One of Yorkshire’s highest-profile entrepreneurs has quit as the Government’s Family Champion amid a police investigation into alleged fraud at her company.
Emma Harrison, the boss of welfare-to-work firm A4e, said she did not want the probe to distract from the Government’s efforts to help vulnerable families.
Two police investigations are under way after irregularities were referred by the firm to the Department for Work and Pensions and four ex-members of staff have been arrested.
Ms Harrison said: “I have asked to step aside from my voluntary role as Family Champion as I do not want the current media environment to distract from the very important work with troubled families.
“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.”
David Cameron handed Ms Harrison the unpaid role of getting families back into work in December 2010.
On Wednesday it was revealed former workers at the company – two women aged 28 and 49 and two men, aged 35 and 41 – were arrested last month and bailed until mid-March.
The Government said then it understood the investigation into A4e’s offices in Slough, Berkshire, did not relate to its Work Programme, which helps the jobless find employment. A4e said the alleged fraud dated back to 2010 and had been uncovered by its own internal investigation.
The company has referred a total of nine cases of possible irregularities to the Department of Work and Pensions. A4e said the DWP cleared all but the two remaining cases of possible malpractice.
The second police investigation reportedly involves a subcontractor of the company.
A spokesman for Mr Cameron said he respected the decision and thanked Ms Harrison for her work. On Wednesday the Prime Minister told MPs there needed to be a “thorough” investigation of the cases. “It needs to get to the truth and then we can take into account its findings,” he said.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said: “Emma Harrison has done the right thing. But this is not the end – it’s the start of the real questions about the Government’s back-to-work contracts which are costing millions but are simply not getting enough people into jobs.”
Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, has led criticism of A4e over large payouts to Ms Harrison and other bosses despite what she said was an “abysmal” performance record.
She said last night: “It is the right thing that she has stepped aside because there are huge question marks about the organisation.
“It is hugely important that all the contracts that A4e currently run with Government departments should be suspended until the police investigations are completed.”
The firm’s five shareholders were paid £11m in dividends last year, of which Ms Harrison received around £8.6m, the committee was told this month, despite her firm’s failure to meet Government targets on finding jobs for the unemployed.
Ms Hodge said that was excessive given that all the firm’s £160-£180m UK turnover last year came from Government contracts.
The DWP confirmed it had launched nine investigations into alleged fraud at A4e since 2005. In five cases the firm was ordered to repay thousands of pounds to the taxpayer after evidence of “irregularities” was uncovered. In one case last year a former employee in Hull pleaded guilty to eight counts of forgery.
A4e is one of five prime contractors to the Government’s flagship Work Programme.