Employment and skills after Brexit

28 June 2016

It’s been a quiet week: only a vote to leave the European Union, resignation of the Prime Minister, talk of a second vote on Scottish independence, a big fall in financial markets, and mass resignations in the Labour Party.

It will take a number of years for the dust to settle and the parameters of a post-Brexit country to take shape. But in the meantime, what should be the priorities for learning, skills and employment?

1. Keep calm and carry on

In the short-term, nothing has changed. There are people who need help to find work, people want to learn and improve their skills, and young people wanting to build a career. The great work our learning, skills and employment sectors do every day must carry on.

It’s inevitable there will be some paralysis in Government decision-making. But the commissioning of the Work & Health Programme and the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, among other things, must continue. They are as important to our country outside the EU as they were inside.

2. Protect investment in our future

The 2014-20 ESF programme was due to invest £2.5 billion (around £400 million per year) across England in employment and skills programmes, with a further £370 million in Scotland and £780 million in Wales. It will take at least two years for the UK to leave the EU, so the current programme and projects should be safe until late 2018 – a clear statement of this from the Government would be welcome.

Beyond this, we need to make a collective case that this level of investment must continue through the UK Government once we have left the EU. If at least part of the vote to leave was a call for better opportunities for UK citizens, then cutting off funding designed to provide this is unlikely to boost trust in the power of politics to make a difference.

3. Refocus welfare on contribution

Part of the referendum debate focused on the rights of EU citizens to claim UK benefits. While the number of people working here and sending child benefit back to their country of origin to support their children there was tiny, for many it offended a bigger principle: that you have to pay in to take out and that the benefit system is for those in this country (whether UK citizens or not).

The Government can now commit to applying residency rules for all benefits once we leave the EU. This should be part of a wider review of the role of contribution in the benefit system. For example, should you need at least four years National Insurance contributions before being eligible for in-work tax credits? What better support can be given to those in work to progress? We renew our calls for a Career Advancement Service and will shortly be publishing proposals for Personal Learning Accounts.

4. Invest better in employment and skills

ESF funded projects made a big difference to many people’s lives, and also to an extent allowed innovation and wider access to project funding. But the programme could also feel a bit isolated from mainstream programmes, and at times be beset by short-term funding and bureaucratic delays (many actually from its application by UK Government, rather than derived from the EU).

We have made the case that much more funding is needed to meet the Government’s objective of halving the disability employment gap – on current trends this will take 200 years. So I would argue some of this repatriated funding should be invested in expanding the Work and Health Programme (the Government was already in talks with local areas about using some ESF to top up the programme). More funding could also be invested in workplace learning beyond Apprenticeships, to better help people in low paid work. This should be driven by cities and local areas.

5. Making migration work

It’s clear that at least some of the vote to leave was driven through the prism of migration. It is important the next phase of this debate should be based on facts: we set these out last year in our publication Making Migration Work.

We also set out policy proposals to: require all those in receipt of benefits to improve their English where they need to, vital for opportunity and inclusion; increase the number and quality of English classes; and invest in areas with high levels of worklessness and where public services are strained.

Whatever your view on whether we should remain or leave, the decision is now taken. It is up to all of us to make sure that the people we serve get the investment and opportunities they need. And to make the case that investing in people through learning, skills and employment services is a central part of our post-Brexit settlement.

Register now for IntoWork Convention 2016 to discuss and debate this and many other issues with leading employment and skills leaders and practitioners.