It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing the debate. First, I declare an interest—I am a lifelong trade unionist and former regional secretary of Unite the union.
My experience in the workplace over many years has given me an insider’s view of how valuable the union learning fund has been to so many workers. Currently, the fund supports 250,000 workers, through the provision of first-class training and skills courses. The Government’s announcement last October that the fund would end in March 2021 flies in the face of the country’s needs, as the pandemic still rages. That is why the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have opted to maintain the fund.
As the virus tears apart our industry, resources need to be put into rebuilding our skills base, retraining our workforce and developing people capable of taking up new jobs in new industries. At least, that is the view of the devolved Governments, and I must ask why that view is not obvious to the Conservative Government. If they really believe that we must build back better, how can they also believe that taking away a key means of achieving that goal is a good idea? It will not save them money, but will cost them considerably in terms of an educated workforce, capable of meeting the challenge of the green industrial revolution that must lie at the heart of rebuilding our economy. Even now, the ULF more than pays for itself, contributing an estimated £5.4 million in improved productivity. For every pound spent through the fund, an extra £3.57 per worker is taken in taxes, as a result of improved wages and welfare savings from securing employment through the fund.
Not surprisingly many employers, including Tesco, Tata Steel and Heathrow, are supporting the trade union campaign to save the ULF. I warmly welcome the campaign and strongly urge the Government to change course on this issue.
As well as the big-picture arguments about the ULF’s economic value, I want to talk about the benefits from a human point of view. In my years as a trade union activist, I have seen and dealt with many individuals. I have had to support them personally as well as collectively. The beauty of the ULF is that it gives properly trained and accredited union learning reps the chance to help people directly in the workplace.
I have spoken to colleagues who have suffered a disability and panicked about their inability to carry out their job. I have spoken to people who cannot read or write, though many find ways to disguise that fact from their employer and colleagues, out of shame. I have met people whose potential to advance in their work has been cruelly hampered by a lack of education or being scared about learning new skills to do with new technologies.
It is simple: from the point of view of educating the workforce of the future and supporting the workforce of today, the ULF is a precious resource, which we must not give up. A sum of £12 million is not a lot of money, but it is worth its weight in gold to the people who use the fund. Stop being petty and reinstate the fund.