From education to employment

By cutting the Union Learning Fund, the government is undermining its own skills agenda

The UK government keeps talking about skills.

Just last week, Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, said that we have an ‘acute shortage’ of skills – a ‘national calamity’ if left unaddressed.

He was right. A skills crisis is looming large across the UK. 

Already this year we have been warned of a digital skills disaster by the Learning & Work Institute, and a ‘large and persistent’ green skills gap by leading construction industry leaders invested in clean growth.

That’s two major, and growing, parts of our changing economy set to be held back, and it will be workers who miss out on future jobs, training and opportunities as a result.

A recent CBI report set out that decarbonisation and green growth alone could create 240,000 jobs. The business group also reiterated the need for innovation, retraining and reskilling to unlock billions of pounds of future investment in our economy.

All of this makes the government’s decision to abruptly end the Union Learning Fund not just wrong but vindictive and illogical, an out and out contradiction of their own ambitions and the urgent skills needs of the UK.

This Fund had been in place for over twenty years, and supported workers with the skills they needed for employment – often reaching some of the most disadvantaged families and parts of the UK.

It made economic sense for the country too. The University of Exeter found that for every £1 spent on union-supported learning and training, the economy received £12.87 back – with close to £8 of that coming from boosts to wages and employment prospects for workers.

With the pandemic fundamentally changing our economy, the Fund was gearing up to equip many workers, including many young workers, with the skills for the industries of the future – like digital and clean growth.

Cutting it was nothing but a cruel blow for thousands of working people. 

And a move entirely counter intuitive to the government’s own ambitions on skills.

Back in March, I met personally with Gillian Keegan, the Skills Minister, to make this case. We discussed the positive impact of the fund, and the support it had provided to workers who might not have had access to educational opportunities.

She could not give me any coherent answer as to why the decision had been taken.

Which means we can only conclude that this is really about playing politics, and optics for the Conservative Party.

The cut is really an ideologically motivated cut to our country’s future – made at the worst possible time during a global pandemic.

It’s also a deliberate effort to bypass the Trade Union movement on an issue that is at the very heart of what we do – standing up for working people, and their future pay, jobs and conditions.

The government seems keen to pursue partnerships with educational institutions, and businesses, to solve the skills shortage. But there is no talk of proper partnerships with the Trade Unions, and the millions of working people we represent across the country.

For the UK’s own future – this just doesn’t make sense.

Championing skills has to be at the heart of any modern, relevant and ambitious Trade Union. In my bid for General Secretary of Unite I am pledging £10 million for a new Skills Fund – and will be prioritising digital skills, green skills and training for our members to equip them for the economy of the future.

It’s part of my plan for real change.

But its also one part of a national effort to solve the skills crisis.

One that would only be strengthened – along with the governments own stated skills agenda – if the Union Learning Fund was still in place. 

It’s time for the government to stop playing politics, and reinstate it now.

The Fund has already supported workers for over 20 years through periods of hardship, and intense change.

Now, more than ever, it is needed to do so again.

Until then empty words on skills from Gavin and this government are simply galling – especially for the thousands of working people who are suffering from this pointless cut.

The government needs to stop contradicting itself and change tack fast.

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