“Nick Clegg has revealed Labour’s secret plans to scrap half a million apprentices because they think they are ‘deadweight’.”
Liberal Democrat press release, 12 March 2013
FactCheck has been keeping a close eye on the recent explosion in the number of apprenticeships - on-the-job training schemes for over-16s, part-funded by government.
There’s no dispute that numbers have soared since the coalition came to power. So much for quantity, but what about quality?
Critics have long raised objections that not all apprenticeships were created equally, raising concerns about the length and rigour of some training offered by employers.
Today the Lib Dems launched an attack on Labour’s plans for apprenticeships, accusing the opposition of harbouring “secret plans to scrap half a million” of them.
A press release, headlined “Labour calls half a million apprentices ‘Deadweight’”, rammed home the point with a graph neatly showing what will supposedly happen under a Labour government.
We think this whole line of attack is nonsense. Here’s why.
Labour’s “secret plans” for apprenticeships are not secret at all.
In September last year a Labour policy unit run by independent experts published these recommendations on how the party should reform vocational training.
The review highlighted a number of concerns over apprenticeships raised by people across the political spectrum over the years.
Essentially, the coalition has undoubtedly presided over a massive expansion in apprenticeships. But as these figures from the House of Commons library show, much of the rise in numbers has been driven by people over 25.
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, although it means ministers should probably not tout apprenticeships as the big answer to youth unemployment.
Another big concern raised in the Labour document is the fact that most apprenticeships tend to be intermediate level (the equivalent of 5 GCSE passes) rather than advanced or higher (equivalent to at least 2 A-level passes - the blue bars in these government stats).
The report recommends that Labour redesign and rename intermediate apprenticeships to protect the “apprentice” brand.
There is no suggestion in the paper that a Labour government should scrap the funding for people who want to do the equivalent of an intermediate qualification. This would simply be an exercise in rebranding.
It also specifically says a Labour government should not do what is set out in that Lib Dem bar chart and just axe the intermediate apprenticeship overnight.
The report states: “These measures would inevitably lead to a dramatic fall in apprenticeship numbers if introduced suddenly. Employers and providers should therefore be given time to improve the quality of their apprenticeships over an agreed period.”
Now, we’re not saying Labour are right about the need for this.
Actually, the government has already taken some steps to make sure apprenticeships are more rigorous.
Labour’s report – written, remember, in September last year – has been slightly overtaken by events now.
It complains that one in five apprenticeships last for less than six months. But the government has now introduced a one-year minimum for all apprenticeships, so that can’t happen any more.
The policy unit also recommends “asking business what powers they need to ensure they can deliver the expansion in apprenticeships we need to rebuild the economy”.
Arguably, that is exactly what the coalition is doing right now by recruiting industry “trailblazers” to help redesign apprenticeships.
Of course we can and should have a debate about which approach will work best.
But this press release won’t help us have a sensible debate, because it misrepresents Labour’s position.
Another piece of mischief here is the use of the word “deadweight” in the press release, as though Labour are saying the people doing those apprenticeships are a weight dragging on society.
In policy circles, deadweight or “additionality” is simply a technical term for “what would have happened anyway if we had done nothing”.
The concern here is that the government is subsidising low-level on-the-job training that companies would have provided to new workers for free. Obviously all governments are keen to avoid shelling out taxpayers’ money for an outcome that would have happened anyway.
It’s absolutely clear in the report (p4) that the makers of the report had this sense of the word deadweight in mind when they used it.
So: the “secret plans” aren’t secret (or even new); they specifically don’t recommend cutting apprenticeships dramatically; and “deadweight” doesn’t mean something bad.
The opposition’s plans for the reclassification of apprenticeships is probably not a matter of life and death, even for Labour loyalists.
But this press release does provide a good example of how the parties are increasingly likely to twist the truth and misrepresent each other’s policies as the one-year countdown to the next general election approaches.
From past experience, there should be plenty from all parties to keep FactCheck busy.