Examination of Witnesses (Questions 144
WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002
144. I have to state that Bert Clough and I
are old friends. We worked together when I was a shadow education
spokesperson for the Labour Party and he has worked for the Labour
Party. Greetings to all of you, but Bert and I know each other
extremely well. I welcome James Rees, Liz Smith and Bert Clough
and say how grateful we are to you for giving us your time. I
do not want all of you to make an opening statement, but, Liz,
perhaps you would like to start.
(Ms Smith) I have a few points to make
to put our role in context. Unions were particularly interested
in ILAs because of the way in which potentially they empower the
individual learner, worker, or employee. We saw the potential
for them to play an important part in our work, which is now widespread,
to see the union role bringing more people into learning and skills
and widening participation, particularly in the workplace. We
thought that ILAs would help in terms of making that learning
affordable. As John Rodgers indicated, we did not see the ILAs
as a stand-alone policy. We did not see ourselves as being salespeople
for ILAs. We did not go out to get volumes. We wanted to see them
assist unions and employers to meet objectives and we would encourage
them to use them. One particular point is that they played an
important role, as found in a recent survey, in helping people
who had a basic skills problem, for which you do not need ILAs,
to have, if you like, an exit strategy into further learning.
That is very important to us, given the number of people in the
workforce with basic skills needs. We found that where people
used ILAs, for example for ICT, it was a good mechanism for picking
up basic skills issues and assisting them to address those issues.
The key things that unions did overall differs in different contexts,
and that depends on the union representative at the workplace,
particularly union learning representatives. Typically, they would
assist people at work to secure, and if they wanted, to fill in
the ILA application form. They would help them in that practical
way. They would be trained to do this. They would give them some
initialI stress the word "initial"information
and advice about how they might use their ILA. Usually that would
be based on a learning needs survey that would be done at the
workplace that would identify what people wanted to learn, what
they thought their strengths were and so on. What is important
is that they would work with partner providers with whom they
may already have links or whom they would identify to further
the learning programme to ensure that there was value for money
and to ensure that there was some kind of quality assurance and
feedback. They would help with signposting to learning. More particularlyand
this was so with some of the TEC pilotswhere possible they
would work with careers services to get some professional advice
or guidance at that stage. In the early pilots, particularly in
the south-west and the north-west, all the learners, all the employees
who opened an ILA and used them had a professional advice and
guidance session, not from the supplier, but from an objective
source. At first, they were a bit reluctant, but in terms of feedback,
100 per cent of them said that that was absolutely vital to how
they progressed. The final point is that usually that work was
part of a learning partnership at work.
145. I do not want to show any partiality here,
but it seems to me that that is exactly the role that should have
gone with the Individual Learning Account and which seemed to
be the missing link when things went wrong. As you were carrying
out all that work, as the ILA story unravelled, did you pick up
that things were going wrong elsewhere? I do not mean in your
own sphere. Did you pick up the fact that things were not as they
should have been?
(Ms Smith) Not from any feedback ourselves. The only
evidence that I picked up was what I read in the press and heard
on the grapevine. It was very much part of a wider piece of work.
We were concerned that there was not sufficient information, advice
and guidance built into the system as a whole, but we were not
really picking up those things.
146. I shall ask James Rees to comment on the
(Mr Rees) The way in which Usdaw was involved was
working closely with the employers. We tried to develop ways of
working jointly with employers so that we could encourage staff
to return to learning. Most Usdaw members come from the difficult
groups that were talked about in the earlier evidence, those hard
to reach groups. As a consequence, our learning reps had a difficult
job of work sometimes in encouraging people to return to learning.
They were also mostly people who were unlikely to get much in
the way of development for their job-related training or learning.
If someone drives a forklift truck, there is only a certain amount
of job-related training they are going to get. So we encouraged
people to engage in career or personal development learning. The
numbers which came through us were quite high. I think they are
in our written evidence, but in total about 4,790 Usdaw members,
or more than 4,790 are the ones that made the track through the
whole scheme, and about 2,500 since April of last year. What we
did pick up, and this was not the fraud side of things, what we
did pick up was that increasingly there seemed to be problems
towards the summer period with Capita. They were taking a long
time to return information. People were applying for Individual
Learning Accounts and they were not getting them back in the time
that they wanted to get them back, and our learning reps were
having to manage a lot of difficult situations arising from that,
particularly, as with the regulation, people were meant to have
their learning account number before they started their training
and that then produced a lot of problems with the training set-up
when the Capita agency had not responded. It was not the fraud
side of things, but they were having a problem over the slowness
with which things were getting processed.
(Mr Clough) I have nothing really to add to what Liz
Smith or what James Rees have said. Ironically, in the early discussions
with the TEC pilots, when the DfES used to consult us, there was
lots of discussion about how users might misuse the pilots, et
cetera, and very little about providers. However, I do not think
that there is any evidence of the former, so basically issues
concerning learner providers were never really on the radar screen
when the actual TEC pilots were developed.
147. Did you say that the DfES used to consult
you, leading to the suggestion that they do not any longer?
(Mr Clough) They certainly do and it is difficult
often to have the capacity to get fully involved in every consultation.
No, they have certainly involved us in all the stages.
Chairman: But you do not want to spring to the
defence of plumbing and feng shui? I was rather hoping that someone
would stand up for those two subjects to be on the course? Plumbing
is, but feng shui is very useful.
148. Like the Chair, it does seem to me that
your advice given independently to new learners was a crucial
element in the work you were doing and something which I hope
the Government will take note of, but before we move on, you intimated,
Liz, that the unions welcomed this initiative. Can you tell me
in a bit more detail why, as compared to the older system that
we got used to where you got tax relief if you were going on to
courses? Why was this initiative of value, did you think, potentially?
(Ms Smith) We thought, because of the nature of the
relationship between the union rep at work and the individual,
that the fact that it was something which would interest, inspire
the individual, but that that individual would benefit from some
support and help from a trusted person, in this case the union
rep, that that combination would actually achieve some of what
I think the Government was trying to achieve which was making
learning something that individuals really, if you like, had a
stake in. We could see the potential of that and because of that
particular role of the union rep as a trusted friend, if you like,
we could see if we could put securities and support and progression
around it and that it was perhaps something that was easier for
people to understand and feel a close identification with than
previous systems. We did not think it was the answer, by the way,
and we did not necessarily think it was perfect. We saw potential
in it and I think actually that we were right because union reps
really did feel quite comfortable working with the ILA approach.
149. So potentially a small payment up-front
was better than a discount in tax later?
(Mr Clough) I think basically vocational tax relief
can be a very blunt instrument. Whether it would give as much
incentive to those on low incomes is a matter for conjecture.
Therefore, I do think that probably the ILA system was potentially
able to have an incentive for those lower-income groups than a
150. Could I come back and lastly ask whether
as well as supporting the individuals, you were actually also
acting as a quality control for the providers? Is that another
role which, perhaps unspoken, you were also providing as trade
union education officers, learning reps?
(Ms Smith) I think very much so. James might want
to give an example. We encouraged unions to make partnerships
with providers. We already have a network of some 80 FE colleges
that we have links with through our own programmes and we are
extending that to providers where there is particularly a good
record on basic skills, for example, the BSA quality mark or high
inspection grades, so we encouraged them to make partnerships
with either known providers or to extend those and we gave them
guidance, very, very broad guidance about the sorts of things
that you should look for. For example, if a provider said, "Well,
we can only do such and such a thing ten miles away from your
workplace from seven to nine every night", you actually can
say, "Well, no, we would like it at work and we would like
it at the end of the shift". We also obviously encouraged
them to make sure that courses were evaluated and that if they
had problems to feed them back to us, so we have done a lot of
work on that.
(Mr Rees) As I said, we were interested in re-engaging
non-learners in learning and, through that, working with the employer
to try and help develop a learning culture within the workplace,
so many of the people we were involved with in learning were not
involved in what would be training which related to the job they
were on, but it would be more of a broader personal career development-type
training. We early on identified that the main barriers we had
to overcome with the group we were working with was accessibility,
making the learning accessible and making the style of learning
accessible in terms of where it took place, which was normally
the workplace, making it accessible in terms of when it took place
so that it fitted around people's shift patterns and working hours.
So there were issues about accessibility and there were issues
about confidence. Most of the learners that we were dealing with,
most of our members, were not confident about returning to learning
and we, through the learning reps' work, had to boost their confidence.
The third issue was affordability. Most of our people are on low
or relatively low earnings and we had to deal with issues of affordability
and that is an ongoing problem for us before, during and post
ILAs, whatever situation emerges. We knew fairly early on that
there were those three key barriers which we would have to address.
The role of the ILA then slotted neatly into helping us resolve
one of those barriers. What would tend to happen would be that
we would establish some kind of local site-level partnership committee
with the employer and we managed to engage companies like Tesco's,
Littlewoods, Sainsbury's, Argos, and at those local committees
there would be union reps, learning reps, and local site managers
or chain managers or personnel managers. We would have some kind
of tendering process more or less sophisticated with local providers
so that we could ensure quality providers and that process has
involved issues relating to the provision of advice and guidance,
issues relating to when and the flexibility delivery, and the
appropriateness of the teaching methods, et cetera. It also involved
talking about negotiating down the price, so the ILAs helped very
much, but it was not the only tool in the toolbox to try and make
the learning affordable.
151. One of the main failures of the ILAs from
the educational perspective was the lack of success in targeting
those without any qualifications at all. You cross a broad range
and will have quite a lot of people in that category. Do you consider
that you failed in your task to bring them in and, if not, why
(Ms Smith) I do not think we did fail in that sense.
A recent survey that we did, and I hasten to say that it is not
a scientific survey, that is not our role, indicated that 80 per
cent of the learners that had used ILAs through unions came from
what we would see as being the true target groups. Obviously that
was the lower paid, the lower skilled through to Level 2. They
were also in some of the groups, hard-to-reach small companies,
a lot of freelance workers often in the entertainment industries,
et cetera, so that was 80 per cent of the total and we do not
know that the other 20 per cent was outside those groups, but
we do know that actually the unions who were least likely to have
engaged in ILAs were those that had higher-level, higher-qualified
staff. We encouraged targeting throughout and that was a key thing
and we think we did quite well on that actually.
(Mr Rees) In Usdaw's case, in targeting the workplace
we targeted exactly that group. We did not do a scientific survey
again, but our anecdotal evidence is that the vast majority of
people were people who were pickers, packers, stacka-truck drivers,
check-out operators, shelf fillers, those groups of people. We
engaged almost entirely, our 4,700 plus, would be made up of those
groups. Some of those groups may already have had some Level 2-plus
experience. Often we will get someone who has done maybe a Level
2 NVQ some time ago, which may not have been of the highest standard
and they have come to us and their writing skills may be poor
and they maybe end up on a basic skills writing course, so not
everybody we engage had no previous learning skills in Usdaw's
case, but the vast majority are Level 2 and beyond.
152. I find that answer very helpful, so thank
you for that. Obviously I think we would all agree that any successor
scheme should be more targeted to the individuals that we are
actually talking about and I wondered in a successor scheme what
changes and differences you would like to see to enable better,
more appropriate targeting of the groups we are discussing.
(Mr Clough) I think we agree on that, Mr Simmonds.
I think that the problem that we have got is that there would
have to be a balance between a universal scheme and a targeted
approach. We do not want to find that ILAs are, if you like, a
residual scheme for those with no or low qualifications. I certainly
agree with what people have said, and Mr Rodger made the point,
that there needs to be much more focused targeting of these groups
and not necessarily on those just with low qualifications, but
those that might have craft qualifications many years ago. This
might be in the printing industry and they might want to have
an upskilling, and Quark Express is a very good example, and,
therefore, they are vulnerable to unemployment and those people
should also be targeted, so marketing is very important and there
must be more precise marketing. I think, as people have said,
the use of advice and guidance, professionals as well as front-line
advice intermediaries, like unions, are important in this. The
other big issue is of course with the discount system. Did that
actually act against targeting in a way? If you go back to the
TEC system, some of those TEC pilots, because they were TEC pilots,
could very much target and some of those were very targeted on
the under-skilled, for instance. So we would have to look or I
think the Government needs to look at the Mark II as to what effects
this universal discount did have on targeting and whether you
could have a discount system which had built-in targeting. The
policy problem seems to have been sort of whether you target individuals
or actually target types of courses and a discount system was
very much about targeting courses through financial incentives
at a differential rate, so I think that has to be sorted out.
I do think that there is a very important lesson to be learned
and that is that the marketing has got to be very, very directed,
although I think it is essential that these ILAs are universal
because the whole point about it is that they are supposed to
be generators of lifelong learning.
Chairman: In terms of success, it would be nice
if the TUC could provide us with what percentage of trade union
members in each union actually took up ILAs and we could see who
has done well and who has done less well and that could act as
153. I am very encouraged by what has actually
been said. Could I ask you how the employers view ILAs and what
your relationship with them was and what their relationship with
their individual learners was? Did they encourage, were they helpful
and so on?
(Ms Smith) I think, generally speaking, where there
was a good working relationship between the union rep and the
employer, there was a very useful dialogue about ILAs and how
they could meet the objectives of individuals and how the employer
would inevitably benefit. Union reps were very keen to avoid ILAs
being used to substitute for the right investment, if you like,
by the employer, for example, in job-related training. They were
very keen to ensure that. They were also keen to encourage employers
to contribute, for example, in that if after the initial ILA had
been used, the individual had put in their £25, then the
employer would be able to provide some financial support too.
There was a whole range of things that were discussed and agreements
made around that. We did see them, I think, as a very justifiable
way of levering in employer support and encouraging partnerships
between employers and the unions. There were examples. For example,
sometimes the employer would say, "Well, to do this particular
job, somebody needs a certain number of units of a particular
NVQ, but we don't think they need the full NVQ", and in that
situation the union might judge, and the individual might judge
that actually using the ILA to get some additional units might
be very helpful to them in their own career, so in that sense
there was a grey area, but they actually helped, I think, forge
employer-union partnerships and dialogue.
(Mr Rees) Usually once we got the message across that
it was understood what the roles of ILAs were, the employer was
very enthusiastic in that we were taking learning into the workplace,
we were helping what the employer wanted which was to develop
a learning culture within the workplace or a learning environment
within the workplace. The employers that we dealt with, we managed
to persuade them that if some learning that was not necessarily
job-related took place, if we engaged the people in that together,
they would then be more receptive to change in the workplace and
any change which might be associated with preparing people for
change. We did have arguments about recreation and leisure because
some employers were not so keen on going down the feng shui route.
There was one particular incident where-flower-arranging came
up as an issue and we advised the individual to apply for an ILA,
She was turned down because flower arranging did not take placein
her workplace. It turned out that two individuals worked part-time
for a different employer and we were able to advise them to re-apply
because the different employer was a florist and they wanted to
set up in practice as florists, so this came about through our
process. There was wide range of learning issues involving people
and generally employers were positive about that once they understood
that it helped make learning affordable for people.
154. Have you been consulted by the DfES about
how things were and how things might be in the future?
(Mr Clough) Apparently the DfES has contracted with
the LSC to do some work on actually developing the Mark II. A
discussion has been held between some of the local Learning Skills
Council people and ourselves because we are regarded as a sort
of stakeholder in this, but all I can say is that there has just
been one meeting and we look forward to further meetings to discuss
how the Mark II is going basically to happen, but as yet there
has only been some preliminary discussion.
(Ms Smith) But there will be a consultative meeting
that the DfES will hold with unions specifically to get our views.
155. Is there a date for that?
(Ms Smith) It is the end of February/early March.
156. Do you not think the Department is dragging
its feet on this? Is it not being rather slow given the situation
that 70 learners and providers are in?
(Mr Clough) I think we would like to have some sort
of paper saying what the sort of possible options should be fairly
early on. I think Ministers have said that they would like to
have some form of announcement of some sort of scheme before Easter
and certainly I think there is some way to travel between now
and an announcement of the scheme.
157. In trying to learn lessons for the future,
we have talked about greater targeting, et cetera, but it does
seem that a common criticism in regard to the whole ILA initiative
is that nobody was focusing on the providers themselves because,
as you know, what spoilt this, what we think is an excellent initiative,
is a minority of unscrupulous providers trying to exploit the
system. To ask a specific question of Usdaw, you were a trusted
intermediary, but what did that actually involve? Nobody seemed
to be focusing on other providers. Did that role as trusted intermediary
enable you to scrutinise providers or was there a mechanism in
place to make sure that these providers were kosher?
(Mr Rees) The way it worked for us was that if we
were developing learning that was delivered on-site or near-site,
the group at site level, which would be learning reps and representatives
of the company's training department, would select a provider
to use and that provider would then be given facilities on or
near the premises, or it would be able to make use of facilities
on or near the premises to deliver the learning. In that sense
we were not just responding or the learning reps were not just
responding to a flier in the letter box, but there was actually
discussion asking what the provider could deliver, and the learning
reps were then involved in providing feedback because often some
people found it a bit heavy-going, so the learning reps were going
round talking to people, saying, "What did you think of the
learning? Were you getting a lot?" and encouraging people
to be involved. The trusted intermediary role is a peer group
supporter role, so it is an ongoing process of seeing how the
learning is going and that sort of quality check.
158. So there is nothing in your role selectively
which would enable you to scrutinise providers themselves?
(Mr Rees) Only the providers we were working with
and we did that by selecting good providers. One of our points
was to select high-quality providers to deliver to our people.
With those providers that we selected, but we were more or less
happy that none of them was involved in fraud anyway.
159. So, in other words, what you are saying
is that providers that you selected, actually hardly any, if any,
were found to be fraudulent or unscrupulous?
(Mr Rees) I know of no provider that we selected that
was fraudulent or unscrupulous.