Delays in traineeship benefits exemption branded a ‘mess’

Frustration is growing among providers as they continue to wait for the government to bring in a promised benefits exemption for traineeships.

Nearly two months after Chancellor George Osborne, in his Autumn Statement, said the programme would be freed from a rule limiting the time learners could take part while claiming, the FE and skills sector is still waiting for the exemption to be enforced.

A start date for the exemption has not even materialised, and documents seen by FE Week show that Job Centres are still advising staff to enforce the rule.

An advisory document covering traineeships being given the Job Centre Plus staff as recently as a fortnight ago states “existing benefits rules apply”. It made no mention of the planned exemption.

And now sector leaders have warned the continuation of the rule, which prevents people from claiming job seekers allowance (JSA) if they take on study or work experience for more than 16 hours a-week, could be affecting the success of the traineeships programme.

Andrea Webb, director of traineeship provider Profile Development and Training, said: “The 16-hour rule is really limiting.

“What most of these learners need is experience of what it’s like to get themselves to work at 9 and stay until 5, day in day out, but you can only have two days like that under the 16-hour rule — leaving no time for training.

“It doesn’t feel like meaningful experience — it’s not fair, it’s disadvantaging young people and it’s putting off employers who want to offer it.”

“It’s very frustrating… the momentum’s gone out of traineeships.”

Peter Cobrin, director of Employment Pathways, described the situation as “a mess”.

“The announcement really hasn’t made any difference at all,” he said.

“The traineeship programme has failed if it doesn’t engage employers — and many of them want young people to take on level two training, which will definitely push them over the 16-hour rule.”

Paul Warner, director of employment and skills at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “The Autumn Statement said explicitly that the government will ensure benefit rules would not impede the take-up of traineeships and that the 16-hour rule would be lifted specifically in relation to study.”

He said early implementation would have helped to improve the uptake of the scheme, which has been much lower than expected.

He added: “The fact that we have not seen any evidence that the rules are about to change is very frustrating for the providers trying to do their best for young people looking for sustainable employment.

“We have a meeting arranged with officials shortly but are ready to take the matter up with ministers if necessary.”

The Department for Work and Pensions declined to comment, saying it was the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

A BIS spokesperson said: “We are working closely with the DWP to make the necessary changes to exempt traineeships from the 16-hour rule.

“We aim to implement these changes as soon as possible and will keep the sector updated on developments.”