Seema Malhotra, Labour's shadow skills minister

‘Hope, optimism and a plan’: Labour’s new deal for industry

We’ve become a much more united party focused on the country again

Seema Malhotra claims that if Labour wins power, she will unleash a “skills revolution”.

So far, the opposition’s headline post-16 policy offer includes, controversially, replacing the apprenticeship levy, creating newly badged “technical excellence colleges” and a national skills quango.

But little is known about the shadow skills minister, appointed by Keir Starmer in September, and why the mission matters to her.

Malhotra lacks the ability to boast, as education secretary Gillian Keegan can, that she herself did an apprenticeship. She also lacks the fiery charisma – as well as the controversy – of Angela Rayner. She is softly spoken, guarded in her responses, but also grounded and well-informed. If there are skeletons in her closet, they’re hidden from view.

Having previously served as the shadow business and employment minister, Malhotra knows better than most – including, perhaps, Luke Hall, her opposite-number – what skills businesses are crying out for and she has pledged to “work in partnership” with them to plug shortages.

Seema Malhotra outside the shop her family had with her sisters

Malhotra family roots

Malhotra’s early experiences of the workplace were as a little girl standing on tiptoe to see above the counter as she helped her mum serve customers in their shop.

Her Hindu parents lived in poverty in India before moving to the UK in the 1960s “at a time of lots of racism”.

Her family of eight lived in a flat above the shop, with Malhotra, her three older sisters and younger brother sharing two bunk beds in one room. The cramped conditions meant she came to value green spaces in her local community of Hounslow, which she has represented as Feltham and Heston MP since 2011.

When Malhotra was nine, her dad became an independent financial adviser and carer for her grandmother while her mum taught English as a second language and provided special needs support at localprimary schools.

Education was highly valued in her household; her grandmothers had both been forbidden from attending school in northern India, although her maternal grandmother went to a “secret school” until she was 11.

Malhotra therefore grew up seeing education as “something so important that you need to invest in it”. She attended the local comprehensive, and her parents “put everything into supporting” their children’s learning.

Seema Malhotra school photo with her sisters

Becoming political

At the age of 14, Malhotra was given an English assignment to “work yourself up about something”. She chose the subject of Margaret Thatcher, and joined Labour two years later.

Her politics and philosophy degree from Warwick University included a scholarship year at the University of Massachusetts.

She appreciated the flexibility built into the American education system, which offered more modular courses – a flexibility she wants to promote in the UK skills system through Labour’s growth and skills levy.

After a spell as a graduate management consultant for professional services company Accenture, Malhotra helped set up one of the country’s first regional development agencies, which she describes as a “really interesting experience of devolution”.

Seema Malhotra graduation day with her mum

One of Malhotra’s central concerns is restoring compulsory work experience in schools. Shortly after becoming the first ever Punjabi woman MP in 2011, the government made this optional – a decision that made her “very angry”.

She acknowledges this won’t be easy because of “employer fatigue”. Currently, only around half of state school students do work experience, and employers have to fit those in with placements for new T-level courses and apprenticeships.

Malhotra describes as “really, really significant” her party’s commitment to recruit and train over 1,000 careers advisers in schools. These will, she says, help pupils to “keep in touch” with the local job market and “upskill teachers”.

Labour won some praise last year when Bridget Philipson, the shadow education secretary, suggested an incoming Labour government would “pause and review” the defunding of qualifications like BTECs that rival T-levels.

She is “very concerned” about the defunding of level 3 courses. But she also believes that some T-levels, for example those relating to engineering and early years, are “working really well” and there have been “interesting examples with healthcare”.

When it comes to the challenges some colleges are encountering in lining up T-level work placements, Malhotra doesn’t “get the sense that employers don’t want to engage” but that the government lacks “an overall strategy for engagement”.

“We want employer engagement helping to develop and set standards. We need a faster cycle of being able to review standards so that curriculums are kept up to date with changing technology.”

Seema Malhotra campaigning for Labour

Winning over business

In 2015, Malhotra became shadow chief secretary to the Treasury in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.

She was involved in “a lot of work” on the Panama Papers following the leak in 2016 of more than 11.5 million documents exposing international corruption and tax evasion.

She was then one of several shadow ministers to resign over Cobyn’s leadership, a decision she has no regrets about. But that period was, she says, “incredibly difficult”.

“It’s been so important that we have rebuilt and changed the party, and how quickly we’ve become a much more united party focused on the country again.”

After being an active part of the campaign to get Keir Starmer elected as Labour leader in 2020, Malhotra returned to the front bench as shadow employment minister. Here she saw local authorities given Covid funding to roll out initiatives that supported their communities, which consolidated her belief in devolution.

“Making choices closer to the ground, understanding local needs is what can drive faster outcomes,” she says.

This was a time during Covid when post-Corbyn Labour was “rebuilding its relationships with business”.

In a sign of how much her party’s priorities have shifted in favour of the free market, Malhotra isn’t tempted to criticise the fact that foreign-owned private equity companies are taking majority stakes in large training providers.

She questions why there is no national skills strategy, like the one introduced by Gordon Brown in 2009. For this, Malhotra partly blames the government’s lurching from “crisis after crisis” since Covid – “it’s no surprise that now there’s a workforce crisis”.

She isn’t inclined to transfer the skills portfolio to the Department for Business and Trade, as was the case from 2009 to 2016, but feels “very strongly” that Labour’s industrial strategy cannot be delivered without a “really solid, cross-departmental” skills strategy, “very closely connected with the Industrial Strategy Council”.

“That’s the context in which you can then have other layers of important institutions like the Industrial Strategy Council. People tell us they still aren’t sure whether to invest in Britain, because of the instability.”

Seema Malhotra visiting an adult learning class in Greenford

Labour’s lack of detail

Although recent polls and last week’s local election results show Labour are capitalising on frustration with the current government’s lack of direction, the party has also been criticised for not setting out strong alternatives.

Malhotra disputes this, pointing to its industrial strategy, its Start Up, Scale Up Review for boosting the economy and its Missions document, and she adds there was “not this much detail” from Labour before the 1997 or 2010 elections.

There is also wariness that Labour’s ideas could be stolen by the Conservatives – she claims when Labour unveiled its NHS workforce plan, they “took that idea”.

 “There will be more that comes out closer to the election,” she says. “There is also a lot more to do to keep talking through that detail, and whether that detail needs to be further worked up.”

And there is more to learn from other countries that could shift Labour’s policy framework. Malhotra is visiting Singapore this week with shadow industry and decarbonisation minister Sarah Jones. The aim is to learn from a country that she says is “10 years ahead of us on changes to vocational education and skills strategies”.

Seema Malhotra at a roundtable with Keir Starmer

Apprenticeship cut criticism

Training providers are desperate to understand the nuts-and-bolts of Labour’s biggest and most controversial skills policy: replacing the apprenticeship levy with a growth and skills levy that businesses could spend on non-apprenticeship training.

Conservative ministers estimated this would cost £1.5 billion, and limit the country to 140,000 apprenticeship starts a year. But Malhotra points out that the Learning and Work Institute challenged the DfE analysis, and highlights how little of the levy businesses say they’re “actually spending”.

Analysis by FE Week, published last year, found that around £418 million was raised by employers but went unallocated, and Malhotra says “there needs to be transparency” around what the Treasury spends that money on.

She says Labour’s growth and skills levy would support “smaller, more agile modular courses” that would help with “pre-apprenticeship training and readiness” and provide “more support for functional skills”.

“If some of that investment goes into improving apprenticeship outcomes, that’s really significant because we want completions. You can also see an opportunity for building towards qualifications step by step.”

The Federation of Small Businesses said apprenticeships among their members had halved since the levy was introduced in 2017, and there is concern that Labour’s replacement would result in even less funding for those companies.

Malhotra swerves a question on whether she would commit, as her predecessor, Toby Perkins did, to additional spending for a ringfenced budget for apprenticeships in SMEs. She says “flexibility around smaller courses” would offer “pathways in” for smaller companies.

Seema Malhotra at Engineered Learning in Derby

Technical excellence

Regulating what would be fundable under Labour’s levy would be the job of Skills England, a new body Labour says will work across government departments.

Malhotra recalls a workshop she recently attended, in which advanced manufacturing companies lamented the “huge shortages” they were experiencing recruiting certain types of engineers.

“Who’s owning that problem? The answer was no one…that’s why it’s been such a fight and a free-for-all for different sectors, employees and individual colleges.”

Labour is not planning to roll back local skills improvement plans (LSIPs), but Skills England would oversee them nationally.

It will be from “within the LSIP-driven needs” that bids for “technical excellence colleges” will come forward. In other words, where there is an “identified need for specialism”.

Seema Malhotra in Cornwall College with an apprentice

She describes the colleges as “centres of excellence” which would enable the “missing middle” to achieve “the level 4 and level 5 qualifications where we know as a nation we’re behind. We’re six out of seven in the G7. That isn’t a scorecard to be proud of”.

When asked whether Labour has had any concrete pledges of support from employers for these proposals, she points to examples where employers are helping colleges to develop specialisms – for example, with electric vehicle infrastructure training at Blackpool and the Flyde College, and marine training at the Cornwall Marine Academy.

Although Malhotra is clearly itching to take her place on the opposite front bench, historically, shadow ministers are not always retained when their party wins power.

She admits that “things aren’t going to change overnight” if Labour wins. “Everybody knows that. The country is so broken…But what we do have is hope, optimism and a plan to change what we can. To not get too focused on overall structures of government, but building the infrastructure we need to make sure that we’re starting to deliver from day one.”

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