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Welfare-to-work 'champion' quits

The Government is facing renewed pressure to suspend contracts with a welfare-to-work firm at the centre of a police fraud investigation after its boss quit as the Prime Minister's "Family Champion".

Emma Harrison, chairman of A4e, said she did not want the probe, which has seen four ex-members of A4e staff arrested, to distract from the Government's efforts to help vulnerable families.

But her departure from the unpaid role did nothing to ease pressure from the head of a Commons public spending watchdog for A4e's Government contracts to stop working with the firm pending the findings.

And the controversy was further fuelled when it was reported that firm had been named preferred bidder for a £15 million contract with the Skills Funding Agency to provide education to prisoners in London and work advice on release.

In a statement, Ms Harrison, personally appointed by David Cameron in December 2010 to lead efforts to get hundreds of households into employment, said she had asked to step aside. "I do not want the current media environment to distract from the very important work with troubled families," she said amid the ongoing controversy surrounding her business. "I remain passionate about helping troubled families and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute in an area where I have been active for many years."

Downing Street said: "We respect her decision and thank her for the contribution she has made." There were no plans at present to appoint anyone else to take over the role, a spokeswoman said.

The arrests, made in January, were confirmed on Tuesday following a visit by Thames Valley Police to the firm's headquarters in Slough late last week. Two women aged 28 and 49, and two men, aged 35 and 41, are on police bail until mid-March.

A4e said that the investigation was one of two outstanding cases out of nine it had referred to the Department for Work and Pensions following internal investigations. The other concerned a subcontractor, it said.

A4e has been under fire for paying £11 million in dividends last year, 87% to Ms Harrison, despite all its £160-£180 million UK turnover resulting from Government welfare contracts.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who chairs the Commons public accounts committee, has questioned why the firm continued to get contracts despite a "dismal" past record and called for a suspension. "It is the right thing that she has stepped aside because there are huge question marks about the organisation," the Labour chair of the public accounts committee told BBC Radio 4's PM. "It is hugely important that all the contracts that A4e currently run with Government departments should be suspended until the police investigations are completed."


From Belfast Telegraph