Doubts cast on accounts fraud

Steve Hook & Ngaio Crequer

MORE than pound;5 million - equivalent to the turnover of a small college - could have been lost to further education in the individual learning accounts fiasco.

The estimated cost of scrapping ILAs, a move the Government claims was due to fraud, is based on a survey of 49 of the 387 general FE colleges in England, by the Association of Colleges.

A total of pound;695,414 had been lost between them. At an adjournment debate on Tuesday, John Healey, the lifelong learning minister, said: "So far 60 providers are under investigation. Police are involved in 27 of those cases and 47 providers have been suspended from the provider register."

But further doubts have been expressed by opposition MPs about whether the fraud could justify closing the whole scheme.

Conservative Christopher Chope said figures showing the scheme was over-budget "give the lie to the suggestion that we are simply considering fraud". He added: "The Government has realised that it will not be able to balance its books."

Mr Healey responded by condemning last week's TES story which aired MPs' doubts about why the scheme was axed.

"Take no notice of such risible and wretched reporting," he said.

The extent of the fraud was raised again at a meeting in Westminster for disgruntled learning providers.

"There is a question of how much police investigation is actually going on," said Damian Green, shadow education secretary.

The Government now claims that the scheme went pound;59m over its budget of pound;202.1m for the two years. But even this estimate of the overspend has been questioned by opposition MPs.

At the education select committee this week, MPs condemned Mr Healey's "glib dismissal" of compensation for training providers.

Barry Sheerman, committee chairman, said it was "unacceptable" that the Government should close the scheme down overnight - having got it wrong - ignoring the pain of the providers and learners, the jobs lost and the businesses that had gone bust. He said they had to get it right, fast.

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Steve Hook & Ngaio Crequer

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