Three organisations have told how they arranged unpaid work placements for disabled clients from a welfare-to-work provider that is facing a government investigation over an alleged specialist work programme “scam”.
Each organisation has told Disability News Service (DNS) they accepted the disabled job-seekers for six-month placements, even though it was made clear to Seetec that they were just volunteer roles, they would not be paid, and there would be no jobs available at the end of the six months.
Despite this, Seetec is alleged to have logged the placements as “job outcomes”, claiming payments from the government both at the beginning and end of the six months.
Two Age UK shops, a council library service and the charity PDSA all said they had taken clients from Seetec through the specialist Work Choice programme.
Seetec is being investigated by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over claims that it has artificially inflated the number of jobs it has found for disabled people through Work Choice.
Last week, DNS told how two whistleblowers had raised concerns about payments Seetec was claiming for so-called “job outcomes”.
Work Choice providers claim job outcome payments for every disabled person who gains a job, with extra payments after they complete six months.
But Seetec has been offering Work Choice clients as free labour to charities and other host organisations, and then paying their wages itself for the next six months – through its “wage incentive scheme” – while allegedly pretending to DWP on official documents that the salaries were being paid by the host organisations.
Now the pets and vets charity PDSA has admitted to DNS that it took three volunteers from Seetec, although a spokeswoman said she did not know if this was through the wage incentive scheme.
She stressed that all three were taken on only as volunteers, with no chance of a job at the end of their placement, although they were given training in areas such as customer service.
She said: “There would be no expectation that there was a role at the end of it. All of our roles are volunteer roles. As with most other charities, most of the volunteers are there to help out.”
Asked if PDSA would be surprised to find out that Seetec had been paying wages to the trio, she said it “wouldn’t be appropriate for PDSA to comment”.
Staff with Hounslow council’s library service – now run by the outsourcing company Carillion, which took it over from John Laing Integrated Services earlier this month – said they had taken two “volunteers” from Seetec for their Library at Home Service.
Tom Berry, who runs the Library at Home Service and has taken on volunteers for a range of back-office duties for “many years”, said he had taken a client from Seetec late last year.
At the end of six months, the client returned to Seetec – Berry was told the woman had found a paid job – and was replaced by another woman with “health issues”.
Berry said he was told that Seetec was paying both clients for their work with the library service, even though they were volunteer roles. If the company was claiming the jobs as “job outcomes” with DWP – which is what the two whistle-blowers allege – this would have been a clear breach of the rules.
He said: “I always was given to understand that it was Seetec who were paying them. Certainly, I was never told about ‘job outcomes’ or ‘wage incentive schemes’.”
Two Age UK shops – linked to the national charity but independent organisations in their own right – have also admitted taking clients from Seetec for voluntary, unpaid, six-month placements.
An Age UK spokeswoman said it was not a scheme the national charity would have approved of.
She said: “Some of the local Age UK shops are run independently. On a national level we are not involved in this scheme.
“They are independent local charities and make their own decisions. The majority will conform [with national Age UK policy], some will be misguided. They might have thought it was a good scheme and not known [that it wasn’t].”
When contacted by DNS, a Seetec spokesman said: “I believe there is still information ongoing.”
When asked if this meant that it was investigating the allegations about the wage incentive scheme, he said: “I am not saying anything.”
He declined to comment further.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), said: “If this is true, it needs investigating, because the purpose of Work Choice is to help people achieve sustainable jobs, not short-term placements funded by salaries paid by the agency charged with providing the support to get them into employment.”
She added: “There have been a few examples in public policy recently of ‘gaming’ behaviour, where incentives appear to lead to perverse activities driven by the payment regime.
“When the government produces its new employment strategy it is really important that there are no perverse incentives.”
Sayce said this was why DR UK wanted the government to introduce personalised employment support.
DWP this week refused again to confirm that it was investigating the Seetec allegations, even though DNS has seen a DWP email stating that the claims are being investigated.
A DWP spokesman said: “Any allegation of fraud is a serious thing which we do take seriously.”
But he added: “Even if an investigation were taking place, we could never really confirm or deny whether that was going on, but obviously we take things seriously.”
DNS also revealed this month that Seetec has been failing to apply for the necessary “enhanced” criminal records checks for employees who work with “vulnerable” disabled clients on the Work Choice programme.
31 October 2013