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Since the government introduced the Apprenticeship Levy, the number of people starting courses has fallen dramatically, 24% in the case of intermediate apprenticeships. The North West has seen the steepest decline at 15,400 since 2017.

So why has the government initiative had the reverse effect to the one intended? The North West Business Leadership Team (NWBLT) think they have the answer.

NWBLT is made up of senior executives from the region’s major businesses who want to support the drive for more apprentices but have identified four main issues that are causing problems.

The system is difficult to navigate, the rules are inflexible, not all apprenticeships are achieving the desired quality levels and the development of standards is expensive and lengthy.

NWBLT joined forces with a similar organisation, London First to produce an excellent analysis of the issues. “Shaping the Workforce of Tomorrow”. It was launched at a reception in the Commons this week where some wider issues were raised, including the very term “apprenticeship”. Could another name be found for a name which conjures up a picture of an elderly blacksmith with an eager boy by his side at the anvil?

Probably not was the consensus, but what could be tackled was the perception of parents who wanted their children to go to university rather than go down the apprenticeship course. There was a feeling that might change with the realisation that a successful apprentice could be well on the way to a high-powered job while the university graduate remained saddled with debt. Sandy Lindsay, the Vice Chair of NWBLT said she was “infiltrating” parents’ evenings at schools to get the message over.

Another misconception about apprenticeship was raised, that they were only for young people. In our rapidly changing world, reskilling in middle age would be essential for mature apprentices.

It was stressed that nobody wanted the whole system scrapped or drastically reformed, just that the government needs to listen to the voice of business.

The people’s speaker

While I was in London, I had the opportunity to meet the new Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. I’ve known Lindsay, and his father Doug for many years.

Doug, now Lord Hoyle, was the MP for Nelson and Colne and then Warrington after he had beaten Roy Jenkins of the SDP in a famous by election in 1981. The Speaker’s father was known to us journalists as “Bank Holiday Doug” as he would always give us a story on those slow news days.

Lindsay entered the House at the 1997 election for Chorley but was never favoured with ministerial office by the New Labour governments. Instead he served for nine years as Deputy to the controversial John Bercow whose Speakership became increasingly controversial during the Brexit crisis.

Hoyle is the right man for the job. The office of Speaker has sustained reputational damage. There are outstanding claims of bullying and all in the Westminster village have been subject to poisonous social media.

The new Speaker told us he wants to turn a page and evidence of that came in an instruction he’s given the Clerks to the House. They can put in writing their dissent if they think the Speaker has broken the House regulations in one of his rulings.