Yes, minister?

15th March 2013 at 00:00
As National Apprenticeship Week comes to an end, Stephen Exley talks to young people who have bypassed the old boy network and found their way into the corridors of power by becoming apprentices to MPs

Between August and October 2012, 152,000 people started an apprenticeship. Andrew Hill was one of them. What sets him apart him, however, is that the softly spoken 19-year-old Welshman is arguably the most influential apprentice of all.

After finishing school last summer, he spotted a vacancy to be an apprentice to an MP. "I thought it sounded brilliant, really," he says. "I was dead set on this instead of uni."

It was only when he was asked to attend an interview that he realised who he could end up working for. "I thought it was just going to be a backbencher," Hill explains. "I was pretty taken aback when I found out it was a minister."

And not just any minister. Hill was being interviewed for a position working in the parliamentary office of skills minister Matthew Hancock, the man responsible for the entire apprenticeship programme.

Not surprisingly for a self-confessed parliamentary history obsessive, Hill impressed at interview. He now holds the most illustrious of titles: the apprenticeship minister's apprentice.

Every second Thursday, Hill joins a handful of other apprentices to study for a level 3 NVQ in business and administration. The rest of the time he spends working for the minister from his office overlooking the River Thames. He laughs, shaking his head with disbelief. "My mum keeps asking me to take a photo."

Hancock was "sold" the idea of taking on an apprentice by fellow Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who became the first politician to hire one back in 2010. Halfon then teamed up with the charity New Deal of the Mind and Westminster Kingsway College to create the Parliamentary Academy, the first apprentice school for the Palace of Westminster.

While MPs have traditionally relied on unpaid interns to help staff their offices, attitudes in Westminster are slowly beginning to change. In 2011, Nick Clegg spoke out against Westminster internships being handed out just because parents "whisper in the ear" of the right person at the golf club. Anyone carrying out a work placement, the deputy prime minister insisted, deserved "proper remuneration".

At the same time, increased political focus on the apprenticeship programme since the coalition came to power has led to the number of new apprentices almost doubling from 279,000 in 2009-10 to 520,000 in 2011- 12.

As a result, a small but growing number of politicians have decided to hire an apprentice for their own office. A survey - conducted by Hill for TES - revealed that more than 20 MPs have now employed, or are planning to hire, an apprentice. The programme is even expanding to the House of Lords.

Crucially, the Parliamentary Academy asks MPs to pay their apprentices the national minimum wage of pound;6.19 an hour, equating to just over pound;10,000 during the 12-month training programme. This opens up the opportunity to 16- to 24-year-olds who cannot afford to work for free.

Culture change

"It's a great scheme," Halfon says. "If every MP - and there are 650 - had an apprentice, it would transform lives. I would love that. The culture in Parliament is that people get internships through connections, because they are people with family money. That's just wrong. This will change the culture of Parliament."

Halfon, MP for Harlow in Essex, is now on his third apprentice. The role involves tasks such as research, completing paperwork and keeping up with Halfon's correspondence. His latest recruit, 19-year-old Aaron Farrell, has developed another specialism: giving tours of Parliament.

"Aaron knows more than me," Halfon says. "He walks with Harlow residents round the (House of) Commons and tells them all about the statues and the history; he knows it brilliantly. He was quite shy when he started but he does a lot of speaking and has gained a lot of knowledge."

In Hancock's office, Hill has similarly grown in stature. He is currently organising a jobs fair in Hancock's constituency, and has developed a reputation for prodigious letter writing; he regularly dashes off more than 50 responses to constituents in a single day.

Hill has also sat in on Commons debates, select committees and even Prime Minister's Questions. Being in the chamber is much better than watching on TV, he says. "It's much more interesting than the Welsh Assembly debates, I can say. There, you're not allowed to do any `boo-yah' or anything. They're too controlled." This allegation certainly couldn't be levelled at politicians in the Commons.

Hill admits he is intoxicated with the Westminster way of life. "I love everything about it. I love looking at all the books, the pictures of parliamentarians over the years, the statues. Also (I love) being able to go into the Department for Education, thinking: `I'm that important.'"

He spends the week in Westminster before returning home to his family at the weekend. The only thing that has proved difficult, he says, is "struggling with all my bags on the Tube". His time in Parliament has whetted his desire to return, one day, as an MP.

Although Hill admits to feeling under pressure because of his boss' prominent position ("I don't want to fail him," he says), Hancock insists that the apprentice has nothing to worry about.

"He's hard-working. Andrew's a great asset to the team. It's been a positive experience. I would encourage every MP to get an apprentice; it's good for you and good for them," he says. Hancock currently has two more apprentices in the DfE and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Practising what they preach

So could parliamentary apprentices eventually replace interns? Hancock agrees that they are becoming more popular. "It's true that in some offices an apprentice has replaced an intern," he says. "It's clear that apprenticeships are good for employers as well as for the apprentices themselves."

And it is not just a Tory trend: several Labour MPs have also hired apprentices, including party leader Ed Miliband. They have even reached "the other place". Baroness Royall of Blaisdon - the Labour leader in the Lords - has recently appointed two apprentices, Rob Newbery and Anna Kuzan.

"The median age of members of the Lords is 68," Lady Royall says. "For members of my group, it's especially important that they interact on a day-to-day basis with young people.

"Our interns come through university and it's kind of the normal procedure. I don't knock that; we all think that's splendid. However, there shouldn't just be one way of getting to work in Parliament."

"These people," she points in the direction of the two apprentices, "are fantastically bright, intelligent, great, young human beings who have decided, for whatever reason, not to do a degree. This should not impede their desire to work in Parliament."

Deputy prime minister Clegg is also on board: a spokeswoman confirmed that there is "usually" one apprentice working in his private office.

Clegg tells TES that it is vital for the coalition government to be seen "practising what it preaches". "I've seen for myself and in my own office that apprenticeships have a huge amount to offer young people, in particular, in terms of giving them new skills and confidence," he says. "All the apprentices who have worked in the office have risen to the challenge of what, let's face it, can be a demanding environment, but have impressed with their ability and determination to learn and work hard."

Since coming into office, Hancock has argued passionately that an apprenticeship should be a "real job". So does this mean that the apprentice should stay on as an employee after the training programme has run its course?

Parliament is a special case, Hancock insists. "MPs' offices are effectively small businesses run by three or four people working extremely hard. There's not always an exact match (between apprentices and permanent vacancies)." However, he says there is the potential for many apprentices to stay on in a different role. One of his former apprentices at the DfE, he reveals, now has a permanent position there. "Without that experience (from being an apprentice), she wouldn't have got the job," he adds.

Lady Royall takes a similar view. "Quite frankly, I don't know what the position will be in a year's time. It may be that we may be able to offer the apprentices something. But I would also want to ensure that there were opportunities for apprentices all the time. It's difficult."

Party allegiances

While the Parliamentary Academy does not insist that apprentices have the same political views as the MPs they work for (they only need to "understand the values of the political party (they) will be working for", its website says) it is clear that many share their bosses' allegiances.

This can lead to some heated debates when the apprentices meet for their NVQ classes - not least, Hill says, grinning, between him and Newbery, Lady Royall's apprentice. "Because I'm Tory and he's Labour, there's an explosion sometimes."

While Newbery and fellow apprentice Kuzan now work side by side in Lady Royall's office, they arrived in the Lords at very different points in their lives. Kuzan, from Newham in East London, had just finished her A levels and was keen to find a career path that did not involve university. "I'm not the kind of person who can learn in a stifled environment," she says. "I like to be motivated constantly."

Newbery, from Surrey, is slightly older at 22, and took an alternative path. He had been to college, tried several jobs and even started an apprenticeship in the health service.

And he had another hurdle to overcome: he has a stammer. When he started the parliamentary apprenticeship, the condition became more pronounced.

"When I first came here, I was quite terrified," he says. "My mind plays off that kind of situation. Everyone was very welcoming on my first day, but I was still quite shell-shocked. You have all the lords come in, you expect to call them Lord so-and-so, but you actually call them by their first name. It feels like a big family here, which I really, really like. It helps you settle in very quickly."

Lady Royall - Jan to her apprentices - has noticed a change in Newbery's demeanour. "When he first started he stammered quite a lot, but now on a daily basis he doesn't stammer in the office. It's been a real confidence builder for him."

And Newbery is in no doubt as to the high point of his time in Parliament: meeting Professor Robert Winston. The scientist has become a household name for his TV work, but he is better known in the Lords as the Labour peer Lord Winston.

Recalling the experience, Newbery grins like a teenage fan who has caught a glimpse of Justin Bieber. "Robert Winston is one of my huge, huge idols, and. thinking (about the experience), I'm now in my happy world, I'm floating."

He pauses to regain his composure. "I was actually speechless. I didn't know what to say. All I said was `Hello' and `You're one of my idols'. He smiled, shook my hand and said he was very happy (to meet me). It was a heart-warming experience."

But while the apprentices have gradually got used to the fact that they now have one of the UK's most recognisable landmarks as their office, and that they bump into famous people on a daily basis, arriving at Westminster every morning has still not lost its thrill.

"Every day's pretty much surreal," Kuzan says. "You go through security and, you know, it's all really weird. Then after a while you get used to it. Then you just start thinking: `It's so surreal that I'm used to it.' Every day is just amazing, really."

Photo credit: Alys Tomlinson

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