Friday 28 May 2010

Another TV programme for Emma

The Sheffield Telegraph today carries a long piece entitled "A4e boss Emma Harrison's road to success" by its Women's Editor, Jo Davison. Most of it is the standard hagiography, but the purpose of it becomes clear. "When I interviewed her four years ago she told me that getting into TV was written on a list in the top drawer of her desk," says Davison. She goes on:
The TV shows give her the clout to lobby "the powers that be," she explains. "Politicians, even Prime Ministers do watch these programmes," she says knowingly. She hopes PM David Cameron and Secretary of State for Work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith will be watching the one she has just finished filming for Channel 4. The Wager sees her transform the life of John, a 21-year-old East Londoner who was "the hardest study the researchers could find."

I can't find any indication of when this programme is due to be screened. When the BBC produced its "Famous, Rich and Jobless" programmes they tried to avoid accusations of advertising a particular company by never mentioning A4e, but both the Beeb and Channel 4 seem content to provide a vehicle for Harrison and her company to lobby government. The Sheffield Telegraph piece describes Harrison as "one of the country's leading welfare-to-work proponents." Perhaps that's because none of the rival providers seek the limelight.

Thursday 27 May 2010


Following on from my previous post, the item on the BBC's "World at One" didn't add much. The focus was on the need to simplify the benefits system and make it worthwhile to take a job. A chap from the Centre for Social Justice talked about increasing the amount one can earn before benefits start to be withdrawn, and getting rid of the 16 hour rule. A Labour spokesman, while agreeing with the aims, said that simplification, reducing the number of benefits to two, would inevitably mean that some people were worse off, and that is hard to deal with politically. Equally tricky is the question of sanctions. It's one thing to stop the benefits of someone who isn't willing to work, but what about his wife and children?
Iain Duncan Smith, in a recorded piece, talked about the real and perceived risks to the unemployed of taking up jobs, and the need to make it worth working. Asked about sanctions, he agreed that sanctions already exist but have not, he said, been implemented, but now will be.
This doesn't answer the question raised by Labour about the dependants of someone who is sanctioned. It ignores the fact that people do indeed lose benefits when they don't comply with, for instance, attendance on a programme.
There is a great deal still to be worked out in this legislation. On the one hand, they have to come up with a viable benefits system; on the other, they have to renegotiate the welfare-to-work contracts. It could be a while before we see any changes.

"Offer" or "available"

There has been an interesting discussion on the Daily Politics programme about the proposed welfare reforms. It began with a brief clip of Iain Duncan Smith saying that the unemployed should take what work is available or face sanctions. Those of us with an interest in these matters recognise that this is a significant change. It could force people to, for instance, sign up with agencies for casual work simply because the agencies are prepared to take them on. Andrew Neil, whose knowledge is inferior to his pretensions, confused this with refusing a job "offer". The main participants in the discussion were Maria Miller MP, the new minister, and Yvette Cooper MP who, since Jim Knight lost his seat, is having to speak for Labour. Neil, typically belligerent, asked why Labour had left 6 million people of working age on benefits. Cooper pointed out that they were on benefit for different reasons. Miller was asked what was different about the coalition's proposals, and then Neil wilfully misunderstood her point about simplifying the benefit system. He then pushed the fact that IDS in opposition had said that the reforms would cost £3b. Two viewers' emails were read out; one asked where the jobs were going to come from; the other said that the minimum wage was not enough to live on.
IDS is being interviewed on World at One, so we'll see if he adds an clarification.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

More from Iain Duncan Smith

The new Secretary of State for Work & Pensions has given an interview to the Guardian on his plans for welfare reform. Most of it is what we already know, and is sensible. But there's a part which will concern many of us, because it shows a lack of understanding of the current system.
Duncan Smith also promises to be tougher on claimants who refuse job opportunities. "The jobseeker's allowance has a sanction at present. It just has not been used. If you simply are not going to play ball, then the taxpayer has a right to say: 'You need to know there is a limit to the amount of support we are going to give you.' The sanction comes into play."
This is meaningless rhetoric. As I've said many a time, very few people find themselves in the position of being offered a job and refusing it. Perhaps "job opportunities" means something different. The rest of the quote means nothing unless the limit referred to is the cutting off of benefits after a fixed period.

Today's news has been about schools, and there have been more references to businesses running them. We're told that a number of companies have already shown interest. I wonder which ones.

Sunday 23 May 2010


Fancy working for A4e? There are three senior posts with them advertised in the Guardian today.
All three adverts begin with the same message: "be inspired... This next step will be some journey" and go on to say, "A4e manages and delivers public services in partnership with governments, public and private organisations, and the voluntary and community sector. Our involvement in front line public service delivery attracts significant attention from policy makers and the media. As a result, we are now recruiting a number of key personnel who will help to formulate and implement a solid communications strategy to underpin the success of the business as it grows into a global player."
The first is for a Head of Communications. "You are a communications professional with the pedigree, personality and gravitas to drive strategy and provide leadership in a fast moving, high energy organisation with a social purpose. As an influential and persuasive individual you must be able to devise communications strategies that will shape public opinion and stakeholder views of A4e."
The second is for a Public Affairs Manager. "A public affairs professional is sought to improve A4e's influence across governments in the UK and overseas. You will produce high quality 'think pieces' that will shape the future direction of policy and policy implementation. You will be well connected and be able to represent A4e at a senior level in key meetings and presentations."
Thirdly, there's a Regional Communications Manager. "You will be experienced in developing brand presence through the use of local media, events, targeted stakeholder comms and through local sponsorship. You will generate news and inputs into national news events to maintain A4e's external profile. You will be well networked with key local stakeholders and employers and have an excellent understanding of how best to engage and communicate with local organisations."
[All italics are mine.]
Nothing there about "improving people's lives", I notice.

An Open Letter to Iain Duncan Smith

Dear Secretary of State,
You have set out your intentions on poverty, jobs and welfare reform, and few would disagree with your diagnosis of the problems in this area. However, as someone with personal experience of, and concerns about, the ways in which such problems have been tackled in the past, I want to ask you to avoid the mistakes which have brought this situation about .
Please resist the advice to roll up all the necessary actions into one large contract to be sold to the highest bidder. I know you will use private companies. But you know that private companies exist to make money; that is not a criticism but a statement of the obvious. And the record of private companies since New Deal was outsourced in 2006 has been of failure to meet targets while still making healthy profits. If you intend to pay providers only on "sustainable" outcomes, you will ensure that only large companies can afford to tender; and you will ensure that "creaming and parking" becomes the norm. What will happen to the "hardest to help"?
The first necessity, as I'm sure you realise, is for genuine skills training, and not just for the under-25s. The JCP regions should be able to contract directly with training organisations such as FE colleges to provide this. Local councils have already demonstrated their ability to work with employers and communities to create jobs. Don't cut them out of the loop. If the large private contractors have control of this, it will be to the detriment of communities and of the unemployed.
You have shown your ability to listen to, and understand, the people who are on the receiving end of these programmes. Please continue to listen to them, rather than solely to the providers.

And a final point. Among all the reforms which this government wants to make, can you please ban all MPs from receiving money from companies which have government contracts.

Friday 21 May 2010

Press Release on Poverty

The DWP has put out a press release called "Government response to Households Below Average Income figures". Before looking at what it says it's worth noting that Steve Webb, the Lib Dem MP, is pensions minister and so may have little input into the Work Programme. It's Iain Duncan Smith who is quoted at length. Some stats are given at the start.
  • In 2008/09 5.8 million working age adults living in relative poverty Before Housing Costs (BHC) and 7.8 million After Housing Costs (AHC). Compared to 2007/08 this represents a rise of 0.2m (BHC) and 0.3m (AHC).
  • The number of people in working-age poverty is the highest since records began.
So what is the solution?
"Vast sums of money have been poured into the benefits system over the last decade in an attempt to address poverty, but today’s statistics clearly show that this approach has failed. Little progress has been made in tackling child poverty, society is more unequal than 50 years ago and there are more working age people living in poverty than ever before. A new approach is needed which addresses the drivers behind poverty and actually improves the outcomes of the millions of adults and children trapped in poverty. It is right that we invest in addressing poverty, but we must focus our resources where they will be most effective. Work, for the vast majority of people, is the best route out of poverty. Yet the current welfare system is trapping in dependency the very people it is designed to help. The rise in working age poverty and continued inequality show that we must make work pay and the first choice for millions of people. It is not right that someone can actually be worse off by taking work, we should be rewarding such positive behaviour by making work pay. Likewise, we must demand a return on our investment in work programmes. It is crucial that we fully support people making the transition into work, but tax payers’ money should be spent on initiatives that work and make a difference to people’s lives. The time for piecemeal reform has ended. There has never been a more pressing need for fundamental radical reform and we will waste no time in acting."

There is little that one could disagree with there. But what it will mean in practice is not yet clear. What are "initiatives that work"? Dare we suppose that IDS has twigged that current provision doesn't work? What role have the private companies played already in shaping the "fundamental radical reform"?

Thursday 20 May 2010

The government's intentions - more information

The new coalition government has published a document which fills out their plans on a range of issues, including "Jobs and Welfare". This is what it says on that subject:
The Government believes that we need to encourage responsibility and fairness in the welfare system. That means providing help for those who cannot work, training and targeted support for those looking for work, but sanctions for those who turn down reasonable offers of work or training.
• We will end all existing welfare to work programmes and create a single welfare to work programme to help all unemployed people get back into work.
• We will ensure that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants facing the most significant barriers to work are referred to the new welfare to work programme immediately, not after 12 months as is currently the case. We will ensure that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants aged under 25 are referred to the programme after a maximum of six months.
• We will realign contracts with welfare to work service providers to reflect more closely the results they achieve in getting people back into work.
• We will reform the funding mechanism used by government to finance welfare to work programmes to reflect the fact that initial investment delivers later savings through lower benefit expenditure, including creating an integrated work programme with outcome funding based upon the DEL/AME switch.
• We will ensure that receipt of benefits for those able to work is conditional on their willingness to work.
• We support the National Minimum Wage because of the protection it gives low income
workers and the incentives to work it provides.
• We will re-assess all current claimants of Incapacity Benefit for their readiness to work. Those assessed as fully capable for work will be moved onto Jobseeker’s Allowance.
• We will support would-be entrepreneurs through a new programme – Work for Yourself – which will give the unemployed access to business mentors and start-up loans.
We will draw on a range of Service Academies to offer pre-employment training and work placements for unemployed people.
• We will develop local Work Clubs – places where unemployed people can gather to exchange skills, find opportunities, make contacts and provide mutual support.
• We will investigate how to simplify the benefit system in order to improve incentives to work.

(The "DEL/AME switch" is Freud's pet idea to give providers the amount of money saved by the government when someone gets a job.)
There's no indication of whether they intend to let current contracts run their course, or try to re-negotiate them and risk being sued for breach of contract.
And anyone with less than fond memories of Job Clubs will notice that they're coming back.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Another response to the Guardian interview

Civil servants at the DWP have notified the bodies which have applied for funding for the Future Jobs Fund that the whole process has been frozen pending decisions to be made by the new ministerial team. This may well be the beginning of the overhaul of the system; but the FJF is generally administered by local authorities working with employers, and it would be a pity if councils were cut out of the Work Programme. They are, at least, locally elected and accountable.

While we wait for the new team at the DWP (which includes Steve Webb, a Lib Dem MP who is regarded as on the left of the party) to come up with the new system, people have been debating the likely intentions of Iain Duncan Smith. He is known to favour increasing the financial incentives to work and simplifying the benefits system.

Meanwhile, remember the sycophantic Guardian interview with Emma Harrison which we reported? They followed it with a comment piece by an experienced worker in the sector; and now the paper has published a response by Karen Ings, an unemployed woman who was made redundant after 12 years working in publishing. She criticises the attitude of Jobcentre Plus; but is most scathing about A4e. "Dealing with A4e made me feel like Alice in Wonderland. Their glossy full-colour brochure promises positive thinking and cool break-out spaces; in reality, it is a chaotic, greyish office in Archway where no one seems to have a clue what's going on." She describes her experience: "My A4e coaches seemed nice enough. But the basic equation went like this: I would recount to them my efforts to find a job, and when I found a job, A4e would be financially rewarded for achieving a positive outcome (the agency is paid partly on results). Beyond recommending their own special website, they provided no practical assistance or training. I was offered vouchers towards new clothing for interviews (and was once told: "You are definitely going to get this job, no question, I know it, I can feel it – high five! And when you get the job, we will send you for a Gucci makeover!") but on further investigation it turned out that I was not eligible for this genuinely useful help, as I was in stage four. It was unclear to me what A4e was being paid for."
It is probably a vain hope, but perhaps the new DWP regime will take account of the experience of clients like Ings.

Friday 14 May 2010

The education business

Back in October we reported on A4e's contract for the Education Business Partnership in the Tees Valley. So one has to wonder why A4e has now published the details of this as a case study on its Insight website. Perhaps it's a lesson in how the private sector can move into hitherto public areas.
Connexions was a national service set up in 2000 to provide careers guidance for young people. There was criticism from the start, and in 2005 there was a decision to break it up and give local authorities control over the Connexions service in their areas. In the Tees Valley this meant that the service was to be divided between 5 local councils. The existing not-for-profit business managers decided to try to stay in business, and "gained agreement to novate the LSC contracts to a new host". [yes, "novate" is a word, look it up!] In October 2006 they were taken over by A4e; the staff were TUPE'd in and extra staff taken on. Three months later the new business got the EPB contract.
This formed the basis of A4e's Education and Enterprise division, and the company boasts that "since launching the new division with contracts valued at £2m per annum, A4e has invested in resources and people and today it has a turnover of over £5m and is still growing strongly."

Thursday 13 May 2010

More oddments

I hear that one of the regional news programmes, Look North, did a pre-election debate in which Emma Harrison of A4e joined three politicians on the panel. It's not available on iplayer. Did anyone see it?

The Halifax and Calderdale Evening Courier has published an interesting piece about Pathways, the scheme to get people off Incapacity Benefit and into work. So keen is A4e to encourage people onto this programme that they are offering "£100 shopping vouchers to anyone who signs up voluntarily with A4e until September 30".

In the new government it appears that Chris Grayling is the minister who will be to Iain Duncan Smith what Jim Knight was to Yvette Cooper (if you see what I mean).

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Update - the government's statement

Here's the new government's statement on Welfare from the BBC website:

  • The parties agree to end all existing welfare to work programmes and to create a single welfare to work programme to help all unemployed people get back into work.
  • We agree that Jobseeker's Allowance claimants facing the most significant barriers to work should be referred to the aforementioned newly created welfare to work programme immediately, not after 12 months as is currently the case. We agree that Jobseeker's Allowance claimants aged under 25 should be referred to the programme after a maximum of six months.
  • The parties agree to realign contracts with welfare to work service providers to reflect more closely the results they achieve in getting people back into work.
  • We agree that the funding mechanism used by government to finance welfare to work programmes should be reformed to reflect the fact that initial investment delivers later savings in lower benefit expenditure.
  • We agree that receipt of benefits for those able to work should be conditional on the willingness to work.
This is the Work Programme; the third of the points will be of most concern to the providers, making payment dependant on results, but it also, in the fourth point, links payment to the savings the government makes in benefit payments. This could get messy. The final point is not exactly new.

One good thing (and I'm sure that plenty of bad things will emerge from this) is that the experiments of the last government, at the expense of the unemployed, are tidied up. We can only await developments.

A new government - the implications

As a coalition government forms and the cabinet appointments are announced, contractors like A4e may well feel both apprehensive and hopeful. Michael Gove is education secretary, so there's going to be scope for the private sector in schools. Theresa May is not, as we expected, Work & Pensions secretary; that job has apparently gone to Ian Duncan Smith. What that will mean for the Work Programme is anyone's guess at the moment. But IDS does understand the benefits system and, more importantly, its effects on real people, and he will probably stand up to the private sector.
Benefits claimants should be worried but not, I think, frightened. The worst Tory attitudes should be tempered by their coalition partners.

Sunday 9 May 2010


First we note that Jim Knight, who had to defend the last government's actions on welfare-to-work, lost his seat at the general election. He is no longer an MP but it's fascinating that he is still a minister, because they all remain in office until a new government is in place.

The private companies which profit from government contracts are in limbo, like the rest of us. If, as seems likely, Conservative Theresa May becomes Work & Pensions secretary, contracts for phase 2 of FND will not be signed. Work for Your Benefit, Community Task Force Phase 2, Invest to Save, and the Personalised Employment Programme are also under threat if a Tory government carries out its promise / threat to implement the Work Programme. The problem with that is that it means asking bidders for FND phase 2 to revise their bids, and that could result in legal challenges. We can only wait and see.

Thursday 6 May 2010

The Guardian interview - a response

Perhaps even the Guardian editor realised that the recent interview with Emma Harrison was somewhat one-sided. Today the paper has published a response by Carol Ann Lintern, who says that she "recently retired after 23 years working on employment service programmes designed to assist long-term jobless clients back to work." It's an intelligent and well-informed piece. "Most long-term unemployed people I came across," she says, "were male, over 45, living alone, unskilled or semi-skilled, computer illiterate and with poor literacy. These men had often worked in manufacturing or some form of manual labour. As well as there being a lack of jobs, they were also up against school-leavers who were paid less and were probably in a better physical condition. Not only this, but effective job searches now require the ability to complete an application online. And the current job search programme provides tuition which is online only – useless to people who have little knowledge of computers." She contradicts Harrison's assertion that the box-ticking culture of the old contracts has gone. It has been replaced, she says, by a focus on getting the paperwork right for the Ofsted inspection.
I could quibble with some of what Lintern says, but on the whole it's an excellent antidote to Emma Harrison.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

CLACs - an update

CLACs - Community Legal Advice Centres - were dreamed up by the Legal Services Commission as a way of reducing the huge amounts spent on legal aid.
Local authorities which used to fund advice charities like CAB now had to put this service out to tender, seeking bids from partnerships between solicitors and advice organisations. When the second and third of these contracts, in Leicester and Hull, were won by A4e in partnership with Howells solicitors, it looked like the LSC was thinking that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea after all. A group called the Legal Action Group said that plans for more were to be delayed or abandoned. But the LSC was adamant that this was not the case. In a docment published last November it insisted that "although the LSC believes that joint commissioning with other funders is the best model for achieving truly integrated services, the LSC is only likely to commission further Community Legal Advice services, such as centres or networks, in a limited number of new areas between 2010 and 2013. That assumes the LSC is satisfied with the outcome of the 2010 tender."
There are now five CLACs (Derby and Portsmouth have been added, but A4e is not involved in either) as well as similar arrangements in the East Riding of Yorkshire and in West Sussex, where no information is available about which organisations are involved. Five more CLACs are planned, in Barking & Dagenham, Gloucestershire, Manchester, Sunderland and Wakefield,and the Gateshead CLAC is coming up for re-tendering. It will be interesting to see whether A4e, or any other private company, wants to get involved. Meanwhile, the A4e-run Hull CLAC reports advising more than 15,000 people in its 18 months of operation, and achieving positive outcomes for 75% of those people.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Spinning the figures

We reported earlier this month that A4e had published the results of its first 6 months of FND. There had been, it said, nearly 30,000 starters and 2,630 into work. It also said that the figure for "sustained" jobs was nearly 200.

Now look at how this is being spun by A4e in local papers around the country.
Hull Daily Mail: "Almost 170 long-term unemployed people in Hull have successfully secured local jobs thanks to support from welfare-to- work provider A4e."
Halesowen News: "A4e, a nationwide group with offices in Wolverhampton Street, has given support and advice to help 139 people find work in its Dudley area"
Birmingham Mail: "More than 400 long-term unemployed people in the Black Country have won jobs with local firms thanks to support and advice from welfare-to-work provider A4e"
The similarity of wording in these pieces show that they originated with A4e; none of them say how many people have taken part in this programme, nor how many of these jobs are "sustained". All genuine jobs are to be celebrated, but this is spin, not news.