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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:36 am on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education) 10:36 am, 18th November 2020

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, thank my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood for securing the debate and for her contribution.

The sheer number of speakers in the debate says a lot. The Minister should be concerned not just about the number of Labour and Scottish National party Members who came; she should hear loud and clear that not a single Conservative MP was willing to come to the debate to speak up for the decision. The fact that Robert Halfon is not here to speak up for the decision should say more to the Minister than every single eloquent speech that we have heard from my hon. Friends and colleagues. For the 200,000 learners each year who will see barriers placed before their careers by this incredibly short-sighted move, the debate will provide reassurance that there are people in this place who are more interested in supporting them than in picking fights, settling scores and preventing that ladder of opportunity.

I will not have the opportunity to refer to every speech, but so many important points were made by colleagues, some of which I want to mention. As my hon. Friend Kate Osborne said, the union learning fund has enjoyed cross-party support throughout its time, going right back to 1998. As other hon. Members have said, the programme has demonstrated the potential to enhance and transform the lives of workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South said that the programme reaches people whose statutory education has failed and who arrived in the workplace without functional literacy and numeracy. Those are the people the programme has supported.

As my hon. Friend Mick Whitley said, a Government who were truly committed to a skills-led recovery would recognise that Unionlearn is an example of building back better and of the very best of trade union and Government co-operation, helping workers to help themselves. Of course, we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but whatever that will be, we know where the decision comes from. She might read the words, but the decision was made by the Secretary of State.

There is not much that I would say to commend the Secretary of State, but in fairness, he has been quite upfront and honest about that fact. There has been no attempt to hide behind the Treasury or an economic argument. This is a political decision by a politician who would rather settle scores with the trade unions than work with them constructively. In his own mind, he is the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, preventing workers from accessing literacy and numeracy skills. This is his Orgreave; this is the moment that he came into politics for. The evidence that we have heard is about the real people who will be affected by this decision. He is not the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher; he is a mean-spirited Frank Spencer. That is who is making this decision.

The decision is so misplaced. It hits the workers, not the unions. Unionlearn is not a profit centre for trade unions. It will not hit the sustainability of the unions. In communities up and down the country, it will prevent people from accessing the skills that would enable them to better themselves. What idiocy!

All Governments will, on occasion, have arguments and fights with trade unions. That is the nature of being in government. But what a fight to pick! Why, if they want to fight the trade unions, do they fight to prevent them from helping people to better themselves? It is incredible to think that the premiership of Mrs May might be looked back on as a more enlightened time than what we have now, but with regard to Unionlearn it was.

Let us remind ourselves what the Minister’s predecessor, Anne Milton, said a couple of years ago:

“The aim of the National Retraining Scheme is simple—to produce the best programme of learning and training for people in work and returning to work in the changing world. To do this the Government, the CBI and the TUC all have our parts to play.”

She continued:

“That’s where Unionlearn comes in and why we regard it as an external partner in the national retraining scheme.”

That is a sensible, Conservative approach to recognising that Unionlearn is about unions and Government working constructively together. That is what a sensible Secretary of State would say now. Even in the teeth of austerity, when it seemed there was nothing the Government were not willing to cut back on, George Osborne decided to continue funding Unionlearn. That was the approach they took then. He was a poor Chancellor, but he was a skilful politician. The Secretary of State we have now is no such thing.

No fig leaves can cover the motivation for this decision. The most recent independent evaluation of Unionlearn, to which colleagues have referred, was published by the University of Exeter this month. It said that the £12 million spent on Unionlearn has an overall benefit to employers and individuals of £1.4 billion. As my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury said, every pound invested in the union learning fund in round 20 generated a total economic return of £12.87, benefiting workers and their employers almost equally.

The latest evaluation found that 80% of employees said they had developed skills that they could transfer to a new job. As my hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi said, 19% of those who accessed the fund gained a promotion or increased responsibility after their learning. Some 11% gained a pay rise. My hon. Friend Fleur Anderson spoke about work-based poverty and the number of people working two or three jobs who are still unable to pay their bills. The union learning fund was a solution to that, with people getting pay rises as a result of the extra skills that they gained.

Like most acts of vandalism, this decision will come at a cost. My hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins referred to the fact that the evaluation showed that for every pound the Government spend, they receive £3.60 back. This decision will literally cost the Government money. It is not about them having to find an alternative way to pay for it; they are losing money through this decision.

The Government have not even pretended to investigate the impact. Last month, Baroness Berridge admitted that neither the Secretary of State nor any ministerial colleagues had met employers, trade bodies, sector skills bodies, individual trade unions, further education organisations or trading providers in advance of this decision. If they had taken the time to consult, however, they would know that there is a huge coalition opposed to the decision.

Can the Minister recall a time when such a broad coalition of employers has come together to back a union-led initiative? There is a long list of companies already opposing this decision: the British Ceramic Confederation, Cogent Skills, Ingenuity, British Steel, the Food and Drink Federation, Catapult, Make UK, the Manufacturing Technologies Association, Tesco, LIBERTY Steel, the Workers’ Educational Association, Heathrow airport, Tata Steel, Arla Foods, Milk & More and Müller Milk & Ingredients. How many more organisations need to come out and say that this is a retrograde step?

The challenges of the pandemic demonstrate the urgent need for retraining and upskilling. In Unionlearn, there is the very model of lifelong learning, yet the Government are axing this programme, which supports the learning of over 200,000 workers at a cost of just £12 million a year, while the community learning budget, which is 20 times bigger than Unionlearn, reaches fewer than twice as many people. There could not be a better example of the Government’s not spending money wisely.

This decision is not about the money. The Department has just sent £80 million that was allocated to providing help to retrain back to the Treasury because it could not spend it. This is a Government who rip up the rules on procurement to load cash into the pockets of their friends and Tory party donors, but when it comes to a tiny investment to help workers who earn in a year the sort of money these Ministers will pay as a day rate to consultants, the message from the Government is, “Your career is not worth it.”

My hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell said it is the opposite of a levelling-up approach. It says more about this Government, as my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana said, and more about this Secretary of State than any shiny new initiative. We can all see the truth: this is a decision that pits the Government against 200,000 low-paid workers, it will cost rather than save money, it is the opposite of levelling up, and it stinks. The truth is that the Minister could get to her feet now and confirm that she will cancel this divisive and regressive stupidity, and I hope that she will.