Under-fire A4e boss Emma Harrison quits Family Champion role

Stepped down: A4e founder Emma Harrison has stepped down from her Government role as Family Champion.
Stepped down: A4e founder Emma Harrison has stepped down from her Government role as Family Champion.
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EMMA Harrison, the boss of under-fire Sheffield training company A4e, has stepped down from her Government role as Family Champion.

It comes amid an ongoing police investigation into her company and calls for the Serious Fraud Office to investigate the firm.

Political Reporter Richard Marsden here looks at the rise of A4e and its founer, as questions are asked about its future.

ACTION For Employment was set up in 1991 to provide redundant steelworkers with ‘training they needed to find work in other industries’.

It was founded by Emma Harrison, then a 23-year-old engineering graduate, by extending a small industrial training operation set up by her father, a steelworks boss.

Within her first year, successes had included winning a £150,000 contract with the Government’s Manpower Services Commission, and company turnover hit £1 million.

Huge expansion of A4e came about when New Labour came to power in 1997.

The company was supported by its ministers including Sheffield MP and former education and employment secretary, David Blunkett.

Labour launched the New Deal scheme for those on Jobseekers’ Allowance, which required people to attend classes to help them back into work or risk losing their benefits.

By the time Gordon Brown had succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, the company had contracts for New Deal worth £80 million.

But a change of Government did not dent the firm’s success - with current Prime Minister David Cameron appointing Emma Harrison’s firm in 2010 to ‘help 120,000 problem families into work’.

The company, whose headquarters is on Bessemar Road, Attercliffe, and has offices on Camp Lane in the city centre, the now has contracts worth £180 million and helps run the Government’s Work Programme, a replacement for New Deal and other retraining schemes for the unemployed.

A4e has retained Brightside and Hillsborough MP David Blunkett as an adviser on its international operations.

But it also has links with the new Government including recruitment of Jonty Olliff-Cooper, 29, a former public schoolboy and Cambridge graduate who was a policy adviser to the Conservatives.

The company now handles Government contracts worth £180m each year. Payments from the Department for Work and Pensions include £400 for each successful jobseeker it places in employment for at least three months and a £1,200 fee for placing someone for 26 weeks, continuously or short-term.

A4e employs 1,500 staff in offices nationwide. Based in Sheffield, it has 100 regional offices and is fast expanding. As well as its Government work, 65,000 businesses across the UK have used A4e’s services so far.

The company offers help to unemployed people with CV writing, interview techniques, finding courses and accessing benefits, as well as arranging work placements.

WHO IS EMMA HARRISON:

BORN Emma Cridland, Mrs Harrison, is married to Sheffield businessman Jim Harrison, owner of Thornbridge Brewery, and a mother of four. They live at Thornbridge Hall, near Bakewell, a multi-million pound stately home.

Mrs Harrison, aged 48, was born in Essex and moved out to Nigeria with her parents as a child before the family settled in Sheffield, living in Fulwood and Ranmoor.

She received low grades in her A-levels, but went to Sheffield College where she passed an engineering diploma and managed to get a place at Bradford University, sponsored by British Steel.

After graduating, she was asked by her father to take on a training company which he had established as a sidearm of his Barnsley steelworks - the forerunner of A4e.

In recent years, Mrs Harrison’s success has led to her being named in the Management Today Top 100 Entrepreneurs, Inner-City UK Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Ernst and Young National Finalist Entrepreneur of the Year, and Richard Branson’s Fast Track 100 Motivation Award.

The International Chamber of Commerce has also just named her the UK’s Outstanding Businessperson of the Year.

She was appointed as the Chair of Regions of children’s charity the NSPCC’s Full Stop Campaign. Mrs Harrison and her company have already donated and raised several hundred thousand pounds for the children’s charity

Mrs Harrison was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2010 New Year Honours, for services to unemployed people and the voluntary sector.

The same year, David Cameron made her ‘Families Champion’, promoting her as someone who would transform the lives of workless families.

She has also appeared on Channel Four’s Secret Millionaire series, where wealthy people go undercover into impoverished communities and give away tens of thousands of pounds to worthy projects.

WHAT ARE THE CURRENT PROBLEMS AT A4e?

THERE have been question marks over A4e’s performance.

The company claims it helps somebody find a job ‘every seven minutes’ but the National Audit Office has said A4e only placed nine per cent of its clients into work through the old Labour Government’s Pathways to Work Programme, a figure disputed by the company.

Four people have been arrested and released on bail over allegations of fraud at the firm’s offices in Slough, Berkshire, after police were called in by the company’s management.

A4e has revealed it is subject of a second police investigation, this time involving a subcontractor.

Emma Harrison has been criticised for receiving £8.6 million in pay last year, more than the £6.5 million bonus awarded to Barclays Bank chief executive Bob Diamond.

THE SITUATION COULD GET WORSE:

FIONA McTaggart, Labour MP for Slough, has written to the director of the Serious Fraud Office asking for a wider investigation into A4e’s operations.

There have been nine investigations into irregularities at the company since 2005, one of which resulted in prosecution of a staff member for fraud.

Ms McTaggart, is sending a ‘dossier’ to the Serious Fraud Office.

She said: “Since there has been publicity about these matters, people who have been clients of or have worked for A4e in other parts of the country have been in touch with me, suggesting that the pattern of behaviour I have identified is not limited to my constituency.

“I think that the Serious Fraud Office, therefore, should conduct an investigation into the extent of fraud at A4e. I have reported to the National Auditor issues such as forged time sheets, claiming for jobs that last only 24 hours and courses not delivered.”

An SFO spokesman said: “It is certainly SFO policy to take seriously any allegations put before us and should something come to us on this matter we will look at it seriously.”

Opposition Labour politicians have called for A4e’s contracts with the Government to be suspended until investigations are concluded.

A4e MAKES ITS DEFENCE:

In a statement, A4e said: “We have an internal audit team which regularly monitors our work and that of our subcontractors. On top of that, we are subject to rigorous external audits.

“From December 2005 to date, nine cases have been referred to the Department for Work and Pensions to review claims submissions. This includes the recent case being handled by Thames Valley Police.

“All these cases relate to historical contracts and that the current Work Programme eliminates any opportunity for malpractice because it is computer-based and payment is on results.

“Of these nine referrals, one, dating back to May 2008, has resulted in the prosecution of a member of A4e staff for fraud, which was widely reported at the time. Seven of the cases are now closed, and only two are outstanding.”

The company added: “The first of these is the incident being handled by Thames Valley Police and involves four former members of staff.

“A second police investigation is outstanding. However this does not involve any A4e staff, and concerns one subcontractor out of more than 200 who work for A4e.

“The subcontractor was referred to the police in February 2011, who are currently handling the matter.

“In the remaining cases where a prosecution did not arise, the DWP’s view was that these were not incidences of malpractice.”

Chief executive Andrew Dutton said: “I can’t emphasise enough that there is no place for fraud at A4e, and that is why we have created rigorous internal processes, cooperate with all external audits, and have brought any known issues to the attention of the authorities.

“We remain proud of our record in helping the long term unemployed into work, which equates to helping one person into work every seven minutes.”