Japan launches massive stimulus package

Shinzo Abe: Bad guy done good?

The Japanese government has approved a massive emergency stimulus package, worth ¥10.3trn (£71.5bn), aimed at restoring growth in the long-stagnant economy.

The package will be used to fund infrastructure investment, disaster mitigation projects, subsidies for companies which invest heavily in research and development, and financial aid to small businesses. The government hopes to raise growth by 2 percentage points, as well as add over half a million jobs to the economy.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, also made clear again that he is planning to exercise far more direct control over Japanese monetary policy than is conventional. Before Abe was elected, he announced that the BoJ should embrace "unlimited easing" and cut interest rates below even the 0.1 per cent paid on deposits "to strengthen pressure to lend".

Today, Abe reiterated that pressure, telling a press conference:

We will put an end to this shrinking, and aim to build a stronger economy where earnings and incomes can grow. For that, the government must first take the initiative to create demand, and boost the entire economy.

Abe has no qualms with wild policy. Last week, he "nationalised" industrial stock in Japan, buying private infrastructure with public funds in order to force the pace of investment in the country.

It seems quite clear that Abe is prepared to use every possible channel available to him to push for a return to growth in Japan. The results have been positive so far; bond yields have stayed low, while the yen has finally dropped (which might be bad for the country's elderly, but is very good for its economy overall).

Paul Krugman argues that all of this success isn't exactly on purpose. It bears more hallmarks of Abe –  "a nationalist, a denier of World War II atrocities, a man with little obvious interest in economic policy" – doing exactly the opposite of what he's told to do based purely on his contempt for learned opinion:

It will be a bitter irony if a pretty bad guy, with all the wrong motives, ends up doing the right thing economically, while all the good guys fail because they’re too determined to be, well, good guys. But that’s what happened in the 1930s, too…

On the 22nd, the Bank of Japan will meet, and we'll see how much it listened to Abe. If it does follow his requests/demands for aggressive monetary policy, the country will solidify its reputation as one to watch in the immediate future.

Shinzo Abe. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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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.