DfE in firing line with former skills minister for ‘misrepresentation’ and 'discourtesy'

Chair of the education select committee Robert Halfon has accused the Department for Education of misrepresentation and discourtesy.

Yesterday afternoon the DfE published a blog, aimed at journalists, that claimed the former skills minister gave inaccurate apprenticeship figures in an interview with the BBC Today programme that morning.

Mr Halfon says this clearly misrepresented what he said, and the DfE didn’t “have the decency to check with me first”.

The DfE spent most of today deciding whether to respond, finally concluding they had “nothing to add” so would be declining to comment or amend the blog.

The dispute centres around Mr Halfon saying in the BBC interview: “the number of starts are declining, particularly in the 19-24 age bracket,” without specifying over what period.

The DfE jumped to the conclusion that this warranted a rebuttal in their media blog, because in the past year the starts for those aged 25 had fallen even further than those aged 19-24.

Mr Halfon later explained to FE Week that his remarks referred to a statement in the July 2018 House of Commons briefing paper on apprenticeship statistics, which said that “starts for those aged between 19 and 24 fell to its lowest level since 2009/10”.

“The DfE has clearly misrepresented what I said by jumping to the conclusion I was referring to changes in the previous year,” he told FE Week.

“I would hope next time the DfE would have the decency to check with me first, before they put out this kind of nonsense.”

He added: “And I hope that the permanent secretary will ensure this rebuttal blog is amended accordingly.”

FE Week has checked the official figures and the DfE is correct concerning the past year, but Mr Halfon is also correct.

His remarks relate to final figures for 2016/17, which showed that starts for 19 to 24-year-olds had fallen to their lowest level since 2009/10.

“As a former skills minister and now chair of the education select committee I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I’m supportive of the levy reforms, but have always tried to be constructive in offering suggestions for improvement,” Mr Halfon told FE Week.

The DfE’s response to his remarks was “not a very constructive way of proceeding”, he said.

The spat comes just days after the government refused to back its own manifesto commitment to 3m apprenticeship starts by mid-2020.

A spokesperson for the prime minister is reported to have dodged the question three times during a Downing Street lobby briefing on Monday morning, and the DfE subsequently declined to comment on the matter.

The target is slipping further out of reach, with FE Week analysis of the latest start figures showing them to be 414,300 or 23 per cent down on where they need to be to hit the target.