How open is the Education Funding Agency?

The register of interests for the Education Funding Agency’s (EFA)  Executive Management Board and Audit Committee has finally seen daylight (sort of).

I emailed the Department for Education on March 2 to request the document under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. I was told to call at the offices of the EFA in either London or Coventry to “view” it (I’d asked for it to be sent to me electronically).

So off I went to collect it. Luckily I live in London. I pity any poor FOI sleuth who might have to bus it in from Plymouth.

The document shows that one member of the Audit Committee, Jon Gorringe, has also declared a paid directorship of an insurance business that sells terrorism insurance to universities and colleges in the UK. Another Audit Committee member, Mark Sanders, has also declared his membership  of the board of the Northern Education Trust multi-academy trust (MAT).

The EFA is an hugely important organisation with a massive budget. It manages the running costs and capital needs of  all state-provided  education for 3-19 year olds in England.

In 2014/15 its supply of funding was £55.9 billion  – most of it from the Treasury. In that year alone the money  included funding for 1,007 new academies,  83 new free schools, 12 studio schools and 13 university technical colleges.

The EFA sets strict rules for academy members, trustees, accounting officers, chief financial officers and auditors.  As recently as July 2015 it said in its “bible” for academy trusts – The Academies Financial Handbook – that trusts  operating schools must  publish on their websites  relevant business and financial interests of members, trustees and local governors. This must be published in a “readily accessible format”.

This must include, for each member who has served at any point over the past 12 months, their full names, date of appointment, the date they stepped down (where applicable) and relevant business and financial interests, including governance roles in other educational institutions.

But when I went online to search for a “readily accessible” copy of the  register of financial interests for the EFA’s own board and committees,  nothing was available.

What does this say about how committed the EFA  is to the culture of openness and transparency it demands from  its academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs)?

Fifteen working  days after submitting the request,  I got the email response telling me that the “public interest lies in disclosing the information”. It said a register was maintained, and it could be “viewed”.

So there was no chance of the information just being submitted electronically, and the open and transparent option of the EFA just popping the information up on its own website was not on offer….

I turned up at the Sanctuary Buildings offices of the EFA, and following a 45 minute wait an EFA representative brought down an A4 sheet – an undated document outlining the register of interests of  the Executive Management Board and the Audit Committee. Here it is.

EFA register of interests Page 1EFA register of interests Page 2

Here’s a link to a copy of the document

What does it show?  EFA Audit Committee member Mark Sanders has declared his remunerated chairmanship of the board of Locala CiC. He has also has declared his membership of the board of the Northern Education Trust multi-academy trust (MAT).  The MAT operates 10 secondary academies and 10 primary academies. A search on that MAT’s website shows he is also a member of  the MAT’s  audit and risk committee.

Sue Baldwin is on the EFA’s Executive Management Board and  has declared her membership of the board of governors of  Barnet and Southgate College as a miscellaneous and unpaid interest.

Jon Gorringe, a member of the EFA’s Audit Committee,  has  declared his paid directorship  of “terrorism mutual insurance (business) UMSR”.  According to a 2012 Insurance Post article, Mr Gorringe was appointed chairman of “UM Association (Special Risks), a terrorism insurance mutual” providing terrorism cover for 111 universities and colleges in the UK.  Prior to that he was deputy chairman.

The other  remunerated employment  he has declared is his role as financial advisor for new university start up NMiTE (New Model in Technology and Engineering) – a private university planned for Hereford.

Stella Earnshaw, a EFA  non-executive director and member of  the Audit Committee, declared  a holding in HSBC exceeding £20,000. Under family members’ interests she has declared her husband  – who is not named – as a senior executive in HSBC until 31/3/16 and after that date he continued with his non-executive role on the HSBC Subsidiary Board. Her son  – who is not named – is employed as a senior associate at the Birmingham office of Deloitte’s.

A search on the Companies House website shows that  Ms Earnshaw,  an accountant,  was appointed a director of Partnerships for Schools (PfS) Ltd in 2005. The company  helped identify, evaluate and acquire sites for free school promotors. The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme remained a large part of PfS’s portfolio. She is listed as a non-executive director and chairman of the audit committee  in PfS’s annual report and accounts for the year ended March 31, 2012. In 2011 it was announced that PfS  would close and its functions transfer to the EFA from 1 April 2012.

Will the EFA now choose to publish this register as part of the transparency data on its website? As of today it still hasn’t appeared.



‘John’, schizophrenia and his debts: The DWP can’t abdicate responsibility

It’s emerging that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out what the Disability News Service (DNS) says were ’60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths in less than three years’. The excellent DNS obtained the figures from the DWP in response to a series of Freedom of Information Act (FoI) requests. The DWP has always rejected any connection between the coalition’s welfare reforms and cuts and the deaths of claimants.

Additionally, the DWP has now released guidance to staff saying that peer reviews might also be considered in cases involving ‘customers with additional needs/vulnerable customers’.

The vulnerability of many benefits claimants is illustrated by the case of ‘John’, who came into the London food bank with a voucher on Friday. He’s 33 and explained to me that he’s in debt. He still owes well over £2,000 to ‘payday’ or short term loan companies. These include Cash Generators, TextLoanUK (offering up to £100 for seven days at APR of 894%) and Miniloanshop. The repayments are coming directly out of his bank account and are causing him to incur bank charges.

‘John’ is on employment and support allowance (ESA) – a UK benefit paid to people whose illness or disability affects their ability to work. He has also only just started receiving personal independence payment (PIP) – a non means tested benefit that offers help with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health and disability.

He  has serious long-standing mental health issues – he lives with schizophrenia and depression. The very strong anti-depression and anti-psychotic medication he’s on ‘makes you drowsy and you forget a lot of things’, he says. He adds that he ‘ends up paying money back, but getting new loans’.

I wasn’t able to establish how much he’s currently having to repay per week to meet the horrendously high APRs on his loans. Neither was he able to tell me the rate of PIP that he receives: The level of PIP varies hugely from £21.55 to £138.05 a week, depending on the outcome of the assessment process. I was however able to advise him to immediately contact Christians Against Poverty – a debt counselling charity. He promised that he would indeed get in touch with them urgently.

'John' has been referred to CAP for advice
‘John’ has been referred to CAP for advice

He lives in a hostel, but it does not seem to offer much if anything in the way of personal support or advocacy. His health is deteriorating and he is losing large amounts of weight. ‘I’ve lost two stones in two months and my nutrition is up and down’, he says. When he goes to the GP, he sees a ‘different doctor each time’. He’s started having blackouts, at which point a GP referred him to the hospital. He still doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He sees a psychiatrist once every three months, and has no community psychiatric nurse.

He’s been told by the DWP that he is due to have a work capability assessment (WCA) for his ESA, and has been waiting for this since January this year. No doubt this process will do nothing but add to the stress he is under.

Given his deteriorating health, fast weight loss, lack of day-to-day support with his mental health issues and debt problems, in my lay view any future decision by the DWP to endorse a withdrawal of his ESA following WCA would pose a real risk to him.

Has the DWP got any risk assessment procedures in place for individuals awaiting WCA? The effect on people who are already vulnerable of long waits for assessments that may result in removal or refusal of benefit is a matter of huge concern.

I’ll be contacting the DWP to let them know of ‘John’s’ situation. Many thanks to him for talking about his circumstances.

London foodbank life: Surreal at times, but dangerous too

London foodbank life: Surreal at times, but dangerous too
Ben Adou hasn’t received jobseeker’s allowance since early March. He came into the foodbank hungry.

I’m pondering the brutal absurdities of day-to-day life for a growing number of the people I come across at this London Trussell Trust foodbank. Sarah (not her real name), wants a job. She’s a gentle and intelligent 28-year-old law graduate with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). A month ago she was nearly made homeless when the hostel told her they were going to evict her. The housing association running the hostel changed its mind at the last minute, but tragically she’s considering escort work as a possible way to clear debts, including a Wonga loan at extortionate rates. What does the future hold for her after she finally worked up the courage to escape a violent home situation? Will Mark, who’s trying to battle both depression and a debilitating shoulder injury, ever get his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) processed? It’s been more than 10 weeks now, and he’s still no clearer about when he’ll get his money. Meanwhile his health is deteriorating fast, with other worrying symptoms now developing, which have driven him to the local hospital’s accident and emergency unit.

While they struggle on, Ben Adou (pictured above) came into the foodbank to share his story. Last week I mentioned that he brought along a foodbank voucher – his third. He couldn’t have survived without them, as he hasn’t received any jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) since March 7. This has plunged Ben – a widower of 56 whose wife died of cancer in 2012 – into a financial crisis. He claims housing benefit, has no savings and has nothing to fall back on. There is no safety net here. He came into the foodbank at what he somewhat ironically called lunchtime – hungry because he hadn’t been able to eat that morning. At least he was able to get some tea and a spare sandwich, and leave with his emergency pack of long-life food and some bread that had been donated that day. ‘You have brought me happiness by giving me food’, he said.

The problems started when Ben, who mostly works as a labourer, was offered a job through the controversial Universal Jobmatch scheme at the beginning of March. It turned out to be just two days of work, which he said had ‘completely messed up my JSA claim’. It’s also impacted on his ability to pay a contribution towards his rent, pay his council tax and to meet other household and phone bills. It has made it almost impossible for him to get to interviews. Crucially, of course, he can’t buy food. Any sort of a social life is totally out of the question, of course. With his JSA on hold, he now has no idea exactly when his benefit payments will resume. He called into the jobcentre to try to get to the bottom of things: ‘They said I was overpaid JSA during spells when I was working, and I disagree. They’ve put in writing that they know they owe me £431.60, but they’re saying that I owe them about £286.00 – and that this was a possible overpayment to me.’

The Government’s Universal Jobmatch website  – managed independently by private recruiter Monster – has come under much criticism. MP Frank Field said in a Guardian article, that it is ‘bedevilled with fraud’ and ‘out of control’.The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed in a letter to Field that more than 350,000 job adverts might breach the website’s terms and conditions , which specify that employers must advertise a real job, not use premium rate numbers, pay at least the minimum wage and not cost the applicant any money to start.

In the meantime, Universal Jobmatch keep on sending him texts calling him to jobs he can’t take up and job interviews he can’t attend – because he has absolutely no money to get there. A few weeks ago he passed two interviews for some work in central London, but couldn’t get the money together to travel up to the job. The day before he had been offered work starting yesterday in Morden, ‘but I had to say no because I couldn’t afford to travel there’. He has no money, so needs a job. He can’t get a properly paid job, because he has no money to get there. A week previously he had been called for a first interview for a commission-based job, then was offered an induction. It was only at that point that he found out he would have to use an Oyster card and put money on it himself to enable him to travel around London to sell products door-to-door. Needless to say, ‘this wasn’t explained at the team meeting’.

He explained to JobcentrePlus that he needed some money, but doesn’t seem to have been told that he could have been given money directly by them. There’s a fund for that sort of thing, you see. But no-one seems to be told about it. Every year in April, JobcentrePlus offices are given a budget to pay for Budgeting Loans.These are interest free loans for people on JSA and other benefits. Travelling expenses within the UK are included in the needs covered by such loans. This money comes out of the JobcentrePlus Social Fund budget.

Ben, like many of the people I meet, is dealing with this ghastly situation with tremendous resilience. But there’s only so long he can cope without long-term damage to his health and wellbeing. He is diabetic and he also has a heart problem. Kafkaesque doesn’t even begin to describe the ridiculous, complex hassles faced daily by a growing number of our most vulnerable citizens. This week we found out that committed campaigner and journalist Mike Sivier’s battle to get information on deceased former sickness benefits claimants released that is clearly in the public interest has been unsuccessful – so far. He wants an update on the number of sickness benefit claimants who have died, but a tribunal has upheld the Information Commissioner’s decision that his Freedom of Information request was ‘vexatious’. But the judge criticised both the information Commissioner and the DWP for the other reasons they put forward to prevent the death figures from being made public. From what seems to be emerging here in London, do we also now need to look more closely at the equivalent figures for people on JSA?