PMQs review: professor Miliband gives Cameron an economics lesson

The Labour leader had the stats on his side but will voters accept his distinction between 'good' borrowing and 'bad' borrowing?

It's often forgotten that Ed Balls isn't the only economist on the Labour frontbench; Ed Miliband also taught the subject at Harvard while on sabbatical from the Treasury and he gave David Cameron a suitably stern lesson at today's PMQs. In a stat-heavy assault on the coalition's economic record, he reminded Cameron that the economy had grown by just 0.4 per cent since October 2010 (it was expected to grow by more than five per cent), that the UK had grown more slowly than 17 of the G20 countries and that this was now the weakest recovery for more than a hundred years. 

Confronted by that record, Cameron played a bad hand as well as he could. He was aided by Labour MPs who foolishly cheered when he conceded that the economy shrank by 0.3 per cent in the most recent quarter, an error that the PM quickly pounced on. "Only honourable members opposite could cheer that news," he fumed. From there, he ridiculed what he called Labour's "three-point plan": "more spending, more borrowing more debt". 

After Miliband noted that the deficit so far this year was £7.2bn (7.3 per cent) higher than last year, Cameron replied, "if he thinks there's a problem with borrowing, why does he want to borrow more?" It is the question that Labour has struggled to answer since the election. The Tories' credit card analogy may be a hackneyed one but it is easier to explain to the electorate than Keynes's paradox of thrift. In response to Cameron, Miliband cried: "he's borrowing for failure!" The Labour leader's hope is that the public will distinguish between the coalition's 'bad' borrowing, driven by higher welfare bills, and his party's 'good' borrowing (a VAT cut, national insurance holiday, higher infrastructure spending and the like). But without explicitly declaring that Labour would borrow for growth (and explaining why), he risks reinforcing the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere a bad thing. 

Miliband, aware that polls show more voters continue to blame Labour (26 per cent) for the cuts than the coalition (21 per cent), has never conceded that his party would, at least temporarily, borrow more than the coalition. For now, with the public more worried about the disappearance of growth, he can avoid further scrutiny. But at some point before the election, Labour will need to say what its plans would mean for deficit reduction. Anything else will allow the Tories to claim they'd make "the same mistakes" all over again. 

Ed Miliband said that David Cameron was "borrowing for failure". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.