Friday, 30 July 2010

Round-up, 31 July 2010

This week saw the last of the three "The Fairy Jobmother" programmes. There's little more to be said about this grisly show, but the Workers' Liberty site has the best review by Cath Fletcher. She points out the "gender politics" inherent in the show. "Hayley tells the women she’s coaching that they’re beautiful. A random good-looking woman in a coffee shop is found to be self-employed. Employment makes you attractive, you see and if you run your own business you’ll have guys falling over themselves to meet you. The men, on the other hand, are sent down the boxing gym to work out their frustrations, brain injury being, apparently, a fantastic aspiration for working-class blokes. When in episode one Dean found work as a kitchen fitter this meant he could now ‘'provide for his family’'." She also points out that, "The Fairy Job Mother has some worthwhile insights about life without work. That it’s impossible to take agency work, for example, because once you sign off it takes six weeks to sign on again, and in order to survive you have to turn to the local ‘’loan man’’ as the programme politely put it (the term’s loan shark, Hayley, when the interest rate’s 60%). And if you think, hard, about the couple in episode one, it might occur to you that had it not been for her mother’s offer of free childcare, even getting work experience would have been impossible for Maxine. Not that the programme mentioned that. The Fairy Job Mother does, in a small way, what grammar schools used to do for working-class children – give a few of them special treatment so they can get out. If Hayley Taylor could magically visit every unemployed person in the country and offer her special brand of motivation, would there be any more jobs? No. Why does this programme exist? To make us feel that it’s only the undeserving poor who’ll get hit by benefit cuts. The clue’s in the title. This isn’t a solution. It’s a fairy tale."

Of more lasting interest is the publication of the proposals to reform the benefits system. There is no guarantee that these sensible reforms will ever be inplemented, because the initial costs are high; but if they are not, it will undermine Iain Duncan Smith's whole programme.

And what of A4e? Their travelling salesman Roy Newey has been in India with the trade delegation which accompanied David Cameron on his trip to that country. In England, A4e has sold a series of workshops to Hertfordshire County Council for people running childcare facilities. They're called "Business Success in Childcare", and a document online describes what they do (with messy graphics). And if we needed a reminder that A4e and their like are about making money, there's an interesting job advert on the totaljobs site for a Partnership Manager. "You will be building relationships with key strategic stakeholders to raise A4e’s profile in each district and source critical local information and identify local sales opportunities. Such stakeholders are likely to include: Local Authorities and other local government bodies,City Strategy Pathfinders,Local Strategic Partnerships, Local Employment and Skills Boards,Regional Development Agency representatives and Local Jobcentre Plus representatives. The role will also consist of leading the development of localised solutions to secure sales and tender success as well as understanding the financial and contractual drivers to deliver profitability. Identify opportunities to improve every aspect of business activity to achieve business goals." Now, there's nothing wrong with any of this. A4e is a private company which exists to make money. That's capitalism. But it should be borne in mind whenever we read the guff about "improving people's lives".

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

In the News

The difference between news and PR is always hard to discern with A4e, and there seems to be none at all today with a story in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph which is largely taken from A4e's own site. But hey, it's a good story. The brother of the Dragons' Den star Duncan Bannatyne, name of Bill, doesn't share his brother's good fortune. He had been working as a fork lift truck driver, but had been unemployed for a year and so was sent to A4e. The upshot is that he is now working - for A4e. The photo, on both sites, has the poster in the background with the cartoon Emma Harrison on it.
Emma herself was in Downing Street last week with other "philanthropic entrepreneurs" to discuss Cameron's "big society" obsession. According to the ICG site she was happy to endorse the project. "A4e (formally Action for Employment) is the prime contractor for government services like 'Flexible New Deal' and 'Education for Offenders' and have helped more than a million people in Britain back to work. 'Let us all accept that people have been helping people for ever - and that it gives us all a wonderful sense of purpose and is a thing that we can all do. It would build communities, friendships, self esteem, confidence and help people get back to work,' said Emma Harrison, who is also the founder of the charity Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI)." I wonder where that figure of "more than a million" comes from. Does it include the results of all the subcontractors?
It's the last of "The Fairy Jobmother" tonight, and the latest pearl of wisdom from Hayley is “The jobs are there. It’s being prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up. There’s something there for everyone if you’re prepared to work hard enough.” (The Herald). So if you can't find a job it's because you're not trying hard enough. Thanks, Hayley.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Questions and answers

A4e's Steve Marsland was giving evidence yesterday, along with Chris Melvin of Reed, to the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons. You can watch it all. The National Audit Office had reported on the results of the Pathways to Work Programme, saying that they were well below the contracted figure, and the terms of the contract had been adjusted to give the providers more money. Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the committee, asked why they had been unable to deliver. Marsland said that they had based their bid on assumptions which were right for the voluntary client group but didn't work well with the mandatory clients. It took quite a bit of questioning to elicit the actual figures. 42% of the voluntary clients had got work, but they only formed 40% of the total. The outcome figure for the mandatory group was 15%. Hodge pointed out to Melvin that they have performed less well than Jobcentre Plus, despite JCP working in tougher areas. She gave Melvin short shtrift when he tried to refute this. Will they be happy, she asked, with more outcome-based payments. Marsland tried to say that the new computer checking system will help, but Hodge pointed out that the NAO had said that these checks are inadequate. What, she asked, were the targets for mandatory clients. Marsland said it was 32%, more than double the figures achieved. Reed's were even worse, between 7% and 10%. Asked why the performance was so poor for this group, Melvin talked about the high drop-out rate. Has the recession had any impact on performance? Marsland said they had no cast-iron evidence that it had. Hodge said that she couldn't see how they think they're going to improve. Did they bid too high? Marsland said no, because outcomes are going up and they are delivering better performance.
I wrote recently about the media treating unemployment as entertainment. A review of episode 2 of "The Fairy Jobmother" on the arts desk website illustrates the point, treating it all as a joke. On the Digital Spy forum there is a comment from a Jobcentre worker which paints a very different picture. I'm tempted to quote it all, but that wouldn't be fair. Apart from the point about salaries, which is dubious, it's an excellent summary.

For a different point of view you could read A4e's Mark Lovell's blog post on welfare reform. It seems to be aimed at potential partners but doesn't tell us much.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Episode 2

I am not about to watch episode 2 of "The Fairy Jobmother", which looks to be another kicking for the stereotypical unemployed. But if anyone does watch it and wants to comment, feel free. Will she wave her wand and get one or more of them a job?

Monday, 19 July 2010

That programme - and the Work Programme

Channel 4 has somewhat unwisely put up a page about "The Fairy Jobmother" entitled "Hayley Taylor's Top Tips on Gaining Employment". She gives seven fairly basic recommendations. Then there is a large number of comments, obviously carefully vetted, praising the show and asking for help for themselves or their relatives in finding work. Hayley answers only a couple of them; but it would be a full-time job in itself to answer all of them.

Turning to the Work Programme, there's an excellent article on the Public Finance site by Dan Finn, Professor of social inclusion at the University of Portsmouth. It should be essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. Yesterday's Observer has an article claiming that "Iain Duncan Smith's plans for a welfare revolution have run into trouble after the Treasury rejected a series of proposals put forward by his department." IDS's plans are based on the need to invest in reform of the benefits system, but Osborne is intent on slashing the bill for welfare benefits straight away. This comes after Serco's warning that the providers are not happy with plans for the WP contracts. Meanwhile, the "third sector" has been lobbying Chris Grayling to secure their involvement in the WP. It's reported that Grayling "had promised to consider some form of mechanism that could see prime contractors lose their contracts if they 'stuff the voluntary sector'."
I was half listening to The Daily Politics today and thought I heard it said that the government planned to create actual jobs to slot the unemployed into; it would be a refusal to take up such a job which would result in benefits being stopped. Did anyone else hear this?

Saturday, 17 July 2010

TV - and being ill

With odd timing, A4e has published accounts of TV programmes "Benefit Busters" and "Famous, Rich and Jobless" on their MyA4e site. These are clearly dated July 2010 but read as if they are recent or haven't yet happened. Perhaps they are meant as a reminder that "The Fairy Jobmother" is just a spin-off. After all, the Doncaster Free Press managed to review that programme, calling Ms Taylor a "job expert", with but a single mention of "training company A4e". However, for all the hype, Jobmother only managed to get 8.9% of the viewers on Tuesday (according to MediaWeek), compared with 20.7% for BBC1's mini-series "The Silence" and 11.2% for ITV's "The Bill". It will be interesting to see how the second episode fares.

Reminding us that A4e has many irons in the fire, their Pathways site tells us that "A4e pathways are at the forefront with support for employers and GPs with the introduction of the fit note. A4e Pontypool pathways have contacted every GP surgery in Torfaen and Monmouthshire offering their expertise in reducing long term sickness related absence from work. The response from GP surgeries has been good and a number of meetings to discuss how the A4e pathways team could have a key role in supporting people where the doctor recommends an early return to work is work in progress." There is information about these new "fit notes", which were introduced in April, on the NHS website. So you could find yourself being referred to A4e just for being ill.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Was it a fix?

I've been reluctant to claim that Dean's success in getting a job on The Fairy Jobmother was contrived by the TV company, simply because we have no evidence of this. But others have been less cautious. Take Liam Tucker's posting on the TV Pixie site, for instance. He says: "The circumstances by which they got that work were entirely suspect, and that’s where the Hayley Taylor’s expertise falls down. Gaining Maxine unpaid work experience at Boots and Dean a wageless stint on the bins might’ve been possible in the real world, but grabbing the latter an interview with a fittings company out of the blue was unrealistic, to the point where those genuinely seeking work in the real world might be moved to complain. Job-hunting isn’t that simple for people with a patchy CV, and this was The Fairy Jobmother’s Achilles heel, effectively making it purely bludger-voyeurism, created for those comfortably in work to sit and gawp at the underclass."
It's perhaps significant that this criticism comes from the people in a position to know just how unrealistic it was. Other reviews miss this point. The Express & Star, for instance, focusses on Hayley Taylor and her methods, mentions that, "The pair get £261.62 a week, totalling £1040 a month in benefits – more than some working families," and sees nothing unusual in Dean's getting the first job he goes after. The Metro is just plain silly.
It's not impossible; and if the TV company and the employer assure us that there was no arrangement, we'll accept it. But even with that assurance, the programme gave the impression that if you really want a job, you can get one easily. And if it was a fix, it dishonestly fuelled hostility to supposed "dole scroungers".

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Fairy Jobmother - episode 1

I didn't watch it, and the reviews suggest that I made the right decision.
Dean got a job. Of course there was no collusion between the production company and the employer - shame on you for even thinking such a thing. But Jane Murphy on the Orange TV blog says: "Dean manages to clinch a position as a kitchen fitter's assistant. And that's where the premise falls down. Because this is all very inspiring - but if you have precious little work experience, particularly in the current economic climate, you're highly unlikely to get the first job you go for. I can't help thinking that if Dean had applied for the kitchen fitter's position without Hayley's help, he wouldn't even have got an interview. It's one thing to be willing to work - but it's quite another to find the determination to persevere through the inevitable disappointments and rejections while you look for a job."
Michael Deacon in the Telegraph catches himself being patronising: "I was going to say what a horribly middle-class idea, patronising the working class for our entertainment. But then I remembered that there’s nothing more horribly middle-class, or more patronising to the working class, than some jumped-up journalist being drippily self-righteous in the working class’s defence. So I won’t." But he is unable to resist being critical of Hayley Taylor: "I wasn’t quite so keen, though, on Taylor’s main educational prop: a large drawing of a twisting road (representing her subjects’ lives), on which she would affix stickers showing symbolic road signs. “The gated level crossing sign,” she announced, sticking it for some reason in the middle of a field, represented her subjects’ “debt” and “fear of coming off the benefits system”. Despite this, she seemed nice enough, in her briskly mother-ish way, although I have a tip of my own for her. If you’re going to scold your subjects for speaking in an unsophisticated manner (for example, saying “hiya” instead of “good morning”), it’s probably best if you don’t praise them by saying, “You’re doing really, really good.”
The Independent's Tom Sutcliffe falls into a patronising attitude: "Hayley Taylor, the Fairy Jobmother, is a bit like Pauline, the restart officer from The League of Gentlemen, approaching the jobless with upbeat mantras and slightly childish visual aids (a road map titled "Hayley's Drive to Life"). But where Pauline was malign and undermining Hayley is tender-hearted, encouraging and briskly effective. When Dean whined and whinged that his unemployment was everybody's fault but his own, she didn't see exasperating fecklessness – she saw fear of failure, and she soothed it away in a briskly maternal manner, transforming his resentful hoodie hunch into something close to upright posture. He got a job anyway, and – more to the point – he still has it. Set alongside a film like Between Life and Death, The Fairy Jobmother could easily look like the terminal decay of the serious documentary. In fact, it effectively smuggles a lot of education and information inside the boilerplate, can-do narrative arc. Did you know that one reason the jobless are so reluctant to take a chance on short-term jobs is that you lose your benefits as soon as you get work but it will take six weeks to get them restored if something goes wrong? Quite a gamble when you can't afford to lose." Yes, Tom, we did know that.
And there are two more episodes. Can't wait.

A depressing prospect

If there was any doubt about the purpose of "The Fairy Jobmother" it has been dispelled by the Sun's headline, "Why work? Dole pays us £1,150 every month." It's a preview of tonight's programme designed to evoke all the standard prejudices against the unemployed; and the comments from readers (is that the right word when applied to the Sun?) bear that out. But of course, this series is not designed to bring light or thought to the problem of joblessness. Ms Taylor, we're told, lived with each family for three weeks. That ruled out all the single people living in tiny flats. There had to be the likelihood of success, so that ruled out all the chaps in their late 50s or early 60s who have to undergo these "courses" although everyone knows they will never work again. There had to be something which Ms Taylor could teach them; so that ruled out all the qualified, skilled and experienced people who've been made redundant and can't find work. All that were left were the stereotypical families, apparently coining it for being idle. How very depressing. And the thing hasn't even been screened yet.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Let's not make it personal

This blog is not going to join in the personal jibes at Hayley Taylor; there are quite enough of them out there, and I'm rejecting all the comments which are insulting. Some of the comments have been provoked by a Guardian article: "Hayley Taylor: I've felt what the unemployed feel: losing confidence, staring at four walls." All the pre-publicity for "The Fairy Jobmother reinforces the suspicion that this series is about Ms Taylor rather than about unemployment. But we'll see.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Unemployment as entertainment

I've decided that I'm not going to watch "The Fairy Jobmother". I am sick of televison companies treating the unemployed as entertainment.
"Benefit Busters" was a gallant attempt to raise some important issues. We saw lone parents being "persuaded" into what have become known as poundland jobs, a synonym for the worst kind of mimimum wage work. We saw disturbing scenes at an A4e office, and what happens to people on IB who are being "assessed". But there was no further interest from the media in any of these issues. The only outcome was that a controversial individual in the first programme got a contract, because her methods make good television, supposedly. BBC's "Famous, Rich and Jobless" was a disgraceful mix of celebs and distress which proposed no solutions. The Panorama programme gave Digby Jones a platform to spout ill-informed nonsense and obscure the real issues facing the young, unemployed men. Now we are to be treated to another series which seems set to paint unemployed people as lacking in motivation, confidence and "life skills".
I have nothing against Hayley Taylor personally. The interview with her on the Channel 4 website shows that she came into the work in the same way as did many other people working on New Deal. She got lucky. But I don't feel obliged to watch any more of this.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The Fairy Jobmother - previews

I saw a trailer for this programme tonight, and my heart sank.
The various TV listings magazines offer different opinions; the Radio Times says:

"Last year Benefit Busters offered an eye-opening look at Britain's unemployed and those who steer them back into work. The surprise star was formidable employment coach Hayley Taylor, who combined ruthless positivity with a whimsical line in neckerchiefs. Now she has her own show. Hayley descends from the TV heavens to sprinkle fairy dust on the little people. First in line is a jobless couple in Middlesborough with a debt problem. Hayley teaches them basic life skills, like how to shake hands, but what could feel condescending doesn't, thanks to the emotional warmth. She really cares."

If that isn't enough to put you off, the trailer is. The three episodes clearly deal with the sort of unemployed people who need those "basic life skills", thus insulting the hundreds of thousands who have skills, qualifications and experience which would leave Ms Taylor standing, and are desperate for work but who simply can't find it. I hope I'm wrong; but it seems set to reinforce the hugely dangerous stereotype of the dole scroungers and the dependency culture. And I have one question which I hope the programmes will answer: what are Ms Taylor's qualifications for this work, particularly for debt counselling? It may well be that she has the appropriate qualifications, but I'd like to be sure.

(It does seem that the programme Emma Harrison made for the channel has been shelved. What a shame!)

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Corporate Watch

The Corporate Watch website is always worth a look; but there are a couple of articles from April this year which are particularly relevant. One is titled "Political deployments of the unemployment ‘crisis’" and deals with the whole history of welfare to work. It looks at "propaganda as news" with a close look at recent television programmes and local press stories concerning A4e. Another article asks "Who benefits from the benefits system?" and contains more history and a long list of figures for "New Deal private sector providers and the amounts received from the DWP in the financial year 2008-9". (A4e is a long way in the lead with £84,433,506 for its 11 contracts.)

From welfare-to-work to education: A4e has opened its eighth Vox Centre in Brixton. These are privatised school exclusion units which offer skills training. They claim that 2009/2010 figures show that 75% of their alumni move into jobs or further education. There are no comparative figures for local authority units.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Fairy Jobmother

I was speculating about the possible shelving of Emma Harrison's Channel 4 programme, "The Wager". Well blow me down, there's a programme on the channel on 13 July called "The Fairy Jobmother", starring Hayley Taylor. You remember Hayley. She was the A4e employee in the first episode of "Benefit Busters" whose techniques for motivating lone parents to get jobs caused some controversy. We then heard that she'd left A4e. In the new programme she takes on a young unemployed couple in Middlesborough. And then, apparently, she's off to the US to repeat the process, according to a reality show casting site. Does this mean that Hayley's programme has replaced Emma's?

Is the Work Programme doomed?

There's been a "Welfare to Work UK" convention going on this week, with the various providers taking part, along with Chris Grayling and other interested parties (although not, of course, the clients). A significant contribution came from a spokesman for Serco. The whole Work Programme is predicated on the idea that providers will only be paid for sustained outcomes, and that means, as the DWP has said, that the "framework" will have to consist of the bigger companies which can stand the up-front costs of providing the service long before they get any money back. A4e has not publicly criticised this model. But Serco, the biggest and richest provider of the lot, is now signalling that they will pull out of the bidding for the contracts if they consider them not financially viable. The government is apparently negotiating, and Chris Grayling has said that the WP has to be agreeable to both the DWP and the providers if it is to succeed. Does this mean that the government will have to back down? If they have to concede that their model won't work it would be a major blow. A poster on the Indus Delta site reports that a suggestion that the government would lend the money to the providers is definitely out, and that Grayling is going to try to persuade city bankers to "invest" instead.
There's still no sign of the Channel 4 programme, "The Wager", in which A4e's Emma Harrison was to have a starring role. It was supposedly scheduled for June. Has it been shelved?