Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002
180. I got the impression from your opening
remarks that you are a reluctant advocate of the ILA scheme. I
may have misinterpreted your remarks, but do you envisage that
there are better ways of getting taxpayers' money to adults who
need to improve their skills and, if so, what are they?
(Mr Thomson) I think there is a tension between any
government's social agenda and economic agenda in that there will
be a line which has to be drawn. I think our position would be
more towards widening participation than deepening participation
amongst groups already well disposed towards learning.
181. Does that mean targeting a greater number
of people who do not have any specific qualifications at the moment?
(Mr Thomson) Yes.
182. You are not in favour of universality?
(Mr Thomson) There were some very interesting ideas
about ten years ago when both political parties were tossing around
the idea of having HE included within a "Learning Bank"
or a "learning credit system", but that is a very different
183. The sort of issue or future policy you
are espousing seems to be moving away from one of the general
underlying foundations of ILAs, which is the universality. You
seem to be suggesting that that is not the way that you believe
any successor to the scheme should be going.
(Mr Thomson) I am not convinced that it is the best
use of public money to pay people to do what they would do anyway.
184. But would they? We touched on this earlier,
that it is an incentive to get people back into training and there
is something appealing to some Members of this Committee of a
universal provision because we suspect that that is the way you
change the culture where everyone in our society believes that
learning and relearning and skilling and upskilling is a natural
part of life and very often it is the people who will not be the
people with the least qualifications that actually lead the way
in that. Is there not an argument for changing culture with a
universal provision and the ILAs were a very good example of that?
(Mr Thomson) I think it depends on how long you want
to take to change the culture. I think in other areas of public
policy you find that it is the sharp elbows of the middle classes
which get to the front of the queue first.
185. But a lot of research goes that it is when
the middle classes lead, other people follow and that is always
a very interesting indicator. If you want to change culture, it
is very often those middle-class professions who want to lead
the way and others follow.
(Ms Cara) I just think that in the area of adult continuing
education, the middle classes have been leading from the front
for a very long time and it has taken rather too long for others
to catch up. I do not think that is necessarily working. All our
participation surveys show a huge take-up, an increasing take-up
by the groups who have had a good go in the education system first
time around and that is not followed by an increase, in fact just
the opposite, in that at the other end they are less likely to
participate than they were before.
186. Looking at the future which is where we
now need to focus, you, like others, are recommending better advice
and guidance and I think we are now in this Committee taking that
as a bespoke, but you are suggesting that we ought to be focusing
perhaps on groups as well as individuals for future proposals.
Can you elaborate or tell us a little bit more about what that
(Mr Thomson) I think, by and large, learning works
better when it is a social experience and people learn from their
peers and people realise, "It is for people like us rather
than people like them" when they are able to do it and when
they are with their workmates or with their families or their
neighbours. I think this was a trick that was missed, although
Mr Rodger, I think, pointed out that the Department is doing a
single pilot on this and I think that would be well worth following
187. So again the trade unions were in a very
good position to enable that very idea to happen. Can you think
of any other settings where that might be, for those whom we want
to target, an appropriate field for further development?
(Ms Cara) I think that in some community-based projects
certainly, and I think perhaps in some regeneration projects where
you have groups of learners or groups of people working together
on issues, ILAs might be something which could be put at the disposal
of a group of learners as opposed to individuals.
188. Do you think there are providers out there
who also recognise that and are providing in that way, as opposed
to saying, "Here we are, take it or leave it"?
(Ms Cara) I am certain that providers recognise that
need. I am quite sure, I know from the projects which we run,
that there are people who are encouraging learners to go on together,
and one of the things they may use to do that is Individual Learning
Accounts, but they know they have to use them as individuals not
as a group.
189. So again, what contact do you have with
Government, are they seeking your advice and what would you advise?
(Mr Thomson) Formally we have not been invited to
submit our comments yet. Informally my colleagues and myself have
contact with the officials and we have been making this case,
I guess, for some years.
(Ms Cara) For a while. I think we would expect to
be one of the constituent organisations whose views would be taken
into account there.
190. Lastly, given that, on the funding of thisand
you are talking about reconsidering the discount sidewhat
would you advise them as to the balance between the individual,
potentially the employer or the community group, and the Government?
What is the input that is going to be most appropriate for encouraging
these new learners back into lifelong learning?
(Mr Thomson) I think that if it could be unlocked,
the contribution of employers is probably the most significant,
because that encourages people to believe that there is a real
value in learning, when hard-headed employers such as the Ford
Motor Company allow their workers to experiment (with learning).
191. There has been a lot of concern expressed
about the time the Government are taking to come up with a new
proposal. There is a concern that because of the time it has taken
there is going to be a loss of faith amongst providers and, indeed,
learners. What is your view? Do you think the Government should
take the time to get the next ILA right? Do you think that people
are right who are saying, "Oh well, if you don't do it quickly
then the whole thing's going to fall apart"? What is your
view on that?
(Ms Cara) My view, or our view, is that I think we
obviously would like to see things move forward as quickly as
possible, but I think it is actually critical to get it right,
and I think that getting it right is probably a little bit more
important in this than getting it wrong tomorrow but doing something.
So I think we want a scheme that people could believe in from
the start, and I think it would be worth spending a little more
time in preparation to get something which had some of the attributes
that we have heard about this morning, rather than rushing back
to something which just plugged a few gaps and remained exactly
the same otherwise.
192. But it may be that only a few gaps need
(Ms Cara) Obviously our view is that as there is going
to be a Mark II Individual Learning Account, it should not merely
plug the gaps in full, but it might also address some of the features
which were less attractive about the last option, one of them
being dead weight.
193. Is not that a bit uncaring? Here you are,
you are a bit on the institutional side in terms of the people
whom you represent. What about all those people we had evidence
from last week? There are businesses and some of them have gone
bankrupt. They are being encouraged to come in as new providersthat
was some of the excitementvery good new providers, many
of them. Here you are saying, "Well from our point of view,
the Government can take plenty of time." What about all these
people who came in and are losing their jobs and their businesses?
What about all that fresh talent which was actually adding to
the quality and breadth of provision? Are you not being rather
hard on them?
(Ms Cara) I did not say that. I said first of all
that I think it is important to get it right, and I think those
providers will be better served by its being put right. I also
said it was important to get it done as fast as possible, but
not at such a speed that we had further problems down the line.
194. But Alastair Thomson said you are waiting
to do it. I would have thought, given your interest, that you
would be pounding on the door of the Department saying, "Here's
our evidence, here's how you improve the scheme", not just
sitting there waiting. If you represented some of the new providers
you would have to have more of an urgency about the message perhaps.
Is that being unfair?
(Mr Thomson) A little, I think.
(Ms Cara) Yes.
(Mr Thomson) We are certainly aware of the concerns
of providers, and our e-mail groups have been buzzing on this
particular topic. I think our members have taken the view that
it is appropriate for us to prioritise the needs of the learners
first, and to be assured that the fact that the learner is going
to get high-quality experience at the end of it is actually more
important at the end of the day.
195. But you are ambivalent about it, to be
quite honest. I am reading your evidence and you say that one
of the things you make plain is putting trust in learners. Surely
in an adult world most of the decisions which people make are
based on them making decisions of what consumer products to buy,
what holidays to book, all that sort of thing that they are adult
enough to do. What the Government say is, "Here's your opportunity
to get some individual learning. You must decide whether it's
the quality you want" and leave it to the individual. Indeed,
they are doing just what you said, putting trust in learners.
On the other hand, you turn the page in the evidence you submitted
and you are saying that the Individual Learning Account was very
dangerous because it did not have bolted-down quality assurance.
You are having your cake and eating it, are you not?
(Mr Thomson) I think there is a difference between
providers who can take a rational business decision and a learner
who may not have experienced formal learning for 20-odd years
being expected to just jump in.
196. If I gave any of my constituents in Huddersfield
£200 to go and do something, I would trust them to do it,
I would not have to provide some sort of nanny guidance. They
are pretty astute people in my constituency. Why should there
have been quality assurance? Surely people should have walked
up and looked at what was on offer, and indeed the evidence might
suggest that most of them got it.
(Mr Thomson) Even your constituents in Huddersfield
benefit from trading standards officers, do they not?
197. That is a very good answer. We have three
minutes which I have allowed the Committee, because I want to
give you the full half-hour. The fact of the matter is, what has
not come from you is your view. You seem to be taking this view
that some of us in this Committee are worried about, which is
actually making too early a judgement about why the Government
pulled the plug. I know I asked you this at the beginning. Are
you not concerned at all that whatever the Minister told this
Committee, the number of active prosecutions for fraud of ILA
providers is tiny? Does that not concern you?
(Ms Cara) I think it would concern anybody if, at
the end of this procedure, it is only a very, very few providers
that do turn out to have been fraudulent. I think that would be
a matter of concern to anyone. However, we do not know that that
is the case yet. Then there is the issue, even if it is a tiny
number of providers, of in respect of how many accounts they were
fraudulent. Of course that would be a matter of concern, because
we know that providers and learners will have been affected by
this, and it will be extremely worrying if, after all this pulling
the plug, there were very few providers that were actually guilty.
One of the things about anecdotes and things that we heard during
the evidence, the things that your consultants said this morning,
is that we think that if there are very few fraudulent providers
then you can deal with them on a case-by-case basis. So if, at
the end of that, we discover that that was not the case and there
was not something widespread, that would be very worrying, of
course, in many ways particularly if we have introduced as a result
of it some kind of dead-hand audit in an area that did not need
198. Thank you for that answer, but you do understand
that this Committee's job is really to get through the anecdotes
and find the facts?
(Ms Cara) Exactly.
Chairman: I am very grateful that today you
have helped us move towards that objective. Thank you.