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Adult Learning: Union Learning Fund

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the benefits of adult learning delivered through the Union Learning Fund.

My Lords, the annual £12 million grant has allowed the Union Learning Fund to support around 200,000 people a year to access education and training opportunities. An assessment for Unionlearn by Exeter and Leeds universities found that Unionlearn’s activities generated a return of £12.24 for every £1 of funding. However, a 2015 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report found that each £1 of government investment in FE and skills as a whole produced a return of £14.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Since their inception just over 20 years ago, union learning schemes have proved very successful, not least because of their mentoring systems. Having promoted schemes on behalf of the Open University and then when I was leader of Newcastle City Council, I know from personal experience that they work. Might the Government look closely at the evidence that many low-paid workers develop their career prospects through union learning schemes? Would the Minister agree that union learning should be seen as a key part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda?

My Lords, the Government recognise fully the good work that Unionlearn has done with the funding it has provided in directing and supporting people to take advantage of education and training opportunities in the workplace. However, with millions of people in this country still lacking the basic skills that they need to progress, we need a solution at scale that can reach everyone, not just those able to access Unionlearn. We have created the £2.5 billion national skills fund and the £500 million skills recovery package to do just that.

My Lords, I, along with other Members of the House, was extremely pleased to receive the letter from the Prime Minister in September setting out the Government’s plans for increasing and improving FE provision. However, the letter did not say that that was to be funded in part by the loss of money currently given to the Union Learning Fund. A different taint would have been put on the letter had it been a little more open about that matter. The noble Baroness has already agreed that the Union Learning Fund reaches a group of people who have not been touched by other systems and measures—people who learn from concentrating along with colleagues who support them and give them confidence. What is the Department for Education going to do to ensure that these new ideas actually reach those people who, in the past, prior to the Union Learning Fund, were not reached at all?

My Lords, in addition to Unionlearn, the European Social Fund has a lot of provision in place to make sure that those who are hardest to reach for skills training access it. That provision continues until 2023 and will then be replaced by the UK shared prosperity fund, where the Government have committed to matching the existing level of funding going into the future.

My Lords, we are all delighted to hear of the additional money going into FE—one wonders how that will pan out. However, as the noble Baroness already said, the Union Learning Fund reached people who are not otherwise reached by learning—250,000 of them, currently. Can the Minister say why this decision has been taken at this stage? Could it be seen as a politically motivated attack on trade unions and their members across the country, who are the very people who benefit from this tremendous fund?

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Baroness that it is absolutely not a political decision. Many Conservative Governments have supported Unionlearn over the years with over £70 million of funding. The decision was taken based on the fact that we want to increase the scale and reach of our offer. The £2.5 billion national skills fund is illustrative of our ambitions in this area. One of the limitations of Unionlearn is that it is reliant on a trade union presence in the workplace, which can often be more focused on larger employers. For example, it does not necessarily reach unemployed or self-employed people, start-ups, tech, and many more small and medium-sized businesses that do not have union representation.

My Lords, given that not just individual trade unions but major employers such as Tesco, Heathrow, Tata Steel, and indeed many others, have raised concerns, can my noble friend tell us what discussions there have been with the TUC and the CBI about the future of the Union Learning Fund?

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education met Frances O’Grady of the TUC to discuss this very matter in November.

My Lords, in a fast-changing world we have to adapt and learn new skills to survive. The Union Learning Fund has helped many to do this. Does the Minister agree that it makes no sense to end this valuable way into adult learning, costing only £12 million a year, while increasing spending by billions on defence against imaginary enemies?

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord. In fact, we are spending billions of pounds on funding for skills and training, through a combination of the national skills fund and the skills recovery package, to make sure that people can get access to the support they need at this very important time.

My Lords, while I do not believe that the Minister herself had a hand in it, she has been sent out to defend what is nothing less than a gratuitous attack on trade unions and their members. We have heard about the benefits—indeed she expounded them herself in answer to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Shipley—in cost terms alone, which take away any basis for this decision. Participating employers have urged the Secretary of State to reverse his decision, without success. Why did the Government fail to carry out in advance of their announcement any consultation with employers, trade unions, further education institutions or, indeed, anyone?

My Lords, the funding for Unionlearn has been on a year-on-year basis and was considered as part of the spending review. It was considered right that we gave Unionlearn advance notice of the decision. I disagree with the noble Lord on our work with trade unions. We have worked with trade unions on the Government’s industrial strategy, on the Low Pay Commission and on the Good Work Plan. We have worked with them and listened to them. We have taken a particular decision in respect of this fund to deliver the scale and reach that we need across the country.

My Lords, the Minister talks about this not being as good value for money as other schemes. What other scheme would be able to go into the workplace of a worker who is trapped in a low-skilled job without the basic requirements to get out of that job? When it comes to other projects, what start-up in the IT sector—she said that it could not reach them—needs basic English, basic maths and basic IT support?

I believe that I have already pointed noble Lords towards the European Social Fund work in this area. Another provision that the Government make is through the National Careers Service. I reassure the noble Lord that, with respect to people on low wages, the Government have extended eligibility for those who are in work but on low wages to access fully funded adult education, whereas in previous years this was co-funded .

Adult learning is life-affirming, but the unemployment rate among those from BAME backgrounds is at 8.5%, almost twice that of their white counterparts. What more are the Government planning to do to help remove barriers to adult education and employment for those from BAME backgrounds?

My Lords, I believe that education and employment is one of the topics that the Prime Minister’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is looking at. The noble Lord talked about those who are unemployed needing access to adult education. That is absolutely right, and one of the challenges with Unionlearn is that only 11% of users are actually unemployed.

My Lords, I congratulate Unionlearn on its tremendous work. I also congratulate the Government on their £2.5 billion national skills fund. Following the question from my noble friend Lord Bourne, can the Minister give us some idea of what happened in the discussions with the unions in November and whether any consideration might be given to absorbing some of the Unionlearn operations into the national skills fund?

My Lords, I was not party to those conversations. However, on taking forward the national skills fund and the lifetime skills guarantee, we are obviously consulting with businesses and with people across the sector about their effective operation, and we will continue to take that approach.

I declare my interest in the Big Issue. We have started something called the Ride Out Recession Alliance, which is working with unions, businesses, local authorities and politicians. This is the time for solidarity. May I suggest that it would be a waste of money to cut this fund at the moment, because the unions—Unite and all the other unions—are getting behind the whole idea that we all have to have solidarity in the workplace and in training over the next 20 years, if not more?

My Lords, on the delivery of skills provision, the Government have taken the decision not to continue this funding, but that does not represent a cut to the funding of skills provision overall. In fact, this is being increased and we are making sure that it is available to a wider group of people.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this is a splendid example of co-operation and collaboration between employers and the unions? I notice that she did not answer one of her noble friend’s questions about how much consultation there was with employers; she only mentioned the TUC. My evidence is that employers are very upset about this change. Moreover, would she agree that increasing the scale and reach of the offer on training, which she keeps referring to, should not stop a small but successful scheme, where independent evaluators have shown just how high the return is on expenditure and how far it benefits those who are particularly hard to reach?

My Lords, I believe that I have acknowledged the return on investment, but, as I also pointed out, the return on investment in FE in general is slightly higher than in Unionlearn. Of course, it is for businesses and trade unions to keep working together, if they so wish, to provide training for their employees; that is something that the Government would welcome.