenticeships and they get a significant contribution of £1,000 to them and £1,000 to the provider and on top of that if it is a smaller company with less than 50 people they don’t pay any costs at all.
“We need to look at all of those figures and we are, that is the purpose of the consultation, I expect that there will be some people who are concerned but again as I say that is the purpose of the consultation.
‘I hope we become and apprentice nation’
“In terms of the issue that David [Lammy] rightly raises, I would not be in this job if I thought that the most disadvantaged in our society would be hurt, what is the point of me doing it? It is worth remembering also that again the contribution significantly lessens from the employer if they are people with a local authority care plan or from a care home and I am looking at that issue as I speak but also it is not always the case that the most vulnerable are protected, even that system has flaws.
“If you lived in wealthy street but don’t happen to have any income you will not necessarily get the uplift you need.
“The final thing I would say to you is that as I say, this is a consultation, I am not annoyed by what [opposition MPs] Gordon [Ramsden] and David [Lammy] are doing, I actually welcome it because it helps us with our thinking, if I was them I would be doing exactly the same thing.
“I hope we become and apprentice nation and I hope the levy will be the change maker we think it will be.”