Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I am interested to hear of the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) for changes to the SSA system. As a representative of a constituency that does not always see itself as part of the south-east, I echo the concerns of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard). Where will the money come from? Will it be drained from the education authorities in the south-east, and particularly in London? With the London elections coming up, it behoves the Government to answer that question. If more is going to Derbyshire and other areas, more will come from somewhere else, and I should like the Minister to answer that point.
I congratulate Government on having the idea, and on the idea of a voucher for further education and training. The voucher idea is brilliant, and I wish that it could be widened to other disciplines, too. However, it had two fatal flaws. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) described, the Government saw the scheme being abused, and they took precipitate action to close it, thereby losing the confidence of the users and the providers. Many of those people will not try againhaving got halfway through a course, or having decided to embark on a course, they will have lost their confidence, and they did not have much confidence to start with. They will feel that the Government have let them down because of the panic with which they closed the scheme.
Of course I understand that there was fraud and abuse, although the Government seem to have had difficulty in describing exactly what is abuse and what is an enterprising new approach to marketing a scheme and getting new people to take advantage of learning who would otherwise not have done so. However, I am concerned that the Government went from their announcement on 24 October last year of the date when the scheme would be closed to closing it precipitately. I can only conclude that they did so because insufficient safeguards were built into the scheme in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley mentioned Capita. Perhaps 180,000 unopened letters in Lambeth under Capita's regime was an improvement on the previous regime in that borough, or perhaps not. However, Capita has let down the Government and the users. However, the providers have also been let down, for the reasons on which my hon. Friend expatiated. The providers invested their money, time and energyin some cases, they mortgaged their homesand some of them have gone bust because the Government do not accept responsibility for that participation.
The Government were selling a "Government scheme" to a range of private sector providers, many of which are small businesses that can ill afford to offer the Government their trust and have it so badly abused. It is no good for the Government to say, "Don't worry, we had no contract with the small providers." If the Government let them down this time, as they have done, and if they see nothing wrong in letting them downthey do notthe small providers will not be available when the Government relaunch the ILA scheme, as I hope that they will do soon. The small providers will say, "Once bitten, twice shy." They will not get involved in a Government scheme of this kind unless there is a clear and unambiguous contract. I cannot hear what the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) is muttering from a sedentary position. I shall give way to her if she has something useful to say.
The second problemthat of the single targetis one on which I sympathise with the Minister, as he inherited it from his predecessor. The Government set one target only for the ILA scheme1 million participants by 2002. Close questioning of Ministers, civil servants and Capita by the Select Committee on Education and Skills has revealed only one target for the schememembership. There was nothing about quality, need or targeting those most in need. That is not satisfactory. It is not satisfactory to use so much public money without any guarantee of quality. I genuinely sympathise with the Minister on that.
I also sympathise with the Ministeragain, this was revealed in the evidence that Capita provided to the Education and Skills Committeebecause the Government changed the basis of the scheme after Capita had been named as the preferred provider and had started to develop the computer scheme. The Government withdrew the connection with the learndirect list of registered providers, which was one of the quality mechanisms in place before the scheme was advertised. So, one month before the scheme was launched, the then Department for Education and Employment admitted that that connection could not be provided. Capita was let down, and the users and other providers of the scheme, as it turned out, were let down, too.
I find the Minister not guilty on the last two counts, but the Government are certainly guilty. However, I fear that I find both the Government and the Minister guilty on the first count of closing the scheme precipitately and in a panic, and of damaging the interests of users and providers.
Tony Cunningham (Workington): Quite a lot of former teachers have contributed to this debate. As someone who taught in comprehensive schools for about 15 years, who has been a governor of several schools for about 20 years, and whose nine-year-old daughter is studying in a primary school at the moment, I honestly do not recognise the education system described by the hon. Members for Ashford (Mr. Green) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson). I shall not quote from briefings but talk about what is happening in my constituency.
I wish to refer to a secondary modern school that was built roughly about the time that I was growing up. It did not have a particularly good reputation, but it is now a specialist technology college. Just a few weeks ago, I was approached by a teacher at the Southfield technology college, who had tremendous pride in the college. As I said, the school did not have a particularly good reputation, but the teacher told me that the specialist technology college had just had its Ofsted report and the
We had two further education collegesone in Workington and one in Whitehavenand the fabric of the buildings at both was deteriorating. However, the new Lakes collegeit used to be called the West Cumbria collegewas funded with £12 million of investment. It is superb. It is the first brand-new college for further education in the area and provides first-class education for the people of west Cumbria. Furthermore, £500,000 of investment went into a new all-weather facility at Cockermouth school, and I have seen new language labs, teaching facilities, science labs and drama facilities. I could go on and on. There has been tremendous investment in the schools in my constituency.
I taught for 11 years at Netherhall school, and returned there recently. I finished teaching there in 1994, but many of the teachers with whom I taught are still at the school. I accept that there are recruitment and retention problems, but they do not exist across the country. They are found in specific areas.
No one would dispute that there are challenges ahead. Teachers in my constituency say that they face distinct challenges, but they also point to the huge improvements in education. The Government and their policies are going in the right direction. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earlier, the secondary head teacher of the school where I am a governor told me that he had never known a time when the quality of his pupils was so good. He said that the school could do so much more in years 7 and 8 because of the primary education that his pupils had received. Part of that involved the numeracy and the literacy hours.