HC Deb 14 March 2002 vol 381 cc997-9
1. Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

What plans she has to compensate individual learning account training providers who have suffered financial loss as a result of the closure of the scheme. [40719]

3. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

How many providers have been investigated by her Department in relation to abuses of the individual learning account scheme. [40721]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey)

The Department has no plans to compensate learning providers in relation to the closure of the individual learning accounts programme.

The Department's special investigations unit has completed one case and is investigating a further 105 registered learning providers. In addition, the police are investigating another 66.

Mr. Baron

I thank the Minister for his response, but I believe that that answer is shameful. Given that it is generally recognised that because of poor controls the Government allowed this initiative to turn into a shambles, which has cost £65 million in fraud, left many students in the lurch and forced many learning providers to shed jobs—and, in some cases, go out of business altogether—why will the Government not honour their responsibilities and at least compensate those learning providers who invested in this initiative but rue the day they ever took the Government at their word?

John Healey

Quite simply because the Government's first duty is to safeguard public funds and to look after the interests of individual learners. The business decisions that learning providers took to take part in the programme were a matter for them. There was no contract between the Department and learning providers, and the legal advice that the Department has is very clear.

Mr. O'Brien

The Minister has had two weeks' notice of my question yet all he produces is that vacuous answer. Is it any wonder that the Government's complete incompetence has rendered them impotent in the light of this ridiculous scandal over ILAs and the alleged fraud, with only one completed investigation?

Will the Minister try to answer an easier question? Evidence given recently by his officials to the Select Committee on Education and Skills showed that his Department had no control over ILAs. Will he now admit that he has responsibility for the waste of an estimated £65 million of public funds? How many teachers could that have provided?

John Healey

The hon. Gentleman may have missed my answer, but I gave him precisely the answer that his question required. One investigation into learning providers has been completed by the Department and a further 105 are under way. Some 66 investigations are being undertaken by the police, 11 further cases are being discussed with the police, and 44 arrests have been made, with 13 people charged and one convicted. That is an effective early start to mop up the problems that we had with the individual learning account scheme.

If the hon. Gentleman reads the Select Committee evidence, particularly mine—I have given evidence before it three times in about three months—he will see that I explained clearly that the problems in the scheme began to arise and accumulate over the summer. We took action during that time to tighten the scheme's rules and operation. We were simply unable to do so within the design of the scheme and were left, regrettably, with no option but to announce on 24 October that we had to close the scheme to protect public funds and the interests of individual learners who were being abused by the minority of learning providers taking advantage of the scheme.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

One of the most rewarding jobs that I have undertaken as a Member of Parliament has been to present education certificates to trade unionists who have been helped by their union to take up education opportunities for the first time in many years. They have often been helped by individual learning accounts. I urge my hon. Friend to introduce a successor programme to ILAs as soon as possible and also to take steps to encourage the development of union learning representatives who are often in the best position in the workplace to encourage non-traditional learners to take up education opportunities.

John Healey

My hon. Friend may know that alongside the task of managing the closure of the ILA scheme and getting to the bottom of the problems that we had with it, we are working very hard on the design of a successor programme. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have both confirmed in the House that there will be a successor scheme. In the design of that scheme we are conscious of the fact that unions, often through union learning representatives in the workplace, have made imaginative use of ILAs and, by so doing, have helped reach target groups such as part-time workers, older male workers and shift workers whom we have been unable to reach within the lifelong learning system.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)

The Minister's belated understanding of the fact that his Department has a duty to protect public funds caused a sharp intake of breath and a reference to the Trade Descriptions Act. Who does he think has been most damaged by the disaster with individual learning accounts? Is it the students, the learning providers, or the Government themselves, who, in pursuit of yet another lazily conceived manifesto target, have lost the confidence of everyone they needed to make a perfectly good idea work?

John Healey

The hon. Gentleman misses the point. Individual learning accounts certainly encouraged new learning and brought new business to learning providers. I am conscious of the fact that both groups are affected by our regrettable, but inevitable, decision that we had to close the scheme. If, with hindsight, the hon. Gentleman is saying that it was so clear to so many people for so long that there were problems with the ILA scheme, why was it that from the general election until 24 October when we announced the closure of the scheme, only one parliamentary question on ILAs was tabled by Opposition Members? The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Conservative Front Bench did not ask a single question.