Wednesday 31 March 2010

New business and old

We learn (thanks, Roy) that A4e have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government. That makes, I think, 12 countries in which A4e does business. One country they haven't cracked is the US. Indeed, the traffic is the other way, with an American company getting contracts here. Perhaps it's because the system is different there, much like what the Conservatives want to bring in here. And that brings us to current contracts. Phase 2 of FND has been revised, as we reported, with the government cutting by half the number of expected clients. It had to give the bidding companies more time to work out their figures again, and now we hear that the deadline for revised bids has been extended to 23 April; and that the companies can bid for areas which they didn't previously bid for. Presumably that's because they expect some of the companies to pull out of the process. And the Jobseeker's Allowance (Work for your Benefit Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2010 went before the House of Lords for approval yesterday. It was an interesting debate which you can read here.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

What a good idea!

It's always nice when influential people agree with you. Today we learn that "the Local Democracy think tank LGiU has proposed a radical devolution of responsibility for back-to-work services from central government to local councils." See the egovmonitor site. Their report says that local councils are much better placed to understand the needs of their areas, and cites the Dutch model which rewards councils for cutting the benefits bill by getting people into work. The article ends: "The report argues that a large financial incentive would help mobilise all local authority services around the goal of helping people get jobs and keep them there. The money would be re-invested in local communities in ways that would further support opportunities for work, rather than at present under the Flexible New Deal, where it is absorbed by private profit. It is a self-financing scheme for local investment, aimed at both tackling the human tragedy of long-term worklessness and restoring public finances."
It's common sense, really. I wonder why no one in government or opposition is listening.

Wednesday 24 March 2010


Last night's File on Four programme raised an important point about accountability when public services are privatised. The ERSA declined to take part in the programme. The producers had clearly intended to use the experiences of clients of ND and FND but in the end didn't. This may have been, as a comment suggests, because the providers would not engage with this; or it may have been simply that the programme was trying to cover a great deal of ground, and this was the segment most easily dropped. But private companies have the luxury of being able to do what governments can't do; they can refuse to enter into debate.
It was Thatcher's government which discovered the benefits of creating "arms-length" agencies, starting with the Benefits Agency. It enabled ministers to distance themselves, to say, "Not me, gov," when anything went wrong. Privatisation compounds that lack of accountability. In the sphere of welfare-to-work Jim Knight, or whichever minister is in office, can be wheeled out to face questions, whether in Parliament or in the media, but can always claim that the figures are not available or waffle meaninglessly. Ofsted can produce poor inspection reports; parliamentary committees can take evidence from the companies' spokespeople and produce critical reports; but the companies are unaffected.
Obviously A4e is one of those companies which (unlike, for instance, Serco) thinks that publicity is a good thing - but on its own terms. "Benefit Busters" no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time. Emma Harrison can be turned into a media personality. A4e can use that, and its claim to be the largest welfare-to-work provider in the UK (is that still true?) to procure business abroad. But at the same time the system protects it from too much scrutiny of its practices, and protects the government from real accountability. No wonder the politicians don't want to change the system.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

File on Four

This Radio 4 programme tonight looked at what help is available for people looking for work, in view of the fact that unemployment is set to rise sharply. As is usual with the media, it lacked a historical perspective.
It started in the North East, where the loss of jobs in the steel industry has had knock-on effects. The programme followed a 42-year-old redundant professional to the Jobcentre. Here, it picked up the fact that most of the local job vacancies advertised are either not local at all or are entirely spurious. Figures for vacancies are being fiddled with "speculative" jobs. Zero hours jobs are still being advertised in disguised form, although outlawed. It was said that many employers will not advertise vacancies through the Jobcentres because they are seen as serving the bottom end of the skills market; and private recruitment agencies would object to losing upmarket vacancies to JCP. Jim Knight MP stated that JCP has the largest jobs database in Europe, and he's aware of the issues.
The programme visited a Jobcentre in Birmingham, where the manager is proud of the transformation the service has undergone. But a client, a former PR man, spoke of spending 3 or 4 hours a day looking for work and not getting any help or support. He found that other people were being offered training courses etc., but he wasn't. He wants to start his own business but nobody at the Jobcentre knew what help was available. He found out himself that there was a course of training. JCP, said the interviewer to the manager, has been criticised for being unresponsive to the needs of professionals. Things are getting better, said the manager - and then a Press Officer for the DWP intervened.
Consumer Focus has been equally critical of the service. The DWP produced a customer charter, but CF says that this has not improved things. Jim Knight said that JCP staff have been increased by 16,000 in the recession, but the system needs to adapt. A Professor Finn (an adviser) said that JCP has had to re-tool, but new services are fairly minimal. The government thinks people should be able to look after themselves in the early stages of unemployment.
The programme then turned to the rising numbers of long-term unemployed, and the fact that welfare-to-work is run by the private sector. It called FND the big brother of New Deal (and here the lack of a historical perspective was irritating). Payment by results means that much of the risk has been shifted onto providers; and managers on the ground have to make decisions about who to help. The report of the enquiry we reported on the other day was cited; it complained about the "creaming and parking" going on. This was linked to the numbers of people who had been shifted from Incapacity Benefit onto JSA. A Liberal Democrat member of the committee, Jenny Willott, said that because no one is close to hitting their targets the people who are most likely to find work are being pushed into the first job which comes up. She said that the DWP doesn't have a clue what is going on, and that a better breakdown of the figures is needed, and better oversight.
The ERSA (the trade body for the providers) declined to put anyone up for interview, but in a statement said that the providers wanted more money to help the most difficult cases. Jim Knight was not concerned about the lack of safeguards, and was happy with the customer charter. The Personalised Employment Programme will test a new model of payment. The programme concluded with a look at the policies of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, but both intend to adjust rather than scrap the private provider model. There is more pain to come, particularly as public sector jobs go.

All this makes an announcement by the DWP even more startling. Reported on the Indus Delta site, it says that they have reduced by half the numbers of people expected on the FND Phase 2 contracts, and has asked the bidders for their revised pricing proposals. No one can make out how they have arrived at these revised figures.

Monday 22 March 2010

More tweets

Some tweets from A4e's Roy Newey:
  • India is the most exciting place on earth for skills development, get involved in our consortiums now.
  • How do you choose which starving child to help? Answer - you don't. Help us to help all children in poverty in India
  • Kasia (A4e) is presented to Prince Charles in Poland in recognition of her work to help unemployed. Congratulations, fantastic.
  • Looking forward to review International Development tomorrow. Do you have any thoughts about where in the world A4e should be?
  • World Water day. What has that to do with A4e? It is a major driver of poverty in India. Our work must support those affected.
  • Yes you did. Well done. Now let's tackle the 50% of children in London living in poverty.
  • A4e breaks new ground in Australia.
  • Poland enters an exciting phase are you able to partner with a4e Polska to give skills and match into work?
Let's be charitable. Let's assume that Mr Newey is sincere in his belief that by expanding its business through more of the world's poorest areas it can help them out of poverty. I would suggest that he needs to do some reading. He could start with Benny Dembritzer's "The Attack on World Poverty". Unless Mr Newey begins to understand the causes of poverty he will continue to sound ridiculous.

Thursday 18 March 2010

The Good News and the Bad News

The preferred bidders have been announced for Work Choices, the new contract for supported employment. And A4e isn't one of them. We reported that A4e had been shortlisted in 11 of the 19 contract areas. Today's list shows 28 contract areas, and The Shaw Trust has won 16 of those, with Working Links getting 5. Is this the first time that A4e haven't been successful anywhere?
But all that happy tweeting about India is confirmed on A4e's website. India is a massive market, so it's not surprising that A4e's people are thrilled to bits.

The report is out of the Parliamentary Select Committee into the "Management and Administration of Contracted Employment Programmes". That was the enquiry prompted by disclosures of fraud and other concerns. The Committee is not best pleased. The summary makes the following points, among others:
  • We note that levels of detected fraud in contracted employment programmes are low, and that we were told there is little evidence that there is a problem with undetected fraud. However we feel that there is no room for complacency; the frauds uncovered to date have highlighted the extent of the risk that could be exploited because of weaknesses in the system. The Department must ensure that processes for the detection of fraud are rigorous and robust.
  • We call for customer rights to be given a much higher status, and for a universal, monitored,and enforceable customer charter to be introduced. We also call for the Department to carry out a “Customer Survey” of customers of contracted employment programmes to enable standards of service to be compared between providers and with Jobcentre Plus. Advisers also need to talk to customers on contracted provision about their experiences and ensure these are fed back to providers and the Department.
A4e was one of the companies which gave oral and written evidence to the Committee. One section of the report deals with "Poor service and complaints". It cites the Manchester Evening News article of March 2008 which focussed on what was happening in A4e's offices there, and also the Benefit Busters programme which drew attention to customers who "were dissatisfied with A4e staff offering them short-term and zero hour contracts, often through agencies, rather than focusing on helping them to find sustainable employment." Several providers agreed that the DWP's approach to customer feedback was wrong. Ae's evidence said, sensibly, "Current systems across contracted programmes are more focused on compliance rather than continual improvement and we believe it is to the benefit of future service quality that this balance is redressed. […] Systems across the board need to be more engaged with customers so that they have a real voice and impact on service quality measures. This is essential if employment services are to become service led treating service users as both experts and customers."
It's worth reading the entire report.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

New Deal on the BBC

The Radio 4 File on Four programme on 23 March (8.00 pm) will be dealing with unemployment. The website says: "The government is promising extra help for people out of work during the recession. But, as Britain braces itself for a rise in unemployment, Allan Urry reports from the communities already hardest hit and asks what redundant steelmakers, public sector workers and others joining the dole queue can really expect at the Jobcentre." Since they've been asking for people to tell them about recent experiences with New Deal and FND, we should expect that they will be focussing on that. Which will be a novelty. Until today it was never mentioned, either by the BBC or by politicians. Last night BBC1's Newsnight had a discussion about the latest unemployment figures. They are unexpectedly down in some places, up in others; but there has been a big rise in the number of people who are not working, for whatever reason, and a 10% rise in the number of long-term unemployed. Jim Knight MP was wheeled out, as usual, to defend the government's record, and said that they had to "keep up the investment", mentioning the Future Jobs Fund but not New Deal. What about the fact that there's a real shortage of skills in the new industries? Apparently new "skills academies" are being set up (who'll be running them, I wonder?). So why, one might ask, is so much money being spent on the privatised New Deal and FND if it's so irrelevant that it's never mentioned?
But today the BBC's business news pages carry an article based on the experience of a 53-year-old unemployed man in Wolverhampton. And towards the end it mentions New Deal. "The New Deal 50 plus scheme, which is aimed specifically at older jobseekers, was replaced in many areas of the UK in October 2009 with the Flexible New Deal which caters for unemployed people of all ages. One of the differences between the two is that you can join New Deal 50 plus after six months of unemployment but most people cannot join the Flexible New Deal until they have been unemployed for 12 months. So some people over 50 are getting unemployment help sooner than others simply because of where they live."
It may all become irrelevant after 6 May. But then again, it may not.

Tweeting about India

A4e's Roy Newey has been in India and Twitter records his apparent success:
  • Off to London looking for new opportunities in India. Bringing a4e to lift people out of poverty is such a buzz.
  • Duke of York salutes A4e work in india. Well done Sidharth and Pooja. Enjoy the praise.
  • RT YIPEEEE!!! Thanks @roynewey: Duke of York salutes A4e work in india. Well done Sidharth and Pooja. Enjoy the praise.
  • India presents A4e with the biggest opportunity to Improve Peoples Lives. Join us working with the rural poor.
Two Indian representatives of the company have joined the tweeting:
  • So much to gain from u and being inspired to make A4e a success in India!!
  • Great energy in India...Team A4e India got another dose of Roy's energy drug...Thank you Roy! We are addicted to his energy doses.Lot to do!
We also learn from Twitter that A4e is doing well in Buckinghamshire. Somebody known as Yesteam says: "We are so excited about being accepted into schools in Bucks and have our fingers crossed on the A4E bid to win YES workshops!"

Thursday 11 March 2010

What next?

It's been an interesting week for A4e on the PR front. And it has illustrated the way in which the attention of the media (TV, radio and the newspapers) comes and goes, and rarely joins up into a serious examination of issues. A couple of years ago Emma Harrison was getting a hard time on the BBC's The Daily Politics as the welfare-to-work model was under fire. This week she was being treated with something approaching reverence on the same channel on Working Lunch. There was a weekend of interest when a newspaper published details of fraud, and an item on Channel 4 News followed. But that was quickly over. Some months back we had Benefit Busters on Channel 4, which really did raise the important questions. But that can only be done once. TV needs visuals, and it needs to have a story. So this week the BBC fell back on the tired "celebrity tourism" thing, and left all the important issues unexamined. Radio does it better. The Radio 5 Live programme was excellent - but it has a very small audience. Now BBC Radio 4 is planning a File on Four programme on New Deal. This is usually an intelligent and thoughtful programme, not easily scared off by commercial interests. It will probably not be gunning for any particular provider, and will strive to be fair and balanced. When will anyone, particularly politicians, join up the dots and begin to see the real picture?

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Famous, Rich and Jobless, Part Two

This really was "celebrity tourism". And for me the elephant in the room was New Deal. Two of the subjects had been unemployed long enough to have been through it more than once, but there was no mention of the programmes. Why? And what did the "experts" contribute? Emma Harrison made some patronising remarks right at the start about the celebs having exhibited all the behaviours of the long-term unemployed who she sees as she goes all round the world. She told Nick that there was a new government scheme in Wolverhampton to help ex-offenders (why hadn't the Job Centre told him that?) and she gave Lou a vacancy from the Job Centre for a job which had already been taken. They recommended Mark to a specialist agency for professionals, and Mark was right to ask why he hadn't been told about it in the first three months of his redundancy.
It was a dreadful programme, not least because it didn't tell the whole truth.

Tell BBC Radio 4 about New Deal and FND experience

The following comes from the Indus Delta site :

The producers of BBC Radio 4's "File on Four" are preparing a programme about welfare reform and New Deal. They would like to hear views (good and bad) from New Deal and FND clients.

Here's what they say:

"We are researching a programme for BBC Radio 4 and we want to hear from clients who have been on New Deal or Flexible New Deal back to work courses within the last year. What has been your personal experience? Has the course lived up to your expectation? Please email : Kate.O' or text, or phone on 07834 846 059 with your details of how we can contact you quickly. We’ll call you back."

BBC Radio, News and Current Affairs
BBC, Oxford Road, Manchester, M60 1SJ.

Tuesday 9 March 2010


The Guardian's verdict on "Famous, Rich and Jobless" was scathing. They called it "the latest example of celebrity tourism" and I agree. I haven't had the chance yet to watch the programme which followed it at 10.35 - I hope it's on iplayer. But my reaction last night was based on relief that it wasn't as bad as it threatened to be.
All of us with bitter experience of being out of work know that 4 celebs pretending to be unemployed for 4 days was going to be superficial at best. But they did confront the reality that was so different from their preconceptions. If many of us were wondering when they would be told about the way the benefits system works, let's remember that most people have no idea, and would have been surprised that 16 hours of work means that you lose all your benefits. Of course, it would have been better if they'd gone further and shown that it's not actually possible to live on casual work; that the cash-in-hand work that two of the celebs got was not only illegal, but meant that they would end up without NI contributions and be penalised later in life.
Many of us would have cheered on Larry Lamb as he reacted to Emma Harrison's patronising characterisation of the unemployed. But we would also have challenged his cheerful attitude to living on the dole. Yes, we can survive on £39 for 4 days. But what happens when the phone bill comes in; when it's someone's birthday, or a wedding, and you can't buy a present; when there's a social function you can't go to? The introduction of Fiona, a real person, was the antidote to this silliness. She is living on cheap bread because she can't afford proper food. And a part-time job in Asda is impossible for her to take.
I don't look forward to tonight's episode, when the celebs go to stay in the homes of real people. That looks like being "celebrity tourism" at its worst.

Famous, Rich and Jobless, Part One

It was actually nowhere near as bad as I expected.
It started predictably. The four celebs had all the preconceptions about anyone being able to get a job, lots of people fiddle the system, etc. But the reality was different. Meg, Emma and Gavin all managed to find work (did that have anything to do with the camera being there?). When, we wondered, were they going to be confronted with the reality of the benefits system? They were. When Craig Last explained to Meg that she had worked for 16 hours and would have to hand back the £39 they'd been given at the start, Meg refused and became a benefits cheat. Emma Harrison explained the situation to Dermot, who had also worked more than 16 hours. He says that in that situation he would not tell the Jobcentre and would break the law.
Larry Lamb was the most fun. He knew he had no chance of getting a job, so idled, congratulating himself on being able to manage on the money. The confrontation with Emma Harrison came on the beach at Hartlepool. Emma pointed out that the money is job seeker's allowance. When they have walked away from each other, Emma says that she meets people like him so many times, trapped in the system, but she's shocked and fascinated that he's become so in two days. Larry calls it "patronising bullshit". The Asda application form that he hasn't yet filled in gets completed on behalf of the lady he meets who is the tenant of the house he's in. She is out of work, and can't live on the £64 per week that she gets.
It could have been a lot worse.


The pre-publicity for this wretched programme makes watching it almost redundant. We've seen the curious and inaccurate ways in which A4e and Emma Harrison have been described, such as "the government's back-to-work tsar", and there is another instance today in the Manchester Evening News.
"Guiding them are Emma Harrison, founder of the largest employment agency in the world" No, chaps, it's not an employment agency. It goes on: Emma says a new approach - like the government’s Flexible New Deal scheme she helps administer - was needed to help the long term jobless. “There may be issues of depression, illiteracy or drug addiction which our staff help people to address. There’s no ‘one size fits all’. Every person is different. “We hope these programmes will highlight the enormous problems faced by everyone seeking re-employment.” That's the line which she took in yesterday's Working Lunch programme.
The Mirror is more accurate, writing of "Emma Harrison whose company A4e (as seen on C4's Benefit Busters) helps get the jobless back into work."
For anyone who is interested in unemployment rather than celebrities, there is another programme, "Jobless" on BBC1 at 10.35 tonight.

Monday 8 March 2010

Emma Harrison on Working Lunch

Emma Harrison was on BBC2's "Working Lunch" today. The theme initially was unemployment among older people. There was a brief interview with Ian Mulheirn of the Social Market Foundation about why older people need more help to get back into work. Why do they stay out of work longer, while their skills and experience are wasted? Mulheirn said that they needed more skills training and "employment schemes" (I think he meant work placements). Then Emma was introduced. She agreed with Mulheirn, but said that we need practical answers. One of her "top tips", she said, was that older people should not just submit CVs, but go out and knock on doors and meet people. Older people have wisdom and are fantastic at making good decisions. But everyone is an individual, and she believes everyone should have a personal programme.
The main interview was at the end of the programme. There was the usual version of Mrs Harrison's history. She said that when the steel works was closing down she knew that the workers, her "mates", needed re-training very quickly. The company grew slowly, then she realised that she wanted to "improve people's lives" and it took off from there into an international business. There was no mention of the privatisation of New Deal as the spur to the company's growth. Emma said that she had walked out of her father's business, and it was the best thing she ever did, because you can employ professional people. There was then a clip from the "Famous, Rich and Jobless" programme in which Larry Lamb is arguing furiously with Emma. It showed, she said, that after only 12 hours he had adopted the typical attitudes of the unemployed of finding reasons why they couldn't look for work. An email to the programme told us that managers won't employ people older than themselves. But Emma rubbished that. There was a very tentative raising of the issue of A4e's financial model, of payment by outcomes. But there were absolutely no hard questions. It looks very much as if the BBC has decided that Emma Harrison is a good thing and will continue to give her lots of free publicity.

Saturday 6 March 2010

That programme

We're getting the inevitable trailers now for the dreaded "Famous, Rich and Jobless" programme (but no sign of Emma as yet). My TV listings magazine says that the four celebs "are given four days' worth of benefits (£39) and a roof over their heads, and told to go out and get a job without using any of their own contacts". How realistic! Any fool can live on £39 for four days. It's living on it for week after week and month after month, with no reserves to fall back on, which is the challenge. It goes on: "In an impressive display of effort and resilience, three of them pound the streets and manage to get work." See how easy it is! The review ends: "But the big problem is that it has more to do with celebrities coping with discomfort than ordinary people srruggling to get by without a job." Of course. I wonder which came first; "We need another programme with suffering celebs" or "Let's do something to highlight the problem of unemployment"?
Meanwhile A4e's Roy Newey twitters that he's off to India and to China to look for business.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Cranking up the publicity

The publicity machine for "Famous, Rich and Jobless" is cranking up, with trailers on the Beeb and rubbish in the papers. Today we have a piece in the Sun about the "cheating" of Diarmuid Gavin, and it picks up the description of Emma Harrison that we noted in an earlier post. "But Gavin was caught breaking the rules by show mentor Emma Harrison. And the Government's "Back to Work" tsar wasn't too impressed. Entrepreneur Emma, who is just behind Kylie Minogue in the Sunday Times Rich List after making millions through her training company A4e, revealed: 'At the start of the show, Diarmuid was supposed to give us all his cash and credit cards. But he hid a credit card from us and when he was placed with an unemployed family he didn't like it and went and stayed in a hotel.'" There's that "Tsar" thing again. We need some explanation from the government about that. The BBC's own website says only, "They are guided and assisted by Emma Harrison, founder of A4e (the largest employment agency in the world, responsible for getting thousands of people back to work), and Craig Last, a former youth worker for the charity Centrepoint, who has helped many homeless young people find jobs." Funny how Emma is getting so much publicity and Mr Last so little.
This programme threatens to be the nadir of celeb "reality" shows.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Back to Work Tsar

We can expect more of this. The Digital Spy site has a piece to whet the appetite for the "Famous, Rich and Jobless" programme which begins next Tuesday. Poor old Larry Lamb got it in the neck from Emma: "[Larry] just came up with a host of excuses not to engage with what we were trying to do," Harrison commented. "He hadn't earned a penny and he didn't even make an effort to try and find work. Trying to demonstrate to him the harsh truths of unemployment was exasperating." But it's the next paragraph which is disturbing. "Harrison is the founder of employment agency A4e and is currently working as the government's 'Back to Work Tsar'." She's what? Really? When did that happen? What have I missed?