Oldham’s Toxic Politics | Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of articles which tells my first-hand experience of the current toxic politics putting a dark cloud over Oldham. Previously I have touched on the abuse, harassment, and intimidation, fed by hatred and division in the town. As the articles set out the consequences of the campaign, it was important to explain where and how it began.

The previous post focused on the wide-ranging safeguarding and standards issues which besieged Collective Spirit Free School and the Manchester Creative Studio School. This article moves on to focus on the subsequent government intervention, and the official investigation which sparked the online campaign of abuse, harassment, and division in Oldham.

GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION

For months discussions took place between the Department for Education, the Regional Schools Commissioner and Members of Parliament. Following these ongoing problems, the government took steps to bring in new leadership to the school, removing the previous leadership including the governing body. However, as time went on it was clear the schools were not viable, not least of all because the finances of both trusts had been devastated, and as standards slipped so too did parental support.

The many promises of improvement at the schools never materialised, and so parents mobilised and demanded answers, and for any wrongdoing to be put right.

The matter was raised in debate in parliament, and it was following this exchange that the minister agreed to investigate the claims of financial conflicts of interests and alleged corruption.

Working with fellow MP’s including Oldham’s Angela Rayner & Debbie Abrahams, and Manchester’s Lucy Powell & Graham Stringer we continued to press for a full investigation.

FINANCIAL INVESTIGATION BEGINS

As the government sought to assess these allegations, the two schools were required to improve their reporting of ‘Related Party Transactions’ which gave the clearest indication of the range of trading companies involved, and the scale of payments made.

However, not long after reporting and oversight was placed under greater scrutiny, it’s CEO Raja Miah stood down from positions on both trusts. It was claimed that this was done to avoid the requirement to declare an interest, but he had fully maintained operational and financial control in the background, with others fronting as directors and shareholders in name only.

These allegations were later confirmed in an investigation carried out by the Department for Education.

The sample review looked at just one company providing services to the schools, and covered just a single financial year; Collective Spirit Community Trust Limited.

The review considered the involvement of three individuals; Alun Morgan, Chair of Directors of both trusts; Raja Miah CEO of both trusts; and the former Chair of Collective Spirit Free School governing body Mohib Uddin.

The allegations made by whistle blowers were that money was paid to connected companies without being declared, and that some of that was for activity which was not carried out; essentially that they were fraudulent transactions. The investigation found that only £139,676 (27.7%) was declared, but that payments totalling £502,835 were discovered through the investigation. The allegation that payments were not declared was therefore proven to be true.

The investigation found:

• there was a failure to manage conflicts of interest, that key trustees failed to declare connections.

• that transactions with a connected party were not adequately managed or sufficiently disclosed.

• that the board of trustees failed in their duties as company directors.

• that there was a failure to comply with the financial accountability system for academy trusts including the relevant areas of HMT’s Managing Public Money and the Nolan principles which are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

What the review was unable to confirm, was whether money was taken for activity which wasn’t carried out. It is not the case that this was proven to be false, but it said; “robust financial control systems, adequate financial oversight and relevant documentation to support contractual management and financial transactions by the trusts has impacted upon the Education and Skills Funding Agency reaching any conclusion on the validity of funds paid to Collective Spirit Community Trust Limited.”

This was because contracts and invoices had either been removed or destroyed, or perhaps that they did not exist in the first place.

The review also found that operational staff were so concerned that they attempted to withhold payments, and that correspondence was found which confirmed staff had questioned why invoices were being submitted when there was no evidence that activity had been carried out. An instruction to make a payment was made by the Chair of the governing body, Mohib Uddin. The Education and Skills Funding Agency requested assurances that outstanding payments were compliant with the rules, this assurance was provided by Mohib Uddin in writing.

ESFA concluded that these assurances were inadequate, given what was discovered, and suggested that Mohib Uddin had potentially breached directors’ duties under the Companies Act 2006, by failing to act in the best interests of the trust.

Despite staff raising concerns, both Alun Morgan as Chair of Directors and Mohib Uddin as Chair of the governing body confirmed to the investigation that no specific work had been conducted by themselves or the boards to investigate staff concerns relating to invoice increases and potential lack of delivery of certain services.

The report suggests that this potentially breached the rules governing Academies and Free Schools, which states that trusts must take appropriate action where fraud, theft and/or irregularity is suspected or identified. What stood out as being odd, was that on interview, the Chair of Directors, Alan Morgan who stood as a 50% shareholder of the company said he had ‘limited knowledge of being a shareholder.’

It was alleged that the leadership of the schools made attempts to avoid declaring interests, for instance standing down from positions which required them to declare interests, but in truth, maintaining control in the background.

The review found that the former CEO, Raja Miah resigned as a director of both trusts in 2014 but continued to attend board meetings with board minutes confirming he would have oversight for finance and governance. It also found that he had clear connections with the company including personally chasing payment from the school as late as 2017.

Further, the investigation found that staff and new governors reported that school-owned IT equipment was retained by former trustees long after their official involvement had ceased.

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

However, what was abundantly clear was that the narrow scope of the review left more questions than it provided answers. The failure to conduct a full financial audit, including on company bank accounts, and that it only included one trading company in a single financial year was considered as part of the review, potentially missing confirmation of payment transfers.

The review did not investigate other related companies with Raja Miah as the sole shareholder, including Collective Community Partnerships, Social Mavericks, and RISE 2010 CIC.

A greater assessment of declared expenditure of both the Collective Spirit Free School and the Manchester Creative Studio School raised concern on transactions amounting to £2.8m.

As the dust settled on the Collective Spirit saga, and with pupils, parents and staff still affected by their experience, it was important that, despite the closure of the schools, they received the answers they deserved. Further complaints were then received pointing to organised VAT fraud relating to the Manchester Creative Studio School, using a side fire door as a postal address. The same address, which did not appear on the Royal Mail database, was also used for other limited companies with individuals associated with Raja Miah.

Because of this, the complaint was escalated to the Serious Fraud Office and latterly to Greater Manchester Police, supported by the National Education Union (NEU).

As the doors of the school are now locked shut, the consequences for those who worked in the school continued long after.

Former staff from Collective Spirit Free School have discovered their pension scheme had money missing, with resulting gaps in service, some only finding out they were affected as recently as September this year. So far evidence has been provided that 20 members of staff had missing pension contributions. As the school closed with just over £500 in its bank, a total of £178,741 remained unpaid to the pension fund, with the government ultimately intervening to settle the liability.

NO FUTURE INVOLVEMENT

The government conceded failures had taken place at the school and gave a commitment to taking steps to safeguard the public interest. This included writing to Raja Miah, Alun Morgan and Mohib Uddin ‘strongly discouraging them from future involvement in schools’, instructing the Regional Schools Commissioner to escalate any intelligence suggesting they had.

Despite the direction from government Raja Miah would go on to set up a new venture with the former school principal offering supply staff to schools, with a longstanding associate and property developer as the majority shareholder.

The Supply School LTD was found to have made unlawful deductions from staff wages in an employment tribunal which was reported in August 2019. Despite this apparent evidence of trading, ‘Dormant Accounts’ were submitted to Companies House.

The continued involvement in schools angered former staff, who felt let down by the government and without the justice they had been demanding.

ON PUBLICATION, A WAR BEGAN TO RAGE

As this episode was ending, a new front was opening up. After years of pressing for action, and with no contact or interaction with those running the school, things changed dramatically.

It was within weeks of the investigation report being published that Raja Miah, supported by Mohib Uddin, began directing an online campaign against me and those associated with me, in what Raja Miah describes as an act of revenge.

Though where the online campaign started is quite different to where we find it today.

Over a two-and-a-half-year period the campaign has created a toxic and dangerous political culture in Oldham leading to abuse, defamation, and death threats.

The next article will set out where the online attacks began, and how previously disparate interests came together.

Published by JimfromOldham

Labour and Co-operative MP for Oldham West & Royton

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