The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is facing accusations of a double cover-up, after altering two sets of guidelines, both of which had allegedly been breached by one of its specialist welfare-to-work providers.
Seetec is being investigated by DWP over claims that it has been artificially inflating the number of jobs it has found for disabled people through the Work Choice scheme.
Two whistleblowers told Disability News Service (DNS) how the company 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 that the salaries were being paid by the host organisations.
The same whistleblowers – and a third ex-Seetec employee – have also told DNS how the company has been breaching DWP guidelines by not paying for in-depth checks on the criminal records of new staff who will be working with “vulnerable” disabled clients.
Earlier this month, DNS told how DWP had made no attempt to contact any of the whistleblowers about either of the sets of allegations, four months after the first claims were passed on to the government.
This week, it emerged that DWP has made a crucial change to guidance for Work Choice providers on criminal records checks (the so-called DWP Provider Guidance).
When providers were previously warned that an enhanced criminal records check “needs to be carried out” on every employee who will be working with vulnerable adults, the guidance now states only that such organisations “have additional legal obligations which may require them to obtain a different type of criminal record Disclosure Certificate”.
One of the whistleblowers, Perveen Sud, said she was “appalled” when she heard about this change to the guidance.
She said: “It is an outrage. This is purely to protect Seetec. It shows DWP are willing not to have due regard to the protection of vulnerable adults.”
This week, Sud finally heard from DWP about her evidence against Seetec, initially sent to the department on 30 August, although she has still not been interviewed about her claims.
The second whistleblower, Reena Gour, received a similar letter this week.
Sud’s letter says the law states that providers “must assess each position individually to determine whether there is a legal right to apply for the higher level checks”.
The letter adds: “Seetec made this determination not to conduct enhanced checks based on the legislative framework and advice provided to them at the time.”
Meanwhile, Sud’s letter confirms that “professionally trained and experienced investigators” are continuing to investigate the “concerns about Seetec claiming fraudulent Job outcomes under Wage Incentives”.
But Sud has also uncovered an addition to DWP ‘s latest memo to its Work Choice providers.
The memo points out as “added clarification” that providers are “not able to claim the Work Choice Wage Incentive when they are the employer”.
She said she feared this meant that DWP was preparing the ground to allow Seetec to claim that it was not aware it was breaching the rules with its wage incentive scheme.
Sud said: “I really am concerned about a potential cover-up here.”
So far, DWP has failed to explain why it changed the two pieces of guidance, and why it has failed to interview the two whistleblowers about their allegations.
Seetec said earlier this month that it had “received expert advice from appropriate parties” about the disclosures and was “assured that it meets requirements”.
It also said earlier this month that it was “unaware” of any investigations into the fraud claims.
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow employment minister, Stephen Timms, has tabled two questions about the fraud allegations, after having the claims passed to him by DNS.
He has asked the Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith what steps he is taking “to investigate allegations of fraud in the Work Choice contract in west and north London”, and what steps DWP has taken “to prevent fraudulent manipulation of Work Choice and Work Programme job outcomes”.
Government figures published this month showed Seetec as by far the worst-performing of eight Work Choice providers, with only 13 per cent of disabled people referred to it securing any kind of job outcome so far, compared with the best-performing provider, which achieved 32 per cent.
28 November 2013