photo.JPGBernard Harkins notes a shocking failure to ensure fair access to Modern Apprenticeships, and sets out a plan to tackle it.


In September of this year Alex Rowley MSP, Scottish Labour Deputy Leader, set out Scottish Labour’s ambition that everyone who can work must be given the skills and support to work, to earn a wage and to have decent terms and conditions.

Modern Apprenticeships are a key part of tackling unemployment in Scotland. However one of the main issues that any incoming Labour administration at Holyrood will need to tackle is the lack of disabled people who are part of this scheme.

Apprenticeships had been in decline for years when in the late 1990s Modern Apprenticeships were first introduced. From a starting point of around 8,000 in 1998, by March 2013 there were more than 35,000 people going through the scheme. The aim of the Scottish Government is that 25,000 Modern Apprenticeships will start each year between 2011 and March 2016.

The union movement has been important in how Modern Apprenticeship schemes have been developed in workplaces across a number of different sectors. Unions have played a positive role in ensuring decent terms and conditions and in some cases have offered a mentoring role through union learning reps.

Though the scheme was intended to target 16-24 year olds, around 23% of Modern Apprentices are over 25, so the scheme can provide a valuable route for those looking to return to the workplace.

So, overall the Modern Apprenticeship scheme has been viewed as a positive initiative, welcomed both by employers and unions. But more needs to be done to ensure that disabled people are involved.

The figures for people declaring a disability and participating in the scheme are less than 0.5% of all placements. This compares to a figure of around 8% in the age group (16-24) that Modern Apprenticeships are targeted at.

In stark numerical terms, figures published in 2013 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland showed that only 74 disabled had taken up one of the 26,000 placements available.

By any measure that is a pretty shocking statistic.

If this issue is to be tackled meaningfully then Labour will need to form a coalition with groups representing the disabled, the STUC and employers. Such a coalition can build upon a lot of the good work that is already being done in this area and implement practical steps to address this issue.

Three initiatives that such a coalition may wish to consider are:

  • to ensure that disabled people are part of any working groups that make policy on disability issues;
  • to increase investment in the Access to Work Scheme – noting that figures produced by Inclusion Scotland show that this could be self-financing;
  • to target equality and diversity training towards recruitment and selection, using union learning reps to support this.

Last year welfare minister Lord Freud said that someone who has mental health problems or is disabled might not be worth paying the minimum wage. These were comments he rightly later apologised for.

A year from now I hope that in Scotland we will be making real progress towards the goal of disabled people making up at least 8% of Modern Apprenticeships. As a result more workplaces will be able to benefit from the positive contribution that disabled people can make.