Front bench rivals clash in Colleges Week debate

Schools minister and shadow skills minister engage in back-and-forth on future of apprenticeship levy

Schools minister and shadow skills minister engage in back-and-forth on future of apprenticeship levy

29 Feb 2024, 17:00

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A Westminster debate about colleges descended into a “party political” row about apprenticeships before an almost empty room this afternoon.

Only five MPs spoke at a debate to mark this year’s Colleges Week in Westminster Hall on Thursday, leaving its proposer Peter Aldous feeling a “shade disappointed” about attendance.

However, a clash flared up between the government’s schools minister Damian Hinds and Labour’s shadow skills minister Seema Malhotra over the opposition party’s proposals on apprenticeships.

Both said they wanted to avoid “party political debate” before engaging in a tetchy back-and-forth on the future of the apprenticeship levy.

Malhotra – the only opposition MP to speak – repeated her party’s pledge to convert the apprenticeship levy into a more flexible “growth and skills levy”, which would allow 50 per cent of funds to be spent on other forms of training, alongside creating a new strategic body, Skills England.

She suggested the schools minister “did not fully understand” her policy, possibly because he had not “engaged with it in detail”.

But Hinds hit back that any “misunderstanding” about Labour’s levy proposal was “because it is not clear” itself.

He said: “I assure the honourable lady that if there is any misunderstanding about the Labour party policy it is not because people have failed to engage with it, it is because it is not clear. One great benefit of the current system is that it is clear.

“I must tell her that the approach of the levy resolves one of the fundamental questions in investing in human capital and training and investment, which is the so-called free rider problem. The levy is precisely to make sure that the whole of the industry has a like-for-like investment in skills and policy. I would urge her not to replace it with a new and unneeded quango.”

Malhotra criticised the government for overseeing falling apprenticeship starts, cutting further education funding and falling engagement with apprenticeships from small and medium-sized businesses.

She said changing levy spending rules would give employers “flexibility” to spend on modular training, which could also reduce the number of apprenticeship drop-outs.

The shadow minister added: “An estimated £3 billion in unspent levy has gone to the Treasury since 2019 that could have been spent on more training opportunities for learning.

“This is not a system that’s working as it needs to be.”

Hinds argued that the opposition’s plans would mean “less money” for apprenticeships and create “a new and unneeded quango”.

Aldous concluded the debate by calling for an urgent review of the apprenticeship levy to resolve “teething difficulties” before the next general election.

He also urged the government to “level the playing field” for colleges by fixing the pay gap with school teachers and exempting colleges from paying VAT.

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