Friday, 31 December 2010

Websites and a new year

As 2010 closes, A4e's prospects of profits look good. But I can't help wondering whether the cult of personality is going to be detrimental to the company in the long run. There's yet another website, Working Families Everywhere, spreading the word about the new opportunity (and with, of course, a video of Emma Harrison). This latest enterprise gets its own Facebook page to go with Emma's own page (which 169 people apparently "like"). I've lost count of all the websites devoted to A4e and Emma Harrison; and she's become the face of welfare-to-work for the Daily Express and, apparently, for David Cameron. But when you court publicity you draw attention to your shortcomings. A4e's results will be under scrutiny as never before.

And Emma has competition in the publicity stakes. Ex-A4e employee Hayley Taylor is back from the USA, where she was called an "international careers expert", and is preparing a new series of The Fairy Jobmother whilst appearing on ITV's Daybreak.

But let's be clear. There are only so many jobs that you can fix up with your personal contacts and with employers who want to appear on the telly. And pushing people into "volunteering" doesn't count. A huge amount of public money is going into the Work Programme and into all those other contracts which A4e has. Time to show that we're getting what we're paying for.

A follow-up to the Private Eye piece on Jonty Olliff-Cooper is on the Blood and Treasure blog. Well worth reading the comments!

A good 2011 to everybody.

Friday, 24 December 2010


It's a good Christmas Eve for A4e's Emma Harrison as the Express gives her a chunk of publicity. "CAMERON HIRES OUR JOBS EXPERT TO GET BRITAIN'S UNEMPLOYED WORKING" is the headline, and it's an entirely uncritical rehash of the "family champions" story. "Ms Harrison, 47, will begin by helping find jobs for 500 families who have never worked. It is hoped the project will eventually help to put all 120,000 such families into work. She is the founder of A4e (Action For Employment), which has 3,500 staff in 250 offices and has found work for more than a million people." And to emphasise the clout she now apparently has with government, "She will also be forming an advisory board made up of leading figures from the main political parties as well as the charitable and the private sectors." They've got a quote from Children's Minister Sarah Teather. But the really interesting bit is in the last sentence. Remember that yesterday Harrison was vague about where the money was going to come from. Well, now we know that "The campaign is funded by new Community Budgets and the Early Intervention Grant, which frees local areas from Government micro-management in how much they spend on vulnerable families." Which means that the local authorities will lose control over how they spend their money and be forced to pay Harrison and her team.
Where does this leave the Work Programme contracts? Are the other providers competing on a level playing field? Just how much influence does Harrison really have over the government? And more questions. Will any mainstream journalists bother to investigate what happens with this scheme, or will it be left to Private Eye and to blogs like this to bring a little reality to the scene?
A Merry Christmas to all our readers.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Emma Harrison on Woman's Hour - again

Woman's Hour (Radio 4) today carried a discussion between Emma Harrison of A4e and Helen Dent of Family Action about the Family Champions project, with the excellent Jenni Murray as the questioner. Now, Family Action has been going since 1869, and Dent, like Harrison, has a CBE, so they were well matched.
Harrison, asked to explain what family champions were all about, started by saying that she had been asked to speak to "No. 10" about families who have never worked. (She later got in another plug for the closeness of her relationship with the PM.) Yes, lots of things were being done by various agencies, but it didn't add up to working with whole families.
Dent said that FA specialise in dealing with families where there are multiple and complex needs, and the priority for society was for those families to resolve their difficulties, not working. This set the tone for the differences between the tow women; both scrupulously polite, Harrison faintly praising FA once or twice, but clearly disagreeing.
Harrison asserted that families had to have a sense of purpose, and their ambition should be to be working families. Dent talked about "deeply challenging" family situations and gave an example of a family with huge problems, where it was necessary to start with small steps.
Murray put the point to Harrison - is getting a job suitable for everybody? Harrison said she didn't accept Dent's statement that working is not a goal, and gave her own example of a family she's working with where everybody else had failed but she got them volunteering in a charity shop. Murray asked what it will cost, since people will have to be employed on this. Harrison wasn't sure; she talked about using local authorities' community budgets, about £120m to start with, and this was good news for families.
Dent, asked if this was a sensible use of resources, said that the government was "muddling up" types of families; the need is to invest in intensive work to start with, and Harrison is wrong about this immediate goal of work.

So Emma Harrison is getting oodles of publicity for supposedly persuading government to fork out for a new scheme, when groups like Family Action have been doing it for years without any fanfare. I wish that this short but revealing item could be the basis of a much longer exploration of the subject.

Jonty Olliff-Cooper

I'm indebted to Private Eye yet again for a piece about A4e's appointment of a new director of policy and strategy. The Eye (which calls A4e a company which "seems more effective at finding jobs for former ministers and their functionaries than the unemployed") reports that A4e have signed up Jonty Olliff-Cooper who previously worked in Conservative Central Office as assistant to David Cameron's aide. "A4e has a history," says the Eye, "of hiring political insiders: it recruited David Blunkett as an adviser when Labour was in power. But a former Labour minister will not be as helpful looking after its £150m contract with the government as a Conservative one."
Olliff-Cooper may be small beer compared to Blunkett, but he is certainly a Tory loyalist, tweeting about what an "awesome job" Cameron is doing, and he has the inside contacts.
The piece ends with another swipe at A4e's record. Good to know that Private Eye is keeping an eye on them.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

More on banking

We reported in October 2009 that A4e had set up a company called Capitec UK Ltd under an unclear relationship with the South African bank, Capitec, and had been given a £1m grant from Yorkshire Forward's Regional Industrial Development Board to get a bank up and running. That seemed to fall through. But A4e haven't given up. Mark Lovell has had a lot to say about ways of getting involved in "financial services and banking for the poor", citing schemes in the UK and abroad. In a blog post on 17 November he mentions his admiration for Capitec, but saysa nothing about Capitec UK. Five days earlier another post set out what he percieves as the shortcomings of the Post Office Bank and insists, "There is a need for a radical new banking service for people stuck below and outside mainstream financial services. The Post Office network may be invigorated through these proposals but the financial proposition is a long way from supporting the most financially vulnerable and marginalised. I still intend to do something about it." And in that post he refers to a document called "Total Person" which explains A4e's ambition to have a single "broker" for all the interventions and services which a client needs. It's a well-developed programme; and given Emma Harrison's apparent success with the coalition government it could see a further spread, especially given the intention, by A4e at least, that the Work Programme will give them the right to deal with "whole families". That is chilling enough in itself, but coupled with a banking service for these clients it would be nightmarish.
People with little money and no prospects need all the help they can get from agencies designed as public services and accountable to the public. They should not be forced to access these services through a private, for-profit company.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Family champions - the coverage

We have idle media populated by journalists who don't bother to do any research. That is confirmed by the scant coverage of the news today of Emma Harrison's new role.

The BBC carried the interview with her very early in the morning. The interviewer could have asked, "Why do you think you'll be successful with this when A4e's record is so bad?" But no. The BBC's news website has only two sentences on the subject as part of its report of David Cameron's speech.

The Express does only slightly better. Describing Harrison as an entrepreneur, it reports Cameron as saying, "What works is focused, personalised support - someone the family trusts coming into their home to help them improve their lives step-by-step, month-by-month."

The Telegraph's take is that "Mr Cameron announced that he had appointed a new families “tsar” in a drive to help households in crisis escape unemployment and poverty. Emma Harrison, the entrepreneur and chairman of A4e (Action for Employment), will support hundreds of families in a pilot scheme to help them find work."

The best coverage so far is on the Children & Young People Now website. They report that the government intends the scheme to be piloted in 6 to 10 local authority areas, still to be announced, which will get extra cash to run it. The site expands the quote from Cameron: "Harrison understands how to help families improve their lives "step-by-step, month-by-month". She refuses to believe some people are lost causes and has a proven track record of turning lives around," he said. "Her approach is the complete opposite of the impersonal, one-size-fits-all approach that has failed so many families – which is why I have asked her to come on board to help us." (This is the obvious point at which to say, "Really? Are you sure?", but of course no one does.) They report Harrison as saying, "I have more than twenty years experience helping the long-term unemployed get back into the workplace and all the evidence shows that by providing focused, one-to-one support we will start to help troubled families." (What evidence, Emma? A4e's results?) They then say that the Department of Education emphasised that Harrison's involvement in the trials is "on a purely personal basis. No payment or benefit of any type will accrue to her or to any organisations she is involved with."
Hmm, "no benefit of any type" except oodles of publicity and first crack at the eventual contracts, perhaps.

When will journalists start to do their homework?

Family Champion

Emma Harrison of A4e is today being appointed "family champion" by the government. She was interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning (very early - I missed it) but you can hear it here. She said that she wanted to turn all families with long-term unemployment into "working families" and to do it she will "cut across all this stuff" such as drugs. Someone will be appointed to work with each family; they are being referred to as "Emmas" by the government, apparently. The interviewer pressed her on what would be done differently, but we didn't really get an answer. Harrison herself will have six families to work with, and she cited one of her families where no one had ever worked, but within an hour and a half she'd got them doing voluntary work, giving them back their pride and turning them into a "working family".
Harrison says she is not being paid for this. But of course she wouldn't need to be; the publicity is priceless. This has been a goal of A4e for some time, to get whole families into their orbit. Look out for more media coverage today.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Think Tanks and Opportunities

A recent edition of Private Eye carried a piece about the "think tank" Demos, where former Work & Pensions secretary James Purnell now works. Demos, says the Eye, is funded by companies like A4e and PWC, which stand to benefit from the Work Programme. (The Demos website doesn't list its funders.) Another former minister with a new job is Jacqui Smith, who now advises Sarina Russo Job Access, an Australian company also bidding for Work Programme contracts. Now Ed West of the Telegraph points out that another influential think tank, the IPPR, is funded by a long list of taxpayer- funded bodies headed (alphabetically, at least) by A4e.

This week Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, announced new opportunities for the private sector, in "offender management". As usual, A4e is ahead of the game. They work with offenders in various parts of the country, including providing "employability focused qualifications to offenders carrying out their Community Payback orders in their local communities" in the North East.

And then there's Work Clubs. These are to be part of the Work programme, provided by the Jobcentres, for those who haven't been out of work very long. But A4e have already launched their own Work Clubs in the North East and Derbyshire. Is this a pre-emptive move to take the work away from the Jobcentres?

If anyone wants a handy guide to what A4e does, there's one here. Spot the mistake in, ironically, the "Education & Enterprise" section.

Monday, 6 December 2010

That press release

Patrick Butler in the Guardian has returned to the question of the press release in which Emma Harrison was supposed to have said that the government's welfare cuts were "fantastic". What happened, asks Butler. He spoke to Emma herself, who stuck to her comments on his his original article. She hadn't said it. He checked with Hillgrove, the source of the press release, again. They cited a TV interview in which she does indeed use the word "fantastic" but it's about news of the welfare reforms and the Work programme, not the cuts. Hillgrove say that an employee who "manipulated" quotes has been "disciplined". Butler ends his piece by pointing to the comments which his original article attracted, seeing them "as a reflection of the anger and unease many people feel not just about the cuts, and unemployment, but the welfare to work industry, and its practices."

Thursday, 2 December 2010

She didn't say that!

Emma Harrison of A4e is furious at the Guardian's story yesterday which quoted a press release that has her saying, "The coalition government's cuts are, in fact, fantastic!" She used the comment function on the article's web page to say, "I did not have any knowledge of this press release. I did not ask for it, write it or approve it. My views are wholly and utterly misrepresented and from what I can determine were written by someone from Hillgrove that I have never met with, or spoken to. The blog writer by his own admission was suspicious that these were not my sentiments but he did not bother to check with me. Ummmmmm." A second comment from her reads: "My PR company? I rang them. They have apologised. Junior that i do not know, trying to get the attention of editors with dramatic, distorted and what I consider to be offensive views. Not my views. Shame the blog writer did not check with me or other Guardian articles they have written about me and my views - the ones when they have actually spoken to me....... Ummmmmm. PS I am not a baddy."
I believe Emma (although I'm not sure what the "Ummmmmm" means). Someone added a sentence to the standard stuff which was way over the top, and good for her for responding to it. But there's a lesson there. To go all out for publicity is dangerous.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

ESF contracts - secret performance data

There's an article in today's Financial Times by Cunthia O'Murchu which points out that A4e has had €60 million of public money since 2007 for programmes in the UK and Poland, as well as £700m for its welfare to work programmes funded by the UK, but we can't know how well it's doing on its EU structural fund contracts because the UK government won't release data on individual companies. However, the article cites projects in London where data is available and which show A4e to be performing very badly. One £2m contract was supposed to help 400 people into work, but after a year only 14 people had found a job. Another £820,000 contract for learning and skills was also reported to be underperforming. A4e rejected the criticism and gave different figures. The FT tried using FoI requests to get the data for the EU-funded programmes, but was refused, despite the fact that 2 million people have been enrolled on them in the UK. The article goes on to highlight the poor performance of A4e, along with Reed, on the Pathways programme. But then it cites an Ofsted review which says that A4e is not alone; all the providers were failing to achieve job outcome targets.
This sits rather oddly with the blythe optimism of Emma Harrison.

Cuts: in fact, fantastic!

That's the title of a Guardian piece in which Patrick Butler takes a swipe at a press release by A4e's Emma Harrison. He quotes the press release in full. It's the usual stuff but with a paragraph we haven't seen before:
'Perhaps the only person who is positive about spending cuts is the head of Britain's biggest employment agency A4e. "The coalition government's cuts are, in fact, fantastic!" says Emma Harrison. "Cutting benefits will put a stop to people making a profession out of being unemployed. The Government is looking to put more effort into helping people get back to work which is the most important thing." A4e controls 25% of the long-term unemployment budget for the Department of Work and Pensions. "There are about 450,000 jobs currently being advertised with the JobCentre so there are jobs out there," insists Mrs Harrison.'
Butler contacted A4e's PR advisers, Hillgrove PR, and asked if the release wasn't a bit insensitive, but they said that they couldn't speak for her.
I think she's gone a bit too far this time.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Work Programme Prospectus

The DWP has issued a prospectus setting out more details of the Work Programme. It can be found here.
Interesting points:
  • Those over 25 on JSA will still not be referred until they've been unemployed for 12 months. So they will lose 10% of their housing benefit at the same time as going on the programme!
  • There is a beefed-up role for the Jobcentres, including running "work clubs" and getting people to do voluntary work.
  • "We will refer customers to the Work Programme contracts for a 5 year period. Providers will then work with customers for up to a further 2 years."
  • 40 contracts at £10 - 50 million each.
  • The claim that there would be payment only for outcomes was untrue. There's to be an "attachment fee ..... to assist with initial delivery costs." Sounds a bit like on-programme payments. Presumably the providers insisted on this.
  • "Substantial" performance incentive payments for providers.
There's information about the basis for awarding contracts and price competition. The whole document is well worth studying.
    PS. The Financial Times has questioned Chris Grayling about the "attachment fees". He "insisted that the payments, understood to be in the low hundreds of pounds per client, would be paid only as people are taken on, not as a block payment in anticipation of the numbers likely to join the programme as happened under the existing Flexible New Deal scheme. Most recently, contractors have received 20-30 per cent of payments in advance." He goes on, “It is a recognition that in the early years, providers do have cash flow problems, and this is designed to make a contribution but one that will be phased out, becoming completely outcome-based payments, made in arrears, over the life of the contracts,” Mr Grayling said. He continued: “We never said the upfront payment would be zero – just as little as possible. But we will get to zero over the life of the contracts.”

    Thursday, 25 November 2010

    ERSS Framework

    The DWP has issued the list or organisations that have been selected as preferred suppliers for the Employment Related Support Services Framework. There are 11 "lots" or different areas of the country, and A4e is included in 7 of them. But there are between 9 and 17 organisations selected in each area. You can find the full list here. There's a useful description of what it all means on the Navca site. The DWP says that, "The Work Programme will be the first contract to be called off the Framework and the procurement exercise for this will commence shortly." It looks very much like contracts have been shared out amongst the main established companies; Serco, JHP, Working Links, Seetec and Reed all have 7, and Avanta has 6.

    Tuesday, 23 November 2010

    £60,000 fine for A4e

    A4e has been fined £60,000 for the loss last year of an unencrypted laptop with the details of thousands of people. The data breach occurred when an employee took details of 24,000 clients of the Hull and Leicester Community Legal Advice Centres home to work on. An unsuccessful attempt to access the data was made shortly afterwards. The story on the BBC news site quotes Christopher Graham, the Commissioner for Data Protection, saying, "A4e did not take reasonable steps to avoid the loss of the data when it issued the employee with an unencrypted laptop, despite knowing the amount and type of data that would be on it. It warranted nothing less than a monetary penalty as thousands of people's privacy was potentially compromised by the company's failure to take the simple step of encrypting the data." Hertfordshire County Council was also fined £100,000 for a more serious loss of data.

    Sunday, 21 November 2010

    ..... and another TV appearance

    Emma Harrison popped up again on the northern regional segment of BBC1's The Politics Show today. It was one of those pointless bits of superficial discussion, sparked by a report from Sheffield Hallam University which says that the problem for the North of England is that there aren't any jobs to push people into. A reporter went to Barnsley and looked at a job search scheme in a community project; but the Council leader said there was an urgent need for job creation schemes because the private sector couldn't fill the gap.
    The interviewer, Tim Iredale, was joined by Karl Turner (a Hull MP) in the studio and Emma Harrison "from her kitchen". What did Emma make of the report? It shocked her, she said. A4e are finding jobs for people in Barnsley every day. But we must make sure that it pays to take a job. We have third generation unemployment. Turner stressed that jobs are being cut. Harrison was asked whether she was seeing evidence of new private sector jobs. Oh yes, they're finding people jobs every day. The new system will allow people to take part-time jobs. We shouldn't scare people with big numbers (!!!). The job cuts will be gradual. Turner said that Labour's schemes had put lots of people back to work. (At this point one knew that there was no chance of any of this being challenged by the interviewer.) Iredale asked Harrison how to break the culture of worklessness. This gave her the opportunity to push the idea of working with whole families.
    All that was achieved was yet more publicity for Emma Harrison and A4e.

    Another "interview"

    The Mail online is the latest propaganda sheet to give free PR space to Emma Harrison and A4e. In a long piece today we get something described as an interview but which is merely a vehicle for Harrison to repeat the myths. You won't find anything about the lousy figures for FND. This is sycophancy. "This year, the company will help nearly 20,000 people into work. Her business plan, something she laughingly admits owes more to aspiration than number crunching, predicts a turnover of £500 million by 2014." But then we can see how A4e adapts (or, at least, adapts what it says) to the politics of the moment. "Harrison says she frequently spurns approaches from the City to float or sell the company. Instead, she has rekindled a plan to change the structure into a mutualised trust whereby she can give shares to the staff. In the longer term, she aims to give equity to the unemployed people that A4e helps."

    When you've digested that idea, you might be a bit bemused by the statement that "Harrison is trying to persuade the Government to pay according to the long-term outcome for the unemployed rather than buying hours in the classroom or working on CVs, regardless of whether that is actually needed or achieves a result." Why did the interviewer, someone called Lisa Buckingham, not challenge that? Presumably because she didn't know anything about the subject; the ideal qualification for anyone interviewing Mrs Harrison. There's the latest mantra about "hidden jobs", the story that A4e can persuade employers to provide jobs they haven't realised they had. And she gives figures which are entirely at odds with those produced by the DWP. She says, "it costs an average of £1,700 to get someone back to work". Oh yes? But she's plugging this chilling idea of working with "families’ whole lives rather than just work." The interviewer says, "Such improvements include getting a job, ensuring that children go to school and encouraging charity work. Companies such as Harrison’s would be paid part of the overall savings."

    To show that the paper isn't entirely uncritical there's the statement that, "Harrison hasn’t escaped controversy. There were fraud allegations against a few staff a couple of years ago and the role of David Blunkett, Sheffield MP, as an occasional adviser prompted criticism." That's it. While some of you may be hopping up and down with fury, most of the Mail's readers will nod approvingly at the final statement that " These families need an Emma."

    Thursday, 18 November 2010

    Those figures

    The DWP has released the figures for Flexible New Deal outcomes; you can download them from their site here. They are not immediately understandable, since all you get is the starts and outcomes for each month and, of course, the outcomes don't relate to the starts. What you can see straight away is how bad the figures are, and that A4e has performed comparably with the others.
    There are two articles which interpret these figures in very different ways. One is by Alex Barber in the Financial Times. He asks "What has gone wrong with welfare-to-work?" and includes a graph to show how far below expectation the outcomes are. Barber argues that Grayling's criticism of the Labour government is misplaced. "Grayling argues it [paying too much money up front] destroyed incentives. But companies were still paid the bulk of their fee for getting someone into work. Not only that, but the Work Programme will also include upfront payments. It will just be called something like an 'activation fee'." And the "help based on individual needs" promised in the Work Programme will be little different from FND.
    Another perspective altogether comes from Neil O'Brien in the Telegraph. O'Brien is one of those dangerous young men who provide the theoretical justification for political ideology. With no personal experience or historical insight he assumes the part of an authority on the subject, with selective use of data, and he wants to give more power to the providers to "sanction" people. He includes a table which shows that A4e's performance is slightly better than its competitor in each area. O'Brien has been around the media lately -he was on The Moral Maze last week - touting his view that we should have the time-limited kind of welfare-to-work that exists in some other countries, notably America.
    Meanwhile, there's a whole new world of opportunity opening up for A4e. The government have endorsed the idea that groups of public service workers should turn themselves into "mutuals" or co-operatives. The bit they don't mention is that they would then have to bid for the contracts to provide the services. Even if the private companies don't get the contracts first time round, they will soon be picking them off.

    Wednesday, 17 November 2010

    Clawing back

    Chris Grayling "slams" Flexible New Deal in a piece in the Express and Star, a Midlands paper. It was "chronically mismanaged", he says. "The Flexible New Deal programme helped 16,200 people find work, working out at a “staggering” £31,284 per job, said employment minister Chris Grayling. More than £500 million was spent in a year, mainly for service fees under which providers were paid for every person the government thought would go through the scheme, regardless of the outcome, the minister said. Mr Grayling cancelled the contracts on taking office in June and revealed that £100 million worth of service fees had been “clawed back”." He goes on to insist that by paying only for outcomes the Work Programme will be completely different. Naturally, he's blaming the Labour government. But the prime contractors in the new scheme will probably be the very companies which, he says, failed so badly on FND (and on Pathways). Was it just the contracts which were wrong, or were the companies at fault? Apparently not. And what does that bit about "clawing back" £100 million in service fees mean? Have A4e and the others had to pay that money back?

    Thursday, 11 November 2010

    The Reforms

    There's no getting away from it today, but some of the interviewers are beginning to ask the right questions. At this moment Steve Webb is waffling in reply to what happens when someone with a family has their benefits stopped. One thing that's emerging that should frighten people; there'll be no appeal if you are sanctioned. That's what IDS said, although Webb has just denied it. It seems to be the case that you could be forced to sign up to casual work with an agency, or be deemed to have refused a job. No one has asked whether that gives the power to the likes of A4e to decide that you've turned down a job. Right now the BBC is talking to people in Easterhouse who fit the stereotype, as if that's all there is to unemployment. In all the chatter and propaganda, no one is addressing the issue of the lack of jobs.

    Tuesday, 9 November 2010

    More thoughts on The Politics Show

    You can see the piece on A4e Brixton on the BBC news website. It's headlined "How firms like A4e help unemployed people back to work".
    What disturbs me about The Daily Politics today is how little challenge there is to what is said. Andrew Neil didn't know that people are not referred to A4e etc. until they've been unemployed for a year, so when he asked what A4e could provide that the state couldn't, Harrison was free to talk about wanting to get to people earlier. It was the perfect opportunity to bring up the fact of the failure of the Pathways programme, the rare example of when a direct comparison is possible between the private companies and the Jobcentres. But he didn't. There was no challenge about the record of A4e (and the other providers) on New Deal. And her assertion that anyone who "fully engages" with them can get one of those "hidden jobs" should have been pounced on, but it wasn't. They were too anxious to get to the ructions in the Labour Party. But they wouldn't have challenged it anyway, because the media are too lazy. They had one tiny idea - that A4e is set to make money from the Work Programme - and didn't do any research.

    Emma on The Daily Politics

    A4e's Emma Harrison popped up today as the guest on The Daily Politics. Weirdly, she was asked her opinion of George Bush's memoirs. But then the programme focussed on the housing benefit changes. There were contributions from the House of commons from Caroline Flint and Simon Hughes, then David Freud, minister for welfare reform, was introduced, sitting on the sofa next to Emma. He said that he expects rents to go down and no significant increase in homelessness. Harrison said that the changes had to come, that benefits had been too generous, meaning people couldn't afford to take jobs. But she worries, she said, that vulnerable people will panic at this. Freud said that there's a lot of misunderstanding about it.
    Anita Anand, the interviewer, said that the new Work Programme would mean a lot more business for Harrison's company. There was a short film report from an A4e office in Brixton, showing decent facilities, but mostly low-wage jobs on offer. The office was said to secure 50 jobs a month, but many of these were short-term. Figures were quoted for A4e's income, which I didn't manage to write down. The reporter pointed to other areas of A4e's business, pushing how much the company stands to gain. Andrew Neil then asked Harrison what she provides that the state can't. She said that she would like to get people earlier than at present; she can tell when people are going to become long-term unemployed. Jack Dromey, the Labour MP, took Freud's place. He forecast that unemployment would rise to over 3 million. He said that he doesn't doubt that A4e does some good work, but he doesn't want to see big companies getting more work out of this. Harrison retorted that they use the voluntary organisations. A4e can find jobs for anyone who "fully engages" with them; they can find the "hidden jobs" that never get advertised.
    I'm not sure what this programme achieved, beyond again presenting Emma Harrison as the face of welfare-to-work and avoiding the hard questions.

    Sunday, 7 November 2010

    Workfare - nothing new

    The news today is full of headlines like "Unemployed told: do four weeks of unpaid work or lose your benefits" from the Guardian. In several papers, of course, the epithet "work-shy" is used. And as always the media ignore the fact that this is not new. Under Flexible New Deal claimants are supposed to do a 4-week placement, and the requirement goes way back to old contracts. There are all sorts of problems; small employers don't want the hassle, and the voluntary sector has been stuffed with non-volunteers doing "placements". If anything is different this time, it's that they're talking specifically about "manual labour" and allowing it to be seen as punitive. I suspect that little will actually change. With so many public sector jobs being axed, the unions are not going to stand for street cleaners and the like being replaced by unpaid work gangs.

    Thursday, 4 November 2010

    Publicity and gaps

    A posting from Emma Harrison on A4e's site says that she now has a daily column in Express newspapers. I can't find it in any paper today so perhaps that's a treat to look forward to tomorrow. You are invited to contribute to "Emmas [sic] Top Employment Tips". It's a great bit of advertising, if not of punctuation.
    The Financial Times has pointed out that there will be a gap of several months between when the current contracts end in half the country and the Work Programme begins. About 50,000 people who would have been placed on these programmes will not be - and that's assuming that the new contracts start on time. Labour says that this will mean people staying on benefits for longer, while the DWP says that people will get "enhanced support" from Jobcentre Plus. The ERSA, the trade body for the providers, wants the contracts extended to fill the gap. I suugest that this is an ideal opportunity to judge the value of the whole welfare-to-work industry. Will the DWP have the bottle to compile the stats to show whether it makes any difference to whether people get jobs? I doubt it.
    Richard Johnson of Serco has been philosophising again, on the Indus Delta site, on how wrong we are to think that there are limits to the number of jobs available.

    Monday, 1 November 2010

    From A4e to stardom

    Who is A4e's most famous former employee? Yes, it's Hayley Taylor. Plucked from deserved obscurity by the Benefit Busters programme, where her reward was to be invited to tea with Emma Harrison, she went on to star in "The Fairy Jobmother" in Britain. Those three programmes were greeted with much cynicism here, but they are obviously more open to her message and style in America. The press coverage of the start of her series there is rarely critical. She's described as an "international career specialist" amongst other things, and I've seen only one review, on Media Life, which sees through the hype. But Hayley has everything going for her, and now has her own Facebook fan page. Nowhere in all this publicity is A4e mentioned. I can't help wondering what Emma makes of all this.

    Wednesday, 27 October 2010

    Contracts, tweets and volunteers

    All the attention at the moment is on the Work Programme; and the government is still saying that it can't give any figures for the cost of ending the Flexible New Deal contracts because they are still negotiating. Obviously the incentive is huge to give the new prime contracts to the firms which are already running FND, rather than having to pay them off.
    But meanwhile A4e picks up more small contracts. There's something called Hartlepool Works where they're running a project funded by the European Social Fund and the Learning & Skills Council delivering basic skills. And there's more life skills on offer in Blaenau Gwent with £1.27m from The Big Lottery Fund.
    We've had A4e's Roy Newey on Twitter for some time, and Mark Lovell occasionally tweets. Now Emma Harrison has joined in (she's emmachat) with news of "A4e summit. Manchester. Senior people from around the world. All of them passionate about our single vision to improve peoples lives."
    CDG, one of the providers seeking to expand, is still going on about getting an army of expert volunteers involved with the Work programme, mentoring the jobless. They held a "summit" which doesn't seem to have been attended by any of the other providers. "It is an effort owned by all those with an interest in helping those who have been unemployed for a long time back into work, with CDG’s initial role being to put the initiative forward, and to give it shape and structure so that it gains momentum," reports the Indus Delta site. As we've pointed out before, it's hard to reconcile the use of volunteers with profit-making private contractors. CDG is a charity, and it's boss may think that it operates differently. But charities are involved in contracts on exactly the same basis as private companies, and they employ people on the same basis. If CDG take this forward they are going to come up against some difficult questions.

    Friday, 22 October 2010

    Emma Harrison on Woman's Hour

    "Emma Harrison, founder and Director of A4E, a company that helps people retrain for new employment" was on Woman's Hour this morning. It's not a programme I normally listen to but got a tip-off. The item was on women in the workplace, following the row amongst the women on The Apprentice, and Karen Brady's lecture to them. Emma was interviewed along with Sarah Rutherford. Emma said the programme was "shocking" but mainly done for the telly and it wouldn't last a minute in the real world. And then she dropped in the fact that she had just picked up an award for entrepreneurial women and found that young women were equally appalled. The programme is watched to learn how not to do it. You don't build good businesses by screaming at each other. The women she works with are collegiate, sharing, helping each other; she runs a global business and it's still tough to be a woman. Younger women in business now are more feminine and there's more room for that. Older women feel they mustn't stray into the feminine stuff. It was sensible stuff in the main, but typical of Ms Harrison to make sure the audience knows that she runs a global business and gets awards.

    That award, by the way, was given by a group called the Pink Shoe Club (it's for women, because of course all women like pink and shoes). You can read about it on A4e's website.

    Wednesday, 20 October 2010


    Who better for the Express to look to for comment on the current mess than Emma Harrison, "a multimillionaire award-winning businesswoman who is genuinely committed to getting everyone into work". On the back of her Who Knows Best programme, where she showed that she could get even an apparently hopeless case into work (to hoots of derision from almost everyone) she is portrayed as someone whose "approach is to help, nurture and inspire people". Most of the article is a recycling of the usual PR, appealing to Express readers who really believe that, “There are about 450,000 jobs currently being advertised with the JobCentre so there are jobs out there” and don't question the statement that, "She has already found employment for more than a million people and is uniquely placed to give advice to the thousands who will be affected by the Government’s job slashing and others in the private sector facing redundancy. In fact, she is passionate and determined to help." One way of helping, as we know, is to push people into the voluntary sector. This is illustrated with a story about a 55-year-old long-term unemployed man. "I suggested that the next day he find two local charities," she says, "pick the one he liked best and offer to help out.” And of course that led to him becoming Chief Executive of a charity. Yes, it happens just like that!
    While this is all drearily familiar, it's also very dangerous. Ms Harrison is the public face of A4e (except when it comes to being accountable before Parliamentary select committees) and the company is a vehicle for her own ego in a way that would be unthinkable to her rivals; and the media are happy to give her free advertising space. The situation is dire, far too dire for this sort of nonsense.


    Earlier this week there was one of those business congratulating itself occasions, with the publication of the Sunday Times HSBC Top Track 250 league table, 2101. A4e is 234th. But see the table showing that in 2002 they were 23rd in the "fast track", and 95th in 2003. In 2010 they are 83rd in the "profit track" as well as 234th in the "top track". Emma Harrison, of course, is delighted, according to The Star and there was a dinner to mark the occasion.

    But what's important today is the effect of the spending cuts, and for A4e it must be mixed news. There will be a lot more unemployment, so no shortage of clients, but it may be harder to get job outcomes, so harder to make a profit. While the reforms of the benefits system will not be evident for a long time, the various blows to the out-of-work will be felt very quickly. However, the slashing of the money given to local authorities will bring opportunities to A4e and other outsourcing companies, which can employ people more cheaply than can the public sector. If we see the government's actions today as ideologically driven (and I do) then the privatisation of the remnants of our public services is part of the project.

    Wednesday, 13 October 2010

    Good business

    A4e was the 6th biggest supplier to the Department of Work and Pensions in 2009 / 10, according to a table you can find on the Indus Delta site. The company got £150,835,957.26 for its services, making it the biggest of the welfare-to-work contractors. £151m is a lot of money; but remember it's income, not profit. Working on the basis that A4e takes 4% in profit (the figure Emma Harrison gave not long ago) that's £6,033,440 profit for the year, just on services to the DWP. Not bad.

    Tuesday, 12 October 2010

    A4e and your money

    A new description of A4e - "a public service employment support scheme" - comes from the Huddersfield Examiner's piece on a local firm.
    More important is the fact that A4e has another big contract. The quango The Consumer Financial Education Board has awarded the contracts to deliver money guidance, dividing the UK between the CAB and A4e. "Private sector provider of frontline public services A4E" (yet another description) gets England and Northern Ireland, while the CAB gets Wales and its Scottish counterpart Citizens Advice Scotland gets the rest. A4e had been running a pilot scheme in the North West. I wonder how you measure the success of such pilot schemes. Anyway, it's another nibble out of the public purse for A4e.

    Wednesday, 6 October 2010

    Work, of various kinds

    The noises coming out of the Conservative party conference suggest strongly that something like "Work for your Benefit" is on the cards. While that might satisfy a lot of voters, the question remains, as always, of what work the unemployed are supposed to do. Perhaps they will be the "volunteers" creating the Big Society. And that's something that A4e's Mark Lovell is keen to get the company involved with, having been in talks with Paul Twivy, a PR man who runs something called the Big Society Network. There's no reason, of course, why private companies shouldn't get involved, and they won't make money out of it, but for most of them it will be part of their PR strategy.

    A4e has been at fringe meetings at both the Labour and Conservative conferences, as usual. And they've also been in Spain, where, the Financial Times reports, the government has started taking an interest in the unemployed and is talking to A4e "about what a programme to help the unemployed might look like."

    A4e has another website called Tomorrow seeking contacts with employers who are faced with making people redundant. The language is somewhat startling, and the music on the home page very irritating. And shouldn't this be the role of Jobcentre Plus?

    Saturday, 2 October 2010

    The "universal benefit"

    News that Iain Duncan Smith has reached an agreement with the Treasury for his "universal benefit" plan is encouraging. But a lot of questions arise. For one thing, there are people saying that it will take a decade to bring the scheme completely into effect. Partial or gradual implementation could be a mess. While we agree that the system should guarantee that someone is better off in work than out of it, there's a big risk that it will just encourage even lower wages. We've seen that happen with tax credits; why should bad employers pay more than the pittance of the minimum wage when many people will get that topped up by the taxpayer? Employers may well seek to take on more part-timers and temporary workers because it's cheaper for them, and the people they take on won't lose their benefits entirely. Even more worrying is that the new system can be used to time-limit benefits. We've made it so much easier for you, they'll say, so if you still won't work you're not going to get anything at all. That's certainly one way of saving money.
    And what about the Work Programme? Payments to providers are supposed to depend on full-time, permanent jobs, while the new system will encourage part-time, temporary work. Will that change?
    What are your thoughts?

    Wednesday, 29 September 2010

    Pathways, Work Programme and Hayley

    In a piece headed "Pathway to nowhere" the latest edition of Private Eye again highlights the failure of Pathways to Work. The Eye has got hold of Ofsted reports on the 6 Pathways contracts. Reed comes out worst, and is slammed, but A4e in West Yorkshire is also criticised: "action to resolve staff underperformance has been slow". The Eye points out, again, that A4e employs David Blunkett, and indeed the latest Register of Members' Interests shows that he was paid £25k - £30k by the company.

    The Indus Delta site carries a piece by Richard Judge, Finance Director of Serco's Welfare to Work arm. He's again questioning the viability of the Work Programme model. After saying that it's "an exciting opportunity to address long-term worklessness in all benefit groups, rather than a focus on Jobseeker’s Allowance" he goes on to point out that cutting the funding while increasing the number of clients is a backward step. The AME/DEL switch - paying providers what the government has saved in benefits etc. when someone gets a job - sounds good but leaves questions. "If we do not know how much money we can earn, then how can we possibly know how much we can spend getting the outcome that delivers the savings in the first place?" He recognises that it's not likely that the providers will get enough of the money to give them confidence to spend big sums at the outset. Is Judge speaking for all the providers? Are they still haggling with the DWP over this?

    Meanwhile, Hayley Taylor of Benefit Busters and Fairy Jobmother fame is about to star in the US version of Jobmother. They're giving it 8 episodes there, amazingly. None of the previews mentions her former life with A4e, probably because the company isn't known there, but Hayley has become an "international career specialist". If one website, Deadline Hollywood is anything to go by, there will be the same sort of mixed reaction over there as here.

    Saturday, 25 September 2010

    Round-up, 25 September 2010

    Knowing that PR pieces are more effective than news, A4e are still plugging the failed Pathways scheme. Typical is an article on Guildford People citing the success of one man in getting back into work, thanks to A4e. It ends with the standard advert for the company. We're happy for the man who is back in a job - let's hope there a few more such successes.

    Another piece of marketing is A4e's involvement with the Homeless World Cup. It's a tournament taking place in Brazil. Like all such events, it's a vehicle for sponsoring companies to advertise their wares, and A4e are making the most of it.

    All the outsourcing companies will be watching events in Suffolk, as the County Council plans to flog off all its services. They are following Barnet, which was dubbed "easycouncil" after its plans to do the same (although Barnet's auditors have now warned that the council doesn't have a credible business plan). In Suffolk, "Services would be offloaded in stages. While some 'early adopter' services could be outsourced as early as this autumn, the rest would be divested in three phases from April 2011. Libraries, youth clubs, highway services, independent living centres, careers advice, children's centres, registrars, country parks and a records office are among the first services that could be divested." This is supposed to save 30% of the council's budget, and it's an attractive model for Tory-controlled councils around the country. But, as Chrus Huhne has pointed out, unless the contracts are very well designed the councils can get stuck with failing delivery which they can do nothing about. As the bids go in from the likes of A4e, Serco and the rest, residents will have no say in which company ends up running, for profit, the public services that are vital to them.

    A4e have submitted a memorandum to the government on Local Enterprise Partnerships. These LEPs are going to replace the Regional Development Agencies which were a lucrative source of contracts for private companies, not least A4e, so you would expect to find them eager to have a role in the new set-up. Sure enough, the memo proclaims A4e's credentials; it "has close, practical experience of the past and current approaches to local economic development, understands the issues intimately and is well placed to contribute to the debate on their future led by the new LEPs." There is much more in that vein. They want to ensure that the Work Programme is "joined up" to the rest of the LEPs' activities; and they want more of the "Total Place" concept, "joining up locally provided services". A4e wants to be one of the "managing agents" which, they recommend, will be commissioned by the LEPs. You can't blame them for trying, and perhaps they'll succeed. LEPs could be a bigger source of profit than the RDAs.

    For a political take on New Deal read an article on Progressonline by Alison McGovern, a new Labour MP.

    Saturday, 18 September 2010

    Round-up, 18 September 2010

    The Financial Times has reported this week that there could be drastic cuts in the numbers of participants in the Work Programme. (Since the FT is behind a pay wall, we are indebted to the Indus Delta site for details.) The providers are apparently arguing that they need money upfront, rather than being dependent on outcome payments. At present they get 30% of the contract value per client regardless of outcome, and the rest if and when he or she gets a job. If this needs to be repeated with the Work Programme, it would mean that far fewer clients could be taken on. This was entirely predictable, but would be a major climb-down for the government and a win for the providers.

    A rather embarrassing story was published in the Sheffield Star yesterday. An A4e employee, Daniel Madner, got very drunk on a train and exposed himself to a young nurse and her friends. The nurse phoned her father, a police officer, who arrested Madner as he got off the train. In court it was pointed out that Madner's job with A4e would be at risk if he was put on the Sex Offenders Register, so he was made to pay £500 to the young women, was tagged, given a 6-month community order and "ordered to undertake 100 hours of unpaid work".

    We have a new description of A4e in a news item stating that Thomas Godfrey has left his post of commercial director at Sport England to join the "private sector business which provides help and information on employment, starting a business and creating partnerships."

    Monday, 13 September 2010

    Jobs, failures and volunteers

    Some snippets of news today. First, A4e has a new Group Chief Executive, replacing Bob Martin. He is Andrew Dutton, who is currently Executive Director for A4e’s International Business. He has been with A4e since 2007, coming from a medical services business and, before that, from Vertex, one of the biggest outsourcing companies.
    The Commons Public Accounts Committee has reported on the Pathways to Work programme. You may remember that the committee grilled A4e's Steve Marsland and Reed's Chris Melvin on why results had been so poor. Now the Chair, Margaret Hodge MP, says that Pathways "was not well implemented and has had limited effect." The committee's report said "the performance by the mainly private sector providers has been universally poor in relation to their main target group, those people who are required to go on the Pathways programme". The providers are accused of cherry-picking clients but still only reaching a third of their target figure. The saddest aspect of this story is in the last paragraph: "Employment minister Chris Grayling said: 'This report is hugely disappointing and just underlines how misplaced many of the previous Government's labour policies were. They just never got to grips with the challenges of getting people back to work.'" A political point, rather than facing the real implications. And this will have no impact on future contracts, so A4e and the others who failed needn't worry.
    We've mentioned once or twice that A4e advertises for volunteer "mentors" to work with the unemployed. Now CDG, a rival provider, has gone a step further. The Indus Delta site reports that the company wants "an expert volunteer corps" of people with the necessary skills and experience to "complement the work that welfare to work providers such as CDG and the government undertake." Has CDG stolen A4e's thunder? "CDG is a dynamic charity that seeks to help those who are unemployed find and sustain meaningful employment" says their website. But like other such third sector organisations they have contracts from the DWP in the same market as the private companies. It is hard to see how large numbers of volunteers can be recruited to assist these companies in making money.

    Friday, 10 September 2010

    Family Futures

    "Iain Duncan Smith looks at German model for helping families". That's the headline of a Guardian article which gives publicity to A4e's scheme operating in Germany and pioneered in Dusseldorf. It purportedly cut welfare costs there by a third. It all sounds, on the surface, sensible. "The problem is that we have low esteem in such families and also there is no culture of family so that the younger members of the family do not learn respect and self-regulation. We have to get them out of the home, out of being in front of the television so that they are part of the real world and can communicate both as a family and with other people. They need such basic skills it is not surprising they cannot get work," says Maximilien Dorostian, the European director for the "welfare to work provider" A4E. They have to give them the habit of work and of interacting with people, he says. He doesn't say how, though, and, beyond compulsory work placements, it's hard to know what it might mean. The article says that "long-term unemployed families have been encouraged to create a 'household culture' with trips to the cinema and evening classes". I can't see that going down well here (and there aren't any evening classes). As we've said before, the prospect of A4e, or any provider, having power over whole families is unnerving, to say the least. But Duncan Smith is impressed, so it's probably going to happen.

    Thursday, 9 September 2010

    Another Emma speech

    IBM are holding a conference on "Cities for a Sustainable Future". The giant company has a special interest in cities; several councils have already handed over most of their functions to IBM. On Day One of the conference yesterday Emma Harrison, "Entrepreneur and Chairman of A4e", spoke on "Wellbeing". Her contribution is summarised on the Amplified site. What strikes one first is the sheer banality of her speech. Sustainabilty, she says, means nothing to the people out there [really?] and should be changed to, "It helps people find jobs". She goes on, "Every decision you make ask yourself: is it going to improve the lives of people? If it won't - then don't do it!" She then cites her recent success on "Who Knows Best?" and then offers advice which, in the summary, is confused, but which boils down to "Ask people to do it - don't do it to people". The rest of it is just variations on that message, which no doubt those at the conference found very helpful. I suppose that Mrs Harrison's credentials, i.e. profits, command the respect of other business leaders. But one wonders what they really make of her "advice".

    Saturday, 4 September 2010

    Round-up, 4 September 2010

    I don't know whether other business leaders do what Emma Harrison does: scatter self-promoting articles around the internet. The latest can be found on the Niche Volumes site and on a number of other obscure sites. But there's a glaring typo in the title - the "a" has been missed out of "Harrison" - which no one seems to have picked up on, and this rather detracts from the purpose. One can't imagine the bosses of Serco, Capita or the rest seeking the limelight in this ham-fisted way.

    Emma told the Guardian that A4e finds "hidden jobs". Perhaps she had in mind a part-time job held by Mark Lovell, A4e's group Chief Executive, pointed out by the latest edition of Private Eye. Lovell is a non-executive director of the Sheffield NHS Board. The Eye says that the board meets 11 times a year, and members like Lovell are paid £7,800 p.a. Assuming that each meeting lasts 7 hours (which it almost certainly doesn't), that's £101.30 per hour. Not bad. And what do they do? "In close partnership with doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff and by listening to you, NHS Sheffield decides how best to spend nearly £1 billion every year. We do this with the aim of providing better health and better healthcare for the population of Sheffield."

    Meanwhile A4e's chief salesman, Roy Newey, has been in Latvia. He tweets, "Latvia lovely, honest people who share a vision to reduce unemployment and poverty. Set up in 2011" and " Great visit to Latvia. Fine buildings, good people and warm welcome for A4e unemployment solutions. Thanks". Latvia is a small country (population 2,231,503) with a struggling economy. But every little helps.

    Wednesday, 1 September 2010

    More publicity

    Do you remember "Benefit Busters"? It was screened a year ago, but many of us recall at least the first two episodes, filmed in A4e offices. Now read Emma Harrison's account of how it was made, in an article she chose to post yesterday. Is this an attempt to expunge the memory of that second episode in Hull, where groups of clients were filmed doing useless, time-filling exercises; where one staff member spoke incredibly rudely to a client? Perhaps that was "gritty". Has she forgotten the interview where she was asked about the problem of benefits loss when people take casual jobs? She laughed, you remember, and said, "How should I know?" before promising to take it up with her friends in government. We all have embarrassing memories, but we don't publicise them a year on. "Benefit Busters" exposed what taxpayers' money was actually paying for with New Deal, but Harrison seems to believe that it was a triumph for her and for A4e.

    But all publicity is good, and that seems to be the theory behind an otherwise pointless interview in the Guardian last week. The writer, Jane Dudman, asks, "Why does she think she attracts such attention? 'I'm a girl,' she says, self-deprecatingly." Hmm. There is more on the Harrison legend of her start in the business, and then: "She is clear that A4e is not a social enterprise. 'It's a social purpose company,' she says, firmly. And despite the fact that she now employs more than 3,000 people, Harrison says she is still very entrepreneurial. 'I love creative leadership,' she says. 'And what's different now is that I don't have to worry about whether the photocopier's working.' " Dudman doesn't choose to probe the extent of the profits, but she ends the piece with: "Harrison's company is already the largest private contractor for welfare to work services, but she's keen to take on more. She takes a fierce line on job searching, saying job opportunities do exist, even in the midst of the worst recession since the 1940s. 'That upsets me the most. It gives people a reason to give up. A4e is famous for finding the hidden jobs. I promise you they're out there.' As public spending cuts begin to bite seriously, Harrison's theory stands to come under severe test. Many of those presently employed in the sector will certainly be hoping she is right." Yes, Jane, and many of the unemployed will be wondering where those "hidden jobs" are.

    Tuesday, 31 August 2010

    Expansion; and comment

    Expansion is the name of the game for A4e, and in Australia that has come through the acquisition of a training company, AETS. Roy Newey was in India with the Prime Minister's team and tweets that there 300 million NEETs in that country, and A4e are involved. The next prospect, apparently, is Latvia.

    There are two articles on the subject of welfare-to-work which I recommend. The first is on the Conservative Home site by the leader of Westminster City Council, Colin Barrow. He wants the job handed over to local councils, which could contract with the private sector but with the simplification of benefits and harnessing the local knowledge and accountability of the elected councils. I don't agree with everything he writes, but the basic premise is sound.
    The second article is a comment piece in the Independent by Christina Patterson on 25 August. She is supporting Iain Duncan Smith's determination to reform the benefits system, and shows a refreshing understanding of what's wrong. Some of the comments are interesting, too.

    Wednesday, 25 August 2010


    The DWP has published the "framework specification" for the Work Programme bidders. A summary on the Indus Delta site is somewhat opaque, but we learn that contracts will be between £10m and £50m in value. The DWP says that "the £20m turnover figure is intended to give potential bidders a steer regarding the size of organisation they believe is required to manage within a more challenging, outcome-funded commercial arrangement than they have hitherto employed." So the big players will end up in charge, with the smaller companies and "consortia" trying to pick up work by competing with each other for sub-contracts. It's interesting that there are more big players in the market competing with A4e, Serco and the rest. One of them is Peopleserve which already has contracts here. It's a division of Rescare, an American company. Iain Duncan Smith was in America recently, admiring the welfare-to-work system over there. But the one big difference in the US is that welfare benefits are time-limited. No doubt he sees that as the next step here too.

    One of A4e's income streams is from Train to Gain. The Yorkshire Post reports "Dismay as taxpayers save firms £175m on training" That £175m is just in Yorkshire and the Humber. "Already £200m has been cut from this year's budget – which has been slashed to £757m – and diverted into apprenticeships and building projects at colleges. Business Minister John Hayes told MPs recently: 'The problem with Train to Gain is its deadweight cost – a fact that the last administration were unwilling to face up to. The evaluations of Train to Gain suggest that it is used to support all kinds of training that employers would have funded anyway and to accredit skills that already exist.'" So that particular stream is drying up.

    We've reported before that A4e advertised for volunteers to mentor their clients. Another advert again seeks people to do a minimum of 3 hours a week for a minimum of 6 months in the London area, to "provide support, information and guidance, helping their mentees to gain confidence and overcome the barriers they face in gaining sustainable employment". I have no idea whether the other providers do this. It seems on the surface a good thing. The mentors can provide one-to-one help whilst themselves receiving training. But if the mentor is successful and the mentee (yes, it is a word) gets a job, the money goes to A4e, and that doesn't seem quite right.

    We should always celebrate success, and I'm happy for Peter Whitwell who, according the MyA4e community site, has started his own business with the help of A4e Middlesborough. But "to acquire funding, A4e liaised with the local council (who provide funding through their Local Enterprise Growth Initiative) who agreed to provide Peter funds to purchase tools, and equipment, and cover advertising costs." So while A4e certainly played a role, it was the local council which provided the money. This source of funding is disappearing as councils lose money and the Work Programme replaces all such initiatives, and that is everyone's loss.

    Monday, 23 August 2010

    The house she grew up in

    If you're interested in Emma Harrison's childhood, this BBC Radio 4 programme is for you. But you won't learn anything about A4e. The programme starts at Thornbridge Hall, with its 100 acres of land. Emma describes it as a "mini Versailles" and enthuses over how big everything is. They then move to her childhood home in Belgrave Road, Sheffield, where she talks about her father, her largely absent mother, and the influences on her. Next it's to her secondary school, where she turned into an entrepreneur. And they finish up back at Thornbridge Hall, which she describes as a community of friends. All quite interesting. She is "one of the UK's wealthiest self-made women". But the only mention of A4e is as having government contracts for welfare to work. No other contracts are listed. The scope of the company's interests is ignored.
    Okay, this wasn't a programme about the business. But that's the problem. All this publicity for Emma Harrison takes the place of any scrutiny of her company.

    Emma on Radio 4

    Emma Harrison is the star of BBC Radio 4's "The House I grew up in", at 9.00 am today and repeated at 9.00 pm tonight. She's talking about her childhood and the formation of A4e etc. Enjoy.

    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.

    Thursday, 19 August 2010

    More TV for Emma

    In the last few days, thanks to Google alerts, I've counted no less than ten different websites on which the same press release from A4e appears: "Emma Harrison speaks to the Guardian about Flexible New Deal." It's hardly of great importance. A new A4e office is opening in October and they are using it to train 800 new staff delivering FND. The office is supposedly more user-friendly. A straightforward PR piece. But I can't find it anywhere on the Guardian's website. Perhaps they decided it wasn't worth running; but it's cluttering up cyberspace anyway.

    But publicity is what it's all about, and we learn today that yet another TV programme starring Emma Harrison is in the pipeline. The Flintshire Chronicle tells us that "The chairman and owner of leading training and recruitment provider A4e has paid a visit to the Shotton office in Deeside to film her latest television documentary." It's for an independent production company, TwentyTwenty TV. The Shotton A4e office has identified a lucky family "which will be helped to overcome employment issues." This will no doubt interest Mark Shields, who was featured in "Famous, Rich and Jobless" getting advice from Emma, but who is still out of work and feeling used and abandoned by Ms Harrison.

    Saturday, 14 August 2010

    The View from Serco

    With the announcement of the "framework" contractors for the Work Programme due in November, there's an interesting blog post by Richard Johnson of Serco which shows how that company is steering the process. Since Serco's entry into the sector they have given the impression of calling the shots, so Johnson's piece merits some study.
    It starts with a nod towards the real point of this scheme, the people who will be subjected to it. "The potential of the Work Programme is quite extraordinary – using savings generated in benefits to extend services to millions of people currently excluded by unemployment. Many of these people are locked out of society as a result of their worklessness, they are trapped in a dependency on benefits that is debilitating, depressing and so horribly destructive." (Note the vocabulary; it would have been appropriate to talk about people "trapped in dependence on benefits", but using "dependency" instead reveals the laziness of thinking.) He then goes on to hype up the scheme as potentially much more than an extension of New Deal. It means that big companies are going to have to take all the financial risks; it is "a small part of an idea which is actually about the creation of a new structure, in which the state defines the desired product or impact of the frontline service and then contracts with an organisation to deliver those outcomes." In other words, the state gets out of the way and leaves companies like Serco and the rest to deliver the goods in whatever way they see fit.
    He then defines "Tier 1" companies. I confess that I would need a translation of some of this, but what he has in mind is that between three and six companies would carve up the country between them, with only one company per region, and no company having more than five regions. This, he maintains, provides "appropriate" choice, but there is a clear failure of logic here. It delivers no choice whatever. The DWP proposes 11 regions, so if Serco gets 5, as I'm sure they want, it doesn't leave much for A4e and the rest. "Tier 2" organisations are the big companies and their sub-contractors, including voluntary organisations.
    How much of this describes what is actually in the pipeline, I don't know. Buit clearly Serco, like A4e, see the Work Programme as heralding a whole new way of making large profits from the public purse.