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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:09 am on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Kim Johnson Kim Johnson Labour, Liverpool, Riverside 10:09 am, 18th November 2020

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood on securing this important and timely debate.

The Government have declared that they will put reskilling workers at the heart of their economic recovery plans after the pandemic. That was a significant and welcome announcement, so why are they now proposing to scrap one of the most successful schemes for encouraging workers to upskill? Since it was launched in 1998, the union learning fund has provided training and qualifications to around 200,000 workers every year—almost 4.5 million new qualifications that contribute not just to the worker’s confidence, skills and knowledge, but to the business they work in.

As a former Unison rep, I have witnessed first-hand the success of the ULF. Last year the union learning fund cost £12 million—a mere £60 per learner. Learners undertake all sorts of job-relevant training, including in basic literacy, numeracy, information and communications technology skills, apprenticeships, traineeships, vocational training, continuing professional development and other informal and informal courses.

At the heart of the model is the union learning representative, a trained worker who understands the workforce, the nature of the business and the skill gaps that exist. They work with employers, their own union and Unionlearn to broker access to relevant learning opportunities for workers in their workplaces. There are more than 44,000 in England. And the model works; 37% of union members regularly access workplace learning, compared with just 19% of workers in non-unionised workplaces.

The essential food industry is reliant on migrant workers and those with no or low-level qualifications. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union has provided Unionlearn-funded training to more than 31,000 workers over the past 20 years, including functional literacy and numeracy skills and English to speakers of other languages. Like other union partners, it provides a route back in for those failed by the education system, those with low confidence, and those whose first language is not English but who are likely to be key to the success of the business. An independent study in 2018 from the University of Exeter found that 68% of learners with no previous qualifications gained a qualification.

It is incredible that the Government—who were prepared to put billions of pounds into contracts with Serco for test, track and trace, and millions into precuring personal protective equipment not fit for use—made the decision to scrap the ULF. I urge the Minister to reconsider that decision.