Apprentices aged under 19, or who are in the first year of their apprenticeships, do not qualify for the minimum wage. There has a been a de facto minimum of £80 per week for the last couple of years, simply as a matter of contract between employers and the Learning & Skills Council. Still, this isn’t much! A joint announcement by BERR and the Department for Children Schools and Families at the TUC Conference has announced that this will be increased to £95 per week. This is designed, says Ed Balls, to boost the earnings of workers such as carers and hairdressers. Apprentices in the construction industry already earn an average of around £175 per week – my opinion is that higher rates in construction are driven by labouring work being available at comparatively high pay, meaning that pay for apprentices is needed to make them attractive as set against a proper wage. The Low Pay Commission are studying whether the minimum wage exemption should be maintained.

Apprenticeships are very important to the government’s plans. They are seen to benefit school leavers by providing a career structure and a route to qualification, and of huge benefit to industry for much the same reasons, since recruitment and training is supported by government at relatively little cost to the employer. The government plans to raise the school leaving age to 18, but will include vocational training programmes such as apprenticeships. Balls further states that this will necessitate the creation of a further 150,000 apprenticeships over the next five years, which will come on top of the already impressive£1bn in funding available for these programmes.

It is difficult to argue with this policy. I always had a sense of unease over the goverment’s push in the late nineties to hugely increase the amount of students going on from school to do a degree, which had seemingly little focus on the resulting future career benefits, if indeed there were any for some. This new focus on apprenticeships, by comparison, can guide school leavers into their first job. Leaving school at 16 gives a school leaver sudden freedom of choice at a young age, and the stark difference between school and work means some of them inevitably don’t handle the change – to say that some unemployment, crime,and antisocial behaviour are possible consequences is not, I think, unreasonable. 

Download the press release here: Denham & Balls TUC Speech News Release

However, employers beware. I once dealt with an employer who had been delighted at the prospect of employing five workers for the price of one. But when they weren’t actually very productive, and required more supervision than this very small company had envisaged, the employer was shocked to be referred to the case of Flett v Matheson [2006] EWCA Civ 53. This case overturned previous authority, and held that a modern style tripartite apprenticeship was to be treated the same in law as a traditional common law apprenticeship, such as have existed for hundreds of years. The difference is important – if I wrongfully terminate an employee’s contract, I must pay him the balance of notice that I should have given him, subject to his duty to mitigate his loss by finding another job. If I wrongfully dismiss my apprentice, heads of damages bold and shocking to employment lawyers come to the fore. A contract of apprenticeship will not normally enable the employer to terminate it before its completion (save for gross misconduct, which of course is a contractual repudiation). In the Denning case of Dunk v George Waller & Son Ltd [1970] 2 All ER 630 (no link I’m afraid) it was held that damages can include diminution of future prospects, as well as loss of earnings and training for the remainder of the contract. This first head can be huge: see the operation of the principle in all its glory in this case, as an apprentice sacked three years into a four year apprenticeship was awarded £20,000 for wrongful dismissal.

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