Wednesday, 27 July 2011

White Mentoring program for Black boys

Boris Johnson left and right Paul Lawrence

Paul Lawrence is the founder of a leading life skills training consultancy. Born in London, but raised in Jamaica Paul has a unique perspective on underachievement among our black boys and firmly believes the UK education system has much to answer for. His life skills courses are designed to provide a leg up not just for those who fail academically, but to strengthen the prospects of those who find their academic qualifications are often undervalued purely due to their race. Paul was a part of a black bidding consortium for the Mayor of London’s mentor scheme.

Mayor ensures a £1.3m contract is awarded to a charity he is Patron, fails to declare his interest and unfairly discriminates against black businesses.
On July 20, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson launched The Mayor’s Mentoring Scheme. Speaking outside the Epicentre in Leyton, the Mayor told Londoners:
"Through no fault of their own there are some young boys in our city in desperate need of a strong, male role model. I want my scheme to reach out to those who may fall prey to the lure of gangs and violence and place them with positive, hard-working males who can help guide them,”
....“the influence of a positive role model can be immeasurable and I'd like to thank all the outstanding volunteers who have come forward and encourage even more people to get on board."
Now I, for one, welcomed the idea of a ‘Mayor Mentor Scheme’. So much so that I ensured my organisation formed part of the consortium that bid for, and was successful in, training the volunteers in mentoring skills – (I’ll tell you about that later)!

I believed that the idea of 1000 black mentors for 1000 black boys would provide a much needed resource for black youths in London and would represent a financial shot in the arm for hard pressed groups already delivering frontline services.  

I publicly applauded Boris Johnson for his intention to deliver the scheme and for his choice of Ray Lewis as Mayor’s Mentoring Ambassador to lead his flagship project.

Add to this the inclusion of football legend Ian Wright, and the fact that 1700 people have already signed up as volunteers, you would think that this would be a ‘good news’ day for black Londoners and for community groups working with at-risk black youths... that is until you get to the sticky issue of who has won the contract for delivering the scheme.

So is it an established organisation with a proven track record of working with black gangs and disaffected youth in the community? You would think so, wouldn’t you, but no; the Mayor has awarded the Greater London Authority mentoring contract of £1.3m to the University of East London (UEL) and London Action Trust (LAT), neither of whom has any extensive track record of working with black gangs or the black community in general in London.

Further, and more worryingly, Boris Johnson is Patron of the London Action Trust (LAT) sitting on the board alongside old friends such as Nick Griffin (same name different guy) the Mayoral Advisor on Budgets & Performance alongside Conservative Steve Norris who is also, by happy coincidence, Chair of Ray Lewis’ East Side Academy.

Also sitting on both the LAT and East Side Academy boards is Fitzroy Andrew.

Now, as far as I understand it - and I am happy to be corrected – isn’t the Mayor of London duty bound to declare an interest as patron of London Action Trust? Especially when £1.3m of public money is heading their way? So just to be sure that I had my facts right, I checked the Mayor’s Register of interests and found that he has made no declaration regarding London Action Trust. I also checked with LAT who confirmed in writing that Boris Johnson is still their Patron. The Mayor - who came into power promising crystal clear transparency - seems to have failed to comply with the GLA rules relating to declarations of interest.

Here is what the GLA says on this matter

The Mayor of London is required to declare personal interests in the Standing Register of Interests. He/she must register these details with the GLA's Monitoring Officer within 28 days of the commencement of his/her term of office, and must submit an updated notification within 28 days of becoming aware of any change. The Mayor has stated that the Register of Interests for Mayoral appointments will also be published in his promotion of openness and transparency.”

Leaving that to one side for a moment, the question of the suitability of the chosen contractors to deliver is a key issue. As a member of the consortium of black-led organisations that by all accounts gained the highest marks in the tender process, I was obviously keen to establish the facts. My eyes have been opened to a catalogue of questionable practices and major discrepancies in the Mayor’s tender procurement process. The official record of this process is published on the Mayor’s web site.

I checked the UEL and LAT web sites to see if either had a track record in relation to community mentoring of black boys involved n (or at risk of) serious youth violence. There was no mention anywhere of them having doing any work in this area. I then asked around and found that no organisations working on the front line of mentoring schemes have heard of either of these two organisations doing any work in the field.

So how could they have won such a huge contract especially when bidding in direct competition with experienced black providers – the same providers (us) who had been commissioned by the GLA to train the volunteers in mentoring skills – essentially, equipping them with the tools to undertake the challenging interventions required to ensure that these young black boys conceive and feel able to achieve their potential.

Our consortium was made up of top black led organisations (100 Black Men of London, Freeman Oliver, Life Skills Training Consultancy and Foundation for Life – all of whom have significant, proven and successful experience in the field of mentoring and talent management.

Our mentoring training was deemed unanimously as a success by the 200 volunteers we trained and we were also applauded for our ‘innovative approach and hard-hitting impact’ by the commissioning officers. Since the decision to award the contract to white mainstream organisations, we have been contacted by a significant number of the volunteers, many of them stating their concern that “a top class, black led consortium” has been ruled out from managing the remainder of the programme.

So maybe I was being naive – but I genuinely thought that the contract would go to one of the two black led consortia that bid for the work. And this is not based on a simple argument of ‘because we’re black we should deliver it’. It is premised on the obvious assumption that to get the outcomes required, it is important that the provider(s) have experience of working with black young people involved in, or at risk of serious youth violence. These organisations are best placed to deliver the type of scheme likely to resonate with the ‘hard knock’ black boys the Mayor is seeking to target.

Add to that, the fact that Boris Johnson fully accepted the Mayor’s Expert Advisory Group on youth violence (MEAG) recommendation that the Mentor contract should go to a proven contractor with relevant experience, community credibility and a demonstrable track record of working with gang members and black boys. Additionally, the Mayor’s office held several community meetings where Boris and his team repeatedly assured the community that they understood the importance of the programme needing to be delivered by grass-roots organisations to ensure credibility and thus, community co-operation.

The MEAG is disarray with the resignation today of one its leading members, Mr Viv Ahmun widely regarded as one the most strategic and effective black men working in the field of youth violence. In his resignation letter Mr Ahmun cites the Mayors lack of effective leadership. He writes

“Unfortunately I have seen little in the way of leadership from you in regards to this issue over the last 10 months despite my repeated emails, and points raised at our monthly MEAG meetings with you regarding my concerns.

Turning to the Mayors mentoring and confirming his clear understanding that the was Mayor fully committed to ensuring a black led mentor scheme he adds,

“ The London mentoring scheme, when initially launched over a year ago, had no scope to it whatsoever. Consequently, it’s development was supported by my colleagues and I alongside your officers, to ensure that for once a provision intended to meet the needs of black communities and more specifically, young black men at risk, would be led by a group with all the skills and capacity necessary to deliver a quality service. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to you, the contract was awarded to a partnership led by two organisations that, even when joined together, could not provide the credibility, capacity and competence needed to deliver the service. “
This represents a massive blow for the Mayor. Mr Ahmun will be a significant loss of support for the Mayor and will impact significantly on the Mayors attempt to engage with the black  men community.

So what happened?

Reading through the Mayor’s document (see his website) it is clear that the original tender decision panel was made up of GLA officers, Ron Belgrave and Lizzie Noel, and the Mayor’s mentor champion, Ray Lewis. They sat alone on the 26th May and shortlisted four bids from a total of 10. These bids were from two major black led consortiums and UEL and LAT (both of whom I am led to believe bid separately).

Next all four bidders were invited to a second interview. This is where things get interesting because the original panel was at this stage expanded to include Edward Lister, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff and Helen Keenan, his Director of Health and Communities.

It is our understanding that the same tender panel is supposed to sit throughout the entire process from beginning to end. So what reason could there be, for what could be seen as a direct intervention by the Mayor’s Office? We believe this breaks the GLA own procurement rules? And if not unlawful it is most certainly contrary to normal procurement practice.

In addition to this, according to the Mayor’s report (quoted below) it seems that after ‘fresh insight’ provided by the Mayor’s office the tender panel was then asked to ‘revise’ the bids ‘based on the additional information’ given by the Mayor’s heavyweights.

The Mayors report reads:

1.8.8 The second round of interviews were held at City Hall on 15 June and were attended by the decision panel. In addition, Edward Lister, Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor, and Helen Keenan, Assistant Director, Health and Communities attended to provide fresh insight in terms of the questions asked and answers received.

1.8.9 The three members of the Decision Panel were then asked to revise their original scores  for the four shortlisted bids, based on the additional information gathered from the process described above.  This process again did not prove conclusive as three of the bids scored highly and were considered by the majority of the panel to be too closely matched to make a final decision.

This smacks of gross political interference in the procurement process by the Mayor’s Office. Why was the tender panel asked to revise their original scores in the first place? And when the second interview scores were counted nothing changed because, I am reliably informed, the black consortiums still outscored the UEL and LAT bids leaving them third and fourth respectively.

According to the Mayor’s report the black consortiums were knocked out after ‘due diligence was done’. This is inconsistent with the Mayors own report, which states that the tender panel had already had the due diligence information prior to the second interviews and the black consortium bids still came first and second. 

In any event the London Action Trust does not appear in good financial shape. Checking on the Charity Commission website regarding London Action Trust I found the following information in their accounts for 31/07/10.

Note 12, p21  of the accounts – Investments states “London Action Trust has set up a 100% owed trading subsidiary of 1 ordinary share of £1. The name of the subsidiary is Essential Consulting Limited and the principal activity of the company is to sell a range of training products to the public and private sectors.
The subsidiary company’s net assets at the 31 July 2010 amounted to an overdrawn balance of £212,115 (2009 an overdrawn balance of £209,684). The company remained dormant throughout the year it’s only transactions being to meet necessary administration costs of £2,431 which represents it’s loss for the year.

Note13, p22 of the accounts states “the amount owed by group undertakings to the parent charity represents sums due from the 100% owned subsidiary company, Essential Consulting Ltd. As indicated, in Note 12 Essential consulting Limited disclosed at the balance sheet date  a debit balance on it’s profit  loss reserve of some £212,115 which is effectively funded through the inter company account with the Parent Charity. Although the subsidiary has not traded during the year, the directors are confident that the company can be revitalized particularly in the light of the Government’s commitment to the Big Society, and Social Enterprise. The Parent Charity therefore envisages that it will gradually recover sums due from the subsidiary company in due course. However, the trustees have decided that it is prudent to provide, in the books of the Parent, against the balance in full in the current year.

The Summary income & expenditure account on p12 shows activities regarding domestic violence projects ceased form 01/04/10 following transfer to the newly set up organization Against Violence & Abuse (AVA).

A deficit of £396,443 for the current year arises in the Parent charity (2009: £147,286 surplus). This is largely due to the grant paid (£158,777) to AVA during the course of the year and provision made against the non recovery of the balance due from the subsidiary undertaking, Essential Consulting Ltd of £227,334.

So if due diligence was done for all the organisations bidding for the contract, it seems that the ‘powers-that–be’ have missed the fact that Boris Johnson’s favoured charity is in serious financial trouble and looks like its currently insolvent or likely to go bankrupt in the very near future. Furthermore, just to illustrate the extent to which this whole process has been fixed, one of the two black consortiums was backed by a multi million pound national charity making any issues related to financial resilience redundant.

The other partner cited in the UEL bid is a consultancy named ETHOS Consultancy. According to their website their staff consists of a total of two Directors, Martin Finegan & Dave Coker. 

Information on the Internet via Companies UK shows that their accounts were overdue as of 17/07/11. It also shows that Martin Finegan has been under notice of strike-off three times in the last few months (March, May & June) and that he is going through his second notice of strike-off action as a Director for another business Exit in Ltd issued 17/05/11. He is not listed as a Director of ETHOS on Companies UK.

So once again we see a complete set of double standards and a clear breach of GLA rules. How can it be that these companies with such poor track records fiscally and in terms of administration were awarded this contract when one of the black consortiums backed by a highly reputable solvent national charity was turned down?

Let me be clear. I believe that the real reason the black bids were knocked out is that the Mayor did not want a black consortium bid to win. The Mayor it seems does not trust black people. Without a proper explanation - it really is that simple. 

I also believe that the Mayor has illegally, and in flagrant breach of GLA policy and procedure, interfered with the tender process and ultimately overruled the tender panel’s initial decision. UEL and LAT initially came to the bidding process as two separate organisations, coming third and fourth respectively and the Mayor, in complete contravention of GLA procurement rules, invited them to join together and then awarded them the contract, worth nigh on £1.5 million pounds of public money, in an area in which they have no expertise or track record.

No doubt more detail will emerge over the coming months and there has been a flurry of Freedom of Information requests from concerned parties demanding answers. These include requests for the release of the sifting scores at each individual stage of the procurement process, a response to the Mayor’s undeclared interest in LAT and a copy of the Race Equality Impact Assessment as required under the Equality Act and much more detailed information relating to this tender process.

One of the black consortiums has now formally appealed against the tender decision and has submitted a race complaint against both the GLA and the Mayor’s Office. In my opinion no reputable organisation or individual should proceed with this contract or be associated with it while these very serious questions remain unanswered and a formal investigation is launched. It is very important that there is no collusion with any of the blatantly racist practices or illegality associated with this process.
No doubt the Mayor is hoping that the lure of cash will override any sense of principle and he may well be right. However the fact remains that anyone now who knowingly associates with this scheme after these accusations have been aired in the public will have serious questions to answer from the black and Londoners as a whole. In short, this is public money and no one should be above the law (not even the Mayor) in terms of ensuring fairness and equality – and especially at this time of austerity!  

So there we have it, a tale of abuse of Mayoral power. The accusations are clear: direct political interference, clear breach of rules and procedures, race discrimination and the misuse of the public purse by a Mayor who seems to be channelling public funds into the coffers of his friends and favourite organisations. Sound familiar?

I hope this letter will assist in our community getting answers to these most serious issues and that it will not be casually disregarded as “Codswallop”.

For our consortium, we are determined that a dangerous precedent is not set – and it is for this reason why we feel it important to ensure that the Mayor responds to the serious questions all Londoners will want answered. Black boys deserve better and so do all Londoners and that’s why we have released the following statement:

"We are very concerned that the Mayor of London has selected the University of East London and London Action Trust for this work even though our consortium scored the highest marks. To so blatantly breach both the procurement rules and Equality legislation the rules which has led to favoring white mainstream organisations that do not have a track record in this area leaves the Mayor open to the charge of racial bias. This clearly sends a bad signal - not least to the young black boys who are being told that to do things right and be the best they can be, is the the way forward. This is the public purse and fairness and equality is an inalienable right. We have already engaged legal advice and will ensure that justice is served".