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Tuesday, 16 October, 2001, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
Minister admits skills scheme flaws
Individual Learning Accounts
Completed ILA application forms were left in a lay-by
By David Ross, editor of BBC Radio 4's File on 4

In the last month, a number of people have been arrested by officers from the National Crime Squad investigating allegations of a "significant fraud" against the Department for Education and Skills.

The investigation centres on the individual learning account (ILA) scheme under which anyone aged above 19 is entitled to a grant of up to 200 towards educational and training courses.

The scheme, which is a central plank of the government's strategy to encourage lifelong learning, has already cost more than 200m.

Little scrutiny

But there are increasing fears that ILAs have been open to widespread abuse.

More than 8,000 companies have registered as learning providers, with little scrutiny of the quality of the courses they offer.

There are also complaints that some have engaged in aggressive - and sometimes dubious - selling techniques.

Christopher Ryan, 59, who suffers from osteoporosis, has a heart condition and is housebound, first learned about ILAs when he received a telephone call from someone he thought was from his local authority.

In fact it was a private company, who registered him for one of their courses and then claimed his grant - providing him with course material which he found totally inadequate.

"If they had been giving it away free I would still have complained about its quality," he said.

Application fraud

Trading standards officers in Warwickshire recently recovered a large batch of completed ILA application forms which had been left in a lay-by.

When they contacted people whose details appeared on the forms none of them had any knowledge of the scheme.

"Obviously that causes us great concern because we have received allegations of a black market in ILA pin numbers " said Simon Cripwell, of Warwickshire Trading Standards.

He has now sought an urgent meeting with Capita, the company which administers ILAs on behalf of the government.

But John Healey, the Minister for Adult Skills, has rejected any idea that the scheme is fundamentally flawed, but has admitted there have been problems.

"What has become clear in the last two to three months is that there are some so-called providers who have been using the system to sell aggressively, to promote training provision that may not be satisfactory, or may even be substandard," he said.

"We need to tighten up the system and we will be really tough on anybody that is not just abusing the system, and therefore the public money that is invested, but is actually in danger of undermining the whole ILA programme itself."

File on 4's investigation into Individual Learning Accounts is broadcast on Tuesday on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm.

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