Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)|
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
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
(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.
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,
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
348. But surely your experienceand that
is what you were employed forought 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.
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
(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
356. Surely there was a difference between the
individual learning account holder and the provider. I still believe
from the evidence I have seencorrect me if you think differentlythat
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
(Mr Doyle) We were designing the application form
against an agreed criteria with the Department and their advisers.
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.
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.