Skills Minister Matthew Hancock pledged £15m of government support for Unionlearn next academic year having been labelled an “enemy” before he addressed the trade union body’s annual conference.

A delegate asked why an MP from “the enemy” had been invited instead of a Labour politician, before Mr Hancock outlined the government’s ongoing support for Unionlearn last Monday (June 23).

The learning and skills arm of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was awarded a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills grant of £18.9m for this academic year — down from £20.2m the previous year.

“Despite tight finances that we all recognise, we’re backing your efforts by providing over £15m of funding for Unionlearn — funding that will continue in 2014 to 2015,” said Mr Hancock.

“In addition, we’ve also protected the £210m annual Community Learning budget — even though finances remain tight — because we know the importance of non-formal learning.

“You deserve credit for reaching out to disadvantaged workers, people who face some of the biggest barriers to accessing in training and development at work, but who arguably have much to gain from it.”

He had also earlier paid tribute to Unionlearn’s network of learning reps. “We want everyone of all ages, especially young people, to benefit from this growth in jobs and opportunities, and that means addressing the urgent need for skills for everyone, adult learners as well as school pupils. I know that we share this goal and we are working together to achieve it,” said Mr Hancock. “We support Unionlearn because you in turn, through 30,000 union learning reps, work to reach deep into the UK workforce to drive up skills.”

The conference took place at London’s Congress House. Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, was one of the speakers. She said recent months had been “tough” after a one-fifth cut in government funding, but said the “professionalism and commitment” of staff had kept the programme alive.

She said: “This year there have been 34 successful bids for new workplace projects, each one different, each one making a difference, and that’s what our work is all about.”

There was also a memorandum of understanding signed during the conference by Unionlearn board chair Dr Mary Bousted and National Extension College (NEC) chief executive Dr Ros Morpeth aimed at making it easier for union members and Union Learning reps to improve skills for work through online and distance learning.

The agreement gives UK trade union members a 10 per cent discount on all NEC courses, including GCSE, IGCSE and A-levels.

Dr Bousted said: “The flexible provision offered by providers like NEC makes it easier than ever for businesses to fit employee development into the workplace.”

Dr Morpeth said: “Our agreement to work more closely with Unionlearn recognises our joint commitment to give more opportunities to learn to people who missed out first time around.”