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Council powers to 'fight fraud'

Ministers reassure Lords on the extent of the investigative rights of FE's new funding body. Harvey McGavin reports

THE LEARNING and Skills Council should have special powers to investigate fraud and misuse of public funds by education and training providers, the Government has said.

The council will have access to personal accounts, documents, computers and "associated apparatus and materials" associated with all the post-16 education and training it will fund after it is set up next April.

But the Opposition's fears that the clause would lead to intrusion were "unfounded", Government minister Lord Bach told the House of Lords, during the Learning and Skills Bill debate.

The amendment, introduced by Conservative education spokeswoman Baroness Blatch, sought to remove the council's right to access "a person's accounts and documents" and give it the right only to inspect "relevant" material.

But Lord Bach said the amendment would seriously impair the council's ability to delegate investigations to third parties such as auditors or the police.

"When things go seriously wrong, specialist resources and expertise are sometimes required and those may not be readily available within the council," he said.

In a reference to the continuing investigation into fraud at the former Bilston Community College, he added: "Although I cannot go into details of specific cases because of the risk of endangering current investigations, an example might be the specialis resources which the department has for investigating cases of suspected fraud."

But Baroness Blatch said there needed to be "some protection for the individual against the council or its appointee going through the personal belongings of a tutor." However, her amendment was defeated by 100 votes to 41.

Earlier in the eight-hour debate, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Tope accused the Government of discrimination in its arrangments for the Learning and Skills Council's obligations to promote equal opportunities.

As it stands, the Bill says the Council must have due regard to the equality of opportunity on grounds of race, sex and disability. Lord Tope's amendment, which was later withdrawn, called for the terms of reference to be widened to include age, sexual orientation and religion.

"It is important that the Learning and Skills Council is seen to be representative of the whole population and the whole community. It cannot be seen to be or perceived as, at worst, a white male business-dominated body," he said.

Not to guard against discrimination on the grounds of age in a Bill dealing with lifelong learning was "particularly wrong" and the Government should use the full European Union definition of terms of discrimination as it had done in the provisions for the new Greater London Authority, he said.

"To have done that for one new body and now quite deliberately leaving it out for another is a form of discrimination in itself. It is a mistake."

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