Chancellor George Osborne pulled a bewildering array of Budget Day rabbits from his ever-capacious hat this afternoon. Cash for helicopter ambulance services, holey church roofs, video game developers, the North Sea oil industry, driverless cars - the list of beneficiaries, all no doubt extremely worthy, seemed almost endless. However, where, one wonders, are the people going to come from in future to spend it?
The constriction of the Further Education sector during the past five years of austerity has been spectacular and stands out as one of the hardest hit areas of our national economy. With 22% already shorn from our funding since 2010 and recent announcements of more pain to come from September, we are losing the ability to train the next generation to do the jobs the country needs. Today provided no respite, although there were indications, by way of policies directed at specific regions, of a possible way forward which would not undo the Chancellor's careful calculations.
In London and Greater Manchester, more decisions on allocating skills funding will be taken locally. This is not about being given more money, but about being able to react to local conditions. It's the kind of regional devolution which make sense in a country like ours, which while small, has extremely different needs, region by region and city by city. In Milton Keynes for example, we have a growing need for training in the Health and Social Care sector.
Apprenticeships are unpopular because they tie individuals to a specific employer, while NVQs give that freedom of movement upon which the sector depends. Essentially people working in care-related professions tend to move around more because their skills are easily transferable. Give us the power to allocate our funds to the most needed training areas and we really could do more for less.
Outside of this one point skills and training, sadly, didn't get a look in during Mr Osborne's hour long peroration, apart from the welcome confirmation of the increase in wages for apprenticeships. This will undoubtedly help encourage young people to take them up, but unfortunately does nothing to entice Small and Medium-sized businesses (SMEs) to pay for them. One of our hardest tasks is to persuade such companies that their significant contribution to apprenticeship costs is worth their while. Larger companies have training budgets, but according to figures from Parliament 99% of all UK businesses are SMEs contributing 49.8% of the UK economy. If they don't pay to train young people, nobody else will.
The Chancellor had a good tale to tell about falling unemployment, falling welfare bills, growth in output and living standards. He talked repeatedly about how the government of which he is a member is "fixing the roof as the sun begins to shine." The problem is, if we're not able to train people to do the job, he may find himself having to fix his own roof.