Closing the skills gap

Closing the skills gap

The Chancellor has previously admitted that, although the Government has taken unprecedented steps to support the economy during coronavirus, he cannot save every job.

The extent to which more could have been done will likely be debated for a very long time to come. However, the acknowledgement that there are (and will continue to be) significant job losses has been accompanied by a new program, designed to retrain those workers who have lost their jobs and redeploy them into new opportunities.

This program, whilst rolled out in response to coronavirus, has also been deployed with a secondary purpose. It is not enough to just help people to retrain to find new jobs, but they must also be equipped with the skills and qualifications which the employment market is sorely lacking: Namely in the STEM and vocational sectors.

Successive Governments and Parliaments have long talked a good game about the need to ensure that further education qualifications and apprenticeships are given parity of esteem with universities and academic routes.

However, this failure to achieve a significant shift in attitudes, or to deliver impactful reform is reflected by how the labour markets continues to suffer from major skills shortages, despite the fact that many of these skills shortage roles are very well remunerated.

One only needs to check the Migration Advisory Committee Skills Occupation Shortage list to understand how deep the skills deficit goes. It encompasses not only IT and engineering roles, but also those occupations which have so long been taken for granted.

One explanation for why so little effort has been made by politicians and policymakers to improve further education is that for many years STEM or vocational roles have long been filled by talent attracted to the UK from abroad, particularly from the EU. Free movement has allowed businesses a consistent pipeline of talent to skilled roles, whilst the domestic pool of talent has continued to age with not enough young people stepping into the gap as the next generation.

However, with the end of the Transition Period approaching many businesses are doubtful that they will be able to continue to access the skills they require. This has only increase the sense of urgency to develop a more sustainable pool of domestic talent.

To give the Government credit, T-levels has been introduced as a means to address these shortages and to improve the quality of further education courses. The Apprenticeship Levy was also introduced to better finance apprenticeship training, although this has had more mixed results.

These were steps in the right direction, and the program announced this week builds upon these efforts. The Lifetime Skills Guarantee introduced by the Prime Minister includes:

  • £1.5 billion in capital funding to upgrade and improve colleges across the country.
  • Adults without an A-Level or equivalent qualification will be offered a free, fully-funded college course.
  • Higher education loans will also be made more flexible, allowing adults and young people to space out their study across their lifetime.
  • Portable Apprenticeships which will see portable contracts being implemented, whereby an apprenticeship contract can be carried over to a new employer.

This is undoubtedly a significant package of investment, although many of the details remain yet to be clarified. It has also clearly been designed to provide flexibility for adults who need to retrain, rather than just focusing on students in full time education.

However, to deliver real results and close the skills deficit will take time and commitment by the Government. This cannot just be a stop gap or a knee jerk response to coronavirus. Instead it must help must pave the way for a real change in attitudes to vocational training, and ensure a sustainable pipeline of skilled workers who are equipped with the qualifications required to fill those roles created by the post-coronavirus recovery, and which are desperately needed by businesses in the longer term.

Blue cheese and trade talks

Blue cheese and trade talks

Coronavirus may be all encompassing, but since the gradual return of the UK economy from lockdown, we have begun to see renewed activity by Government in regards to its other policy commitments  such as housebuilding, infrastructure and levelling up. Some of these initiatives are in line with commitments made at the 2019 General Election and are closely linked to the post-Coronavirus economic recovery. However, the renewed focus on a global trade policy harks back to a time before Coronavirus, when Brexit was the most important policy challenge facing the UK Government.

As part of his pitch in 2019, Boris Johnson successfully positioned himself as the candidate who could ‘Get Brexit Done.’ This has been achieved, but he must now show the British people the benefits of Brexit, such as how it has enabled the UK to pursue an ambitious trade policy that can deliver far and beyond our former membership of the European Union.

It has been well reported that negotiations with the EU on the future relationship are locked in stalemate over key issues such as state aid and access to fisheries. Yet, despite the importance of these talks, the Department for International Trade has also opened negotiations with other key partners including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, the latter of which is meant to represent the Holy Grail of trade agreements.

At the beginning of this week the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, spoke out against ‘unacceptable and unfair’ tariffs placed by the United States on UK imports, namely single malt whiskey, salmon and cashmere. These tariffs have been applied by the United States as part of the ongoing Airbus/ Boeing dispute, and the Secretary of State has said that she will seek to remove these as part of her attempts to secure a new trading relationship once the Transition Period ends on 31 December 2020.

When compared to the scale of most free trade agreements, it may seem odd for ministers to quibble over individual products like scotch whiskey and salmon, yet these also have significant symbolic value.

For many people, the incomprehensive nitty gritty of global trade deals (particularly where they address complicated policy areas such as data and services) is the fiefdom of technocrats and economists, yet by citing breakthroughs on tariffs for English products, ministers can communicate the tangible benefits of their new and independent trade policy.

On a practical level, these small areas of focus are all that can be achieved in the brief window that is available. The UK Government has made clear its ambitions to secure new agreements with the United States and Japan prior the end of the Transition Period. In most cases, negotiating a new trade agreement is an lengthy and complicated process, often taking years. However, the UK Government is attempting to achieve multiple new agreements in an extraordinarily short length of time.

This means that whatever can be achieves will likely be modest in scale, although this does not necessarily translate as being easy to deliver.

As part of the negotiations with Japan, the Department for International Trade heavily publicized that the new agreements would remove tariffs on British luxury leather goods, whilst British consumers would receive access to more affordable Japanese electronics.

In practice, a new agreement with Japan will be little more than an amended version of the deal that already exists between Japan and the EU (which the Japanese refused to automatically roll over for the UK) – tweaked just enough to be heralded as a policy success, and a used as a stepping stone for British entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

However, despite the UK supposedly being on the verge of signing this new agreement earlier in August, there has still been no breakthrough, as the Secretary of State is apparently holding out for a better deal over Stilton Cheese.  Again, for many people, this will seem like a strange hill to die on, particularly when one considers that there is little demand amongst Japanese consumers for imported cheese.

However, this is all part of the theatre. The UK Government must be seen to fight for symbolic concessions and preferential treatment for iconic British products – although this approach does not come without risk.

To successfully conclude a trade deal with Japan is politically important for the UK Government a number of ways. Not only is a deal required to ensure trade continuity following the end of the Transition Period, but it is also hoped that a trade agreement with the Japanese will set the tone for future negotiations with other partners. Both sides have said that they remain optimistic  a deal can be struck on schedule, and that 90 percent of the issues have already been settled. However, it has also been commented that the UK Government must also be more realistic in regards to what can be achieved.

The Prime Minister and many of his colleagues said during the 2016 Referendum Campaign that other countries would line up to strike new deals with the UK once it had left the EU. They have staked their credibility on it and a failure to agree terms with Japan would represent a serious blow to the PM and his Government, particularly if the ultimate reason was blue cheese.

An end to the virtual Parliament: Is this simply another example of tradition for tradition’s sake?

An end to the virtual Parliament: Is this simply another example of tradition for tradition’s sake?

Last month, I wrote about the joys and challenges of a virtual Parliament and what this all means for public affairs professionals.

I said it remained to be seen how long virtual Parliament would last and it turned out to be sooner than I expected. The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg opted to end the ‘hybrid’ working model which had been in place since mid-April arguing that politics “is better done face-to-face”.

Under Mr Rees-Mogg’s plan, which has now been approved, MPs will be asked to form kilometre-long queues to obey social distancing rules when voting. The Lords, by contrast, is developing a new online voting system, which is expected to be ready by the middle of the month.

Whilst the proposal states that MPs should be physically in Parliament in order to participate, Rees-Mogg has said that he will bring forward a further proposal allowing those who cannot attend Parliament due to age or medical restrictions to be able to question the Government remotely. Rees-Mogg suggested that these MPs would be unable to vote but could be ‘paired up’ with a colleague from the opposition who agrees not to vote so the numbers are cancelled out.

The plans have sparked incredulity, concern and condemnation from the opposition MPs and some members of his own party. Critics said the Government’s plan excluded vulnerable MPs, including those shielding, as well as MPs with caring responsibilities. Scottish MPs expressed deep reservations about having to travel hundreds of miles back to London.

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission also joined calls to ensure MPs can work remotely saying it puts MPs unable to attend Parliament “at a significant disadvantage”.

The row continued with the Prime Minister saying at PMQs that older MPs and those shielding should be allowed to vote by proxy, a move which Labour called a u-turn. It wasn’t enough to get Tory critic and Chair of the Procedure Committee, Karen Bradley on board either. She pointed out that the proxy scheme is due to expire in July 2020 and was “not suitable to be extended to several dozen members” – it is generally used for MPs who are on parental leave.

Many Conservative MPs have, however, welcomed the end to the virtual Parliament. Some have argued that a virtual Parliament hinders Parliament from performing its role effectively. Others have suggested that it was unreasonable for MPs to not be back at work when the Government has asked schools to reopen. Essentially, parliamentarians should lead by example.

And whilst the vast majority Tory MPs followed the whip and duly voted to approve the plans without amendments, a sizeable number rebelled. Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Tom Tugendhat said he was going to vote with the Government and then saw the queues. He waited almost an hour to vote and opted to rebel. Voting normally takes 15 minutes.

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The mix of Tory rebels was eclectic and represented the breadth of the parliamentary party: hardcore Brexiteers like Peter Bone and John Redwood, former Ministers like Tracey Crouch and Nusrat Ghani and Select Committee Chairs like Tugendhat, Caroline Nokes, and Greg Clark. Many were the same names who publicly called for Dominic Cummings’ resignation.

The Government may have won the votes, but around a third of MPs representing millions of constituents were effectively left disenfranchised because they could not get to Westminster. Education Committee Chair, Robert Halfon, who is shielding summed it up well saying “If I can’t vote, I don’t have a choice to vote, I’m a parliamentary eunuch.” In an interview, he simply concluded “I just want to do my job.”

As public affairs professionals, we were quick to embrace the new normal, making great use of digital tools in engaging with parliamentarians and devising creative and proactive meetings programmes. My clients have got virtual meetings with parliamentarians and officials in the coming weeks and I expect this to continue being the norm for the foreseeable future.

But given fewer opportunities for participation with many MPs remaining remote and others unable to question ministers as only 50 MPs are allowed in the Chamber at a time, the return to a ‘traditional’ Parliament poses challenges for us and begs the question of how Parliament will effectively function in the coming weeks.

COVID-19 – a reputation built on people

COVID-19 – a reputation built on people

Though it can be easy to forget, COVID-19 is a human crisis before an economic one.

Even amongst people and families whose health remains largely unaffected by the virus, the financial impact will be felt hard by everyone – through the real and significant loss of livelihoods, employment and earnings. (more…)

Investment in rail infrastructure is putting the Midlands on the right tracks

Investment in rail infrastructure is putting the Midlands on the right tracks

In the last year, Cavendish has been a leader in the delivery of rail infrastructure across the Midlands, as we’ve assisted the sub-national transport body, Midlands Connect, delivering a communication and engagement strategy. We have been able to draw on our knowledge to ascertain perceptions and identify themes, challenges and opportunities and implemented that strategy to raise the profile of Midlands Connect and secure positive national and regional media coverage.

As a result, on-going investment in rail infrastructure across the Midlands is allowing the city of Birmingham and the surrounding areas to thrive, with enhanced connectivity improving excellent inner-city links, as well as more journeys than ever on new or upgraded existing lines.

And this investment is set to continue as Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM) and the West Midlands Rail Executive (WMRE) are working with rail industry partners including Network Rail and West Midlands Trains, in the development of three new stations.

£15m funding from the Department for Transport will see passenger services resumed on the Camp Hill Line calling at Moseley, Kings Heath and Hazelwell, with Councillor Waseem Zaffar – Cabinet Member for Transport and Environment for Birmingham City Council saying: “This, along with the huge investment in trams, buses and cycling is going to transform the way we travel as we move to more sustainable forms of transport.”

That’s not all though. The DfT also announced £10m funding for stations in Darlaston and Willenhall, with planning applications due to be submitted later this year and work anticipated to begin next year with a view to reopening the line to passengers before 2022. Speaking of these plans, Mayor the West Midlands, Andy Street said: “I am delighted that our ambition to reopen the Walsall to Wolverhampton railway line to passengers has moved a significant step closer with this latest funding from government.”

This demonstrates that the West Midlands and Birmingham are receiving investment but it’s in the East Midlands where there is a dramatic difference. In research undertaken by the Independent, Leicester was revealed as being the worst-connected ‘big city’ in Britain in terms of rail links and had a narrower range of train services than a village in Cornwall.

The East Midlands will benefit from the new East Midlands Hub in Toton as part of HS2, which will focus more on connections to Birmingham and Leeds – so is Leicester the forgotten city? Are nearby cities, not on the HS2 line, being forgotten about? Apparently not, according to Midlands Connect – the transport arm of the Midlands Engine. Their flagship project, the Midlands Hub will integrate with HS2 and deliver the biggest upgrade of the rail network for a generation. It will strengthen links between Leicester, Derby and Nottingham to the East as well as Hereford, Worcester and Wales to the West.

With strong connectivity throughout the region, the only argument is whether the service provided gives good value for money. Many commuter trains in and out of Birmingham before and after work are standing-room only, but West Midlands Railway’s 2019 Spring Satisfaction Survey suggests that 77% of customers were satisfied with their service.