Friday, 30 April 2010

Yet more publicity

As if the interview in the Guardian wasn't enough for one day, Emma Harrison appeared on the BBC news this evening. Stephanie Flanders did a report on the financial mess in the country, and pointed to A4e as one company which had "thrived under Labour" and had now "gone global". There was a brief appearance from Harrison, naturally chirpy, saying that they are bringing all the tax revenues back to the UK, and that has to be a good thing.
One would love to see Flanders, a genuine economics and business expert, do a proper interview with Ms Harrison. She could ask about the failure of the 2006-2009 contracts to deliver the goods; and she could probe the cost to the taxpayer of each job outcome under FND, and whether it could be done better and more cheaply. But that kind of scrutiny isn't on the agenda of the media at the moment.

Even the Guardian!

When even the Guardian joins the fan club one despairs of journalism altogether. Today it carries a long piece by its economics reporter, Katie Allen, entitled "Recruitment boss feels the benefits of getting unemployed back to work" which is flawed from the start, describing A4e as an employment agency.
It is a long interview with Emma Harrison, reporting uncritically her ideas and attitudes. FND is described, and the reporter tentatively raises the possibility that it "encourages agencies to work with the most promising cases". Not so, says Harrison, who "insists A4e will work with anyone who turns up and takes part, and that there is no cherry-picking. Rather it is about leaving behind the old government contractors' culture of box ticking and instead focusing on securing the right job – one that will last." We learn of a great idea from A4e. "One of A4e's ways of rebuilding battered self-esteem is through a new project called People Helping People. It came about when a disgruntled, degree-qualified customer wrote to Harrison to complain he had been asked to help another with their CV. Harrison replied: "Isn't it wonderful you are able to help other people." Then she asked her staff to get participants to help each other based on their talents. "In the very act of doing something your self-worth is boosted. You don't need self-esteem classes. It's really simple and not fanciful philosophies."" [Fact: all providers have always used clients to help other clients, partly because it gives the better-qualified clients something to do, and partly because it helps to make up for staff shortages.]
The interview continues in the same unquestioning way. Harrison is "not political" and has worked with Conservative and Labour governments. [Does Allen know about David Blunkett's role with A4e?] The scope of A4e's ambition is accepted as sensible. "She wants to be allowed to help whole families, as the company does in Germany. Currently, getting one member a job can cut payouts – such as housing benefit – to the rest of the family, so there is less incentive to take that work. "When you have got intergenerational unemployment, the whole family unemployed and you are working with just one person, everything you do can be undermined by the family when they get home that night," explains Harrison." What "helping whole families" actually implies is not examined. Nor are the implications of Harrison's final ambition - "earlier help for the unemployed."
Ms Allen's interview has resulted in an article which is unworthy of a left-wing newspaper. She has failed to scrutinise the claims of her interviewee and written what is essentially a PR triumph for A4e.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Competing on compulsion

The leaders' debate tonight saw Cameron and Brown competing on how tough they are going to be on the unemployed. Brown said people will be forced to work. Cameron repeated what he has said many times about cutting off benefits for people who refuse a job. He also said that 3 years without benefit would be the penalty. Neither said where these compulsory jobs would come from. Clegg didn't compete with them. He said that people should have the incentive to work, and that raising the tax threshold would provide that incentive. Take your pick.

Emma's fans

Emma Harrison has a new fan - James Caan of Dragons' Den fame. In a piece in the Telegraph he says: "Recently, I was impressed to read about Emma Harrison - founder and chairman of A4e, the largest supplier of Government training contracts. The company works with public sector organisations to help train people and get them back into work. The last government's Flexible New Deal scheme targeted people who have been on jobseeker's allowance and out of work for more than a year by creating an individually tailored programme. Emma tells me that last year A4e assisted 17,681 people into work, helped 10,695 people gain a qualification, worked with 13,523 employers to improve the capacity of their workforce and helped build 79 thirdsector organisations." I'm intrigued by the verbs there - "assisted", "helped", "worked with"; and by the absence of the financial figures.
There were other fans tweeting from the Institute of Directors bash last night where Emma was a speaker. It seems that she gave good advice to the assembled business leaders, such as, "Do four new things every day" and "If you haven't got a vision, go and get one", for which they were no doubt grateful.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Gordon Brown and the unemployed

"But they shouldn’t be doing that, there is no life on the dole anymore for people, if you’re unemployed you’ve got to go back to work. At six months…" That's a quote from Gordon Brown's run-in with an elderly lady today. And, of course, it's gone unremarked. He didn't finish the sentence, but clearly the intention, if a Labour government is returned, is to copy the Tories' idea of Workfare - compulsory "training" or work-for-your-benefits, or even a cut-off point for benefits. There's nothing to distinguish Labour and the Conservatives, then, and whoever gets in we're going to see an increase in the resentment that so many unemployed people feel at being stigmatised. I see a growing number of posts and blogs on the internet from JSA claimants venting their anger. That is going to get worse.

There's a relevant article on CFE News saying that "Charity claims NEETs view employability courses with contempt".
"Barnardo’s Scotland director Martin Crewe claimed that young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) view courses designed to improve their job prospects with contempt. Mr Crewe stated that that was not what they wanted, and said: "What they want are real jobs and programmes that will get them employed - not a short-term placement which will leave them more or less back where they started. Sitting around in classrooms for long periods working on their CVs is not going to provide a major boost to the employability prospects of the young people we work with. They know it from day one and regard such schemes with contempt." He went on to say that the Barnardo's Works programme had got 80% of its young participants into sustained employment.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Panorama Programme

The BBC having sorted out iplayer, I've now watched last night's programme about NEETs.
Back in 2007 four unemployed young men in Swindon, where there were plenty of jobs, were challenged to get work. This was a follow-up to see what has happened to them in the last three years. Digby Jones, former head of the CBI, had only a small role in the programme, but there were questions which could have been asked of him. We were told that he is "passionate about improving employment skills". But there was no mention of the fact that businesses have long since ceased to train their own employees. They decided a couple of decades ago that they would only take on people, ready qualified and experienced, off the shelf; the tax-payer has had to pick up the bill for training. Of the 4 young men, 2 got work through a work placement while on New Deal. Both are low-paid, low skills jobs; but no one would argue that this isn't a good outcome for them. Both had been employed in other jobs since 2007, but one lost his job when the company he worked for went out of business in the crash; the other resigned after 7 months. They are now seen as New Deal successes and are still in work.
The other two are still out of work. Tim had a job in a juice bar but lost it after 3 months for bad time-keeping. Ben got agency work at BMW and loved it, but was a casualty of the recession. He also had the prospect of a job through a New Deal placement, as a night porter in a hotel, but turned it down. The job went to another New Deal client after a work placement. At the end of the programme Ben was being interviewed by an FE college for an apprenticeship. Tim is doing a 3-month voluntary course to improve his employability. Both talked about the demoralisation of being unemployed. Jones had no sympathy. They were eminently employable, he said, telling them to get their hair cut, and trying to fire them up by humiliating them. Both Ben's parents and Jones said they were in favour of Workfare - force NEETs on to training or similar schemes or they forfeit their benefits. The punch line to the programme was the statement that each NEET will cost the tax-payer over £100k.
How you react to this programme will depend on your personal experience. What it highlighted for me was the lack of real skills training for young people. Schools have not engaged with vocational training enough, and the government has been concerned with getting 50% of kids to go to university and has ignored the rest.

The China strategy

There's an interesting article in the English online edition of the China People's Daily which asks whether it's too late for foreign companies wanting to enter the Chinese market. It's a massive market with 1.3 billion potential customers; but as China invests in, and develops, its own private sector, is there less scope for outsiders? The answer is yes-and-no; but "Roy Newey, group board director of A4e, a services business which helps people who are unemployed get back into work, is someone not daunted by the prospect of entering China. The Sheffield, UK-based operation is already in 11 international markets and is hoping to set up an operation in the country soon. "I have been on a China-British Business Council trade mission recently and I didn't get any sense among those on that trip that there was any lack of enthusiasm for doing business in China," he said. Newey believes the company provides the sort of specialized service for which there is a gap in the market. "We help people who are out of work get back into jobs and we believe we could play a role in China," he said."
I didn't see the Panorama programme last night, but will, I hope, watch it later today. However, it certainly angered someone who left a comment. I can't accept the comment because it's abusive, but he calls it "a thinly-disguised attempt to promote the workfare idea". It "ignores vast issues such as the likes of A4e" and there is no discussion of capitalism.
PS. The programme is listed on iplayer, but what is playing is actually an earlier programme on immigration. Is this another BBC foul-up?

Saturday, 24 April 2010

A good time to bash the unemployed

The BBC is to broadcast a Panorama programme about the young unemployed, tomorrow 26 April at 8.30 pm. It returns to a programme they filmed in 2007 about four young unemployed people in Swindon. "The programme first met them in 2007 and set them real-life Apprentice-style work challenges, with dramatic results. Since then the recession has struck, and hit Swindon - and their prospects - hard. How have they responded?" (BBC website) Today's Times gives us a taste of what is in this programme. "The former government minister Lord Jones has suggested that unemployed young people who refuse to look for a job should be “starved back to work” rather than continue to claim thousands of pounds in benefits." It's predictable stuff. "One of the pair, who were from middle-class families, told Jones that he and his girlfriend were paid about £12,000 a year in jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit, and there was no reason for them to look for work. This is equivalent to a gross income of £15,000-£16,000." Shocking. And Jones' conclusion? "He said that while looking for a job, claimants should carry out community work — such as cleaning lavatories or removing graffiti — or study at college. While he did not support forced starvation, he believed anyone who refused three offers of jobs should lose the dole and be put in hostels and given “subsistence rations” of food and water. Jones said: “I’d say to them, ‘Sorry, mate, you have just surrendered your choices in life’.”"
The comments on the article are equally predictable. But the unemployed will be asking the obvious question. Where do those job offers come from? As we've pointed out before, you are not handed a job, you have to go out and ask for it. And no government, whatever the rhetoric, is going to create jobs specifically for the unemployed; and no government (one sincerely hopes) is going to change the law to remove the concept of the personal allowance, the minimum someone needs to live on.
It's a good time for the right-wing press to carry articles like this. It's less obvious why the BBC should choose an election campaign to run programmes like this. - hard. How have they responded?s. Since then the recession has struck, and hit Swindon - and their prospects - hard. How have they responded?

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Bits and pieces

Two pieces of news this week - unrelated, of ccourse. From the South Yorkshire Star newspaper we learn that in the list of the 100 British companies with the fastest-growing profits, "A4e, whose services span employment, education, enterprise and tackling social exclusion, was placed 83rd after profits rose by 46 per cent to £8.2." And from all news sources we learn that unemployment has risen to 2.5 million.

Demos has produced a report flashily entitled "Liberation Welfare". Demos is a "think tank" which has in the past produced policy ideas for Labour and now, with its Open Left project, seeks "to create a space for open debate and new thinking about the kind of society Britain should be and how to bring
it about. This should be based on idealism,pluralism and radicalism." However, it gives "Special thanks .... to Reed in Partnership and A4e. Without their financial support this project would not have been possible." So we know we are not likely to get an objective view of welfare reform; and indeed the report doesn't question the use of private companies. Rob Harvey and Rob Murdoch from A4e have contributed a sensible article on reforming housing benefit;and much of what is in the report is equally sensible. But what is wrong with Demos' whole approach is the acceptance of private profit at the heart of welfare "reform".

Have you ever been offered a job? If you're a high-flying, skilled person with a good job you may have been head-hunted by another company. But the vast majority of us have always had to apply for jobs, or go out and ask if there are any vacancies, and then hope that we'll be the chosen candidate. But you'd never know this from David Cameron's lastest populist statement of intent about the work-shy. "If you refuse a job offer you'll lose your benefit," he said. Labour plaintively replied that it was already the case. And indeed it has been true since the year dot. Back in the 1960s there was the green card system. The Labour Exchange sent a claimant off with a green card to an employer who had vacancies. The employer had to sign the card to prove that the claimant had turned up; without that proof, benefit would be docked. But even then, the employer had the choice. Some claimants, then as now, were simply unemployable; and a few didn't want the job so could easily put off the employer. Nothing much has changed. It is very rare for an umployed person to be offered a job which he hasn't actively sought; and very rare for someone to go after a job, be offered it and turn it down. So what does Cameron intend? Nothing, I suspect. Once again, the people with the power demonstrate their ignorance of real life for the 2.5 million unemployed.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

A stellar line-up for the IoD

Should you be in London on 28 April and eligible to attend the Institute of Directors Annual Conference at the Royal Albert Hall you may be interested in the star-studded line-up of speakers. They include Vince Cable MP, Dame Kelly Holmes and Archbishop Desmond Tutu - and A4e's Emma Harrison. If you're not a member the cheapest ticket for the event will cost you £360. But no doubt it will be well worth it.

Monday, 19 April 2010

A quiet time

It's a quiet time on the government contracts front, and there's little news from A4e. But their business continues. Earlier this month, for instance, Middlesborough put more work their way with the Middlesbrough Enterprise Gateway (MEG), which "is encouraging self-employment and small business start ups with one-to-one coaching." See the nebusiness website.
Meanwhile, various accounts are appearing on the internet of people's experience of Flexible New Deal. As with New Deal, such accounts are not necessarily representative of the whole; they are by people who feel strongly enough to vent their frustration. And clients are, by definition, people who have been unemployed for a long time. But some common themes are emerging. Clients feel patronised, and say that the promised respect is not forthcoming. They complain of inconsistent information and pointless occupation. This was, perhaps, inevitable. There is little hope that these huge, money-wasting contracts will end with a new government. The small contracts will probably proliferate. It's a depressing prospect.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Today Programme discussion

I've just listened to a short discussion on the BBC Today programme focussing on welfare-to-work. It was mainly about those on IB, with the usual vagueness about the distinction between those being shunted off IB onto JSA, and those who are simply out of work. We didn't learn anything. Jim Knight gave figures for back-to-work success which nobody could or would challenge. Theresa May for the Tories pressed their line that claimants would start "individualised programmes" immediately with private providers, with the focus on "sustainable" jobs, i.e. lasting at least a year. Steve Webb for the Lib Dems was asked whether they would use private companies and, disappointingly, dodged the question, saying they wanted to harness bright ideas from everywhere; but he did say that they want to make the benefits system more flexible so that people can work less than full-time without losing their benefits, rather than the current, all-or-nothing approach. Jim Knight for Labour talked about a "better off in work guarantee", meaning people would be at least £40 per week better off when working. He also stressed the Future Jobs Fund and various other measures, which May scorned, re-stating her previous point about immediate help into sustainable work. Steve Webb made a good point about not blaming the victims.
From the point of view of the providers there's little to worry about, it seems, unless the Tories get in and stick with their determination to pay them only on sustainable outcomes.

Friday, 9 April 2010

More lazy journalism

A minor story from a London local paper, the Islington Tribune, illustrates the carelessness with which the press treats unemployment issues. "Finsbury Business Forum (FinFuture) are providing five new Community Marshals – part of a group of 20 – whose job will be to help travellers with their luggage and give directions and information about the locality." Fine so far; but then comes the confusion. "The marshals are all unemployed men and women whose wages will be paid jointly by the local Job Centre and employment agency A4e. The public will not be charged for the service." What does that mean? It seems likely that this is being classed as a work placement, so they're not receiving wages at all. They will be getting JSA, and that isn't paid by A4e.
The inaccuracy in the story probably isn't A4e's fault; but nobody will be rushing to put the paper right - and even if they did, there almost certainly wouldn't be a correction. It just adds to the general ignorance of how the system works.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

FND Results

A4e have published figures for the first six months of FND on their news page.
  • Nearly 30,000 starters in 6 months.
  • Over 2,630 into work.
That's less than 9%, but that's irrelevant. Only jobs lasting 13 weeks or more are counted as outcomes, and so only those clients who started in the first 3 months can have possibly been in work for 13 weeks or more. We don't know how many did start in the first 3 months, but let's halve the total and call it 15,000. And A4e say that the figure for "sustained" jobs is nearly 200. That's 1.3%.
Okay, that's a bit unfair. Clients can be on FND for a year, and the figures are bound to rise. But they'll have to rise considerably to prove that the programme is worthwhile for providers and clients, as well as for the government. And it doesn't augur well for the Tories' plan to pay only on outcomes. It will be interesting to see what other providers have achieved.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Response to a complaint

There were some who felt that the "Famous, Rich and Jobless" programme gave some very helpful free publicity to Emma Harrison and A4e. At least one person made a formal complaint to the BBC about it, and has passed on the interesting response he got:
"I understand that you have concerns regarding what you believe was one particular company being promoted.
We've discussed your concerns with the production team who've confirmed that the programme didn't make reference to A4e in this series at all. We describe Emma as founder of UK's biggest independent employment provider. She is an expert in her field, with direct, first hand experience dealing unemployed people, understanding them and helping them along their way. Her contribution to the programme has nothing to do with A4e and we don't feel the company was promoted in any way. We did film a scene in an A4e office in Wolverhampton, though we did not tell the audience that is was A4e, or suggest it was Emma's company. I hope this addresses your concerns."
(I'm assured that the errors in this were in the original.)
It's true, of course, that the company wasn't mentioned in the programme itself, and they were careful that there was no identification of A4e in the Wolverhampton office shots. But this is disingenuous. All the previews in the press mentioned A4e; they could hardly avoid it. And was it pure coincidence that the day before the first programme went out, Mrs Harrison was a guest on the BBC's "Working Lunch"? Perhaps it was, since in the BBC the right hand often doesn't know what the left hand is doing. But there you have it.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Invest to Save

I really must monitor the DWP website more closely.
We mentioned the other day the report which advocated cutting out the private sector and funding local councils to do the welfare-to-work stuff. Just how far the government is from this approach is shown by a programme called Invest to Save. You can read the supplier information on the DWP site but a simpler explanation is: "ItS is in effect a new way of financing back to work support whereby Treasury will transfer funding for benefit payments to DWP for the 3 years of the contract (from March 2011). DWP will contract with providers to deliver back to work support. If a provider helps a customer to move into work the benefit savings will be used to pay the provider." It's due to start in 2011, in Glasgow, Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Norfolk and London, and providers, including A4e, are gearing up to put in their bids. All the electioneering rhetoric, on all sides, about giving power back to communities is clearly empty. As the DWP says, "The programme would utilise the funding arrangements outlined in David Freud's report 'Reducing Dependency, Increasing Opportunity' which was published in March 2007." Freud is now advising the Conservatives, because Labour wouldn't go far enough for his liking.