Nearly £1m of much-needed cash for Bedford Hospital is going to waste because of restrictions in the government’s apprenticeship levy scheme according to health worker union, UNISON.
A freedom of information (FoI) request by the union, revealed that 95% of the money hasn’t been used.
UNISON say hospitals are unable to take on apprentices, but the levy money can only be used for apprentice training not wages.
They say that if this trend continues, substantial funding will be lost to the health service over the next few years.
The union’s ‘It Doesn’t Add Up’ report looked at the NHS apprenticeship scheme across England.
It found that under the government’s apprenticeships scheme, any levy money not spent after two years is reallocated to a central pot.
This money can then be used to subsidise apprenticeships for smaller employers, who don’t have to pay into the levy, in other parts of the economy.
That means cash from NHS budgets could be diverted to the private sector, says UNISON.
Bedford Hospital paid in £960,000 but only withdrew £47,000, while the Bedfordshire CCG hasn’t withdrawn any of £52,000 it paid in.
Across England, £256m has been paid out for the levy, yet only £54m (21%) has been used for apprenticeship training and assessments.
UNISON Eastern head of health Sasha Savage said: “These figures are a shocking wake-up call showing the extent of the levy’s failure.
“Hundreds of millions of pounds are sitting idle and could even by siphoned out of the NHS at a time when budgets are stretched and there are 100,000 vacancies across the health service.
“There are real concerns about the standard of training apprentices receive, with many carrying out administrative and clinical support roles for peanuts.
“The NHS must be better equipped for the future. Ministers must reform the system to ensure money allocated to the health service stays within the NHS and invest properly to ensure apprenticeships play a full role in solving the growing staffing crisis.”
In the FoI, UNISON also asked NHS trusts across England how much their apprentices are paid.
Two thirds (65%) are paying apprentices less than the lowest NHS pay rate of £9.03 per hour.
Just under a third (30%) of the trusts are paying £3.90 per hour, the statutory minimum apprentice rate.
UNISON believes such low salaries are making it harder for trusts to attract and hold on to apprentices.
The absence of a standard approach between English NHS trusts on apprentice pay is also leading to exploitation, says the union.
It would like to see the national pay system for NHS staff extended to include apprentice pay.
UNISON says the government should change the rules so levy funding can also be spent on apprentice salaries and the wages of staff employed to cover for apprentices when they are training.
Any money not used could then go towards funding a new extensive apprenticeship programme across the entire NHS for nursing and all the other health professions experiencing shortages.
For its research, UNISON gathered data for the two-year period following the introduction of the levy in May 2017. More than half of the 244 health trusts in England responded to the FoI request.
A spokesperson for Bedford Hospital said: “Bedford Hospital NHS Trust, as part of its overall recruitment, retention and development plan, has an extensive apprenticeship programme designed to maximise the opportunities offered through the apprenticeship levy policy.
“So far, the Trust has supported apprenticeships in Pharmacy, IT, Finance and Accounting, Leadership, Nursing, Hospitality and Warehousing.
“This has included the opportunity to develop new roles, such as Nursing Associates, which are a great addition to the staffing base.
“Apprenticeships last between 2 to 3 years and training costs are paid on a monthly basis.
“The money paid into the Levy can be accessed over this 2-3 year period and the Trust has already committed to utilise £438,513 to provide training for current apprentices.
“There is a plan to spend £682,078 on training for future apprentices.”