A4e hits back at fraud allegations

The Old A4E Office on Prospect Street'PA1213-10

The Old A4E Office on Prospect Street'PA1213-10

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GOVERNMENT welfare-to-work scheme A4e has hit back at allegations of alleged fraud at its Bridlington office.

An internal audit report, leaked last week to BBC’s Newsnight, named the now closed Bridlington A4e office, which was situated on Prospect Street, as one of only a handful of locations reporting cases for concern.

The report, commissioned in 2009, looked at 224 cases from the company’s top 20 recruiters, and found that five cases in Bridlington required further investigation.

It is alleged that auditors found staff claiming for putting people into jobs which did not exist, jobs which did not qualify for payment and fabricating paperwork.

But the company, which was paid £200 million a year by the government to get the unemployed into work, has rejected the allegations and said the report leaked to Newsnight “does not contain evidence of systematic fraud” and that “no action was taken” against the single advisor who had filed the five Bridlington cases which were flagged by the report.

A spokesperson for A4e said: “A draft document produced by an internal audit in 2009 identified five cases for concern in the Bridlington office, involving one adviser.

“After this initial review, a further investigation was carried out into these cases. The investigation found the adviser in Bridlington had complied with procedures and policies set down by DWP and no action was taken.

“The three claims which were confirmed as invalid by investigations following the initial audit were made in another office, by an individual adviser, and associated funds were repaid by A4e to DWP. These claims did not come from Bridlington.”

The Newsnight report alleged that one Bridlington cafe owner told the auditor he had never met a man A4e had claimed for and he wanted to know why A4e kept asking him to sign blank forms.

And one former A4e attendee, 26-year-old Phil Whiting, believes that there was pressure on staff to deliver targets.

“You had clients coming into the office that didn’t want to be there, and would be drunk, smoke and swear,” said Phil.

“It was a cycle of people turning up who didn’t want to, but the staff will still be under pressure to produce the results.”

Phil, who now lives in York and works in accountancy for RPMS lettings in Beverley, returned to his Lawson Road home in Bridlington from university in 2008 and worked for Britax on Bessingby Industrial Estate for a short while. Later struggling to find a job, he was referred to A4e by the Job Centre during the summer of 2009.

“I will be honest and say I don’t think it was any use for me to be there. You had two computers between around 20 people, and spent 20 minutes at most a day doing something useful,” continued Phil.

“I wouldn’t blame the staff for that but it was a difficult situation for them. I wanted to find a real job that I was qualified to do, but to have to go there was quite demoralising.

“I ended up doing work experience there for around 10 weeks, 9am until 3.30pm Monday to Friday, answering the phone and photocopying while I was receiving my Job Seekers Allowance.”

However, an A4e spokesperson claimed that this was normal practice. They said: “Occasionally, customers were – and still are – offered work experience placements, including at A4e, to give them valuable experience of a working environment. A4e does not benefit from this financially.”

The Department for Work and Pensions said in a statement issued earlier this month: “We have made it absolutely clear to A4e that we take this matter very seriously, and that if at any point during the audit or thereafter we find evidence of systemic fraud in DWP’s contracts with A4e we will not hesitate to immediately terminate our commercial relationship.”

Bridlington MP Greg Knight told the Free Press that he would support any ongoing government investigation.

After the 2009 report was commissioned, A4e say it made “significant enhancements to all our systems” and further investigation determined that “five claims were irregular and related to one former employee”. A4e repaid the value of these five claims in full, which totalled less than £5,000.

The company has appointed international law firm, White & Case LLP, to lead an independent and thorough audit of A4e’s controls and procedures.

A4e is currently under police investigation after four ex-members of staff were arrested in January, with a fifth arrested last week.

In February, the head of A4e, Emma Harrison, stepped down from her role.

A4e ran an office in Bridlington while it delivered the government’s New Deal programme.

This closed around August-September 2011, when the contract to run the new Work Programme, which replaced an array of employment schemes, pilots and projects, including New Deal, was given to another provider.