Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)

MR PADDY DOYLE, MR SIMON PILLING AND MS DENYSE METCALF

WEDNESDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2002

  340. They were as aware as you were?
  (Ms Metcalf) I think we were in discussion and aware that there were a number of providers, as I say, at that time some 30 or 40 providers, who warranted further investigation.

  341. We are an old-fashioned Committee, and we want to know when you first spoke to the Department about your concerns. We have to visualise things. When did you pick the phone up? When did you get your cab down to the Department to have a serious conversation? We do need that sort of detail.
  (Ms Metcalf) That was happening before the Spring. During the Spring we went forward with the Department with re-registration for providers.

Ms Munn

  342. Can I follow up on that point? I had not picked that up from the previous evidence we have had. When we looked at the initial contract that was set out, there was a lot of questioning around the form and what providers had to do to be registered. I think I am correct in saying that the Committee were quite shocked at how little information needed to be provided for learning providers to register. You are saying now that in Spring 2001 there was a requirement to re-register. Can you explain what that involved and what additional information compared to the first registration process learning providers were asked to provide?
  (Ms Metcalf) Yes, although I do not have the absolute detail. It was rather more that the emphasis was placed on the providers to recognise that they had a responsibility to pay back funds if they had claimed them inappropriately, whether by accident or whatever other circumstances. What I was trying to illustrate was that this was part of the tightening of the processes that were recognised to need some improvement.

  343. When you say re-registration, did they have to fill in the same form again? I do not understand what you are saying.
  (Ms Metcalf) I am not sure if it was the same form, but they had to sign a commitment to recognise that if monies were not paid correctly, they had to pay those monies back, and that any providers on the register who declined to do that would be taken off the register, and a number of providers were taken off at that time.

  344. So it was not actually a re-registration. It was saying, "If you have taken money that you should not have done, give it back."
  (Ms Metcalf) It was a new commitment between the provider and the Department. In being a member of the scheme, they took on a commitment.

Valerie Davey

  345. Could I go back one step further? Who was responsible for designing the original registration form for the individual ILA holder and the provider? Was that part of your design brief or was the DfES responsible?
  (Ms Metcalf) It was part of the original specification, yes.

  346. For you to provide?
  (Ms Metcalf) For us to provide, and that was then signed off as part of the acceptance criteria.

  347. Can I press you a bit further? From your vast experience, were you not aware originally that they were very open-ended? I think you talk about the need for an open process and a non-bureaucratic one, but surely, with your experience, you should have known originally that those registration forms, which you invited rather than asked for tendering or asked for any verification of, were too flexible.
  (Ms Metcalf) The intention at the time was to encourage new providers to enter the field of education, and therefore there was an open approach. Obviously, with hindsight, some of those providers have betrayed the trust that was put in them at the time.

  348. But surely your experience—and that is what you were employed for—ought to have given you the insight that those forms were too open-ended and that there was the potential therefore for misuse or indeed, as happened, as you say, abuse by registration providers.
  (Ms Metcalf) I am struggling to see how I can respond to that. Certainly, we were aware at the outset of the scheme, and in fact the scheme was operated slightly differently in Scotland. Nevertheless, we went ahead on the basis that a number of providers would register and that the individual purchasing of training would provide that satisfaction level.

  349. In other words, it was left to the individual ILA holders to be monitors of the quality of the provider rather than your professionalism and your paid-for experience giving them the safeguard.
  (Ms Metcalf) There was never any question of us being involved in accrediting any educational establishment at all. That was not part of the remit.

  350. You are not professional accreditors in terms of the educational quality.
  (Ms Metcalf) True.

  351. But looking at the kind of claims that you are making in your booklet: "products and services ensure that our customers' requirements are consistently met, if not surpassed," surely that broad experience in many other exemplary contracts, as far as I can see, ought to have given you the ability to say, "These registration forms both for the individual and the provider are not good enough. They are not quality. They are not preventing the abuse which subsequently occurred."
  (Mr Doyle) That is correct. It is important to get a balance here. Before we actually bid for this contract and won the contract in competition, there was obviously a specification of what the supplier was going to be asked to do in terms of this service, and within that specification there was specified the way in which the scheme in general was required to operate. It was not for us to sit down on our own and design application forms for either a provider or someone wishing to take out a learning account. We could have some say in that, of course, and we have some expertise in that, but we were not the only ones. We were not given a free rein to design the ILA system.

  352. Not the system. I want to come very specifically to the registration forms that the ILA individual holders were going to sign and that the providers were going to sign. Are you saying that those forms were not your responsibility, that you did it jointly with the DfES, or are you saying that it was part of your contract to design and issue those forms against albeit a wider brief in terms of getting more providers in?
  (Mr Doyle) It was for us to design and issue the forms, but it was against a brief that was agreed with the Department and the Department's advisers in terms of how far we wanted to go in terms of asking people for information as part of that scheme.

  353. The DfES paid you a large amount of money to design those forms and get them right.
  (Mr Doyle) The design of the form can be words on a form. What I am saying is that it was not for us. For instance, we could not say that anybody applying for a learning account must also send in their birth certificate and a utility bill. That was not for us to say.

  354. Why not? That is what worries me. I have the forms here. There seems to be no evidential back-up to what people are signing for.
  (Mr Doyle) We are not in a position to define what is effectively government policy of how people applying for these accounts are to be treated.

Chairman

  355. Mr Doyle, you are not a tadpole in this business. You are one of the biggest operators, one of the biggest companies, you have an enormous reputation, and the taxpayers that I represent and members of the Committee represent might think that for a £50 million contract you would have been providing some very sage advice on what would work and what would not.
  (Mr Doyle) I believe we were, but there is a balance that was trying to be achieved here. The balance was open and non-bureaucratic versus closed and bureaucratic. It is something that we all struggle with in the industry today and in terms of working with government and wanting to be open. If you want to encourage people into applying for these things, you want to make it as easy as you possibly can. As soon as you start closing the thing down and asking for things like copies of birth certificates, utility bills or whatever, you start to close the system in terms of the way people apply to it. This is something that is struggled with in general. We do work in other difficult areas. I am sure people will have seen in the press that we work in things like benefits. In providing benefits, there is a wish on everybody's part to make it a much easier operation, so that people who deserve benefit should get it more quickly and all the rest of it. Unfortunately, there are a number of people in this world who claim benefit fraudulently, and when people do that, you have to start to close down the openness of the system to shut out fraud. So what happens with benefit? You start asking people to come along with pieces of paper, and your open, electronic, ease access of things starts to close down because as soon as you say to people you want them to produce a birth certificate and a utility bill, you either have queues at benefit offices while people queue up with their pieces of paper, or you have mountains of paper arriving in the office that you have to go through.

  Chairman: I am wary of getting involved in a close examination of the benefits system. We will stick with Individual Learning Accounts.

Valerie Davey

  356. Surely there was a difference between the individual learning account holder and the provider. I still believe from the evidence I have seen—correct me if you think differently—that there ought from the very outset to have been more scrutiny by you of the provider.
  (Mr Doyle) It was not in our brief to scrutinise providers.

  357. But you were designing the application form.
  (Mr Doyle) We were designing the application form against an agreed criteria with the Department and their advisers.

Chairman

  358. Mr Doyle, that seems a bit worrying to us. In your submission it did seem to me as I read it for the first time that the whole thing added up to, "It's not us, guv." Here was a wonderful explanation as to why it could not possibly be any fault of yours that things went wrong. I would have been much more impressed if there had been more admission that, for the best of reasons, something went wrong, and you made some mistakes. Looking at your annual report, going beyond customers' expectations, being the largest player in this field with the most experience and expertise, right across the board working with central and local government, in a sense I would have thought for £50 million you would have gone above and beyond expectations service. On the other hand, as you read your document and your introduction, everything you say is to the effect of, "We couldn't really do anything about this because it was not in the original terms of the contract."
  (Mr Doyle) I am sorry if our written submission comes across like that, Chairman. It was not meant to come across like that. Of course we make mistakes the same as anybody else, and there are lessons that we can learn from this and mistakes we have made in this. However, at the end of the day, if we had got to a point where we believed that the issues surrounding this were severe enough to stop the system, we are not in a position to cease the ILA system. It is a government process. It is not for us to actually change policy. We can make recommendations. We can discuss it with our partners in terms of where we can strengthen things, but at the end of the day we cannot change something if we are not given permission to do that by our customers. It would be the same whether it was a government contract or a private sector contract or anything else. We can make representations, we can have our bi-weekly or monthly meetings with people, we can go through those agendas and make recommendations, but we cannot change it unless we have permission to do so.

Ms Munn

  359. On this issue of learning providers, were you aware that during the pilot phase of it the only learning providers used were ones which were already known to the TECs?
  (Ms Metcalf) Yes.


 
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