The UK hasn't grown at the same rate as the US

The Treasury's spin is at odds with the facts.

Today's GDP numbers of 0.5 per cent were the best Britain has seen for a year but nowhere near enough to meet the Office for Budget Responsibility's optimistic prediction for 2011 growth of 1.7 per cent. The Treasury tried to put a positive spin on the release by claiming that it puts the UK on a par with the US but the truth is a little more complicated.

Shortly after the figures were released, ITV Business Editor Laura Kuenssberg tweeted, "Treasury sources say UK grown at same rate as US so far in 2011".

For this to be true, it would mean that the Treasury are conveniently ignoring the effects of last winter's snow which chopped 0.5 per cent off GDP. As the Office for National Statistics' own statement says:

The interpretation of the estimate for Q3 is complicated by the special events in Q2 (for example, the additional bank holiday in April for the royal wedding), which are likely to have depressed activity in that quarter. As with 2010 Q4 and 2011 Q1 (affected by the bad weather in Q4) it may be wise to look at 2011 Q2 and 2011 Q3 together, rather than separately. On that basis GDP has grown by 0.6 per cent in the last two quarters and by 0.5 per cent in the last year.

US figures out last week showed that the annualised rate for the third quarter was 2.5 per cent. Comparing like with like, this means that the US economy grew by 1.6 per cent over the last year. The chart below shows that the UK has lagged the US economy at every point in the last two years looking at growth on a year-on-year basis.

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Today's numbers mean that UK growth in 2011 is unlikely to be higher than 1.0 per cent. In their first estimate in June 2010, the OBR predicted that growth would be 2.6 per cent before revising it down twice to 2.3 per cent after the Emergency Budget and to 1.7 per cent this March. They are now almost certain to do the same again on November 29th when the Chancellor delivers his autumn statement. Instead of trying to put a positive spin on these figures, the Treasury should focus on getting the economy moving again by adopting a Plan B that slows the pace of cuts and puts in place a programme for jobs and growth.

Will Straw is Associate Director at IPPR

Will Straw is Associate Director at IPPR.

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A good apprenticeship is about more than box-ticking

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. 

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. Playing a numbers game often means the quality and the personal touch that turns a placement into a career opportunity can be lost. The government has set a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020. In London Boris Johnson set a target for 250,000 apprentice starts, but fell short by over 100,000. Both targets miss the point; any target should focus on outcomes, not just numbers through the door.

Policy makers need to step back from the rigid frameworks and see what works on the ground.  For me this involved eating a bacon sandwich, which is arguably a risky exercise for politicians.  I was seeing how the owner of the Bermondsey Community Kitchen and Café, Mike, has transformed the space above his café into a training kitchen teaching young unemployed people the skills they need to gain qualifications to work in restaurants.

The posters on the wall spell out the choices available to the young people. They make it explicitly clear that there is an alternative to a life in prison, which some of the trainee chefs have already experienced, with pictures of celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay outlining how they worked their way to where they are now. None of the young people have had an easy start in life. Barriers they face include autism, lack of literacy skills, insufficient funds to pay the fare to the café and criminal records. But Mike and the team running the kitchen are determined to give them the chances every young person deserves. From City & Guilds qualifications, work placements and ensuring they have a job at the end of the process, this is the type of grass roots project that the government could learn from. With two groups of eight students over three half days, this is skills training that is about as personal as it gets. The young people are enthusiastic about the course, the practical skills they are learning and optimistic about the future.

The project is funded partly through the café, but mainly through grants and donations (including pots and pans from Raymond Blanc and funding from trusts as well as the local council). Mike has plans to expand. He wants premises with space for a nursery so young mothers who might otherwise struggle to complete a course can attend, he has a vision for two or three more similar enterprises across Southwark. I have no doubt he will achieve this but the challenge for policy makers is making it easier for people like Mike who are delivering flexible qualifications and delivering better results. Bureaucratic processes, lengthy forms and refusals would have put less determined people off. As the funding for skills is devolved, there is both an opportunity and a challenge to look at how innovative models can be supported. Unless more is done to ensure groups that might be defined as ‘hard to reach’ get opportunities, there will always be significant numbers falling through the gaps in a sometimes impersonal system.

Over 60 per cent of the apprenticeships in London focus on low level qualifications with little prospect of employment upon completion. Many skills based apprenticeships fail to match demand, the booming construction industry for example is crying out for skilled workers and with all parties agreeing new homes are a priority its surprising to learn that in London only 3 per cent of apprenticeships are in construction.

Apprenticeships need to focus on leading to work, and work that is skilled and pays enough to live on. They should be about opportunity not opportunistic employers. In a report published in October 2015, Ofsted was critical of apprenticeships saying too many of them ‘do not provide sufficient training that stretches the apprentices and improves their capabilities. Instead they frequently are being used as a means of accrediting existing low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors.’

The new apprenticeship levy charged to businesses with a wage bill over a certain amount could be a useful way of enhancing opportunities but the definition of apprenticeship needs to be refined. On a recent visit to the iconic Brompton Bikes factory, the London Assembly Economy Committee was told that although the firm has to pay the new levy as a result of its size, they have a bespoke way of training their apprenticeships so they have the skills to get jobs with Brompton Bikes at the end of the process. Because this tailored training doesn’t meet the narrow government criteria they aren’t formally accredited apprenticeships and thus Brompton are unable to claim any funding back from government despite their excellent work.

I am increasingly frustrated that the most exciting and inspiring projects I visit don’t always meet the criteria for funding. We are doing something wrong if people are asked to fit something that works into a form that meets criteria rather than rewarding their successes. Instead huge amounts of public money are being put into funding low quality low skilled apprenticeships that sometimes appear to be more about avoiding the minimum wage. This is not just a waste of money; it is a waste of the lives of the young people. As the Bermondsey fishmonger we bumped in to on the way out of the café told us, sometimes what works is smashing the box, not ticking the box.