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Movement of Farm Animals

David Taylor accordingly presented a Bill to limit journey times in respect of the transport of animals to slaughter; to promote the establishment of a network of local slaughterhouses; to limit the frequency with which animals may be brought to market in any twenty-day period; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 July 2002, and to be printed [Bill 43].

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Opposition Day

[4th Allotted Day]

Education and Lifelong Learning

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.44 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I beg to move,

Let me break the normal rules of an Opposition day debate and start on a note of agreement with the Government. We agree that education matters as much as any public service. We believe, as I hope the Government do, that opportunities should be equally available to all children, whatever their background, and to all adults who need training. We recognise that teachers work hard and effectively in schools and colleges throughout Britain. But, and it is a serious but, this House needs to debate education today because in too many areas of education and lifelong learning there are widespread, chronic and growing problems. That is not because of any lack of interest from the Government in those matters. I know that the Secretary of State is deeply sincere in her commitment to the subject. The charge we make today is not malice or neglect: it is simple incompetence, combined with an irresistible desire to meddle in too many things.

During the past few months, the country has seen how the Government are visibly failing on issues such as transport and health. In education, the problem is subtly different. We are having a quiet crisis in education—in teachers' morale, in student debt and in adult training. The Opposition will not allow that crisis to remain quiet any longer. Today and every day, we will fulfil our duty to point out the many and growing failures of the Secretary of State's Department and in doing so we will defend the interests of those who work as educators and those who need to benefit from education.

I shall start with the current chaos over individual learning accounts, partly because the failure is serious in itself and also because it symbolises why the Government so often fail to turn good intentions into good policy. The simple truth is that the Department for Education and Skills, in the face of stiff competition, is the Whitehall champion in being driven by tomorrow's headlines and only tomorrow's headlines. "Announce in haste and repent at leisure" is the Department's motto. Never has that been more apparent than in the case of ILAs.

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I shall take the House through the salient points of the 13-month disaster. The scheme was launched in September 2000, with great goodwill from those in the training industry who welcomed the idea of the Government providing £150 to help adults receive training. What has become apparent from our investigations over the past week is that the Government wilfully ignored warnings, even before the scheme started, that it was flawed. I hope that the Secretary of State will address that point directly in her reply, because the Government have tried in the past few days to give the impression that they became aware of the problems with fraud only in recent months. Letters that I have received today show that that was not the case.

On 20 September last year, before the scheme was launched, James O'Brien of the Pitman Training Group wrote to the then Secretary of State:

The Department tried to address that issue with a cap on the value of the training, but the effect of that was not to stop fraud but to damage the programme, as Mr. O'Brien pointed out in a letter to the Secretary of State in October last year, which said that

Throughout the life of the ILAs, the Government should have been aware of the potential fraud problem. They may have chosen to ignore the training experts, but one accusation I would never make of the Government is that they ignore the press.

So what have the Government been doing since 6 May, when the News of the World produced the characteristic headline "Mr. Big Cashing in on Blair Millions"? The article revealed one of the many scams that have been uncovered. In this case, a company pocketed the £150 from the Government, and in return offered only a few leaflets to would-be trainees.

The problem that the Government have failed consistently to address is that no real checks were carried out on anyone posing as a training provider. Even if some old Labour remnants on the Government Front Bench will not read the Murdoch press, I am sure that they read The Mirror, which ran a story exposing ILA fraud on 13 July. Why, therefore, did the Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills issue a press release on 20 July that was headed "Individual Learning Accounts to Continue into New Era—Healey"? The release began:

After that press release was issued, further stories about fraud appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, the Birmingham Evening Mail and the Sunday Mercury. They detailed the various scams. There were even stories in The Irish News, so people in Ireland knew that there was a fraud problem. Only the Government appeared to be in the dark about it. Finally, on 24 October, the Government suspended ILAs. They gave the priceless reason that ILAs were being shut down because they were too successful.

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However, that was not the end of the story. Two days after the ILAs were shut down, the Department for Education and Skills produced its key document for this Parliament, entitled "Delivering Results: A Strategy to 2006". Hon. Members from all parties will have read every word of this document but, in case they did not reach it, I merely draw their attention to the rather attractive pull-out section at the back. The section is called "Milestones on the Road to Delivery". As ever with this Government, the milestones get bigger the further away they are: more jam is promised for the day after tomorrow than for tomorrow itself. The key point is that there is only one milestone in the Government's education and skills policy for 2002, and the House will wish to know that that is to expand individual learning accounts.

The Government talk about joined-up government, but they cannot even join up the work of one Department. It is not a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing: in the Department for Education and Skills, the first finger does not know what the second finger is doing.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I fear that my hon. Friend has missed one vital component in the network of Government incompetence that he has set out. The Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills wrote to every hon. Member to explain the collapse of the ILAs. Is my hon. Friend aware that that letter made no mention of fraud at all, even though 279 fraud cases are being pursued by the police? Does not my hon. Friend agree that the purpose of letters addressed "Dear Colleague" should be to tell colleagues in the House what is going on—not to put about Labour party political propaganda?

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend makes a good case. Did the Government continue not to know what was going on, or were they simply—and characteristically—trying to disguise what was going on? I hope that the Secretary of State will take the opportunity today to enlighten the House as to which of those options hon. Members should decide is the truth. The Government have one policy milestone for next year, and they have missed it already. That is not merely a shambles, it is a scandal, and someone should own up to the responsibility.

I hope that the financial implications will be investigated fully, because many millions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been spent on the ILA scheme. Moreover, many genuine training providers throughout the country who were doing an extremely good job for people requiring training are now under threat. In Liverpool, the Everton Development Trust offers vital computer training to a deprived local community, but it is already considering making 10 people redundant.

Henley Community Online in Oxfordshire is seriously considering its future, although it provides exactly the kind of information technology skills that we need to create a modern and competitive economy. No wonder Mr. O'Brien, who has seen this sorry saga coming from the beginning, wrote again to me this week, saying:

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