Robert Halfon resigns as skills minister

He will also stand down as Harlow’s MP in the upcoming general election

He will also stand down as Harlow’s MP in the upcoming general election

26 Mar 2024, 16:00

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Robert Halfon has resigned as minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education and plans to stand down as an MP at the next election.

Posting on X this afternoon, he said he “feels it is time for me to step down” after more than two decades in parliament.

Halfon became skills minister for the first time in 2016 but was sacked a year later by then-prime minister Theresa May. 

He moved on to become the chair of the education select committee, serving for five years, before returning to the skills brief, with the additional job of higher education, in the Department for Education in October 2022.

It is not clear at this stage who will replace Halfon as skills minister.

He becomes the 63rd Conservative MP to announce they are resigning at the next election.

In a letter to the Harlow MP, prime minister Rishi Sunk said: “I wanted to pay tribute to your greatest legacy in parliament, which is of course your passion for promoting apprenticeships.

“You have been a stalwart champion for this remarkable and life changing programme, which is underpinned by our conservative principles to empower people to climb the ladder of opportunity.”

‘Political life has its ups and downs’

Halfon, who has commonly said in ministerial speeches that he is a huge admirer of author JRR Tolkien, signed off his resignation post with a quote from the Lord of the Rings.

He said: “Political life, while fulfilling, has its ups and downs. At these times, I read J.R.R. Tolkien both as a great source of comfort, but also for some good advice.

“As I move towards stepping down at the general election, I am reminded of what Gandalf said to Frodo Baggins after the defeat of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings: ‘I am with you at present…but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire…My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help…among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’

“Although I often feel more like the character Bilbo Baggins than Gandalf, I believe these words have great resonance, and perfectly capture my feelings as I move onto my next journey in life.”

The frontbencher has become well-known for his “ladder of opportunity” catchphrase and has been influential over policies including the apprenticeship levy, T Levels, adult education budget devolution, the lifelong learning entitlement and level 3 qualification reforms.

The staunch champion of further education and skills also frequently states that he was the first MP to employ an apprentice when he was elected in 2010.

Halfon used his maiden speech to call for “root-and-branch cultural change” so apprenticeships are “held in the same regard as higher education by secondary school teachers”.

Speaking at the Annual Apprenticeships Conference last month, Halfon said he was “most proud of evangelising about apprenticeships” in his time as minister. He added that even with reforms like the Baker clause, “I want even more done in schools, even now”.

‘His drive to back FE will be missed’

Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said Halfon’s “drive to promote inclusion and to back further education will be missed”.

He added: “He has been a passionate champion for further education, skills and apprenticeships throughout his tenure as chair of the education select committee, and as minister, bringing to the roles a commitment to colleges and to understand from students and apprentices as much he can about what works for them.

“I am confident that he will continue to be a passionate supporter of our sector and a fervent advocate of students and their needs when his time as an MP comes to an end.”

Sue Pember, director of policy at adult education network HOLEX, said Halfon “will leave a void that will be keenly felt”.

“He has been a great advocate of the role of adult community education and has been unwavering champion of innovation and raising standards,” she added. “The policies he has introduced in the last three years will have a beneficial impact on lifelong learning for a generation.”

Ben Rowland, Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive, described Halfon as “somebody that has spent his political career fighting for the skills sector”.

He said: “AELP has seen first-hand how Robert Halfon has understood the important role independent training providers play in delivering high-quality skills provision right across the country.

“We need champions for the skills sector on all sides in Parliament, so it is a shame that Robert Halfon won’t be able to continue that work after the next election. However, it is clear that without his work over the last 15 years, the apprenticeship system would not be as strong as it currently is and everyone at AELP would like to wish him all the best for the future.”

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