Two years ago the government committed to “introduce significantly discounted bus and train travel for apprentices to ensure that no young person is deterred from an apprenticeship due to travel costs.” Two years down the line we appear no closer to achievement of this policy objective. And this is in spite of a growing body of research findings showing that too many apprentices are caught in a poverty trap that is both limiting take-up of this vocational route and leading to high drop-out rates. It is astounding that, in this day and age, 40 per cent of apprentices say that they are spending more money on undertaking an apprenticeship programme – especially significant outlays for extras such as travel and childcare – than they get paid.
The TUC welcomed the government’s original commitment to reduce transport costs for all apprentices and the lack of progress on this is hugely disappointing. As we highlight in section 2 of this report, this feeling is shared by the House of Commons Education Select Committee who have repeatedly questioned government ministers on this matter. The latest response from government does not inspire confidence about rapid progress in the near future, with indications that funding for the policy now needs to be found, and committed to, in the next Spending Review.
In recent years the TUC and many other stakeholders have provided ample evidence to the government of the low income levels of many apprentices and how the operation and structure of the National Minimum Wage is a major driver behind this. Section 3 of our report looks into the broader research findings about the apprenticeship poverty trap and provides more detail about campaigns and research specifically relating to the impact of transport costs.
The lack of political will in Westminster to deliver on discounted travel for apprentices is contrasted by a range of innovative approaches that are being developed through devolved arrangements in England. For example, Liverpool City Region has recently committed to give all apprentices aged 16-24 in the region an entitlement to half price bus and train travel and these discounts are hailed to save apprentices up to £420 on bus fares and up to £680 on train fares annually. In Greater London apprentices aged 16-17 get completely free bus travel and 50 per cent off rail and tube fares and apprentices aged 18-24 get a 30 per cent discount in the first year of their apprenticeship. Greater Manchester will shortly be introducing a new scheme giving completely free bus travel to all young people aged 16-18 offering annual savings in excess of £500 and this combined authority also provides a range of travel discounts to apprentices, including access to free refurbished bikes. Section 4 of the report looks at local and regional schemes that are currently operating and identifies a number of best practice options that could be drawn on by government to develop a national entitlement.
However, the main recommendation in this report relates to political will and the need for government to simply get a move on and deliver on their policy commitment. Until that happens too many of our young people, and especially those facing the greatest levels of disadvantage, will continue to be locked out of the apprenticeship programme and the prospect of developing sustainable employment and a decent career.
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