A4e: Six jailed in £300,000 fake job fraud scam

A4e: Improving People's lives -and defrauding the government

A4e: Improving People’s lives -and defrauding the government

The scandal that rocked A4e, the private contractor condemned by the Commons Public Accounts Committee, for fiddling the books, hit home this week.

Six people were given jail sentences and another four were given suspended sentences by a judge at  Reading Crown Court.

The BBC reported here yesterday the sentencing by the judge. The scheme as reported earlier on this blog involved mentoring single parents – some of the most vulnerable in society so they could get work. But the £1.3m Aspire programme turned out to be a vehicle for fraud by the staff.

The court was told  staff made up files, forged signatures and falsely claimed they had helped people find jobs, enabling them to hit targets and gain government bonuses.

Judge Angela Morris said there had been a “systematic practice” of compiling bogus files over a “considerable period of time”, behaviour which she described as “appallingly cavalier”.

She said: “No amount of pressure justifies the wholesale fabrication of information in files or the forgery of other people’s signatures on documents, all of which is designed to extract money from the Department of Work and Pensions.”

The roll call of fraudsters are:

  • Charles McDonald, 44, of Derwent Road, Egham, Surrey, pleaded guilty to six counts of forgery and one of conspiracy to commit forgery. He was sentenced to 40 months in prison.
  • Julie Grimes, 52, of Monks Way, Staines, Surrey, pleaded guilty to nine counts of forgery. She was sentenced to 26 months in prison.
  • Nikki Foster, 31, of High Tree Drive, Reading, pleaded guilty to nine counts of forgery, and was jailed for 22 months.
  • Ines Cano-Uribe, 39, of Madrid, Spain, was found guilty of one count of forgery and one of conspiracy to commit forgery. She was jailed for 18 months.
  • Dean Lloyd, 38, of Rochfords, Coffee Hall, Milton Keynes, pleaded guilty to 13 counts of forgery. He was given a 15-month jail sentence.
  • Bindiya Dholiwar, 29, of Reddington Drive, Slough, pleaded guilty to seven counts of forgery, and was jailed for 15 months.
  • Zabar Khalil, 35, of Dolphin Road, Slough, was found guilty of one count of forgery. He was given a 12-month sentence, suspended for two years.
  • Matthew Hannigan-Train, 31, of Westacre Close, Bristol, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit forgery. He received a 12-month sentence, suspended for two years.
  • Hayley Wilson, 27, of Middlesex Drive, Milton Keynes, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit forgery. She was given a 12-month sentence, suspended for two years.
  • Aditi Singh, 32, of Albert Street, Slough, pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery and one count of possessing items to commit fraud, and received a 10-month sentence, suspended for two years.

However less we forget the Department for Work and Pensions was severely criticised in a Commons public accounts committee report for failing to conduct checks on what was going on with A4e at the time – and the company was only investigated because whistleblowers came forward about what was going on.

Chris Grayling, then the minister responsible for employment, took no action to investigate further either. As the PAC said at the time in a report  on A4e and other programmes the DWP never looked at whether A4e was ” a fit and proper contractor” to run other programmes.

A4e chief executive Andrew Dutton said  yesterday the company has a “zero-tolerance policy” towards fraud and money had been set aside so “the taxpayer will have lost nothing” from the scam.

Mr Dutton said: “Their claims do not reflect the way this company operates, or the values of our 2,100 staff, whose honesty and integrity are much-valued.”

I remain to be convinced whether the company has truly reformed.

Guilty: The four A4e staff who fiddled the books helping lone parents get back to work

A4e: Improving People's lives -obviously not for lone parents in this case

A4e: Improving People’s lives -obviously not for lone parents in this case

Remarkably unreported this month (outside one Daily Mail report) is that four of private work provider A4e’s staff who ripped off the taxpayer and lone parents have pleaded guilty to 30 acts of fraud and forgery. 

 I am indebted to FE Week for a report from Reading Crown Court that saw the four admit their crimes and now face sentencing later. It reports:

 “Ex-A4e recruiters Julie Grimes, Aditi Singh, Bindiya Dholiwar and Dean Lloyd, pleaded guilty to more than 30 charges of forgery and fraud when they appeared  at Reading Crown Court  on Monday, February 3.

The case followed a police investigation into financial rewards claimed for helping the unemployed into work through the European Social Fund  ‘Aspire to Inspire’ Lone Parent mentoring programme, which ended in July 2011.

It is alleged that they forged documentation to support fraudulent claims for rewards for work with learners who had not found work or did not exist over a period of four years until February last year.

Grimes, 51, of Staines, admitted nine charges of forgery and Lloyd, 37, of Milton Keynes, admitted 13 offences of forgery.

Dholiwar, 27, of Slough, admitted seven counts of forgery while Singh, 30, of Slough, admitted two counts of forgery and one of fraud. No date was set for set for sentencing.

The magazine reports that the trial of eight other ex-A4e defendants, who pleaded not guilty to all charges at Reading Crown Court, including conspiracy to cheat, is expected to start on October 6.

A further defendant, Nikki Foster, aged 30, of Reading, recruiter, was not at court on Monday. She was due to appear later this month.

The magazine also carries a statement from the chief executive of A4e  who appears to be remarkably complacent that everything is OK in the rest of the company.

Andrew Dutton, A4e chief executive, said: “I am deeply disappointed that a small number of people who formerly worked for A4e on the Aspire to Inspire contract in the Thames Valley up to 2011 clearly let down the people they were supposed to help, and in turn the taxpayer, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and A4e.

“A4e co-operated fully with the police enquiry, after our own internal investigation first brought these incidents to light.
“Since these events took place, we have augmented our controls and processes to seek to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen again…..

 He goes on: “I would also like to say thank you to our 3,000 loyal, hard-working and principled staff who each day deliver public services to the highest standards that help to improve the lives of thousands of the most vulnerable in our society.

“I am intensely proud of what they do and deeply sorry that the allegations have for so long cast a shadow over their good work.”

There is a little bit of amnesia here. I seem to remember a certain Commons Public Accounts Committee report in 2012 following hearings from whistleblowers  who worked for A4e among others.

Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, is reported as saying at the time “Where the Government chooses to use private companies to deliver public services it is essential that proper arrangements are in place to prevent and detect fraud and malpractice. In this instance, 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. The Department failed, for example, to obtain from A4e damning internal audit reports produced in 2009 which pointed to instances of potential fraud and malpractice across the country.” …

“If it had not been for whistleblowers, a range of systemic issues would not have been identified. The Department might have identified these issues if it had asked the right questions of providers. The recent investigation into A4e looked at particular allegations of fraud but not at the more fundamental question of whether the company was a ‘fit and proper’ contractor.”

 

Need I say more! I won’t in respect of the eight other A4e employees so they get a fair trial.

 

Silence of the Whistleblowers

Knives out for A4e whistleblowers? Pic courtesy:snippits-and-slappits.blogspot.com

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.”

Margaret Hodge; Agrred to withold whistleblowers evidence

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 ).

Scrap red tape, silence a whistleblower

Whistleblowers under threat

 MPs begin to debate the government’s new  Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill today (monday). Buried in this legislation in Clause 14 is a plan to limit people with employment contract disputes using the whistleblowers law.

The reasoning behind it is explained in the latest House of Commons Library report on the bill. It says:

“In March 2012, the Department issued its annual employment law review which stated: It has come to light through case law that employees are able to blow the whistle about breaches to their own personal work contract, which is not what the legislation (Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA)) was designed for.

Clause 14 would ensure that only disclosures that are in the public interest would attract protection under the whistleblowing provisions of the Employment Rights Act,1996.”

Superficially this sounds quite reasonable.  Whistleblowing legislation should not be used for personal contract disputes. But the way the government is going about this it could sound the death knell for potential whistleblowers just at a time when they are most needed.

Think for one second. A company gets a complaint from a whistleblower about a  nefarious practice. What better way to frighten a whistleblower than by going to the courts claiming this is not in the public interest and demanding a hearing before a judge. The company can then rubbish the whistleblower using the absolute privilege afforded by court hearings for maximum publicity  by claiming the complainer is  a bad worker, in breach of contracts etc – damaging the whistleblower’s reputation.

 There then follows a long dispute about what should be a public interest test – since this until now is only used in Freedom of Information Act disputes in tribunals – with different  judges  defining it in different ways. As Lord Touhig, a whistleblower champion said in a Lords debate: ” This would make a field day for lawyers.”

But there could be another agenda. The government’s fast track privatisation programme for public services has already led to  whistleblowers revealing bad practice as shown in the recent private hearing of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. There I am told two Tory MPs put pressure on the committee not to hear in public whistleblowers’ allegations about bad practice in A4e, the private work provider, which has £200m of Department of Work and Pensions contracts.

The next day the Daily Telegraph leaked some of  their evidence and Chris Grayling, the minister for work but one suspects sympathetic to  A4e, used an appearance on BBC Newsnight to cast doubt on the motives of the whistle blowers.  Has he got DWP files on them I wonder or did A4e brief his press office or special adviser?

Now the Guardian’s splendid Rajeev Syal is reporting that Osita Mba, who blew the whistle on former Revenue chief  Dave Harnett’s secret  tax deal for bankers Goldman Sachs, has found himself being investigated by the criminal investigations unit of  Revenue and Customs. (see http://bit.ly/Mo5oXF )

It seems to me that people should back the campaign by Cathy James, chief executive at Public Concern at Work (http://www.pcaw.org.uk )  to stop this piecemeal change. At the very least the clause should be redrafted to define what should be excluded as a personal contract rather than submitting everything to a public interest test. Otherwise the public have every right to believe that the government has something very different in mind. 

Exclusive: How you got state funded work experience in a strip club with A4e

From the dole queue to the strip club; Red faces at A4 e and the DWP

The leaked internal audit report into the failings of  A4e featured on BBC Newsnight last month missed an extraordinary bombshell. .

The work provider company run by Cameron’s former work Czar, Emma Harrison, was actually placing claimants to work in night clubs and strip clubs when fun loving Labour minister James Purnell, was works and pensions secretary.

A detailed examination of the audit report reveals that X in the City – a Liverpool lap dancing club – favoured by carousing Premier  League footballers – took at least one person from A4e.

The full story is revealed in my piece for Exaro News, the investigative website.at http://www.exaronews.com

The lap-dancing and strip bar made headlines earlier this year after the Manchester City striker, Mario Balotelli, was fined a week’s wages for breaking a team curfew while visiting the nightspot less than 48 hours before a crucial Premier League match against Bolton Wanderers.

The bar advertises lap dances at £5 a time, and offers a ‘VIP’ deal in private rooms where a half-hour lap dance with champagne costs £50.

The report also reveals that two other claimants were placed in night clubs in Norwich. A4e declines to reveal how many other people got jobs in sex and night clubs at the time in 2009.

The whole matter is also  a bit of an embarrassment for Christian Iain Duncan Smith, the current works and pensions secretary,who has imposed an all out ban on allowing A4e or anyone else telling people to work in lap dancing joints.

At the time of the placement according to his department the ruling was: ‘Jobcentre Plus will no longer advertise jobs that involve the direct sexual stimulation of others because publicly-funded services should not be a conduit to this work. The ban would cover jobs such as lap dancers, web-cam performers and strippers. However, Jobcentre Plus will continue to accept other vacancies in the retail, manufacturing and distribution sectors of the industry. A cleaning job in a lap dancing club could still be advertised, for example.

There is a final irony in all of this. The auditors don’t know whether the person placed there –  one Jamie Nolan – ever took it  up because they were too shy to go in and investigate.

The report says:“It was not possible to conduct a visit to ‘X In The City’ to verify the documents…This employer is a lap-dance bar and was not open during the hours of the audit.”

It was a case of  No sex please, we’re auditors. And the manager of the club claims he can’t remember either. Wow what a mess!