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When your friends make you look like a fool

In the foreground, our earnest Prime Minister telling us to stop being suspicious of businesses. In the background, one of his business pals stuffing her pockets with public money.

Restoration comedy is one of those genres which most people will probably have heard of but which not that many people really know much about. Here’s the short version. The restoration comedy involves foppish minor aristocrats usually with an exaggerated sense of their own ability who get trapped into ever-more elaborate tissues of lies and contradictions. They are the root of the bedroom farce and a common moment in a restoration comedy might involve our aristocratic fop telling us something while on stage behind him something else is happening which completely undermines the thing he is saying. Like ‘Lady Fortesque would never betray such an upstanding gentlemen as you see before you’ just as the good Lady is hiding under the bed with another fop altogether.

Or perhaps our Fop is standing in front of an audience of business leaders telling us all that he can’t understand why people are suspicious of private businesses delivering public services while just behind him one of his favourite business leaders is stuffing a suitcase full of welfare money en route to the airport.

Emma Harrison not only runs a company with the eloquent name of A4e but was until yesterday one of David Cameron’s Tsars – providing advice on problem families. Turns out if the problem is illegal and antisocial behaviour then she may indeed be an expert. The company has had to repay government money five times when it turned out they had not done what they said they’d done.  One other case involved a conviction for fraud. The company’s income (as far as I can tell) is 100 per cent from public contracts. Which last year was (as far as I can tell) £140m (not sure if that is for one year). Out of that the company paid dividends of £11m, £8.6m of which went straight into Ms Harrison’s pocket.

That is nearly ten per cent of the value of the contract whipped straight out in personal profit (not including any other use of surplus from the contract such as investment back into her company). So they need to be 10 per cent more efficient just to break even. To which end they appear to have been fiddling – well, the emerging evidence suggests that the fiddling is so widespread that it would be best not to specify. Four arrests of senior figures from her company so far and a whistle-blower suggesting that company practices are, well, let’s just say ‘a bit dodgy’. For example, it turns out that some of the people A4e managed to get off the dole are very busy indeed – working compulsorily for A4e for no pay. Effective indeed.

I can only roar this with indignant rage – there is simply no way that rich people would be pocketing £9m of money from unemployed kids if this had been in the public sector. No way would they have got to their fifth repayment of money resulting from misreporting. A corruption conviction would be impossible to survive. Blatant cheating in the remit could not have lasted. And since none of these things could happen, and since that means that no-one could really benefit personally, there wouldn’t have been the incentive to try.

This case stinks. It stinks so bad you’d think it was a defence contract (a dark place where the laws of the land cannot reach). It stinks so bad that Cameron should be answering personally for this massive misjudgement on his part. I would like to see a more thorough criminal investigation here – if a benefit office worker made off with £9m you wouldn’t be able to see daylight for the swarm of cops.

Meanwhile, we have David Cameron standing out front asking us what’s wrong with the profit motive in public services? Do you get it yet Viscount Cameron? The problem is that it attracts people who want to stuff their pockets and not people who want to help the unemployed.

Well, I suppose if you can’t be an effective national leader you might as well be a piece of effective satire. Silly man.

Robin McAlpine