Saturday, 30 January 2010


Local newspapers have always been happy to print PR pieces as if they were news, providing free advertising for companies, and A4e have been quick to take advantage of this with "news" items such as this one in the Warrington Guardian.
But a story in the Plymouth Herald today is not so much A4e spin as the paper's carelessness. A chap called Kevin Kelway is the star; he's doing a cartoon strip for the paper about penguins. "The penguins' fictional impact on Plymouth is almost matched by their author's own profile in the city. He was constantly in the headlines as a campaigner on issues ranging from curbing loutish behaviour by binge-drinkers in the Barbican to restoring Tinside pool. Now aged 47, he has stepped away from politics and is a media co-ordinator for A4E, which is contracted by the government to help people on benefits get back into employment. The not-for-profit company's work includes boosting some clients' literacy and Kevin believes the Rockhoppas might help get the next generation hooked on reading. "Children need to be encouraged to read," he said." Have you spotted the mistake? There's no excuse for this kind of "journalism".

Wednesday, 27 January 2010


When so many people are desparately in need of even one job it seems unfair that some people have more than one. Like Professor Russel Griggs OBE who recently became a board member of Scottish Enterprise. As the article points out, Griggs has a number of other jobs, including being Chair of A4e Scotland. His own website shows 13 previous roles, mixing the private and the public sector, and 11 current roles.
On 25 January 2010 Mark Lancaster MP asked a written question of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions: - how many hours of training A4e staff working on contracts let by her Department undertake annually. The answer came back from Jim Knight MP: - "Staff training is an internal matter for A4E and therefore not one that the Secretary of State can offer information about, or comment on." And yet A4e recently got a grant from the Dept. for Business, Innovation and Skills: "A4e will be working with employees to establish processes for informing and consulting staff on the future of the company. The project will involve the design, launch, establishment and assessment of an employee engagement process.
Sector: Training
Number of Employees: 837
Project Grant: £11,700.00"

Strange that one government department can say that A4e's staff training is nothing to do with them, while another gives them a grant for staff training.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Young People's Guarantee

The Young People's Guarantee scheme comes into operation today, and there's plenty of hype surrounding it. Just what it will amount to is more doubtful. The Channel 4 news site has a succinct piece on it but anyone familiar with the welfare-to-work scene will be cautious. "Every young person who has been unemployed for at least six months will be guaranteed an offer of a job, training or work experience. The Government said the move will offer up to 470,000 opportunities over the next 15 months, benefiting almost 100,000 youngsters straight away." Notice that "training or work experience". It goes on: "The guarantee offers the chance of work through the £1 billion Future Jobs Fund, work-focused training, a place on a community task force, help with self-employment and internships." The Conservatives' Theresa May says it's very little different from the current New Deal for young people.

So what's new? The Future Jobs Fund provides money for temporary jobs only. While that will be an excellent opportunity for some, if a temporary job results in nothing more than an entry on one's CV, it will be a huge let-down. As for the rest - is it just bringing young people into the system earlier, and pushing them into unpaid work? There's a great deal of controversy around internships at the moment. And does "work-focused training" mean genuine skills training leading to qualifications?

Already there is some fudging going on. Another Channel 4 piece is headed "BT offers jobs for 3,000 youngsters" - but it goes on to say, "The firm said it will offer work placements to 3,000 youngsters to give them an insight into the world of work." Work placements (presumably unpaid) have become jobs. We can expect more of this sort of thing. What it will mean for private contractors has yet to become clear.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

India, Cambridge and the bank

News from India: "In a pilot project, A4e (the first international company to work on this project) will work alongside the Ministry of Rural Development to provide sectorally tailored employment-oriented vocational skills training, certification and job placements to 9,000 people below the poverty line (BPL) between the age group of 16-35 years in Punjab, Maharashtra, Rajasthan,Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa." (

Back at home, a group calling themselves the UWU, "a newly formed group whose mission is to represent and defend the rights of those who are currently out of work, as well as fighting the Welfare Reform Act" were picketing A4e's Cambridge offices last week.

And the bank. You may remember that last year A4e set up a company called Capitec UK Ltd to be a bank for poor people. See here. (The relationship with the South African bank, Capitec, is unclear.) Presumably that £1m grant was never handed over, because the company remains dormant; and, incidentally, the body which made the award has since been disbanded.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Damning verdict on Train to Gain

"A £1.5bn government initiative to improve the skill levels of employees has been heavily criticised by MPs", reports the BBC. "Train to Gain" was launched in 2006, through contracts with private sector companies. It was intended to encourage employers to put their workers through qualifications at NVQ level 2, by paying their wages for the time they spent in training. A4e won the contracts in many areas, and it was clear from the outset that there was a tortuous administration system and unrealistic targets. The Public Accounts Committee blames the Learning and Skills Council, which was responsible for organising the scheme, and says that "Success rates for too many providers had been lower than expected .......... It also said £112m spent on skills advisers was not good value for money." An Ofsted report in 2008 was largely positive but criticised the "brokerage" layer of the contracts. The Chair of the PAC said: "Despite providing work-based training for around 5% of the workforce, the Train to Gain programme has been mismanaged from the outset. In the face of evidence of what was achievable, targets for the first two years were unrealistically ambitious. The number of learners, the level of demand from employers and the capacity of training providers were at first all overestimated. By the third year, demand for training, fuelled by substantially widened eligibility for the programme and by the recession, had increased to the point where the programme could no longer be afforded."
A4e is the "National Lead Provider for Train to Gain" through the A4e Consortium. But the responsibility lies with the LSC and, ultimately, with the government.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Don't mention New Deal - again

Unemployment has fallen. But there's more evidence of the perceived irrelevance of New Deal, FND etc. Long-term unemployment has actually risen in some areas, and there has also been a significant rise in some places in those who are "economically inactive", i.e. not working or claiming benefit. On Monday a group called the Centre for Cities published a report looking at the varying fortunes of British cities in the recession. It has copious statistics on unemployment and on the skill levels in different areas. The cities with the largest increase in people claiming JSA are Swindon, Grimsby and Hull. Those with the highest youth unemployment are Birmingham, Grimsby and Hull. Those with the lowest percentage of high skills are Grimsby, Ipswich and Hull. (Poor old Hull and Grimsby, where unemployment has continued to rise.) The report sees the solution in a changed organisation of local government to attract business, and in funding FE colleges to provide skills training. This in part echoes the government's own recent report, "Building Britain's Recovery", which recognised the need for skills and qualifications if unemployed people are to find work. But, unlike the Centre for Cities report, the DWP can only think in terms of a one-size-fits-all approach.
BBC's PM Programme on Tuesday was talking to NEETs. There are almost a million NEETs, the majority of them male. The lads the programme is following have been unemployed for upwards of 6 months, and are doing everything they can to find work. There was no mention of any training programme, but perhaps they had not been out of work long enough. PM is going to follow these lads, so it will be interesting to see what happens to them. However, BBC2's "Working Lunch" today reported on a "scheme" to help the unemployed in Sheffield, run by Working Links (yes, that surprised me, too). This was undoubtedly FND, but the words "New Deal" were not uttered. The impression was given that this was a local scheme, and if mention was made of its national coverage, I missed it. We were not told how FND is financed and run. The emphasis was indeed on skills training, but it was very much the sort of training we saw under the old contracts. A woman was enthusing over the one-day courses such as Basic Food Hygiene which may well improve her CV but are unlikely to get her a job. We were told about SIA and construction training - worthy but not applicable to many unemployed people. The item was too short to be informative.
FND may well be doing some good in some places. But clearly what is needed now is proper, wide-ranging skills training, with qualifications to suit the capabilities of the job-seekers as well as the needs of employers. A lot of money and effort is being put in by councils and voluntary groups. If private companies can help, fine. But they should be under the direction of JCP on a regional basis; in other words, we should revert to what happened before the system was privatised.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

"Plundering the Public Sector"

I've just read "Plundering the Public Sector" by David Craig (Constable, 2006). It doesn't touch on A4e or the welfare-to-work sector, but it throws light on the New Labour's relationship with private companies. I quote from the blurb: "In this eye-opening book David Craig, a consultant and author of the best-selling Rip-Off!, and Richard Brooks, a journalist with Private Eye, reveal how dishonest politicians, gullible civil servants and voracious consultants have given us a series of huge consulting projects that have been a catastrophic waste of taxpayers' money. It is an inside story of lies, stupidity and greed with shocking results; our services are being decimated while consulting is creating more millionaires than the National Lottery." The book shows how the government has handed over "reform" in the public sector to a few large companies (Serco among them), who have wreaked havoc through ignorance and incompetence whilst pocketing mind-boggling amounts of our money.
Two things struck me in relation to the theme of this blog. The first is that it might provide an explanation for A4e's move to calling themselves experts in "welfare reform". The line between advisers and contractors has dissolved. Emma Harrison boasts of her contacts with government. How far are A4e, Serco, Reed and the others designing welfare programmes rather than just delivering them? The second thought is that A4e has recently moved into consulting.
In an earlier post I wrote about the invisibility of New Deal in its various incarnations from discussions on unemployment. It's now apparent that not even the government expects it to produce results. You may have looked at the government's website which gives the results of its constant inspection of local authorities. One of its categories is "Earning - working to ensure that all local people thrive economically" which is about "Helping people to get work who have been unemployed a long time or don't work and claim benefits because of poor health". Several councils have been marked down they're not doing enough. They may well be spending a fortune on schemes, in conjunction with local employers, charities and other organisations, but if unemployment is high in their areas they are told they're not doing enough. They could be forgiven for asking what New Deal is supposed to be doing.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Flexible New Deal - no choice

I'm grateful to our contributor, pseudonym Milly Tant, for leading me discover a situation I wasn't aware of. He was referred to FND by his Jobcentre adviser and told he was going to A4e. He expressed a preference for the other provider in the area, but was told he did not have the choice. His protests were ignored. In looking for the original description of FND I came across the Flexible New Deal Regulations 2009 and found that, while the intention was "to drive up performance through larger, longer contracts and through competition driven by customer choice", they had run into two snags. The first was that in four of the contract areas only one provider had been appointed. The second was stated thus: "The Committee also queried how a customer could make an informed choice between providers during the first year of operation when there will be insufficient information about their performance. In fact choice will not be available during the first year of operation for precisely that reason. During the first year customers will be assigned at random to the two providers operating in the ten areas that will offer choice after the first year. Random allocation means that both providers in an area will receive similar customers, enabling fair performance comparisons to be made. In second and subsequent years customers will be able to make informed choices between providers." Further on the document states: 4.11 We understand that under the FND customers will be randomly allocated to a provider. Performance data will be collected so that, in subsequent years, customers will be able to make an informed choice about their provider. Nevertheless, in four areas of the country there will be only one provider and customers will be mandated to this provider. We are concerned about the limited extent to which the proposed model of a Flexible New Deal allows for meaningful customer choice and flexibility for PAs. At the same time, it is not clear to us how entrants, in the first year of the FND, can make an informed choice between providers when information on provider performance will not be available until subsequent years." Consultation had raised the obvious point that: "competition amongst providers would not always be related to quality of provision and that this could lead to competition in ways unrelated to quality of service, but more in the form of ‘gimmicky’ short-term gifts to customers to influence their choice of a particular provider. Concern was expressed about how vulnerable claimants might access the appropriate information to make an informed judgement about providers, where they are offered a choice." They concluded that: "We support the principles of flexibility and choice upon which these proposals are based. However, we do not see how choice and flexibility for customers are to be promoted through the current contracting arrangements". So "For the first year, in those areas with two prime suppliers (see paragraph 5.2 and Annexe 4), Advisers will randomly allocate customers to providers on an equal share basis. The aim will be to gather sufficient performance data so that, in subsequent years, customers will be able to make an informed choice as to which provider they engage with."
They know it's a cop-out. They don't explain how this "performance data" will be presented to the client. It's quite likely that there will be very little difference between providers in terms of job outcomes. So the whole area of choice, which was originally presented as an important plank of FND, has fallen by the wayside.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

In Search of the British Work Ethic, episode 2

This was a confused and rather annoying programme (Radio 4, 11 January 2010). Melanie Phillips joined immigrant workers in the catering and cleaning industries and came face to face with the reality of their lives. With the help of an academic she concluded that their dignity and work ethic were admirable, and were driven by the fact that there was no welfare state in the countries they come from. But they were undeniably exploited. Phillips is floundering by the end of the programme. She knows that when Jim Knight MP waffles about tax credits and joining trade unions he is not addressing the reality. But the work ethic has been destroyed in this country because there's no incentive to work hard and no penalty for not working. Frank Field MP pointed out that for many the rewards of working are too small. The head of the Low Pay Commission says that they can't make moral judgements, but Phillips has grasped that it is a moral issue. She ends by saying that compassion has to be reconciled with personal responsibility. The issues raised by this programme, and the first episode, are very important, and at least Phillips has challenged her own attitudes. Unfortunately, those attitudes haven't changed.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Don't mention New Deal

Two things struck me most about tonight's Radio 4 programme in which right-wing journalist Melanie Phillips looked at unemployment. The first was that there was no mention of New Deal. Earlier in the evening there had been an item on the Today programme about NEETs, which featured an apparently successful 12-week course run by Barking Council. Then Phillips went to Blythe in Northumbria and looked at a similar course run by the Prince's Trust; and at a project for the long-term unemployed run by South Tyneside local authority. Finally Phillips spoke to Jim Knight MP about the benefits system. But nobody mentioned New Deal. Vast amounts of money have been spent, and continue to be spent, on New Deal in its various incarnations, but whenever people write, or make programmes about, unemployment it seems to be regarded as irrelevant. Why?
The second thing that struck me was that although Phillips was trying to understand, and said that she felt "chastened" after meeting a couple on IB, she showed the great gulf in the realities of people like her and those of the poor. Several of the lads she talked to in Blythe spoke of the restrictions of lack of mobility; the expense of bus travel, the lack of transport in some cases. One young man had just passed his driving test and had got a job because of that. To Phillips this showed the lads' lack of mental and emotional "equipment" to get themselves out of the trap. It didn't occur to her that it costs a great deal of money to learn to drive, and that the lack, or expense, of public transport is a very real barrier. This incomprehension means that very little of her thesis is credible. Still, she tried.

Direct Payments for Social Care

Many local councils now put the minutes of their meetings, and reports to those meetings, online. Middlesborough Council, in an executive report dated 17 December 2009, gives us an interesting insight into what has been happening with Direct Payments for Social Care. When this was introduced by the government, several councils found it financially more attractive to contract out the service than to set up an in-house department. A4e has a number of contracts around the country to handle Direct Payments, and Middlesborough was one of those councils which contracted with A4e. It has more than 550 people in receipt of such payments. The 5-year contract included employer support, payroll support and financial monitoring, and it was due to expire at the end of March 2010. But "several quality issues had arisen throughout the period of the contract with A4e" and the council decided to split off the financial monitoring and do it in-house, and to separate the other two functions into different contracts. But "there was only 1 tender submission in respect of the Employer Support Contract and this was from A4e (with whom there has [sic] been quality issues)." (As the report says, there is a "niche market" in such services, i.e. only A4e.) And the three submissions for the Payroll Support contract were unaffordable. So it's back to the drawing board, with a new contract combining Employer and Payroll Support, and that means a whole new tendering process. So A4e's current contract will be extended for 6 months.
We have reason to be grateful for transparency in local government.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

"Global leaders in public service reform"

"Global leaders in public service reform" - that's how A4e describe themselves on their website - and David Blunkett MP uses the term in his entry in the Register of Members' Interests . ["Adviser on business development to A4e Ltd; global public service reform. (£25,001–£30,000 per financial year) I occasionally travel overseas on behalf of the company."] And in numerous other places they call themselves experts in "welfare reform". It's that word "reform" that bugs me. I believe, perhaps naively, that it's governments which reform such things as public service and welfare benefits. Whoever implements the decisions, it's government which make the decisions. So what reforms have A4e been leading? It couldn't have been with the old New Deal contracts. They were run by Jobcentre Plus on a regional basis, and A4e was one of many providers that worked to JCP's direction. Was it in 2006 when Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, privatised the organisation of New Deal, and A4e got a large number of regional contracts? Those contracts weren't exactly a roaring success - hardly any skills training, loads of resentful clients and half the expected job outcomes. So perhaps A4e led the reform which resulted in Flexible New Deal? Emma Harrison likes to say that she lobbied government to change the way the existing contracts worked. But FND seems to have been largely the work of David Freud, and the contracts were resisted by all the providers (some didn't even bid) because so much of the payment was dependent on sustainable job outcomes. It is doubtful whether A4e are leading the Conservatives' promised reforms, since these take David Freud's proposals in their entirety as their model. And the company no longer dominates this market in the UK.
But "Global leaders in public service reform" reflects a more expansive vision of A4e's activities, and a long list of contracts in education, advice, healthcare etc. in many countries. And perhaps the word "reform" reflects ambition rather than reality. Public service should be a matter for public servants, and any reforms should be designed and decided by elected representatives of the public.