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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:31 am on 18th November 2020.

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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.