A government welfare-to-work provider is being investigated over claims that it has been artificially inflating the number of jobs it has found for disabled people through the specialist Work Choice programme.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last week how Seetec was failing to apply for “enhanced” criminal records checks for employees who work with “vulnerable” disabled clients it tries to place in long-term jobs.
But DNS can reveal that Seetec is also being investigated by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), after two whistleblowers raised concerns about payments it was claiming for so-called “job outcomes” on the Work Choice scheme.
Work Choice providers claim job outcome payments for every disabled person who gains a job, with extra payments after they complete six months.
But instead of finding them genuine jobs, Seetec has been offering Work Choice clients as free labour to charities, and then paying their wages itself for the next six months, while pretending to DWP on official documentation that the salaries are being paid by the charities.
The whistleblowers said Seetec had been sending clients out every month, mostly to charities but occasionally to small businesses and even to local authorities, through what it calls its Work Choice wage incentive scheme.
Reena Gour, who worked as a business development manager for Seetec between April and July this year, passed her concerns about the scam to DWP after she left the company.
She said: “It was mostly charities who took people. We were offering them free labour so obviously they were going to take it.”
DWP has a legitimate wage incentive scheme for 18-24-year-olds on Work Choice, but Seetec has been adapting the scheme and using it – apparently without DWP’s permission – for clients of all ages.
The two whistleblowers said that Seetec – which provides Work Choice services in west and north London and has more than 800 employees – was failing to tell DWP that it was paying the wages of the clients it was placing in the charities.
Seetec has been able to make a profit from the scheme because the amount it receives from DWP – thousands of pounds for every client who completes six months in a job – is hundreds of pounds a month more than it pays the clients, who only have to work 20 hours a week at minimum wage to qualify as a job outcome.
Despite this kind of manipulation, government figures still show that more than 2,000 disabled people have started Seetec’s Work Choice programme since it launched in the autumn of 2010, but only 380 have achieved any kind of job outcome.
Gour said: “I really don’t understand how they can play with people’s lives like this. It gives them false hope.”
Perveen Sud, a former colleague of Gour, has also raised concerns with DWP about the alleged scam.
She believes that nearly every disabled client who took part in the Seetec wage incentive scheme returned to out-of-work benefits at the end of the six-month period.
And at the end of the six months, each one was replaced with a new disabled client, so Seetec “could continually keep claiming for them as job outcomes”.
She said: “It is like a revolving door syndrome. It is sad for the clients because it builds up their expectations about finding sustainable and proper work.
“There are no genuine jobs. In my view, it is just a big scam and it is breaching DWP contractual guidance.”
Sud – who is in a legal dispute with Seetec after whistleblowing on a safeguarding issue and subsequently leaving the company – said: “The creation of its own in-house wage incentive scheme, although sounding quite good on paper, was done purely for commercial reasons to meet its failing targets and to claim these as ‘job outcomes’ and to be paid for this.”
She said that the disabled people taking part in Seetec’s wage incentive scheme were “technically employees of Seetec” who were just being seconded to charities for work placements, rather than obtaining genuine paid roles.
She added: “The jobs do not materialise at the end of the six months, because the jobs are just not there.
“The DWP wage incentive scheme for 18-24-year-olds states that they must be genuine, paid, vacant roles.”
Sud said she believed DWP “probably will also need to shoulder some of the blame for Seetec’s actions, as it has responsibility for monitoring the contracts held with providers”.
Although Gour has yet to be contacted by DWP about her allegations, Sud has been told that her complaint is being investigated.
In an email forwarded to her, a DWP civil servant based at Acton jobcentre told his colleague: “I can confirm the complaint has been forwarded and received by DWP for investigation.
“The issues Ms Sud raised are complex and detailed and will take time to investigate thoroughly and correctly. Ms Sud will be contacted as the investigation progresses.”
Seetec originally failed to comment, but when DNS eventually managed to speak to a spokeswoman for the company about the allegations, she said: “I need to speak to the people that organise that programme in more detail. I haven’t got a comment for you at this moment.”
Asked whether Seetec was aware of the DWP investigation, she said: “Right. Yep, possibly, but I need to speak to the people that [manage] people in that area. I can’t comment at the moment until I speak to them.”
Asked if the allegations being made by Sud and Gour were the kind of things that might happen at Seetec, she said: “Not to my knowledge, no. Not if it’s breaching any procedures or guidance for that programme, no.
“I’m not aware of anything we would do to work outside the guidance of each programme.
“Obviously there is guidance for all the different programmes we work to and [we] work tirelessly to ensure we work within those guidelines and achieve the best possible results for our customers.”
She then added: “Is it just Seetec that you are doing all these investigations on or is it other providers that you are talking to? And are you assuming that they don’t happen anywhere else?”
When asked if she thought such problems did happen with other providers, she said: “I couldn’t possibly comment on that. I don’t work for any other providers.”
She later added in an emailed statement: “We are unaware of any investigation on this matter.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We take any [allegations of such behaviour] by contractors very seriously. We cannot confirm or deny any allegations at this stage.”
24 October 2013