Training councils waste pounds 14.6m

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN pounds 14.6m of taxpayers' money has been wasted through incompetence and alleged fraud at vocational training agencies, according to a National Audit Office report published yesterday.

The funds constitute "overpayments" by the Department of Education and Employment to Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) for arranging courses, largely for the unemployed.

The news comes at a time when the Government is investigating allegations of "serious irregularities" at the organisations which provide the training on behalf of TECs. In one case it was claimed that a provider was paid pounds 4.5m by 22 TECs for trainees who were ineligible for training or who were awarded National Vocational Qualifications despite being incompetent. Other trainees could not be traced or were "non-existent". In another inquiry officials were investigating allegedly spurious claims by a training company which had received pounds 3.3m from 11 TECs.

The report by the Comptroller and Auditor General estimates that the value of overpayments to TECs increased by pounds 6m last year to pounds 14.6m.

The report pointed out that the Public Accounts Committee had declared that the pounds 8.6m of "estimated errors" in 1995-96 was unacceptable and that the Government should do all it could to reduce it.

The report acknowledges that inquiries into 65 out of 85 cases of alleged irregularities had been completed and that the department had recovered pounds 1,386,000 from TECs.

In the 20 remaining cases, which the department is pursuing "with vigour", the alleged irregularities could be of the order of pounds 10.3m, the report says.

The document acknowledges that the Government had taken significant steps aimed at improving financial controls at TECs.

A spokesman for the national TEC council pointed out that it was training providers and sometimes the bodies awarding certificates which were being accused of deception, but not TECs themselves.

He said that the cases of alleged fraud only concerned 0.5 per cent of the 500,000 trainees processed each year. There were 9,000 training providers in England and Wales and the investigations concerned a tiny minority of them. "It is a small amount of alleged fraud when you compare it with local authorities or further education," he said.

While TECs had a role in ensuring that providers were performing a "good and honest job", the Employment Service was primarily responsible, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Employment said that the pounds 14.6m in overpayment only constituted 1.2 per cent of the total training budget. She emphasised that the figure referred to 1996-97 and that therefore blame could not be laid at the door of the present administration. "The new government has made it clear that it is taking a robust attitude to the issue."