SERCO PUPPET EMMA HARRISON, HER A4E SLAVE LABOUR AND THE CHAMPAGNE CULTURE
Champagne culture at Emma Harrison’s A4e alleged by ex-managers
DWP contractor where founder quit says depiction of lavish trips is subjective but ‘takes seriously’ claims over expenses
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 6 March 2012 18.59 GMT
A4e, the welfare-to-work company, has a culture of lavish trips abroad and big-spending hospitality, several former managers at the company have told the Guardian.
One person who worked there has also made allegations of expenses irregularities, claiming there was a laissez-faire attitude to claims particularly from senior staff.
The allegations against the company, which holds up to £180m worth of public contracts and depends for all its UK income on government money, cover an eight-year period, and follow the resignation of its chairman and founder, Emma Harrison, two weeks ago.
One former manager said that some in the company enjoyed a “champagne culture”.
“If the marketing director wanted to take out a team of 10 marketing people for a night out you wouldn’t get change out of £2,000,” the former manager said.
Management conferences, another former member of staff said, have taken place in such locations as Monaco and the Spanish resort of La Manga, and each event included about 100 staff. Another former manager claimed that at the company’s expense, about 25 A4e managers were taken to Paris in spring 2011, to celebrate the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) awarding the company contracts for the Work Programme.
In April 2011, Emma Harrison travelled to New York to meet charities and organisations working with the city’s poor and jobless. A4e managers have told the Guardian that, though Harrison’s personal assistant was booked to fly economy class, Harrison herself flew business class with a member of her family. The trip was billed to the company at a cost of more than £20,000, and one of Harrisons’ expenses claims was for a meal in a restaurant in excess of $800 (£504). A4e said the visit was a business trip and Harrison had been accompanied by her husband “who paid for all his own costs in full”.
On the allegations about company entertaining and other staff trips abroad, A4e said it was not aware of some nights out being billed at £2,000 and that the allegation was “obviously a highly subjective observation [or] understanding”.
The company confirmed that there were A4e conferences in Monaco in 2006, and La Manga in 2004, and did not deny that about 100 employees were involved. The company said that “in some instances, these conferences included frontline staff for whom the trip was part of our rewards scheme to thank them for dedicated work throughout the year”.
During the three-year period when the foreign trips took place, among other work it obtained from government, A4e was given public contracts to work with incapacity benefit claimants, to run Labour’s New Deal programme for the unemployed, and to administer education in prisons.
“It is hardly unusual for businesses to hold off-site conferences,” A4e said, “but please be aware that previous and subsequent conferences have been held in locations including Rotherham and Manchester.”
The staff visit to Paris “was a 24-hour trip, and centred on an annual conference – the focus of which was on supporting the French side of the business who were undertaking a major tender round”. It was not, the firm said, “a celebration, and to suggest otherwise is entirely erroneous”.
The Guardian has also seen a dossier compiled by Russell Kynoch, a former Jobcentre Plus employee. An unemployed A4e client, he was given a four-week work experience placement in the finance department of A4e’s Sheffield offices from 23 January to 17 February this year, funded by a government training allowance with the same value as jobseeker’s allowance.
Kynoch processed pre-authorised expenses claims from across the company. He said he came across numerous irregularities including “missing receipts for taxi, rail, bus, train, tram, parking and wrong calculations of payments”.
He saw claims for travel expenses that were not backed up with receipts, and others which contravened company rules.
He was told, he said, to “not spend a lot of time scrutinising every [expenses] claim and with each expenses invoice”, and with any claim, to “only examine a couple of receipts”. He said: “I would get a claim with 15 or 20 receipts. I was told to just pick a couple out … [They said] ‘Don’t spend time going through every receipt with the form.'”
He saw “lavish wine and dine bills”, mostly from staff based in London.
A4e said the claims were “entirely subjective” and that “without any evidence to support them” besides Kynoch’s account, the company could not be expected to comment on them directly. The company added: “Our expenses are in line with any private business, and our accounts are fully audited by independent auditors.”
Kynoch has raised concerns about what he saw with senior figures, including chief executive Andrew Dutton. Though Emma Harrison has not replied to an email detailing the alleged abuses, Kynoch has had an email assuring him that the company “takes these matters very seriously”. This and another email, signed by Dutton, refer to A4e’s appointment of law firm White & Case to review internal controls and processes, a move made after Harrison’s resignation. Dutton’s email assures Kynoch that “internal processes, such as the expenses process, will form part of that audit”.
A4e told the Guardian: “As a responsible business we would take any allegations of incorrect expenses claims very seriously and investigate thoroughly, including taking relevant disciplinary action if appropriate.”