Red tape will be slashed to make it easier for employers to take on more apprentices, skills secretary John Denham has announced.
He said that unnecessary bureaucracy such as demands to store paperwork for up to six years, multiple inspection visits and monthly reporting requirements will be ditched at the earliest possible opportunity.
Mr Denham became concerned that bureaucracy is deterring some companies - including small and medium-sized enterprises - from taking on apprentices after discussions with business.
His 'bureaucracy-busting' challenge has been laid down to the organisations charged with delivering the government's apprenticeships programme, including the Learning and Skills Council, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, awarding bodies and his own department.
The challenge has been welcomed by leading employers. Tesco aims to double the number of apprenticeship places once changes, including the following, are in place:
- Excess paperwork will be removed through use of electronic audit and storage, tackling employers' concerns about keeping paper records for up to six years
- Registration and certification processes will be simplified, including faster confirmation that apprentices have successfully completed their programmes. Employers will no longer have to wait several months for a paper certificate to arrive
- Payment systems will be streamlined, for example by enabling payments to be made in two lump sums rather than on a monthly basis if employer requests this
- Monthly reporting requirements will be scrapped
- Inspection and review visits will be reduced, tackling employers' concerns that they can face several different review and inspection processes that are not co-ordinated and don't share evidence between them
- Health and safety requirements for apprentices will be based more closely on businesses' existing in-house systems.
Mr Denham said: "Employers tell us that if we are to meet our ambitious aims to expand the number of apprenticeships, we need to cut the red tape around the programme.
"There is no reason why firms should have to deal with multiple copies of time-consuming paperwork, provide the same information to several different agencies, be expected to invoice government more often than is necessary, or have to undergo complex inspection requirements when they already have perfectly adequate systems of their own.”
Employers have urged swift action to streamline the current system. The bureaucracy-busting plan will be published over the summer and will map out a timetable for implementation while seeking further input from employers and awarding bodies.
David Potts, retail director of Tesco said: "We are very encouraged by the drive from John Denham and welcome the proposals for cutting red tape around apprenticeship programmes. This will strengthen our commitment and help us achieve our aim of doubling the number of apprenticeship places we offer this year.”
Andy Ferguson, CEO, Dollond & Aitchinson said: "We applaud the efforts from government and John Denham's drive to minimise the bureaucracy that employers face around apprenticeships. As a national optician, working in local communities up and down the country, we see both the tangible business benefits of investing in training and the positive impact on the lives of our employees and their families.”
Meanwhile, the TUC has called for all apprentices to be protected by the minimum wage (NMW), estimating that just 30% of apprentices are currently under its protection.
In its submission to the Low Pay Commission minimum wage apprentice exemption review, the TUC says that bringing all apprentices into the NMW regime will improve the quality and reputation of apprenticeships by increasing completion rates for low-paid apprentices.
The TUC report argues that those apprentices that are not currently entitled to the NMW should be brought into the regime and paid a special rate at a slight discount from the standard NMW rates.
The report shows that the introduction in 2005 of an £80 minimum weekly pay rate for apprentices in England has had a big impact in improving completion rates. Apprenticeship completion rates have more than doubled over the last five years, from 28% in 2002/03 to 63% in 2006/07. The rate of improvement has been greatest in low-paid sectors such as child care (181% improvement in completion rates), health and social care (150%) and hairdressing (125%).
Apprentice pay has long been incorporated into the minimum wage regulations in Australia, whilst the Republic of Ireland has set minimum wage rates for apprentices since 2002. In both countries, the number of number of apprenticeships has continued to grow, allaying any fears that increasing apprentice pay would deter employers from offering training places.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “Apprentices need to complete their training if it is to fully benefit themselves or their employer, so increasing completion rates is absolutely vital to the success of apprenticeships.
“Evidence from the UK and across the world shows that decent pay must be at the heart of any successful apprenticeships programme. The Low Pay Commission must use this evidence to bring all apprentices under the national minimum wage regime. At only a small cost to a minority of employers, this would help apprentices who are struggling to afford their training.”