Town hall chiefs are reviewing their use of agency staff after a whistle-blower made a string of claims of ‘poor’ quality work being done on the files of people who were once in care.
Lambeth council says it is confident that documents on children who were once in its care is being handled ‘professionally’.
It is currently working out how much to compensate survivors who once lived in homes where a highly organised paedophile ring was preying on residents.
But it is carrying out a review of its use of agency staff and the induction of all agency staff to ensure they understand the council’s code of conduct and values.
Survivors are currently being sent copies of their files by the Subject Acquisition Request (SAR) team, so that they can see how much information Lambeth currently has on their time in care. Former clients can then correct any factual inaccuracies. But any other names mentioned in their case files need to be crossed out to protect the confidentiality of those other clients. A private recruitment company, LAW Absolute, won the £1million contract to do that work – and that is the company the whistleblower was employed by.
The SAR team has 70 paralegals, four Senior Paralegals, two Business Support Officers, and one Senior Project Solicitor/Manager. They have processed 1,099 Subject Access Requests and reviewed, redacted and quality assured some 2,227 volumes, or almost 800,000 pages, of care files for disclosure to survivors.
Lambeth confirmed: “There has been one termination relating to the use of social media and one termination arising from an incident involving the smoking of marijuana.”
Lambeth’s admission that agency staff had been dismissed followed criticisms by the whistle-blower made to the Shirley Oaks Survivors’ Association that he had seen:
* One member of staff watching Netflix
* One rolling a joint
* One sleeping at a desk
* Another posting on Instagram, with a screen in the background which had confidential information on it.
An internal memo issued to staff by Zoe Alex, managing director of the contractors Law Absolute (LA), obtained by the South London Press, says: “Can I stress that is its completely not appropriate for confidentiality to be broken (whether that be discussing the case, posting pictures or videos on social media or leaving files unattended). Under no circumstances should you be watching Netflix etc whilst working or sleeping at your desk.
“The examples listed are only a few of the issues raised to me over the last couple of weeks. If you wish to use social media or watch TV may I suggest you do this during your own time or on your lunch break, not whilst you are being paid to work. Can I please request all LAW Absolute temps behave with the utmost professionalism and that the feedback moving forwards is only positive. This email is of course not relevant to everyone but I wanted to ensure I had communicated this to all our temps.”
A council spokesman said: “The email was about isolated incidents of poor behaviour. Where staff then failed to meet those expectations immediate action has been taken. “All paralegals are graduates, mainly holding law degrees. Others are in various states of professional qualification; some are fully qualified solicitors. All are competent to work within the service. The team is extremely professional and deeply committed to their work, and to ensuring that survivors receive as much information as possible.
“While we are confident this important work is being handled sensitively by the team, we should look for ways in which we can improve our performance. So our director of corporate resources has been asked to review our approach to agency staff – as well as their management and performance.
“We are reviewing their induction programme to ensure they fully understand the council’s code of conduct and values.
“All paralegals are told to be working by 9:30am. Individuals have been dismissed for persistent lateness. There has been one termination relating to the use of social media and one termination arising from an incident involving the smoking of marijuana. This is out of a total of 70 paralegals in the service.”
The whistle-blower was himself sacked after an investigation “which uncovered substantial evidence of serious misconduct (including discrimination and harassment) over a lengthy period”.
He was also refused a reference, and only then took his claims to the organisation which supports former children’s home residents, the Shirley Oaks Survivors’ Association (SOSA). The council says this was a breach of his confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements – so it is now considering reporting the matter to the police.
“The council notes that there are disparaging racist and sexist undertones to many of the allegations made by this individual, with regard to the nationality of members of staff, and to the gender of senior officers,” the council statement added. “They also reflect some of the reasons for the termination of the individual’s contract. The allegations, which the council strongly denies, appear to be as retaliation for his contract being terminated.
“In late June 2018 the SAR manager received a complaint regarding his conduct.
“An investigation uncovered substantial evidence of serious misconduct (including discrimination and harassment) over a lengthy period. Given the weight of evidence against him, the clear breaches of the council’s staff code of conduct, and the council’s stated zero tolerance approach to discrimination, his contract was terminated.
“He demanded an apology and severance pay. He indicated that if his demands were met then he would take no action. However, he threatened that if his demands were not met, disclosures would be made to SOSA.
“The council determined it would be wholly inappropriate to agree to that. No notice was required to terminate his contract and the council decided no apology should be issued.
“The individual was given a copy of the council’s policy on whistleblowing. The council considers them to have been made, as a form of retaliation for refusal to meet the individual’s demands.”
The whistle-blower said: “But my non-disclosure agreement can be breached if it is in the public interest.”
He claims the work was given to “unqualified” staff, often 18 or 19 years old, who “do not fully understand the files they are handling”.
Another firm, Legastat, did much of the redacting work. “A lot of the Legastat work had to be done again because they could not do it correctly,” he claimed. “Lambeth is paying huge amounts of money for a service which is not being done. If anyone raises an issue, they are fired. Quotas were never enforced. The standard went from 60 pages an hour to 150 pages a week.
“Most of the staff did not have English as their first language so did not fully understand what they were redacting – especially as it was in legalese from the 1960s and 1970s.
“I have never seen such low quality work in my life. There was no ownership, no respect, no authority so people don’t take it seriously.
“The council need to get some qualified staff.
“The 18, 19, 20 year olds, who live with their parents, who have never had a job – get them out of there. They don’t care.”
He was “dismissed” after saying a colleague should watch a YouTube video about a pastor saying life in America now is worse than living on a plantation in the 1940s. The whistleblower says he was called at 7pm that day and told this was notconsistent with the council’s policy on multiculturalism and diversity”.
“It is ironic because I was the only one working nine hours a day and being commended for my terrific work,” he added. “When I make a complaint, there’s an accusation against me.
“I said if Lambeth do not want me to speak out, they should give me a month’s severance pay and a reference. They refused.”
A council spokesman added: “The recruitment process requires references and adequate identification documents. Each candidate is asked to explain the principles of equality and diversity. All paralegals receive a lengthy induction and ongoing support and monitoring. Paralegals do not have any direct contact with children or vulnerable adults.
“Legastat work extensively with the public sector and have robust procedures to process sensitive material. A quality assurance process is designed to correct inconsistencies and to ensure as much information as possible can go to the survivor.
“There is no culture of disrespect within the SARs Team. Everyone is keenly aware of the sensitivity of their work. The comments reported are not accepted in totality.”
A statement from LA said: “LAW Absolute Limited has placed many workers with Lambeth council under a framework agreement with Matrix SCM Limited. Amongst other things, this agreement determines the appropriate vetting process to be followed for each position. LAW Absolute is confident that this process, which is audited by Matrix SCM, has been followed consistently. The day to day management of the services provided by workers supplied by LAW Absolute is a matter for Lambeth Council and we refer you to their statement in this regard.”
A statement from Legastat said: “Legastat Ltd are contracted by Lambeth Council to provide scanning and redaction services related to the processing of Subject Access Requests received by the Authority. This work will conclude at the end of July 2018 and Legastat is confident that Lambeth Council is entirely satisfied with the quality of the work we have produced.
Our processes include multiple levels of quality assurance checks that are specifically designed to ensure output of the highest quality and consistency is produced.
“Due to the confidential and sensitive nature of our work, Legastat does not comment further on the specific details of our projects, contracts or our customers.”
A statement from SOSA said: “We are deeply concerned by Lambeth Council’s response to serious allegations made about the unprofessional and unacceptable behaviour of a number of permanent and agency staff used to manage case file work as part of or on behalf of the SARS team. These concerns were flagged up to management by an agency member of staff whilst they were still working for Lambeth and then followed up by the same individual after he had been dismissed.
“It is clear that money and inadequate resources have been wasted on what should have been seen as a critical element of the process of supporting survivors.
“Other issues were raised by the whistleblower that are consistent with concerns that SOSA has expressed over the last two years.”
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