Question Time: Employment and Learning Tuesday 23 June 2015

Employment and Learning Minister, Stephen Farry, described his Department’s attempts to promote apprenticeship opportunities in small and microbusinesses during today’s Question Time period. 'Securing our Success: The Northern Ireland Strategy on Apprenticeships' was launched in June 2014, which committed to putting employers at the heart of a new apprenticeship system. The Minister added “the success of the system will be reliant on successful engagement with employers, in particular those from small and microbusinesses that are the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy.” A proposed apprenticeships central service will also be crucial, focussed on providing sources of advice and guidance and which will administer any support and incentives that might be made available. This will be trialled in autumn 2015 with a view to introducing a new central service by September 2016.

The Minister also discussed the impact of budget cuts and the financial implications of failing to agree welfare reform on the funds available for higher and further education. Answering Phil Flanagan’s  topical question, the Minister warned “until we have that (a consensus on the Stormont House Agreement), we will have a situation in which we are disinvesting in further and higher education and denying opportunities to students, both in their ability to finance their studies and their opportunities to go to college or university in the first place. We will see an impact on people's lives. ” Mr Flanagan countered that a solution to our financial crisis is more complicated than simply implementing welfare cuts. The Minister replied by saying that our current difficulties are three-fold – the cuts to the block grant from the UK Government; structural difficulties in our budgets around the cost of division; and the deadlock around Stormont House and welfare. Mr Farry believes “the choice is not between some idealised version of welfare that we cannot afford and what is currently on the table; the choice is between what was negotiated at Stormont Castle and the full-blown version coming from London, either imposed directly over our heads or through some sort of version of direct rule.”

The Minister also addressed queries on cross-border mobility for undergraduates, youth training, student support payments, STEM subjects and the recent TA3 conference in Belfast.

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