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Hodge vs Devereux - The Big Fight

Robert Devereux and Alan Cave appeared in front of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) yesterday evening, in the PAC's ongoing inquiry into fraud in welfare to work. Coming on the back of the National Audit Office's report released last week, the heated debate followed a closed session where the Committee heard from whistleblowers from A4e and Working Links. The initial sessions were originally due to be heard in public, but, in what can only be an effort to control the media, the evidence session was held behind closed doors.

Austin Mitchell MP stated that the closed session "produced some fairly damning indictment of the structures and practices in A4e and Working Links and gave several indications of possible fraud." The closed session also clearly influenced the nature and atmosphere in the final session of the day, which resembled open warfare between Margaret Hodge MP and Robert Devereux, the former on the attack and the latter most definitely cornered and defensive.

Our regular readers will know that we like to deliver factual news and avoid opinion where possible, but this PAC session just beggared belief. If you want to watch the session yourself you can do so below, but if you don't have time take it from us that Robert Devereux's audition for the part of a petulant school boy in the next Hollywood block buster most definitely got him the role.  We were astounded at the lack of professionalism, the condescension, sarcasm, attitude, and avoidance, which was at times quite surreal. We really do recommend that you watch the session if you can bear it as we have only given a few points below and many more were discussed!       

MH had previously sent a range of emails to RD as well as A4e’s internal audit report and this was discussed.  RD's view was that the allegations forwarded to him didn’t provide specific enough information to underpin an investigation.  It also appears that the evidence from the closed session cannot form the basis of an investigation as the allegations need to be properly presented.  So while the evidence given was damning, it doesn't appear that it will make any difference.

RD indicated that he was not going to publish the report of DWP's recent audit at A4e, as it is "not sensible to put in the public domain".  MH quite rightly responded that if this isn't published you give an impression of apparent complacency.  RD stuck to his guns throughout the session and whatever improper practice or allegations were highlighted, RD was adamant that with all of the evidence he has, he is confident that A4e are not fraudulent.  

Constant references were made by MPs about whether A4e and Working Links were fit and proper companies to deliver programmes based on all of the evidence that had been received.  They questioned the nature of the companies and the culture which has pushed people into committing fraud.  RD clearly has no interest in the culture of companies, their previous actions, or their reputation.  His only concern is that they can't claim a financial outcome as the validation regime is so tight that they have nothing to gain from poor practice or negative cultures.  In a quickly garbeld answer to try and cut the debate short, RD stated, "A4e is a contractor of ours and subject to the controls that we have put in place which makes me satisfied as the accounting officer that I am not wasting tax payers money."  

Fiona MacTaggart asked whether DWP can provide evidence that A4e met the contractual requirements of having a whistle blower process and performance management systems that do not provide perverse incentives.  Her concern was that during the closed session it was clear that internal whistleblower processes were ineffective if it is the management that are bullying staff.  RD said that he couldn't see what would be the problem in providing this evidence.  We do!  DWP don't undertake any quality check on systems prior to awarding a contract.  The PAT team may visit the provider at a later date, but in the initial stages DWP take the providers word for it.  RD would not entertain a central whisteblower hotline that was suggested by a couple of MPs as he wasn't persuaded it made sense.  Is this not over reliance on providers internal systems?

Discussion also surrounded the bad practices that are continuing under the Work Programme.  MH gave an example of a client who found a job before starting the Work Programme and A4e gave them £50 for completing the job details and other forms.  The Committee questioned how it was value for money to potentially pay A4e for an outcome when they have done nothing.  RD failed to acknowledge that this was an issue.  He eventually got round to the point later in the session that providers are being paid to keep people in work, not for a job start.  While this is a legitimate argument, the issue still remains that a provider can get paid for doing absolutely nothing for two years. 

Minimum standards again raised their head, but RD seesm unable to accept that the standards that have been agreed are not smart.  In our view DWP dropped the ball on this one - they agreed contracts with providers which had minimum standards that were sometimes weak, sometimes not measurable, and were in some cases at such a basic level that they aren't worth the paper they are written on.  DWP should have smartened these up at the contracting stage.  So when RD was asked if he will be prepared to publish the data on whether providers comply with minimum standards we just roared with laughter.  DWP are surely not in a position to do this as there are too many standards that are not measurable. 

The inference from the discussion was that DWP will use customer complaints to see whether the standards have been met - so if a provider doesn't share every complaint with DWP (and why would they) then DWP will beleive that they are meeting the minimum standards. On a monthly basis DWP routinely discuss complaints that providers have received.  So what!  Who in DWP has checked that every subcontractor documents every written and verbal complaint and passes this through to the prime contractor.  The complacency in this regard is quite frightening.  Earlier in the session RD had stated that one of the most important pieces of learning of DWP is that an "over reliance on contractors internal systems is a mistake."  But surely they are relying on primes to have fool proof recording systems for every complaint is doing just that.  RD stated that only 18 complaints have got through to the second tier complaint eg the Independent Case Examiner.  RD was adamant that complaining to ICE is easy, and seeing how clients are not taking complaints to that level means there is no problem with the Work Programme or any provider.  We aren't quite as confident that this is the case - people who are unhappy about the service they are receiving may be scared off by the official nature of a Case Examiner.  You can find out about the ICE and how to complain via their website.

MH was interested in RD's view on how trust could be rebuilt in the system, as it is clear to her and other MPs that trust has broken down.  RD agreed that services to individuals are important but if a company is successful at getting people into work "without having friendliest relationships" he would still be pleased with the outcome as he doesn’t want them on benefits.  Did RD really say he doesn’t care about the quality of service?  We sadly think he did! 

At the end of the session MH accused DWP of not being as proactive as other departmerns when it came to problems being highlighted.  As the meeting broke up her closing statement was, "I’m not sure it’s value for money."  And continuing the spirit of the entire meeting RD had to have the last word, mumbling that value for money went back to the earlier hearing .....

.... and then we all went home.  

In our view this session did DWP no favours and did not instil any confidence that they are able to effectively manage the Work Programme contracts.  Although A4e and Working Links were singled out as a result of the previous closed session, this time it was DWP in the spotlight, and we really didn't like what we saw.  That may be due to our company's commitment to improving quality and customer service, which sadly just isn't part of RD's agenda for the Work Programme.  We hope that the welfare to work community proves him wrong and really does pull out all the stops to ensure that every individual going through their Work Programme has a positive and progressive experience.  

23 May 2012  

Watch the PAC session here:

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