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What could the general election mean for skills and employment?

Martin-Christian Kent, Executive Director, People 1st

With three weeks to go before the General Election on 8 June, we’ve now seen the three main Westminster parties’ manifestos - so what do they tell us about their thinking around skills and employment?

If the Tories get back in, there will be few changes to skills policy. Their manifesto renews their commitment to technical education reform and the recommendations of the Sainsbury Review, which will mean radical changes to full-time further education (FE) provision.

Apprenticeships also remain critical to their overall strategy - they have renewed their commitment to their three million apprenticeship target and, if anyone was still hoping for a policy change on the levy, they will be disappointed. It’s here to stay, although there may be changes in the way employers can use it to supplement apprentice wages.

The Labour Party has outlined detailed skills-related proposals, which suggests the experienced hand of Shadow Skills Minister, Gordon Marsden. If elected, Labour would keep the apprenticeship levy, but allow employers to use it to support pre-employment training too. They would also address some of the current funding challenges undermining FE provision and ensure parity between sixth forms and FE college funding.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, have surprisingly very little to say on skills, except committing to doubling apprenticeship numbers.

All three parties stress the importance of an industrial strategy, throwing in the usual handful of skills, investment and infrastructure ingredients to make the UK more competitive.

Unsurprisingly, it is Brexit that highlights clear differences in party policies. The Tories go into little detail on the issue, other than repeating the mantra that we have heard throughout their campaign - that we need strong and stable leadership.

They have more to say on immigration, and plan to introduce an ‘immigration skills charge’ levied on companies employing migrant workers. Revenue generated from this charge, which will be £2,000 a year by the end of the parliament, will be used to invest in higher-level skills training for UK workers. This means that sectors like hospitality and passenger transport will effectively end up paying for investment in other sectors, such as manufacturing and engineering.

The Lib Dems remain committed to remaining in the single market and customs union, with Labour maintaining its ambiguous balancing act by stressing ‘strong emphasis on retaining the benefits’ of both. Both parties would guarantee the rights on existing EU citizens living and working in the UK and the Lib Dems are committed to maintaining a free movement of people.

One area of policy that is likely to become more interesting and high-profile in the autumn is quality of work and workers’ rights. Whilst Labour calls for an all-out ban on zero-hour contracts, the Tories are happy to leave policy detail until Matthew Taylor publishes his independent report on how employment regulation and practices are keeping pace with the changing world of work. But don’t mistake this for a fudge - Theresa May has maintained the need for radical change in this area since her first day in office.

When you step back from the manifestos, the broad consensus in skills policy is striking, which makes it frustrating that there has been so little cross-party collaboration in this vital area. Instead, we’ve seen constant chopping and changing as different parties and ministers attempt to make their mark.

Ultimately, it is Brexit that really defines a difference around skills and employment policy, and the election is unlikely to do little to remove that. Only another three weeks to go…

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