Refusal to save Union Learning Fund “blatantly partisan”, say trade unions

Andrew Kersley

Trade unions have criticised the government’s refusal to back down on slashing support to the Union Learning Fund (ULF) and argued there were “blatantly partisan reasons” that the union-brokered training scheme was being wound down.

The FBU has argued that the Tories are too partisan on the issue and “see any programme linked to unions as another enemy in their ideological battle” after ministers stood by plans to axe the ULF in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday.

The TUC suggested that the government’s ongoing refusal to continue support for the scheme, which contributes more to the Treasury each year than it takes out, was “bizarre” and like “taking your star player off the field on a big match day”.

The parliamentary debate on Wednesday followed controversial comments on the ULF by Gavin Williamson. The Education Secretary declared that he would not apologise for cutting funding to a scheme that “channelled money into the TUC”.

The ULF was set up in 1998 to offer increased access to learning and training in workplaces in an agreement brokered by trade unions. Last year, it supported 200,000 learners – both union members and non-members.

Commenting on the decision to cut the ULF and Williamson’s statement, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “The revealing comments from Tory ministers lay bare their blatantly partisan reasons for scrapping the Union Learning Fund.

“The Union Learning Fund is a common-sense policy that provides huge returns to the Exchequer and the wider economy. It gives workers the means to upskill, retrain and gain qualifications and it’s targeted to them through workers’ organisations, not some abstract government agency.

“But this Tory government don’t want to listen to reason, facts, expert advice or economic sense. They just see any programme linked to unions as another enemy in their ideological battle.”

The general secretary of the firefighters’ union concluded: “It’s a shameless slash and burn approach to policy that will only harm working people at a time when many are at their most vulnerable.”

In a Westminster Hall debate discussing higher education funding on Wednesday, Labour shadow apprenticeships minister Toby Perkins argued that the decision was “vindictive” and showed the “state’s antipathy towards the trade union sector.”

His government counterpart defended the decision to cut the ULF by saying ministers were just trying to “streamline the delivery partners” it used and said it would be “simpler for people to get easy and broader access” under a new scheme.

The government announced plans to cut the £12m annual fund last month, just days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered a speech stressing the importance of training to help combat the damage of Covid.

An independent evaluation of the scheme in 2018 found it had given 68% of learners a qualification after having never had one previously, and that it had offered 80% of users skills that could transfer to a new job.

The report found that 53% of employers saw an increase in employees with qualifications, 77% said union learning had a positive impact on their workplaces and 68% said unions could reach otherwise reluctant employees.

The analysis also showed that for every £1 spent on the ULF workers gained £7.60 through better pay, employers gained £4.70 through higher productivity and the government gained £3.57 through welfare savings and revenue increases.

Commenting on the ongoing campaign to save the fund, TUC head of learning and skills Kevin Rowan said: “We’re having discussions with ministers on their proposal to end the Union Learning Fund.

“Ending it would set back the government’s own skills goals with the loss of up to 200,000 learning opportunities each year. It has exceeded its targets, it boosts the economy and brings a net return to the Treasury – so ending it would set back our economic recovery too at the worst time to do so.

“Employers like Tesco, Heathrow, Hinkley Point C and Tata Steel are lobbying the government to save it too. They tell us that it has played a tremendously valuable role in improving the skills and motivation of their workforce…

“Ending it now when new skills are such a vital part of the recovery is just bizarre – like taking your star player off the field on a big match day.”

UNISON head of learning Teresa Donegan mirrored the TUC’s comments saying that the cuts to the scheme were a “real tragedy”, especially given that “training will be key to getting the country back onto its feet after the pandemic”.

The government’s plan to cut the ULF comes despite the Prime Minister stressing the importance of retraining and reskilling amid Covid-19. He has launched a new adult education scheme, the ‘lifetime skills guarantee’.

The new adult and lifelong learning scheme will offer funding for college courses to adults in England without an A-level or equivalent qualification. Only those aged under 23 currently qualify for a fully-funded qualification of this type.

Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green commented at the time that the government’s proposals were just a “mix of reheated old policies” and highlighted that funding for the new training would not be made available until next April.

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