Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Guardian interview with Emma

The Guardian today carries an article based on an interview with A4e's Emma Harrison; you can also read it on the UTV website. Written by Amelia Gentleman, it starts out as a disconcerting piece of PR for FND, as Emma is being interviewed in a mocked-up FND office (it doesn't say where) that A4e have been using to train new advisers. 'Emma Harrison, A4e's founder and chair, bubbles with enthusiasm for the new approach, which she is certain will have a better success rate than the outgoing, one-size-fits-all, classroom-based formula central to earlier government New Deal employment programmes. "We knew something different had to be done," she says with an impassioned energy that will be familiar to those who saw her star in recent television shows The Secret Millionaire and Benefit Busters. "You can't sit everyone in a classroom for 30 hours for 13 weeks. It's just wrong, and it doesn't work. It's like going to a hospital and everyone getting the same treatment."' There's a lot more in that vein. But then Gentleman gets on to the fact that "the regime is tougher than before, and those who do not comply risk seeing their benefits cut for up to 26 weeks." And we are told that the target off 55% job outcomes has now been abandoned. "Commercial sensitivity means that none of the companies successful in their bids will reveal exactly how many people they are contracted to get into work. Jo Blundell, A4e's group development director, will say only that, to begin with, it could be as little as half the original target." (There is no mention of the fact that the number of projected clients on FND has now been reduced by 35%, leaving all providers with redundant staff and facilities before the programme even starts.) We then get a rather curious statement: "Even without the extra difficulties posed by the recession, many thought these targets were wildly over-optimistic. Commercial considerations also make the success rate of private companies difficult to access, but leaked figures earlier this year showed that organisations delivering the earlier New Deal – in a more benign economy – got only 25% of their clients into work. A parliamentary answer earlier this year revealed that A4e had got just 20% into work during 2008-09." I say "curious" because the success rate isn't all that "difficult to access" - try the Ofsted reports for starters. 'Harrison says the figure of 20% is not one she recognised. She puts the company's success rate at between "20% and 45% for the older programmes".' True, but the average comes out at 25%. Emma is then confronted with the "uncomfortable juxtaposition" of her mansion and the acute poverty of her clients, as seen on "Benefit Busters". But profit margins are kept to 4%, she says. And for anyone who recalls that on BB she seemed unaware that the system made it impossible for people to take casual work, and it takes weeks to get back onto benefits, we're now assured that she is very interested in "benefit buffering". "It is a concept that Iain Duncan Smith's Tory thinktank, the Centre for Social Justice, put forward in its recent proposals for benefit reform. Although A4e has benefited hugely under New Labour, and David Blunkett is a paid adviser with A4e, Harrison stresses that the company is "apolitical" and ready to work with any administration." The article ends with an explanation of Emma's wish for a "family-centred approach".

The next privatisation?

With nothing much happening as we wait for contract news, it occurs to me that the next step may well be the contracting-out of Jobcentre Plus. The JCP Support contracts would seem to pave the way for that. Any thoughts?

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Know Hope Roadshow

A tweet from A4e says: *In Scarbro' yesterday, one man told us how A4e had changed his life and one woman who had been in f/t work 12 months had bought 1st house."
I asked a contact in Hull to look in on the roadshow there today, and he has sent me the following email:
"They had a van in Victoria Square, an old Volkswagen camper van painted in the Know Hope branding. They weren't giving out leaflets, as far as I could see, they just wanted to engage people in conversation. They had two cameras set up on tripods - not sure why, but they seemed to be getting people to wear a Know Hope t-shirt and be photographed in it. The A4e logo was around, on the back of the van and on the team's jumpers, but it wasn't prominent. I would say that they are pushing the Know Hope branding, with A4e very much secondary. I didn't go up and talk to them, sorry. I don't look like a potential client so I didn't know what to say."
It certainly looks like they are trying to start FND as a new brand. Will it work?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Twittering A4e - and No (sorry, Know) Hope

If you look for Twitter feeds on A4e you'll get two kinds (see below) - tweets from disgruntled clients, and PR tweets from A4e itself. They've got a new one called A4eworks, where you can learn about the roadshow they're running to promote FND under the banner of Know Hope. They've gone from Rotherham (see the video here) to Middlesborough yesterday, Scarborough today, Hull tomorrow and Barnsley and Doncaster on Friday. You have to admire their courage (sort of). Of course, FND is going to be nothing like New Deal. "Flexible New Deal is a completely new approach, and it's just that - 'Flexible'. We know everyone is different and so the 'Flexible' part means that organisations like A4e are free to help you and your specific needs. Getting back into work through Flexible New Deal means the help you get is completely tailored to you and your individual circumstances. It's your own personal journey back to work." Etc. Read it all here and remember it.
I can't help thinking that the slogan Know Hope is a mistake!

PS. I apologise if I gave him the idea, but someone who calls himself highpark1 has just added his Hub pages as Twitter items. These are anti-A4e stories, all of them taken directly from other people's sites, without acknowledgement, let alone permission.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Waiting Game

We're expecting important contract announcements shortly - the shortlist for FND phase 2 providers and the winners of the JCP Support and ESF contracts. This may well come in the middle of the Labour Party Conference. If anyone is tempted to ask why these programmes should not fall under the axe, given the need for huge public spending cuts that all the parties are telling us about, the answer will probably be that they are "helping the unemployed".
Meanwhile, A4e keeps the local press supplied with PR pieces. One, from Gateshead, tells us that A4e have teamed up with Remploy to put 11 disabled people into a work trial scheme. Hardly big news, you might think. And when you read the article it's clear that it's come straight from A4e. (And a PS - the identical article has just appeared on A4e's website.) The same can't be said of another piece from Barrow the other day which reported that A4e, along with other businesses, had been forced out of a building because the owners hadn't paid the electricity bill and the power was turned off. Not A4e's fault. But it did prompt the comment from a correspondent of mine about the lights going out for A4e.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Going to Conference?

If you're going to a party conference (if you're Labour or Conservative, at least) you will this year be able to attend "several events" hosted by A4e, they've announced on their website. A4e are "partnering" with the think tank Demos to talk about - you guessed it - welfare to work. At the Labour conference there's a fringe event, ‘Making Welfare to Work work in a recession’, at which both Yvette Cooper and Mark Lovell will speak. "A4e and Demos will also be hosting a roundtable centred around this theme with Rt Hon Jim Knight MP, Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform." If you're thinking that it's a bit much for this company to be in cahoots with ministers - if you think it smacks of touting for business ......
But of course there may be a Conservative government soon, so A4e is hosting similar events at the Tory conference. There's ‘Smart citizens: advice in a world of personalised public services’, an A4e and Reform fringe event. Speaker:
Oliver Letwin MP, Chairman of the Policy Review and of the Conservative Research Department". And "A4e and Reform will also be hosting a roundtable discussing: ‘What role can the integration of welfare and skills provision play in tackling long-term unemployment?’ with Theresa May MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Shadow Minister for Women."
They don't seem to be bothering with the Liberal Democrat conference - no point, really.
A4e will certainly not be the only company using the party conferences as lobbying opportunities. Let's hope that party members are well informed.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Learning from Israel?

In Israel A4e is known as Amin. A group of British Labour MPs has been in Jerusalem looking at how they run Israel's welfare-to-work programme, says the Jerusalem Post. You may recall that A4e got the contract in Israel despite the fact that it was against British government policy but with official help. Read the details here. Now A4e's Rob Murdoch (the guy who did such a dismal job of defending the company on the Radio 5 Live programme) has been showing off A4e-Amin as a model for Britain to follow. And, ironically, the MPs seemed proud of the fact that A4e is a British company. ' "It was fascinating to see how welfare-to-work programs are being carried out in such a diverse society as Israel," added Andrew Gwynne MP, parliamentary chairman of Labor Friends of Israel. "And it's all built on a number of the initiatives first implemented by the Labor government in the UK." In addition to Gwynne, the group included MPs David Cairns, Jane Kennedy, Anne McGuire, Meg Munn, Jamie Reed, Derek Twigg and Malcolm Wicks.' Perhaps we should explain to them what the "Wisconsin model" actually means - making welfare benefits time-limited, tieing them to job-seeking activities, then throwing people into the gutter to be picked up by charities. Is that what these MPs envisage for Britain?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Don't mention New Deal

I caught a fascinating Radio 4 programme on Saturday morning. Called "Give us a Job", it was marking the centenary of the institution of Job Centres. They were called Labour Exchanges then, of course. You can hear it on iplayer. After looking at the history, Michael Portillo (yes, I know, but he's out of politics now) spoke to Mark Serwotka and then asked Yvette Cooper about the new Welfare Reform Bill. I waited, naturally, for any mention of the New Deal or Jobcentre Support contracts, but all we got were a couple of cliches about how the Bill was "to take forward more support" for people looking for work and, "We're a society that cares for people." Either the omission was deliberate, or it reflected the irrelevance of these hugely expensive contracts.
This morning the Guardian reports the results of a survey by the Federation of Small Businesses, called "The Jobcentre is not working". Again, there is absolutely nothing about New Deal and the private companies. All the burden of expectation is on Jobcentre Plus, despite the fact that the government is spending vast amounts of money on private companies like A4e to take on much of JCP's role. This is a curious situation, to say the least.

PS. The One Show tonight had a piece about youth unemployment, from Hull which has the highest incidence, and has for years had this dubious honour. The focus was the Young Person's Guarantee. Yvette Cooper was given a few brief lines to say; notably that any young person signing on today is guaranteed not to be signing on a year from now. What they're carefully not saying is that the jobs will be only temporary, and that many youngsters will get only "training". Again, the privatised New Deal situation is unmentioned. The real point of the piece, I felt, was that the only body actually doing something about youth unemployment is the local Council, which funds apprenticeships.

PPS. With all the current talk of cutting non-essential programmes, can we dare to hope that the decidedly non-essential FND contracts will be cut?

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Why it matters

It's noticeable that when I post something about an A4e activity that isn't welfare-to-work, there's little reaction and hardly any comment. Most of those who get exercised about A4e have been clients or staff in the New Deal and related programmes, and that's where the media interest has been. But its other activities are just as important, and add up to a cradle-to-grave approach that should concern all of us.

Last month the Telegraph published a piece on another company, Serco: "Have you heard about the company that runs Britain?" It lists the range of contracts that Serco are making money from, but misses out the latest, the FND contracts. Serco are trying to drive A4e out of that area. A4e doesn't have the range of contracts that Serco has, but its portfolio is growing, and is concentrated in those areas which deal directly with disadvantaged people. Bosses talk about wanting to "work with" whole families, and that's what is happening. The Mansfield project has A4e dealing with very young children who are not able to deal with starting school; around the country it works with schoolchildren in various ways, often because they are disaffected. If your children manage to avoid them, A4e may still enter your life if you are unemployed; need advice; get a prison sentence; need training. And you may not avoid them when you retire. If you need social care, they may be there too, handling your direct payments. We haven't heard anything lately about Emma's ambition to run a bank for poor people, but I expect it's still on the table. A4e have always been ahead of the game, picking up small contracts and then portraying themselves as the market leaders. They may be well behind Serco in income, but they can affect your life just as much.

So it matters.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Another foot in the special needs door

I wrote the other day about a scheme in North East Lincolnshire called the Life Academy - A4e's contract to take disaffected youngsters out of the education system. I've learned more about the background to that, but not what happened to it. Now there's news that A4e are doing the same thing in Mansfield, but this time described as a

"Unique vocational training centre". The article says that "The Hamilton Way centre is the first of its kind in the UK and will provide education and training for young people aged from five to 16, who find it difficult to learn in mainstream education. The centre will work with local authorities and schools to provide access to vocational training and education related [sic] for a range of clients, including young people in the care of social services, those at risk of exclusion and who have been excluded from school and young offenders." And it's also going to include "the new Vox 4 Tots vocational training centre, which aims to help infants and primary school children who are finding it difficult to make the transition into school life." Apart from the toe-curling name, this is really scary. It would appear to be operating as a Pupil Referral Unit, and as a School Preparation Unit, things which demand highly qualified and experienced staff. PRUs are normally under the direct control of the Local Authority, but a contracted-out one like this won't be. Mansfield's education authority is Nottinghamshire, but there's nothing on their website about it. But we can be reassured. An A4e spokeswoman says, "We have seen so much evidence already that the A4e ethos works and we look forward to helping more children become excited about education and their future." You bet.

It's all gone quiet

The dust has apparently settled. The media have lost interest. The MPs are still on holiday so no one is asking questions. There is no news about contracts. A4e bosses can breathe easily for a while. And they can focus on pushing their public image as a local company involved in local schemes to "improve people's lives". Last weekend, for instance, they were at a community carnival in Swansea. Why? Well, the MP was there. They've also been working at a primary school in Edinburgh; at least, a group of ETF (Environmental Task Force) clients have. And in Gloucester they have "organised" a networking conference. I say "organised" in inverted commas, because if you look closely it's clear that it's Premier Inns who are paying. "We are looking to work with city partners to promote our Employability Skills Provision in the city" says Kevin Kelway. Ignore all the bad publicity. It's business as usual. And if you're looking for work, why not work for A4e? They're looking for people in London. Here's the advert.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Pathways doesn't pay

You'll remember that the third episode of Benefit Busters focussed on the Pathways programme, getting people off incapacity and disability benefits and, hopefully, into work. The prime contractor shown was the Shaw Trust, but other providers like A4e also have the Pathways to Work and New Deal for Disabled People contracts, and they subcontract them to some specialist organisations. Now we learn that several of these specialists, including the RNIB, the RNID and Action for Blind People, have withdrawn from these contracts because they say they are not financially viable. They blame the recession and the complex needs of their clients for their inability to make them pay. So presumably A4e isn't making them pay either. Jim Knight MP, who always has to answer in these circumstances (where is Yvette?), said it was up to the prime contractors to manage things. "Providers may have underestimated challenges and set high targets but we are working to improve performance," he said. "Many of the contracts run for three years and, due to start-up costs, providers would not be expected to make a profit immediately." That's all right then.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Life Academy

There was much in the news yesterday about academies, and how the government were not going any longer to ask for £2m upfront from private sector organisations that want to run them. I got to wondering whether A4e have ambitions to run an academy. A bit of googling and I came up with this report from a North East Lincs Council scrutiny committee. It's from December 2006. Here's A4e running the Life Academy, '“alternative education” for between twenty and thirty Key Stage 4 pupils.' Essentially it's a private Pupil Referral Unit and opened in 2005. I can't find anything later than this report, and there's nothing on A4e's website, so if anyone knows what happened to it, please let us know. It's especially scary that A4e should be in this area of education, as there are moves to privatise all the PRUs.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Payment by results

Some people watching Benefit Busters episode 2 may have been surprised by the way in which some of A4e's employees are paid for achieving job outcomes. I was even more surprised that the Shaw Trust do the same thing. The justification rests on the idea that a job - any job - is what it's all about, so put the pressure on staff to get them with financial incentives. But there are providers which don't have that system; and while I can't quote figures, I'm sure that their results are no worse than A4e's, and may well be better. The danger with payment by results, of course, were clearly seen in what happened in Hull, when casual agency jobs were claimed as permanent. Not only was the pressure there on the company to get the percentages up; it was on the individual to earn his bonus. And in all that, it's the client who gets forgotten.

Which political party is going to have the gumption to say that this whole business is a colossal waste of money? That all the cash which is going in private profit should be put into real skills training via colleges and specialist training companies? Perhaps when young people who think they have been guaranteed a job or training discover that it's not quite what they had in mind.

Friday, 4 September 2009

It's back

Benefit Busters episode 2 is back on 4 on demand. If you didn't see it first time around, now's your chance.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Still no Episode 2

The official line was that someone who was filmed in episode 2 of Benefit Busters objected to being identifiable, so the programme has been removed pending pixellation (or whatever you call it). That spawned all sorts of rumours - I had a couple of comments claiming that, according to a particular forum, a particular person was identified. I checked and could find no confirmation of that so I didn't spread that rumour. But how long does it take to re-edit the film? Channel 4 have removed all comments on the episode, as well as the two clips that were on the webpage for a long time, and there is still no indication of when, if ever, it will be available.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Community Task Force

A4e is one of 26 providers which have passed the PQQ stage of bidding for the Community Task Force. This is part of the DWP's Young Person's Guarantee and "will offer up to a maximum of 6 months' quality work experience of benefit to the community, designed primarily to enhance the employability and work-related skills of participants, and increase their chances of entering sustained employment."