Siôn Simon's Attempt To Beat Record of Lammy.
John Humphrys: That was Sue Rimmer ending Kim Catcheside’s report.
Siôn Simon: Well they, they have got a problem and I mean let me say I really do, I understand and I sympathise with the frustrations of colleges in this kind of position. There, there, there will be colleges who’ve invested money, who’ve borrowed money, even some that have started doing building works. And it’s, it’s right to say that the LSC has given in principle approval to seventy nine colleges which totals three billion pounds, would total nearly three billion pounds of Government money and that it’s clear that that level of expenditure can’t be funded in the current spending round.
And we’re quite clear, as Ministers quite clear, that that’s not acceptable. We, that we shouldn’t be in that position and that’s why we, we’ve appointed Sir Andrew Foster, the former Chief Executive of the Audit Commission to look in to how the LSC got in to this position, what we need to do immediately to get out of it and what we need to do in the medium term to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
JH: I’m a bit puzzled as to why you need this review led by Foster because your own man, Stephen Marston, was, was at the meetings of the Learning and Skills Council where these things were being discussed. I mean you know what’s been going on, you should have been kept informed.
SS: Well I think one of the problems, I mean we’ll have to, we’ll have to see the, the, the Foster review to know the detail of exactly, exactly what ...
JH: But wasn’t Mr Marston telling you what was going on directly …
SS: Well …
JH: … I mean he was at the, I’ve got the minutes in front of me and he was there.
SS: … well if, if you’ve got the minutes you’ll see that the, the minutes of LSC, LSC council meetings tend not over the course of the last year either to have referred to this at all or to have referred to it in very great detail. Only, only towards the end of last year, as far as I understand, was this being flagged up to the, to the LSC council.
JH: Yeah and they accepted that mistakes had been made.
SS: And, and it’s clear that mistakes have been made and that’s why we’ve appointed Sir Andrew Foster to look in to what mistakes, why and how we make sure that they’re not making …
JH: Well I suppose the, the point I’m making is it’s odd that you don’t know what those mistakes were given that your own representative was at the meetings where those mistakes were acknowledged.
SS: Well I think the point I’m making is that it, I think the LSC itself doesn’t know how and what mistakes have been made and why and that’s why we’ve appointed an …
JH: Well that’s extraordinary, they wrote the letters to these people, I’ve got copies of some of the letters here that they wrote to these people.
SS: I mean, we should be clear that although there will be some colleges in the kind of difficulties that you’ve described in your packages that what we’re talking about is, is future expenditure. There’s an ongoing college building programme. There were two hundred and fifty odd colleges currently being built now as we speak …
JH: Oh indeed.
SS: … and, and none of that, no college in those circumstances is being stopped or slowed down or frozen.
JH: But there are these seventy nine colleges, as you well know, who are …
SS: There are.
JH: … in very serious trouble, some of them as you heard there, you, you heard Mr Booth at Barnsley College saying maybe we’re going to have to go bust, we’re technically insolvent.
SS: Yeah well that, that mustn’t happen and there, there will be some colleges like, but I mean it’s, I don’t want to go in to the details of individual college projects now, but Barnsley for instance is a very complicated multi phased project and it, and isn’t, by, by no means typical. All I’m saying is I don’t’ want the impression to be given that this is true for all seventy nine colleges, ‘cause it, ‘cause it will be nothing like the case, although most …
JH: Varying degrees of problems clearly, but some are in very serious trouble and that’s clear.
SS: And, and where there are colleges in very serious difficulty, well in any difficulty, but certainly if there are colleges that feel they’re in any kind of a precarious financial position, they must go immediately, immediately to their local LSC and they must, they must make the situation clear and we as Ministers will expect the LSC to deal urgently with urgent situations.
JH: Because what they may do is go to court. And indeed the LSC has acknowledged here again, referring to the minutes, the possibility of legal challenges arising from their decisions. What will you do then?
SS: Well I mean the, the, the LSC say that, that, that as far as they’re concerned that the, that the legal position is, is, is absolutely sound and, and one of the …
JH: Well, they, they don’t seem to be sure with the, if members asked that a clear action plan be in place to respond to any legal challenges. I mean, they seem to be a bit worried about it.
SS: One of the, one of the impressions that I think was created in, in, in one of the earlier two ways this morning was that colleges in getting approval in principle have, have all but got final approval and, and that really isn’t the case. Approval in, in principle is the very beginning of the process and the …
JH: Well that’s what Sue Rimmer was challenging wasn’t it, very robustly challenging, she says it’s disingenuous to suggest that. And when you look at the letters that they have had you, you do wonder about it, I mean looking at the wording of some of these letters. I mean if I’d had that letter I’d think yeah, they’ve guaranteed me the money.
SS: Well they, I mean again it’s not, it’s not for me now to second guess the wording of the letters, but they, I mean they weren’t guaranteed the money. But, but in a way I don’t think that’s the point now. The point is that this, this programme has not been managed properly. We shouldn’t be in this state, that’s why we’ve appointed Sir Andrew Foster to review how we got here and how we get out of it and colleges that are in immediate difficulties of the kind that you’ve been highlighting then we will expect the LSC to step in and sort these problems out?
JH: Isn’t it ultimately the responsibility of the Secretary of State, I was going to say of you, but you’re a relatively Junior Minister, isn’t it the responsibility of the Secretary of State? Shouldn’t he be considering his position?
SS: It’s, it’s the statutory responsibility of the Learning and Skills Council as a non departmental …
JH: Who answers to the, the Secretary of State.
SS: … they’re responsible to the Secretary of State and Ministers who set the policy and it’s the responsibility of the Learning and Skills Council to administer these programmes and this budget and to make them work and to let us know if they’re going wrong.
JH: So who carries the can ultimately, given than clearly things have gone wrong as you’ve acknowledged in this interview?
SS: I think Sir Andrew Foster’s report will, when, when we have that report which we’re expecting imminently …
JH: Are you? ‘Cause it sounds a bit like buck passing doesn’t it? Let’s have an inquiry.
SS: No it’s, it’s genuinely not a, a buck passing, let’s have an inquiry inquiry. He’s a, a very serious figure. He was Chief Executive of the Audit Commission for a decade. He’s, he’s done by the standards of the scale of the project and the amount of, the complexity of the projects and the sums involved, he, he will have done a very fast report that we are confident within the next few weeks we can begin to give people, colleges in the sector some, some clarity where we go.
JH: All right, and, and in the meantime can you give an absolute assurance to all of these colleges that not one of them will be allowed to go bust?
SS: I can absolutely assure any college that’s in financial difficulty should go to their local LSC and we will expect the local LSC to urgently support them through any immediate difficulties.
JH: In other words they will not be allowed to go bust?
SS: I mean, you know that I can’t give you a …
JH: Well I don’t know really, I mean you fund the LSC, or we, the tax payer, fund it, but you dish out the money.
SS: We, we dish out the money to the LSC and it’s the LSC’s responsibility to administer it. It’s …
JH: You, you, some people might, I know it’s a bit of a cheap crack, but some people might say RBS, a bank like RBS is safe, Government guarantees that’s not going to go bust, we can’t say the same for our colleges.
SS: Well I am saying that we, we absolutely are, are not willing to see colleges go bust and if there is any college in financial difficulty they should go to the LSC who we will expect to work with them to make sure that they’re supported through any difficulties that they’re in now.
JH: Siôn Simon many thanks.