Wednesday, 28 October 2009

ESF Phase 2 - nothing for A4e

The announcement of the successful bidders for ESF phase 2 has been made. (For some background on the European Social Fund see this website.)
Now, when the PQQ stage shortlist was announced, A4e had succeeded in 8 of the 12 areas in making the shortlist. But they haven't won a single contract. The biggest winner is Seetec, with 4 areas. Ingeus and Intraining each have 2, and ESG, Reed and Working Links have one each (Cornwall is still to be decided).

A Brief History of Welfare-to-Work

A recap of some history. The last Conservative government faced growing unemployment, particularly amongst young people, and the fact that employers would not train their own staff. They introduced various schemes - YOPS, YTS and so on - which encouraged the growth of numerous private training companies. Some of these companies were simply scams. Of the ones which were not scams (including A4e) few survived the end of the Tory government.

Labour introduced New Deal. This focussed first on young people, and offered a much more structured approach to training and support for the unemployed. It was followed by New Deal 25+. Private companies were central, naturally. New Deal was about genuine training, and private companies of various kinds - FE colleges, industry training bodies and specialist organisations - were best placed to deliver that training. But it was Jobcentre Plus which organised this and issued the contracts. By 2005 a budget was allocated to each JCP region and it was the JCP region which decided how to allocate the funding. Programmes ranged in length from 6 weeks to 52 weeks. The providers could interview prospective clients and take on only those who were willing and able to benefit from the course. Clients then undertook vocational courses such as NVQs while doing a real work placement. Providers were rigorously audited, and payment was on the basis of weeks on the programme, qualifications gained and job outcomes. There was a great deal of flexibility, with new courses such as Basic Skills being introduced, and scope for local schemes. For one quarter, Oct - Dec 2004, there were 34,410 starters on NDYP and 24,580 on ND 25+. In the following quarter the figures were 38,910 starters on NDYP and 22,630 on ND 25+.

But the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Blunkett, decided in 2005 that "new contracts for relevant and affordable provision should be put out to competitive tender, to come into effect from April 2006 onwards". What this meant was that private companies would organise New Deal region by region. Jobcentre staff could be sacked. One company that did particularly well in gaining these contracts was A4e.

The three years which followed showed just how bad an idea it was. The structure of the contracts was such that they were almost bound to fail. There was no filtering of prospective clients; everyone unemployed for the required period, regardless of whether there was any chance of them benefitting, was sent on a 13-week programme. There was scope for only minimal skills training. Clients were supposed to be put into work placements, but there were far too few genuine placements available, and many clients spent weeks working with voluntary organisations, or kicking their heels in the training centre. The system encouraged "creaming and parking"; the effort went into those clients who were most likely to get work, while those for whom a job was very unlikely were largely ignored. To win the contracts providers had promised job outcomes of 50%. This was always unattainable, and even before the unemployment rate started to climb the outcome rate averaged about half that. The definition of a job outcome (16 or more hours per week and expected to last for 13 weeks or more) was shown to unrealistic as available jobs became increasingly casual and part-time.

Back to the drawing board? Flexible New Deal is supposed to remedy the defects of the previous contracts. Clients will be offered training suitable to their needs, and not be required to sit in a training centre for weeks on end. The only attendance requirement is for 4 weeks of work placement. There is even an element of competition between providers. Clients have a choice between two providers in each area - hence A4e's roadshow to advertise their presence. And payments are dependent on outcomes to a much larger extent - 80% of the total - so the pressure to get clients into work is even greater.

Jobcentre Plus has been overwhelmed by the numbers of newly unemployed, and have had to take on more staff. But this is a temporary measure. On the basis of public-sector-bad, private-sector-good, JCP Support contracts are in place, with private companies offering the kind of support to claimants that they would once have expected from the Jobcentre itself.

The Conservatives promise an even smaller role for Jobcentre Plus. Their "Work Programme" will see the renegotiation of current contracts to convert them into a programme which more nearly expresses the ideas of David Freud. Private sector providers will only receive full payment if their clients stay in work for a full year. How many will want to bid for these contracts remains to be seen.

The ideology of the free market has prevailed over evidence and common sense.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Public v. Private

An interesting discussion has broken out after a recent post. A proponent of private enterprise is defending it against what s/he sees as the waste and inefficiency of the public sector. This is a huge area of debate, and I am neither an economist nor a politician; but it's worth setting out my beliefs on the subject, and later (possibly) relating the history of welfare-to-work as an illustration. There are, of course, many books on the subject which will reinforce whichever stance you take.

It is ironic that much of "nationalised" industry in the 20th century was forced on governments by the failure of private industries; coal-mining, railways and steel all came into public ownership that way. The NHS was the result of the failure of the private sector to provide universal cover. At the level of local government, council housing was necessary because the private sector couldn't house people adequately. In case we thought that nationalisation had had its day, we now own many of the banks because private enterprise failed.

Socialists take the view that most industries and undertakings should be publicly owned. That ideology gave way to the view that a mixed economy works best. But the pull to the right has been inexorable (the banks notwithstanding), and the prevailing orthodoxy is that markets provide the best mechanism for all industries and services. Profit is the best motivator. Public servants will always be underworked, overpaid and uncreative. The only actual evidence ever produced for this assertion is the catastrophic failure of the economies of communist countries, which has no relevance to modern, mixed economies.

Political parties took to promising to "reduce the size of the state". In practice, this means sacking civil servants and contracting out the services they delivered. At local government level, councils were, for example, forced to sell off housing and prevented from building more. They were forced to "deregulate" local transport, often resulting in a worse service. When the need for new services arose, it could often make sense to employ private companies to deliver them; "back-office" functions, heavily dependant on IT, could reasonably be contracted out. But often privatisation has been the result of government or local councils being unable to justify employing more people themselves. For instance, when government came up with the idea of direct payments for social care local councils had a choice; they could set up their own departments to deal with this, as most did; or they could find themselves bound by staff-cutting policies and fall back on private companies.

The only "market" in the delivery of public services is the competition between private companies to provide exactly what is required at the lowest possible price. It means that front-line civil servants, usually on very low wages but with job security, are replaced by even lower-paid people on short-term contracts. No entrepreneurship or creativity is involved, and hitting targets takes precedence over shaping an effective service. Large companies elbow out smaller ones, and a handful - Capita, Serco, A4e - come to dominate. Public monopolies rapidly give way to private monopolies.

That's where I stand. If you disagree, please give evidence.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The A4e Bank

A4e's aspirations to run a bank for poor people have been mentioned before. But it's a reality!

Back in January this year Mark Lovell described it on his blog as seeing "the potential for A4e to develop a relevant offer". A4e's bank is called Capitec Uk Ltd, and derives its name from a South African bank, Capitec. Lovell says that Capitec "helped us shape our thoughts and ideas on banking for people in poverty" but it is not clear whether there are closer links.

By the time that Lovell was writing about this, A4e's bank had already secured a grant of £1m from the Regional Industrial Development Board in Yorkshire, as we see from the minutes of Yorkshire Forward's board.

Yet the company is now dormant. What happened?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Two Memoranda

Two memoranda submitted by A4e to the Work and Pensions Select Committee make interesting reading.
One, EP 07, is the formal response to the inquiry into "the management and administration of contracted employment programmes." It's a long document, responding to the cases of fraudulently claimed job outcomes in Hull. A4e says that it has introduced a procedure whereby 50% of all claims are routinely checked by an independent team which phones the employer to verify that the client is working there, and can check with the Jobcentre that the client is off benefit. Para 3.11 states "A4e encourages whistleblowing as it serves as another important mechanism for identifying fraud. A4e has strengthened its whistleblowing procedures to encourage other staff members to disclose concerns about malpractice. A4e also believe that an independent body acting as an Ombudsman for the industry may be an effective way of regaining a sense of openness and accountability in the industry. As more responsibility for delivering the government's targets for employment is vested in the industry, the market needs to respond by placing an increased emphasis on transparency and accountability." The new admin systems for FND make fraud harder. All sensible stuff.

The second, CP 02, is on the subject of child poverty, submitted in May this year. It's a shorter document, summarised as:
§ A4e supports the Government's 2020 vision for eradicating child poverty;
§ A holistic approach should be adopted in the consideration of issues relating to children that considers educational and emotional, as well as economic, dimensions of child well-being;
§ The proposed 'building blocks' that make up the Government's 2020 vision should not be allowed to develop as silos since the issues they address are related;
§ The welfare-to-work and childcare agendas need to be more closely co-ordinated;
§ The system of benefits and tax credits should be less complex and easier to use;
§ Local government should take the lead on reducing child poverty, but fresh approaches to funding, commissioning and delivery are needed.
This sounds eminently reasonable. But in discussing "A Leadership Role for Local Authorities" A4e's ambition becomes clear. Para 17 says, "A4e believes that far-reaching improvements and efficiencies could be achieved by pooling existing pots of funding under a single overarching contract. Services aiming to reduce child poverty could be combined with worklessness and recession-beating initiatives to create a larger fund. Major national and international providers in the welfare to work and wider public service industry markets experienced in frontline delivery would then be able to compete for contracts and use their expertise for the benefit of local communities. Service and cost efficiencies could be more easily achieved. Combining projects would eliminate duplication and reduce the commissioning and contract management burden on the local authority." Guess who's best placed to deliver such contracts. Well, para 19 gives a clue, describing A4e's "Advice 4 Stoke service on behalf of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which has been independently confirmed to have a substantial positive impact on reducing poverty."
Nothing seems to have come of this inquiry yet.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Private Eye's prediction

Private Eye magazine continues to take an interest in privatised welfare-to-work. In its current issue it's the failure of the recently defunct contracts that comes under fire. It has a rather odd, but illuminating, way of proving the point, saying, "Only 2 percent of firms involved in the Intensive Activity Period (IAP) scheme reached their target of 40 percent of entrants finding a job" and producing similar figures for BET, ETF and Gateway. And it points out that FND actually raises the target to 50%, "with pleas by the DWP select committee to ministers to lower targets ignored." Private Eye believes that "the failure of the Flexible New Deal is all but guaranteed". Well, the providers themselves probably believe that too - witness the negotiations that went on before the contracts were signed.

A4e is one of the providers who are putting a lot of effort into promoting FND as new, improved and generally brilliant. It does away with the worst aspect of the old contracts; the sitting about uselessly for 13 weeks. The only laid-down attendance requirement is for 4 weeks in a work placement. But anyone newly unemployed today will not be eligible for FND for a year (or 6 months in some cases). During that time s/he will have access to the growing number of schemes put in place by local councils and partnerships; schemes which don't receive national funding or make a profit for anyone, but which offer most of what FND offers, including relationships with local employers. It follows that anyone who is still unemployed after a year is likely to be among the "hard to help"; or there just aren't any jobs out there. The job targets for FND are "not just jobs, but jobs that pay and offer opportunities for progression, with an emphasis on sustaining and progressing in work to ensure all customers who need help to develop their skills have access to the relevant pre-employment and in-work training" (DWP website). A tall order. And providers get little income unless and until the jobs are secured and maintained for 13 weeks.

So Private Eye, and many other people, will probably be proved right. But let's applaud the efforts that A4e and others are putting into trying to make it work.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Thought leadership

We reported that A4e were sponsoring discussions at the party conferences. Private Eye picked out their appearance on the Labour Party's agenda (another firm, Avanta, was also involved) and were very scathing about the motives of such events. Now the Training Journal website has given both companies a chance to respond. I particularly like the phrase from A4e, “Thought leadership has long been an important activity for us."

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Jobcentre Plus Support contract winners

The winners of the JCP Support contracts have been announced. These are to support what the Jobcentres do for people who are newly unemployed or threatened with redundancy. Or if you prefer, they are to do what Jobcentres should be doing if they had enough staff. Of the 24 contract areas, A4e has won 6, more than any other provider. Next is JHP Group with 4 areas, and then Ingeus (formerly Work Directions) with 3.

Education and A4e

Remember Vox4Tots and A4e's vocational education centre in Mansfield? The Guardian carries a piece about it. One sentence which might surprise the reader is "A4E, which also runs work-related programmes for prisoners and the long-term unemployed, has around 700 secondary school pupils in six centres across the north and the Midlands." The extent of A4e's involvement in education is far less well known than its welfare-to-work programmes. It's summarised on the company's own website here and here. The heartland is clearly the Tees Valley, where A4e has the contract for the EBP - Education Business Partnership - run out of the Thornaby Community School. This contract includes the STEMPOINT programme (see its website) focussing on science, technology, engineering and maths. So far the media have taken little interest in these activities, because welfare-to-work has an impact on more people. But they shouldn't be ignored.

Monday, 12 October 2009

FND Phase 2

For what it's worth, the list has been published of those providers who have been successful at the PQQ stage of Phase 2 of Flexible New Deal - in other words, the shortlist. A4e has been successful in 8 areas, including West Yorkshire and London. That's fewer than some other providers like EDS, Reed and SEETEC. It's an unusual shortlist, because between 10 and 23 providers have been listed in each area instead of the customary 5 or so.

Of course, it may never happen.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Medex and the care home industry

An article in the Yorkshire Post tells of a deal between Medex Training and the care home multi-millionaire Lawrence Tomlinson to provide training for 500 new staff for 11 new homes. What has that got to do with A4e? Medex is part of A4e. It was originally formed in 2005 to provide courses like first aid and resuscitation to people who worked in various medical areas. In 2006 Emma Harrison made it "part of the A4e group of companies" and extended the sort of training Medex provided, focussing on the care industry. Presumably it was a good fit with New Deal, enabling A4e to put clients through short courses relatively cheaply. And it's an even better fit with FND, if the deal with Tomlinson is anything to go by. The article doesn't say whether the new staff are coming from the FND client list, but it would make sense.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Is FND finished?

The Flexible New Deal contracts have only just got under way, but already seem irrelevant. The Conservatives have said that they will "renegotiate" them to transform them into their (or David Freud's) idea of welfare-to-work. The Tory proposals would pay providers only for outcomes - and 12-month "sustainable" job outcomes at that. Anyone with a glimmering of knowledge of the current jobs market knows how scarce such permanent jobs are. FND providers were concerned that it wouldn't pay; and that was with 80% of the payment on job outcomes of 13 weeks or more. Who will want to bid for contracts with 100% on job outcomes of a year? Even if some up-front money is provided to help cover costs, will the only bidders be institutions like FE colleges, who have the necessary infrastructure anyway, and large companies like A4e and Serco which can bear the costs? We shall see.

Meanwhile, A4e continues to look to other areas of business. In Northern Ireland they've been awarded a £400,000, 2-year contract to provide a free debt advice phone line.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A4e's New Star

A4e have found a new person to be their media face - and she's good at it. Jo Blundell, their Group Development Director, was on BBC Breakfast and on Radio 5 Live this morning explaining FND as it goes live.

The TV item was brief. After a quick explanation by the presenter, she was asked what is the point of FND. It's so "no one gets left behind" and to "keep investing in them". Why do it with a private company? Because there are a "very vibrant and experienced set of providers". ("Vibrant"?) And 80% of their money will come from outcomes.

The Radio 5 Live interview was longer, but she coped well. FND is personalised, tailored to the individual. They'll be with their customers for a year, get to know them well, become like a life coach. Why not just give the money to people? Because they need motivating, have issues which are not simple, need quite a lot of help. But there are no jobs. It depends where you are. The job market in London is okay, for instance, but it isn't in Hull. It's not the ideal time to be launching the scheme. Yes it is, because FND will give everybody a chance. Who are you targetting? isn't it a scattergun approach? No, it's individualised. What's the incentive for firms? Won't they just get rid of a current employee in order to take on someone from the scheme to claim the incentive, and keep doing so? Blundell didn't really answer this question but waffled valiantly. What about people who say that wages are too low and it's not worth working? Yes it is, even though it can be a close call at first. What are the targets for A4e? Across the 5 districts where they have contracts, it's 50% into 13-weeks-minimum jobs.

I was impressed. The slogans had gone; no "improving people's lives" or being "passionate". Blundell was articulate and personable. Now we have to see whether the reality of FND in A4e's hands matches the hype.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Tory policy - how new is it?

The Conservatives are making much of their welfare-to-work policy. But the BBC's Nick Robinson, on his blog, has pointed out that the plans are pretty much the same as Labour's, and that both parties are exaggerating the differences between them. One of those keen to make the distinction clear is James Purnell, the man who presided over the late, unlamented New Deal contracts and devised FND. On the Demos website he points out the "Holes in Conservative welfare plan". And for a view from the left of both of Tory and Labour, read Dave Osler's article on the Liberal Conspiracy site.
Meanwhile, FND is up and running. It was interesting to see that when the BBC's Working Lunch today wanted a view from one of the providers they looked to Serco.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Good news from the Tories

The Conservatives' plans for a "Work Programme" will hearten all welfare-to-work contractors. "Tories would force jobless to work" reports an article in the Times, describing a plan to "tackle the dependency culture". "The welfare plan is the brainchild of Lord Freud, the former Labour adviser who defected to the Tories earlier this year. It would abolish the Labour government’s New Deal programme designed to get the long-term unemployed into work. It would also effectively mean the end of Jobcentre Plus, where bureaucrats design training programmes for the unemployed." Presumably Lord Freud thinks private companies can design better programmes than "bureaucrats" - and I did speculate recently that JCP would be next for privatisation. As the article says, this plan is based on the American model.
People like Lord Freud are evangelical about the role of private profit in getting the jobless into work. Good news for A4e and all the other contractors.