Delaying the long-awaited White Paper on lifelong learning might not have been such a bad decision. The mysterious policy document which failed to materialise this week had, reportedly, been redrafted up to nine times. Surely it could be redrafted 100 times - if that were necessary for ministers to have a workable blueprint which would help them meet their electoral pledges to create a learning society.
But to promise a White Paper with a well-publicised publication date - Tuesday, February 10 - and then deny it ever existed is a quite different story.
This assertion is not "creative reporting" by The TES (as suggested by Kim Howells, the minister responsible, in our letters page this week). It was the clear understanding of the Government's advisory taskgroup on lifelong learning; Graham Lane, chairman of the Government's advisory group on student support; Baroness Helena Kennedy, author of the report on widening participation in further education; Margaret Hodge, chair of the Commons education and employment select committee; a host of further education officials; and every college in the land.
Whether or not the document actually got as far as the printers is not the point; what really matters is what might have been in it. As a topic, lifelong learning will always be difficult for governments, because it is open-ended and diffuse. Ministers cannot be sure what any commitment might entail in the long run, and or what financial demands might be generated.
But granted these uncertainties, surely ministers and civil servants between them could have done better than a hotchpotch of ill-defined ideas around the proposed University for Industry, individual learning accounts and watered-down attainment targets which the paper apparently contained. What the Government badly needs is a grand vision.
After all, ministers have had many months to get this right. There have been numerous consultations on adult, further and higher education, culminating in two reports by Sir Ron Dearing, one by Baroness Kennedy and the supposedly definitive advice of a team under Northern College principal Bob Fryer - which was commissioned by ministers to draft a blueprint. What on earth has happened to the 20 recommendations in the Fryer report?
The anger of those in post-school education is hardly surprising. Lady Kennedy challenged senior civil servants at an RSA conference when the news broke last week. "Is it a White Paper or is it not? If not, this is three years of my work torn up." But the greatest astonishment has come from the thousands who were geared up for national and regional conferences, roadshows and debates following the expected publication this week.
All the recommendations that might have been in this shadowy White Paper may well appear in the consultation paper promised in two weeks' time. But ministers have already sent the wrong message to those who work in further and adult education. They have lived through years of talk and consultation; now they need action.
Tony Blair is anxious that the Government should be as tough on standards and exams in lifelong learning as it is in schools. Quite right too. But there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who (to borrow the words of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock) want to become the first member of their family in a thousand generations to go to college. What is the point of rigorous exams if hardly anyone can afford to take the courses which lead to them?
Baroness Blackstone, speaking yesterday at the Further Education Funding Council annual conference, (page 31) made great efforts to persuade college principals that lifelong learning still enjoys a high place in the Government's priorities. But nobody was fooled.