The company employed by the care watchdog to find service-users to help inspect residential homes and hospitals is failing to make the most basic background checks on its recruits, undercover journalists have discovered.
The two reporters had been told of concerns about sloppy recruitment methods used by Remploy, the former government-run company now mostly owned by the discredited US outsourcing giant Maximus.
To investigate those concerns, they applied to Remploy to become Experts by Experience (ExE), disabled people and others who have previously used care or health services and are paid to accompany Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspectors on their inspections of hospitals, health centres, nursing homes, day centres and homecare providers.
In 2015, Remploy won three of four regional contracts to run the programme, covering the south and north of England, and London. CQC has recently begun the process of retendering the four contracts for another three years.
But the two journalists were astonished at how easy it was to secure a position as a Remploy ExE, and neither of them was asked to provide contact details for previous employers or personal contacts who could vouch for them.
Although Remploy carried out checks on their criminal records through the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), no other checks were conducted into their backgrounds, and there were no face-to-face interviews.
Both say they were accepted onto the programme after a 10-minute phone conversation.
They believe Remploy’s casual approach to safety exposes service-users in the care settings inspected by CQC to potential harm, and risks undermining a valuable programme that has previously been praised for giving disabled people and others with lived experience of care a vital role in regulating and inspecting service-providers.
One of the journalists told Disability News Service (DNS): “Other than a DBS check, no one has checked that I have had any personal experience in mental health services.”
The other said: “It’s pretty shocking. They are taking people on board without checking whether they are in any way appropriate for the job.”
But the failure to even ask for references – they both used their real names in their applications – was not their only concern.
Both attended one-day training sessions, only to be appalled by the quality of what was provided.
The freelance trainer who ran one of the sessions admitted he had never set foot in a care home and had no experience of the industry, and he was unable to answer simple questions about the way the scheme operated.
One of the journalists said: “Overall the training was unclear, uninformative and has not left me confident to take part in an ExE inspection.
“The training session was confusing, scripted and many questions asked were left unanswered.
“I believe I could have read through the handout and slide shows and Googled the ExE role in my own time and would have been equally as ill-prepared for the role.”
She added: “I do not regard myself as an expert, nor has the training given me the confidence to call myself an ‘expert’.”
The other undercover journalist said: “The guy training us admitted that he had never been an Expert by Experience, and he had no clinical knowledge.
“The training was based on a PowerPoint presentation and a pamphlet. It was utterly shocking.”
Both turned down the opportunity of working for Remploy after attending the training sessions.
In contrast to Remploy, the charity Choice Support, which heads the consortium that runs the Experts by Experience programme in the central region of England, carries out face-to-face interviews for those shortlisted for ExE roles, and obtains references for those successful at interview, completing DBS checks before a role is offered formally.
Choice Support’s training package is carried out by trainers – including key members of the consortium, such as its national lead, Kim Arnold – who have “detailed knowledge of the industry as well as personal experience of using the services”.
Claire Bolderson, a former ExE, now campaigns for improvements to the way Remploy runs the programme and to the pay ExEs receive.
She has exchanged emails with CQC’s head of engagement, Chris Day, who admitted that Remploy did not ask for references for its new recruits.
In an email seen by DNS, Day told Bolderson: “Remploy has assured CQC that it carries out robust screening of potential experts prior to their deployment on inspections, where they are asked to provide a detailed overview of their personal or family caring responsibilities, experience of team working and report writing experience.
“As part of the screening process Remploy carries out DBS checks on all potential experts, and risk assessments where appropriate, as a result of these.
“Remploy does not take up personal or professional references as part of its contractual obligations for recruitment of ExE.”
Bolderson replied: “I am, to be quite blunt, stunned by your acceptance of Remploy’s failure to ask for personal or professional references when recruiting new Experts.
“The ‘robust screening’ of which you have been assured consists of asking potential recruits, in a telephone conversation, about their experience largely as users of regulated services.
“There is no process for establishing whether that person is telling the truth.
“There is no way of verifying whether they have any of the experience they claim.
“In short, Remploy simply accepts the potential recruit’s word for it.
“That is hardly ‘robust screening’.
“A DBS check is of course an important legal requirement. But it tells Remploy only whether a person has ever been caught and successfully prosecuted, not that they have relevant experience and are caring, responsible and capable individuals.”
In a statement, a CQC spokesman repeated the three paragraphs above from Chris Day’s email.
He added: “Remploy has redesigned its face-to-face and on-line training based on feedback from both CQC and ExE.
“They continually evaluate and review their training and its quality. Recent independent survey results showed an improvement in the satisfaction rates of ExE taking part in training from 65 per cent in September 2016 to 82 per cent in January 2017.
“Remploy will continue to work with CQC to update and improve the quality of training and is in the process of implementing a Learner Management System with access to a broader range of training for its Experts by Experience.”
A Remploy spokesman said: “We are confident that our recruitment and training process ensures that individuals are well prepared for their roles as Experts by Experience (ExEs).”
He said this was backed up by the most recent survey of ExEs, carried out in August, which found 92 per cent rated their first contact with the programme as good or satisfactory; 85 per cent said the recruitment process was good or satisfactory; and 83 per cent found the effectiveness of their training to be good or satisfactory.
And he said that 88 per cent stated that “the effectiveness of the communication and information about the roles of the Expert and Inspector was good or satisfactory [in]preparing them for an Inspection”.
He said: “These figures have increased each year that we have delivered the programme, reflecting the continuous improvement Remploy is committed to putting in place.
“We have lengthy conversations with all potential ExEs to gauge their experience of, and engagement with, health and care services prior to providing training.
“All potential Experts by Experience also undergo required criminal background checks.”
He refused to comment on why Remploy did not request or take up references.
Bolderson and other current and former ExEs have repeatedly raised concerns about the quality of the service provided by Remploy.
Earlier this year, DNS reported how disabled people working as ExEs for Remploy were refused support workers, while one was bullied into resigning.
Internal reports secured by DNS showed how CQC was forced to write “formally” to Remploy three times over concerns about the way it was running the ExE programme, while a CQC report in May 2016 found there had been “multiple issues with Remploy’s performance to date”.
When CQC was asked about the concerns earlier this year, it said there had been a significant improvement in Remploy’s performance since 2016, but these latest revelations cast doubt on that claim.
There are also continuing concerns over Remploy’s decision to pay its ExEs just over £9 an hour in basic pay (£10 in London), compared with rates of £15 an hour for those employed by the Choice Support consortium.
Remploy was heavily criticised for slashing the pay of ExEs when it took over the contract.
The latest criticisms of Remploy are also likely to alarm disabled people in Wales, where the company has been awarded a contract by the Department for Work and Pensions to provide employment support services under its new Health and Work programme.
Bolderson told DNS: “It’s increasingly obvious that Remploy are incredibly good at pulling the wool over the CQC’s eyes, which raises some serious questions about the CQC as an effective regulator.”