Monday, 27 April 2015

That's it, then. A4e sold

Yes, it's confirmed (and thanks to my correspondent for the early tip-off).  A4e has been sold to Staffline Group for £34.5m.  The story is here.
Staffline has acquired the entire issued share capital for £23.5m.  That's almost £20m for Emma Harrison, who owned 85% of the shares.  There are more complications, but that's basically it.
Staffline reckons A4e is a "profitable, cash generative business" and the acquisition is good for the company.  Remember that all that cash is straight from the pockets of tax-payers.
A4e's staff have been told by email this morning about the deal.  They now face waiting to hear about their future.  Andrew Dutton and the entire group board will also be looking for work.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A4e sold?

I've had a tip-off that A4e has been sold and the staff will be informed on Monday.  Since I can't confirm that, I won't go into any more detail.  If it's true it raises some interesting questions.

Last night on Newsnight there was supposed to be a debate about "welfare" with representatives from Labour and the Conservatives.  Labour's Rachel Reeves and Stephen Timms were already on their way when they were told it had been cancelled - the Conservatives had pulled out.  It seems that Mark Harper, minister for the disabled, had withdrawn with two hours notice.  So, since we're now under election rules, the producers couldn't empty-chair him.  Instead there was a "panel" on which Fraser Nelson spouted egregious Conservative tripe and Will Hutton talked sense.  Also there was Deirdre Kelly ("White Dee"), because the media now treat her as some sort of representative of the unemployed.  It was terrible.  The Daily Politics has been holding a series of debates among party spokespeople on various areas of government, and on May 5th there's to be one on "welfare", including Iain Duncan Smith.  The editor assures me, via Twitter, that IDS won't withdraw and, no, it isn't already recorded, it goes out live.  We'll see.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Daily Mail's take on the sentencing

Daily Mail readers apparently need pictures.  So the paper's report on the sentencing in the A4e fraud case comes with lots of pictures, including two of Emma Harrison.  But accuracy, not a quality conspicuous in the Mail at any time, has deserted it today.  Harrison is called "David Cameron’s millionaire former jobs tsar".  Er .... no.  She was "family champion", which meant little.  They do acknowledge this later, but it doesn't excuse the initial lazy mistake.  Then, after an accurate account of the sentencing - they couldn't really get that wrong - there's a box entitled "How the Mail exposed fraud against taxpayers".  "The scandal of the massive taxpayer fraud at A4e was exposed by the Daily Mail three years ago," they say.  They do talk about the whistle-blowers, but the claim that it was the Mail which exposed the fraud is ludicrous.  The whole story of Harrison's downfall is re-told.
Let's not allow the Mail to re-write history.  Yes, it was their story which brought the £8.6m payout to the attention of many more people than had read this blog, Private Eye, the Guardian or the Telegraph.  The reports they ran for nearly a week were probably responsible for Harrison's humiliation.  But the Mail didn't "expose" anything. 


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Sentencing in the fraud case

The sentences have now been handed down on the 10 A4e employees convicted of fraud, forgery and conspiracy.  The longest sentence is on Charles McDonald - 40 months imprisonment for 6 counts of fraud and one of conspiracy.  Five other people got prison sentences; the rest got suspended sentences, various lengths of "unpaid work" and costs.  You can read the full list on the Thames Valley Police website here.  
A4e has issued a media statement on its own website.  They say :"We note that the judge in her sentencing remarks dismissed claims that a culture of dishonesty existed within our business.  We also note that those who made these claims raised no concerns about workplace practices or culture until they were confronted with the proof of their own dishonest behaviour."  (Well, they wouldn't, would they?)  However, they still claim that "we uncovered" the "irregularities", despite the fact that it was a whistle-blower who drew their attention to what was going on.
So that's over.  I can't summon up much sympathy for these people, but for all of them it's a huge price to pay.

Monday, 30 March 2015

A4e fraud case gets publicity at last

Sentencing has begun this week on the 10 A4e employees who were convicted of fraud last year.  And, at last, the mainstream media have decided to take notice.  The Guardian's report is restrained.  The Independent goes into more detail, and reports a defendant's barrister as accusing the company of fostering "a culture of dishonesty".  Perhaps the writer, Emily Dugan, has been reading this blog.  She ends with a list of "previous A4e scandals", including a contract it lost in Teeside after forging signatures; the laptop containing personal data of clients stolen from an employee's home; and the Edinburgh case where a tribunal ruled that A4e were wrong to sanction a client who wanted to be accompanied by a representative.  
The Mail, as we might expect, goes to town on the story, bringing Emma Harrison into it.  Unfortunately, they get it wrong, saying that Harrison "was forced to step down from her role after fraud allegations first came to light in 2012".  As we know, Harrison's downfall was nothing to do with the fraud.  
Sentencing continues this week, and perhaps the papers won't bother to report the outcomes.  But this is a bad way to get a decent price for the company as Harrison tries to sell it.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Watching A4e - the highlights (3)

Let's go back to an extraordinary week just over 3 years ago.  In January 2012 the Telegraph looked at A4e's published accounts for the year to March 2011 and reported two facts, in separate sentences.  Emma Harrison owned 85% of the shares; and the company had paid out £11m in dividends.  I reached for my calculator and did the sums; £8.6m for Harrison.  With her salary as Chair it came to a pay-out of £9.5m.  I dashed off a blog post.  Re-reading that, I didn't write the startling headline I thought I did.  But it was enough.  A writer for Private Eye who reads the blog saw the post and checked the figures (this isn't guesswork - he confirmed it).  His deadline for copy for the magazine was close, and he went with what became the killer fact - Harrison had paid herself £8.6m out of public funds.  It was early in February and the timing was excellent.  The Public Accounts Committee was about to grill people from the welfare-to-work industry, including A4e.  We know that members of the committee read the Eye (and I believe at least one follows this blog).  So that was the stick with which to beat the hapless chap from A4e - £8.6m.
What was the reaction in the media?  At first, they were not very interested.  The Guardian covered it, in sober fashion, as did the Telegraph.  And then, nothing.  It was all very disappointing.  What more did they want?  But then the Daily Mail decided to wade in, all guns blazing.  Let's be clear, I am not a fan of the Mail.  Just the opposite.  But this time they had done their research and decided to trash Emma Harrison, comprehensively.  The article was devastating, tearing into her lifestyle, her history and her company.  It was horribly personal.  And they didn't stop there; there were several more articles through what must have been a dreadful week for Harrison.  The BBC stayed silent on the matter and one could only wonder if there was some sort of political censorship going on.  At last, after several days, Paul Mason was allowed to make a brief report on Newsnight.
It all made Harrison's position untenable.  She announced that she had resigned from her role as the government's "family champion"; and 24 hours later came the news that she was standing down as Chair of A4e.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Fair shares

The only news on the A4e sell-off came on Monday with a piece on the FE Week website speculating that Newcastle College Group could take over the company.  But this only refers to the welfare-to-work part of the business.
That A4e is failing is shown by the release of the "adjusting referrals" list.  This is where the DWP takes away referrals (new clients) from the WP provider which performs worse in an area and gives them to the better performer.  Referrals mean potential profits, so this is meant to punish poor job outcome performance.  A4e have contracts in 5 of the 18 areas; and in all 5 it's A4e which has lost.  So the company is clearly struggling.  On its website A4e comments on the latest statistics, but without mentioning at all the fact that it lost out.  It talks about the huge increase in the proportion of ESA referrals but, for outcomes, talks in raw numbers rather than percentages, always a sign that people are hiding something.