Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580 - 587)



  580. Secondly, you have talked about abuse ranging from fraud to scams—or other people have used the word "scams".
  (John Healey) Fraud, scams and simply—and this is the majority—complaints about how the system is operating, they cannot get through to Capita, disagreeing with the discontinuation of the £150 discount.

  581. Setting aside the latter group, because there may be problems, but nobody is alleging that anything wrong has been done, I am very unclear—and I do not think this learning provider agreement helps you very much—on what is legitimate. I can recognise fraud when I see it, but I am not clear whether, for instance, supermarket selling or door-to-door selling is "inappropriate marketing", in your words. Are you clear what is inappropriate and what is appropriate? If you are not, how can the providers have been clear?
  (John Healey) Yes, I am quite clear that door-to-door selling of learning is not appropriate.

  582. It is not appropriate?
  (John Healey) It is not appropriate. What is appropriate is the sort of provision that 91 per cent of the ILA account holders said met or exceeded their expectations. There is some interesting evidence, if you will bear with me, from York Consulting Ltd, in which they found that 31 per cent of a group of people who had used their ILA were not aware that they had got the ILA. Most of them were aware that they were getting government support for the training, but it had not been put to them by the learning providers that here was a mechanism that was the Individual Learning Account, it gave them individual decisions. I think that in any successor scheme we need to try to tease that out and emphasise that more strongly, because if we are going to realise the policy ambition of this, then the individuals involved, taking out the accounts and then taking up the learning helped by the account, need to understand more clearly the sort of mechanism that they are using.


  583. Minister, surely door-to-door, knocking on doors, is appropriate? After all, we all, as politicians in this room, are experts in door-to-door sales techniques—or we should be. In a sense, one of the things that most of us really dislike about the evidence we have had is when people talk about deadweight, because there is one bit of it that says, "We really want the culture of education and training in our country to change", and if you do that, of course there are a lot of people who could afford, or might have afforded or whatever, to come back into education and training, and we want to encourage that as well as the people who have had no training. One of the things that we might find is that some of this supermarket selling and knocking on doors is actually a rather good way to get through and expand the 16 per cent who have never had any training. So I would not throw out that baby with the bathwater. As long as the quality assurance is there, I certainly would not mind, and many of our colleagues would not mind, a knock on the door that reaches people in a way that other techniques do not reach them.
  (John Healey) You may be right to caution me not to reject it out of hand. There may not be that much difference between selling learning and selling a politician. I think that both involve not just contact but actually the quality of the information and understanding the same strategy. If that sort of relationship is established and that sort of clarity is established, then perhaps there may be a role for us in some form of door-to-door canvassing.

  584. Minister, I was driving on a wet Sunday afternoon when I heard you on File on Four, when I knew that there would be an investigation by this Committee as I heard your words on the programme. One of the things that I very much admired in what you said on that day was that you said that at the end of the day people are intelligent enough to be trusted to make choices in their life about big choices—insurance policies, mortgages, tens of thousands of pounds decisions—so why should we not trust them to judge whether the quality of what they buy in education and training is up to them, why do we not trust them? So I hope, again coming out of our evidence, that we are not going to throw that away, and that at the end of the day, do you not agree, to some extent we have to trust people to make their own choices in life?
  (John Healey) I do agree with that and I do intend to hang onto that as a core principle within the scheme, because in the end it has to be the individual who is best placed to make decisions about what learning is best for them. That was in part what was so fresh about the concept of the ILA, and that is one of the features, I think, that is special about the scheme and that we certainly do not want to lose; albeit it needs to be balanced with the sort of quality assurance that we have discussed this morning, we certainly do not want to lose that in any successor scheme.

  585. To finish, can we take you back to how we started. One of the areas of concern might be how, when ministerial jobs change, there is not enough transition that actually seems to be seen. It did seem to some members of the Committee—certainly to myself when I heard you say you never spoke to the previous Minister at doing your job—that that came as a slight concern that there is not that sort of historic memory. If you cannot provide it as a Minister or as a ministerial team, one wonders if the Civil Service do that job well enough, because as we were reminded by some of the written evidence we have had, these kinds of scams, fraud and problems with programmes are not new to the Department, and only a very short time ago we had franchising, and many of the accusations about the rather slipshod approach by the Department in respect of Individual Learning Accounts apply equally to franchising. In terms of that historic memory, do you not think it is a concern that there was a very similar sort of case and perhaps we did not learn the lessons and it was not transmitted through time in the Department?
  (John Healey) Clearly, in the nature of our Constitution and the Executive, the principal historic repository for the memory is the Civil Service. I came new, as a fresh Minister, into this job. One of the lessons I draw from that is that if I were ever offered any other ministerial job, then one of the first things I would do is try to tap the historical political memory to set alongside any Civil Service memory. The other thing I will do, whatever happens to me, will be to make sure that any successor of mine I seek out and offer them the opportunity of some reflections and experience that I have had and have been lucky enough to have had so far in this job. It is a very serious point actually that I know you are making. I am being rather light-hearted about it, but handover, induction, I think does need something of a collective political dimension as well as the sort of Executive policy dimension that the Civil Service is pretty good at providing.
  (Mr Lauener) Perhaps I could add one sentence to that.

  586. The historic memory!
  (Mr Lauener) It sounded like a bit of a cue, did it not? On the subject of the position with a new set of Ministers, the Civil Service does try to deal as well as we can with that. I think there is also a longer-term point about accumulating memory and understanding which again we have alluded to in "Lessons to Learn". We do feel that we need to take further steps to share across Government the lessons that we have learnt and, I think, also to establish a bit more of a standing mechanism to share lessons about individual providers across government departments, because there are a number of government departments concerned. It is not just a matter of the Department for Education and Skills and its related agencies like the Learning and Skills Council, there are other Departments with a very considerable interest, like the Department for Work and Pensions and government offices.

  Mr Shaw: I wonder if Martin Sixsmith will be of use to the Civil Service in this!


  587. I think that is outside our terms of reference. Can I conclude by thanking the Minister and Peter Lauener for their attendance. Can I also say that I wish the Minister bon voyage, because I know that John Healey and the Secretary of State are off to Paris, I believe, for a British Council piece of work. Will you please tell anyone you meet there that the Select Committee will be following you shortly and hope we will be accorded all the usual civilities. Can I also tell you that I know that because Robert Rees, who has been our researcher on this Committee for four years, is now retiring, we shall be saying goodnight to him and goodbye to him this evening at a little reception, and that that is the reason why you cannot attend. So bon voyage to Paris.
  (John Healey) As it happens, Mr Chairman, I am now unable to go to Paris, but I am able to attend your reception if the invitation is still there.

  Chairman: The invitation is still there. Thank you.

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