Friday, 27 February 2015

In two minds

There's a press release on A4e's own website which bugs me.  They are taking on 20 apprentices at A4e, in Sheffield, basically to do admin, working towards "a Level 2 Apprenticeship in Customer Service or Business Administration".  It's in support of something called National Apprenticeship Week.  That's good, surely, for the 20 people who might get a properly-paid job out of it?
But is it good for them or anyone else?  After all, an "apprentice" gets £2.73 an hour (unless it's gone up recently).  And the very word is deceitful.  An apprentice used to be a youngster who spent up to 7 years learning a skilled trade, paid not very much, but at the end of it emerging as a skilled man (rarely a woman) who could get well paid work anywhere but usually stayed with the original company.  There are a few large companies who still take on apprentices on that basis.  But the last government started something called "modern apprenticeships" to fill the gap caused by employers who refused to train their workers themselves.  And this government has downgraded the concept even further.  Far too often now, an apprentice is just someone who can be paid next to nothing while doing a meaningless qualification.
I left school at 16, a long, long time ago, and walked straight into what was then called a clerical job.  The pay was poor, but so was everyone's in that office.  In less than a week I had grasped the job.  But I didn't like it, so got another job. After 9 months of that I left and became a civil servant.  Then after a year I went to college.  In each of my three, very different, jobs the employer expected to have to teach me what the job entailed then rely on my ability to do it.  I was not being exploited as cheap labour.  And that's what these apprenticeships feel like.
So I don't want to slag off A4e simply for trying to get some good publicity out of giving a start to 20 admin trainees.  But are they, like so many other employers, just using the system to avoid paying people properly?

Monday, 23 February 2015

Unpleasant story

There's an interesting story in Hull's local paper here which involves A4e.  I stress that no blame attaches to A4e.
It goes back to New Deal days, before 2008, when A4e had the contract in the city.  They would send people on fork lift truck courses (in those days you could get actual skills training).  One man who was sent on this was appalled to find that the boss of the firm was a man, Nicholas Holbrook, who had sexually abused him as a child, something he had never reported.  The man said he would not go on this training with Holbrook.  Says the paper: 'He claims he told the company of Holbrook’s abuse.  Mr Wilson said: “I said I’m not going. He abused me as a young kid.  They told me you can’t make accusations like that against a pillar of the community. You’ll get your benefits stopped.  I had a wife and three kids [so had to go].”'
Wilson came forward when he learned in 2013 that Holbrook had been jailed for 7 years for raping and sexually assaulting two men who had also been referred to Holbrook for training.  The report doesn't say how those two came to be referred, or by whom.  Wilson's evidence at a new trial put Holbrook away for a further 6 years.
As I said, no blame attaches to A4e.  It just seems a somewhat extreme example of what can happen when people are compelled, under threat of destitution, to put themselves in impossible situations.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Scapegoats

It's not been a comfortable week for the Conservatives.  HSBC, Stephen Green, tax avoidance, and that "black and white ball" when the obscenely rich gathered to give money to the Tories.  They had a raffle.  On Wednesday I paid a quid for some raffle tickets and won a bottle of cheap plonk.  But the Tories' raffle was nothing like that.  One of the prizes was an "iron man" with Iain Duncan Smith - a long cross-country run.  But as always the Tory deception machine kicked in.  MPs were instructed to deflect every question to an accusation against Ed Miliband and Labour.  The media happily co-operated, the BBC especially so, but it got pretty desperate.  Today came the announcement that a new Tory government will target people who are unable to work because of obesity.  They will have to go on a diet or lose their benefits.  (Hasn't IDS told them that he's got a much simpler way - just sanction them and starve them thin?)  Mark Harper was wheeled out onto the Today programme this morning to explain the idea, and with commendable (and unusual) persistence Mishal Hussein made him talk about tax avoidance as well.  The deception machine went into top gear and Harper trotted out the untruths too fast to be contradicted.
But this was by no means the daftest idea of the week.  The Tories have been muttering for some time about extending right-to-buy to housing association tenants.  Now IDS has come up with the notion of giving their council houses to tenants who've been on benefits but come off for a year.  Now, I could list all the reasons why this is insane.  But the New Statesman has already done it.  And the Mirror points out that an investigation in 2013 found that a third of all the council homes sold off in the Thatcher years are now owned by private landlords.  It's no surprise that this story didn't get much attention from the mainstream press.  It's so barmy it won't happen, even under majority Tory government.
But this scapegoating of people on benefits isn't going away.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Esther McVey's evidence session

I sat through two hours of this.  She was giving the last evidence, along with a DWP civil servant, Hayes, to the Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into sanctions.  After two hours the BBC Parliament channel left the session and I couldn't bring myself to go to it on the computer.  I'd felt myself losing the will to live inside ten minutes.
A bit of the flavour of it is reported by the Guardian here.  But they are trying to be too even-handed.  It was dire.  McVey waffled and fudged, didn't answer the question, cited surveys she then couldn't detail, and turned to Hayes whenever it got complicated.  The Chair, Dame Anne Begg, was tougher than usual, but it was only when the other Labour members of the committee, Debbie Abrahams, Sheila Gilmore, Glenda Jackson and Teresa Pearce, were set loose that McVey showed the gulf between what she (and her boss and the DWP) would like to think is happening and what is actually happening.
One lie has clearly been nailed.  The committee has heard about the way in which Work Programme providers are obliged to refer someone for sanction whenever there is a perceived infringement of the rules.  This is going to be changed, by the way; they are to have discretion, which is what they want.  But it needs primary legislation and a renegotiation of the contracts, so won't happen yet.  But McVey was not reminded of the fact that she has lied about this in Parliament, insisting that sanctions are only used as a last resort.  Another lie was repeated.  McVey was adamant that there are no targets.  This became a bit of a muddle, with Jackson and McVey both referring to the same letter from the PCS union; and in fairness McVey was right.  But, at least while I was watching, we never got to the truth about targets in Jobcentres.

The Guardian and the Independent have been publishing the truth, with articles here, here and here, and the New Statesman has joined in.  All these pieces give the picture which McVey determinedly denied today.  Let's hope that the committee's report doesn't get too watered down by the Tories on it.  They've heard the truth and should report it.  But, as I've said before, it won't make a scrap of difference if the Tories get in in May.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Esther McVey - and related matters

On Wednesday morning, 4 February, if you are not otherwise occupied, I suggest you watch Esther McVey give evidence to the Work & Pensions Select Committee on the whole issue of sanctions.  If it isn't on the BBC parliament channel it will be on the government's own parliament website.  The committee has been taking evidence on the effect and workings of the sanctions regime, and they've been hearing the truth from the right people.  So let's see if McVey will repeat her lie in the House of Commons that "sanctions are only used as a last resort".  Even if the rather restrained Chair, Dame Anne Begg, doesn't go for her I'm sure Glenda Jackson, Sheila Gilmore and Debbie Abrahams will.  Radio 4 did an excellent File on Four programme while the previous evidence sessions were going on, and the mainstream press have begun to see the light.  The sad truth is, though, that nothing will come of this if a Conservative government is elected.

And that brings me to another reason why February is important.  On 5 February it's National Voter Registration Day, a day of action to get people who haven't already done so to register to vote in May.  Please, if you're one of those who haven't bothered, get online and sign up to register.  Go to the www.bitetheballot.co.uk website and it will take you through it.
Oh, I know I'll get comments saying someone wouldn't dream of voting, for all the usual reasons.  But whether you vote or not, you'll wake up on 8 May with an MP in your constituency and a government in Westminster.  If you want change - and don't we all - look at Greece.  Peacefully and democratically the Greek people have voted in an anti-austerity government.  And now Spain looks like going the same way.  It can be done.  Sermon over.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

More on that A4e fraud case

I've been waiting to see whether Private Eye would cover the A4e fraud case.  It has.  But it's a short piece which adds little or nothing to our understanding of the case.  It does say: "The fraud was blatant; the prosecution described, for example, 'a completely false file showing the individual's contact and training sessions with A4e'.  After a new employee blew the whistle, audits uncovered the scale of the fraud, which had also involved people being offered 'shopping vouchers' to pretend they had got jobs through A4e."

We can expand on that.  One employee (we'll call her AB) was training another, transferred from another office, on the particular Inspire contract.  This employee told AB that fraud was widespread among her former colleagues.  AB reported this to management and this put in train the internal audit by A4e.  Which one of these two employees should be described as the whistle-blower is not really important.  The investigation subsequently uncovered the scale of the fraud.  The irony is that AB ended up as one of the convicted - for falsifying her own file.  She had been taken on by A4e after applying for a job with them through Inspire, and a file was then created to show, falsely, that she had been on a programme with A4e so that a job outcome payment could be claimed.  AB (not knowing any better, she later claimed) signed the paperwork which had been compiled by another of the convicted.  Having read some of the evidence presented in this case, I have to say that it would confuse anyone who isn't au fait with the way these paper-based contracts worked.

That there was a climate of fraudulent activity in this contract is clear.  That the incentive to do this was the financial rewards offered by the company is also clear.  And one does wonder why A4e didn't acknowledge that the investigation was triggered by a whistle blower.  If the A4e media relations person who gave me her phone number the other day and invited me to contact her (not something I would ever do) would like to comment openly here she will be welcome.  A4e has dropped the system of individual bonuses, but confirms that they offer team bonuses.  Quite how that would prevent this type of fraud isn't clear.

PS: There is a great deal to say about benefit sanctions at the moment, but I'll deal with that in a separate post.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Guilty of fraud

We've waited a long time for the outcome of this trial, but it finished today with a guilty verdict on ten A4e employees in Slough (three more were acquitted).  There's a brief write-up on the BBC news website and a better one on the Slough Express site.  
They were working on a lone parent mentoring programme called Aspire to Inspire (I kid you not) which paid A4e for job outcomes in much the same way as the Work Programme.  The convictions are for fraud and forgery, with two of them also guilty of conspiracy.  The local paper says that "The fake claims were discovered though a whistleblower report, which led to an investigation by the department of Work and Pensions and Thames Valley Police," whereas Andrew Dutton, A4e's boss, has always claimed that A4e found the fraud themselves.  Whichever, as we suspected, the motive was to claim the bonuses the company offered for successful job outcomes.  "Financial rewards had been introduced," said the police spokesman, and pointed out that, "The money they fraudulently claimed came from the taxpayer and just over £1.3m was paid to A4e between 2008 and 2010 for their implementation of this contract."
A4e announced some time back that they no longer offer individual bonuses.  A couple of years ago they seriously annoyed many manager-level staff by withdrawing all bonuses, which meant something like a 20% pay cut.  It also has to be remembered that this was a paper-based claims system, which was wide open to fraud without rigorous auditing.  All you had to do was fill in the claims form with a fictitious job and put a false signature on it.  Clearly, this A4e office didn't do it occasionally; they thought they could get away with it on a grand scale.
Sentencing has been deferred until 30 March.
This isn't on the scale of the fraud by G4S and Serco.  But it's bad enough.