Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
The current Government is managing our great nation through a period of huge change. Much focus has, rightly, been upon the efforts to secure our exit from the European Union and forge a new relationship with our friends and allies on the continent. However, the Government is still taking on many other important reforms to create a country that works for everyone, whether that’s in education, the national living wage, or energy production.
One of the most important changes that this Government is introducing has not often been covered in depth, but will come into force with the start of the new financial year on April 6th – the introduction of the apprenticeship levy.
This is a policy that I have been excited about since it was first announced, by George Osborne in the 2015 Summer Budget. Since then it has been driven forward and brought into reality by a collection of fantastic ministers, starting with Sajid Javid and Nick Boles, and now Justine Greening and Rob Halfon (the first MP to hire an apprentice in his office). I was also pleased to have my own very small part to play as the former Prime Minister’s Apprenticeships Adviser last year.
So many of the issues in our country, that politicians spend much of their time thinking about how to tackle, are ultimately related to skills. When we discuss income inequality, regional divides and unemployment; when we discuss economic growth, international competitiveness and productivity; or even when we discuss things like crime and rehabilitation – the discussion is really all about equipping everyone with the skills needed to succeed.
That is why I have been a longstanding supporter of the apprenticeship levy, and that’s why I am so excited to see it come into place. There should be nothing closer to a Conservative’s heart than equipping people with what they need to work hard and make a success of themselves, and that is why there is such a drive for more, and better, apprenticeships.
I know that there has been some pushback from certain businesses and certain industries. I know that some businesses have just written off the 0.5 per cent levy on payroll above £3 million as another tax. But if some of these companies do not take the levy seriously it would be a real missed opportunity, not just for our country, but for most importantly for those companies themselves to play their part in changing our business culture.
Britain has a long history of excellent training and many businesses are shining examples of continually expanding their employees’ abilities and improving their prospects. Unfortunately, there are still too many who are turning their back on the need to build the skills of the next generation and too many who don’t see this as their role, or who don’t understand the benefits it can bring.
The national benefit of this policy is that it will provide the funding and catalyst for three million apprenticeship starts by 2020, but I am a true believer that the real benefit will be for the companies themselves.
Sensible businesses should be looking at their current structure and ways of working to figure out how best to spend the pot of apprenticeship funding that gets returned to them, once they’ve started paying the levy. With the right level of commitment, creativity and innovation, this will naturally create ever more pathways into different job roles, better advertising of apprenticeships, and more recognition of the opportunities they can provide.
As an entrepreneur and businessman myself, I know very well how important strong, stable and sustainable pathways of talent into any business are. The Government is right to push those businesses who have been lagging behind in their contribution to skills training to play a part.
This is not the sort of policy that will deliver its full impact and success overnight. Instead, you may well be more likely to hear grumbling from businesses who are unwilling to be flexible and improve how they train and recruit staff.
But as this policy develops over the years, as best practice spreads and as those who do embrace apprenticeships succeed, there will only be more business that get converted to the cause. I’m certainly a real believer in it, and I know the majority of businesses already are too. I know that our efforts to boost skills will lay a solid foundation for our post-Brexit economy, and when we look back in many years’ time I’m certain that apprenticeships, and the apprenticeships levy, will be viewed as a crowning achievement of this Government’s work.