Sunday, 22 August 2010

No choice

There's an interesting exchange on the BBC "Ouch!" message boards started by someone who got a phone call from A4e. The person had no idea what "A4e" was, and, when told that s/he was in receipt of direct payments for social care, was still flummoxed, since the only payment s/he had received was a one-off small cheque some time ago. The point of this account is not simply that an A4e employee made a mess of a phone call; it's that a great many people can have vital parts of their lives controlled by this company without even knowing it. Privatising public services removes choice and it removes accountability. The thousands of people whose direct payments have been farmed out to A4e had no say in the matter. Similarly, those whose children are referred to Vox centres, or who have to access a CLAC any of the numerous services "outsourced" by local councils, may well not know that it's A4e who are running things. In some cases, like direct payments, even the local councils have only the choice between A4e or keeping the service in-house, because there are no other players.
Welfare-to-work similarly gives the client no choice. Flexible New Deal was set up with choice in mind. Each area would have two prime contractors so that clients could choose between them; but the companies successfully argued that the clients would not have enough information to make an informed choice (previous reputation being, apparently, irrelevant) so for the first year they would be allocated to a provider by the Jobcentre. Now with the Work Programme each of the 11 large areas will have a single large contractor, which will engage a lot of smaller outfits and create competition between them. (A4e describes this set-up on their MyA4e site.) Note that the client has no say in the matter whatever.
Few people know or care about this - until it impacts on them, and they find that there is nothing they can do about it.

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