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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:46 am on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 10:46 am, 18th November 2020

I will not, but the hon. Lady will get three minutes at the end. I only have limited time; I think she knows that I would usually.

Unionlearn is a signpost to learning opportunities. I would be selling it short if I did not recognise that it has provided support, mentoring and advice to people over the years, but times and needs change. We need a solution at scale. Unionlearn was set up to help individuals to find out about and access training opportunities.

In 2006, only about a quarter of people in the UK used the internet every day. There was low-speed connectivity and smartphones were new—Apple launched the iPhone only in 2007. Now, more than 80% of households have high-speed broadband and a smartphone, which has driven a change in behaviour. People can access all kinds of information online. They can sign up for training online and take courses online, which was unimaginable 14 years ago. There has been a massive change in the information and basic courses that are available.

In some ways, covid-19 has accelerated that behaviour. FE provision went online—I joined virtual lessons during lockdown—and we have established a skills toolkit. People can go online to find things out. There has been a clear behaviour change in less than two decades, which means that there are now many ways to get support and information. On top of all that, there is an evolving adult entitlement that means that everybody is entitled to digital skills as well as English and maths.

There will always be a need for some personal support, which is why the skills recovery package includes £32 million of extra support for people to get more help from the National Careers Service. Today, it does not make sense to fund Unionlearn, with an additional set of admin costs, to support particular individuals in a unionised environment, while we have unprecedented access to information online, support from careers services and a basic entitlement.

We also want people to be more ambitious in their aspirations. English, maths and digital skills are essential, but are not enough for many people to secure the career or job that they want. That is why the Prime Minister has announced, as part of the lifetime skills guarantee, that adults lacking a level 3 qualification, equivalent to an A-level, will be fully funded from April 2021.

The size of the challenge is such that it requires significant investment and solutions. Small-scale inter- ventions will not suffice. That is why we have announced the creation of a £2.5 billion national skills fund to run over the lifetime of this Parliament. That is why we have set up a £500 million skills recovery package to support and encourage employers to offer apprenticeships and traineeships, to expand threefold the sector-based work academy programme and to help more than a quarter of a million more people to get advice and guidance on careers. That is why, against the backdrop of £3 billion of funding to support large-scale national investment in further education that will work flexibly for working people, it simply does not make sense to continue to support a niche Unionlearn offer.

I am enormously grateful for the support and consideration that the hon. Member for Nottingham South has given today, and she will have her time to respond. She has raised some important concerns about adult learning and access to skills, and it is clear that the Government share them. We have considered how the union-led fund might have addressed these, but we must go further than this model.

The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that everybody, irrespective of who they are or where they come from, whether they are working in a unionised environment or not, can get the qualifications and skills they need to progress. That is the only way that we are going to build back better, meet our net zero by 2050 target and recover from the global pandemic. With £3 billion of support for further education, Members should be in absolutely no doubt that, as learners progress, this Government will be there with them, now and in the future, every step of the way.

I know that Members are disappointed, that they support Unionlearn and that many of them have had involvement with this model, but we cannot limit the scale of our ambition or limit access, when it is a basic entitlement for every adult in this country, which has been provided since and after Unionlearn was set up. These things are widely available in all communities, to those who are working or not working, and to those in unionised environments or non-unionised environments. They are available to everybody, and we must make sure that we are there to encourage people to come forward. There is a lot of information available now, in every way.

We are committed to training adults in this country. We are investing more than we ever have, but it needs to be a large-scale solution to a large-scale problem.