Anger as ESFA dodges MPs’ scrutiny on subcontracting fees

Anger as ESFA dodges MPs' scrutiny on subcontracting fees

The government has been accused of shocking double standards on transparency, admitting it probably won’t publish its long-delayed findings on subcontracting fees in time for parliamentary inquiry hearings.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency has taken over responsibility for publishing all subcontracting “management” fees, but it “aims” to publish them by the end of March – four months after its own deadline and too late to make them available for scrutiny by MPs.

There are several imminent select committee inquiry hearings on the matter, both from the Commons education and public accounts committees, which will focus on major concerns that have arisen on subcontracting, and on providers including Learndirect.

The chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon (pictured), has told the DfE to redress this “deeply worrying” situation, and collect the data “immediately” so it “can be collated and we can see them”.

“The taxpayer should have the exact information readily available as soon as possible, as to how much money is being creamed off,” he insisted.

The taxpayer should have the exact information readily available as soon as possible, as to how much money is being creamed off

His demand was echoed by the shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden.

“The continuing failure of ministers and the ESFA to provide this data, after they had trumpeted loudly taking responsibility for it, risks hampering hugely the work of public bodies such as the education select committee’s current enquiries on the concerns around subcontracting,” he said.

“It seems to be double standards, a case from this government of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.”

The DfE’s apparent delaying tactics indicate “defensiveness”, Marsden claimed “not least in terms of its decisions in the Learndirect funding controversy”.

The education select committee launched an inquiry in November into the quality of apprenticeships and skills training.

It is due to hear evidence on January 16, and will focus on concerns over value for money. It will more than likely investigate the Learndirect saga in more detail.

The largest training provider in the UK retains all of its contracts despite an Ofsted grade four last year – in what looks like special treatment from the DfE.

It is notorious for charging high management fees: in 2015/16, it retained £19.8 million from its 64 subcontractors, 36 per cent of its total SFA funding for that year.

The public accounts committee will also hold its own hearing on January 15, to “examine the funding of Learndirect Ltd”.

Individual lead providers once had to publish the annual figures by the end of every November, but civil servants have not even sent out the templates, on which providers are to record their figures for the last academic year. The DfE claimed they will go out “in due course”.

A spokesperson admitted there is still no firm date for when the fees will be published.

“We aim to publish the information on our website by the end of this financial year [March],” he said.

“The new process will provide greater transparency and will mean information is much easier to find and all charges will be published in one location.”

The delay has provoked dismay on the government’s online forum, feconnect.

“For 2015-16, we had to publish the fees charged and funding paid to our subcontractors on our own website within five weeks of the R14 close, whereas for 2016-17 year, the ESFA were supposed to supply us a template. Has anyone received this?” one user said.

“No sign of this yet,” another replied. “Rather ironic considering they decided to do it this way round cos some people weren’t bothering to do it and now no one is doing it.”