The Whistleblower Files on Emma Harrison and A4E Fraud and Slave Labour Workfare
The A4E files: Whistleblowers reveal damning new claims about Back to Work Tsar’s job training firm
By Sam Greenhill
Last updated at 12:28 PM on 8th March 2012
A chilly spring morning in 2010 and in A4e’s Edinburgh office, staff employed by Emma Harrison — David Cameron’s fallen ‘back to work’ tsar — were in the midst of a full-blown panic.
The cause of the crisis at the employment agency’s gleaming training centre was plain enough. Within hours, Government inspectors would be arriving to check that Harrison’s multi-million-pound ‘welfare-to-work’ company was fulfilling its contractual obligations and using £180million worth of Government money to help thousands of unemployed back to work.
But the problem, as former team manager Amy Rae recalls all too well, was that despite the outward boasts of A4e chairwoman Harrison that she could single-handedly tackle the problem of Britain’s unemployed, in this case they were lacking training facilities — and, indeed, training staff.
So while the company had received £950 for every jobless person referred to them by the JobCentre, instead of training them up and helping them back to work under its Community Task Force programmes, they’d sent them home.
‘Our management never authorised funding to pay for the training sessions we were meant to be doing, despite several requests,’ recalls 40-year-old Amy, who later informed Mrs Harrison of all that she witnessed.
‘There was nothing we could do with these young people. It was heart-breaking because these were unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds, full of hope, desperate to get training so they could get a job. They believed we would help them.’
Faced with an impromptu visit by inspectors from the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP), Amy, who worked for the company for six years and was in charge of 23 staff, needed to act quickly.
‘I had to stage-manage a completely bogus training session, complete with a fake chart. It was awful. It was all lies, a facade. We just pretended,’ she admits.
She was told to borrow people from another A4e course in the building and persuade them to claim — if they were asked — they were attending her course. She says: ‘I was told: “Don’t worry about it. Get the training room sorted. It will be fine.”’
It wasn’t the last time Amy says she had to stage fake training sessions (in a room where Mrs Harrison’s face beamed down from a framed photo). She also alleges A4e was claiming bounties of up to £2,000 from the taxpayer for finding people jobs that lasted for only a few days.
‘People would be found a job on a construction site that only lasted a day,’ she says, ‘and that was enough to claim the money. It was easy because there was just a tick-box on the form to say the job was “expected to last at least 13 weeks”, but often labourers were being put out of work again after 24 hours.’
And, most worrying of all, the farcical situation at A4e’s Edinburgh office was by no means unique.
Over the past two weeks, the Mail has travelled up and down the country speaking to those who have worked for A4e, which started running welfare-to-work schemes under New Labour — Mrs Harrison was made a CBE in 2010 — and has flourished under the Coalition.
They paint a damning picture of a company whose former staff at its Slough office are being investigated by police. Four people have been arrested amid suspicions that the Government was being billed for placing people in jobs that never existed or were fleeting.
In the wake of those arrests, Emma Harrison quit as David Cameron’s unpaid adviser and, a day later, resigned as chairman of her own company, though she has not given up her 85 per cent shareholding.
Government contracts secured by the company and paid for by taxpayers have provided mother-of-four Harrison with a life of luxury, a personal fortune estimated at £70million, a £7million stately home and a fleet of expensive cars. Earlier this year, there was uproar when it was revealed she had paid herself £8.6million of mainly taxpayers’ cash in company dividends.
But the picture that emerges from the information we have gathered suggests that inappropriate practices were more common than the company suggests. More worryingly, former employees who agreed to speak to us describe an almost Stalinist working culture dominated by impossible-to-meet quotas.
Staff were apparently told to fake timesheets and even go to Staples to create rubber stamps to use on paperwork showing that someone had found a job, meaning the company would be eligible for a bonus
Most disturbing of all are the extraordinary lengths they apparently had to go to, simply to make it appear that A4e’s targets were being met.
In the A4e office in Bradford, one whistleblower alleged staff went to Staples, the stationery store, to buy ‘make-your-own’ stamp kits to use on paperwork staff filled out if they found someone a job.
Every ‘clunk’ of these rubber stamps — in the names of genuine local companies — would ‘show’ someone had been found a job at that firm, and trigger a bounty payout from the Government to A4e.
The form was known as Employment Verification Templates (EVTs), and without it, A4e could not claim money from the Government.
‘A whistleblower there said he had resorted to such forgeries under pressure from managers to reach quotas for finding jobs for the unemployed’
‘On the EVT form, a stamp or compliments slip from an employer was required to get the job through,’ says the 37-year-old whistleblower. ‘You had to have something to show a client had been found a job. We were told, “Come what may, you have got to get the EVTs in. If you need to get a rubber stamp, then get a stamp and get them done.” They told us to go down to Staples and get a rubber stamp with a genuine company’s name.’
The DIY stamps would then be used to validate the EVT form. The former employee added: ‘We would take the stamps off the premises in case there was an audit. It was common place.’ In High Wycombe, Bucks, there were also claims of DIY stamp kits.
According to former employees from A4e offices around the country, the forging of employers’ signatures on the EVT forms was also common.
‘Everyone was well aware it was going on,’ says one from the Bradford office. ‘I overheard people being told to get the signatures and “do whatever they need to do”.’
Some employers’ signatures were allegedly faked electronically, using a scanner to copy a signature off one sheet and print it on to another. On other occasions, signatures of employers were allegedly copied by hand from the signing-in book at reception.’
In Manchester, former staff claimed they had held up blank job sheets to the window to trace a signature from a genuine piece of paper underneath.
A whistleblower there said he had resorted to such forgeries under pressure from managers to reach quotas for finding jobs for the unemployed.
‘Forging signatures used to go on all the time,’ he said. ‘You had no choice because it was made very clear to you that you would lose your job unless you reached your targets.
‘If you couldn’t get enough so-called “job outcomes”, you would just have to forge one, so you would find a genuine employer’s signature on another form and hold it up to the window under a blank one. It appeared everyone did it and nobody ever questioned it.’
In A4e’s Newcastle office, the scenario was even more absurd. Staff there, according to one of them, were asked to ‘help bump up the numbers’ by sitting basic numeracy and literacy tests alongside the genuine jobless. ‘I asked why I was being asked to sit these very basic tests,’ says the former employee. ‘They said it was necessary because they had to meet obligations and targets. It was in a really hot room and they crowded us all in. I could hardly breathe.’
Likening the Newcastle office to a ‘workhouse’, the former A4e worker recalls another occasion when around 200 unemployed people were ‘herded into classrooms’ for training sessions.
‘It was utterly inhumane,’ she says, ‘there were not enough chairs so people sat on desks or the floor.’
Those who came in the hope of finding work were apparently treated like children — and even had to ask permission to use the toilet.
‘The problem was,’ she says, ‘if you let them use the toilet, they would never come back and that would mean A4e would lose a “client” and lose money. So they had security guards — ex-military, ex-police, ex-prison guards — patrolling the corridors.’ She also echoed other ex-employees in saying she had witnessed A4e claiming taxpayer money for putting clients into jobs that lasted ‘only a day or two’. ‘Clients were encouraged into taking inappropriate or short-term work so A4e could collect payment,’ she said.
Virtually every A4e insider who spoke to the Mail also made allegations of forged timesheets. Staff were said to have asked jobseekers to sign an empty timesheet for the hours they had spent in the A4e offices. It would then be filled in by an A4e employment adviser later on, invariably recording a perfect attendance record and earning the company up to £400 apiece from the taxpayer.
For staff who met Harrison’s ambitious targets, there were rewards. Amy Rae from the Edinburgh office, who worked for the company from 2005, was promoted twice and won prizes including team trips to Paris and Prague.
An employee in the Newcastle office recalls how she was invited with other staff to Harrison’s Derbyshire mansion for tea. ‘I didn’t go,’ she says. ‘I was disgusted. We were promised: “You will see her fleet of classic cars.” Frankly, someone on £15,000 a year isn’t going to be bothered about her cars.’
In the Berkshire office, staff knew they had met or exceeded their targets when an area manager walked in brandishing bottles of champagne. In Bradford, at the end of the month, the best employees were treated, bizarrely, to a £2.99 fast food meal.
Other former managers are also coming forward. One told The Guardian newspaper there was a ‘champagne culture’ at A4e, adding: ‘If the marketing director wanted to take out a team of ten for a night out you wouldn’t get change out of £2,000.’
The company does not dispute it took 100 staff away on luxury ‘conference’ trips to millionaires’ playgrounds, such as Monaco in 2006 and the Spanish resort of La Manga in 2004. The firm says it is setting up an ‘independent and thorough audit’ by an international law firm. Employment minister Chris Grayling has pledged to ‘terminate contracts’ if there is any evidence of systematic fraud at A4e.
But it is the unemployed caught up in the company’s self-interested contortions who are its real victims. One jobseeker, Kathryn Skeldon from Woolwich in South-East London, even wrote to Mrs Harrison to express her anger.
‘I am disgusted the Government pays you to employ people to assist people, when we have been left to our own devices for two weeks,’ she wrote. ‘I am 30, but I am not allowed to use the computer room downstairs if there is nobody to supervise me. The newspapers given out to people to look for jobs are days old and of no help at all. In short, what I am being forced to do here is nothing more than I could do at home.’
She concluded: ‘A4e is a good idea, but in practice it is an embarrassment. I invite you to come and sit with an average two-week course here at Woolwich A4e, Emma, I really do.
‘It seems you and the people who pay you are all so distanced from the reality of what is going on in this room right now, it is laughable.’
Others complained they spent hours on courses where they learned to do little more than ‘how to send an email’ or ‘how to turn a computer on’ and were given such pearls of wisdom as ‘most employers now expect you to have a CV’ and ‘always be clean and tidy when attending an interview’.
The contrast between the lives of the jobless who sought help from A4e and that enjoyed by Emma Harrison, 48, at her Grade II-listed Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire where she lives with her 52-year-old husband Jim and four children, is a stark one. The house boasts 16 opulently-furnished bedrooms, a grand hall and a music room with a Steinway grand piano.
Harrison also owns a £3million Knightsbridge mews house and a holiday home.
But the key question is what Mrs Harrison knew or should have known about the practices going on at her company. In recent days, A4e’s PR machine has gone into overdrive, insisting the fraud allegations are an ‘isolated case’ involving ‘a very small number of individuals’.
Those who spoke to the Mail this week dispute that the picture was so clear cut. At A4e’s Edinburgh office, Amy Rae resigned six months ago, after sending Mrs Harrison a polite but devastating email. Denouncing the ‘lies, deceit and corruption’ she felt she was expected to take part in, she detailed inappropriate practices at the Edinburgh office, adding: ‘At the time I wanted to protect the reputation of A4e and went along with what was required.’
Offering to meet Mrs Harrison to discuss the issues, Amy concluded: ‘Your business is at risk, and I urge you to investigate and take action.’
The reply she received by email the following day, August 31, was brief. ‘Thank you for being in touch,’ wrote Mrs Harrison. ‘I have asked my execs to look into the issues you raised.’
A4e responded to the Mail’s investigation by saying: ‘Not one of the allegations made by so-called whistleblowers amount to fraud. There is a significant difference between fraud and malpractice.’
A spokesman said the rubber-stamp kits in Bradford and High Wycombe were ‘authorised’ by managers in cases where ‘the employer did not have letter-headed paper, compliment slips or a company stamp’, adding: ‘The stamp was purchased by A4e with the knowledge and approval of the employer and was then handed to the employer to keep and use.’
The company also rejected Amy Rae’s allegations that she hoodwinked DWP inspectors, saying there was ‘no evidence’ to support her claims.
Asked about allegations of forged signatures and faked timesheets, the A4e spokesman said: ‘On occasion, we support customers to complete essential documentation. We refute entirely an allegation that we received any monies that were not due and owing.’