the debating chamber at the senedd
The debating chamber at The Senedd Credit: Photo credit: Senedd Cymru / Welsh Parliament)

The Welsh Government has been accused of papering over the cracks after a U-turn on cuts to apprenticeship funding.

Vaughan Gething confirmed £5.25m has been restored to the 2024-25 apprenticeship budget, taking overall investment to more than £143m a year.

However, Wales’ economy minister warned the loss of former EU funding means there will still be an impact on apprenticeships.

Mr Gething said this will be compounded by a UK Government decision to prevent councils from using replacement funds to support Wales-wide programmes.

He outlined the aims of a new apprenticeship policy statement: strengthening important sectors; plugging skills gaps and boosting productivity, and tackling economic inequality.

‘Spin’

Paul Davies, the Conservatives’ shadow minister, described the statement on February 27 as a disappointing attempt to paper over the cracks.

He said: “Three weeks ago, the minister promised lots of positivity in today’s statement, but in reality this statement is straight out of the Alastair Campbell school of spin.”

Mr Davies warned the three aims of the policy statement are meaningless if the sector does not have enough funding in the medium and longer term.

“The reality is the sector will still receive a significant cut to its budget,” he said. “Rather than a cut of £17.5m, the sector is now facing a cut of £12.25m … That’s hardly positive, is it?”

Mr Gething stressed the need to balance the overall budget which he said is worth £1.3bn less in real terms than when it was set in 2021.

‘Precarious’

Luke Fletcher welcomed the reversal of cuts as a step in the right direction but warned that the future of apprenticeships remains in a precarious place.

Raising concerns about poor communication, Plaid Cymru’s shadow minister warned: “The sector was told to expect a 3% cut then it turned out to be a 24% cut.

“And now this reversal, as welcome as it is – the uncertainty hasn’t been good for the sector and its long-term planning.”

Mr Fletcher warned it will take years to recover from the loss of apprenticeship places.

Calling for more meat on the bones of the new policy statement, he said: “There’s nothing to disagree with in terms of the principles but that’s what they are at the moment, supplemented with a lot of management speak … and no clear actions.”

‘Vital’

Jack Sargeant, a Labour backbencher, who is a former engineering apprentice, told the chamber businesses in north-east Wales rely on quality apprenticeship programmes.

The Alyn and Deeside MS said apprenticeships play a vital role in terms of building more homes, retrofitting existing homes and achieving net zero in a range of sectors in Wales.

Laura Anne Jones, the Conservatives’ shadow education minister, criticised Welsh ministers for breaking a manifesto commitment to create 125,000 all-age apprenticeships by 2026.

Mr Gething highlighted Conservative commitments to replace EU funding, saying: “It is simply not the case that that manifesto pledge has even come close to being kept.”

Hefin David criticised the apprenticeship levy which he described as a UK Government tax that does not return to businesses in Wales in the same way as it does in England.

‘Stretching’

Dr David, the Labour MS for Caerphilly, highlighted the recommendations of a 2023 report he authored for the Welsh Government on transitions to employment.

Huw Irranca-Davies, who co-chairs a new cross-party group on apprenticeships alongside Mr Fletcher, raised concerns about the impact of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis.

The Labour MS for Ogmore warned that low-earning apprentices living in deprived areas had lower completion rates, according to latest data.

Mr Irranca-Davies welcomed the restoration of £5.2m to the apprenticeship budget but cautioned it is still going to be immensely stretching for the sector

Mr Gething said: “We’re still having to make terrible choices in other parts of the budget to make sure there’s a budget that balances, and that’s very uncomfortable.”