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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:49 am on 18th November 2020.

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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.