Troubled jobs agency fails to clinch contract to run helpline after Exaro’s disclosure

By David Hencke | 15 August 2012

“There will be no tears shed for A4e losing out on this contract”
– Mark Serwotka, general secretary, Public and Commercial Services Union

Troubled jobs agency A4e has lost a bid to run a UK government helpline that advises people in discrimination cases.

The decision came after Exaro exposed how the company was being lined up for the contract – worth around £6 million over three years – despite being at the centre of a fraud investigation.

The Home Office and its Government Equalities Office decided to privatise the helpline, which was run by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

A4e had been awarded the highest points in the tendering exercise, making it the preferred bidder for the service.

But after Exaro’s exposure, A4e was unceremoniously dropped by the Home Office and Government Equalities Office.

The company is under police investigation over welfare-to-work programmes that it carried out for the government. A4e is owned by Emma Harrison, formerly ‘family champion’ to the prime minister, David Cameron.

Exaro has made a series of disclosures about A4e’s welfare-to-work placements. Auditors found that more than one quarter of them was potentially fraudulent, irregular or unverifiable.

The jobs agency, A4e, even placed one job-seeker at a Liverpool lap-dance club. In addition, Exaro published the internal audit report of A4e job placements that identified a wide array of problems.

Despite this, A4e became the preferred bidder to run the EHRC helpline. It costs £2.1 million a year to run, employs 85 staff in Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow, and handles 50,000 calls and 15,000 e-mails every year.

The helpline provides detailed advice on discrimination issues covering disability, gender, race and sexuality, and advises on mediation services.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents staff working on the helpline, was pleased that A4e failed to win the contract.

Its general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: “There will be no tears shed for A4e losing out on this contract. This company should not get a single penny more of our money, but the helpline should not be privatised at all.”

A spokeswoman for A4e claimed that it had never been the preferred bidder and so did not really lose the contract, saying that the award process “was discontinued earlier this year and we understand that a revised contract award procedure was launched. A4e did not enter this revised procurement process.”

However, EHRC confirmed to Exaro that A4e had been the preferred bidder.

The contract was won by Sitel, a company based in Nashville, Tennessee in America. It operates call centres, or “customer-care outsourcing services” as it describes them, and ran the disability helpline for the EHRC before it was taken in-house. The company has five centres in the UK: Exeter, Kingston, Watford, Newcastle and Stratford.

Sitel beat off a strong bid from the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), which was understood to have been placed second to A4e in points during the tendering exercise.

A spokesman for CAB confirmed that it had bid, but said that it had no talks with the Home Office or Government Equalities Office about the service until after the contract was awarded to Sitel.

Although A4e was seen off from winning the contract, employees working on the helpline remain deeply worried about the future of the service after privatisation.

The privatisation of the helpline was not sought by EHRC management, but by the Home Office and the Government Equalities Office.

It marks what trade unions see as “creeping privatisation” of public services in the UK. Only yesterday, Exaro revealed plans for effective privatisation of universities in England, following the model set in the National Health Service which has seen the first NHS hospital run by a private company.

Additional reporting by Hui Shan Khoo.

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