Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Daily Mail's take on the sentencing

Daily Mail readers apparently need pictures.  So the paper's report on the sentencing in the A4e fraud case comes with lots of pictures, including two of Emma Harrison.  But accuracy, not a quality conspicuous in the Mail at any time, has deserted it today.  Harrison is called "David Cameron’s millionaire former jobs tsar".  Er .... no.  She was "family champion", which meant little.  They do acknowledge this later, but it doesn't excuse the initial lazy mistake.  Then, after an accurate account of the sentencing - they couldn't really get that wrong - there's a box entitled "How the Mail exposed fraud against taxpayers".  "The scandal of the massive taxpayer fraud at A4e was exposed by the Daily Mail three years ago," they say.  They do talk about the whistle-blowers, but the claim that it was the Mail which exposed the fraud is ludicrous.  The whole story of Harrison's downfall is re-told.
Let's not allow the Mail to re-write history.  Yes, it was their story which brought the £8.6m payout to the attention of many more people than had read this blog, Private Eye, the Guardian or the Telegraph.  The reports they ran for nearly a week were probably responsible for Harrison's humiliation.  But the Mail didn't "expose" anything. 

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Sentencing in the fraud case

The sentences have now been handed down on the 10 A4e employees convicted of fraud, forgery and conspiracy.  The longest sentence is on Charles McDonald - 40 months imprisonment for 6 counts of fraud and one of conspiracy.  Five other people got prison sentences; the rest got suspended sentences, various lengths of "unpaid work" and costs.  You can read the full list on the Thames Valley Police website here.  
A4e has issued a media statement on its own website.  They say :"We note that the judge in her sentencing remarks dismissed claims that a culture of dishonesty existed within our business.  We also note that those who made these claims raised no concerns about workplace practices or culture until they were confronted with the proof of their own dishonest behaviour."  (Well, they wouldn't, would they?)  However, they still claim that "we uncovered" the "irregularities", despite the fact that it was a whistle-blower who drew their attention to what was going on.
So that's over.  I can't summon up much sympathy for these people, but for all of them it's a huge price to pay.

Monday, 30 March 2015

A4e fraud case gets publicity at last

Sentencing has begun this week on the 10 A4e employees who were convicted of fraud last year.  And, at last, the mainstream media have decided to take notice.  The Guardian's report is restrained.  The Independent goes into more detail, and reports a defendant's barrister as accusing the company of fostering "a culture of dishonesty".  Perhaps the writer, Emily Dugan, has been reading this blog.  She ends with a list of "previous A4e scandals", including a contract it lost in Teeside after forging signatures; the laptop containing personal data of clients stolen from an employee's home; and the Edinburgh case where a tribunal ruled that A4e were wrong to sanction a client who wanted to be accompanied by a representative.  
The Mail, as we might expect, goes to town on the story, bringing Emma Harrison into it.  Unfortunately, they get it wrong, saying that Harrison "was forced to step down from her role after fraud allegations first came to light in 2012".  As we know, Harrison's downfall was nothing to do with the fraud.  
Sentencing continues this week, and perhaps the papers won't bother to report the outcomes.  But this is a bad way to get a decent price for the company as Harrison tries to sell it.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Watching A4e - the highlights (3)

Let's go back to an extraordinary week just over 3 years ago.  In January 2012 the Telegraph looked at A4e's published accounts for the year to March 2011 and reported two facts, in separate sentences.  Emma Harrison owned 85% of the shares; and the company had paid out £11m in dividends.  I reached for my calculator and did the sums; £8.6m for Harrison.  With her salary as Chair it came to a pay-out of £9.5m.  I dashed off a blog post.  Re-reading that, I didn't write the startling headline I thought I did.  But it was enough.  A writer for Private Eye who reads the blog saw the post and checked the figures (this isn't guesswork - he confirmed it).  His deadline for copy for the magazine was close, and he went with what became the killer fact - Harrison had paid herself £8.6m out of public funds.  It was early in February and the timing was excellent.  The Public Accounts Committee was about to grill people from the welfare-to-work industry, including A4e.  We know that members of the committee read the Eye (and I believe at least one follows this blog).  So that was the stick with which to beat the hapless chap from A4e - £8.6m.
What was the reaction in the media?  At first, they were not very interested.  The Guardian covered it, in sober fashion, as did the Telegraph.  And then, nothing.  It was all very disappointing.  What more did they want?  But then the Daily Mail decided to wade in, all guns blazing.  Let's be clear, I am not a fan of the Mail.  Just the opposite.  But this time they had done their research and decided to trash Emma Harrison, comprehensively.  The article was devastating, tearing into her lifestyle, her history and her company.  It was horribly personal.  And they didn't stop there; there were several more articles through what must have been a dreadful week for Harrison.  The BBC stayed silent on the matter and one could only wonder if there was some sort of political censorship going on.  At last, after several days, Paul Mason was allowed to make a brief report on Newsnight.
It all made Harrison's position untenable.  She announced that she had resigned from her role as the government's "family champion"; and 24 hours later came the news that she was standing down as Chair of A4e.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Fair shares

The only news on the A4e sell-off came on Monday with a piece on the FE Week website speculating that Newcastle College Group could take over the company.  But this only refers to the welfare-to-work part of the business.
That A4e is failing is shown by the release of the "adjusting referrals" list.  This is where the DWP takes away referrals (new clients) from the WP provider which performs worse in an area and gives them to the better performer.  Referrals mean potential profits, so this is meant to punish poor job outcome performance.  A4e have contracts in 5 of the 18 areas; and in all 5 it's A4e which has lost.  So the company is clearly struggling.  On its website A4e comments on the latest statistics, but without mentioning at all the fact that it lost out.  It talks about the huge increase in the proportion of ESA referrals but, for outcomes, talks in raw numbers rather than percentages, always a sign that people are hiding something.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Emma Harrison and the media

Looking back on the story of A4e, I'm struck by the relationship over the years between its owner Emma Harrison and the media.  To say that she was the face of the company is a gross understatement.  She seemed to see the company as a reflection of herself.  Her picture was prominent in their offices rather as dictators demand huge portraits of themselves all over their countries; and as the company grew so did her sense that it was all about her.  Staff were "rewarded" by being invited to weekends camping in the grounds of Thornbridge Hall.  The select few got to have "tea with Emma".  Most of the employees saw this for what it was, but daren't say so out loud.  Yet the media were continually charmed by her.
I didn't see the Secret Millionaire programme she made - and I'm glad of that.  But whenever she was interviewed about her supposed area of expertise something strange happened.  Harrison appeared on the Daily Politics once and was taken apart by Andrew Neil.  Yet about a year later she appeared again, and got very soft treatment, as if Neil had forgotten the first interview entirely.  Then she appeared on the same programme as "guest of the day" and contributed absolutely nothing.  Channel 4's worthy Benefit Busters series featured two films made in A4e offices, and one of those at least should have set alarm bells ringing about what was happening in New Deal - but didn't.  In a brief interview after the second film Harrison bragged about her contacts in government.  It was then put to her that a big problem for the unemployed was that short-term work meant long delays in getting benefits again when the work stopped.  What should be done about that?  Her reply was memorable: "How should I know?"
On Radio 4's The Moral Maze it was Harrison herself who had to correct the presenter, who thought A4e was a charity.  And on the Today programme the interviewer, Justin Webb, seemed mesmerised by her, asking no relevant questions and letting her talk rubbish.  A high point (or low, depending on your point of view) came with her starring role in Famous Rich and Jobless, a horribly exploitative series of poverty porn.  (Even today the BBC's website page for the programme describes A4e as "the largest employment agency in the world, responsible for getting thousands of people back to work".)  Harrison was supposed to be an expert, helping and guiding.  One unemployed man was recommended to go to a specialist agency.  Problem solved?  No.  After the series was shown he was still out of work and very bitter towards Harrison, who had promised help.  She couldn't do anything, she said, because A4e didn't operate in his area.  In another series on another channel Harrison was pitted against another expert to find a job for someone who was "hard to help".  She solved it neatly - by calling in a favour from a friend to give the lad a trial at a job.  And she won.
Harrison had become a celebrity, employing a celeb agency to get her work, and she popped up regularly on such diverse shows as Eggheads (I missed that) and Masterchef (as a guest at a dinner to sample the contestants' efforts).
It must have been hard when all that stopped so abruptly.  Perhaps that's why she agreed to the interview on Channel 4 News, long after her fall from grace, when the A4e WP results were leaked.  Surely the media would be kind to her again?  But that was in the past, and it was a disaster.
The media can build you up, but they can also bring you down.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Highlights (2)

One of the surprises of writing this blog has been the number of contacts I've made.  There was a steady trickle of journalists and researchers from the start.  Most were planning a TV or radio programme and wanted either information or, most often, contacts.  Most of these programmes didn't happen.  One independent TV producer wanted employees of A4e, who he would film in silhouette, preserving their anonymity.  I tried to explain that people working in the sector wanted above all to keep their jobs, and such whistle-blowers were not likely to be forthcoming.  He was adamant that he could do it.  He didn't.  Another, who travelled quite a distance to talk to me, was well on the way to producing an item for a news programme, but it got overtaken by events.
A researcher talked to me at length, asking almost immediately if I would take part in the programme.  I saw this as a test of my confidence in what I was telling her, and said yes.  Later, when the programme had been put together, she asked me again to take part.  I said I would if it was really necessary but didn't want to.  She said that was okay, they had a whistle-blower.  The programme was scheduled.  But just 3 days before it was due to go out it was pulled.  All I could gather was that the whistle-blower had been threatened with legal action and the channel's lawyers had decided it was too risky.  Chalk that one up as a victory for A4e.
Another journalist I talked to was looking for information on outsourcing and welfare-to-work in general.  I felt like saying that she was getting paid for her work and I wasn't (but I didn't).  However, two of the journalist contacts I made were to prove very useful.  I remember reading a rant by Andrew Marr, the BBC's favourite Tory interviewer; he hates bloggers because they think they are real journalists but just post spiteful rubbish.  What an irony.  If Marr was a real journalist he would know how much they've come to depend on bloggers.
There were other contacts too.  One was an academic psychologist, working in a university in Wales (that much was true, I checked him out).  He was inviting bloggers like me to go and be interviewed by him on why we picked on Emma Harrison when A4e was no different to any other company.  He admitted he had no worked up proposal for a study yet.  I answered him rather tersely.  It puzzled me that an academic would start out with his conclusion already formed and seek to prove it.  His reply was odd and I tried hard to explain why A4e was different.  He then became quite abusive and I told him that I would ignore any further communications from him.  It turned out that he had done some work for A4e.  He went onto the Indus Delta site (it was obviously him) to ask for the same information and to complain about me.  Gratifyingly, he was ignored.
Then there was the young man, a student I think, who wanted my opinion on a series of short films he and his friends were making - to be shown on the London underground! - loosely based on A4e.  I watched half of one film and was completely turned off by the obscenity-filled conversation.  He was a bit embarrassed when I told him so; they were improvised, he said.  I didn't watch any more, after pointing out a couple of factual errors.  But I wish him well.
I should add that I have made some interesting email contacts among my regular readers as well.