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.