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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:02 am on 18th November 2020.

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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.