31st March, 2022

What does a “review” of government policy on employer training mean?

Perspective by David Laws, GK Adviser

Last week the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, made a few waves in the education sector by announcing in his Spring Statement a “review” of government policy on employer training, including the Apprenticeship Levy. The announcement caught many by surprise, including apparently some of the Chancellor’s colleagues in the Education Department.

By the end of the week, some were suggesting that the “review” was not a formal “Review”, and might not result in much change in the Levy. So, what exactly is going on? Well, the Apprenticeship Levy seems to have strong backing in the government, and indeed across the political parties. Inevitably, there are often calls for tweaks, for more “flexibility” and for a variety of different reforms – not all of which are mutually compatible.

The Chancellor’s “review” could result in looking again at some of these practical issues, which also include the extent to which the existing Levy is being used to support new entrants into the labour market, as opposed to existing staff (some of whom may already have higher level, tax-payer supported, qualifications). But the Chancellor might have something new or “additional” in mind, to work alongside the Levy. In his recent “Mais Lecture” the Chancellor started to set out his vision of a post-pandemic economic strategy, including “investment in people”. Some have speculated that he may want to introduce some sort of discrete tax credit to incentivise training. This would presumably involve reformulating the existing tax relief for training which is available through the corporation tax system. The aim, in any case, seems to be to raise the amount of expenditure by employers on training, and improve its quality and focus. The review will look at whether current incentives are delivering the “right kinds of training”.

What should those interested in the Apprenticeship Levy make of all this? It seems if there is still a strong commitment to the principle of the Levy, and a desire in some parts of government not to rock the boat too much. This could suggest that the review will make small changes to the Levy, while perhaps restructuring other training reliefs.

But it would be unwise to take any review into this area for granted – not least one where the powerful Treasury appears to be in the driving seat. To the extent that the review does look at if “the current tax system is incentivising the right kinds of training”, the review could ask some fundamental questions, which could have both direct and indirect effects on the Levy. This could include looking at issues raised by the Augar Review, around the support for higher level apprenticeships.

Whether this “review” is one with a small “r” or capital “R”, all those interested in the Levy and the future of government policy on training support incentives should be using this as an opportunity to feed into government their views on how the system should evolve. The review is going to need to address some fundamental issues, and what impact this will have on future government policy on training cannot be taken for granted.