Comment: Public see through target-driven politics

Martin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan
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THIS week’s dismaying news that a glut of debt-burdened graduates are being forced to take unskilled jobs would suggest that David Cameron’s determination to make big businesses fund apprenticeships via a new levy from 2017 is an idea whose time has come.

Too many young people are building up debts of tens of thousands of pounds because of an illusory assumption that university is the best way to get a foot on the ladder of both employment and housing in life only to be rudely disabused. But for many it is clearly a case of chasing rainbows.

Apprenticeships are not a panacea. But a more balanced approach in the various ways to train and educate young people for good jobs is undoubtedly a step forward, as the Prime Minister said again yesterday.

Even so, it is not to decry the idea to highlight the danger of setting arbitrary targets. Cameron has said he wants to see three million apprenticeships over the next five years. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has pledged 30,000 in the road and rail industries alone.

As John Longworth, the straight-talking director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, has said, it is the quality of the apprenticeships the levy will bring in its slipstream that is important, not arbitrary figures.

That and the philosophical acceptance of the need for a less university-obsessed approach, a one-size-fits-all education policy that too often fails the individual and business.

Numbers and targets appeal to politicians. The Blair/Brown administration was obsessed with them. Politicians believe a policy will have more credibility with the public if there are clear targets attached to it.

But it is not the case. The public sees through the tick-box quota effect these days after many examples of it not working, from banking regulation to tests in schools.

More positively, if the apprenticeship drive works well it could boost skills and drive up productivity, a British problem that has had some of the most cerebral operators at the Bank of England and the City scratching their heads for some time.

Incidentally, a shrewd move, which has elements of both carrot and stick, is the government’s contention that in future it will take into account a company’s track record on apprenticeships when awarding large Whitehall contracts.

China crisis puts Grexit fears into perspective

And we were worried just about Greece possibly bailing out of the euro. The China syndrome, by contrast, shows what a real worry looks like for financial markets.

Bluntly, Greece in terms of financial importance to the global economy is the square root of very little. Chinese instability is of a whole different magnitude. It is always said the United States is vital to the macroeconomic picture because it is the consumer of last resort. Well, increasingly China is the consumer of near to last resort, particularly for commodities.

And if it is falling out of bed we all deserve to be concerned. It is why financial markets are in such a disturbed mood at present.

China’s devaluation of its currency the week before last rattled markets because it was so uncharacteristic, not so much inscrutable as desperate.

That was compounded yesterday by data showing that China’s factories, the heartbeat of its domestic consumption and exports, slowed this month by the most in six years.

Next week is likely to be bumpy, too.