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Union Learning Fund

Volume 684: debated on Monday 23 November 2020

What discussions he has had with stakeholders in the education sector on his Department’s decision to end the union learning fund in 2021. (909074)

The Government are transforming the provision of skills. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and I regularly meet a diverse spectrum of stakeholders from around the further education sector to hear their views. On Unionlearn specifically, I met the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, on 12 October to discuss this matter and our expanding commitment to skills through the national skills fund. The Secretary of State for Education met Frances O’Grady on 9 November for the very same reason.

Let us head up to Wansbeck with Ian Lavery. [Inaudible.] I think he has been cut off in his prime. I therefore call shadow Minister Toby Perkins.

The recent Westminster Hall debate on Unionlearn was as illuminating for what was not said as for what was. There was no attempt by the Government to pretend that there had been a serious consultation with employers or educators before ceasing funding, nor was there a single Conservative Back-Bench MP willing to turn up to that debate to speak in favour of this cut. Does the Minister realise that no one will believe that the Government are serious about levelling up while they are cutting access to level 2 skills for the lowest paid workers?

This Government are committed to substantial investment in further education, with priority given to qualifications aligned with our economic need, but, as I said during that debate, we need to focus taxpayers’ money on those who need it. With only 11% of users unemployed, Unionlearn simply is not the solution.[Official Report, 30 November 2020, Vol. 685, c. 2MC.] That is why, from April 2021, we will be fully funding the first level 3 qualification for adults who do not currently have a level 3 qualification. As I said during the debate, many of the basic provisions to which Unionlearn signposts learners are available right across the country, and have been available and introduced since Unionlearn was in existence.

This Government have a real strange way of levelling up, and education is no different. Since its creation in 1998 by the Labour Government, the Unionlearn fund has enjoyed cross-party support and the backing of dozens of businesses. It is a flagship policy that costs the Government £12 million and returns £1.4 billion to the economy. It currently supports 200,000 individuals per annum to access learning; it is absolutely huge. Minister, put your cards on the table—this is an out and out attack against the trade union movement and its members. What is it about this hugely successful programme, which helps low-paid working people, that so antagonises the modern Conservative party?

I am the first to recognise that, thanks to the funding provided by the Government, Unionlearn has done good work in directing and supporting people to take advantage of education and training opportunities in the workplace, but with millions in this country still lacking basic skills that they need to progress, we need a solution at scale that can reach everyone, not just those able to access the Unionlearn network. We have therefore created the £2.5 billion national skills fund and the £500 million skills recovery package to transform lives up and down the country, and to build our country back better; and we are making that available to everybody across the country.