Judith Cummins MP: We desperately need a radical overhaul of our skills policy to help places like Bradford
Labour MP Judith Cummins writes ahead of her Westminster Hall debate on Apprenticeships and skills policy and calls on the Government to "address the regional imbalances that are built into the Apprenticeship Levy".
Bradford is a great northern city with a proud industrial heritage. Businesses used new technologies and the city’s entrepreneurial drive to build a world leading economy in the 19th and 20th centuries. We are still home to many successful businesses, but we face a significant challenge in the interconnected problems of low skills and low wages.
Fifteen per cent of Bradford South’s working age population have no qualifications compared to the UK average of 8% and only 14% are qualified to degree level and above, compared to 31% nationally.
Many people in my constituency do not have the skills they need to access good, well-paid and secure jobs.
This is becoming an ever more urgent issue. Bradford South is in the top 40 constituencies likely to be affected by automation in the coming years - 35% of jobs are in occupations that are likely to shrink by 2030. It is clear that Bradford will need to adapt in order to secure good, sustainable jobs.
There is a significant amount of work underway locally to meet this challenge, including by the Bradford Economic Partnership and the Bradford Manufacturing Week, which I was delighted to take part in.
But places like Bradford need more tools and resources from government to help close the productivity gap with London and the South East – investing more in skills and devolving more to our cities would be a significant step forward in building an economy that works for everyone.
I support the principles behind the Apprenticeship Levy on employers, introduced in May 2017, but its implementation has compounded the problems of underinvestment in training.
Nationally, total apprenticeship starts were 25,200 in July 2018, representing a 43% drop from July 2016. In Bradford South we have seen apprenticeship starts drop almost 50% since 2015/2016.
Several Bradford firms, particularly small and medium sized businesses, have told me that the complexity of the system is a major barrier.
A new system does take time to bed in, but the government’s approach needs more than a little fine tuning.
In fact the apprenticeship levy is contributing to further regional imbalances. London has the lowest skill needs in the country yet the apprenticeship levy will raise more funds there, as it has a much higher proportion of Apprenticeship Levy paying employers (employers with a wage bill of £3million or over).
The Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2017 report said unused levy funds could be directed to regions with fewer high level apprenticeships.
In addition, the overreliance on individual learners to make informed choices about their training in an environment that is not well structured and where independent advice is not freely available is a problem which has affected this country for decades.
Unlike much of Europe, we do not have strong industrial sectoral voices to help drive collective action from employers. We cannot rely on responding to individual employers, instead we should work to build up strong sector skills bodies, which include trade unions, who will be more able to forecast needs, and encourage a collective commitment to skills.
This requires the government to take both a more active and supportive role and to devolve greater power and responsibility to key regional and sectoral bodies.
In today’s debate, I am calling on the Minister to reduce the administrative burden and costs of operating the current apprenticeship system, address the regional imbalances that are built into the apprenticeship levy and hear whether she intends to develop the strong sectoral voices we need.
Public policy, intentional or not, has turbo-charged the London economy, to the detriment of other towns and cities outside the capital and the South East.
We desperately need a radical overhaul of our skills policy to help places like Bradford get the growth in prosperity we deserve.
Judith Cummins is the MP for Bradford South and Shadow Minister for International Trade