PMQs review: on-form Miliband leaves Cameron rattled

After a perfectly-scripted joke from the Labour leader on alcohol pricing, the PM never recovered.

Rarely has Ed Miliband enjoyed PMQs as much as he did today. He began with what sounded like a deathly dull question on minimum alcohol pricing before producing his best opening line to date: "is there anything he could organise in a brewery?" 

After Vince Cable's intervention on the economy, the OBR's rebuke of Cameron, Theresa May's barely concealed leadership pitch and new forecasts of a triple-dip recession, the Labour leader was not short of material for the rest of the session. "When the Business Secretary calls for him to change course," he asked the PM, "is he speaking for the government?" After Cameron noted in his response that car manufacturing, at least, was up, Miliband ad-libbed: "never mind more car production, it's taxi for Cameron after that answer". Things had got so bad, he noted, that No. 10 had sent Baroness Warsi (the woman he sacked as Conservative chairman and no friend of Cameron) out to say that she had "full confidence" in the PM.  

An off-form Cameron resorted to his stock lines: Miliband had nothing to say about the deficit, Labour would borrow more, Ed Balls was still shadow chancellor, the party was in hock to union "dinosaurs". All of these fell flat, with Tory MPs entirely unmoved. 

The well-marshalled Labour benches again targeted Cameron with questions over the "bedroom tax" and whether he will gain from the abolition of the 50p rate. To the former, he replied by again declaring that only Labour could call "a welfare reform a tax". But with the phrase ("bedroom tax") firmly lodged in the public consciousness, Cameron needs to spend more time defending the measure itself, rather than arguing over the name. On the 50p rate, for the third week running, Cameron again refused to say whether he would benefit from the move, merely stating that he would "pay everything has to". But Labour, encouraged by how Barack Obama forced Mitt Romney onto the defensive over his tax bill, intends to keep pressing the PM on this subject. 

The session ended surreally with Cameron reading out an imaginary letter from "Ed who lives in camden" asking what he should do about the government's seven per cent stamp duty charge on £2m houses. The gag finally roused the Tory benches as the PM mocked Labour's "champagne socialist" (although Cameron, for reasons that do not need stating, is ill-suited to class politics) but their earlier silence means it was Miliband who left smiling. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference last year. 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.