A government scheme to boost workers' skills came under attack from a committee of MPs today, with accusations that the multimillion-pound programme had been "mismanaged".
Targets set under the Train to Gain scheme were "unrealistically ambitious" and the level of demand was overestimated, it was claimed.
The Public Accounts Committee said the programme had supported 1.4 million learners by last summer, around 5 per cent of the workforce, but the MPs complained there had been "serious weaknesses" in the way it was managed by the Learning and Skills Council, which comes under Lord Mandelson's Business Department.
In the first two years of Train to Gain, the scheme underspent by £151 million against a budget of £747 million, said the MPs.
Half of employers whose staff received training under the scheme said they would have arranged similar training without the public subsidy, said the report.
The Government was accused of "discourtesy" by the committee after announcing a new national skills strategy as the MPs was holding hearings on Train to Gain.
Edward Leigh (Conservative, Gainsborough), chairman of the committee, said: "Despite providing work-based training for around 5 per cent of the workforce, the Train to Gain programme has been mismanaged from the outset.
"In the face of evidence of what was achievable, targets for the first two years were unrealistically ambitious. The number of learners, the level of demand from employers and the capacity of training providers were at first all overestimated.
"By the third year, demand for training, fuelled by substantially widened eligibility for the programme and by the recession, had increased to the point where the programme could no longer be afforded.
"Funding to training providers has been stop-start, with many now having to run down the capacity they had been encouraged to build up. Employers with new requirements are being turned away.
"What must happen now is for spending to be brought under control. In the light of experience gained over the last three years of what courses and qualifications have proved most valuable, funds need to be directed at the training and sectors with the most acute needs, and the training delivered by the best quality providers."
Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive at the Association of Colleges (AoC), said: "The PAC report reflects many of the concerns colleges have been raising with AoC about the Train to Gain programme. The biggest of these is the fact that some of the £900 million spent by Government each year on training employees could have been recovered from their employers.
"However, when correctly applied Train to Gain can offer an effective means of supporting reskilling through the recession and preparing the way for recovery. As the committee states, most learners have benefited and employers have seen business benefits."
Skills minister Kevin Brennan said: "Train to Gain has increased the productivity of businesses, and given tens of thousands of employees the opportunity to improve their skills; both crucial for the long term strength of the economy, and why we remain committed to this valuable programme.
"This is particularly important during a recession which is why the Government responded quickly and flexibly to adjust the Train to Gain offer.
"We don't agree that our targets for Train to Gain have been unrealistically ambitious.
"Over 1.4 million qualifications have been started through Train to Gain, and over 850,000 have been completed since 2006.
"Evidence shows employers and employees alike value the programme. Although some employers said they would have offered training to their staff, not all do and the training may not be of the same quality as Train to Gain and lead to a qualification for their staff."Reuse content