Will the UK's shrinking economy spoil Cameron's EU speech?

Any political high from Cameron's EU speech could be shortlived if figures released on Friday show that the UK economy shrunk in the final quarter of 2012.

In the absence of any unforseen hitches, David Cameron will finally deliver his long-delayed speech on Britain's relationship with the EU this week. It won't be today, the day of Barack Obama's second inauguration, or tomorrow, when thousands of French and German politicians and diplomats will gather in Berlin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Elysée Treaty (also known as the Treaty of Friendship) between the two countries, or at the end of the week, when Cameron travels to Davos for the 2013 World Economic Forum, leaving Wednesday as the most likely date for the address.

When Cameron gives his speech, promising that a Conservative government would seek to repatriate powers from Brussels before holding a referendum on the outcome (offering voters a choice between what Cameron calls a "new settlement" and withdrawal), he will hope, among other things, for a bounce in the polls. The last time that the Tories enjoyed a sustained lead over Labour was in December 2011 after Cameron's EU "veto". With reports of Conservative MPs reacquiring their taste for regicide, the PM is keen to show that there are things he can do to improve his party's dismal chances of victory at the next election.

But his speech risks being overshadowed by the other big event of the week: the release of the first estimate of UK quarter four GDP on Friday. After growth of 0.9 per cent in the third quarter, artifically inflated by the inclusion of the Olympic ticket sales and the bounce-back from the extra bank holiday in June, forecasters almost universally expect a negative figure. The government's own forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility, predicts that the economy shrunk by 0.1 per cent, while the National Institute of Economic and Social Research expects a contraction of 0.3 per cent.

A contraction in quarter four wouldn't represent an unprecedented "triple-dip recession" (that would require two successive quarters of negative growth), it would make it significantly harder for Cameron to claim that the economy is "healing" and embolden Labour to go on the attack. If the economy is shown to have shrunk in Q4, four of the last five quarters will have been negative.

We know from the pre-released extracts of Cameron's speech that the Prime Minister intends to bemoan the EU's "crisis of competitiveness". But if the UK economy, which has performed worse than almost any other in Europe, is shown to have shrunk again, his lecture could soon look ill-advised.

David Cameron is expected to deliver his speech on Britain's relationship with the EU on Wednesday. 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.