London

'Profiteering' care agency 'took money' from workers

Chris Rigland
Image caption Chris Rigland insists his company abides by the law

A "profiteering" care agency took hundreds of pounds from low-paid carers who were desperate for work, a BBC London investigation has found.

HCA Professionals, based in Barking, east London, promised carers jobs if they paid for unnecessary and "highly unprofessional" training.

Criminal record checks were charged for but not submitted and work did not materialise, but cash was not returned.

The company, run by Chris Rigland, denies all wrongdoing.

'Bad mum'

The BBC was contacted by numerous carers who said they were promised shifts if they paid for extra training, despite them already being fully qualified to work in care homes.

The hopeful staff parted with up to £360, but work was not forthcoming.

One carer, Elo Owah, said: "They sold me dreams and they made promises they didn't keep.

"For a good few weeks I was broke, I couldn't even buy my son food; I felt like a bad mum."

"It made me feel angry, upset and powerless."

Another worker, Stacey Ann Green, said: "I was crying. I went on my knees and started praying and saying 'God, why is this happening?'

"I spent so much money. My spirit was crushed."

Image caption Numerous alleged victims of Mr Rigland told the BBC of their experiences

BBC London sent an undercover researcher holding a genuine level three diploma in Health and Social Care to try to find work with HCA Professionals.

Despite showing Mr Rigland she was qualified to work she was urged to pay £95 for extra training. She also parted with £65 for Mr Rigland to arrange a DBS (formerly CRB) criminal records check.

After taking the cash, he told her: "Consider yourself you've got a job, yeah?"

'Prejudiced' teaching

Footage of the subsequent training given to the researcher was shown to Elaine Burston, health and social care lecturer at City and Islington College.

She judged the teaching "highly unprofessional, misleading and prejudiced" and said it would fail an inspection.

The researcher was told to demand extra money to treat HIV patients, and service users were described as "mad".

A discussion of MRSA was dubbed "scaremongering" by Ms Burston, who said the training was unnecessary for someone with a diploma.

Meanwhile DBS confirmed the background check on the BBC researcher was never submitted.

Despite several calls over a period of months, no paid work was given to the researcher. Demands for training money to be returned were refused and a promised refund for the DBS check never materialised.

Mr Rigland told the researcher: "It's just like, for example, how can you go to the cinema and watch movie and then say you want your money back?"

Minister 'horrified'

Kathryn Dooks, an employment law expert and partner at Kemp Little, viewed the BBC's evidence.

She said: "It's a criminal offence for the agency to charge a fee to a work-seeker for finding employment.

"There's a good argument that the fees for CRB [DBS] checks and training were in fact fees for finding employment, particularly as the CRB checks haven't been carried out."

Image caption Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said there is a "loophole in the law"

On its website, HCA Professionals claimed Lewisham and Wandsworth councils as clients. Both authorities have denied having any relationship with the company.

Care Minister Norman Lamb was left "horrified" by the case.

He said: "People with very little money already are put in a really invidious position. The allegations are very serious and I hope they get investigated by the police."

Of the training, he said: "It's intolerable. Anyone going into the caring profession based on that sort of training is clearly not competent to do incredibly important work."

But Mr Rigland claimed he has placed 150 workers in jobs, working with several local authorities.

He said training was voluntary, with candidates "advised" to obtain it if they do not have qualifications.

No watchdog

He insisted training from any provider would be sufficient to get work, and said his workers are not charged by his firm for training.

Mr Rigland said training was "part of commitment to clients to ensure we supply competent staffing to them at all times".

The businessman said DBS checks were carried out by an "umbrella company" and clients get their refunds within six weeks.

The care minister claimed a new set of "Fundamental Standards", due to come in this April, will bring "real accountability" to care employers.

Individuals will be banned from running businesses in the care sector if they do not pass a "fit and proper person" test.

But the BBC has discovered these standards will not apply to care agencies, meaning they will be powerless to stop the practices uncovered by BBC London's investigation.

While care homes are regulated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), agencies are not subject to any health watchdog whatsoever.

That means a rogue care home operator could shut down and reopen as a care agency the next morning, with the CQC powerless to intervene.

Shadow Health Minister Andy Burnham said there is a "loophole in the law", adding that HCA Professionals are "doing it because they can do it."

He said: "This is straightforward profiteering, exploiting low paid workers. It's wrong."

Inside Out London is broadcast on BBC One on Monday 26 January at 19:30 GMT and nationwide for 30 days on the iPlayer.

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