Union Learning Fund — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 9:30 am, 18th November 2020

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones, using the cleaning materials provided, before they use them, and dispose of them as they leave the room—that is the cleaning materials, not the microphones. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe and only if they are on the call list—that applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list, and they are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches.

Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move to the horseshoe when seats become available. Members can sit in any part of the Chamber. I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken—that is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond after their speech, but they should be aware that doing so might prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats on the horseshoe.

This is a heavily subscribed debate, and there will be a time limit, so I discourage interventions on the Member in charge’s opening speech. I call Lillian Greenwood.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 9:31 am, 18th November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of the Union Learning Fund.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Paul Glover works as a refuse driver in Nottingham. He struggled with dyslexia at school and left without any qualifications. At work in the depot, he found it hard to read instructions, fill in forms and access training. Paul realised that he was not alone and that, in some cases, his colleagues were completing safety documentation that they did not fully understand, as they were unable to read.

With the support of his union, GMB, Paul trained as a union learning rep. Now other workers approach him for help with their learning problems. He has been able to signpost them to appropriate courses, and he has set up a group for people who struggle with literacy to help them understand safety procedures, building their confidence and skills as well as making the workplace safer for everyone. In 2018, Paul won the award for midlands TUC learner rep of the year. There is a photo of him grinning from ear to ear—I would say he is bursting with pride.

Most of us in this Parliament know what educational success feels like. We have passed exams, got the certificates to prove it and been to graduation ceremonies—maybe our own or maybe our kids’. We are not afraid to learn new skills. For too many people in this country, however, school was not a happy experience. Like Paul, they left with few qualifications and even a sense of failure. That is a terrible waste of talent and, for many people, it can be hard to overcome. However, union learning and union learning reps—volunteers in the workplace—are uniquely well placed to help their workmates do just that.

That is not hard to understand. If someone thinks education is not for them, or struggles with reading and writing, numbers or using new technology, they might not want to tell their supervisor or someone in human resources, but they will talk to a colleague—someone like them—especially if they know that their colleague faces the same problem. That is the beauty of union learning: it is incredibly effective at engaging those hard-to-reach learners. Believe me, once they get going, there is no limit to what they can achieve.

I spent 22 years as a trade union officer before I was elected to Parliament. For a period in the late 1990s, I was regional education officer for Unison. I remember when the union learning fund was created and the difference it made. Our union had always offered education and training courses, but the union learning fund and the statutory support for union learning reps enabled us to do so much more. We were able to build partnerships with employers; to share more widely information about the opportunities available, which are not just for trade union members; and to grow the network of learners and advocates for learning.

I saw the difference that union learning made. Participants grew in confidence and went on to get promotions or new jobs. Some progressed from basic skills courses to A-levels, professional qualifications and degrees. Once they had got the learning bug, they wanted to share it, and I saw how they inspired their colleagues and worked with employers to spread the word. I saw industrial relations change for the better, workers who felt more valued and employers who welcomed an opportunity to collaborate with the trade unions, particularly at a time of change when their staff were being asked to adjust to new demands and roles were changing.

I could easily fill 90 minutes with wonderful case studies that showcase how the ULF has developed over the past 20 years; the difference it has made to millions of working people of all ages in every part of the country, in sectors from retail to manufacturing; how it has supported people to acquire basic skills, digital skills and better English; and how it has helped people to complete apprenticeships and professional training.

I wish I could do that, because the Minister needs to confront what the decision to withdraw funding from the ULF really means. Every year, she will be depriving more than 200,000 working people—many of them low paid—of access to transformational learning opportunities. That is not because basic skills courses in maths, English and digital skills will not be on offer—the ULF is not about training provision per se—but because union learning is key to getting reluctant adult learners to take up those opportunities.

The Prime Minister has announced that from next spring all adults will be able to study for their first level 3 qualification free of charge—a new lifetime skills guarantee—but what he cannot guarantee is that adult learners will have the confidence to take that step; how they will get the level 2 skills that they need to go on to the level 3 qualifications; how they will overcome practical barriers such as finding the time to learn, managing caring responsibilities and understanding their entitlements; how they will have the confidence to think it is for them; and how they will get the support to stick with it if the course feels tough. Those are precisely the things that union learning does well.

Independent reviews of the ULF show that unions excel at supporting less confident learners, especially those with few or no qualifications, eight out of 10 of whom said they would not have taken part in learning or training without trade union support. The Government have announced that they will spend £2.5 billion on the new national skills fund, but they suddenly cannot afford £12 million for the tried and tested successful programme that will help them ensure it is effective. That is why I find the decision to scrap the ULF so incomprehensible, so counterproductive and such a mistake. I can only assume that Ministers in the Department for Education could use some training in evidence-based policy making.

Before scrapping a programme that has been working effectively for more than two decades, I imagine that Ministers would consult the trade unions delivering it, but they have not. Have they consulted employers? No. Since the decision to withdraw funding was announced, dozens of employers have written to the Secretary of State to share their concerns. For example, Paula Stannett, Heathrow airport’s chief people officer, said:

“The announcement that funding support for the Union Learning Fund is to be ended is as disappointing as it is perplexing. The unprecedented impact that this pandemic is having on jobs across the UK means there has never been a more critical time to invest in upskilling. We urge the Government to rethink its decision.”

How about training providers and HR professionals? Another blank. The ULF has received support from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Learning and Work Institute and the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. At a time of huge change, when the country faces an economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic, with millions of jobs at risk, one would imagine a cross-Government approach to skills was essential.

The Treasury would of course want to ensure that public expenditure provided value for money. The latest independent review of the ULF by the University of Exeter estimates that every £1 invested in the ULF generates a total economic return of £12.87, benefiting both individuals and employers. Has the Treasury called for the ULF to be scrapped? No. Has the Department for Education conducted a new evaluation that contradicts the independent review’s findings on value for money? No.

As the country seeks to respond to a massive economic shock and to build back better, workers will be required to retrain, reskill and adapt as never before. The industrial strategy depends on investing in developing the skills and infrastructure that we need to support the growth of new sectors. Has the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy been consulted? Has the impact on the success of the Government’s industrial strategy been evaluated? It appears not.

In its June 2020 report on skills, the Industrial Strategy Council made a number of observations about the benefits of learning reps and the ULF to meeting its objectives. It specifically recognises the success of Unionlearn in recruiting low-skilled workers into training and the value of trade unions in helping to shape local skills strategies.

So why is the ULF being scrapped? Since that shocking decision was communicated to the TUC last month, numerous Members of this House and the other place have tried to understand. There have been many questions, but no credible answers, which leads me to believe that the decision is motivated by politics—that the Secretary of State wants to scrap the union learning fund because it is led by unions.

A few weeks ago, the general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, stood alongside the Chancellor of the Exchequer outside 11 Downing Street backing a package of support for jobs. It seems strange to react to that by scrapping a successful scheme. Doing so looks like unnecessary union bashing rather than supporting a skills programme that delivers good outcomes and value for money—that is not my analysis but that of a Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, who is Chair of the Select Committee on Education.

I wish there were more time. I would like to talk about the incredible work of my former colleagues, Angela and Gavin, and all the Unison learning team in the east midlands. I would like to tell hon. Members about Neil Chapman, who began his own learning journey with retail union USDAW, and now works with learning reps at the Boots site in Nottingham. There, thanks to the ULF, they have an on-site learning centre and support learners to access training through a range of local providers and further education colleges, including, increasingly, in mental health awareness.

I would like to tell hon. Members more about Fire Brigades Union member Laura Wilton, who uses her training to help women in Nottinghamshire prepare for the physical demands of being a firefighter. I would share information about the important work of the Federation of Entertainment Unions, which uses the ULF to equip freelancers with the skills and knowledge they need to run businesses as self-employed workers.

However, many of my colleagues want to speak—some have not even been able to make it into the room today—and I am keen to hear their contributions, especially as many of them, like me, have direct experience of the union learning programmes. But before I conclude, I want to pose some questions that I hope the Minister will address in her response to the debate.

How will cutting this vital support for the hardest-to-reach learners help the Government to roll out their offer of level 3 qualifications? Which organisation will replace Unionlearn in engaging reluctant learners? How will scrapping the union learning fund help this country to “build back better”? What assessment has the Minister carried out of the impact of removing funding for the ULF on the industrial strategy? What discussions has she had with her colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on this decision?

If the Minister is concerned that the programme is available only in unionised workplaces, how will scrapping it improve the uptake of training in non-unionised workplaces? If she is concerned that union learning levers in investment only from larger employers, what discussions has she had with the TUC about addressing those concerns? Has she challenged it to reach smaller, non-unionised workplaces? Has she given it the opportunity to respond to such a challenge?

I am sure that the Minister’s numeracy skills are top-notch. Can she confirm what proportion of the Department for Education’s £54 billion budget the £12 million spent on union learning represents? If she really is worried about how her Department can afford that, what discussions has she held with other potential funders? For example, has she consulted Mayors and combined authorities about the impact that this cut will have on their plans to boost skills and productivity in their regions?

Union learning makes a massive difference to workers, employers and our economy, but it is the individual human impacts that get me every time. I want to give the last word to Sam Biddlecombe, an NHS healthcare assistant in Derbyshire. Sam joined a Unison women’s lives course, went on to a level 3 access to higher education diploma and ended up going to university to study nursing. She said:

“I think you have to be in the right mind-set to learn, school was wasted on me when I was young but after the two UNISON courses, I felt I’d been given a toolkit to further myself…My learning experience has made a real difference to my life, not just at work but at home too. My little girl sees me doing my homework and so she’ll pick up a book and read. In our house, free time isn’t just for sitting in front of the TV;
it’s also for talking, reading and learning something.”

It is never too late to learn, even for Ministers.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The debate can last until 11 am. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.27 am, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the Minister would close no later than three minutes before 11 am, that will give Lilian Greenwood a chance to sum up the debate. There are 12 Back-Bench colleagues seeking to contribute until 10.27 am. If there are no interventions, we can have a time limit of three and a half minutes and everyone will be able to contribute. The clock will be operating to show you where you are during your speech.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I support the arguments powerfully laid out by my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood, as do employers, the RSA, the CIPD and others.

Last month the TUC was told that Ministers had decided not to continue funding Unionlearn beyond the current financial year. That is a termination of £12 million annual funding, which supports over 200,000 learners in workplaces across the country every year—learners who undertake all sorts of job-relevant learning and training, including basic literacy, numeracy, information and communications technology, apprenticeships and traineeships, vocational training, continuous professional development, and many other informal and formal courses. At the heart of the model is a union learning rep, a trained worker who understands the workforce, the nature of the business and the skills gaps that exist.

I know that the Minister is aware of work that I and other Members of Parliament around Heathrow are doing in response to the current pandemic to support a learning offer. Unite and others are involved in developing a new Unite learning hub at Heathrow, and it is one of the best examples I have seen, with hundreds of tailored courses based on learning surveys with people in the workplace and in the community. How many Unionlearn projects has the Minister visited? How many reps has she spoken with? How many employers and employees using the model has she talked to? What published assessment has been made of the return on investment or the impact? And what assessment has she has made of that impact?

To add to the comments made by my hon. Friend, I received a contribution from Catherine, a learning rep for Unite. She says:

“I would like to add some information that may be of use to you through my own personal experience…and the students I have worked with…
the ULF is more than delivering maths, English and ICT
it is about giving someone the opportunity to learn, who for whatever reason may not have had the confidence within themselves, time or energy to go to college or do a course online…
We are not just about gaining qualifications, we are about giving someone the ability to read to his grandchildren, we are about helping to deliver equality and diversity training to an entire workforce, we are about delivering vital skills to vulnerable and low paid workers who cannot afford to go to college, or whose working hours don't fit with that of colleges. We are about giving someone the belief in themselves that they can achieve.

By providing education delivery in the workplace and in the community, we are opening up countless opportunities for workers…
who may have thought they were not available to them.

I say workers and not members because not everyone who takes part in one of the courses is a union member…
because ULF workers are at the frontline…
we can adapt and respond to the needs of workers in a work place and that too of the company…
when working together and deliver education” that is in line with the initiatives put forward by the Government. She adds:

“Many of the students would not be able to attend regular colleges due to cost”.

I do not need to say much more. With some policy choices, there are grey areas to consider. With this one, once we understand the work of the fund and what it achieves, there is only a downside.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North 9:49 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing this important debate. I know many hon. Members want to speak, so I will keep my comments brief.

I declare an interest as a GMB member and a former officer who was responsible for setting up Unionlearn projects at Heathrow. I fought to lead that project because I believe in the transformative power of in-work learning, If the Chancellor wants the country to rethink, reskill and reboot, he should be backing Unionlearn, not scrapping it. We should not wait until people are unemployed to reskill and retrain. We should be doing that when people are in work, allowing them to climb up, succeed and progress in their lives. That is not just a huge benefit to an individual; it also benefits companies, employers and the UK economy. Pre-pandemic, our economy was limping along and productivity was sluggish. The answers to that have been, time and again, a skilled workforce.

I will talk about Mark Church and his story, and how Unionlearn changed his life. He left school without being able to read or write. He spent most of his adult life just getting by and avoiding situations where he could be exposed. These are his words:

“I couldn’t pick up and read a book or a newspaper like other people. I also had great difficulty writing.”

Years after leaving school, Mark was redeployed from his manual role into a technical role, and he realised he could no longer avoid confronting the problem. He said:

“I panicked. I realised I would no longer be able to get by with the level of skills I had.”

He then turned to his union learning rep for support. The union arranged one to one training to help Mark improve his essential skills. He gained the qualifications he needed, and he got on. He did not just get on in his workplace; he actively encouraged other people to take on training as well.

As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South, people like Mark trust their union. The idea that he could go to his employer and say, “I’m struggling with reading and writing,” is an absolute fantasy. People trust their union, which is why Unionlearn was such a success.

I ask the Minister to look at the benefits of Unionlearn and to rethink scrapping it. If we really want to “build back better”, we need a skilled workforce to do that.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 9:52 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing such a vital debate, for speaking so passionately, from her own experience, and for thanking all the union learning reps up and down the country who are making significant differences to our communities.

I speak not only as the Member of Parliament for Weaver Vale, but as a former Unison convenor for careers services across Greater Manchester, some years ago. The union learning fund was introduced by the Labour Government in 1998 as a national scheme, but it was operated by the TUC in 1996, under the dying days of the John Major Government. It was a real game changer, and it still is. It is about promoting lifelong learning, which is something the current Prime Minister has referred to when he talks about “build back better”.

I have seen the difference it makes at the chalkface. We have already heard stories about the real difference it makes for people who have traditionally been failed by mainstream education and schools. For people who cannot do some of the basics, like reading, writing and basic maths, it is a real game changer. We have spoken about the trusted relationship with the trade union brand, but it is also a partnership with employers, Jobcentre Plus and training providers, who I have personally worked alongside in delivering these schemes in the past.

Recently, we had redundancies at Thomas Cook. Unite put together a fantastic scheme with those partners to upskill people and look at opportunities elsewhere. It would be absolute economic madness to shut the scheme down at this time.

I know the Minister is genuinely passionate about apprenticeships and has direct experience of them. She is the former co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships—I am a member too. I am not convinced that the Minister wants to go down in history as the Minister who shut the door on the people we are talking about—on the hundreds of thousands of workers a year who benefit from the scheme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South rightly spoke about investment. Every pound invested creates £12.87 in return. To me, it is the right thing to do not only for education but for the economy. It is life-changing for many of our key workers who we rightly applaud. I certainly hope that the Minister does not want to go down in history as a key player or architect in shutting the door on hundreds of thousands of workers.

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West 9:55 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing this important debate about something we all feel passionate about.

The union learning fund has helped millions of workers across the UK, so I and many hon. Members present were shocked when the Government announced that they were going to scrap the hugely successful programme. It is a brilliant initiative that encourages the greater uptake of learning within the workplace. It engages workers and employees alike to build the right structure and culture within an organisation by upskilling its employees. We have heard many powerful stories about it today.

Scrapping the fund is most painful to the millions of employees who have benefited from it, some of whom are constituents of mine. In the midlands and in my union, the GMB, members have learned to read and write through the scheme, which has given them empowering and life-changing opportunities for themselves and their families. Needless to say, the union learning fund has had a positive impact on the workplace environment for employees and employers.

I appreciate and welcome the Government’s focus on establishing a new national skills fund, but I put it to the Minister that the union learning fund could be part of that programme. In today’s climate, with covid-19 ravaging jobs and our local economies, a programme such as the union learning fund can have a powerful benefit and be an asset, not a hindrance, to the Government. In the financial year 2019-20, the fund improved the English, maths and digital skills of many employees across the country. It allowed them to develop and grow in high-quality apprenticeships and traineeships. It improved support for infrastructure projects, workplace development and skills progression.

The union learning fund has allowed many of my constituents to reach their full potential, which is something all hon. Members want for our constituents. It has demonstrated excellent value for money in return for public funds—£12 for every £1 spent. The Government always talk about ensuring that spending is effective; there is no better way than that.

More importantly, the fund has had a massive impact on the lives of many constituents across the UK, which is, honestly, truly priceless. I will quickly mention some statistics. The TUC has stated that 80% of employees said that they had developed transferable skills, 62% had acquired more effective jobs, 19% had gained a promotion or increased their responsibility, and 11% had gained a pay rise.

The Government have spoken a lot about upskilling during the pandemic, especially for those who have lost their job. I believe that the union learning fund provides employees and workers who have been furloughed during the pandemic with the opportunity to take part in online learning and training, which is something that we want for our constituents. My plea is for the Government to reconsider scrapping this brilliant programme and instead commit to funding it—and, perhaps, to go further and find a home for it as part of the national skills fund.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee 9:59 am, 18th November 2020

I thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing this important debate and for making a compelling case for the union learning fund. We live in an increasingly uncertain world where employment is more insecure, and long-established industries are giving way to new sectors and new forms of working. One of the most powerful tools that we have to help workers through the uncertainty and navigate the swirling tides of economic change is education and training. We need to be able to help workers throughout their working life to retrain, to reskill, and to update their capabilities so that they can take on new jobs.

Digital skills in particular are necessary in modern workplaces of all kinds, and in all fields. To take one example, local government has needed to make the changes quickly. There has been the most significant shift to digital working in our lifetime in just the last few months, and in my local authority in Newcastle learning zones have been set up so that staff can get online—many for the first time—so that they can continue to provide services. It is union learning reps who have provided the human support to make it possible and support people with digital skills. We know how important that is. I do not know about other hon. Members, but since we have moved to a more virtual Parliament I have been on the phone to the Parliamentary Digital Service almost every day. We need people to speak to, and that is the role that many union learning reps have similarly played for local government. The pandemic has supercharged the process, with so many people having to transition so quickly to working remotely.

As well as being vital for staff development, it is crucial to the economy to ensure that we have the workforce to meet skills requirements and develop the UK’s competitive edge in key industries in an increasingly uncertain and onward-developing world. The difficulties caused by the pandemic, and the growing number of redundancies, will leave many needing to retrain. They will turn to their union learning reps to support them in that. Lifelong learning is more important than ever, which is why the decision to cut the union learning fund is disappointing. It seems incredibly short-sighted and frankly unfathomable. It is also completely at odds with the Prime Minister’s professed intentions with respect to a lifetime skills guarantee, and to build back better—and, indeed, to level up—after covid-19. The union learning fund is particularly, and uniquely, well equipped to support those workers who might not otherwise be engaged with workplace learning, ensuring that everyone can get access to the opportunities and that no one is left behind. I urge the Government to listen to hon. Members today and to reconsider the decision—and to continue the vital union learning fund.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 10:02 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Lilian Greenwood on securing what is clearly an important debate. It is for exactly such debates that we need Westminster Hall up and running. I hope that participation here will be extended to those unable to be here in person because of the pandemic.

Other Members have clearly done an excellent job already of making the case for the union learning fund, but as a Liberal Democrat I want to add my voice. I am in agreement about being at a complete loss to understand why the Government have decided to scrap the fund. There are so many compelling reasons to keep it in place, which have already been set out—not least the fact that the change is happening during a huge shock to the economy at exactly the time when employees need to retrain and reskill. Indeed, the Government are spending other moneys on a campaign to encourage people to do just that.

One of the particular attractions, to me, of the union learning fund and the way it is delivered is the fact that it is co-ordinated by internal union learning representatives. All good businesses and organisations should have strong learning and development resources in place. Prior to becoming a Member of Parliament I worked in capability development in manufacturing, and I know the positive and important impact that that can have on employees and organisations in their turn. When I was studying for my Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development qualification a decade ago, the institute recognised union learning representatives as a positive and collaborative means of working. I note its support today.

The union learning fund is, in effect, a power-to-the-people approach to learning and development and a devolution of the powers of learning and development training to employees themselves. However, given recent comments by the Prime Minister, perhaps it is no surprise that the Government want to scrap it. Given the Scottish Government’s expected commitment to continue to fund the STUC’s union learning until at least 2023, denying people elsewhere in the UK access to the same provisions is another perfectly avoidable own goal.

I hope that the Minister will set out in full the reasons why the Government are intent on dismantling the fund. There is clear demand for reversing it. The TUC’s campaign is supported by businesses big and small—Tesco, Heathrow and Tata Steel. The early-day motion tabled by Grahame Morris had, when I last counted, been signed by more than 80 Members.

The fund itself consistently delivers value for money; it is a tiny amount, but it goes very far. Value for public money matters to my constituents in North East Fife, who pay their taxes and expect the Government to deliver that value in return.

I will conclude by echoing some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham South in her opening remarks. Where is the £12 million for the fund being diverted to? Is it going into this national skills fund? Is there any form of direct replacement planned? What assessment did the Government carry out before they made this decision? Do they accept the analysis of the University of Exeter that the fund is effective? Finally, what assessment have the Government made on the impact of scrapping the fund on their levelling up agenda? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 10:05 am, 18th November 2020

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood on securing this important debate; what a pleasure it is to speak in Westminster Hall for the first time on such an important issue. I declare an interest as a life-long trade unionist, as a former member of the Unite national executive and as someone who has greatly benefited personally from union learning on many occasions over many years.

This debate could not have come at a more important time; when tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs or are under threat of losing them because of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, the last thing that the Government should be doing is cutting funding to training.

The union learning fund, as has been said, was created over 20 years ago and has been a great success in enabling millions of working people to improve their skills and their lives, both in and outside of their workplaces. This is not a partisan issue; the union learning fund has always enjoyed cross-party support, receiving continued recognition for its contribution to work-based learning under the coalition Government and previous Conservative Administrations.

The statistics speak for themselves with regard to the fund; the most recent independent evaluation showed that 68% of learners with no previous qualifications gained a qualification due to the support of the fund, while 47% with entry or level 1 qualifications gained a higher qualification. That is not just beneficial for the employee; 77% of employers said that the union learning fund had a positive effect in their workplace. The fund supports working people to better their lives at all levels; one of my own team members is doing a part-time master’s degree that is partly funded by Unionlearn through Birkbeck College. With postgraduate qualifications out of reach for so many working people, the way that Birkbeck College utilised this fund alongside their evening study hours is commendable.

We need to be looking forward to a post-pandemic economic world, where this country’s skill base will provide the foundation for economic regeneration, growth and employment opportunities, and increased prosperity for all. A fully skilled workforce will be vital in spearheading the UK’s economic future in this new and challenging global economy. That is why the union learning fund should remain as an important section of the UK’s overall training program.

I hope that the Minister will listen closely to the contributions made here today and hear the overwhelming arguments for the union learning fund to continue and, in the words of the Prime Minister,

“offer a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people train and retrain—at any stage in their lives”.

A decision to continue funding and to abandon these plans to cease the learning fund in 2021 would be a positive step in achieving that ambition.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

One more speaker has arrived, so I will have to cut the time limit to three minutes with immediate effect. That way, everybody will get to contribute to the debate.

Photo of Kim Johnson Kim Johnson Labour, Liverpool, Riverside 10:09 am, 18th November 2020

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood on securing this important and timely debate.

The Government have declared that they will put reskilling workers at the heart of their economic recovery plans after the pandemic. That was a significant and welcome announcement, so why are they now proposing to scrap one of the most successful schemes for encouraging workers to upskill? Since it was launched in 1998, the union learning fund has provided training and qualifications to around 200,000 workers every year—almost 4.5 million new qualifications that contribute not just to the worker’s confidence, skills and knowledge, but to the business they work in.

As a former Unison rep, I have witnessed first-hand the success of the ULF. Last year the union learning fund cost £12 million—a mere £60 per learner. Learners undertake all sorts of job-relevant training, including in basic literacy, numeracy, information and communications technology skills, apprenticeships, traineeships, vocational training, continuing professional development and other informal and informal courses.

At the heart of the model is the union learning representative, a trained worker who understands the workforce, the nature of the business and the skill gaps that exist. They work with employers, their own union and Unionlearn to broker access to relevant learning opportunities for workers in their workplaces. There are more than 44,000 in England. And the model works; 37% of union members regularly access workplace learning, compared with just 19% of workers in non-unionised workplaces.

The essential food industry is reliant on migrant workers and those with no or low-level qualifications. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union has provided Unionlearn-funded training to more than 31,000 workers over the past 20 years, including functional literacy and numeracy skills and English to speakers of other languages. Like other union partners, it provides a route back in for those failed by the education system, those with low confidence, and those whose first language is not English but who are likely to be key to the success of the business. An independent study in 2018 from the University of Exeter found that 68% of learners with no previous qualifications gained a qualification.

It is incredible that the Government—who were prepared to put billions of pounds into contracts with Serco for test, track and trace, and millions into precuring personal protective equipment not fit for use—made the decision to scrap the ULF. I urge the Minister to reconsider that decision.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South 10:12 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing this important debate and setting out superbly why the union learning fund has such an impact on workers’ lives, particularly in the workplace. I say this as a member of the CIPD and from my working life as a head of human resources and organisational development. The power of workplace learning is so important. The ULF supports teams across more than 20 unions, developing workers in NHS wards, offices and factories, on shop floors and in so many other workplaces. It offers hundreds of lifelong learning courses on a range of subjects, focused job-related training and upskilling to thousands of workers—union members and non-members alike. The workers who receive the most benefits from the ULF are predominantly low-paid, seeking educational opportunities. As TUC general secretary Francis O’Grady puts it so succinctly, the ULF is

“the Heineken of adult learning—it gets to people other approaches cannot reach.”

Through joint working between employers and ULF representatives, skills gaps in the workforce are identified and workers are provided with access to training that fills them. An independent evaluation of the ULF’s work in 2018 found that for every £1 spent on the ULF, workers gained £7.60 through better pay, employers gained £4.70 through higher productivity and the Government gained £3.57 from welfare savings and revenue gains. In pure financial terms, that is a win, win, win. However, instead of recognising the benefits of the ULF to workers and employers, the Government have announced that from March 2021 they will cut its funding. In one breath we have the Government stating they want to build back better across the country, then in another they undermine workers’ ability to develop the skills needed to drive our recovery.

I am pleased that there is huge support across the labour and trade union movement for saving the ULF but, as already mentioned, the campaign is backed by large employers such as Tesco, Heathrow, British Steel and Tata Steel. Given the successful track record of ULF over the past two decades and its positive return on investment—and given the support from employers and workers—why are the Government cutting the ULF and replacing it with the national skills fund? Why fix it when it ain’t broke? The answer is not one that is focused on improving development opportunities for workers. Instead, it smacks of a politically motivated attack on trade unions in the workplace and is another avenue to weaken their ability to support workers—and a shameless attempt to disrupt organised labour.

The Bank of England has warned that the UK faces the worst recession in 300 years, so scrapping a scheme that is not just oven-ready but already cooked to perfection, flies in the face of building back better. I urge the Government to listen to workers, employers and trade unions by safeguarding the ULF’s future.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 10:15 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hollobone, and I concur with every word uttered in the debate, not least those of my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood.

We are here because we have all witnessed something so transformative and so life-changing in workplaces across the country that we want the Minister to go on the union learning fund journey. It is no ordinary learning scheme. The Minister may be asking why trade unions would make such an investment in union learning. What do they gain from it? Why would people volunteer to be learning reps? Is that not somebody else’s job?

Let me tell the Minister about the transformative power of union learning reps and the union learning fund: for just £12 million, it returns £1.4 billion to the economy. Unions invest because that is what they do. Unions invest in health and safety reps because they want working people to be safer at work. Unions invest in workplace reps because they know that better workplaces are more productive workplaces, and provide more secure labour. Unions invest in union learning because they unlock the potential of others, give them life chances that they have never had, help them discover their skills and talents, and open up to them a new world of possibilities. That is what trade unions do. After going through training in which unions have invested, union learning reps ensure that effective programmes are available to workers that are matched to their needs.

I used to be Unite’s national officer, and I saw how many men and women who had no qualifications and would shy away from learning, began their learning journey with the support of union learning reps. They first gained basic skills thanks to the investment, encouragement and support of the union learning rep, working patiently alongside them to give them confidence and support. I would then see barriers fall, and the fear of learning turn into a new hunger. They then embark upon courses and improve themselves, becoming more confident workers and bringing real gain to their workplaces, as 80% of courses do.

I have witnessed tears of frustration turn to tears of joy. I have heard testimonials from employers who have confessed that they would not have been able to do what the fund does without the union learning fund. It is not just about the course or the qualification; it is about the learning journey—the support, the encouragement, the friendship and the fulfilment of the hidden dream. It is powerful. At a time like this, when we are going to have to use every resource wisely and see workers diversify their skills, the union learning fund has never been more needed. That is why employers want to keep it, and that is why employers have set up learning centres and learning agreements. The union learning fund does things that no learning programme can do: it brings together employers, workers and reps with a life of possibilities.

Before the Minister takes out her pen I want her, in her response today, to commit to immersing herself in the world of the union learning fund. She will witness something so moving, effective and valuable. I know she will change her mind as a result.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South 10:18 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing this honourable and important debate. I am proud to be a trade unionist and to have the support of trade unions, and I declare an interest: I am a member of Unite the union.

It is through trade unions that working people advance our collective interests, from winning rights and better pay at work to building up our skills and talents. That is what the union learning fund is all about. Every year it supports 200,000 workers, enhancing literacy, numeracy, ICT skills and professional development, amongst much else. As hon. Friends have said, it is a proven success. A 2018 evaluation found that for every £1 spent on the scheme, workers gained £7.60 in better pay, employers gained £4.70 through higher productivity and the Government gained £3.57 from social security savings and revenue gains. That is why it is not only workers who back it, but businesses like Tata Steel. The fund pays for itself and enriches everyone else. It was needed in normal times, never mind times like these, when Britain has entered the worst recession on record, unemployment is surging to levels not seen in decades and the climate emergency is already with us. While people are losing their jobs in record numbers, work needs to be done. Our public services are in ruin: 10 years of Tory cuts have brought them to their knees. We need to build them up, skilling workers along the way, from the care sector to education to the NHS.

Our society is hooked on deadly fossil fuels. We need to break that addiction, decarbonising our economy with a green new deal, training and investing in our young people, so that instead of being trapped in unemployment, they are building the wind turbines that we need to power our country forward, building the clean public transport that is fit for the future, and retrofitting our country’s homes to reduce energy bills and emissions. There is work to be done, and it is the Government’s job to see that it is done. That is why, instead of scrapping the union learning fund, we should be investing in and expanding it.

Government Members like to pretend that they are the champions of the working class, but when it comes to concrete policies, such as the self-organised training of working people or feeding working-class kids during the school holidays, that façade vanishes and they show their true colours. However, they could prove me wrong and I would be very happy if they did. So, instead of their claiming the mantle of supporting working people only when it means pitting white working-class people against poor black and brown working-class people, I urge them to stand up for all working-class people, by committing to maintaining and expanding the union learning fund.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney 10:20 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood on securing this important and timely debate. I declare an interest, as a member of Unison.

Today I join employers, businesses, and especially workers, across the country in being staggered by the decision—out of the blue—to scrap the union learning fund. In-work poverty is one of the main sources of poverty in my constituency. So many people are working two or three jobs but still cannot make ends meet. Workplace learning is a proven route out of poverty and the ULF is a proven provider of such learning. In-work learning removes the barriers to learning for those who need it most, so that low-paid workers and their families can get vital qualifications and skills. As the General Secretary for USDAW has said:

“Learning and re-skilling will be at the heart of helping the country recover from…this…pandemic…Unionlearn reaches the people other schemes do not”.

Will the Minister today explain how else the Government will provide such a highly successful route to learning for 200,000 learners every year? What is the alternative? I understand that the fund is being diverted or moved to colleges. Colleges need more funding, but this is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Local colleges cannot provide access to learning that is equivalent to the access that the ULF provides. The ULF is in the right place, where workers actually are. It operates around working hours and pools the resources of employers, education providers and trade unions. That makes it amazing value for money, so it should be valued in and of itself. And it provides more than training; it also provides mentoring, to increase people’s confidence and inspire reluctant learners to change their life and achieve their potential.

The ULF has been a successful provider of union learning for more than 20 years, during which time it has been built up. If it is removed now, and cut next year, that would be really hard for all involved; it would take another 20 years to build up such an amazing resource, including the network of providers and courses. The ULF benefits 200,000 workers every year and is a key route to apprenticeships. It is valued by employers from Tesco to Heathrow to Tata Steel, and so many more employers in industries that will be key for building back better.

In fact, the fund is needed now more than ever, as workers reel from the impact of covid. Scrapping it will undermine the lifetime skills guarantee and any promises about green jobs. I urge the Minister to stop, review the fund, value it, and keep it instead of scrapping it.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead 10:23 am, 18th November 2020

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing the debate. First, I declare an interest—I am a lifelong trade unionist and former regional secretary of Unite the union.

My experience in the workplace over many years has given me an insider’s view of how valuable the union learning fund has been to so many workers. Currently, the fund supports 250,000 workers, through the provision of first-class training and skills courses. The Government’s announcement last October that the fund would end in March 2021 flies in the face of the country’s needs, as the pandemic still rages. That is why the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have opted to maintain the fund.

As the virus tears apart our industry, resources need to be put into rebuilding our skills base, retraining our workforce and developing people capable of taking up new jobs in new industries. At least, that is the view of the devolved Governments, and I must ask why that view is not obvious to the Conservative Government. If they really believe that we must build back better, how can they also believe that taking away a key means of achieving that goal is a good idea? It will not save them money, but will cost them considerably in terms of an educated workforce, capable of meeting the challenge of the green industrial revolution that must lie at the heart of rebuilding our economy. Even now, the ULF more than pays for itself, contributing an estimated £5.4 million in improved productivity. For every pound spent through the fund, an extra £3.57 per worker is taken in taxes, as a result of improved wages and welfare savings from securing employment through the fund.

Not surprisingly many employers, including Tesco, Tata Steel and Heathrow, are supporting the trade union campaign to save the ULF. I warmly welcome the campaign and strongly urge the Government to change course on this issue.

As well as the big-picture arguments about the ULF’s economic value, I want to talk about the benefits from a human point of view. In my years as a trade union activist, I have seen and dealt with many individuals. I have had to support them personally as well as collectively. The beauty of the ULF is that it gives properly trained and accredited union learning reps the chance to help people directly in the workplace.

I have spoken to colleagues who have suffered a disability and panicked about their inability to carry out their job. I have spoken to people who cannot read or write, though many find ways to disguise that fact from their employer and colleagues, out of shame. I have met people whose potential to advance in their work has been cruelly hampered by a lack of education or being scared about learning new skills to do with new technologies.

It is simple: from the point of view of educating the workforce of the future and supporting the workforce of today, the ULF is a precious resource, which we must not give up. A sum of £12 million is not a lot of money, but it is worth its weight in gold to the people who use the fund. Stop being petty and reinstate the fund.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

We now come to the Front Bench speeches. The guidelines are 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for the official Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice Team Member) 10:26 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like others, I congratulate Lilian Greenwood on securing the debate.

Three themes have emerged from all the excellent speeches that have been made. First, there is the timing and the general situation in which the decision has been made. Secondly, there is the principle of lifelong learning and the importance of workplace-based learning. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, there is the perversity—if not prejudice—of the decision. I will deal with each aspect in turn.

On the timing and the situation, which many Members have mentioned, even pre-covid we lived in a fast-changing world where things did not stay the same, but were accelerating. The days are gone when people turned up at the factory gate at the age of 13 or 14—more recently, 16—and remained there until they got their gold watch at 65. Even those in a workplace with a more IT basis will likely have many employers and, more importantly, the nature of their work will change. For those leaving school or graduating at 16, 18, 21 or 22, how many jobs will they experience, how much training will they undertake and how vastly changed will their work be by the time they are 30, never mind 40, 50 or even 70, as the retirement age is likely to be?

That is why it is so vital to post people in retraining to allow them to better themselves. As others have also said, it is even more vital post-covid, because we all know that unemployment is rising and we are just at the beginning. It is going to go up significantly and hard times are coming. We also know that the nature of work is changing, which has been mentioned by many Members. The need for homeworking, the change in IT and the delivery of Zoom have changed within the period of my membership of Parliament, compared with what went before. The pace of change is significant and it is going to be driven.

We know that aircrew are being told that they have skills, and that they can retrain. I recall that it was difficult to keep senior police officers in the north-east of Scotland because, trained in command and control, they were perfect for many who wanted experience like that in offshore oil and gas. It will always be necessary for people to have that opportunity to move on and change. The world in which we live is changing. The nature of what people do will have to change, and we have to be able to support them.

That takes me on to the second issue, which has been touched on: the principle of lifelong learning and the importance of workplace learning. I have to confess to being an autodidact. That is because I did a degree in law and, as I frequently say, I have spent a lifetime trying to get an education. That is the nature of a law degree, or perhaps of myself. Education is something that we should value in itself. It is important that we educate people for the work that they do, so that they can improve the work that they do and improve themselves per se. That is necessary. This is not simply about education for education’s sake; it is about providing for workers. The two aspects are equally important, and that is why the fund is crucial.

Hon. Members have commented that the jobs that have been delivered are significant, and they have outlined the skills that have been provided for the whole of society, not just simply the individual or their employer. The individual’s general knowledge and the self-confidence that goes with it is unquantifiable and cannot be put in any briefing from the House of Commons Library or a trade union. Workplace learning environments are important because education has to be put in context. Hon. Members have mentioned the people they have come across who have benefited.

The context of this issue is longstanding. The fund was established in 1998 to institutionalise what had been ongoing for many years. Ruskin College was established, if I recall, in 1899, as we were coming into a new age of the industrial revolution. Scotland’s equivalent, Newbattle Abbey College, took a few more decades to come along. I know it well. Many people went there for reasons that many hon. Members have narrated: the opportunity to better themselves, perhaps after having left school without qualifications, and the opportunity to return to education. That was important not just for those individuals and the Scottish economy, but for Scottish society. Before the trade union learning fund, we had the Workers’ Educational Association, which still exists. If my memory serves me well, it has been around since the early 1900s. I know people who worked there and did a remarkable job, and people who went there. The trade union learning fund provided a context and some institutionalisation of that, because the benefits are clear.

I have studied Jimmy Reid extensively and have written a biography about him. He would be regarded as one of the greatest Scots of the 20th century. He was a most educated man, but he never went to university, other than gracing the University of Glasgow as its rector. He said that his university was in the shipyards. It was there that he met other worker representatives who directed him towards what to read, what to study, where to go and how to access it. The trade union learning fund brought together all the benefits that Jimmy Reid had.

I met many of Jimmy Reid’s colleagues. Many of the old CPers were the best if someone wanted to get an education. I recall being challenged by a CPer who was no longer able to work because he was blacklisted. At that stage, I was a young law graduate, and he asked what books I read. I have to say that I was humbled and shamed, but I have remembered that ever since, because my love of radical American literature came from that man, steered in a workplace environment, who told me not just about Steinbeck and Jack London, but about the benefits of reading John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright and all those other greats who I now pass on. It is that environment that the trade union fund brings together: the opportunity for people to better themselves and be improved as individuals. That is why it is important that we seek to protect it.

That is the basis of why we hope to hear from the Minister why the fund is being ended. It is important that we conceptualised this idea and put it in a framework. The days of someone turning up and the shop steward being there to advise them is much harder to deliver when they are working in a home environment or a working environment that is much less organised. It was important that we were able to bring together the benefits that we got to those comrades back then.

I appreciate that colleges and universities have expanded, that they provide much more, and that they do a remarkably good job. The college near me that provides for my community would tell me that the average age is well into the 20s and that many of the hardest working are the women who left school, had a family, realised that they have the skills and attributes, and want to better themselves for them and their families—they want to go back. That is why the decision seems—if not perverse—almost prejudiced.

I am conscious of time, so I will simply conclude with some questions. Is this simply prejudice based on a desire to do down the trade union movement? The Scottish National party is not affiliated as such, but it is a huge supporter of that movement and recognises the benefits. As I say, I think those who work today and those who went before are extremely praiseworthy. Equally, if the decision is not prejudiced, does it not seem perverse at a time when we require ever more lifelong and workplace education?

Perhaps most importantly, is the decision reversible? If not, the likelihood is that it will cause significant harm, not just to individuals or to employers who require their skills, but to us as a society, who can only benefit from having people as educated, well read and trained as they can be. That is the society we need: it will build us back better and it is what the fund was created to allow to happen. I leave those questions for the Minister.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education) 10:36 am, 18th November 2020

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing the debate and for her contribution.

The sheer number of speakers in the debate says a lot. The Minister should be concerned not just about the number of Labour and Scottish National party Members who came; she should hear loud and clear that not a single Conservative MP was willing to come to the debate to speak up for the decision. The fact that Robert Halfon is not here to speak up for the decision should say more to the Minister than every single eloquent speech that we have heard from my hon. Friends and colleagues. For the 200,000 learners each year who will see barriers placed before their careers by this incredibly short-sighted move, the debate will provide reassurance that there are people in this place who are more interested in supporting them than in picking fights, settling scores and preventing that ladder of opportunity.

I will not have the opportunity to refer to every speech, but so many important points were made by colleagues, some of which I want to mention. As my hon. Friend Kate Osborne said, the union learning fund has enjoyed cross-party support throughout its time, going right back to 1998. As other hon. Members have said, the programme has demonstrated the potential to enhance and transform the lives of workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South said that the programme reaches people whose statutory education has failed and who arrived in the workplace without functional literacy and numeracy. Those are the people the programme has supported.

As my hon. Friend Mick Whitley said, a Government who were truly committed to a skills-led recovery would recognise that Unionlearn is an example of building back better and of the very best of trade union and Government co-operation, helping workers to help themselves. Of course, we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but whatever that will be, we know where the decision comes from. She might read the words, but the decision was made by the Secretary of State.

There is not much that I would say to commend the Secretary of State, but in fairness, he has been quite upfront and honest about that fact. There has been no attempt to hide behind the Treasury or an economic argument. This is a political decision by a politician who would rather settle scores with the trade unions than work with them constructively. In his own mind, he is the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, preventing workers from accessing literacy and numeracy skills. This is his Orgreave; this is the moment that he came into politics for. The evidence that we have heard is about the real people who will be affected by this decision. He is not the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher; he is a mean-spirited Frank Spencer. That is who is making this decision.

The decision is so misplaced. It hits the workers, not the unions. Unionlearn is not a profit centre for trade unions. It will not hit the sustainability of the unions. In communities up and down the country, it will prevent people from accessing the skills that would enable them to better themselves. What idiocy!

All Governments will, on occasion, have arguments and fights with trade unions. That is the nature of being in government. But what a fight to pick! Why, if they want to fight the trade unions, do they fight to prevent them from helping people to better themselves? It is incredible to think that the premiership of Mrs May might be looked back on as a more enlightened time than what we have now, but with regard to Unionlearn it was.

Let us remind ourselves what the Minister’s predecessor, Anne Milton, said a couple of years ago:

“The aim of the National Retraining Scheme is simple—to produce the best programme of learning and training for people in work and returning to work in the changing world. To do this the Government, the CBI and the TUC all have our parts to play.”

She continued:

“That’s where Unionlearn comes in and why we regard it as an external partner in the national retraining scheme.”

That is a sensible, Conservative approach to recognising that Unionlearn is about unions and Government working constructively together. That is what a sensible Secretary of State would say now. Even in the teeth of austerity, when it seemed there was nothing the Government were not willing to cut back on, George Osborne decided to continue funding Unionlearn. That was the approach they took then. He was a poor Chancellor, but he was a skilful politician. The Secretary of State we have now is no such thing.

No fig leaves can cover the motivation for this decision. The most recent independent evaluation of Unionlearn, to which colleagues have referred, was published by the University of Exeter this month. It said that the £12 million spent on Unionlearn has an overall benefit to employers and individuals of £1.4 billion. As my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury said, every pound invested in the union learning fund in round 20 generated a total economic return of £12.87, benefiting workers and their employers almost equally.

The latest evaluation found that 80% of employees said they had developed skills that they could transfer to a new job. As my hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi said, 19% of those who accessed the fund gained a promotion or increased responsibility after their learning. Some 11% gained a pay rise. My hon. Friend Fleur Anderson spoke about work-based poverty and the number of people working two or three jobs who are still unable to pay their bills. The union learning fund was a solution to that, with people getting pay rises as a result of the extra skills that they gained.

Like most acts of vandalism, this decision will come at a cost. My hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins referred to the fact that the evaluation showed that for every pound the Government spend, they receive £3.60 back. This decision will literally cost the Government money. It is not about them having to find an alternative way to pay for it; they are losing money through this decision.

The Government have not even pretended to investigate the impact. Last month, Baroness Berridge admitted that neither the Secretary of State nor any ministerial colleagues had met employers, trade bodies, sector skills bodies, individual trade unions, further education organisations or trading providers in advance of this decision. If they had taken the time to consult, however, they would know that there is a huge coalition opposed to the decision.

Can the Minister recall a time when such a broad coalition of employers has come together to back a union-led initiative? There is a long list of companies already opposing this decision: the British Ceramic Confederation, Cogent Skills, Ingenuity, British Steel, the Food and Drink Federation, Catapult, Make UK, the Manufacturing Technologies Association, Tesco, LIBERTY Steel, the Workers’ Educational Association, Heathrow airport, Tata Steel, Arla Foods, Milk & More and Müller Milk & Ingredients. How many more organisations need to come out and say that this is a retrograde step?

The challenges of the pandemic demonstrate the urgent need for retraining and upskilling. In Unionlearn, there is the very model of lifelong learning, yet the Government are axing this programme, which supports the learning of over 200,000 workers at a cost of just £12 million a year, while the community learning budget, which is 20 times bigger than Unionlearn, reaches fewer than twice as many people. There could not be a better example of the Government’s not spending money wisely.

This decision is not about the money. The Department has just sent £80 million that was allocated to providing help to retrain back to the Treasury because it could not spend it. This is a Government who rip up the rules on procurement to load cash into the pockets of their friends and Tory party donors, but when it comes to a tiny investment to help workers who earn in a year the sort of money these Ministers will pay as a day rate to consultants, the message from the Government is, “Your career is not worth it.”

My hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell said it is the opposite of a levelling-up approach. It says more about this Government, as my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana said, and more about this Secretary of State than any shiny new initiative. We can all see the truth: this is a decision that pits the Government against 200,000 low-paid workers, it will cost rather than save money, it is the opposite of levelling up, and it stinks. The truth is that the Minister could get to her feet now and confirm that she will cancel this divisive and regressive stupidity, and I hope that she will.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 10:46 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate Lilian Greenwood on securing this important debate. Like her, I grew up in the north-west in the ’70s and ’80s, and I am very familiar with Paul’s and Mark’s experience of school—it is one that I also had, with more than 90% of my school friends leaving our Knowsley comprehensive school with few or no qualifications, so I am familiar with the challenge.

We all know, too, how rapidly the economy and employment can change, with the decline of jobs for life; instead, it is a life of jobs, requiring new skills. Hence the need for people to have those new skills and qualifications in order to be more resilient to change and better able to take advantage of the opportunities in their area. Of course, that means that access to education and training is essential for young people and adults to get the skills they need to equip them for the future and to allow them to take advantage of the opportunities open to them.

I hope it comes as no surprise to anybody here that I am passionate about this subject. I have my own experience as an apprentice, and I know that gaining skills and training develops confidence and opens the door to so many opportunities. Apprenticeships are now available at any age, to any worker, up to degree and masters levels in almost every occupation we can imagine.

However, getting into work, getting on to a training course and getting those qualifications mark a stage in learning, not an end. Now more than ever, things are changing at a rapid rate. New technology means new industries and the decline of some others. Jobs change, jobs are lost and jobs are created. We are living in a period of rapid change, and the impact of coronavirus has created another level of instability, which means that everyone needs to react to take advantage of new opportunities or to minimise the risks that change can bring.

The Government are committed to ensuring that every adult has the skills they need to progress. That is why we are investing £1.34 billion through the adult education budget in 2020-21 alone. That commitment is not just about ensuring that all adults can get a full level 3 qualification, but about basic skills. We know that any adult without basic skills and qualifications faces an impossible challenge in securing employment, and that is why, since the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, we have fully funded adults without English and maths at level 2 to gain those essential qualifications. Since August this year, we have added a similar entitlement for every adult to gain basic digital skills at level 1.

Unionlearn, through the union learning fund, has done some really good work over the years in helping and supporting adults to gain the basic skills they need. It helps people to find out about learning opportunities and how to access them. Of the 200,000 people it helps each year, about 95,000 are supported in English, maths and information and communications technology up to level 2. In fact, almost all the Unionlearn help is at level 2 and below. It has been able to do this thanks to Government support. Since 2015, the Government have provided £74 million for the union learning fund, including £12 million for the current financial year.

There are limitations to the Unionlearn model, however. Although it is open to all, important information on opportunities is invariably circulated via the trade union network. Programmes are undertaken by the same set of unions each year. Typically, Unionlearn has supported 19 to 23 projects each year, but over time, only 24 unions have been involved. That is not to say that the projects are not good or worthwhile, but the support is going to the same unions for the same cohorts. Efforts to widen the range of programmes and unions securing project funding have not succeeded.

The Government want training opportunities to be genuinely open to all adults, rather than confined to a particular cohort by the limits of the union learning fund. Although many individuals feel that their learning journey would not have started without the support of Unionlearn, which I am sure is right, almost half of those training through it are qualified at level 3 or above, plus significant numbers said that they would have done the learning in any case.

We are not scrapping Unionlearn; we have decided not to continue funding it from taxpayers’ money. Of course, others could fund it, such as trade unions, employers and devolved Administrations. Indeed, it was established in 1998 and has been funded by taxpayers only since 2008, so there were 10 years of it being funded another way.

I referred to the work that Unionlearn has done to support people to gain basic skills, but I also spoke about the adult entitlement to financial support for them to get English, maths and digital qualifications. That was brought in after the establishment of Unionlearn, which brings me to a key point. At its heart, the Unionlearn model is a brokering one that helps to identify learning needs at an individual level or in a particular location, then to link those individuals to providers who deliver the training. It does not fund training, except in a few circumstances where it is not available through the adult education budget.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I will not, but the hon. Lady will get three minutes at the end. I only have limited time; I think she knows that I would usually.

Unionlearn is a signpost to learning opportunities. I would be selling it short if I did not recognise that it has provided support, mentoring and advice to people over the years, but times and needs change. We need a solution at scale. Unionlearn was set up to help individuals to find out about and access training opportunities.

In 2006, only about a quarter of people in the UK used the internet every day. There was low-speed connectivity and smartphones were new—Apple launched the iPhone only in 2007. Now, more than 80% of households have high-speed broadband and a smartphone, which has driven a change in behaviour. People can access all kinds of information online. They can sign up for training online and take courses online, which was unimaginable 14 years ago. There has been a massive change in the information and basic courses that are available.

In some ways, covid-19 has accelerated that behaviour. FE provision went online—I joined virtual lessons during lockdown—and we have established a skills toolkit. People can go online to find things out. There has been a clear behaviour change in less than two decades, which means that there are now many ways to get support and information. On top of all that, there is an evolving adult entitlement that means that everybody is entitled to digital skills as well as English and maths.

There will always be a need for some personal support, which is why the skills recovery package includes £32 million of extra support for people to get more help from the National Careers Service. Today, it does not make sense to fund Unionlearn, with an additional set of admin costs, to support particular individuals in a unionised environment, while we have unprecedented access to information online, support from careers services and a basic entitlement.

We also want people to be more ambitious in their aspirations. English, maths and digital skills are essential, but are not enough for many people to secure the career or job that they want. That is why the Prime Minister has announced, as part of the lifetime skills guarantee, that adults lacking a level 3 qualification, equivalent to an A-level, will be fully funded from April 2021.

The size of the challenge is such that it requires significant investment and solutions. Small-scale inter- ventions will not suffice. That is why we have announced the creation of a £2.5 billion national skills fund to run over the lifetime of this Parliament. That is why we have set up a £500 million skills recovery package to support and encourage employers to offer apprenticeships and traineeships, to expand threefold the sector-based work academy programme and to help more than a quarter of a million more people to get advice and guidance on careers. That is why, against the backdrop of £3 billion of funding to support large-scale national investment in further education that will work flexibly for working people, it simply does not make sense to continue to support a niche Unionlearn offer.

I am enormously grateful for the support and consideration that the hon. Member for Nottingham South has given today, and she will have her time to respond. She has raised some important concerns about adult learning and access to skills, and it is clear that the Government share them. We have considered how the union-led fund might have addressed these, but we must go further than this model.

The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that everybody, irrespective of who they are or where they come from, whether they are working in a unionised environment or not, can get the qualifications and skills they need to progress. That is the only way that we are going to build back better, meet our net zero by 2050 target and recover from the global pandemic. With £3 billion of support for further education, Members should be in absolutely no doubt that, as learners progress, this Government will be there with them, now and in the future, every step of the way.

I know that Members are disappointed, that they support Unionlearn and that many of them have had involvement with this model, but we cannot limit the scale of our ambition or limit access, when it is a basic entitlement for every adult in this country, which has been provided since and after Unionlearn was set up. These things are widely available in all communities, to those who are working or not working, and to those in unionised environments or non-unionised environments. They are available to everybody, and we must make sure that we are there to encourage people to come forward. There is a lot of information available now, in every way.

We are committed to training adults in this country. We are investing more than we ever have, but it needs to be a large-scale solution to a large-scale problem.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 10:56 am, 18th November 2020

I cannot decide if the Minister actually believes a word of the speech she has just delivered. It is as if she was not listening to a single one of the contributions that we heard.

We know that Unionlearn is not primarily about delivering courses. It is about connecting people to opportunities and giving them the confidence to take up those opportunities. Even where courses are provided free of charge, the number of adult learners is falling. For example, the number of adults achieving first level 2 qualifications in English and maths has fallen by 30% since 2010, despite those courses being free. If the Minister is serious in thinking that the union learning fund is not on the scale required, she should be investing more in expanding it to enable those workers to take up those opportunities. I am glad to see Sir John Hayes nodding along with that.

The Minister did not answer my questions about which organisation will engage reluctant learners. The careers service does a good job, but it cannot reach the same people. She did not explain how scrapping the union learning fund will help us to build back better, the impact it will have on the industrial strategy, the discussions she has had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or how it will increase the uptake of training in non-unionised workplaces. She did not answer my maths question about what proportion of the Department for Education budget that £12 million provides.

I am so disappointed. I read and hear many contributions about the difference that union learning makes, and people describe how it has transformed the way they feel about themselves and the opportunities open to them. I read someone saying: “I honestly feel like this is a new beginning for me. I am buzzing. I can’t wait to get back to work and start implementing everything I learned on the course.” That is what her Government are taking away. She should be ashamed of herself, a Skills Minister who wants to take away the opportunity for working people to improve their skills and transform their lives.

Mr Hollobone, I do not know what more to say, other than that I hope that other people can prevail upon the Skills Minister and her boss, the Secretary of State for Education, to wake up and do something positive, and change their minds about this appalling decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the future of the Union Learning Fund.

Sitting suspended.