Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480-499)

MR PADDY DOYLE, MR SIMON PILLING AND MS DENYSE METCALF

WEDNESDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2002

  480. What was that?
  (Ms Metcalf) From memory, I think it was seven days.[2]

  Chairman: You must never believe my Committee Members when they say "finally"!

Mr Baron

  481. Just returning to this issue about nobody seemed to be taking responsibility for scrutinising the providers, in answer to a question earlier in this session, a question from me actually, you are saying that, as far as you were concerned, and I want to be absolutely clear about this because I have also raised this issue with the relevant Government Minister, they, the Government, were responsible for scrutinising providers, as far as you were concerned, when it came to the contract, so you had, as far as you were concerned, no real interest in scrutinising providers, and you were just the recipient of all the applications. Is that right?
  (Mr Doyle) Scrutiny of providers was outside our remit.

  482. Sorry
  (Mr Doyle) It was outside our remit.

  483. That was stated in the contract, the contract with the Department?
  (Mr Doyle) I have not got a contract in front of me, but it was outside our remit.

  484. So, as far as you were concerned, it was the Government's or somebody else's responsibility, and you said it was the Government's responsibility in answer to a previous question?
  (Mr Doyle) Whether it was the Government's responsibility, it was outside our remit.

  Mr Baron: Having said that, you suddenly had this—

  Mr Turner: I am sorry to interrupt, but Ms Metcalf was nodding and Mr Doyle was giving a different answer.

  Mr Baron: I was about to follow this up in the sense that I am just getting slightly mixed signals here. One minute you are saying to me earlier in the session that, as far as you were concerned, it was the Government's responsibility and now you are saying it was somebody else's. Whether it was the Government's or not, I am getting one person nodding and the other person saying, "No, that's not the case". Can we have a definitive answer?

Chairman

  485. Nodding is actually not on the record.
  (Ms Metcalf) Can I apologise. I agree entirely with what Paddy has said, that it is not within the remit of the contract. I am sorry if I nodded in the wrong place.

Mr Baron

  486. So, as far as you were concerned, it was the Government's responsibility and you just processed the applications?
  (Ms Metcalf) Registrations.

  487. What you are also saying is that you were aware, and you put your hands up here, that it was open to fraudulent use and what you should have done is spoken up more in your meeting with the Government.
  (Mr Doyle) We became aware.

  488. Finally, Chairman—and I do mean finally—can I pin you down on this point. You became aware, you have admitted, that you have not done enough to raise it with the Government, but are there any minutes of any meetings to suggest that you raised it with the Government at appropriate times, so that we could certainly use that information to help us to get to the source of this problem when we came to question the Government Ministers themselves?
  (Mr Doyle) I have been through a great deal of documentation in the last few days. I am not sure what we have in terms of minutes and what we do not have. As I said to the Chairman earlier, I am happy for any of those minutes and records to be made available, but there are two parties involved here and I think the Chairman said at the time that "If it was okay with the Department, it would be okay with you." I repeat that.

  Chairman: Perhaps we can now talk about customer service, to tidy up that point.

  Paul Holmes: On customer service, when Denyse Metcalf was describing the complaints system that you have, there were a couple of people in the audience behind you, who are training providers who have given evidence to us in the last few weeks, who were shaking their heads in disbelief.

  Chairman: I do not think you are allowed to say that.

Paul Holmes

  489. All the evidence we have received in this Committee, in formal evidence and in letters as MPs and so forth, is that people are very, very frustrated at dealing with the ILA call centre. There is one here saying that "the turnaround times from Capita were unacceptable"; another one saying that "There was no complaints mechanism at all" and so forth. One that is worth reading is from Dataplus Computer Services saying, "In the course of our business we have had occasion to call technical support and call centres and in terms of usefulness the ILA Centre had to be right at the bottom of the list." So looking at a range of centres provided by the different companies, they say you were right at the bottom of the list, in their experience. They say, "We called often about a range of topics but nearly always found it a frustrating experience. It was difficult to believe that they were our contact into a multi-million pound government scheme." You were saying earlier that there are bonus and penalty schemes in your contract, is that right?
  (Mr Doyle) Penalty, not bonus.

  490. From this evidence, it would appear that there are some penalties.
  (Mr Doyle) There are penalties, yes.

  491. Will there be any penalties applied, do you know, and should there be, in terms of what a wide range of users are saying about the slowness and the difficulty of complaining, the difficulty of getting any answer other than a yes or a no on the phone?
  (Mr Doyle) As I mentioned earlier, we did go through some times where we fell behind service levels. They were the times when we were receiving extremely high, unexpectedly high, volumes, and we did fall into service penalties, yes.

  Chairman: Jonathan, you wanted to ask a quick question on customer service.

Mr Shaw

  492. Yes. We were advised by one of our witnesses that she was refused an opportunity to talk to a supervisor or to customer services. You said, Ms Metcalf, that the majority of complaints were from learners rather than learning providers. This witness was a learning provider.
  (Ms Metcalf) I cannot comment on individual circumstances.

  493. This is a theme on which we have had reams of evidence presented to us. My desk is bowing under the weight of evidence which has been provided. This is a persistent theme: the learning providers are the ones blowing the whistle on the cowboys. They are saying to us that you were not listening and you were not passing that on to the Department. What do you say?
  (Ms Metcalf) I can only say that that is not the case. Where a complaint came to our attention in relation to a provider, we did pass that on to the Department. We had a clear process which we had had drawn up with them to ensure that they received for their investigation any names of providers that may be receiving a number of complaints against them.

  494. What has been the turnover of customer services staff?
  (Ms Metcalf) Our customer services staff turnover is normally about 8 or 9 per cent, which compares with an industry norm which is much nearer 20 per cent. We do pride ourselves on retaining, and ensuring that we keep, our customer services staff. Obviously that is not the case as we sit here today, because that was the element that was seen by people who have gone, but during the period the turnover was not excessively high.

Valerie Davey

  495. One thing we all want in this room today is the re-launch of this scheme. In your written evidence you are very specific in listing some of the lessons that we have learnt. It is interesting that you start with "Prior-accreditation and verification of learning providers". The first question I want to ask on that very specifically is, who would do that? Secondly, you go on to say, "particularly those who wish to be approved for provision of distance learning". We have not covered in our discussion specifically distant learners. Therefore, first of all, who would verify and accredit in your brave new world, and secondly, have we missed something in perhaps there being a specific problem with distance learning providers?
  (Ms Metcalf) To take the second point first, if I may, the extra caveat on distance learning providers is that because they have no fixed premises it is more difficult to pin them down; also in terms of the investigations or the management information one might provide, their population is drawn from across the country, so one cannot easily see a pattern there that might cause a problem in terms of looking at exception reports. That is one of the reasons why we have argued that perhaps it is more important that you do see that they have an establishment and indeed that they can deliver learning of the appropriate quality.

  496. Since you are saying, "This is a lesson that we have learnt", is this something which you again flagged with the Government? At what stage did you flag up that here was an area which perhaps needed more scrutiny than the local providers?
  (Ms Metcalf) I think that area emerged in discussions with the Department. I do not know at this point whether it was raised by them or by us. We did work as a very, very close team during the summer months.

  497. Are you able to indicate whether this is the grouping batch which the huge question-mark is over in connection with the fraud?
  (Ms Metcalf) With the abuse of the scheme? I am not sure. Again, those are matters which will have been pursued by the Department.

  498. Then can we come back to the first point? Who are you imagining will do the prior—this interesting word—prior-accreditation and verification of learning providers?
  (Ms Metcalf) I can only offer a personal comment on that, and that would be an organisation who would understand education quality. That is not something which, within the remit of our contract, we were asked to do, but I am sure there are bodies out there who put themselves forward as being able to make a good judgement of appropriate education.

  499. So are you saying there ought to have been another contract let; that you are not in fact the educational expertise which the Government needed, you are an IT provider, not an educational assessment provider in any way?
  (Ms Metcalf) I thought we were talking about the future in terms of the proposal.


2   Note from Witness: This is the correct figure. Back


 
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