Plans to "evolve" the controversial apprenticeship levy by the Conservative Party do not go far enough, leading Cumbrian business figure say.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, during his speech at Conservative Party Conference, acknowledged there were concerns from businesses about the inflexibility of the scheme, as he laid out plans for less rigid measures on how firms spend the levy.

Measures include allowing large employers to transfer up to 25 per cent of their apprenticeship levy funds to businesses in their supply chain from April next year. Currently the figure is 10 per cent.

Rob Johnston, chief executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the news but said the Chancellor could go further.

He added: “The British Chambers of Commerce has been pushing ministers for months to change the way the apprenticeship levy works.

“Philip Hammond’s measures are a step in the right direction and should help reverse the fall in the number of apprenticeship starts.

“We need a more flexible system to ensure that businesses of all sizes can find and train the workforce they need.”

The Federation of Master Builders, which has members across Cumbria, said Mr Hammond was right to make the Apprenticeship Levy more flexible but like Mr Johnston said the reforms didn't go far enough.

Brian Berry, federation chief executive, said:“The Chancellor has, in part, listened to the concerns of business by making the Apprenticeship Levy more flexible.

"If the Chancellor is serious about ensuring the levy has the desired effect, it should go further and make 100 per cent of the vouchers transferable from large to small companies.”

The levy applies only to those companies who spend more than £3m a year on pay.

Mr Johnston said Mr Hammond was right to heed calls for large firms to be allowed to transfer unused levy funds down to smaller firms in their supply chain.

He said: “There are a great many SMEs in Cumbria who supply large businesses and should benefit from this.

"It will help them to access high-quality apprenticeships and so close the growing skills gap.

“Ministers also need to address directly the issues faced by smaller firms.

“The vast majority of businesses in Cumbria are too small to pay the levy, but many of these smaller firms find it difficult to fund apprentice training."

Speaking in Birmingham, Mr Hammond described the Conservative Party as the “party of business.”

“That means we listen to business. We have heard the concerns about how the apprenticeship levy is working so today we’ve set out a series of measures to allow firms more flexibility in how the levy is spent,” he said.

"In addition to these new flexibilities, we will engage with business on our plans for the long-term operation of the levy. Working hand-in-hand with employers to ensure that every young person can fulfil their potential and achieve their dreams."