Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 660 - 679)

WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2002

MR PADDY DOYLE, MR SIMON PILLING AND MS DENYSE METCALF

  660. In your contract the ILA website had to be available 90 per cent of each day, otherwise there were penalties. You gave various figures, for example 93.5 per cent, 93.06 per cent and so forth. Are those percentages simply that the website was available or did they take into account of the fact that we heard from a lot of training providers that they would try to log onto the website and they would be in a queue and would never get through? So does the 93 per cent or 95 per cent availability simply mean that the site was operating and the call centre was operating, or did it allow for people in a queue who never got through. So although the site was available 93 or 95 per cent of the time, an awful lot of people were not actually able to get onto it.
  (Mr Pilling) My understanding is that that is saying the site was available and I do believe it also means that people were not queuing, but were able to get through.

Chairman

  661. Just before we leave our intruder, why are you so certain? Some of us here are Hollywood movie buffs and we have seen so many movies which show you can get into a computer in seconds and extract data. Indeed there was a Professor at a research institute in Britain only this week on the Today programme who told us that in a matter of 15 seconds valuable information was stolen. How sure are you that this intruder was harmless or not the sort of intruder who could obtain information from the database.
  (Mr Doyle) It depends on why they are there. If they are there to take something which is valuable and is quickly saleable then what they are after is the chips out of the boxes. A lot is about what they are actually going in to do.
  (Mr Pilling) The point is that you are talking about accessing through a computer system, through a screen, taking information out. You can do very fast things through that. The break-in we alluded to earlier was a physical attack, so therefore you have to lift whole data boards out and that takes a lot of time, you have to unscrew the back of things. It was physical access. You cannot do that in a matter of seconds or even minutes.

Mr Shaw

  662. The lessons learned. We want to move forward, we are not quite sure about the extent to which you are going to be involved in a new ILA, but we are keen that you are involved with the Department in understanding what went wrong and how a new system can be put in place. If I were to ask you what the key issues were for you, perhaps in this meeting this afternoon, what are you going to say to the Department, the key issues for improving a new ILA scheme from your perspective?
  (Ms Metcalf) It is some of the points I made earlier in relation to the provider element where perhaps some of the controls ought to be applied before they are able to join a national ILA database. We would want to see a closer relationship between ourselves and those providers in terms of us being able to ensure that they met appropriate IT security arrangements, that all of them, bearing in mind some of them are quite new providers, who have access to the system have properly trained personnel and that they use the right disciplines in terms of changing ID user access, that they recognise those sorts of disciplines. We would want to be a bit more proactive and a bit more involved in terms of that. Simon might expand in a moment in terms of security. Internally we have quite rigorous system security processes and we have kept a separation of duties and responsibilities between the provider database and the individual database which we would see as appropriate going forward. I suggested earlier we might like to encourage the Department to look at splitting the payment profile, so that although it is a departmental issue we have some way of saying this person has signed up for a course and then a mechanism to check they have actually attended the course, that is had the product delivered, before a second payment is made to the provider. There is a possibility of a scheme link in there where we contact the individual part way through their course and ask them to confirm attendance. That sort of discipline or administration process.

  663. Would that add increased costs?
  (Ms Metcalf) That is why I say it is an element of balance. One might like to link that to the risk profile of the provider. It sounds quite complicated but if you give the providers a risk rating, then you might want to do more checks. You would not need to write to every account holder but you might have a profile which says you write to one in 50 in a long-term public sector body; you might write to one in ten with the new provider. If all of that is positive in the first 12 months, the next 12 months you might only write to one in ten. You can develop a risk register with them in terms of trying to keep an eye on administrative costs, but also ensuring that you have the right sort of mechanisms. We would also want to have a more rigorous information system that would recognise that reporting after the event is perhaps too slow. We need now to look at a system which produces more reactive management information reports, more exception reports, so that should there be any issues we can alert the Department or indeed ourselves to take action.

  Mr Shaw: Thank you very much. It does seem from what you have said that you have many of the solutions at your fingertips and I hope the Department will take heed of those.

Mr Baron

  664. In trying to look forward can I just have your assessment of how practicable ILA 2 is going to be in trying to get a balance right between having a universal approach to Individual Learning Accounts, something that is unbureaucratic, so does not stifle entrepreneurs coming into the market, and at the same time ensuring that there is no abuse of the system? Bearing in mind that we had ILA 1 where you were very experienced players, you had a good working relationship with the government, but it ended up in a shambles, how can we move it forward now? Can we have the universal approach to Individual Learning Accounts but keep it tightly controlled and ensure there is no abuse?
  (Mr Doyle) I believe if we want to continue to get the number of people we got in ILA 1 that it has to be done on some form of national basis. One of the biggest challenges we face, once we really get down to the nitty gritty of this, is how to do that and get the balance you are talking about. If we have everybody running scared in terms of being frightened that somebody is going to make a mistake here or that there will be any abuse at all, it will close this thing down so far that the government will have difficulty spending its money. It is where you move people from that swing I was talking about earlier. In the situation where we find ourselves people move to being very, very protective. It is about getting those discussions moving and finding somewhere in the middle where people say okay, there is risk in there, we understand that there is risk in there but it is risk we believe we can control at a level at which we can live with it. We are still a little way away from that yet. As a private company we would probably be more on the risk side of the things. The Department would come from the more protected side of things. The hope is that between us we can move to something in the middle which gets a sensible balance. We can. The experience is not a great one to have gone through but history is a wonderful teacher. From the experience we have, I think we can get to the balance.

  665. May I just press you on that? Forgive me for being slightly sceptical here in the sense that we have you, a major supplier of help to the government when it came to education services generally, very experienced in the field, good communication, according to you, between you and the Department in question, yet you got it badly wrong. How are you going to make sure, what provisions are you going to introduce this time, which are going to ensure that the ILA 2 is going to succeed this time? What are you specifically going to recommend in order to make sure that we get this balance, if it can be achieved?
  (Mr Doyle) The biggest single factor will be that the business model in ILA 1 was proved to be wrong. I cannot see this time round that we are not going to work through that business model in every which way.

  666. Could you be more specific? When you say the business model was wrong, what do you actually mean?
  (Mr Doyle) The business model in terms of a completely open, non-bureaucratic system with IT systems at the back end which were mirroring that openness was wrong. It did not work. We now have to back off and rebuild a business model which tries to keep the best things from ILA 1 but tries to close down all those things where the business model obviously failed. That would be tested and tested, which I do not believe it was in ILA 1 before the contract was put in place with us or this scheme was delivered.

  667. Does it surprise you that we have only had one successful prosecution?
  (Mr Doyle) It frustrates me; I am not sure it surprises me. Having had a couple of conversations with the police, there are some elements of this where it was very difficult to decide whether it was fraud or not fraud. I do not understand all the elements of that. As a simpleton in it, when I see some of the abuse that went on, it frustrates me that there are not more prosecutions.

  668. Are we going to have a more open, transparent relationship between yourselves and the Department in ILA 2? We had both yourselves and the Department to a certain extent backing each other up but in other respects being critical. At the same time nobody was ever privy to the conversations you had or the warnings you had. Is there some way that those who are interested in this, interested in seeing ILA 2 succeed, can be privy to the communications between the two parties, between yourselves and the Department, to make sure that there is a radar there to highlight potential problems at an early stage?
  (Mr Doyle) I do not think our intention, or the Department's, was not to be open. Both of us found ourselves in a difficult situation over the last few months. As an organisation we are an extremely open organisation with our customers and we are happy to be that way and we shall continue to be that way. We have no objections and we welcome third party involvement in the contracts we have won because you can learn. We do pride ourselves on having experts, but there is always someone somewhere who knows more than you do and who bumped into something last week or the week before. The government have a large number of those specialists themselves. We welcome the opportunity of people coming in and looking at what we are doing and giving constructive criticism or ideas in terms of how we make improvements at that time.

Chairman

  669. In terms of future lessons, we are trying to look at ILAs as the testbed for a private/public sector partnership. One of the frustrating things in what I have heard from both yourselves and from the Government is that in a sense here was a scheme in which you often described yourselves as partners but when we actually push you, you do say you were only responsible for that and they were responsible for that. Then when we try to push as elected representatives at what the contract looked like, the contract is confidential so we really cannot see in detail what the basis of the contract was and we have to take the government's word and your word for that. What frustrates us in a sense is that if you were involved in ILA 2, very much what this Committee would like to understand would be that that was based on a genuine partnership so that as partners, if something goes wrong, you stand together and say together, corporately, you made a mistake. In a sense that has been the frustration of some of the evidence we have had from yourselves and the government. What we are trying to push, for example if you are now going to be advising in a much broader way on ILA 2, is that if we ever wanted to come back to it, because we hope the next time we see you will be when ILA 2 is a great success—you, or whoever, are in partnership with government—we would be pushing you to explain the lessons of the success rather than the failure. Can you see what we are pushing to? Here is a very interesting point of public policy which has implications right across a number of departments and where we are trying to get is what went wrong with this one, to learn from the lessons and then also from our point of view how we in future find out, make you accountable, so that we can scrutinise what went on. Do you have any suggestions how that could better happen?
  (Mr Doyle) We would welcome that approach. I am not sure who would do it, whether a third party in its widest sense, not us and not the Department, but if something were set up where some body wanted to come in and see what was going on, how we were progressing, how we were knocking over issues between us, then we would welcome that. There have been comments about the way we and the Department may have behaved over recent weeks. We have worked closely with the Department, we have considered ourselves close partners with the Department. We have both been tested over recent months. A lot of stuff has been thrown about, some of which is true and a lot of which is not true, but it still hits papers. We are a good company. The Department have their responsibilities. It tests it. On the whole we have come through it not too badly really, but it is a test and it is difficult, a difficult time. We would most certainly welcome that open approach.

  670. Why I pressed you at the beginning was that you have just said you have come through it not too badly, but there are an awful lot of people out there who are casualties, lying about the place, whom we have to restore to health. We have to bring them back into provision of training, we have to re-energise them into being excited about ILA 2. Let me give you two examples. When we see you again, we will want to know, for example, if you are involved in ILA 2, what you said about dead weight. We are very concerned as a Committee about this term dead weight. We would hate to see an ILA 2 specifically only going for those people who have never had any training. Some of us believe that would ghettoise training. One of the refreshing things about ILA 1 was that it was open to all. It was open access; something many of us in the field have been looking for for a very long time. In a sense what we want you to be able to say is that you gave that advice, you are a very experienced organisation, you spoke to the Department, you are changing cultures here. Also you are saying to the Department that speed is of the essence. You remarked that you had come through it all right. A lot of people have not and need action soon.
  (Mr Doyle) I was really referring to the partnership between us and the Department; that the partnership has been tested and has stood up reasonably well. That is what I was referring to. Your point is extremely well taken and the people out there who are having difficulties do exist and there is no-one more than we who would like to see this move forward at speed. It is the best thing for all of us to get something underway again as soon as we possibly can.

Mr Shaw

  671. When you go round to Great Smith Street this afternoon and you are discussing the new ILA, do you think there is a strong argument for retaining that brand name? It is something people are familiar with and companies spend lots of money branding themselves and re-branding themselves.
  (Mr Doyle) I am not an expert on marketing or branding but my own view is that whilst tarnished, I do not think it is dead. It still has a value.
  (Ms Metcalf) I would agree with that.

  Chairman: No suggestions for a new brand name?

Mr Shaw

  672. A Doyle, a Metcalf.
  (Mr Doyle) No, please, there are enough Doyles in the world.

Valerie Davey

  673. Your comment about welcoming someone to oversee fills me with horror in one sense. I do not want to see yet another accounting firm or somebody else coming into market to get their cut in this and make it more expensive. Last time you were with us, you suggested that because the monitoring of the provider and now the monitoring of the product was so important perhaps there should be someone, since you were not that person, who was the educational expert. When I put this to the Minister he did admit that the DfES ought perhaps to be the educational quality assurance people. Do you think there should be someone else in that triangle as it would then become, doing that specific role for the DfES?
  (Ms Metcalf) It might be useful purely from an operational perspective because it is a very practical thing. Although I am sure the Department would want to be involved in setting the protocols and the standards, you are talking about quite a hands-on role and I am not sure that is one the Department would want to get involved in on a personal basis or whether they would go through other agencies.

  674. Like the LSCs?
  (Ms Metcalf) Possibility.

  675. You are still concerned that that area is of such importance that there really does need to be someone other than the DfES involved.
  (Ms Metcalf) It is recognised that it is an important area. I am not saying it would necessarily have to be other than the DfES. I am saying it is quite a hands-on role.

  676. Is that part of the discussions which are now going on in the DfES?
  (Ms Metcalf) Yes.

  677. It is. I want to end my comments with the urgency again. Have you any idea when, as far as you are concerned, all of this is going to come to fruition either with you or without you? Is there anything in your mind that gives you a timescale? Is it months, is it weeks, is it years?
  (Ms Metcalf) We have staff in place, so we are very hopeful that something might happen.

  678. We are desperate that something happens now, as of, certainly this September. If it goes beyond this September, then we have not only lost a year but we have lost so much goodwill and in terms of the providers in some cases their livelihoods. Where is the urgency? What do you have in mind?
  (Mr Doyle) There is urgency. I have no idea of a date. It has not been our place to push too hard in recent weeks. We are pushing, we would like to see movement, we have people in place and we are going to leave them in place as long as we possibly can so that we can pick up things quickly. I doubt that it would be weeks; if it is years that is too long and it will all be away and gone. We now have to push hard and we have a role in this, if the Department are going to allow us to play that role, in terms of giving people the confidence to move so that we do not have people too frightened to move because of the issues which were around in ILA 1. We have to work very hard in trying to knock those issues down and give people the confidence to move. That is what I see as our role now.

Chairman

  679. May I give you some advice on quality assurance and a good brand to be associated with? I hope you will take this seriously. The Open University. The Open University has an outstanding reputation for quality and quality assurance. Speaking to the relevant people in the Open University may be very valuable. I have to say that brand of the Open University is one which over 30 years has built up an enormous reputation of respect and prestige. In a sense it would give some je ne sais quoi, that feeling of excellence. One of the problems in ILA which came out in some of your evidence and something the Minister said yesterday was that you had an ILA but what was the brand. Everyone who has taken even a short course in the OU has a feeling that they are somebody and in a sense the next step for our ILA is to have that kind of feel: "I did ILA and I got it" and it is something to be very proud of. I do hope you will talk to someone at the Open University.
  (Mr Doyle) A point well made.


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 17 April 2002