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Accounts debacle hits the workers

Union members demand cash help after ILA failure. Steve Hook reports

NEARLY 50,000 employees have lost out as a result of the plug being pulled on one of the Government's key initiatives to widen participation. They are the latest victims to come to light after individual learning accounts were scrapped amid allegations that the scheme was riddled with fraud and bogus learning providers.

MPs heard this week that the closure of ILAs has resulted in the loss of up to an estimated pound;9.3 million in funding for the education of union members.

Many of these opened learning accounts on the advice of union representatives. The reps, who are expected to be given statutory paid time off for their training duties when the Education Bill becomes law, are regarded as a vital link in the drive to re-train the low-skilled.

But the Government has been told a cash hand-out is now needed to rescue the training of tens of thousands of workers who were due to take part in ILA-funded learning, according to evidence submitted to MPs by the Trades Union Congress.

The TUC and individual unions including USDAW, which represents retail workers, say the Government should increase the union learning fund to repair the damage done by the ILA failure.

The TUC's briefing document to Parliament's education select committee says 46,663 ILA accounts were expected to be opened by union members by the end of this year - equivalent to pound;6.9m to pound;9.3m worth of funding.

"The impact of the ILAs' demise has had considerable implications for the trade union contribution to learning and skills," it said.

James Rees, of USDAW, told the committee that providers were carefully selected for staff taking up training. As a result, bogus companies were not able to get at ILA funds. Much of the training took place at work.

The TUC believes the Government could learn from unions' ability to act as a mediators.

"They would give them some initial information about how they might use ILAs. They would then work with providers to find the right learning programme to ensure value for money and quality assurance. Union reps really did feel quite confident working with the ILA approach," Liz Smith of the TUC told the select committee.

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "The Government remains committed to workplace training.

"It has helped thousands of people through the union learning fund. Free training is available to those who need help with basic skills. Help with IT matters can be found at any of the UK Online centres around the country."

Sylvia Iwuagwu, 25, of no fixed abode, remains the only person in the UK to be charged with the theft of ILA money. She has admitted fraud to the value of pound;9,396 and is due to be sentenced at Southwark Crown Court on Wednesday. The DFES says there have been 39 arrests.

Barry Sheerman, who chairs the select committee, said: "The initial concern by Estelle Morris, Education Secretary, was with the Treasury. Fraud was not mentioned. I am still concerned that fraud was used as a cover for Treasury concern with overspend."

He said his message to ministers is: "If this could have been fixed and you have over-reacted, you will be in trouble. Similarly, if the Government fails to bring a number of prosecutions, there will be hell to pay."

Open letter to ministers, 32

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