By a Newsnet reporter
Scottish Labour has been accused of “staggering ignorance” after the party launched an attack on the modern apprenticeships scheme.
SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn says Johann Lamont’s party must apologise after it attacked the skills programme that has supported 35,000 aged 16 to 19 into employment since 2009.
The row follows a Labour party press release in which Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale accused the Scottish Government of “massaging” figures relating to apprenticeships because young people were already employed prior to starting the apprenticeship.
According to official figures, 39% of apprentices were employed for more than six months before commencing their apprenticeship and 61% less than six months.
The Labour MSP appeared on BBC Scotland claiming that she had been forced to “drag” the figures “tooth and nail” out of the government agency.
Speaking on the Sunday Politics Show Ms Dugdale said: "These figures show that 10,000 people studying for modern apprenticeships were already in work for six months before they started it.
"There's another figure there, 15,000 people who were already in work for six months or less. It is my view that many of these people were already established in their jobs before they were put onto modern apprenticeships."
Confronted by the Labour claims on the same programme, Education Minister Mike Russell branded the Labour press release “a disgrace”.
Mr Russell explained that it was normal practice for young people to be employed prior to the apprenticeship beginning due to the timing of college course terms and a desire by some employers to want to assess the person’s suitability.
He said: "What happens is an employer will take a young person in and assess their suitability for a modern apprenticeship, or maybe they will start them in there before they send them to college.
"Every single young person of the 25,000 young apprenticeships in Scotland has to have a job. It is what distinguishes modern apprenticeships from everything else. They have to work."
The Labour press release featured prominently on BBC Scotland with TV and Radio news bulletins repeating the claims throughout Sunday, and into Monday morning’s Good Morning Scotland where it was the first item mentioned on the show.
A spokesperson for Skills Development Scotland, the Agency under attack, said: "When an MA [modern apprentice] starts with an employer they do not always commence their training straight away.
"This can be for a variety of reasons such as college term times being some months off or the employer wishing to ensure the trainee will provide a return on their significant investment.
"MAs are geared towards helping new recruits but also the up-skilling of existing employees to gain invaluable skills and industry recognised qualifications."
However, it has emerged that the employment mechanism being criticised by Labour is the same one they used when last in office.
Mr Hepburn , the MSP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth said:
“Labour clearly does not understand, or chooses to ignore, that the scheme is run in the same way as when it was last in office – which shows they are either totally confused or totally hypocritical.
“This attack misrepresents the fantastic work the Modern Apprenticeships scheme does for our young people, with all of our apprentices in employment.
“At a time when politicians must unite to help tackle unemployment – particularly amongst the 16 to 24 age group – Labour is instead attacking a scheme that is upskilling people for the future.”
Mr Hepburn described the claims of massaging by Labour as “lies” and insisted an apology was required.
“While Labour launches an ignorant assault on the scheme, the SNP Government works hard to bolster life chances for our young people by investing £72million to support more than 26,427 MA starts last year.
“But if Labour had been in power, Scotland would have lost apprentice places as the party’s MSPs voted against this in the budget.
“In 20011/12 our £69million was nearly double the £35million invested by the Labour party when it was last in government, while we have doubled the 55,288 apprentices in 2006/07 to 112,501 in 2010/11.”
Speaking on Good Morning Scotland, where the Labour attack was the lead item on the programme, Kezia Dugdale criticised the fact that young people were in employment prior to starting their apprenticeship.
However Ms Dugdale eventually conceded that being employed was indeed a requirement for modern apprenticeships.
The Labour MSP was followed by Scottish Minister for Young people, Angela Constance who launched a scathing attack on Labour, calling their attacks shameful, and urged the party to withdraw the claims.
Ms Constance pointed out that almost 81% of 16 to 19 year olds were employed for less than six months prior to beginning their apprenticeship.
However, the interview was marred twice when in an extraordinary show of rudeness, host Gary Robertson prevented Ms Constance from comparing the current situation with Labour’s record in 2006 - "Never mind about 2006" an irritated Robertson barked.
A further attempt by the SNP Minister was treated in the same manner by the BBC reporter who seemed eager to avoid shedding any light on Labour’s record.
The interview with Labour’s Kezia Dugdale can be heard here as can the interview with Angela Constance: (Approx 1hr 08 minutes and 2hrs 08 minutes respectively)