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«Department for Business, Innovation & Skills Investigation into potential conflicts of interest in the award of Disabled Students’ Allowance HC ...»

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by the Comptroller

and Auditor General

Department for Business, Innovation & Skills

Investigation into potential

conflicts of interest in the award

of Disabled Students’ Allowance

HC 1112 SESSION 2014-15 13 MARCH 2015

Our vision is to help the nation spend wisely.

Our public audit perspective helps Parliament hold

government to account and improve public services.

The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is

independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 820 employees. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy.

Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally.

Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of £1.1 billion in 2013.

Department for Business, Innovation & Skills Investigation into potential conflicts of interest in the award of Disabled Students’ Allowance Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed on 12 March 2015 This report has been prepared under Section 6 of the National Audit Act 1983 for presentation to the House of Commons in accordance with Section 9 of the Act Sir Amyas Morse KCB Comptroller and Auditor General National Audit Office 11 March 2015 HC 1112 | £10.00 This report examines the oversight by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills of the arrangements for the award of the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA).

Investigations We conduct investigations to establish the underlying facts in circumstances where concerns have been raised with us, or in response to intelligence that we have gathered through our wider work.

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Copying for non-commercial purposes is subject to the material being accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement, reproduced accurately, and not being used in a misleading context. To reproduce NAO copyright material for any other use, you must contact copyright@nao.gsi.gov.uk. Please tell us who you are, the organisation you represent (if any) and how and why you wish to use our material. Please include your full contact details: name, address, telephone number and email.

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10661 03/15 NAO Contents What this investigation is about 4 Summary 5 Background 8 Findings on potential conflicts of interest 11 Findings on risks to public money 15 Findings on proportion of students at Plymouth University receiving DSA 19 BIS’s future plans for monitoring conflicts of interest 20 Appendix One Our investigative approach 22

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Summary The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) provides the Disabled 5 Students’ Allowance (DSA) to higher education students with disabilities. In 2012-13, the Student Loans Company estimated DSA payments for English students to be £128 million. DSA can be used to pay for specialist equipment or non-medical helper support. The support can include, for example, note-taking at lectures for students with learning difficulties.

An assessment centre assesses students with disabilities, to see what support they 6 need to overcome challenges they may face because of their disabilities when accessing higher education. The Student Loans Company usually pays DSA directly to the support provider, rather than to the student. The DSA Quality Assurance Group is a non-profit making body with responsibility for auditing assessment centres and support providers.

The concerns raised with the Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts relate to 7 Access South West (an assessment centre on Plymouth University campus), and Claro Learning Ltd (a support provider for adults with disabilities in the south-west).

Key findings Potential conflicts of interest 8 Initial concerns about a potential conflict of interest in the assessment of students with disabilities at Plymouth University were raised with the DSA Quality Assurance Group and the Student Loans Company in 2010. Although the Student Loans Company requested clarification from BIS about how such conflicts of interest should be dealt with, no further action was taken by BIS to investigate the specific issue relating to assessment of Plymouth University students.

9 Access South West, the assessment centre that assesses the support requirements of disabled students based at Plymouth University’s main campus, and Claro Learning Ltd, a supplier of non-medical helper support to disabled students, are the same company. In addition, a verbal agreement between Plymouth University and Claro Learning means that Claro Learning is the sole supplier of non-medical helper support to most students based on the Plymouth University campus.

10 Access South West declared potential conflicts of interest in the appropriate register. BIS’s internal audit review provided confirmation that the activities of Access South West and Claro Learning are kept separate and are not reliant on information from the other business.

6 Investigation into potential conflicts of interest in the award of Disabled Students’ Allowance

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Proportion of Plymouth University students receiving DSA 16 The proportion of students at Plymouth University receiving DSA is 9.3% compared with a national average of 5.8%. We have not seen any evidence that would cause us to question the validity of the figures. Proof of disability is required from a student’s GP or specialist. Additional proof is required from students with specific learning difficulties. Therefore it is not, as far as we are aware, a matter for Access South West or Claro Learning. The higher-than-average figure may be influenced by several factors, including the university’s own marketing efforts and reputation.

BIS’s future plans for monitoring conflicts of interest 17 BIS has a number of actions in train to strengthen its oversight of DSA.

It has instructed Access South West that any future assessments it makes must provide at least two quotes for support provision. It has confirmed with Plymouth University that the verbal agreement it has with Claro Learning does not prevent other suppliers from providing support to Plymouth University students. BIS is also seeking assurance that Claro Learning has addressed issues raised by the internal audit review. More generally, BIS is setting up an oversight group for monitoring DSA, is developing new DSA guidance on conflicts of interest, and plans to carry out improved analysis to identify anomalies in DSA payments that require further investigation. From September 2015, all English and Welsh assessment centres will have to be accredited by the DSA Quality Assurance Group in order to carry out DSA assessments.

8 Investigation into potential conflicts of interest in the award of Disabled Students’ Allowance

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Note 1 There are 182 accredited UK assessment centres. Students can choose one near to their home or university.

Source: National Audit Office 2 The convention used throughout this report is that academic years are written as 2012/13 and financial years as 2012-13.

Investigation into potential conflicts of interest in the award of Disabled Students’ Allowance 9

1.6 The Student Loans Company directs students requiring assessments to the DSA Quality Assurance Group’s list of accredited assessment centres. At present, BIS does not mandate that assessment centres should be accredited, but has informed us that, from September 2015, all assessment centres will require accreditation. The DSA Quality Assurance Group is a non-profit making body with charitable status, funded through membership fees from the bodies it accredits. It has responsibility for auditing and accrediting assessment centres and equipment support providers. It provides assurance that these organisations have appropriate quality assurance arrangements in place. The DSA Quality Assurance Group does not have responsibility for auditing the provision of non-medical helper support.

Questions relating to the payment of DSA

1.7 The following specific concerns were raised in correspondence to the Chair of the

Committee of Public Accounts in 2013:

• Conflict of interest That there are potential conflicts of interest in the assessment of support requirements of disabled students by an assessment centre on the main campus of Plymouth University, and the provision of that support by Claro Learning Ltd, a support provider operating in the south-west.

• Risks to public money That relationships between disability needs assessors, support providers and Plymouth University are costing the taxpayer money.

• Disabled students at Plymouth University That a larger than expected proportion of students at Plymouth University receive DSA.

Organisations involved

1.8 Access South West assesses disabled students’ needs. It operates in the south-west of England and runs four assessment centres that are audited and have been accredited by the DSA Quality Assurance Group. In particular, in January 2012, it took over operation of the existing assessment centre on the campus of Plymouth University.

Access South West also runs an assessment centre in Truro and two outreach centres at Barnstaple and Penryn.

1.9 Claro Learning Ltd provides specialist services to support adults with disabilities.

Non-medical helper support includes learning support, mentoring, note taking and assistive technology training. The company is also based in the south-west (Tavistock).

Claro’s records show that it supported 2,066 BIS-funded students in 2012/13, and received payments of £7.3 million.

10 Investigation into potential conflicts of interest in the award of Disabled Students’ Allowance

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Findings on potential conflicts of interest Potential conflicts of interest

2.1 Anonymous allegations were initially raised with the Student Loans Company and the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) Quality Assurance Group in 2010 about the assessment of disabled students at Plymouth University. Prior to Access South West establishing an assessment centre on the Plymouth University campus in January 2012, Plymouth University carried out its own disability needs assessments. The issues raised focused on potential conflicts of interest in the assessments undertaken by a disability needs assessor who carried out assessments for both Plymouth University and Access South West.

2.2 The DSA Quality Assurance Group wrote to Access South West about the issues raised. The company rejected the allegations. The company also questioned the DSA Quality Assurance Group’s remit to investigate complaints. The DSA Quality Assurance Group was advised by its solicitors to take no further action because it did not have the necessary regulatory powers. It passed the case to the Student Loans Company. The Student Loans Company approached the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) to clarify how conflicts of interest relating to the award of DSA should be dealt with, but we have seen no evidence that BIS took action to investigate further.

2.3 There are a number of potential conflicts in the relationship between Access South West and Claro Learning Ltd. The specific organisational, business and personal

relationships have been confirmed as follows, and set out in Figure 2 overleaf:

• Companies House records confirm that Claro Learning Ltd and Access South West are the same company. Claro Learning told us that this arrangement is not unique, and that a number of universities and companies both assess needs and provide support for disabled students.

• The chief executive of the supplier company, Claro Learning, line manages the regional manager of the company carrying out assessments, Access South West.

• The individual named in the correspondence with the Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts is the main disability needs assessor for mental health issues at Access South West. Prior to Access South West establishing an assessment centre on the Plymouth University campus in January 2012, he also carried out disabled needs assessments on behalf of Plymouth University. His wife became director of Claro Learning in May 2013. We have been informed that she was also a director previously and has been an employee of Claro Learning for several years.

12 Investigation into potential conflicts of interest in the award of Disabled Students’ Allowance Figure 2 Potential conflicts of interest

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Note 1 Although Access South West has an assessment centre based on Plymouth University campus, the University informed us that it ensures students are aware they are under no obligation to be assessed there or supported by Claro Learning. The University told us that in practice, most disabled students based at its main campus will be assessed by Access South West and supported by Claro Learning.

Source: National Audit Office Investigation into potential conflicts of interest in the award of Disabled Students’ Allowance 13 Declarations of potential conflicts

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