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Government's Apprenticeship Plans "Lacking Ambition" Says Industry Body

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has claimed the government's apprenticeship announcements will "unlock a tidal wave of opportunity". (Alamy)

3 min read

The British Retail Consortium, which represents major businesses across the UK, has criticised the government's latest plans for apprenticeships, which they say have failed to reform existing schemes in line with industry requests.

Government has announced a package of reforms to apprenticeships to unlock a "tidal wave of opportunity", including an additional £60m which its claims will enable up to 20,000 more apprenticeships for young people and small businesses. The announcements also included a new taskforce which the government says is designed to boost private investment in women-led businesses. 

"Taken together, these measures will unlock a tidal wave of opportunity and make a real difference to businesses and entrepreneurs across the country," Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Monday. 

But the reception from the business sector has been lukewarm, with frustration that the government had not gone further to reform existing apprenticeship rules to benefit larger businesses.

Tom McCarthy, the British Retail Consortium's (BRC) director of external affairs, told PoliticsHome that the government's most recent announcements on apprenticeships "lacked ambition" and had failed to deliver what the consortium had written to apprenticeship minister Robert Halfon asking for multiple times. 

"We've had this engagement, but at no point has the government shown any movement towards offering us flexibility," he said.

"It doesn't seem like it's on their menu in terms of how they see the levy evolving, if they see the levy evolving at all. I don't think we've seen anything which suggests the government is looking to actually inject this flexibility into the levy itself."

McCarthy said retailers were seeking greater "flexibility" within the apprenticeship levy to meet the sector's demands. 

"The main thing that the retailers want – the main thing the industry wants – from the apprenticeship levy is flexibility to use some of the funds which are currently going unspent on a range of different training or upskilling courses," he continued. 

"The industry contributes about £250m a year in levy funds, and only about half of that is spent, so there's about £125m sitting around that either gets clawed back to the Treasury or doesn't go on skills, apprenticeship and training spending. You see similar calls from the hospitality industry, the British pubs association.

"The announcement [on Monday] did not speak to the flexibility a wide range,  a wide swathe, of the economy really has been asking for for some years now."

Seema Malhotra, Labour’s Shadow Skills Minister, told PoliticsHome the Conservatives had "overseen 14 years of decline on skills and training opportunities".
 
“Whilst the reforms to the apprenticeship levy are welcome, they do not even begin to reverse the drop in apprenticeship starts under the Tories, or in addressing the unnecessary bureaucracy many employers hiring apprentices face," she said. 
 
“With the last Labour Government, opportunities for young people to earn and learn expanded every year, and the next Labour Government will boost Britain’s skills by reforming the Tory’s failed apprenticeship levy to give businesses the flexibility they need to train and upskill their workforce to get our economy growing again.”

The Department for Education declined to comment. 

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