£60m funding as Sunak goes big on apprenticeships

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has unveiled a raft of reforms aimed at increasing apprenticeship numbers and doing away with red tape for small businesses.

Speaking at the government’s Business Connect conference on Monday [18 March] in Coventry, the PM said the government will ensure there is enough funding to the tune of £60m to deliver apprenticeships for anyone up to the age of 21.

Further changes from the conference included a 50% uplift in financial thresholds to qualify as an SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) and leverage more private investment in female founders.

The government will fully fund apprenticeships in small businesses from 1 April by paying the full cost of training for anyone up to the age of 21 – intended to reduce costs and burdens for businesses and delivering more opportunities for young people to kickstart their careers.

“This will remove the need for small employers to meet some of the cost of training and saves time and costs for providers like further education colleges who currently need to source funding separately from the government and businesses,” the government said in a press statement.

Underpinning the move is an additional £60m of new government funding for next year, “guaranteeing”, the government said, “that where there is demand for apprenticeships from businesses, the government will ensure there is enough funding to deliver them”.

From the start of April, the government will also increase the amount of funding that employers who are paying the Apprenticeship Levy can pass onto other businesses. Apprenticeships can currently be funded by a levy-paying employer transferring up to 25% of their unused levy to a different employer.

Under the new measures, large employers who pay the Apprenticeship Levy will be able to transfer up to 50% of their funds to support other businesses, including smaller firms, to take on apprentices. 

“This will help SMEs hire more apprentices by reducing costs and enabling more employers to get the skilled workers they need while unlocking more opportunities for young people in a huge range of sectors, industries and professions,” the government said.

Hundreds of large levy-paying employers have already taken advantage of the opportunity to transfer their unused levy funds to other businesses. As of December 2023, 530 employers including Asda, HomeServe and BT Group have pledged to transfer more than £35.39m to support apprenticeships in businesses of all sizes since September 2021.

Taken together, these measures are expected to enable up to 20,000 more apprenticeships, primarily for young people.

Apprenticeships are now available in around 70% of all occupations, the government said. The roles are a way for businesses to develop the skills they need, and these new measures will help more businesses and young people benefit from them.

Also, at the Coventry event, the PM announced other measures to benefit SMEs. They include:

  • Increasing the number of companies which qualify as an SME through a 50% uplift to the thresholds that determine a company’s size. This is expected to benefit up to 132,000 businesses.
  • Introducing a new industry led ‘Invest in Women Taskforce’ to unlock private investment in female business leaders. The core aim of the taskforce is to raise a bespoke funding pot for female-founded businesses through private capital and address the wider challenges that female entrepreneurs specifically face. The taskforce will be industry led and co-chaired by entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow and Barclay’s Hannah Bernard, with small business minister Kevin Hollinrake representing the government. The taskforce membership will be set out in due course.
  • SMEs will be supported to invest and grow through a £200m extension of the Growth Guarantee Fund, helping 11,000 small businesses to access the finance they need.
  • Tax will be cut for 2m of the self-employed “who make up the vast majority of small businesses owners and leaders, by cutting the main rate of Class 4 NICs from 9% to 6% in April”, the government said. “We’ve also increased the Employment Allowance for National Insurance Contributions, taking 40% of businesses out of paying NICs altogether.”

The PM said: “At the Autumn Statement we protected over 1m small businesses from a business rates increase for the fourth consecutive year. We are now supporting small businesses for the next five years with the cost of their business rates through a £4.3bn package. This includes freezing the small business multiplier at 49.9p for a fourth consecutive year, saving an average shop £1,650, and protecting over a million rate payers from a 6.6% increase on their bills.”

The PM continued: “We have extended the retail, hospitality and leisure business rates relief for a fifth year, meaning 230,000 properties will receive a 75% relief, up to a cap of £110k per business. This support is worth £2.4bn and will protect small businesses including cafes and high street shops, and meaning the average independent pub saves over £13k. The Small Business Rates relief has also taken over 700,000 businesses out of paying business rates completely.”

Last month, the Department for Business and Trade held the first meeting of the newly established Small Business Council which has been tasked with overseeing three key areas for small firms – access to finance, skills and support as well as removing barriers.

The Help to Grow campaign website has also been relaunched as a one-stop shop for SMEs to find the information they need to grow and scale up. This includes helping small firms to clearly identify what funding they can access, helpful webinars and the basics of how to set up a business for the first time.

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