THE credibility of vocational education, including training under the government's New Deal for the unemployed, could be undermined by fraud and malpractice, a report from the Committee of Public Accounts has warned, writes Phil Baty.
The report, by the influential all-party committee of backbench MPs, said it was "unsatisfactory" that Pounds 14.6 million of public money was wasted in "incorrect and uncertain payments" to training providers in 1996-97 - an increase of 40 per cent since 1995.
The Department for Education and Employment's promises of improved financial control over National Vocational Qualifications, and the training companies which provide them, it warned, "had not been delivered".
For the first time the PAC acknowledged the concerns of education pressure group Article 26 that the actual level of wasted public money could amount to billions.
On top of the Pounds 14.6 million of overpayments identified in clear cases of fraudulent claims for funding, and of administrative errors, the system could also be blighted by hard-to-identify cases of deficient NVQ assessments, where assessors passed non-competent candidates who then held valid certificates.
The committee expressed its concern over the DFEE's failure to control the 72 Training and Enterprise Councils, private companies that deliver more than Pounds 1 billion of public money to 4,500 training providers, including colleges and private training companies. The PAC said that 11 TECs do not have satisfactory financial controls. A further seven TECs faced allegations of provider fraud.
In a tense evidence session with DFEE permanent secretary Michael Bichard, committee member Geoffrey Clifton-Brown referred to a 1996 article in The THES which revealed that 48 per cent of NVQ internal assessors and 38 per cent of external assessors admitted to passing non-competent candidates. He said: "The article talks about a welter of invalid qualifications, a degree of ghost training and even ghost trainees, alleged invalid payments, false certificates and the rest. This surely is highly unsatisfactory."
Mr Bichard was accused of complacency after saying employers showed confidence in NVQs.
The PAC report notes the continuing rise in the number of cases in the DFEE's record of alleged and suspected irregularities. Thirty-nine cases are under investigation, involving some Pounds 7.6 million.
"We are concerned that bad practice, for example NVQ assessors passing non-competent candidates, could if unchecked undermine the credibility of the NVQ system," the PAC report said.
It recommended the DFEE "take specific action to reduce the risk of this type of irregularity".