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June 20, 2011

Peter Jones hits back at a string of allegations relating to his National Enterprise Academy

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Written by: Kyle Raffo

Mr Jones denies a string of allegations relating to his National Enterprise Academy, made by Tom Bewick, who resigned as its chief executive last month after just one week in the job – apparently in disgust at the way it was being run.

Mr Bewick wrote to Mr Jones and to Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, alleging financial mismanagement.

A Skills Funding Agency investigation found “no evidence to substantiate these allegations”.

Mr Bewick had claimed that ploughing up to £9million of taxpayer money into the not-for-profit NEA was “hard to justify” because the academy was failing to produce predicted results.

He claimed that the academy was in danger of running out of money and also accused Mr Jones of being “disingenuous” about the amount of his personal fortune that he was donating.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Mr Jones said he believed that Mr Bewick had been overwhelmed by the task of the job and had made unfounded and “ludicrous” allegations after resigning.

He said Mr Bewick had been a trustee of the Peter Jones Foundation for 12 months and so was well aware of the runnings of the business prior to joining as chief executive.

The two men had had a number of fallings-out in the first few days, including when Mr Bewick wanted to buy a leather sofa, he claimed.

He said that Mr Bewick’s resignation email, dated May 10, read: “This really has nothing to do with you personally, Peter.

“I am loyal and committed to your agenda, I just can’t shake off the fact that it just doesn’t feel right for me.”

Mr Jones said: “I felt he could grow into that position but it was a big, big job.

“I think it just frightened him. I think, in my opinion, he has had a bit of a mid-life crisis.”

He said he was considering legal action against Mr Bewick but might hold back if he discovered Mr Bewick was struggling personally.

Mr Jones said he had been totally exonerated by the Skills Funding Agency investigation and that the accounts had been thoroughly audited by Grant Thornton. He said that the NEA had brought in external investigators after Mr Bewick made his allegations and that they too had found no wrongdoing.

He said that the number of students who had passed through the NEA was exactly on track with the business plan. Mr Bewick had claimed that only 260 students had so far graduated from the academy, compared to 2,715 predicted in the NEA’s business plan.

Mr Jones said the 2,715 target was “across all customer groups” and that they had met this through 745 direct BTEC students and 1,970 students on other services.

He dismissed suggestions that the NEA was struggling financially. “How could anyone question the viability of a charitable foundation owned by me?” he said. “If next month it needs millions, I’ll put it in.”

He said he was saddened by the action Mr Bewick had taken. “We were very, very close. We spent a lot of time together. I am extremely surprised and very disappointed. It does seem very strange.

“I still believe firmly I could have taken him through and got him up to the job. I don’t always get things right. I didn’t get this right. I’m not angry, I’m concerned for him.

“I’m taking it in my stride but I wouldn’t want anyone to question either the integrity of the foundation or the financial wherewithal.”

Mr Jones also said that he and his companies had already invested more than originally envisaged in the NEA.

Lawyers for Mr Jones added that less than £7million of public money had been received, rather than the £9million claimed by Mr Bewick.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “Out of our duty of care to the tax-payer, BIS asked the Skills Funding Agency to carry out a formal investigation into allegations made about the public funding of the National Enterprise Agency.

“The SFA has now completed its investigation and no evidence was found to substantiate these allegations.”

A Skills Funding Agency spokesman said: “The Skills Funding Agency looked at allegations relating to the £3.6 million funding awarded to the National Enterprise Academy between 2008 and 2011 and found no evidence to substantiate these allegations. The NEA is now out of its funding contract with the Agency.

“Allegations that may relate to other sources of public or private funding would be for providers of those funds or the Board of Trustees to consider.”

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