Careers and Enterprise Company blasted over £200k conference spend

The Careers and Enterprise Company has been blasted for spending more than £200,000 on two conferences after MPs demanded to know why private sponsorship for such events was not sought instead.

The organisation, which was grilled by the education select committee in May over its spending, had a second hearing with MPs this morning, with questions covering staff salaries and cost of events.

MPs heard the company’s ‘Joining the Dots’ conference cost £158,000 – or £200 per person – with another conference, held at the children’s activity centre KidZania, costing nearly £50,000.

CEC, which has so far received £40 million in public money to support careers guidance in schools and college, was also given short shrift by MPs about a new survey tool it claims is measuring impact.

Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, led the questioning of chief executive Claudia Harris and chair Christine Hodgson.

After revealing the ‘Joining the Dots’ conference spend, Halfon said: “Is that money that could go on the frontline? How can that be justified?”

Ms Harris said an annual conference helps schools and colleges work together and understand good careers guidance.

But Mr Halfon said other similar organisations get private companies to sponsor such events so taxpayers’ money is not used, to which she replied the idea was “a good opportunity for us.” Hodgson added there would be no annual conference in 2019.

Mr Halfon pointed out another conference was held at KidZania for £46,000. Ms Harris and Ms Hodgson appeared initially stumped, with Ms Hodgson saying she thought KidZania had helped to support the event.

But then Ms Harris said: “2,000 business volunteers give us a day a month for free. […] That is what we did in return, to offer a learning event.”

“It’s how we ensure quality, by providing those events,” she added.

Ms Harris said the conference budget was “probably around” £150,000 to £200,000 a year, prompting Halfon to point out those two conferences mentioned were already more than that put together.

He asked Ms Harris: “Do you not understand there are massive public sector constraints […] people could rightly say, ‘why is this money not being spent on the front line?”

It comes after the commons youth select committee has said Ofsted should inspect provision funded by the CEC to check on its impact – an idea which Halfon floated again during the hearing today.

Members of the committee, including Trudy Harrison, MP for Copeland, queried why more quantitative data – such as NEET figures – was not being collected by the CEC.

Ms Harris responded that as more than the current 3,000 secondary schools and colleges become involved in CEC-funded initiatives, such data could be increasingly collected.

But she also pointed out a “lag” in government destinations data, which means that the most recent figures available pre-date the CEC’s involvement with schools and college.

Mr Halfon added that “surveys are not enough” to demonstrate the organisation’s impact.

Finally, Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, took aim at the high senior staff salaries at the CEC. According to Ms Hodgson, she as chair is pro-bono at the organisation while Ms Harris is on £135,000.

Ms Harris said she asked for a £50,000 reduction in the salary when she was initially offered the role, implying it was originally offered at £185,000.

Ms Powell also queried why a deputy chief executive role was advertised at £117,000. Harris said the organisation was expanding rapidly as the government has announced more careers hubs and needed more senior staff leadership.

In May the CEC was heavily criticised for spending almost £1 million on research and not on frontline guidance for learners.