Monday, 1 October 2012

A different company?

Andrew Dutton says, "A4e is a different company from what it was two years ago."  Is it?

Obviously the disappearance of Emma Harrison as its figurehead has made a difference.  She's still the owner, but is no longer the face of the company.  Indeed, it doesn't have a face any more.  Other top people have gone as well.  So maybe the ethos of the company has changed for the better.  But that can only be judged from the outside by its clients and from the inside by its staff.  And neither seem impressed by any perceived change.

Bearing in mind that A4e is not all about welfare-to-work, it's that area which most people experience.  For staff, the pressure to achieve targets is as great as ever - more so, say some people.  They've moved to "team incentives" for what are considered unachievable targets.  They have to put pressure on clients from the outset.  We were told back in June that caseloads were unmanageable.  Now we hear of people having to wait seven weeks from their referral phone-call to their first appointment; and then of clients given no individual attention.  We don't know whether this is because the number of referrals is much higher than expected or because the required staff and facilities are not in place.  

Then there's the pressure to punish, or "sanction", every perceived failure to attend.  Jonty Olliff-Cooper over on Twitter is insisting that A4e don't sanction people, it's the DWP.  This is disingenuous.  A4e files a "DNA" (did not attend) with a single mouse-click.  They can also include an explanation when there's a good reason for absence.  These go up to a central office which passes them on to the DWP, sometimes leaving out the explanation.  And, of course, there can be mistakes.  Before the WP, clients had the chance to appeal before their income was stopped.  Now they can't, and there are some very angry and desperate clients.  

The answer to all this, according to Olliff-Cooper, is "mystery shopping, customer panel, forum and visits".  It sounds just the sort of thing people come up with in those awful meetings where you're supposed to be brain-storming; I can imagine the flip-chart sheets pinned up around the room.  It's something you can't see Harrison contemplating.  But "mystery shopping" is a non-starter, and is no substitute for the Ofsted inspections which the providers persuaded the government to drop.  A customer panel is similarly irrelevant.  A forum could be more interesting; but it would have to be pro-actively moderated, and I doubt very much that A4e could resist the temptation to moderate out everything critical or hostile, as they have always done on their websites and blogs.  The plans could easily end up being entirely cosmetic; intended to improve the image of the company rather than the way in which it works.  After all, if you believe that you head "a different company", why would you think anything needs to be changed?

And then, of course, there are the results.  In those areas where A4e's results can be directly compared with those of other companies they have not done significantly worse - or significantly better.  The fact is that almost all of them have failed to come anywhere near the results they promised in their bids.  Will those results now improve?  It didn't look like it from those leaked A4e figures.  But we don't know because the DWP refuses to tell us.  

If A4e wishes to be just another outsourcing company, it has that opportunity.  The very fact that it's allowing J O-C's antics suggests it isn't there yet.


  1. I thoroughly agree with your comments re raising sanction doubts. I do not know whether this is a function of the WP procedures themselves (in which case it should apply equally to all providers) or whether it is peculiar to A4e, but they are in danger of becoming just a "sanction factory". From my own experience - I have had letters on 2 occasions informing me that a doubt had been raised. The first time I Failed to Attend (FTA) my "initiation" due to a clashing and prior appontment at the Job Centre. Prior to the appointment I wrote and also telephoned to inform A4e of this - to no avail a doubt was raised. I wrote to JCP with explanation and heard no more (no sanction applied). I also formally complained to A4e with no real outcome or apology.
    More recently I received a letter informing me of another sanction doubt for another alleged FTA (for an appointment I did attend!). Again another letter to JCP (No sanction yet - nor even a reply after a month) and a formal complaint to A4e (no reply after a month).
    Apart from the gross inefficency there is the following to consider:
    1. Normal politeness would indicate an apology should be offered.
    2. A4e will never succeed if they set out to alienate their customers by conducting an unfettered and unreasonable campaign of trying to get people sanctioned for little or no reason.
    3. Some sensitivity is required. Lots of customers (or whatever it is the "goods" are called) are in a vulnerable situation. It is inhuman and counter productive to try to deprive these people of their entire income for up to six months (soon to be 3 years) on what amounts to little more than a malicious whim exercised by poorly trained, inexperienced and pressurised staff.
    Rant over.

    1. I dissociate this blog from that phrase "malicious whim". You yourself have talked about how the processes don't work, and there is no reason to think that anybody acts on a whim or out of malice.

    2. The One True Elg1 October 2012 at 05:08

      It's strange you should mention the 7 weeks between the referral phone call and the appointments. A few months ago they had trouble fitting me in once a month.

      Now, since my last appointment I haven't been contacted at all by them in two months. I keep expecting a sanction, another missing appointment letter. But it seems they've either decided that I don't need support or they're so over-worked they can't give me any, if any was available in the first place.

      I've wondered if they're just producing a farm, giving us all the minimum level of support (Teaching how to make CV's, letters etc) then being completely hands off in order to minimise our cost to them, then claiming fee's on people who just get work on their own. As it stands I've received little to no support, certainly not any I've needed. So when I find work I won't be giving them the details they need to claim the fee.

    3. My 45 minute to an hour appointment at a4e, has gone down to 20 minutes. My adviser is now forwarding emails from the job centre to me about jobs.

      A4e raises sanctions, Now there was a case of Me and another guy same name, same adviser he mistook me for him and him for me he booked my appointment but under other guys name, so when i turned up it looked like the other guy turned up and i didn't luckily i am very distinctive of appearance and they rectified it, that scared me because the presumption of guilt is on you..As in A4e wouldn't put a sanction in without proof/evidence.

      Mystery shopper I don't know how this would work, you would get a fake a4e staff member to pretend to be unemployed but they will leave after a week a month (makes me think of Ross and Pauline in League of Gentlemen).

      I know I am SCARED to speak out at A4e, just in case they take it wrong and punish me for it. Same with the forum, you have to trust the moderators (I used to be one) and know they aren't putting personal bias into removing posts.

  2. How prescient! I have just been sanctioned by A4e/DWP for non-attendance on a course I was unaware of. A4e admit there may have been a problem letting me know as the training officer is "overworked and having to cover two offices". Oh well, that's all right then! The stoppage is immediate and ongoing. I have, obviously, appealed the decision. I have written letters of formal complaint to my local office, customer services (sic) at Sheffield, my MP, the DWP head honchos and anybody else relevant.

    Interestingly, I've had no formal response from A4e even though I've promised to bring legal action against them and the training officer concerned. The assumption being I daresay that I'm a 'little' person and an unemployed eejit who can go **** herself.

    I have no spare pot of cash to dip into, that went eons ago. I have no-one who can fund me for however long this nightmare lasts, so saying I'm destitute is no exaggeration.

    We're not on a work programme for fun, these people know our situation - to cause deprivation and financial ruin is contrary to the Human Rights Act.

    I quote:
    (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

    1. If you now have no income at all because of a benefit sanction then I urge you to visit your JobcentrePlus office as soon as possible to find out whether you qualify for hardship payments. Please follow the link below for initial guidance on this:

  3. Apologies, folks, but I've just rejected quite a few comments. I know people get very angry about the sanctions issue, but I don't want to pursue that at the moment, especially when it so easily spills over into abusiveness.

  4. Historian, you mention a forum that would be interesting, yet you suspect it'd be over-zealously moderated - although you've refused to publish posts on here that refer to sanctions - even though you write a whole paragraph about them in the OP.

    While I'm not sure that they automatically spill over into abusiveness (You obviously have had experience of it before) they are relevant and intrinsic to the thread you yourself made.

    That said, I respect your choice not to publish.

    I was thinking (believe it or not!) Just how would they work this "mystery shopper" business anyway?

    I take it they'd send someone in, pretending to be a "customer"? And the chances of this person being "independent" are? And who/what body would scrutinise/oversee this operation?

    It'd be most amusing if it went ahead, and they tried to claim for this person. Perhaps that's what they had in mind?? *whistles*

    1. Moderation - on a personal blog the owner can decide when comments are wandering in directions he doesn't want it to go, or when the tone has become aggressive towards someone other than the blog owner. In other words, it's mine and I'll do what I like :) A forum set up by a company would end up taking the same attitude, I suspect.
      The "mystery shopper" would have to be someone genuinely put on the WP or there would be no record of referral. So would it be the Jobcentre conducting the operation?

  5. If someones sanctioned for 3 years, surley they will not attend the work programme anymore or the job center? what would be the point?

    1. You wouldn't get any money and would be signed off.

    2. If they tired the same with me I'd get legal advice with a view to bringing a legal challenge. I could well see Public Interest Lawyers getting a lot more inquires!

    3. In their eagerness to clobber JSA claimants with sanctions the DWP, in my experience, are very sloppy with the paperwork.

      If any of you were mandated onto the work programme in June 2011 I suggest you look at the referral letter given to you by your local jobcentre - if you still have it?

      All work programme referral letter are supposed to be designated WPO5. I even made a FOI inquiry, which confirmed it. Yet the referral letter issued to me back in June 2011 was completely different - and does not have any identifying designation - and is thus invalid because it does not mention the legislation: The Jobseekers Allowance (Employment Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011.

      I only found this out (as above) when it was decided my sanction case would go to a tribunal hearing, and I was sent copies of all the paperwork relating to sanction including what they believed my was original referral letter.

      Not only did I win my case, I got an apology and compensation from the DWP.

      So my advice to anyone faced with a sanction is to do some research, and if you believe you have a good case, appeal the sanction.

    4. Well I was mandated in August 2011 and I didn't receive a letter designated WP05. What I did receive was a "WP02 WP JSA Invitation Letter". This was followed by a standard letter from A4e mandating me to attend my "initial About You Appointment". Neither of these letters mentions The Jobseekers Allowance (Employment Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011!!

      Does this mean that my referral is invalid? If so how do I go about complaining?

    5. Gissajob: That's exactly what it means. Unless it mentions that legislation you have not been correctly notified to participate in the work programme - which makes it invalid.

      That legislation gives the DWP the legal authority to impose a sanction for failing to participate in the work programme - thus it has to in the notification letter. You cannot be lawfully sanctioned for failing to participate if you were not correctly notified in the first place. So if you have had any sanctions since August 2011 you should be able to get them overturned.

      So your letter was issued in August 2011. Three months into the work programme. On that basis, there could be hundreds, if not thousands of JSA claimants all over the UK, who have been issued the incorrect work programme notification letter by their jobcentre! The worst part is that some of them may been sanctioned without being aware the sanction was illegal.

      When I made my FOI inquiry I worded my question very carefully. I asked if any of the work programme referral notification letters issued have a designation other than WPO5? The answer I got was although there had been various versions of the letter - they were all designated WPO5.

      I suggest you first write a letter of complaint to the jobcentre that issued your WPO2 and enclose a copy of my FOI reply. Here's a link to the FOI reply.

    6. Thankyou Teflon Don!
      I have today sent a Subject Access Request to the DWP. Amongst other items I have asked for:
      "Copies of all correspondence including standard letters from yourselves to me pertaining to my mandation on to the Work Programme."
      Now according to my records this will not include a WP05 letter - but should include a WP02 letter. When I eventually rceive a reply I will update you. On the assumption that I am correct I will probably make a complaint on the grounds that my mandation did not include a reference to the relevant regulations.
      I am not sure what good it will do - maybe force them to mandate me again and restart the 2 year WP period? I have not been sanctioned in spite of having 2 spurious sanction doubts raised against me so I guess there is nothing to claim for in in loss of benefit but maybe compensation for maladministration? We'll see.
      Thanks again

    7. On 12 October 2011 the DWP responded to an FOI request regarding the WP05 letter, and the information regarding the different versions of this document that the Department provided at that time can be viewed here:

      I have looked out my own referral letter, which is dated in the second half of July 2011. It does not contain the WP05 designation. Not only that, I can see by comparing the versions provided by the DWP that while I should have been provided with the version published on 30 June 2011, which does contain the reference to The Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, I was in fact given the earlier version, which does not.

      In fact my Work Programme Provider has never raised a sanction doubt against me, but if they were ever minded to then it looks as though the DWP would not be able to sanction me. Because The Teflon Don is right: “You cannot be lawfully sanctioned for failing to participate if you were not correctly notified in the first place.” Yay! On the other hand, since August 2011 I have been attending mandatory Work Programme Provider appointments and undertaking their required activities when it looks like all along I didn’t have to.

      Well, I’ll keep my powder dry for now. But, as The Teflon Don again says, “there could be hundreds, if not thousands of JSA claimants all over the UK, who have been issued the incorrect work programme notification letter by their jobcentre”. How many of these individuals have been illegally sanctioned by the DWP? Is this a time-bomb waiting to go off?

  6. Disgruntled (Ex) A4e Employee1 October 2012 at 13:53

    I used to work at A4e, and the comments about sanctions from the PR chap are in part correct as it is indeed the DWP who make the decision on whether a DNA reason is acceptable or not... however, there is internal pressure to make sure that anyone who misses an appointment is subject to the appropriate actions (i.e. sanction doubt being raised) The caseload reports from the A4e Desk System clearly identify the number of appointments attended, appointments missed as well as the number of sanction doubts raised. These aspects all form part of the caseload reviews undertaken with the Leadership Team in order to ensure that Advisors are taking appropriate action in order to get customers to attend their appointments.

    On another note, is the constant rambling on Twitter by the PR Chap becoming emma like? I get the impression he likes the sound of his own voice a bit too much

    1. Thanks. The point is that mistakes can obviously be made. Even when you've accepted the explanation of a supposedly missed appointment advisors still "raise a sanction doubt" and the explanation is often missed off when it's passed to the DWP. I know it will be a relatively small proportion, but it still adds up to a lot of people.

    2. When I got my sanction doubt letter I looked at the DWP website

      which says that they have to automatically raise a doubt as soon as the appointment is missed. My adviser told me that even if I give them notice in advance I will still get a sanction doubt if I miss an appointment because this is the way the system works.

      This is not what the PDF says (pg 9, 47 re-arranging a mandated activity) so it appears that the advisers themselves have no idea of how the system works. I was told that as long as I had the evidence as to why I have missed the appointments I just send it to the DWP when they send me the doubt letter and it will all be fine.

  7. A bit off the subject,on the Indus Delta website a former W2W worker has been made redundant,after the Provider/Sub went into administration (can't help feeling sorry for them,unemployment is rough)what struck as ironic though,was the fact that they were asking if/where they could get help with funding for training,as they worked in this Industry surely they should know what resources are available in order to help the unemployed.

  8. To the person who talks about OLASS, feel free to comment on this blog, which is about A4e in general. You realise what I will and won't publish, and it's not a good idea to write anything which could identify your place of work. If you want to send me a longer "not for publication" piece, I will try to edit it into a post. Do keep me in touch with what's going on.

  9. Why is it then that the other work providers such as Ingeus use sanctions somewhat rarely, and as I have been led to believe, only after considerable pressure has been placed on the "customer" (I use that term very loosely).

    Sanctioning/Referral rates need to be published. It is only then we will see the true picture and for one provider in particular it will paint a very ugly picture indeed.

    1. The figures published by Corporate Watch showed that Working Links asked for the most sanctions, with A4e second.


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