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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:05 am on 18th November 2020.

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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.