This week's MP's column comes from Judith Cummins, Labour MP for Bradford South

LAST week was National Apprenticeship Week. Normally, I take this opportunity to get out and about and meet apprentices at businesses across Bradford South.

Of course, this year that was not possible but I was pleased to take part in a virtual event with Bradford College and local businesses.

I spoke about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our city. Beyond the awful human cost – lives lost, families separated, and a rise in mental health problems, not least for our young people – the lasting impact of the pandemic will be the economic damage caused by the virus itself and the associated lockdowns.

In a city like Bradford, which already has significant economic challenges, this damage could be severe and long lasting if we don’t work together to rebuild our economy and prepare for the future.  

The challenges we face are clear. They include a rapid rise in unemployment, continued poor connectivity and a growing skills gap.

While these challenges are not in themselves new, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on them and makes the need for change even greater.

In the last year, businesses across Bradford have struggled as the pandemic has forced closures and reduced consumer demand across the board.

A Bradford Council business survey last year found that 60 per cent of all businesses who responded temporarily closed or paused trading during the last year, while 83 per cent reported a substantially lower turnover.

One in ten businesses is planning redundancies which will see five per cent of workers losing their jobs.

Of course, retail, hospitality and leisure has been particularly hard hit but I know of businesses in a wide variety of sectors who have really struggled – including beauty and wellbeing, childcare, mechanics, dentists and many others.

The uneven impact of local lockdowns has exacerbated these problems in Bradford.

Throughout last summer and autumn, when infection rates were much lower than now, Bradford and others parts of the North were placed in tougher levels of local restrictions. 

These local restrictions, without proper economic support, hit Bradford’s economy hard. At the time, I called on the Government to bring in some form of a local furlough scheme and other support for local areas but they didn’t listen at that point.

The very real danger as we come out of this pandemic is that instead of the regional rebalancing or “levelling up” that we desperately need, we instead see a “levelling down” where areas that already faced challenges see our problems compacted and magnified and made worse not better.

The Government must step up and provide a clear plan for our national economic recovery, focused on supporting businesses and protecting jobs in the places that need them most.

This plan should have three elements. First, businesses need certainty on how they can reopen and when the current support schemes will end.

Businesses have not been helped by the short-termism which seemed to dominate the Government’s response. I say this with a degree of sympathy initially – but as time has marched on – the response from government has not always matched the needs of business – who above all told me they needed some clarity and certainty in an already difficult landscape.

From a failure to lock down early enough to the Government’s repeated desire to pull away essential business support schemes prematurely, businesses have been repeatedly left in the lurch. As we begin to recover from the crisis, this approach must change.

Second, the Government must bring forward targeted support to help employers and workers recover.

For example, they should continue and extend the business rates relief for the most affected companies, as well as the reduction in VAT.

Third, the Government needs to set out long-term policies to help businesses thrive including improving skills, boosting investment and rebalancing our economy.

I firmly believe that technical and vocational education including apprenticeships must be at the heart of this.

Sadly, one of the effects of a rise in unemployment is a long-term knock on effect on skills and earnings. After the 2008 financial crisis, evidence shows that workers who lost their jobs suffered a long-term reduction in earnings.

To prevent this happening again, we must prioritise up-skilling and returning people to employment as soon as possible.

The treatment of the FE sector as second-best must end once and for all. After a decade of cuts, we now need a decade of investment in our colleges and our young people.

Apprenticeships should also play a key role. However, the Government is failing to reverse a downward trend in apprentice numbers, with figures showing a marked fall in the number of apprenticeships in Bradford since 2015.

Last July, the Government announced a cash incentive for employers to take on a new apprentice. The ‘Plan for Jobs’ budgeted for 100,000 incentive payments, but new data shows just 18,670 apprentices had been taken on under the scheme so far. For our young people to have the future they deserve its crucial they are supported into skilled jobs.

That’s why Labour is calling upon the Government to act now to create more apprenticeship opportunities by creating a wage subsidy from the underspend in the apprenticeships levy. This would create 85,000 new apprenticeships for 16-24-year olds this year. 

A properly-funded plan for skills along with investment in our infrastructure and support for businesses must be the basis of our recovery.