It began on Monday when the Guardian leaked details of the evidence due to be given to the Public Accounts Committee the following day. They got it slightly wrong. There were not two whistle-blowers, just the one.On Tuesday the PAC met. The Tory members of the committee insisted that the whistle-blower's evidence be held in private. Somebody went straight to the Telegraph afterwards and gave an account of what had transpired. This was published on 23 May. The next day the Telegraph put the whole document containing the evidence given by Eddie Hutchinson on line.
The media used words like "damning" and "shocking" to describe what Mr Hutchinson said, and focussed on A4e. Essentially, the culture at the company was such that fraud was inevitable and not dealt with properly.The government's reaction was confused but angry. Chris Grayling appeared immediately to accept A4e's line that the allegations were "unfounded and untrue" and that Hutchinson was not a credible witness. We were left to assume that he was an embittered sacked employee - the usual characterisation of whistle-blowers. But Grayling's response always skated over the internal A4e report, produced before Hutchinson ever joined the company, which told a similar story. In any case, it all happened under the old contracts and couldn't happen now. He even demanded that former Labour ministers release secret papers showing what they knew about fraud at A4e. But, "We have audited our current contracts with A4e and found no evidence of fraud." Interestingly, he threw in that it was Ernst and Young which did the audit. As one of our correspondents pointed out, Ernst and Young part owns Working Links. Might as well keep it in the family.
I was reminded of an investigation for which I was responsible a few years ago. The person drafting the report wanted to put, "There was no evidence ...." I changed it to, "We found no evidence ..." Quite different.
So where are we now? The government wants to say that it never happened but if it did it was Labour's fault. And Hutchinson isn't tellling the truth. Whatever the PAC says has been rubbished in advance. The other primes can be relieved that all the attention is on A4e. The current contracts are fraud-proof, so that's all right. But now we hear that Meg Hillier MP (left) is calling for "greater openness and transparency" over all such contracts. The SundayTelegraph today reports the MP, who sits on the PAC, as saying: "A4e is one of a number of companies receiving its only income from the public sector, but we can't follow the public tax pound. It's public money paying for a public service commissioned by the Government. Why would you want to hide anything?" She added that a good organisation would have nothing to hide. Public companies are accountable to their investors, so taxpayers should have a right "to know how publicly-funded firms made a profit and should have a say over how companies operate, including how much executives are paid." We agree.
None of that can change the fact that the Work Programme is floundering. The best that the government can do is expand its work-for-free programme (see the Observer). When in a hole stop digging, they say. But the DWP keeps on digging.