Unions team up to strike "reassuring" apprenticeships deal with Cabinet Office

Written by Jim Dunton on 13 March 2017 in News

Pact pledges “appropriate” pay for new starters and protects salaries of existing staff members who retrain under apprenticeship proposals

Civil service unions have united to hammer out a “corporate approach” with the Cabinet Office to Whitehall’s apprenticeships programme, aiming to protect staff earnings and ensure quality training.

The agreement follows fears that Whitehall’s proposals to create 30,000 new training opportunities across the home civil service over the next four years could see the introduction of less favourable pay rates and employment terms for new starters, and disadvantage current staff.

Under the deal, the Cabinet Office commits in principle to “paying apprentices appropriately” for the level and profession of the apprenticeship they undertake, and “building apprentices into career paths”.

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The agreement also covers “ensuring the quality of training and support for apprentices” and compliance with current civil service redundancy principles – both in relation to offering those at risk of redundancy the opportunity to retrain, and not seeking to replace posts made redundant with new apprenticeships.

Protecting the earnings of staff who train for new skills under an apprenticeship is seen as particularly important by unions because a Cabinet Office strategy document published in January said upskilling current staff would be a “fundamental” part of meeting the 30,000 target.

Unions welcomed the apprenticeships agreement struck by the National Trade Union Committee, which brings together the FDA, PCS, Prospect, Unite, the GMB, the Prison Officers Association the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance.

However, the principles are open to interpretation by individual departments and their agencies, where disparities in pay rates for fundamentally similar jobs are not uncommon.

Geoff Lewtas, the PCS union’s NTUC convener, said negotiating the agreement had taken several months and was a good start.

But he warned that the principles needed to radiate beyond the Cabinet Office and into li departments.

“We have a serious job to make sure that departments stick to the basic proposals and that each department fulfils its role,” he said.

“One key concern is making sure that, as it’s intended these will all be good quality apprenticeships, we show that to the apprentices themselves by paying them the normal starting rate for the job they will do and the organisation they are joining.

"It’s an important part of the investment and we think the days of apprentices being treated as second class citizens are over.”

FDA assistant general secretary Rob O’Neill said the agreement had allayed some fears about how central government may choose to use the apprenticeships programme.

“There was some concern about what the Cabinet Office were saying on apprentices, particularly the consultation document about the compensation scheme that talked about ‘making headroom’ for apprentices,” he said.

“We’re all happy that we’ve got the right answers from the Cabinet Office, and having this agreement provides some reassurance about what the prognosis is for the future.”

Both Lewtas and O’Neill expected most apprenticeships activity to focus on the civil service’s lowest grades but were optimistic that higher level opportunities would open up.

Lewtas said the overall impression was that a “large majority” of the apprentices would be at administrative officer and executive officer levels.

O’Neill said: “Our expectation is that as we move towards 2020, there will be apprentices at all levels, with the civil service professions starting to get more involved in developing apprentices.”

Neither Lewtas nor O’Neill had a clear idea of what the balance may be between new entrant apprentices and existing staff seeking retraining opportunities.

However, O’Neill said he believed areas such as digital skills and commercial work were likely see a greater proportion of current staff than new hires.

“If you think about it, the civil service will need to grow their own in some of those areas,” he said.

“The sorts of skills required are prized in the private sector and the civil service will have to up its game to compete.”

The Cabinet Office said the apprenticeships framework agreed with the NTUC aimed to set out how the programme would be run across Whitehall, and that unions had been assured existing staff would not be made redundant and replaced by apprentices.

A spokeswoman added: "Offering apprenticeships to existing staff is a fundamental part of our workforce strategy. 

“We encourage all employees at all grades and in all professions who want to refresh their skills or learn new ones to embrace apprenticeships as part of their learning and development.”

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