Select Committee on Education and Skills Third Report


The increasing number of complaints

81.  Mr Paddy Doyle of Capita described the growing evidence that things were going wrong as "a creeping thing that crept up on us over a number of months".[162] He told us that —

    "In the first nine months, we were getting no evidence of learning providers misbehaving or not getting the right calibre of learning providers through, the volumes were right, the level of complaint was low. It looked sensible. Unfortunately in the spring or so of last year, some learning providers seemed to cotton onto the fact that there was some gain to be had and suddenly we started to see evidence coming through that you have already seen".[163]

82.  Mr John Healey told us that "what clearly happened over the summer was that we started to get evidence of complaints about the sort of activities and learning providers that were very much after a quick buck, very much after subverting the spirit and breaking the rules of the scheme, and they were the problem for us".[164]

83.  By the end of July 2001, some 3,000 complaints had been received and by the end of August 2001 this had risen to 4,300. By the end of September 2001, Capita had received 6,053 complaints (0.25 per cent of account holders). By the end of October 2001, complaints had reached nearly 8,500. These complaints covered a range of issues, including the ending of the £150 incentive, but a significant

TABLE - complaints

Complaints received
(in month)
Complaints received (cumulative)
Percentage complaints (cumulative)
No of Learning Providers
Expenditure (Cumulative)
Sep 2000
Oct 2000
Nov 2000
Dec 2000
Jan 2001
Feb 2001
Mar 2001
Apr 2001
May 2001
Jun 2001
Jul 2001
Aug 2001
Sep 2001
Oct 2001
Nov 2001
Dec 2001
Jan 2002

Source: DfES memorandum Annex 1 Ev120.

    proportion related to money being taken from individuals' ILA accounts without their knowledge and others concerned the operation of ILAs by learning providers which suggested possible abuse and mis­selling. In addition there were a number of allegations of potential fraud.[165] Over the summer, the Department received growing volumes of complaints from individuals and Trading Standards Officers about mis­selling, aggressive marketing, poor learning, poor value for money and alleged fraud.[166]

84.  York Consulting reported in September 2001 that high levels of satisfaction were evident amongst 'redeemers' and 'non-redeemers' both with the service provided by Capita's ILA Centre staff and the overall service provided by the Centre, although providers expressed higher levels of dissatisfaction - these were mainly in relation to, for example: slow website operation and delays in processing individuals' applications.[167]

85.  The Service Provider Agreement stated that Capita would provide a system "that can receive, monitor, report on and resolve complaints".[168] Ms Denyse Metcalf of Capita told us that all those complaints that appeared to have substance [ie, they were not sorted in terms of a discussion with the provider either confirming that they had made a mistake or the individual perhaps remembering that they had actually attended courses] were handed across to the Department and followed up on a day-to-day set-up.[169] In December 2000, the Quarterly Review for September to November 2000 recorded that a formal complaints and appeals procedure was in the process of being finalised.[170] Successive Quarterly Reviews reported that individuals had complained specifically about their allegedly unfair loss of incentive through a learning provider confirming a course attendance which the individual did not actually attend: 28 in the quarter from December 2000 to February 2001,[171] 87 in the quarter from March to May 2001.[172] During the following quarter, from June to August 2001, more than 2,600 complaints were received in the quarter which "often" related to a course confirmation that an individual did not attend or to non-compliance issues.[173]

86.  The Association of Computer Trainers described the performance of Capita in operating the ILA Centre as "woeful".[174] Ms Caroline Lambie of Hairnet reported that "if you phoned Capita you got people in the call centre who were just there to put information into the system, they were not there to deal with any complaints. There was no complaints mechanism at all".[175]

87.  There were two strands of weakness in the complaints mechanism. The complaints procedure did not allow providers to complain when the individuals they had trained had already had their account raided by another provider registered on the system. The requirement to count the complaints that Capita did receive from individuals and the practice of handing any complaints of substance over to the Department for investigation did not amount to a robust procedure either for resolving individual complaints or for detecting underlying problems in the design of the scheme. The handling of complaints was a crucial part of the contract and Capita failed to meet the terms of the contract. Both types of complaint mechanism, for the provider and for the learner, failed badly in the ILA scheme and any successor scheme will have to perform much better in recognising, handling, remedying and learning from complaints.

88.  Mr Keith Humphries of Dataplus Computer Services told us that they found calling the ILA centre to be "really irritating". According to Mr Humphries, "the call centre staff sounded young, impersonal although not impolite. It just seemed that they did not have a complete grasp of the job they were doing or perhaps just hadn't received adequate training".[176] Mr Martin Bayliss of TABS Limited told us that Capita only allowed the individual student to call the centre with any complaints, even though it was the learning provider who really lost out if they lost a prospective customer.[177] The Association of Computer Trainers said that throughout the fifteen month period of ILAs, application forms were lost, delayed, and all too often misread by the software used to scan in applications.[178] Mr Paddy Doyle of Capita admitted that because the take-up of the scheme was so much greater than expected, "we experienced some service issues and dipped below our service level agreement on occasions".[179] It seems likely that some early indications of fraud were too readily dismissed as 'computer error'.

89.  The quarterly service review for June to August 2001 was the first to register concern about the number of complaints about service providers: "an adverse aspect of the quarter has been the increasing number of learning providers who have come under suspicion of at worst fraud and at best negligence in not following the spirit of the Scheme's regulations and procedures. During the quarter Capita submitted proposals for the establishment of a Quality Standards and Prevention Unit to support DfES initiatives in this area".[180]

90.  Head-Line Communication told us that in general they felt poorly served by Capita's ILA Centre.[181] Mr Stuart Ingleson of Preston College told us that Capita had been "dreadful"; Mr David Gibson of the Association of Colleges said there had been "deep concerns".[182] Mr Ingleson told us that it was particularly difficult for the less experienced learner faced with "a very complex, to them, web­based administration system and a telephone help line that did not work".[183] In the circumstances, suggested Mr Ingleson, it was not surprising that they struggled and had difficulties with the administration. I do not know what the specification was that they were given, but I do know at that interface between learner and us and the system we had huge difficulties".[184] Mrs Sammy Betson of Ipswich ITeC told us that Capita were sometimes difficult for providers to get hold of and "once we came to the point where there were difficulties with people having had their ILAs used, then it became very difficult to get through to them".[185] Mrs Betson was refused any opportunity to talk to a supervisor or to customer services: "In fact, it was very difficult to get anywhere with their customer services line other than, 'thank you, we have made a note of it'."[186]

91.  Mr James Rees of Usdaw told us that what Usdaw picked up was that increasingly there seemed to be problems with Capita towards the summer period in 2001: "They were taking a long time to return information ... that then produced a lot of problems with the training set-up when the Capita agency had not responded. .. they were having a problem over the slowness with which things were getting processed".[187]

92.  York Consulting reported in September 2001 that providers expressed dissatisfaction in relation to, for example: slow website operation and delays in processing individuals' applications.[188] Mr Martin Bayliss of TABS Limited wrote that "the turnaround times from Capita were unacceptable".[189] Ms Barbara Walsh of Longridge Training Centre wrote that "the people we talked to seemed very young and had an impersonal call-centre approach to the job. ... Sometimes, we would be given an answer which seemed improbable so we would ring again and be given a totally different answer. The only thing to do in those circumstances was to ring once again and adopt the two-out-of-three answer".[190] Ms Iris Hill, an independent trainer working for Hairnet, wrote to tell us that "I rang the ILA centre to be told that there was nothing they could do ... There was no interest at all in hearing about potential fraud".[191] Mr Healey said that the DfES was "aware that the Capita system sometimes struggled in logging on, and transacting the business that learning providers wanted to do was sometimes difficult".[192]

93.  York Consulting's Research Brief stated that their Spring 2001 Report had made a number of recommendations including the need to create national marketing material, development of the ILA Centre website and improving the ILA application form.[193]

Misuse, abuse and fraud

94.  Mr Lauener of the DfES told us that "There is plenty of evidence that unscrupulous providers started to exploit the scheme in a major way from about the summer onwards".[194] He told us that "the cause of the more recent problems is the unauthorised access by unscrupulous providers to the system, those providers already having access in respect of any of their own learners that they had that they were working with and providers then going beyond that to get access using their user ID into other parts of the system".[195]

95.  As at 30 November 2001 5,732 complaints had been received from individuals about ILA incentives taken without their knowledge, out of over 2.6 million account holders.[196] Mr James O'Brien of Pitman Training Group plc and the Association of Computer Trainers told us —

    "training providers or organisations had access to the Capita database, once you were into that system if you were given a password to get in there as a training provider you could go and tap in anybody's number and come out with the money being drawn down into your area. If you go back to the summer when the first announcements were that one million accounts had been opened but two and a half million had been registered, that meant you had a 60 per cent chance of hitting a number that nobody else was going to use".[197]

96.  Mrs Sammy Betson of Ipswich ITeC told us that as a learning provider "it was very difficult to blow the whistle" when she came across evidence that an individual learner's account had been emptied without authorisation.[198] Mr James O'Brien of Pitman Training Group plc and the Association of Computer Trainers told us that —

    "on many occasions when learners went into a training provider, gave them their PIN number to access the system, the learning provider would then go on to the system and find that person's money had already disappeared. The problems that then came from that were that Capita would not allow the learning provider to try and interrogate that, the learner had to go and contact Capita themselves who would then tell them where the money had been withdrawn from. A lot of people could not be bothered to do that but those who did would then phone the companies, if they could get through to them, and find "I am very sorry, we must have mistyped the digits". That money was long gone. How many people did not bother following that up?".[199]

97.  Capita admitted that "in hindsight ... it should have been more robust in the manner in which it sought to persuade the Department to make changes to improve effectiveness."[200] We find it hard to credit that Capita, a major player in winning contracts for work contracted out to the private sector, should not have pointed out that, without a quality threshold for providers, the ILA was a disaster waiting to happen. The culpability of Capita was matched by that of the Department, in particular for not demanding more robust anti­fraud mechanisms in their specification.

98.  Ms Vivienne Parry gave us examples of fraud and abuse dating back to March 2001, some of which she had publicised in the News of the World including bogus promises of City & Guilds Diplomas, the unlicensed use of Microsoft software and unqualified tutors.[201] Mr Healey recognised that the News of the World had "done a particularly good job in exposing some of the small number of providers who have been misusing the scheme over the last few months".[202] The Association of Computer Trainers dated the entry of 'street traders' into the ILA market back to February 2001.[203] Head-Line Communication told us that "bona fide trainers had to fight arrivistes whose only interest in training was its ability to earn them quick money for no effort".[204]

99.  Rumours abound of massive fraud involving up to 80,000 ILAs in a single case.[205] As Ms Emma Solomon said, "if you are going to defraud it you are not going to just take £200".[206] Other anecdotal evidence suggests that shoddy practice was widespread, for example, door-to-door 'selling' of ILAs to sign up applicants in return for a worthless CD.[207] Ms Denyse Metcalf of Capita said that unorthodox methods were not necessarily unsound: "one of the things I think was very successful in ILA 1 and I hope we do not lose, was that the market became imaginative and the market did actually capture new individuals who were not previously accustomed to being involved in education. It would be very sad if that went".[208]

100.  Not all of the misuse of ILA funds amounted to criminal activity. As Mr Geoff Hall of the Learning and Skills Council put it, "on top of possibly some, but I suggest very limited, fraud, there were a lot of scams apparently but also what I would call hacking in to the computer system".[209] Mr Stuart Ingleson of Preston College found "quite staggering" the lack of checks required in ILA providers compared to the stringent accountability applied to FE funding: for example, students only had to attend once for the ILA to be paid in full.[210] Mr Healey drew a distinction between misuse/abuse of the spirit and the rules of the scheme and outright fraud.[211] The Committee is concerned that, although there has been a multiplicity of rumour about scams and frauds, there is very little hard evidence of the extent and amount of fraud actually committed against the ILA scheme.

101.  It is a matter of concern that, while Ministers were clear that misuse and abuse had taken place, alongside fraud, they were unable to provide either an exhaustive list or a working definition of misuse and abuse. The Department needs to be clear about which activities are unacceptable.

Remedial measures

102.  In response to the mounting anxiety about the security of the ILA scheme, the Department took several measures over the summer of 2001 against unscrupulous learning providers. These included:

103.  Ms Denyse Metcalf of Capita told us that a number of providers were taken off the register because they did not return the re-registration form which included a commitment to pay back any monies not paid correctly.[213] The June to August 2001 Quarterly Service Review shows that the total number of suspensions for not returning the form was 504 [414 private, 90 public].[214] The Quarterly Review stated that "another reason for suspension of learning providers has been the non-compliance of providers",[215] although the numbers permanently suspended appear to have been very few.[216]

104.  Mr Derek Grover of the DfES said that "there were cases where people would be suspended from the list of providers and, in effect, would set up in business again under another name".[217] Ms Denyse Metcalf of Capita said that —

    "we did have discussions with the Department about the speed of re-registration. That was one of the reasons why in the late summer we stopped new registrations so that organisations under investigation could not simply open up somewhere else. That was one of the things we would want to tighten up much more. As you are well aware, it is easy for people to buy a company, set up some directors and effectively operate without any of the names from the first company appearing on the second company".[218]

105.  Mr Peter Lauener of the DfES said that there were many arrangements where third party selling of learning using the ILA as an incentive, perhaps from door to door, could be "an extremely bad thing, where there is no interest in the learning on the part of the third party or the provider" but only where it was "purely due to a desire to make money out of the scheme, so it is that which is bad rather than necessarily the third-party selling".[219] Trusted intermediaries such as trades union learning representatives also had a part to play in the promotion of ILAs, which the TUC argued provided a kind of quality guarantee.[220] Mr James Rees of Usdaw told us of how his union worked with closely with the employers —

    "We tried to develop ways of working jointly with employers so that we could encourage staff to return to learning. Most Usdaw members come from the difficult groups that were talked about in the earlier evidence, those hard to reach groups. As a consequence, our learning reps had a difficult job of work sometimes in encouraging people to return to learning. They were also mostly people who were unlikely to get much in the way of development for their job­related training or learning. If someone drives a forklift truck, there is only a certain amount of job­related training they are going to get. So we encouraged people to engage in career or personal development learning. The numbers which came through us were quite high".[221]

106.  We recommend that the successes of trusted intermediaries, such as trade union learning representatives, should be taken fully into account in designing an ILA successor scheme.

107.  In its response to the Department in October 2001, the Association of Computer Trainers was concerned that new restrictions should not deter individual learners; in their view the most important thing was to apply quality assurance before admitting learning providers to the scheme.[222]

108.  The steps taken over the summer and the early autumn of 2001 to tighten up the operation of the scheme had clearly not stopped the problems. The DfES admitted that "the rules and the robustness of the scheme were simply not sufficiently strong to allow us to prevent the misuse, and at the margins, outright abuse and some fraud that clearly was creeping into the system".[223]

109.  Mr Peter Lauener of the DfES said that "The judgment we took was that it was too risky an option to stop and patch and re­launch as soon as possible. We had to get to the bottom of all the problems".[224] Mr John Healey said that the steps taken were not sufficient to stamp out the abuse and misuse that was going on and therefore the Department had to take the only responsible decision it could have taken and shut down the scheme.[225] Mr Healey later stated that "the design of the scheme did not allow us to stamp out abuse".[226]

Withdrawal of ILAs

110.  The decision to withdraw the ILA scheme with effect from 7 December was taken at an internal meeting in the Department on 18 October and announced on 24 October 2001.[227] Over 8,500 registered providers and 2.6 million account holders were then informed individually in writing.[228] In its initial announcement on 24 October 2001, the DfES played down the fraud angle and gave as the principal reason for closing the scheme that it had outstripped the financial resources available. In her statement, the Secretary of State said:

    "The programme has attracted over 2.5 million account holders and has been a great success in bringing down the financial barriers to learning. ILAs have opened up access for a great many people to a wide range of learning opportunities. However, the rapid growth of the scheme has exceeded all expectations, causing us to think again about how best to target public funds in this area and secure value for money."[229]

111.  Abuse of the scheme was given only second billing in the announcement on 24 October:

    "I also have concerns about the way some ILAs have been promoted and sold. There is growing evidence that some companies are abusing the scheme by offering low value, poor quality learning. We are keen that this does not undermine what has been a very successful programme and so we are acting quickly to protect the interests of individual learners. We have therefore decided to prevent any further take­up of ILAs ... learning begun by existing account holders will continue to be supported provided it is booked with the ILA Centre by 7 December."[230]

112.  The DfES Press Release announcing the initial suspension stated :

    "Education and Skills Secretary Estelle Morris today announced that the Individual Learning Account (ILA) programme is to be suspended from December 7 in England¼ The Government is ¼ concerned by evidence that some ILAs have been exploited by companies providing poor value for money. To tackle these concerns, the Government has decided to suspend its current ILA programme."[231]

113.  We note that at around this time Ministers in the DfES were putting the finishing touches to the document Education and Skills Delivering Results A Strategy to 2006 which included as one of only two milestones for 2002 a commitment to "expand individual learning accounts".

The sudden shutdown

114.  On Wednesday 21 November 2001 an approach was made to the Department by an ILA learning provider alleging that a third party had offered to sell them a large number of ILA account numbers. The Department arranged for a member of its Special Investigations Unit [SIU] to visit and interview the learning provider the next day. At the interview the SIU official was presented with a computer disk that had been passed to the learning provider, allegedly as evidence of the authenticity of the offer to sell ILA account numbers. The disk contained almost one thousand full names, addresses and contact details as would have appeared on the ILA record, as well as ILA numbers.[232]

115.  Checks on the disk confirmed the data to be live ILA account numbers which had either not been used at all (and which were therefore still available for use to claim funding) or which in some cases had been used to make a claim in the previous few days. The SIU conclusions were presented to Ministers on Friday 23 November. In the light of the confirmed evidence that the disk contained ILA numbers which had been obtained from the ILA database and the allegations that very large numbers of such ILA account details were being offered for sale, Ministers concluded, in line with police advice, that immediate closure of the programme, two weeks earlier than planned, was the only way to protect public funds.[233] Capita's analysis suggested that there were only four providers about whom they were particularly concerned in relation to abuse of the IT system.[234] Mr Paddy Doyle of Capita conceded that "there were a number of other issues going on and that does not necessarily refer back to the IT system".[235]

116.  The DfES Press Release announcing the immediate closure of the scheme on 23 November 2001 stated :

    "The Department for Education and Skills today called in police to investigate alleged fraud and theft involving Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs).

    Officers from the Department's special investigations unit had discovered irregularities on Thursday after being contacted by an ILA provider.

    This afternoon, the ILA programme was shut down immediately, two weeks earlier than planned. The ILA programme was to have been suspended from 7 December.

    The inquiry is ongoing and the Department is unable to comment further for fear of compromising the investigation."[236]

117.  Mr Paddy Doyle of Capita confirmed that Capita's investigations identified "no evidence of a breach of security nor hacking of the system in place" and "no evidence of any Capita employee being involved in illegal or illegitimate activity".[237]

118.  Ms Emma Solomon of Hairnet said that when the deadlines were announced about the closure of the scheme "the website not only slowed down but actually crashed and went out of action".[238] Mr Tim Addison of FutureTeach Ltd told us that from before 4 in the afternoon on Friday 23 November 2001 his firm was unable to access the ILA web site to put on bookings. Mr Addison said that he was told before 5 pm that the system had been taken down for essential maintenance but would be re­available by 6.30 pm. He told us that the official line was that the system closed at 6:30 pm on that Friday, but Mr Addison alleged that this was not true. He estimated his losses from being unable to post claims on that day amounted to over £10,000.

162   Q.337. Back

163   Q.605. Back

164   Q.528. Back

165   Ev 116 paragraph 21. Back

166   Ev 116 paragraph 20. Back

167   Individual Learning Accounts - Follow Up Study, DfES Research Brief RBX 01-02, January 2002, page 1. Back

168   Section MIS/B/00150 [emphasis added; evidence not reported]. Back

169   Q.478. Back

170   Quarterly Service Review September to November 2000 paragraph 2.5 [evidence not reported]. Back

171   Quarterly Service Review December 2000 to February 2001 paragraph 2.9(b) [evidence not reported]. Back

172   Quarterly Service Review March to May 2001paragraph 2.11(b) [evidence not reported]. Back

173   Quarterly Service Review June to August 2001 paragraphs 2.17 and 2.18 [evidence not reported]. Back

174   Ev20. Back

175   Q.83. Back

176   Ev164 Appendix 7 paragraph 4. Back

177   Ev165 Appendix 8 paragraph 4. Back

178   Ev15. Back

179   QQ.336,439. Back

180   Quarterly Service Review June to August 2001 paragraphs 2.15,[evidence not reported]. Back

181   Ev157 Appendix 3. Back

182   QQ.245 and 246. Back

183   Q.248. Back

184   Q.248. Back

185   Q.271. Back

186   Q.264. Back

187   Q.146. Back

188   Individual Learning Accounts - Follow Up Study, DfES Research Brief RBX 01-02, January 2002, page 1. Back

189   Ev165 Appendix 8 paragraph 1. Back

190   Ev165 Appendix 9 paragraph 3. Back

191   Ev166 Appendix 10 paragraph 3. Back

192   Q.563. Back

193   Individual Learning Accounts - Follow Up Study, DfES Research Brief RBX 01-02, January 2002, page 4. Back

194   Q.21. Back

195   Q.42. Back

196   HC Deb 19 December 2001 vol 377 col 410W. Back

197   Q.77. Back

198   Q.264. Back

199   Q.77. Back

200   Ev93 paragraph 16. See Q.370. Back

201   Ev162-3 Appendix 5. Back

202   HC 304-v Q.331. Back

203   Ev15. Back

204   Ev158 Appendix 3. Back

205   QQ.81 to 83. Back

206   Q.83. Back

207   QQ.236 to 238, 264. See also Q.320. Back

208   Q.591. Back

209   Q.304. Back

210   Q.224. Back

211   QQ.529-532. Back

212   Ev116 paragraph 20. See also footnote to Q.22. Back

213   Q.343. See also 338. Back

214   Quarterly Service Review June to August 2001 section 3 [evidence not reported]. Back

215   Quarterly Service Review June to August 2001 paragraph 2.13 [evidence not reported]. Back

216   Q.655. In a written Answer, Mr Healey stated that the number of providers who failed to re­register between June and August 2001was 485. Prior to the closure on 23 November 2001, 47 providers had been suspended from the register of learning providers. None had been permanently removed from the register. From 23 November 2001, payments had been withheld from 239 providers, including 17 of those originally suspended, pending completion of validation checks and investigations into claims- HC Deb 23 April 2002 vol 384 cols 155­6W. Back

217   Q.7. Back

218   Q.656. Back

219   Q.34. Back

220   Ev48 paragraph 6. See also QQ.148,150. Back

221   Q.146. Back

222   Ev18. Back

223   Ev117 paragraph 27. See also Q.23. Back

224   Q.28. See also QQ.45,51 Back

225   Q.537. Back

226   HC Deb 19 March 2002 vol 382 col 226. Back

227   Q.522. Back

228   Ev117 paragraph 23. Back

229   The answer given on 24 October 2001 was printed at HC Deb 31 October 2001 vol 373 col 706W. Back

230   HC Deb 31 October 2001 vol 373 col 706W. Back

231   DfES Press Notice 24 October 2001. Back

232   Ev117 paragraph 26; QQ.414, 567. Back

233   Ev117 paragraph 27. Back

234   Q.431. Back

235   Q.433. Back

236   DfES Press Notice 2001/0395, available via the website. Back

237   Q.336. See also Ev94 paragraph 21. Back

238   Q.77. Back

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