Today confidential evidence given to MPs on Parliament’s most powerful committee of MPs by a team of whistleblowers on fraud should have become public.
The whistleblowers- people once employed by two rapidly growing companies A4e and Working Links which are dominating the government’s welfare to work programme – spent two hours giving dramatic evidence in private to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee last May.
The result of their information and a frankly complacent performance by Robert Devereux, the patrician permanent secretary, to the Department of Work and Pensions led to a damning report by MPs on the ministry’s stewardship of taxpayers’ money handed over to these profit-making companies.
As reported in Exaro News today ( see http://www.exaronews.com ) Tory and Labour MPs were disgusted at the ministry’s performance.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “The DWP’s arrangements for overseeing and inspecting its contractors were so weak that vital evidence on potential fraud and improper practice was not picked up.”
Richard Bacon, Conservative MP and deputy chairman of the committee, said: “Encouraging innovation and fresh approaches is important, but so is ensuring value for taxpayers. Providers cannot be allowed to run wild and free with public money.”
The evidence came from an appalling internal audit report prepared in 2009 by A4e’s own auditors and leaked to committee on the Exaro website which concluded:” found that more than one quarter of the company’s placements was potentially fraudulent, irregular or unverifiable. The jobs agency even placed one job-seeker at a Liverpool lap-dance club. Last May, Exaro published the auditors’ findings in full. That was under Labour.
But according to one of the whistleblowers it continued under the Tories. Eddie Hutchinson, former chief auditor of A4e, told the committee in his submission of “systemic” fraud and malpractice at the company.
Hutchinson, worked at A4e from October 2010 until May last year, and at Working Links before that. He described what he saw at both companies as “a multi-billion-pound scandal”. This we only know because of his evidence was leaked to the Daily Telegraph. A4e insist that this eveidence is not true and the new company is now wonderful.
Today we should have had a more rounded picture with new evidence from other whistle blowers. The draft report would have included the minutes of that meeting and with names redacted all the information.
But just days before publication the whistleblowers, according to a top source panicked and asked the chair, Margaret Hodge, to censor all their evidence.
Why? All the whistleblowers were happy to give evidence in public last May but some Tory Mps, Chris Grayling, then the minister for work, and A4e were desperate for the public to know nothing. They stopped the public hearing. Billions of pounds of new contracts were at stake. Now ministers and A4e have got their way. We are none the wiser. Have the whistleblowers been threatened? Did they decide they had lied to the committee? Or is there a blacklist in the auditing profession to prevent people who blow the whistle from getting fresh work?
Today is a bad day for transparency and democracy when the most powerful committee in Parliament that holds the government to account cannot publish the facts. The government is making matters worse by changing the law protecting whistleblowers to make it even more unlikely they will risk their careers at the moment.
A4e as well should have been allowed to give evidence to the committee as well as the rather arrogant Mr Devereux. The company could then have put its case and been questioned on its performance. For those interested in the full or should I say half redacted report, it is here (http://bit.ly/PKPO9a ).