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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:26 am on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice Team Member) 10:26 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like others, I congratulate Lilian Greenwood on securing the debate.

Three themes have emerged from all the excellent speeches that have been made. First, there is the timing and the general situation in which the decision has been made. Secondly, there is the principle of lifelong learning and the importance of workplace-based learning. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, there is the perversity—if not prejudice—of the decision. I will deal with each aspect in turn.

On the timing and the situation, which many Members have mentioned, even pre-covid we lived in a fast-changing world where things did not stay the same, but were accelerating. The days are gone when people turned up at the factory gate at the age of 13 or 14—more recently, 16—and remained there until they got their gold watch at 65. Even those in a workplace with a more IT basis will likely have many employers and, more importantly, the nature of their work will change. For those leaving school or graduating at 16, 18, 21 or 22, how many jobs will they experience, how much training will they undertake and how vastly changed will their work be by the time they are 30, never mind 40, 50 or even 70, as the retirement age is likely to be?

That is why it is so vital to post people in retraining to allow them to better themselves. As others have also said, it is even more vital post-covid, because we all know that unemployment is rising and we are just at the beginning. It is going to go up significantly and hard times are coming. We also know that the nature of work is changing, which has been mentioned by many Members. The need for homeworking, the change in IT and the delivery of Zoom have changed within the period of my membership of Parliament, compared with what went before. The pace of change is significant and it is going to be driven.

We know that aircrew are being told that they have skills, and that they can retrain. I recall that it was difficult to keep senior police officers in the north-east of Scotland because, trained in command and control, they were perfect for many who wanted experience like that in offshore oil and gas. It will always be necessary for people to have that opportunity to move on and change. The world in which we live is changing. The nature of what people do will have to change, and we have to be able to support them.

That takes me on to the second issue, which has been touched on: the principle of lifelong learning and the importance of workplace learning. I have to confess to being an autodidact. That is because I did a degree in law and, as I frequently say, I have spent a lifetime trying to get an education. That is the nature of a law degree, or perhaps of myself. Education is something that we should value in itself. It is important that we educate people for the work that they do, so that they can improve the work that they do and improve themselves per se. That is necessary. This is not simply about education for education’s sake; it is about providing for workers. The two aspects are equally important, and that is why the fund is crucial.

Hon. Members have commented that the jobs that have been delivered are significant, and they have outlined the skills that have been provided for the whole of society, not just simply the individual or their employer. The individual’s general knowledge and the self-confidence that goes with it is unquantifiable and cannot be put in any briefing from the House of Commons Library or a trade union. Workplace learning environments are important because education has to be put in context. Hon. Members have mentioned the people they have come across who have benefited.

The context of this issue is longstanding. The fund was established in 1998 to institutionalise what had been ongoing for many years. Ruskin College was established, if I recall, in 1899, as we were coming into a new age of the industrial revolution. Scotland’s equivalent, Newbattle Abbey College, took a few more decades to come along. I know it well. Many people went there for reasons that many hon. Members have narrated: the opportunity to better themselves, perhaps after having left school without qualifications, and the opportunity to return to education. That was important not just for those individuals and the Scottish economy, but for Scottish society. Before the trade union learning fund, we had the Workers’ Educational Association, which still exists. If my memory serves me well, it has been around since the early 1900s. I know people who worked there and did a remarkable job, and people who went there. The trade union learning fund provided a context and some institutionalisation of that, because the benefits are clear.

I have studied Jimmy Reid extensively and have written a biography about him. He would be regarded as one of the greatest Scots of the 20th century. He was a most educated man, but he never went to university, other than gracing the University of Glasgow as its rector. He said that his university was in the shipyards. It was there that he met other worker representatives who directed him towards what to read, what to study, where to go and how to access it. The trade union learning fund brought together all the benefits that Jimmy Reid had.

I met many of Jimmy Reid’s colleagues. Many of the old CPers were the best if someone wanted to get an education. I recall being challenged by a CPer who was no longer able to work because he was blacklisted. At that stage, I was a young law graduate, and he asked what books I read. I have to say that I was humbled and shamed, but I have remembered that ever since, because my love of radical American literature came from that man, steered in a workplace environment, who told me not just about Steinbeck and Jack London, but about the benefits of reading John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright and all those other greats who I now pass on. It is that environment that the trade union fund brings together: the opportunity for people to better themselves and be improved as individuals. That is why it is important that we seek to protect it.

That is the basis of why we hope to hear from the Minister why the fund is being ended. It is important that we conceptualised this idea and put it in a framework. The days of someone turning up and the shop steward being there to advise them is much harder to deliver when they are working in a home environment or a working environment that is much less organised. It was important that we were able to bring together the benefits that we got to those comrades back then.

I appreciate that colleges and universities have expanded, that they provide much more, and that they do a remarkably good job. The college near me that provides for my community would tell me that the average age is well into the 20s and that many of the hardest working are the women who left school, had a family, realised that they have the skills and attributes, and want to better themselves for them and their families—they want to go back. That is why the decision seems—if not perverse—almost prejudiced.

I am conscious of time, so I will simply conclude with some questions. Is this simply prejudice based on a desire to do down the trade union movement? The Scottish National party is not affiliated as such, but it is a huge supporter of that movement and recognises the benefits. As I say, I think those who work today and those who went before are extremely praiseworthy. Equally, if the decision is not prejudiced, does it not seem perverse at a time when we require ever more lifelong and workplace education?

Perhaps most importantly, is the decision reversible? If not, the likelihood is that it will cause significant harm, not just to individuals or to employers who require their skills, but to us as a society, who can only benefit from having people as educated, well read and trained as they can be. That is the society we need: it will build us back better and it is what the fund was created to allow to happen. I leave those questions for the Minister.