It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood on securing this important and timely debate. I declare an interest, as a member of Unison.
Today I join employers, businesses, and especially workers, across the country in being staggered by the decision—out of the blue—to scrap the union learning fund. In-work poverty is one of the main sources of poverty in my constituency. So many people are working two or three jobs but still cannot make ends meet. Workplace learning is a proven route out of poverty and the ULF is a proven provider of such learning. In-work learning removes the barriers to learning for those who need it most, so that low-paid workers and their families can get vital qualifications and skills. As the General Secretary for USDAW has said:
“Learning and re-skilling will be at the heart of helping the country recover from…this…pandemic…Unionlearn reaches the people other schemes do not”.
Will the Minister today explain how else the Government will provide such a highly successful route to learning for 200,000 learners every year? What is the alternative? I understand that the fund is being diverted or moved to colleges. Colleges need more funding, but this is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Local colleges cannot provide access to learning that is equivalent to the access that the ULF provides. The ULF is in the right place, where workers actually are. It operates around working hours and pools the resources of employers, education providers and trade unions. That makes it amazing value for money, so it should be valued in and of itself. And it provides more than training; it also provides mentoring, to increase people’s confidence and inspire reluctant learners to change their life and achieve their potential.
The ULF has been a successful provider of union learning for more than 20 years, during which time it has been built up. If it is removed now, and cut next year, that would be really hard for all involved; it would take another 20 years to build up such an amazing resource, including the network of providers and courses. The ULF benefits 200,000 workers every year and is a key route to apprenticeships. It is valued by employers from Tesco to Heathrow to Tata Steel, and so many more employers in industries that will be key for building back better.
In fact, the fund is needed now more than ever, as workers reel from the impact of covid. Scrapping it will undermine the lifetime skills guarantee and any promises about green jobs. I urge the Minister to stop, review the fund, value it, and keep it instead of scrapping it.