Twenty questions before you go

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
An open letter to David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council

It is over two years since the FEFC initiated events that resulted in the closure of Bilston Community College. The council itself has only some six weeks left before its business is completed, but there remain outstanding questions regarding Bilston that ought to be answered. The council has, directly or by implication, suggested that;

* There was fraud at Bilston Community College.

* The college claimed funding units for work that was ineligible for funding.

* The college's former auditors may not have discharged their responsibilities properly.

I would, therefore, welcome your help in answering the following questions: Fraud at Bilston In view of the council's repeated references to police fraud enquiries is it not surprising that no one has been charged with anything and that none of the former Bilston senior staff has been interviewed by the police?

Do you agree with the former FEFC director who reported to a Bilston governor's meeting on February 26 1999, that there was "no evidence of serious malpractice"?

What has been the cost of the various investigations into matters at the college including; the Deloitte and Touche forensic audit, the Bentley Jennison forensic audit, the Charity Commission investigation, the FEFC special investigation, police enquiries and a Department for Education and Employment special investigation?

Is the intention of repeated references to police enquiries to slur former Bilston staff by generalised insinuation and innuendo?

How can individuals defend themselves in the absence of charges or evidence?

Work ineligible for funding Did auditors report on FEFC concerns over the eligibility of funding claims, and find the claims to be essentially satisfactory?

Did the council then put what might be reasonably interpreted as pressure on auditors to come to a different conclusion on disputed funding claims, as revealed in letters between auditors and the council?

Is it significant that this audit, several others and the January 1999 inspection followed the college's threat to take the council to judicial review over the 20 per cent cut in funding for 1997-98?

Audit matters If the college's former auditors were negligent why has the council not carried out its threat to se?

Did two different sets of auditors consider the relationship between the college and its companies in 1996 and 1998 and find that relationship to be broadly appropriate and consistent with legislation?

Did FEFC auditors examine the college's management arrangements in July 1997 and conclude that they were substantially in accord with statute and the council's requirements?

Why was the council's inspection and audit of January 1999 conducted during a week when the council knew that 120 middle mangers were taking demotion or redundancy in line with the recovery plan that had been discussed with the council.

Do you agree with Colin Flint (principal of Solihull College) when he observed that the inspection process has become "more aggressive and punitive" and is used to ensure colleges follow policy steers and follow a "political agenda:? (FE now! Summer 2000).

The council's policies and conduct Following the departure of the college's former principal why did the council change its approach of working with the acting principal on the recovery plan?

Was the change because of a political imperative to "name and shame" a high profile college that was perceived as having challenged the authority of the council?

In 1998-99 did the council fund the two Wolverhampton colleges for 1,445,000 units of work and was the estimated out-turn of Wolverhampton College for 1999-2000 about 650,000 units?

Has this achievement been supported by funding of some pound;12m above the average for the sector and will this funding safeguarding amount to pound;30m over the period 1999-2004?

How has the council been able to justify pound;15m of capital expenditure at Wolverhampton College, including the demolition of Bilston Community College's main site when the council rejected this option in Bilston's accommodation strategy?

Does the "failure" of college after college suggest that it is simply not tenable to repeatedly blame governors and managements for what are clearly failures of FE structures and systems - failures in which the council has played the largest part?

I believe that these are questions of public interest and so this is an open letter that I have copied to the Public Accounts Committee.

Paul Goddard-Patel

Former assistant principal and finance director

Bilston Community College


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