Wednesday 21 January 2015

More on that A4e fraud case

I've been waiting to see whether Private Eye would cover the A4e fraud case.  It has.  But it's a short piece which adds little or nothing to our understanding of the case.  It does say: "The fraud was blatant; the prosecution described, for example, 'a completely false file showing the individual's contact and training sessions with A4e'.  After a new employee blew the whistle, audits uncovered the scale of the fraud, which had also involved people being offered 'shopping vouchers' to pretend they had got jobs through A4e."

We can expand on that.  One employee (we'll call her AB) was training another, transferred from another office, on the particular Inspire contract.  This employee told AB that fraud was widespread among her former colleagues.  AB reported this to management and this put in train the internal audit by A4e.  Which one of these two employees should be described as the whistle-blower is not really important.  The investigation subsequently uncovered the scale of the fraud.  The irony is that AB ended up as one of the convicted - for falsifying her own file.  She had been taken on by A4e after applying for a job with them through Inspire, and a file was then created to show, falsely, that she had been on a programme with A4e so that a job outcome payment could be claimed.  AB (not knowing any better, she later claimed) signed the paperwork which had been compiled by another of the convicted.  Having read some of the evidence presented in this case, I have to say that it would confuse anyone who isn't au fait with the way these paper-based contracts worked.

That there was a climate of fraudulent activity in this contract is clear.  That the incentive to do this was the financial rewards offered by the company is also clear.  And one does wonder why A4e didn't acknowledge that the investigation was triggered by a whistle blower.  If the A4e media relations person who gave me her phone number the other day and invited me to contact her (not something I would ever do) would like to comment openly here she will be welcome.  A4e has dropped the system of individual bonuses, but confirms that they offer team bonuses.  Quite how that would prevent this type of fraud isn't clear.

PS: There is a great deal to say about benefit sanctions at the moment, but I'll deal with that in a separate post.

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Guilty of fraud

We've waited a long time for the outcome of this trial, but it finished today with a guilty verdict on ten A4e employees in Slough (three more were acquitted).  There's a brief write-up on the BBC news website and a better one on the Slough Express site.  
They were working on a lone parent mentoring programme called Aspire to Inspire (I kid you not) which paid A4e for job outcomes in much the same way as the Work Programme.  The convictions are for fraud and forgery, with two of them also guilty of conspiracy.  The local paper says that "The fake claims were discovered though a whistleblower report, which led to an investigation by the department of Work and Pensions and Thames Valley Police," whereas Andrew Dutton, A4e's boss, has always claimed that A4e found the fraud themselves.  Whichever, as we suspected, the motive was to claim the bonuses the company offered for successful job outcomes.  "Financial rewards had been introduced," said the police spokesman, and pointed out that, "The money they fraudulently claimed came from the taxpayer and just over £1.3m was paid to A4e between 2008 and 2010 for their implementation of this contract."
A4e announced some time back that they no longer offer individual bonuses.  A couple of years ago they seriously annoyed many manager-level staff by withdrawing all bonuses, which meant something like a 20% pay cut.  It also has to be remembered that this was a paper-based claims system, which was wide open to fraud without rigorous auditing.  All you had to do was fill in the claims form with a fictitious job and put a false signature on it.  Clearly, this A4e office didn't do it occasionally; they thought they could get away with it on a grand scale.
Sentencing has been deferred until 30 March.
This isn't on the scale of the fraud by G4S and Serco.  But it's bad enough.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Reflections on those accounts

It's very telling that no one in the media has shown the slightest interest in A4e's latest accounts.  How different from the furore nearly three years ago which brought down Emma Harrison and very nearly destroyed the company.
How have they done it?  They've scraped their way back to profit, just, from a dire situation, and they've done it by not trying to compete with the big boys.  The chairman talked about "discipline".  They've put in realistic bids for contracts but withdrawn when they could see that they were going to be undercut by companies which could afford to lose money initially and then get the contract changed to allow them a profit.  It's not a game A4e wants to play any more.  And they've pulled out of foreign parts (except for Australia), presumably because it was costing too much to keep up that international presence.  From a company with limitless ambition they've become a medium-sized outfit looking to make a living.
I suppose we should be pleased.  But there's no comfort in the fact that a few huge companies now run the bulk of our public services and behave as if there are no risks or consequences of failure.

Meanwhile, there was an interesting story on the Disability News Service website last month.  A former A4e employee, Chris Loder, took the company to a tribunal claiming constructive dismissal.  He alleged that he had been forced to work with vulnerable ESA clients, some with mental health problems, when he had no experience in this area and was given no training.  A former colleague, supporting him, described the policy as "incredibly dangerous".  The article prints a long statement from A4e refuting the claims.  The tribunal's verdict is due this month.

And speaking of verdicts, there still isn't one in the Slough fraud case, being heard in Reading.  Before the holidays it was reported on the courts' website that the jury was out, but today there's no further news.

Do you remember A4e's Hayley Taylor and her 5 minutes of fame as the "Fairy Jobmother"?  It seemed the company might have another star in the offing.  ITV have a programme starting this Thursday called Bring Back Borstal, and A4e were publicising the fact that one of their managers, a woman connected with their prison education contracts, was going to be on it.  That link has now disappeared, so I've no idea what's happening.