How Labour councils are boosting apprenticeships

Labour authorities have responded to Ed Miliband’s call last year to enhance and advance the vocational route for young people.

Labour has a proud record on apprenticeships - we championed them throughout our time in office, establishing National Apprenticeship Week and boosting the number of starts, which quadrupled over the period.

Last year in his speech to party conference, Ed Miliband put apprenticeships centre stage in his vision of supporting the forgotten 50 per cent of young people who don’t go to university. That’s why we have set up our One Nation Skills Taskforce, comprised of leading representatives from business, education and trade unions, who have been looking at how best to take this agenda forward.

Apprenticeships are front and centre of our agenda for office and we’ve put forward plans to use the money which government already spends through procurement to create more apprenticeship opportunities. This builds on the approach we brought forward in government where major public sector contracts such as Building Schools for the Future and the Kickstart housing scheme all created significant numbers of new apprenticeship places. We even brought our plans to a vote in Parliament urging ministers to adopt this proactive approach but the Tory-led government voted them down.

We recognise that local government is key to delivering the step change we need. That’s why I, together with shadow planning minister Roberta Blackman-Woods, worked closely with The Smith Institute on a recent report which brings together best practice examples from 17 Labour local authorities leading the way on apprenticeships. 

All the councils featured are pushing forward this agenda in bold and innovative ways. For example, my own local authority in Blackpool have put apprenticeships at the heart of their youth employment programme. The council has been working closely with Blackpool and the Fylde College to reach out to local businesses and explain the range of incentives and support on offer if they take on apprentices.

A number of authorities are using their procurement spend to create new apprenticeship places. Manchester City Council is actively encouraging businesses within its supply chain to take on young apprentices with 66 young people being taken on as apprentices working on the Town Hall extension. Sandwell Council is using section 106 planning agreements in major public contracts to create new apprenticeships, with a target of 198 places over the next three years. Both Sheffield and Leeds City Councils have put obligations of offer apprenticeships for firms winning procurement contracts worth over £100,000.

Working closely with businesses is key to create new opportunities. Camden Council has been using the King’s Cross Construction Centre, which it set up in 2004, to work closely with large contractors to ensure apprenticeships are created on the major King’s Cross Central development – 58 young people started apprenticeships there between January and March this year.

Encouraging smaller firms to take on apprentices is key to improving the number of places available - Wakefield Council worked with 64 local small firms to create 197 apprenticeship placements, while Kirklees Council has dedicated significant resources into giving businesses a clear and easy to access apprenticeship offer.

Labour local authorities are also taking on new apprentices directly themselves. Newcastle City Council has over a hundred working across a wide range of disciplines. Plymouth City Council have doubled the number of apprentices at the council to 70 over the last year. Lewisham Council have taken on 74 apprentices this year and have developed structured career paths for them all.

The case studies detailed above are just a small sample of the submissions that have come in from the seventeen Labour local authorities we heard from. This report is an excellent showcase of the action which Labour authorities are already taking to address Ed Miliband’s call last year to enhance and advance the vocational route for young people.

The report also shows very real success that can be achieved working across the board at local level with councils engaging with colleges, LEPs, businesses and existing union learning initiatives - this is precisely the approach Labour would adopt in government.

Gordon Marsden is shadow minister for further education, skills and regional growth and MP for Blackpool South

A delegate waves a flag at the Labour Party Conference at Manchester Central on October 1, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gordon Marsden is shadow minister for further education, skills and regional growth and MP for Blackpool South

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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