It’s Education, Education, Education for the LibDems

April 15, 2015, by Guest Blogger. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.

Dave Simmonds, the Chief Executive of the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion, takes a look at the series of ‘sensible and welcome commitments and proposals’ in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto.

The headline pledge of an extra £2.5 billion for education is an attempt by the LibDems to lay down a clear pledge that presumably will be non-negotiable should they be in coalition discussions. The pledge trumps school spending commitments by both Labour and the Conservatives and so is a positive start to their manifesto. However there is much more to be welcomed.

Both NIACE and Inclusion are pleased to see the commitment for “a cross-party commission to secure a long-term settlement for the public funding of reskilling and lifelong learning.” This was the central ask of NIACE’s 2014 Manifesto (Skills for Prosperity) where they called for a cross party review of the UK’s skills needs and the funding issues faced by colleges and training providers.

It would be an odd LibDem manifesto that did not include proposals to devolve more powers and finance to the local level and this manifesto does not disappoint. They want to “devolve more economic decision-making to local areas” and (amongst other functions) prioritise “skills training and back-to-work support.” They will do this by devolving more power and resources to “groups of Local Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships” and starting with a reformed and improved Work Programme “in partnership with English local government”.

In common with other manifestos boosting the numbers and standing of Apprenticeships is a key feature for post-16 education. They commit to: 200,000 Apprenticeship Grants for Employers; expanding degree-equivalent Higher Apprenticeships; and aim to double the number of businesses hiring apprentices. In addition there are welcome commitments around boosting the apprentices from a BAME background and identifying and tackling skills gaps.

A further cheer for NIACE and Inclusion is the statement that the LibDems want to “Help everyone in work on a low wage step up the career ladder and increase their hours … with tailored in-work careers and job search advice.” This reflects NIACE’s call for a Career Advancement Service. No specifics or budget is given but at least the issue is recognised.

A final detail worth reporting which does not get any coverage in other manifestos is their commitment to review benefit sanctions procedures in Jobcentres. Inclusion has highlighted the increasing use of sanctions and called for sanctions to be suspended for disabled people. The LibDems are clear that “they [sanctions] should not be used to cut benefit expenditure deliberately”. A direct criticism of their Coalition partners.

Of course, there is a big “however” to the series of sensible and welcome commitments and proposals. The manifesto is written with coalition negotiations in mind. To that extent no end of commitments can be included, but the key issue is what gets dropped in the coalition horse-trading? We hope not the policies highlighted here.

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A serious migration – reacting to the UKIP manifesto

, by Tom Stannard. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.

The 2015 UK Independence Party manifesto launch marks something of a watershed for the party.  Their far longer, far more esoteric 2010 manifesto is roundly dismissed by Nigel Farage as “drivel”, and long gone are policies such as making London Underground’s Circle line circular again, and enforcing a dress code for taxi drivers.

This is a party seeking to get serious about the two core issues in its policy stable that, according to most reliable polling, are the barometers of its continuing appeal to its core vote – Europe and immigration.  But how serious are their proposals?

On Europe, UKIP has to steer a tricky course.  Although the party’s populist “grand narrative” of EU waste and profligacy identifies the EU as the source of the various ills it ascribes to excessive migration, it has now to contend with broadly unified business opinion that views the possibility of a UK exit from the EU with scepticism, and in some quarters, dismay.  The manifesto pledges an immediate referendum and that if this is won (UKIP commit to backing an exit vote), that the UK would be able to leave within two years.  This policy alone is not markedly different from their 2010 commitment.

On immigration, UKIP have placed great stock in seeking to emulate the Australian “points style” migration system.  The UK of course already operates a variant of a points based system as do most advanced economies; what is quantitatively different is the party’s commitment to extend this system to European migrants to the UK, and its aspiration in terms of numbers.  The new manifesto commits to a range of “normality” of between 20,000 and 50,000 net migrants per year, down from the current 300,000, managed in part via a cap on visas issued.  The party is mindful of the coalition’s difficulties in achieving pre-2010 quantified targets on numbers.  This is less sharp than the 50,000 cap pledge UKIP made in 2010, but remains a bold ambition.

Outside these core vote areas, UKIP makes pledges across many areas of policy – notably raising defence spending, cutting business rates and to “fully funding” social care.  UKIP has also now entered the more serious competition of seeking independent validation of its various spending commitments.

Populist rhetoric aside, the defence spending commitments, signalling infrastructure and operational investments equivalent to 2% of GDP p/a, plus post-service employment commitments for Armed Forces personnel, perhaps signal a growing appreciation of the employment, skills and labour market dynamics affecting particular sectors of employment in the UK.  The same might be said of the party’s emerging ideas on offender learning, a big area of work for NIACE over the years, where UKIP now propose specifically to pay qualified prisoners to teach basic skills to other prisoners.

These commitments aside, many of the other UKIP education and skills commitments – such as on apprenticeships for 14 year olds, undergraduates and tuition fees, and on schools – as with many of the other main parties, remains in our view too heavy in emphasis on the needs of young people alone, as opposed to the needs and priorities for adult skills and employment across the working age population.

The crux of our challenge to UKIP in discussions with the party will be around the appreciation of a flexible system for managing migration that reflects the true net benefits migration brings to the UK economy, alongside the responsibilities of migrants to play a full and productive role in UK society, and the role for lifelong learning and in work progression as the backdrop to sustainable and equitable economic growth.

Our recent policy solutions paper on migration set out this challenge in full, calling for:

  • changes to the benefit system to require everyone in a household in receipt of benefits with an English language need to learn English;
  • significant expansion in the number of English classes, refocusing current public investment on entry levels and introducing loans for learning beyond this;
  • greater power for local areas to promote integration and support local opportunity; and
  • changes to the immigration cap so more highly skilled people can stay and work in the UK.

Alongside this, we are certain UKIP will welcome a robust debate on our ideas on low pay and career progression, also published in the last month, in the context of their macroeconomic commitments in the manifesto.  We are now looking forward to a good debate with UKIP and the other parties after the general election to try to make the positive and economically essential aspects of this vision a reality.

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Can the Greens deliver ‘the Common Good’?

April 14, 2015, by Steve Mulligan. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.

The Green Party has given itself the unenviable task of launching their manifesto today, ‘For The Common Good‘, at the same time as the Conservatives.

Whilst some have questioned the wisdom of this approach, this tactic certainly emphasises the very clear choice that they’ve spent the campaign trying to highlight – i.e. between continued austerity (as advocated by the majority of parties) or increased investment in progressive policies of the like we haven’t seen since the downturn in 2007.

From a NIACE perspective, this must be applauded as the only Manifesto (so far) to make a clear commitment to lifelong learning – promising to “reverse the 20-year programme of dismantling the lifelong learning sector and support mature students”. This is underpinned by their proposal to “encourage local authorities to use some of the additional money given to them to restore the full range of local adult education programmes”.

However, this is sadly offset somewhat by proposals to ‘reverse the trend whereby 45% of apprenticeships are now taken by people over 25’. As we have long argued at NIACE – it is the stage of a career that is crucial, not the age of the individual.

Returning to the positives, the Green Party are also calling for £1.5bn a year extra funding for further education, a marked difference to the decline we’ve seen over the past five years.  They are also pushing a series of measures to improve access, including their call for the Education Maintenance Allowance to be restored, the Independent Living Fund to be retained and a national Widening Participation programme to connect universities with local schools and colleges.

Looking at their wider higher and further education policies, their most high profile proposal is for Free Higher Education – with undergraduate tuition fees scrapped and student grants reintroduced -  alongside the cancellation of debt issued by the Student Loans Company.  Given the costs associated, it would be difficult to see how these proposals could be accommodated within any coalition negotiations.

In line with their policies on curbing privatisation across Government (a central theme) they will oppose any further privatisation of further education provision, whilst returning colleges in private sector ownership to local government control.

So how will they pay for all this? The manifesto highlights a number of large scale proposals to generate additional income – such as the cancellation of trident (which none of the main parties they need to negotiate with will accept) or £30 billion from tax avoidance and evasion (5 times more than the government themselves expect to raise). These claims will inevitably lead many commentators to question their credibility.

For The Common Good’ is clearly packed with eye-catching, progressive and hugely populist policies that are difficult to argue against in a perfect world. We sadly don’t live in a perfect world and some may feel that these policies lack the fiscal credibility to withstand scrutiny – which will be important for any future negotiations. Good policy is only good if it’s deliverable.

And given the unpredictable state of polls – perhaps the Green Party should have used this opportunity to concentrate on identifying key bargaining chips to secure wins in coalition negotiations. Have they been a little too ambitious?

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The Conservative manifesto: jobs, skills and growth

, by Stephen Evans. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.

Extending the Right to Buy to more than one million social housing tenants is perhaps the flagship policy in the Conservative manifesto. The principle of giving more people a chance to get on the housing ladder is, I think, a good one, notwithstanding concerns about funding and ensuring every home sold is matched by a new one built.

At NIACE we think help to get on the career ladder is just as important as help to get on the housing ladder. The Conservative manifesto celebrates some genuine successes of the last five years in this regard. Growth in employment has consistently outpaced expectations. The Conservatives promise to continue this, and increase employment by 2 million by 2020. They also want to legislate so that no-one working 30 hours at the National Minimum Wage pays any income tax (though National Insurance is excluded from this).

And the number of Apprenticeships – the favoured programme of all politicians – has grown too (though with concerns over quality and masking falls in other forms of learning). Again the Conservatives pledge to continue this growth, creating 3 million more.

But there are two really big challenges for our country that don’t get enough airtime. The first is that there is relatively little on job, career and skills support beyond young people. This matters because we have an aging population, lengthening working lives, and globalisation is changing the skills needs of jobs.

The second is how to grow the economy. Productivity, the key determinant of living standards, has flatlined since 2008. Some of this was inevitable in the aftermath of recession, as people accepted lower pay and hours to protect jobs. But it now looks more like a pattern. This is bad, not just for people’s living standards, but for the deficit as well – we need wages to rise to boost tax receipts.

For both of these learning and skills for all adults and young people are crucial. NIACE will shortly set out the actions we want a new government to take in its first 100 days. But here I highlight three that are particularly relevant to the manifesto’s themes:

•    Career Advancement Service. Increasing the National Minimum Wage and cutting tax for low paid workers is the right thing to do. But we think a new Career Advancement Service, giving people a Career Coach and personal budget to boost their career, is urgently needed;

•    Personal Career Accounts. We need employers and individuals to invest more in their own skills. So we’d like the principle of Help to Buy ISAs, where the Government tops up people’s savings towards a deposit, extended to learning too – a kind of Help to Train ISA; and

•    Apprentice Charter. The growth in Apprenticeships is welcome, but there are concerns about quality. We think we need an Apprentice Charter, co-designed by employers and Apprentices, to act as a quality mark.

The growth in employment and Apprenticeships over the last five years are welcome, and we need to continue these. But it will take more than this to boost growth and living standards and meet the skills needs of the future. Manifestos can’t say everything, so this is where the meat of a programme for Government will stand.

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What’s in the Labour manifesto for learning, skills and employment?

April 13, 2015, by David Hughes. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.

“We believe that Britain only succeeds when working families succeed. As the economy at last recovers, people want the opportunity to use their skills and talents to make a better life for themselves and their children. Our country’s greatest asset is the hard work and talent of our people.” Ed Miliband

With a statement like that in the Labour Leader’s foreword to their manifesto I did think there would be many commitments which support the NIACE view of the world. And, in many respects, I was not disappointed. At both the macro level and in many detailed proposals, it is clear that the Labour Party has been listening, analysing and thinking hard about what it will do if it comes into power next month.

The manifesto reads, as others have suggested, much more like an Autumn Statement than a traditional manifesto, and it is probably better for it. So, for instance, there is a strong over-arching theme of taking a long-term view of investment in order to build a stronger and fairer economy supported by many detailed proposals.

It is in the detailed proposals that NIACE can find useful hooks, should Labour get into power. There are lots of them I like, such as a commitment to reduce the proportion of citizens unable to use the internet. Likewise, there is a strong focus on the 5 million people on low pay by forming new partnerships between employers and employees to improve business performance and job quality. Both of these are issues NIACE has been campaigning on in recent months.

Inevitably, there is more on supporting the learning, skills and employment of young people than support for people in work to improve their productivity. But it is worth recognising that the manifesto does helpfully start to re-design the 18-24 year old ‘phase’ of development. More support, better options, apprenticeships about progression to higher level jobs and learning, a new Youth Allowance to even the playing field, Institutes of Technical Excellence and so on. All of these are about the long term investment our society should make to help every young person become a confident lifelong learner.

Just as inevitably, for me, there are a number of missed opportunities. The welcome prioritisation of mental health and joining up of aged care and health miss the contribution lifelong learning makes to supporting recovery, resilience, active living and better health. But to get that right requires the sort of cross-Government department thinking that has evaded so many administrations for so long.

Perhaps the cross-silo thinking I would like to see will come about with the strong push for devolution in England and the reinforcement of devolved powers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? I’m excited, for instance, at the commitment to commission a new Work Programme at local level, allowing for more joining up of employment and skills and greater sensitivity to the local labour market.

Like others we will be reading this carefully, along with the other manifestos, and looking for the areas where we will be able to support the new Government. We’ll be launching, shortly, our own set of proposed actions for the next Government to put into place in its first 100 days. Keep an eye out for it.

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