HC Deb 20 January 2000 vol 342 cc967-9
9. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

What steps his Department is taking to support the role of trade unions in developing skills. [103683]

10. Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

What steps his Department is taking to support the role of trade unions in developing skills. [103684]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

We have made £12 million available to all trade unions. What we are doing involves 100 projects, and 50 unions working with employers. They have already managed to provide basic skills and development courses for 200,000 employees. That has introduced new possibilities for negotiation and bargaining in the workplace, brought together employers and trade unions in regard to the positive skills agenda, and ensured that more than 1,000 learning representatives have been appointed throughout the work force.

Mr. Pike

I welcome the establishment of the union learning fund, but how many other unions might be able to take advantage of it, and what will be the priority in tackling the need for basic skills?

Mr. Blunkett

The programme has been massively oversubscribed by trade unions wishing to be part of it. As I have said, it involves unions working with employers and, in many instances, working together. Basic skills, including skills in information technology, are a key priority.

It is entertaining to note that the Transport and General Workers Union, working with colleges in the north-west of England, is using transport cafés to lay on information and communication technology courses for road hauliers and coach drivers who are stopping off for half an hour—thus bringing about an entirely new version of "chips with everything".

Ms Morgan

Women now constitute 47 per cent. of the work force and 46 per cent. of trade union membership. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that the principles of equal opportunity apply to all applications to the fund, so that women will have an opportunity to fulfil themselves through the trade union movement?

Mr. Blunkett

I can give that assurance. We are keen for part-time workers to be able to take advantage of the scheme. Along with the local trust in Ipswich and Gardner Merchant, Unison has provided an across-the-board programme of basic in-service training. The National Union of Teachers, working with the Royal College of Midwives, has introduced an exemplary scheme offering information and communications technology training for its members in continuing professional development.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I want to ask about the development of skills by trade unions in my county of Leicestershire. I have here a document sent to me by the six teachers' unions, expressing their wish to develop skills in Leicestershire schools. They say that, unfortunately, because of the reduction in standard spending assessment, 39 per cent. of secondary schools are reducing staff and, moreover, that 30,000 secondary pupils will be in larger classes next year.

Given the desire of trade unions to develop skills and education, will the Secretary of State address the problems that they have raised, which result from a reduction in the education SSA? Furthermore, instead of waffling on about reducing class sizes for children aged five, six and seven, will he accept that class sizes for all other age groups are increasing in Leicestershire and elsewhere?

Mr. Blunkett

First, I will not accept that. Secondly, the SSA has not been reduced, and nor has the revenue support grant to match it. The SSA is going up by 5.3 per cent., and the Department has directly invested £50 million in addition to that. Over the spending review period, there will be a real-terms increase of 16 per cent. on education, twice as much as the last Government invested throughout the last Parliament.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

As a member of the proletariat and a strong supporter of constructive trade unionism, and recognising that no one in the country has done more to create the climate in which such trade unionism can flourish than my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Tebbit of Chingford, may I assure the Secretary of State that Conservative Members accept that unions can assist in developing skills?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept two straightforward points from me? First, whatever unions' inputs to the bargaining for skills programme, employee development schemes, the learning and skills councils and the union learning fund, we will soon need evidence from an independent report of their outputs in terms of the creation of new jobs. Secondly, will the Secretary of State accept that, given that only 19 per cent. of private sector employees are members of trade unions, it is imperative that training should be led by businesses small, medium and large?

Mr. Blunkett

That is precisely why we have indicated that at least 40 per cent. of the places on the new learning and skills councils will be for those who have immediate or immediate past experience of business and commerce. Just to put the record straight for the London TEC Council, a total of £5 billion is going into adult learning.

I accept that Lord Tebbit has enormous experience of trade unionism from the British Air Line Pilots Association. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the association will have access to those funds. What we will not be able to do is use the resources to train people to ride bicycles.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the different tradition of the Workers Educational Association and university extramural education for trade unionists, from which at least three Members who are currently in the House have benefited and from which many others have benefited in the past? Is anything being done to refurbish and remobilise that tradition, which has significant benefit in the spin-off for communities in that non-vocational education is developed?

Mr. Blunkett

Through the national learning and skills councils, the WEA will, for the first time, have direct access to overall national resources, which will be a major boon in sorting out the current disparities in funding throughout the country. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we are keen to learn from the experience of the extramural provision from which he and others have benefited and to replicate it through the residential colleges, which continue to do an excellent job in providing mature students with adult learning on access and diploma courses, which often lead to people not only going into higher education, but returning to the workplace and their community to which they can then contribute the skills and potential that they have been able to develop on those courses.