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Brar Targets Job Program Sale

NDP critic raises concerns about timing, client privacy.

Andrew MacLeod 17 Apr 2008TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Jagrup Brar: concerns over $40 million deal.

The sale of a Victoria welfare-to-work company to an American corporation came just four days after the British Columbia government started a new five-year, $40 million contract with the company.

There are enough unanswered questions about that July 2007 sale of West Coast Group Consultants Ltd. that NDP employment and income assistance critic Jagrup Brar spent much of the six hours of debate (April 10 and April 14) on the ministry's $1.5 billion budget hammering on the topic.

"The ministry created conditions for them to make money," Brar said in an interview. "This is kind of the crux of the problem here." The company, which runs the JobWave and Triumph programs, has close connections with the Liberal party and has donated $95,000 to it since 2001, he said.

During the debate the Employment and Income Assistance Minister Claude Richmond said the contract tendering process was open and transparent and WCG received no special treatment from the government to make the $30-million sale possible. "I find those words 'with the help of the ministry' offensive."

Biggest job contractor

Brar's main questions during the debate were about the timing of the deal and why the ministry failed to take greater steps to protect the privacy of the company's clients.

The ministry's largest job programs are the B.C. Employment Program and the Employment Program for People with Disabilities. Together they are worth a total of $55 million a year. Over the past decade, the Victoria company WCG Consultants Ltd. has grown to account for about 60 per cent of that budget, or $33.4 million.

When Providence Service Corporation, a publicly traded company based in Tucson, Arizona, bought WCG, the American company instantly became B.C.'s biggest job program provider, despite never having itself bid on a contract, said Brar. Nor did it have to prove it had the experience or the capability to do the job.

"To me it doesn't sound like Providence Service Corporation has experience to deliver this kind of program," he said.

Richmond said all that had been sold were the shares in WCG, not the government programs. The contracts continue to be run by the same people, despite the change in ownership. If Providence fails to meet the contract requirements, the government can always terminate them, he said.

Ownership to have 'no impact': minister

"This ministry's number one priority is to meet the needs of its clients," said Richmond, according to the Hansard. "For clients who are able to work, this means providing them with the best employment programs and supports available."

WCG won its contracts after a year-long consultation and procurement process, he said. The competition was open and transparent. "We are confident that the change in ownership of WCG International HR Solutions will continue to have no impact on the daily job-related activities in which our clients are presently involved. This simply was a seamless transfer at the corporate level."

Such changes are anticipated, he added, so as with other government contracts there are "stringent, enforceable privacy and confidentiality obligations."

The contract spells out confidentiality and privacy obligations, said Richmond. "The ministry has received written assurances from WCG that they will adhere to the contractual obligations related to information and privacy," he said. "The company's client database will remain in Canada, with no access available to Providence or foreign governments."

He added, "If they do not live up to the terms of the contract and provide the services that WCG has contracted for, then we could terminate the contract."

Liberal connections

Brar also detailed during the debate some of the connections between WCG and the Liberal party. "One of the vice-presidents of WCG is Mr. Robin Adair," he said. "Mr. Adair . . . directed communications for Liberal candidate Sheila Orr in the 2001 election." The lobbyist registry says Adair has visited various Liberal MLAs, including Premier Gordon Campbell, he said.

Another vice-president is James Rae, he said, who worked as a deputy minister to Richmond in the 1980s.

"Above all," Brar said, "WCG has donated over $95,000 to the BC Liberal party since 2001. Can the minister confirm these facts?"

Richmond said, "I can confirm that I have known Dr. Rae for a long time on and off since he was a deputy minister for me. That was back in 1982 for a short while, and then I was out of government for 10 years and didn't really see him. It's a very friendly relationship but certainly not a very close one."

He said he did not know about Adair's involvement or WCG's donations. "The first I've ever heard of donations is what you just told me today," he said. "I have no knowledge of that. Beyond that I can't comment."

$10,000 per job

Richmond said he did not know when he first found out about the sale. WCG and Providence requested a meeting with him, he said, but he refused it saying it was a private deal between two companies and he was not going to get involved. "I said that if the deal goes through, then they can explain to me what has happened."

The sale was not subject to his or the ministry's approval, he said. The attorney general's ministry reviewed the sale and said it was legal and would not affect the ministry's contractual relationship with WCG.

Brar said while the sale may be legal, the ministry needs to be more diligent. "When the programs are changing hands, I think that it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance to make sure that the new owner . . . is capable to deliver the program.

"There must be some sort of approval by the ministry to say to West Coast Group that this group is acceptable to us, as far as the experience, knowledge and capability of Providence Service Corp. is concerned."

Over 54,000 British Columbians have been placed in jobs since 2001 through the programs. The ministry spends $70 million a year on the programs, plus another $25.4 million to administer the program.

That works out to about $10,000 per person successfully placed in a job.

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