Disabled campaigners are hoping a new government taskforce will lead to apprenticeships becoming more accessible to disabled people, despite concerns over who ministers will invite to take part.
Three government departments announced this week that they have set up the short-term taskforce to help more people with learning difficulties access apprenticeships, as part of the government’s bid to create three million apprenticeships by 2020, and to halve the disability employment gap.
The taskforce will be led by the disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard, and has been created by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Department for Education.
A DWP spokesman said the decision to set up the taskforce came after ministers were approached with concerns about how difficult it was for people with learning difficulties to access apprenticeships.
But DWP has so far refused to say if it is inviting any disabled people other than Maynard – and particularly any people with learning difficulties – to join the taskforce.
Tara Flood, chief executive of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), which has campaigned for inclusive apprenticeship opportunities for young disabled people, said: “I definitely have to welcome the opportunity to consider how to make apprenticeships inclusive for everybody, including and particularly disabled young people, which of course includes people with learning difficulties.
“We are worried of course that the taskforce with the wrong make-up of members will go down the route of creating separate apprenticeships, which is what we are seeing with supported internships.”
Supported internships are a study programme introduced by the government in August 2013, which usually involve unpaid work placements of at least six months, and are aimed at young people with learning difficulties who need extra support to move into employment.
Flood said: “What we really want is for all apprenticeship schemes to be really inclusive of whoever wants to apply.”
She said ALLFIE had asked to give evidence to the taskforce, and added: “We will also be asking who the disabled members of the taskforce are going to be, because we expect some of them to be disabled people.”
The DWP spokesman said: “We will disclose details of taskforce members when they have been confirmed and have advised us they are happy to have their details made public.
“It will be for members to indicate whether they are comfortable disclosing any disabilities they may have.
“Organisations representing disabled people and those with learning disabilities have been invited to take part.”
Philip Connolly, policy and development manager for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), welcomed the setting up of the taskforce, but he said DR UK “would wish to see it have a broader focus that also includes older potential apprentices and disabled people with fluctuating conditions”.
DR UK has not been asked to join the taskforce, although it has been asked by ministers for its views.
He said: “The government have an admirably ambitious target on new apprenticeships.
“However, it will require specific measures such as top-slicing the apprenticeship levy to create new incentives for employers to take on disabled people if it is to succeed.
“The apprenticeship levy is likely to appear in the new finance bill; we ought to press the government not to allow this opportunity to slip.”
Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, said he had become “convinced of the value of a vocational approach and the need for targeted policy intervention in this area” after visiting Foxes Academy in Minehead, Somerset, a training hotel for young adults with learning difficulties that featured in the Channel 5 documentary The Special Needs Hotel (pictured).
Tomlinson said: “Apprenticeships offer fantastic opportunities for individuals to learn whilst they earn, developing the skills and knowledge they need to progress their careers in a wide variety of occupations and at a range of levels.”
The taskforce will meet three times in May and June before it offers recommendations to ministers, and will include representatives of employers, training providers, charities and educational experts.
Skills minister Nick Boles said: “Our commitment to apprenticeships is giving people everywhere the chance to develop vital skills while working in a real job and being paid.
“This taskforce will focus on how apprenticeships can be more accessible to people with learning disabilities so everyone can be part of the apprenticeships success story.”