Sceptics seek truth over accounts fraud

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Few prosecutions despite hype, as small companies suffer. Steve Hook reports

A CHIEF constable could be questioned in Parliament as MPs continue to doubt the real level of fraud against individual learning accounts.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons education and skills select committee, told FE Focus he is concerned that ministers' early statements about fraud, made when the ILA scheme was dropped in November 2001, have not so far been borne out by prosecutions.

He has told training companies which were caught up in the ILA collapse that the lack of prosecutions will be a key focus of his committee's next examination of the ILA debacle.

He said: "They said what happened was they had to pull the plug and there is an enormous amount of fraud. There have been some prosecutions but not for the amount of money we were led to believe. We want to get to the bottom of it. We can call senior police people. I can't see why we can't get a chief constable or the Crown Prosecution Service. We want to know whether these cases are likely to go ahead ."

Scepticism about large-scale fraud was reflected among small training companies on Tuesday, when they met in Parliament to discuss the effects of the ILA collapse - which put some out of business.

Businessman Roger Tuckett, who has been lobbying the Government to compensate training companies, referred to a Sunday Telegraph article which linked ILA fraud to Osama Bin Laden - and he asked rhetorically whether it had been planted by the Department for Education and Skills.

When ILAs were scrapped, the pound;199 million budget for two years was overspent by pound;93.6m. None of the rumours of multi-million-pound frauds have yet been followed by convictions, although the DfES says it could take two years for this to happen because of the complexity of such cases.

Six smaller cases, involving less than pound;50,000 in total, have led to convictions.

But there are already signs that companies have suffered as a result of DfES allegations about fraud.

One businessman who attended Tuesday's meeting told FE Focus his information technology training company had to stop trading because the DfES failed to pay money which was owed to him for ILA-related work on the basis that he was "under investigation" by police. He said police eventually told him there would be no further action, but the DfES has since continued to withhold payment.

Tighter security will be a key feature of the new ILA scheme, due to be announced in June.

It is widely anticipated that local learning and skills councils will be left to approve training providers. Small operators fear they could be squeezed out in favour of larger companies and further education colleges.

But if the small operators are to have a role, Whitehall will have to pay more attention to their needs, ministers have been warned.

Jim Gatten, chairman of the Federation of Independent Training Providers, said the Government had failed to consult private providers about the shape of the first ILA scheme. He said: "If you want to see change you have got to talk to the small guys."

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